Is this the year Alex Rios finally takes it to the next level?
At some point, your patience just has to run out.
I remember back in 1999, when "The Phantom Menace" made its big screen debut. My friend got tickets to a special 7 a.m. showing, and we waited in a standing-room only auditorium in giddy anticipation for the movie to start.
The whole crowd exploded in cheers as the opening strains of John Williams' score began to play, and the applause only stopped once the scrolling text finished its travels across the starry backdrop and the story of Episode 1 got under way.
Then came the silence; the eerie, uncomfortable silence that turned into palpable worry as Jar Jar Binks took center stage in the goings-on of a galaxy far, far, away. A quick look around the theater showed the same look mirrored back to me in nearly every direction: complete and utter disappointment.
As much as I hated the film, though, the fault lay less with George Lucas and his choice to feature Gungan gibberish than it did upon my own way-too-high expectations. Because I went into the theater with completely unrealistic hopes of recapturing the magic of being a seven-year-old seeing the original Star Wars for the first time, there was little chance of the experience ending up as anything but hollow.
I get the same sense of doom when I look ahead to 2011 season of Chicago White Sox outfielder Alex Rios. He currently has an average draft position of 55.4, making him the 14th outfielder going off the board in ESPN standard drafts. That seems more than a little too optimistic from a guy who has averaged only 17 home runs and 80 RBIs per 162 games for his major league career.
Since his "breakout" season of 2007, fantasy owners have been itching for Rios to take that next step forward. While he has stepped up the stolen base output, in terms of slugging percentage and run production, he's never come close to matching that season. In fact, after back-to-back All-Star appearances in 2006-07, Rios has yet to return to the Midsummer Classic.
What's the reason for Rios' statistical standstill? Perhaps it's the steady rise in the number of ground balls Rios is putting into play or maybe it's the number of bad pitches at which he tends to swing (O-Zone percentage) or maybe it's a low midi-chlorian count; whatever the reason, it doesn't seem to be getting any better with time. In fact, in each of the past two seasons, as he has gotten more at-bats under his belt, Rios' production has gotten worse.
Since leaving the Toronto Blue Jays to join the White Sox, his career batting average has dropped 19 points, and of his 24 home runs, only 13 (54 percent) have come at home, far fewer than the percentage of home runs he hit at home (63 percent) while playing with the Blue Jays.
Let's face it: While not old by any means, Rios is far from a youngster, having turned 30 this offseason. In the history of baseball, do you know the number of players who have had 20-20 seasons, at his age and length of service time? Only 25; and if we look for a season of both 25 homers and steals, we're left with only nine such occurrences -- including Raul Mondesi, who did it with Toronto in 2001, then wore the uniform of six different teams over the next four seasons, before retiring in 2005.
It's a sadly all-too-familiar story: a Blue Jays outfielder on the verge of super-stardom, suddenly vanishing into seclusion on some swampy wasteland planet. Does anyone remember Lloyd Moseby? A 1986 All-Star, Moseby hit 26 home runs and stole 39 bases the following season. Then the bottom fell out.
Here is a snapshot of the careers of both Moseby and Rios, with their overall stats from the ages of 23 through 29.
Apart from batting average, Rios barely measures up to this "average" name from baseball seasons past. So why are we suddenly expecting Rios to morph into Barry Bonds? By the way, at the age of 30, Moseby left for Detroit via free agency, and two unspectacular seasons later, he was playing baseball in Japan in an effort to keep his playing career alive.
Now we're not saying that just because he left Toronto that Rios has no fantasy value at all. However, one can't help but notice his career .294 batting average in Canada -- as compared to his .273 batting average everywhere else -- and not wonder if perhaps he's on the wrong side of the exchange rate.
Another factor to consider is that Rios could be batting fifth in the order, behind both Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko. He's going to be tasked with being the protection, rather than benefitting from having the big sticks behind him, which he would if he remained in the three-hole in Ozzie Guillen's lineup.
Plus, it's hard to steal bases with two lumbering hulks in front of you. Certainly, Rios won't stop running completely, but he might not have as many chances with station-to-station guys clogging up the basepaths.
In the end, if you like guys who can give you both power and speed, Shane Victorino, B.J. Upton, Curtis Granderson or Chris Young all have at least as much upside as Rios, and likely will cost you far less in terms of auction dollars.
There's no reason to "force" things by reaching for Alex Rios a few rounds too early, because the prospect of doing so, at least to me, it a bit too scary. And as a great Jedi master once said, "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."
As someone who has been burned by him on more than one occasion, I will not suffer through another disappointing season of Rios if I don't have to.
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" will be released in August. You can e-mail him here.