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Thursday, July 16, 2009
Sandoval, Mauer keep on rising

By Brendan Roberts
ESPN.com

Hit Parade

In terms of projected rankings, in my mind, there's value, and there's perceived value.

Value is actually a numerical breakdown of how a player is expected to produce, whether based on the Player Rater, dollar value, points system or otherwise. Perceived value is how the general public thinks the player should be ranked. It is not actual value, just what a majority feels.

We play this game of fantasy with real value, but owners tend to make their moves -- trades, free-agent pickups, start/sit decisions -- based on public perception. I mean, come on, Kevin Youkilis, Ryan Howard, Mark Teixeira … studs, right? You see them regularly on "SportsCenter" hitting mammoth homers, but guess what? According to our Player Rater, Pablo Sandoval has outproduced all three of them, and it's not even a close race.

Or take Jacoby Ellsbury, he of the mediocre homer and RBI totals. Well, put 40 steals with a .297 average, and he's No. 2 among outfielders on our Player Rater. Only Carl Crawford is higher. And Michael Bourn is 12th, higher than Shane Victorino, Nelson Cruz and Brad Hawpe, among others.

So would you trade Teixeira for Sandoval? I wouldn't, but at least I'm aware that the actual value would warrant it even if the perceived value wouldn't. This is the time of year when category- and position-excess trades go down, meaning owners will deal from excess in a category or position to bolster other categories or positions. It's also the most popular time of year for vetoes of those deals. I don't want to get into "Grand Theft Roto" territory here, but don't get caught up too much in perceived value. Our initial reaction is based on perceived value, but please, actually break down the numbers when talking trade or deciding whether to veto the deal.

After a decade of having a clear distinction between the haves and have-nots, the studs and the scrubs, it seems we've reverted to the fantasy seasons of 10 years ago, when there were more one-trick-pony base stealers (such as Nyjer Morgan), more powerful home run hitters who can't hit for average (Chris Davis, Jay Bruce), more high-K pitchers who can't get many guys out (Jorge De La Rosa) and more productive hitters who seem disappointing because they don't hit enough homers or steal bases (Nick Markakis). There are fewer all-around studs and more one- or two-category studs. All this makes valuation more difficult and kicks the perceived value even further away from the actual value.

Which brings me to the official post-All-Star break rankings you've been reading about all week. The beauty of the rankers at ESPN Fantasy is we all have different ways of valuation. Some rankers heavily use perceived value (in the perception of the ranker, of course), meaning they consider ranking to be like a draft, and if a player would/should be drafted before another guy, he's ranked higher. Others use actual value, projecting out stats and determining their values that way.

And voilà! The ranks are all compiled and aggregated into one final ranking. That's why I love our rankings, because they incorporate several methods. I can't tell you how many times I've been disgusted by rankings at another site that clearly just one person produced. Bo-ring! If he's a public-perception guy, he likely has Chipper Jones jacked up the list -- because he's God and all, ya know -- and is slow to move down a struggling vet such as Vernon Wells. And the actual-value guys have base stealers, closers or breakout players jacked up the list, which usually subjects them to the most criticism.

Here are the biggest risers and fallers among the hitters, along with five hot-button, debated guys (and my opinion of them):

Fortunes rising

Ten players who have jumped since our May re-rankings. NR = not ranked in top 250.

1. Brandon Inge, C/3B, Tigers (Preseason rank: 388; May rank: 196; All-Star break ranking: 136): Um, yeah, turns out that hitters who are on pace for 39 homers and 109 RBIs and qualify at catcher have tons of value. Who knew? But I will say, for those who think we've completely undervalued him, he ranks only 81st on our Player Rater, behind Juan Pierre and Jarrod Washburn, thanks to the batting average and lack of steals. I still think he'll finish with a batting average around .250, but I also think he can nearly maintain that homer pace, finishing about .251 with 34 home runs and 102 RBIs.

2. Joe Mauer, C, Twins (Preseason: 80; May: 67; ASB: 23): Worth noting because any catcher who climbs that quickly into "vintage Mike Piazza" territory is the real deal, because we at ESPN Fantasy are notoriously down on the backstops. Let's face it: Mauer has entered his prime. Only a wayward foul tip can derail him now.

Mark Reynolds
Mark Reynolds isn't letting a record-setting strikeout pace keep him from being a fantasy star.

3. Mark Reynolds, 3B/1B, Diamondbacks (Preseason: 208; May: 180; ASB: 34): Gulp! He might be what I call the bargain MVP of 2009. What we've learned: Strikeouts don't matter in 5-by-5 leagues … what does is how the hitter fares in the other at-bats.

4. Ben Zobrist, 2B/SS/OF, Rays (Preseason: 508; May: NR; ASB: 108): Anybody can have one good month, and hot players can stretch it to two months, but three? We're in now, hook, line and sinker.

