We're now just two weeks away from the season opener in Japan, and I gotta say, I can't wait. It seems we've been talking about opening day since the end of the NFL's regular season.
Now that the tweaked backs and hammys are returning to health, we can get down to the business of drafting our teams. I've been moving guys back and forth in the rankings and filing some sleepers into a separate folder – a folder I'll open up next week.
Spring training news has been upstaged by the continuing legal battles and wacky worlds of Terrell Owens and Allen Iverson. I want highlights and position battles, not stories about contract voiding and bogus respect issues.
But highlights are coming.
First pitch ceremonies will rule the day. Which Yankees actually will make the trip to Japan? Which rookies will make the rosters? And who will launch the first bomb at San Diego's new park? These questions and so many others will be answered shortly.
Last week, I provided a glimpse into the world of the catcher. The natural follow-up to that is the next shallowest position on the field: second base. You've got the big bats and five-tool guys at the top, and then it drops down quickly to one or two category contributors.
The consistent theme here (excepting Jose Vidro and Todd Walker) is that these guys can steal a base and will not decimate your team's batting average. Without further ado, let's get into the players.
Alfonso Soriano, Texas Rangers
Soriano stands atop the position. Even though he switched uniforms this offseason, he's still a 35/35 candidate and, in the Texas lineup, he's going to get a chance to run. It is possible that pitchers will get him to chase bad pitches, as in the 2003 playoffs, but he'll hit the mistakes.
Projection for 2004: Soriano probably will give back a little of his average this season, but the big power and speed numbers keep you captivated. Don't let the move from the Bronx scare you off. He's a sure top-five pick.
Bret Boone, Seattle Mariners
Boone scuffled through the second half of the 2003 season, but there's no denying this guy's potential contribution. He has averaged 33 home runs and 120 RBIs over the past three seasons. Many of those who jumped off the bandwagon after his 2002 campaign are climbing back aboard. The Mariners have strengthened their lineup with the additions of Scott Spiezio and Rich Aurilia and the return of Raul Ibanez. And oh yeah, Edgar Martinez, Randy Winn and Ichiro are still around.
Projection for 2004: Boone is primed for a big 2004 season. He is another of the rare five-tool players that fantasy owners love to pencil into their lineups. The added punch in the lineup will set the table nicely for the heart of the order. It's just possible that Boone recreates the magic of 2001 (with more steals, of course).
Jeff Kent, Houston Astros
He's been the center of controversy over the past couple seasons, but there's no denying his talent. Injuries throughout the Astros' lineup limited Kent's production in 2003. He'd knocked in 100 runs for six straight years before his injury-shortened season, and even though he missed 32 games, he still knocked in 93.
Projection for 2004: The heart of the order is ready to dominate in 2004. Kent teams with Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman to create one of the most formidable threesomes in the game. Kent saves his monster seasons for even-numbered years – go ahead, check his career stats. He'll have another in 2004.
Marcus Giles, Atlanta Braves
After Kent (mid-fifth round on average), the second base position goes without a representative until the ninth round. And that falls to Marcus Giles, whose bust-out campaign in 2003 has fantasy owners keeping a close watch. His second-half production last year was outstanding, a remarkable .349 average with a power and speed combination that makes him a great value in the ninth round.
Projection for 2004: Giles still has tremendous upside, as he's just getting acquainted with the world of big-league pitching. He can go for 25/25 and is certain to score 100 runs.
Jose Vidro, Montreal Expos
Vidro has been banged up a bit the last couple seasons. That causes some concern. He also might feel abandoned with Vladimir Guerrero's jump to Anaheim. His batting average will certainly help your team and he'll score runs, but
Projection for 2004: In his five full seasons, Vidro has never hit worse than .300, and consistency is a beautiful thing for your squad. He'll hit 15-20 HRs and will broach the 100-RBI mark when called on to step up his game. I just wish he would run more.
Luis Castillo, Florida Marlins
As we've referenced in past columns, speed kills. This former stolen base champion looks to regain his form in 2004. Most leagues don't use the caught-stealing category, and his propensity for getting caught won't hurt you. His batting average and run production make him a ninth-round pick.
Projection for 2004: Castillo certainly won't be contributing to anyone's RBI or HR totals, but the batting average, speed and runs will get the job done. He'll score 100 runs and push toward 50 steals again.
Michael Young, Texas Rangers
Yes, he still qualifies at 2B and will gain eligibility for the SS position after 15 games at the position this season. He provides a bit of everything at this position, giving you power and speed. He'll make a run at 20/20 this year and will score 100 runs with Soriano, Hank Blalock and Mark Teixeira hitting behind him.
Projection for 2004: Young is a tremendous value in the 11th round. He may give back a little of his batting average, but the run production more than makes up for it. The addition of shortstop eligibility adds flexibility if you miss out on the early sweepstakes.
Todd Walker, Chicago Cubs
Walker joins the Cubs after a career year for the Red Sox in 2003. The Cubs are excited to have a premier 2B in the fold, no offense to you Paul Noce fans out there. He'll help set the line moving for Sammy Sosa and Derrek Lee.
Projection for 2004: Walker goes from one old hitter's park to another. He should be able to equal that lofty RBI total from 2003 and will plate some runs ahead of the heavy hitters. Walker makes for a great play in the 15th round.
Adam Kennedy, Anaheim Angels
The Anaheim lineup has been bolstered through a series of offseason acquisitions that make Kennedy an intriguing selection. His second-half performance provided a nice glimpse into the power and speed he's capable of. Kennedy is a good bet to reach the 20-stolen base mark this season.
Projection for 2004: Vlad's appearance in Anaheim combined with a healthy Troy Glaus opens up a great opportunity for Kennedy to cross the plate more than 100 times. Whatever the case, his performance in 2003 will make him an everyday contributor for the Angels in 2004.
Ray Durham, San Francisco Giants
Injuries slowed Durham, literally, in 2003. He was expected to set the table for Barry Bonds last season, but appeared in only 110 games. That said, he was effective when in the lineup. Fantasy owners need him to get back to the 20-stolen base mark he hit for seven years straight prior to the '03 season. He's not going to wow you with a big batting average, but the power and speed totals make him worth watching.
Projection for 2004: Durham has the potential to get back to the 20/20 level he achieved in 2001 if he can stay healthy. He'll score 100 runs batting ahead of Bonds, and adds even more value if your league uses the doubles category. With those power alleys at Pac Bell and a full season, he may hit 50.
And a look at the rest
And one for good measure
All right, it's off to Vegas and the Fantasy Sports Trade Association conference to talk fantasy baseball all day and night and, of course, to draft another team. This one takes on a twist with an auction format and it's an AL-only league. I'll report back early next week on the squad I assemble.
Oh, and there's that NCAA tournament thing starting as well. I'm running with Maryland in an upset from the No. 4 seed.