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May 26, 2011

Fantasy Focus

Checking the Leaderboards

by Marc Normandin

With nearly two months of the 2011 season behind us, let's take a look at which players are leading the pack at their respective positions, and whether or not we can expect those starts to develop into trends, or if we should be selling high before the bottom falls out.

We'll use CBS player rankings here to determine the leader at each spot. Those are based on standard mixed rankings with 5x5 scoring and 12 teams, so no need to worry about curveballs from some funky league format I may play in.

Catcher: Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals (#150)
The backstop position has been pathetic in 2011—not that you couldn't figure that out by seeing Molina atop it, and at just #150 overall—thanks to injuries to Joe Mauer and Victor Martinez, slow starts by Buster Posey, Carlos Santana, and Brian McCann, and… okay, there aren't any other good catchers. You can see how Molina would slip in, given those conditions.

Posey, Santana, and McCann won't hit poorly forever, though, and Molina, for all his Molinaness, won't hit .320 and slug nearly .500 all season. Or, at least, betting on such an event would be foolhardy, given his career numbers in both (.271 and .367, similar to his .286 and .372 marks from the last three seasons). There is no harm in holding on to the hardest working Molina in show business for the duration of the year, but if you can ship him off somewhere to an owner who will overpay for the rights to the #150 ranked player in fantasy, by all means do so.

Last year, when I wrote a similar article to this, Miguel Olivo was the lone backstop in the top 100 players. He hit .193/.225/.313 in the second half—despite playing in Colorado—and finished well off that pace. It's a long season, and I would bet on a lot of other odd things happening before I put money on Yadier being King Backstop come October.

First Base: Adrian Gonzalez, Boston Red Sox (#22)
I ranked Gonzalez as a five-star first baseman heading into the year, and my lone hesitation was whether or not his shoulder would be ready when the year opened, or if it the off-season surgery's effects would linger and hinder his production for a short time. Given that he is the top-ranked player with first base eligibility less than two months in, it's safe to say that his shoulder is feeling peachy.

In fact, here is what I wrote about him back in February:

In Boston's stacked lineup, out of Petco, and healthy, Gonzalez should rank ahead of everyone except Pujols at first. Problem is, we're not entirely sure when his shoulder will be 100 percent—it could be Opening Day, or it could take a month for the Sox new first baseman to get into the swing of things. I would be very surprised if Gonzalez didn't obliterate his forecast here, though.

Given Pujols' start, it may turn out the only thing I was wrong about in regards to Gonzalez was the "except Pujols" part. If you've enjoyed your Adrian Gonzalez thus far, then you'll be a happy customer the rest of the year, too.

Second Base: Michael Young, Texas Rangers (#43)
Young has ridiculous value right now, as he is eligible at positions that haven't even been invented yet. He is, in essence, a utility infielder that gets to play home games in Arlington, and he is currently destroying his weighted-mean PECOTA forecast by hitting .339/.381/.483. Now, his 90th percentile was .313/.366/.459, so we can't wave off his early-season performance entirely, but you can expect him to cool off, if just a little bit. He may not be worth moving, though, as he has eligibility at second, third, and even first base right now—in leagues with daily moves, someone this good with this kind of flexibility can win you a league if you have a matching set of movable pieces to go with him.

Third Base: Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays (#6)
Bautista has hit .275/.396/.651 since September of 2009, a stretch of roughly 1,000 plate appearances that includes 83 homers and 135 extra-base hits total. Yes, he is hitting better at home (.299/.423/.748) than on the road, but are you going to complain about a .255/.372/.567 road line when it comes attached to that giant point-scoring caveat known as the Rogers Centre? Unless your league counts park effects, you should care about this as much as you care about Carlos Gonzalez doing better in Coors when it comes to fantasy (read: not at all).

There is no reason to think Bautista won't continue to mash and remain atop the hot corner rankings.