5. Pablo Sandoval, 3B/1B, Giants (Preseason: 150; May: 165; ASB: 71): That's right, he actually went down after posting just six RBIs in April. But this guy could win multiple batting titles in his career.

6. Russell Branyan, 1B/3B, Mariners (Preseason: 348; May: 249; ASB: 141): Should he be ranked higher? No. It might not seem like it, but he is slowing down, hitting just .156 in July. Only his propensity for homers got him this high.

7. Jason Bartlett, SS, Rays (Preseason: 205; May: 189; ASB: 97): Not to be a party pooper and all, but I think there is no better sell-high candidate than Bartlett -- if it's not too late. He has hit just .219 and scored just two runs in July.

8. Justin Upton, OF, D-backs (Preseason: 120; May: 87; ASB: 35): I'll give props to colleague Jason Grey for this one. He called this -- and I mean the full breakout performance -- before the season, and the rest of us in the rankings summit rolled our eyes. We can now roll them back the other way.

9. Shin-Soo Choo, OF, Indians (Preseason: 206; May: 144; ASB: 79): He quietly ranks 44th on our Player Rater after checking in with a 212.6 average draft position.

10. Michael Bourn, OF, Astros (Preseason: 281; May: 178; ASB: 122): The personal upside to this is that I've had a man crush on his talent and have him on just about all my teams right now, so obviously I think he's the real deal. The downside: He was on about all my teams last year, too.

Fortunes falling

Ten players who have dropped since our May re-rankings. NR = not in July top 250.

1. Russell Martin, C, Dodgers (Preseason rank: 52; May rank: 79; All-Star break ranking: 159): Very disappointing first half, and he's a notorious first-half hitter. My reasoning for his struggles: He was overworked the past two seasons. He played 306 games, 294 of them at catcher, during the course of '07 and '08. Catchers just don't play 150 games anymore. That 294 is 13 more than the next-highest (Jason Kendall) and 24 more than the third-highest (Brian McCann). I think his struggles will continue.

Chris Davis
However, a lot of strikeouts didn't help Chris Davis, who hit a bunch of homers but flirted with the Mendoza line before being demoted to the minors.

2. Chris Davis, 1B/3B, Rangers (Preseason rank: 66; May: 91; ASB: NR): Ouch. And are you ready for this? Davis is battling top prospect Justin Smoak in Triple-A Oklahoma City for both playing time and the chance to be called up to the majors when the Rangers need another bat.

3. Garrett Atkins, 3B/1B, Rockies (Preseason: 84; May: 120; ASB: 246): Has been usurped by Ian Stewart. It's not often you hear us say this, but we'd rather he leave the Rockies and get a fresh start elsewhere.

4. Howie Kendrick, 2B, Angels (Preseason: 118; May: 112; ASB: NR): Another popular breakout candidate who … didn't. But at only 26 years old, he'll earn plenty more opportunities.

5. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Mariners (Preseason: 89; May: 110; ASB: NR): I tried to avoid players on the DL, but Beltre had his best season in his prior walk year, and now he's having his worst in this one.

6. Alfonso Soriano, OF, Cubs (Preseason: 16; May: 16; ASB: 60): The most notable of the big names to fall. But as I said in my Tuesday chat, I've seen signs in recent at-bats that his knee is feeling better. He's crouching more and getting lower, and he is opening up his lower body a lot better than he was even a few weeks ago, when he looked very stiff.

7. Corey Hart, OF, Brewers (Preseason: 65; May: 60; ASB: 115): Myth: He's a slow starter, especially in the power categories. That has proven true during the course of his career. Myth: He's a strong finisher. That is false. In the past three seasons, he has hit 29 points better before the All-Star break than after it. Even his steals drop (and he gets caught more). He's a May/June hitter, and last I checked, those months have passed.

8. Magglio Ordonez, OF, Tigers (Preseason: 51; May: 81; ASB: 203): Worth noting that he's 35, what I feel is the new begin-to-decline age in the post-steroids era. Not that Maggs took steroids, but those who did apparently could succeed well into their late 30s with them. It's time to adjust our decline-age thinking back to where it used to be.

9. Chris Young, OF, D-backs (Preseason: 114; May: 177; ASB: NR): Of the 79 games in which he has gotten an at-bat, he has gone hitless in 44 of them.

10. Ryan Spilborghs, OF, Rockies (Preseason: 257; May: 192; ASB: NR): Not many times you could say this, but the Rockies have just one outfielder among our top 250.

Hot-button hitters (and my take on them)

Top 100 Hitters

Note: Brendan Roberts' top 100 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not on statistics that have been accrued. AJ Mass produced last week's top 100 hitters.

