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August 22, 2008

Lies, Damned Lies

The Ultimate Fantasy Draft (Part 2)

by Nate Silver

This is Part 2 of yesterday's Lies, Damned Lies: The Ultimate Fantasy Draft, which included players ranked from number 26 through 50, as well as honorable mentions.

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Welcome, ladies and gents, to the third annual Baseball Prospectus Ultimate Fantasy Draft. What, you are probably wondering, is the Baseball Prospectus Ultimate Fantasy Draft? It is the answer to this question: If you were starting a baseball team from scratch, which players would you want to build your team around? That is, which players would you take-and in what order would you take them-if your goal was to win as many championships as possible over the medium-to-long-term?

The specific ground rules of the UFD are as follows:

  • All players playing baseball in any professional league are eligible, including players in the minor leagues and players in professional leagues outside of North America.
  • All present contracts are wiped out. In other words, price does not matter.
  • Major league service time is also wiped out-all players are treated as rookies. However, the structure of MLB's free agency rules is left intact. What this means is that you have six years of major league service time at your disposal before your player becomes a free agent. In most cases, this simply means that you'll get the player's 2008 through 2013 seasons-A-Rod's performance from age 32 through age 38, for example, or Jose Reyes from age 25 through age 30. But if the player is still developing, you're also allowed to stash him in the minor leagues and then start his service-time clock at some point in the future.
  • In spite of this being called the Ultimate Fantasy Draft, our goal is to assess value in a real-life baseball context, rather than in any sort of roto- or fantasy-specific context.
  • The rankings are entirely forward-looking; we are not attempting to reward performance based on what has happened in the past (including what has happened so far in 2008). Instead, we are solely concerned with which players will create the most value for our team going forward.
  • Off-field factors such as marketability are not considered, except to the extent that they affect on-field performance. So, Daisuke Matsuzaka does not get any extra credit because he helps you build your brand in Japan.
  • Finally, we assume that your primary goal is to win the championship, taking risks as necessary in order to do so. What that means is that this list tilts heavily to upside over certainty. The UFD isn't for people who are content with second place.

These rankings take advantage of several proprietary Baseball Prospectus tools, including our PECOTA projection system, which produces seven-year projections for each player based on his historical comparables. Adam Jones could be the next Willie Mays, for example-or he could be the next Corey Patterson. However, we are by no means slaves to the numbers, as this sort of list necessarily requires us to lean heavily on our instincts and scouting impressions. Rankings from last year's list are contained in parentheses.

Now, we move along to the Top 25 players:

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25. Justin Upton, RF, Diamondbacks, Age 20 (HM). I wonder how high Upton might have ranked if we had done this list in April, back when it looked like he was ready to contend for an MVP Award. Still, while Upton may not entirely avoid growing pains, to become a solid big-league regular by the time you're 20 years old is exceptionally unusual and almost always indicative of greatness.

24. Felix Hernandez, P, Mariners, Age 22 (15). Expectations were so high for King Felix that his career seems to strike some as a disappointment, but his stuff is still wicked, and he's quietly had a very good season. If there's a worry, it's that his GB/FB ratio, a source of strength in the past, has not been quite as strong this year. Here's a fun comparable that PECOTA came up with: Fernando Valenzuela.

23. Jay Bruce, OF, Reds, Age 21 (--). Like Upton, his bat cooled down a bit after an outstanding start, but also like Upton, he has virtually unlimited upside. In spite of having hit for some solid batting averages in the minor leagues, his greatest potential is really as a power hitter along the lines of a Ryan Braun. Another thought-it might not be the worst thing that Bruce has struggled at times in the second half, as it may force him to learn the plate discipline that folks like Jeff Francouer never did.

22. Josh Beckett, P, Red Sox, Age 28 (--). See also Justin Verlander's comment yesterday; Beckett's strikeout and walk numbers have been just as good in 2008 as they were last year, even if they haven't paid as many dividends in terms of the showcase statistics of wins and ERA. He's still the American Leaguer you'd most want on the mound if you had to have somebody start a Game Seven.