Shortstop: Asdrubal Cabrera, Cleveland Indians (#21)
Cabrera is hitting well this year, with a .312/.371/.548 showing. He has already set a career-high in homers with 10, beating his previous high of six, and looks to be back on the kind of doubles pace he had in 2009. His career has been very up-and-down, though, and this worries me. He is a perfect sell-high candidate, given his position and the fact that PECOTA's 90th percentile performance had him with a 787 OPS, but, given he is a shortstop, it wouldn't hurt you if he ended up performing at "just" that level the rest of the year, either. Weigh your options, and see if he can pull in more than he is worth in reality via trade.

Left Field: Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays (#6)
If you traded Jose Bautista and didn't get a ridiculous return on the deal, now is the time to be sad. I'm not even sure cute pictures of kittens can help you recover from that, since the kittens probably hate you for trading Bautista, anyways.

Center Field: Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers (#7)
Kemp has risen from the ashes of 2010 and may end up with the most productive season of his career because of it. Whether it is the new coaching staff around him, bad luck from 2010 vanishing, or a newfound focus isn't really the point—Kemp, by hitting .315/.396/.547 with 13 steals already, is simply doing what we all thought he was capable of before 2010 occurred. He hit .303/.351/.483 from 2007-2009, and doesn't turn 27 until the season is nearly complete—this is Matt Kemp, so if you had faith in his return back on draft day, you are being rewarded for it.

Right Field: Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays (#6)
It's crazy and also awesome that, if Bautista qualified at first, he would be the #1 ranked player at every position referred to as a corner spot.

Starting Pitcher: Dan Haren, Los Angeles Angels (#1)
Pitcher rankings tend to smooth out as the year goes on, as ERAs start to level out and people like Kyle Lohse are removed from the top 10 players in fantasy. Haren doesn't have to worry about this as much—sure, he won't finish the year with a 1.84 ERA, but he posted a 2.87 mark with the Angels last year and is one of the top pitchers in the majors. That he walks almost no one—his 1.5 rate this year seems amazing until you notice his career rate is 2.0 per nine—helps, as it keeps his WHIP down, and he has been a quality source of strikeouts since 2008.

He may not finish the year on top, but unless you are going to get something absolutely ridiculous on the offensive end for him, there is no reason to sell.

Relief Pitcher: Francisco Rodriguez, New York Mets (#24)
Alexi Ogando is the actual winner here, but that is kind of cheating, as he has been a starter who just happens to qualify as a reliever. Will Francisco Rodriguez be here in this spot at year's end? There is no way to know for sure—relievers are incredibly volatile, after all—but given that his success will result in the Mets seeing his $17.5 million vesting option activated, and that the Mets seem to have horrific luck, chances are good he will continue to excel if for no other reason than to add to the Mets' misery.

***

It's been six years, nearly as many books, hundreds and hundreds of articles, and weeks of my life spent in chats with you folks, but today I am saying goodbye to Baseball Prospectus. I want to thank Will Carroll for convincing me to try to get hired at BP all those years ago, former editor John Erhardt for deciding to bring me aboard to write for Prospectus Notebook, Christina Kahrl for teaching me many of my first writing lessons during her years in charge of the good ship BP, Kevin Goldstein for his faith in me to get fantasy coverage up and running at BP like never before, and Steven Goldman for his role as mentor that he won't escape, despite my exit from this website. And, of course, you, dear reader, as none of this would have been possible without your persistent clicking of my articles over the last half-decade.

Leaving isn't the same thing as going away, though; I'll still be on the Internet writing about baseball—even more than I already do, if you can believe that—but you will hear about exactly where and in what capacity very soon. If you want to see me drop cryptic hints and eventually let you know where you can find my work, you can follow me on Twitter (@marc_normandin). Just know that I'm not going away; whether that news is comforting or disconcerting, I leave to you.

I'm leaving many colleagues behind who are also my friends, but because of that, I know you and Prospectus remain in more than capable hands. I won't name them all here for fear of forgetting someone, but you know who you are. Or, at least, you should. I've sent enough signals over the years.

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