1. Albert Pujols, 1B, STL (1)
2. Hanley Ramirez, SS, FLA (2)
3. David Wright, 3B, NYM (5)
4. Ryan Braun, OF, MIL (4)
5. Mark Teixeira, 1B, NYY (8)
6. Chase Utley, 2B, PHI (7)
7. Carl Crawford, OF, TB (3)
8. Alex Rodriguez, 3B, NYY (11)
9. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, DET (12)
10. Ian Kinsler, 2B, TEX (6)
11. Justin Morneau, 1B, MIN (9)
12. Joe Mauer, C, MIN (30)
13. Evan Longoria, 3B, TB (15)
14. Prince Fielder, 1B, MIL (10)
15. Manny Ramirez, OF, LAD (14)
16. Ichiro Suzuki, OF, SEA (23)
17. Matt Kemp, OF, LAD (24)
18. Nick Markakis, OF, BAL (27)
19. Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, BOS (25)
20. B.J. Upton, OF, TB (18)
21. Jason Bay, OF, BOS (13)
22. Ryan Howard, 1B, PHI (16)
23. Grady Sizemore, OF, CLE (43)
24. Brandon Phillips, 2B, CIN (40)
25. Lance Berkman, 1B, HOU (34)
26. Kevin Youkilis, 1B/3B, BOS (36)
27. Brian Roberts, 2B, BAL (17)
28. Raul Ibanez, OF, PHI (21)
29. Carlos Lee, OF, HOU (35)
30. Justin Upton, OF, ARI (19)
31. Dustin Pedroia, 2B, BOS (31)
32. Victor Martinez, C, CLE (32)
33. Curtis Granderson, OF, DET (26)
34. Derek Jeter, SS, NYY (39)
35. Alfonso Soriano, OF, CHC (45)
36. Nelson Cruz, OF, TEX (28)
37. Brad Hawpe, OF, COL (33)
38. Josh Hamilton, OF, TEX (54)
39. Aaron Hill, 2B, TOR (20)
40. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, SD (22)
41. Mark Reynolds, 3B, ARI (37)
42. Torii Hunter, OF, LAA (29)
43. Matt Holliday, OF, OAK (48)
44. Joey Votto, 1B, CIN (73)
45. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, WAS (42)
46. Chone Figgins, 3B, LAA (41)
47. Shane Victorino, OF, PHI (46)
48. Shin-Soo Choo, OF, CLE (47)
49. Robinson Cano, 2B, NYY (38)
50. Bobby Abreu, OF, LAA (51)
51. Adam Jones, OF, BAL (49)
52. Jimmy Rollins, SS, PHI (62)
53. Pablo Sandoval, 1B, SF (61)
54. Alexei Ramirez, 2B, CWS (56)
55. Carlos Pena, 1B, TB (44)
56. Johnny Damon, OF, NYY (52)
57. Michael Young, SS/3B, TEX (53)
58. Michael Bourn, OF, HOU (60)
59. Hunter Pence, OF, HOU (57)
60. Brian McCann, C, ATL (76)
61. Nate McLouth, OF, ATL (64)
62. Jayson Werth, OF, PHI (63)
63. Adam Dunn, OF, WAS (59)
64. Alex Rios, OF, TOR (55)
65. Stephen Drew, SS, ARI (67)
66. Adam Lind, OF, TOR (58)
67. Andre Ethier, OF, LAD (66)
68. Derrek Lee, 1B, CHC (72)
69. Aramis Ramirez, 3B, CHC (69)
70. Jermaine Dye, OF, CWS (68)
71. Aubrey Huff, 1B/3B, BAL (80)
72. Carlos Beltran, OF, NYM (50)
73. Miguel Tejada, SS, HOU (70)
74. Orlando Hudson, 2B, LAD (78)
75. Ben Zobrist, OF, TB (71)
76. Chipper Jones, 3B, ATL (81)
77. Jorge Cantu, 1B, FLA (79)
78. Vladimir Guerrero, OF, LAA (87)
79. Jose Reyes, SS, NYM (93)
80. Brandon Inge, 3B/C, DET (75)
81. Russell Branyan, 1B, SEA (74)
82. Jason Bartlett, SS, TB (77)
83. Dan Uggla, 2B, FLA (84)
84. David Ortiz, DH, BOS (89)
85. Jason Kubel, OF, MIN (NR)
86. Luke Scott, OF, BAL (95)
87. Ryan Ludwick, OF, STL (NR)
88. Vernon Wells, OF, TOR (65)
89. Denard Span, OF, MIN (86)
90. Todd Helton, 1B, COL (82)
91. Jorge Posada, C, NYY (97)
92. Jose Lopez, 2B, SEA (NR)
93. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, COL (92)
94. Corey Hart, OF, MIL (91)
95. Adam LaRoche, 1B, PIT (88)
96. Cody Ross, OF, FLA (98)
97. Jim Thome, DH, CHW (96)
98. Paul Konerko, 1B, CHW (NR)
99. James Loney, 1B, LAD (NR)
100. Chris Iannetta, C, COL (94)

1. Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees (ASB rank: 16). A-Rod, the ultimate lightning rod for debate, at least this season. I'm a buyer. In fact, I'd put him in my top eight.

