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February 27, 2009

Prospectus Today

The Fantasy Fork

by Joe Sheehan

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A few weeks ago, I was a guest of "Fantasy 411" on MLB.com's Baseball Channel with Mike Siano and Cory Schwartz. It was a good time, as it always is when friends get together and talk baseball, and one of the things that made it fun was the debate. Cory and I got into a discussion of the second slot in fantasy drafts, with him saying that Alex Rodriguez was the pick, and me making the case for Jose Reyes.

The consensus top pick this year in mixed leagues of usual size (12 teams) and format (five categories each for hitting and pitching) is Hanley Ramirez. There are some dissenters-ESPN.com has Alex Rodriguez at the top, based on yesterday's scroll on the network during the Astros/Braves game-but Ramirez's combination of power, speed, average, and shortstop eligibility carries the day for most. Once you get past Ramirez, though, there are disagreements, and not only are Reyes and Rodriguez involved, but some people, such as Will Carroll, stump for Albert Pujols. Here are the three players' projected fantasy stats, pulled from the Player Forecast Manager:


              AB   AVG    R   HR   RBI   SB
Rodriguez    547  .282   99   30   100   18
Reyes        613  .309  120   15    73   64
Will's Guy   540  .339  124   35   122    7

Pujols has the prettiest stat line. He also plays the position at which the replacement level is highest. I'm sure there's a strong case to made for him ahead of the other two, but there's no way I can justify taking a first baseman with one of the first three picks of a fantasy draft. In a bigger league, perhaps, but you blow off first base in a 12-team mixed league and end up doing well for yourself. The 13th-best first baseman in PFM, Derrek Lee, is projected to go .289/80/18/81/7. Yes, there's a cost, but that's still a good player.

Let's make the case for Reyes. My primary argument is a positional one. This is no longer 1999; shortstop is not a place where you have tons of great offensive talent, so getting an impact player at shortstop gives you an edge on the competition. Moreover, third base is a very deep position now, comparable to first base in offensive talent, so waiting to take one is less damaging now than ever before. Per PFM again, the 13th-best third baseman, Kevin Youkilis, will bang out a .275/80/20/82/3 line, which will play quite nicely at third.

To make a more rigorous comparison, let's look at what happens when you pick either player. If you take Reyes, you have to fill the third-base slot with someone else. If you take Rodriguez, you need a shortstop. To get an idea of what's left, I took the average of the next ten shortstops listed after Reyes (remember, one team has Hanley Ramirez already) and the next 11 third basemen listed after Rodriguez. As an aside, note that PFM actually has Reyes rated ahead of Ramirez, and David Wright ahead of Rodriguez. Wright is included in these averages.

If you take Jose Reyes, this is what you can expect to get from the left side of your fantasy infield:


               AB   AVG    R   HR   RBI   SB
Reyes         613  .309  120   15    73   64
3B            536  .281   84   25    90    6

If you take Alex Rodriguez, this is what you can expect to get from the left side:


               AB   AVG    R   HR   RBI   SB
Rodriguez     547  .282   99   30   100   18
SS            526  .286   78   12    64   12

Adding it up:


               AB   AVG    R   HR   RBI   SB
Reyes+3B     1149  .296  204   40   163   70
Rodriguez+SS 1073  .283  177   42   164   30

This is actually not as close as I expected it to be. Taking Reyes instead of Rodriguez will leave you essentially even in home runs and RBI, and way ahead in average, runs, and steals. The incredible depth at third base this season is the primary cause of this-there is a big group of guys who are projected to hit 20-25 homers with appropriate attending production stats-but even if the "taking Rodriguez" line were ahead on power, there's just no way to make up 40 stolen bases.

That's just the statistical argument. There is also the gap in the players' ages. Reyes turns 26 in June, putting him at just about his peak with some growth expected. He still has upside left in him, particularly when it comes to his batting average and power. Rodriguez turns 34 in August, and as Nate Silver pointed out earlier this week, he also may already be in decline. I hesitate to go that far for one of the greatest players ever, but I will say that there's much less chance that Rodriguez outperforms his projection than there is that Reyes does. You win fantasy leagues by finding the guys who over-perform.

I'm no fantasy expert, as my career in Tout Wars has shown. However, in this case, I think I'm on the right track. Hanley Ramirez is clearly the top pick, and if you're sitting second, you have to go with the 26-year-old shortstop who can be a category killer. Any other choice is wrong.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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