Flights of Fantasy

Friday, January 03 2003 @ 11:18 AM EST

Contributed by: Coach

Toronto is snowed in today, and spring training is more than a month away. The stalemate continues between the agents of most free agents, and the newly-responsible, budget-conscious GMs who are more concerned with dumping their worst contracts on each other than filling their needs.

Fortunately, there's fantasy baseball to amuse a guy. The last time I posted something here, it didn't attract a lot of comments, but a couple of people e-mailed and joined me in leagues. So here's another heads-up. Shrike has already expressed an interest in Roto Junkies, an AL-only, 5x5 keeper league, and I've put him in touch with our Commissioner. Now there are two spots open, so here's an opportunity to join a well-run league of friendly guys. RJ has features like the Prospects draft, where you can "stash" five players who don't break camp on a 25-man roster, and trading of future draft picks. There's a $35 US annual fee, and transaction fees, even if you're a compulsive FA shopper like me, might be another $25 for the whole year, but all the money is awarded in prizes. One of the available teams has a cornerstone (A-Rod) and a stockpile of high draft picks, including my #2. The other has Jason Giambi, Paul Konerko and other excellent keeper possibilities.

So if you want to join Sean and me in a league that's competitive, but fun, let me know by e-mail, and I'll pass along inquiries to the Commish. And if Dan is reading this in the U.K., don't let the crown get too comfortable, pal. My 2002 expansion Toronto Walrus team is poised for a challenge.

My thoughts about the 2003 Blue Jays from the Roto point of view are posted in my ESPN column, so I won't go into detail here, but I'm extremely bullish on their hitters, and their pitching staff has advanced from "must avoid" (the company of Texas, K.C., Tampa and Baltimore) to including some potential draft-day bargains.

A lot of owners "punt" a category -- usually saves or steals -- in order to focus on the others. I try to stay competitive in SB by getting at least one or two multi-talented hitters (new Roto-god Alfonso Soriano, Vladimir Guerrero, Carlos Beltran, Eric Hinske, etc.) but I'm officially giving up on saves. Call it the Keith Foulke strategy; last year I wasted a high draft pick on him, only to regret it all season. (In 2003, as the new A's closer, he will probably go at a more reasonable level and win his new owner a championship, but I'm not biting.) Other 2002 disappointments included previously-indestructible Mariano Rivera, Tigers heir-apparent Matt Anderson, and the Tribe's Bob Wickman. The position is volatile, and I refuse to overpay for something that speculative when there are more solid options on the board at other positions.

That doesn't mean I'm conceding a zero in the SV category. My strategy (wait, while Sean gets a pen) is to let my rivals battle over the "names" early, then take a few chances in the later rounds. Who knew a year ago that Eric Gagne was going to excel, or Eddie Guardado, or Jorge Julio? I'm also targeting "next-in-line" middle relievers: Cliff Politte will get me the odd W, lots of K's, and a handful of SV when Escobar has worked a few days straight, plus he's got a good chance to inherit the job if Kelvim is traded at the deadline. Octavio Dotel is a Billy Wagner hamstring or elbow twinge away from 40 saves, and will put up excellent numbers anyway in the setup role. And because teams panic, there will be plenty of surprises, as usual. I grabbed Francisco Cordero last year off the waiver list, and he got me 10 SV with good peripherals; even got 4 SV from FA Ben Weber in the two weeks Percival was on the DL. So it's possible to finish mid-pack in the category without over-committing to question marks.

I'm also inclined to punt an entire position this year -- catcher. Sure, if you own Mike Piazza, or a healthy Pudge, that's an edge, but not without risks. The talent level drops off sharply, and midrange C are snapped up by desperate owners, creating bargains among useful guys at other positions. In our AL league, you need to start two C every day, and I've realized that it's more about minimizing the damage there than trying to get production. A couple of platoon guys with occasional power (like Greg Myers) can be acquired in the end game, instead of wasting a higher pick on Ramon Hernandez or Einar Diaz and suffering through a Mendoza-line season, wishing they'd be benched.

If you're new to fantasy ball, forget what you know about the "defensive spectrum" -- the idea that anyone can play 1B or LF, and the positions progress in difficulty to SS and C on the other end -- because you get more from a stud 1B and OF paired with free agents at C and SS than the other way around. It's nice to have one of the Big 4 shortstops, but it's crippling to have five mediocre OF and an unproductive 1B/DH, so don't get too distracted by the position scarcity elsewhere and forget to draft a few sluggers where you need them.

A few other random thoughts: there's some really bad pitching in the AL Central, so I'm leaning to White Sox and Twins hitters, along with Blue Jays. I find that in almost every league, Yankees are overrated, so I rarely get any. Also off my radar are most "new" players, which includes touted rookies (more will break your heart than win you a pennant) and foreign imports (for every Ichiro, there are several Shinjos.) So you can imagine how I feel about Jose Contreras and Godzilla. Even though I'm pretty sure that Contreras will win 15 games, with decent ERA, WHIP and K numbers, and Matsui will hit .290 with 30 HR, I will let my opponents fight over them and "settle" for cheaper, safer alternatives.

Any interest in a Yahoo! free fantasy league for BB readers?