2. Jose Reyes, SS, Mets (Rank: 119): When will he return? And how good will he be when he does? Will he still run? Lots of questions, varying answers. Personally, I don't think he'll return any time soon, and he won't be near the same player when he does -- at least not this season. People forget that Reyes has a history of hamstring injuries before this year.

3. Jorge Posada, C, Yankees (Rank: 140): Ranked as high as 90th and as low as 204th, Posada can be seen as either a rare offensive-minded catcher or an injury risk. I consider him more of the former now that he already has had time off.

4. Cody Ross, OF, Marlins (Rank: 183): Lots of nonbelievers out there, and honestly, I tend to be one of 'em. But he's not really doing much more this season than he did last.

5. Mark DeRosa, 3B, Cardinals (Rank: 185): You have disparities with injured players, but the buzz in St. Louis about DeRosa's wrist injury isn't good. I don't see him returning any time soon, unless he rushes it back and isn't the same player because of that.

Pickups of the week

Mixed: Martin Prado, 2B, Braves. Has taken the second-base job away from Kelly Johnson, at least temporarily, and is hitting .330. For those of you who think that average seems unnaturally inflated, I'll note that Prado, owned in only 10.7 percent of ESPN.com standard leagues, hit .320 in 228 at-bats last season.

AL-only: Clete Thomas, OF, Tigers. Reportedly has worked his way into a platoon with Magglio Ordonez in right field.

NL-only: John Bowker, 1B, Giants. Didn't do much with the Giants last season but was leading the Pacific Coast League in many offensive categories before being recalled last week. Also of note: He qualifies at only first base now but was playing the outfield in Triple-A and already has three games out there for the G-men.

Stat talk or splits watch

All too often, when setting our lineups, we sit hitters who bat left-handed and have a ton of lefty starters on the projected starters grid. In some cases, you shouldn't do that. For instance, Denard Span leads all qualified lefty hitters in batting average against lefty pitching (.376). Other lefty hitters who fare well against lefty pitching who might surprise you: Scott Podsednik, Luke Scott (at least this season), Nick Johnson, Michael Bourn, Kelly Johnson, Adam Lind.

Ballpark watch

Clearly, Citi Field in New York is not a good hitters' park, as Tristan H. Cockcroft detailed recently. But I thought I'd point out that more home runs have been hit per game during the Mets' home games than their road games, actually making it a neutral park, according to our Park Factors page.

5-by-5 watch: stolen bases

ESPN has done plenty of ogling over Albert Pujols during the past week, and for good reason, but I have to marvel at one more stat. Pujols obviously leads first basemen (and in some cases, all of baseball) in most offensive categories, and one of them is stolen bases. He has 10 this season, and the next-highest total among qualifying first basemen is six (Lance Berkman and James Loney).

Position watch

Emilio Bonifacio, Marlins: Bonifacio has hung on to his starting role despite threats and has hit .311 this month. Just as importantly, he is racking up position versatility. He came into the season with (just) second-base eligibility and quickly added third-base qualification. But he has been moving around a bit of late and now has six games in the outfield and 11 games at shortstop (five of them last week alone).

On the docket

How 'bout those first-place Detroit Tigers? The team won four of five games to close the first half, and better times could be in the near future. After a tough series at Yankee Stadium this weekend, the Tigers play 20 of their next 30 games at Comerica Park, where their batting average is 31 points higher and OPS 108 points higher than in road games. Also, the team is 27-13 at home versus 21-26 on the road.

On the farm

Tim Beckham, SS, Rays: One of the fantasy draws to this former first overall draft pick is that he is a do-it-all player who can play shortstop. Well, here's the problem: He's not playing well at shortstop. He has 31 errors in 79 games this season for Class A Bowling Green. Also of concern: He has been caught in seven of his 14 steal attempts. Obviously, Beckham is young (he's only 19), and he is showing good gap power. But he must development a lot before we see him, and there's a chance we might see him as a second baseman or outfielder (a la B.J. Upton) instead of shortstop.

Final thoughts

The last few weeks of July mark the last time top-level teams can trade with bottom-rung teams and not have it considered collusion or unfair trading. Right now, three-for-one trades in which a top-level team gets a stud for three usable players can fly because there's still (barely) enough time for the bottom-level team to make up some ground with the right deal. But after that, those deals leave themselves open to a veto.

Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN Fantasy.