21. Josh Hamilton, CF, Rangers, Age 27 (--). For my money, it's a tough call between Hamilton and Michael Phelps for Sportsman of the Year. What's remarkable with Hamilton is not just that he maintained so much of his raw ability, but also that he's emerged with pretty good higher-level baseball skills. Hamilton takes a decent number of walks, for instance, and is a perfect 7-for-7 in stolen-base attempts. His center-field defense, however, is a touch rough, and he'd probably belong on a corner for a team that had more depth in its outfield.

20. Cole Hamels, P, Phillies, Age 24 (29). The juxtaposition for Hamels has always been his reputation for being a bit of a party boy with his extremely mature approach on the mound, where he somehow gets away with using his top-notch changeup more than 30 percent of the time and still having hitters bite on it.

19. Scott Kazmir, P, Rays, Age 24 (33). Kazmir is already very good, but the reason that he is rated this highly is that he has the potential to become even better if he can learn that he doesn't have to be quite so cute with his pitches and that he can trust his defense instead. With a slight improvement in his command, he is capable of running off some Johan Santana-type seasons.

18. Brandon Webb, P, Diamondbacks, Age 29 (16). Webb might be a pretty good example for Kazmir to follow. His unprecedented ability to keep the ball on the ground is not only a valuable skill unto itself, but also allows him to exit the at-bat early and keep his pitch counts low. That's why Webb has never been on the DL in six seasons, in spite of accumulating massive innings-pitched totals.

17. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers, Age 24 (--). One of the hazards of being a baseball writer is that you'll not infrequently get e-mails from friends, family, wives, and coaches of players when you have something critical to say about them. I got one such e-mail from a very close relative of Ryan Braun last year after I'd bashed his defense at third base, which rated at 21 runs below average last year according to our Prospectus Fielding Runs metric. This year, the Brewers were smart enough to move him to left field, where he's actually become quite a good defensive player able to fully exploit his athleticism. That really resolves the only outstanding question we had about Ryan Braun, who is going to have a 50-HR season or two once he reaches his peak.

16. Curtis Granderson, CF, Tigers, Age 27 (HM). Somewhere around Webb or Braun, we really turned a corner into the next tier of talent. Granderson is just a superlative ballplayer, excelling in every phase of the game, and his work ethic is so strong that he could wind up getting even better.

15. Tim Lincecum, P, Giants, Age 24 (41). When I circulated a draft copy of this list to the Baseball Prospectus internal mailing list, I had several people tell me that Lincecum's rating was low. But I'm hedging just a little bit because, while I understand all of the biomechanical perfection behind his unorthodox-looking delivery, I want to see him get another complete, injury-free season under his belt before I'm completely ready to sign off on it. Pound-for-pound, certainly, he's already the best pitcher in baseball.

14. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers, Age 25 (4). The apparent decline in his offensive numbers isn't quite as significant as it might seem at first glance, as he was transitioning into the more difficult league and may have needed half the season to become fully acquainted with it. Still, his value eroded significantly once the Tigers recognized that he wasn't really going to be capable of playing a solid third base.

13. Chase Utley, 2B, Phillies, Age 29 (22). Utley is going to make for a fascinating Hall of Fame debate one day. Since he didn't really become a big-league regular until his age-26 season, his career totals might not wind up being all that fantastic, but he has played at an MVP caliber ever since. Bonus factoid: Utley has led the National League in hit-by-pitches both this year and last.

12. Jake Peavy, P, Padres, Age 27 (13). Peavy ranks seventh all-time in strikeout rate among pitchers with at least 1,000 lifetime innings pitched; every pitcher ahead of him but Kerry Wood will eventually wind up in the Hall of Fame.

11. Brian McCann, C, Braves, Age 24 (9). Catchers who hit like this don't grow on trees. Since World War II, in fact, just seven catchers aged 24 or younger have hit .300 or better in a season in which they also hit 20 home runs. Those are Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk, Mike Piazza, Joe Torre-and McCann, who did so in 2006 and has a chance to do so again this year.

10. Johan Santana, P, Mets, Age 29 (3). There has been just a tiny bit of erosion in his performance. Santana's strikeout rate, 9.7 batters per nine innings last year, has declined to 7.5 K/9 this year, when it should be moving in the opposite direction since he moved out of the DH league. Any team would still love to have Santana, but the question of just who exactly is the best pitcher in baseball is a lot more open now than it had been in recent seasons.

9. CC Sabathia, P, Brewers, Age 27 (17). In fact, we are now ranking one pitcher ahead of Santana. Sabathia's statistics are now just as good as Santana's, but he's two years Santana's junior. There is a pretty widespread perception out there that Sabathia, because of his huge bulk, is an injury waiting to happen, but for whatever reason, pitchers with a little bit of meat on their frames-ranging from Carlos Zambrano to Roger Clemens-have tended to hold up quite well.

8. Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees, Age 32 (10). Last season might go down as A-Rod's career year, but he's yet to show any real signs of slowing down at the plate. Rodriguez will finish this season with about 560 lifetime home runs; PECOTA figures that he'll be good for another 184 from 2009 to 2014, at which time he'll be 38. That would leave him at 744, just one more half-decent season away from breaking Barry Bonds' mark of 762.

7. Joe Mauer, C, Twins, Age 25 (2). An outstanding defensive catcher who is capable of winning batting titles and posting a .416 OBP is a rare and wonderful thing. The question is whether Mauer is ever going to be able to develop his power stroke to the point where he's hitting 20 home runs a year rather than 10. He is certainly a big enough guy to have some projectable power left in his bat, but with each year that passes without him seeing a power spike, it becomes incrementally less likely. As such, he has drifted downward slightly in our rankings.

6. Jose Reyes, SS, Mets, Age 25 (7). Here is some fodder for those looking to make the case for Reyes as being the most exciting player in baseball: he is the only shortstop since World War II to have reached double digits in both triples and home runs in each of three consecutive seasons. The most exciting player in baseball, of course, isn't necessarily the best one, and it's slightly disappointing that Reyes hasn't sustained the increased walk rate that he maintained during the first half of 2007, when he had a .380 OBP. Still, playing in the New York media market, Reyes has to be about even-money to win an MVP award at some point over the next five seasons.

5. Grady Sizemore, CF, Indians, Age 25 (5). With each year that Sizemore continues to excel, it becomes easier to argue that the transaction consummated on June 27, 2002, in which the Expos traded Sizemore, Cliff Lee, and Brandon Phillips for half a year of Bartolo Colon, was in fact the worst deal in baseball history. Our only nitpick with Sizemore is that he probably did not deserve his Gold Glove in 2007.

4. Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays, Age 22 (HM). Yeah, he's this good. In addition to everything he's done at the plate, Longoria has already saved the Rays 14 runs in the field this year according to our Prospectus Fielding Runs metric. And he's improving before our very eyes, having posted a 982 OPS since the All-Star break before his wrist injury set him down. By comparison, what did Mike Schmidt do in his rookie year? He hit .196.

3. Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals, Age 28 (1). The last three guys were exceptionally difficult to rank. Pujols had been our #1 player in both 2006 and 2007, and it seemed patently unfair to knock the incumbent out when he's in the midst of such a good season. The tiebreaker used against him was the fact of the high-grade ligament tear in his elbow, which Pujols opted not to have surgery on before the season. There is perhaps a 50:50 chance that the ligament will blow out at some point over the course of the next several seasons, which would require Pujols to undergo Tommy John surgery and miss at least a full season.

2. David Wright, 3B, Mets, Age 25 (8). Longoria is to Mike Schmidt as David Wright is to George Brett? The analogy isn't perfect, but both Wright and Brett became big-league regulars at age 21, and Brett hit .305 through his age-25 season, whereas Wright thus far has hit .307. What's important, however, is what happened in the next couple of years for Brett. At age 26, his numbers exploded; he accumulated 212 hits and probably deserved to win the MVP award, and in the year that followed that, Brett hit .390. Wright has already established an exceptionally solid baseline level of performance, but there are bigger and better things yet to come.

1. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Marlins, Age 24 (6). Ramirez leads all major leaguers in VORP since the beginning of the 2007 season, narrowly edging out Alex Rodriguez. You can make a very sound argument, in other words, that Ramirez is already the best player in baseball, and since he is just 24 years old, that naturally leads to the conclusion that he is probably the most valuable long-term commodity. Also, look at what has happened to his batting eye. The only offensive skill that Ramirez didn't have in abundance before was taking walks, but this year his walk rate has increased by more than 75 percent. Perhaps no player will ever match what A-Rod did over his first six or seven major league seasons, but Ramirez is the best positioned to give it a try.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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