This week I'm dusting off the crystal ball to do my best Punxsutawney Phil and predict the future of fantasy baseball for the second half. I'm hopeful to avoid the Groundhog Day effect of one of the AL-only expert leagues I'm in, as my would-be closer Bob Wickman was felled the day I drafted him, Nomar went down about the same time and Jason Giambi has battled bad wheels and parasites. All of them appear ready to produce in the second half, but will it be too little, too late?
Let's get to the analysis.
- Pitcher not likely to reproduce his strong first half
Kenny Rogers, SP, Texas Rangers: It pains me to put Rogers here after his All-Star nod, but I've gotta do it. How can he possibly come close to replicating his staggering first-half totals? You need only look to his last two starts before the break (13 earned runs in seven innings), the fact that he's battling a hamstring injury and a schedule heavy with healthy Angels and A's. Time to take your profit and sell.
- Hitter not likely to reproduce his strong first half
Mike Lowell, 3B, Florida Marlins: His first-half numbers beat you over the head like a John Bonham drum solo. That's the problem. Every year this guy puts up monster first-half totals (see 2003's 28 HRs, 76 RBIs) and drops off a cliff in the second half. Last year, you can speak to injury and the fact that he only played 37 games after the break. In 2002, he played in 72 games after the All-Star game and drove in only 34 runs while hitting 80 points lower than the first half. Whether it's the on-field sauna that is Pro Player Stadium or he's tired from mashing through the first half of the season, there's no denying the drop in production. Sell.
- Pitcher most likely to rebound from a subpar first half
Bartolo Colon, SP, Anaheim Angels: History says that Colon will right this ship in the second half. He won't have to face the Dodgers again (touched for 15 earned runs in 7.2 innings of work), and for his career he's a much better pitcher after the break. His ERA is 3.71 after the break, and he has won half his starts.
Armed with a healthy lineup and the fact that the weight of expectations is lifted off his shoulders (but not before the pundits tattooed "Bust" on his head), Colon will perform in the second half. He's likely to come cheap in most leagues, either as a free agent or for the cost of one of your bench players.
- Hitter most likely to rebound from a subpar first half
Eric Hinske, 3B, Toronto Blue Jays: The former Rookie of the Year appeared to be primed for a comeback after a disappointing 2003 campaign. That's when the wheels fell off the most anticipated non-Yankees lineup in the last decade. The Blue Jays suffered injuries to the three players at the core of their lineup. Frank Catalanotto was hitting .327 when he landed on the DL on June 18, Vernon Wells hasn't seen the field in a month and Carlos Delgado returned to the lineup just before the break. So what?
Hinske started to find his stroke just as all of these issues crushed the Jays' lineup. His average went from .216 on June 2 to .274 at the break, and he drove in 19 runs and stole five bases during this period. Josh Phelps' long-dormant bat also began to awaken and Reed Johnson filled in admirably. The Jays are ready to strike in the second half, and Hinske will make a push to top his ROY numbers of '02.
- Rookie most likely to hit the wall
Ryan Madson, RP, Philadelphia Phillies: Joe Mauer finally has returned from injury, and Jason "Friday Night Special" Bay (14 RBIs in his last four Friday outings) turned it on over the last month. So I'll turn my attention to a guy coming out of the pen.
Madson has performed masterfully in the setup role for Billy Wagner. He's managed to "vulture" six wins in the first half of the season, while maintaining a minuscule 2.03 ERA and striking out almost a hitter per inning. Savvy owners have plugged him into their "bullpen" to give them help in four categories. The pressure of a pennant race in Philly will test this youngster, and Larry Bowa will not trust his job security to a rookie. A couple bad outings out of the gate for Madson will cost him this role.
- Prospect ready to breakthrough to "The Show"
Justin Morneau, 1B, Minnesota Twins: Morneau got some time with the big club in May and looks to return shortly. Caught up in the annual battle for the AL Central with the Chicago White Sox and upstart Cleveland Indians, the Twins need more out of the first base position than what Doug Mientkiewicz provides (.244, 5 HRs, 23 RBIs). The powerful Morneau (22 HRs and 63 RBIs at Triple-A Rochester) is ready to step in.
- Veteran flying under the radar
A.J. Burnett, SP, Florida Marlins: The return of Burnett to the Marlins rotation flew under the radar. Those that did pay attention watched an eight-run shellacking at the hands of the Cleveland Indians in his second start back and put him on their list to watch for '05.
They've missed the fact that his ERA is a solid 3.07 in his other seven outings. He was dominant in his final two starts leading into the break, allowing only five earned runs over 14 innings of work while striking out 15 hitters. He can't control whether the Marlins score enough runs to earn the W (1-7 in his outings in the first half), but he'll supply immediate contributions to three fantasy categories.
- Big deal
There are a lot of trade rumors swirling in the winds as the deadline approaches, but none more intriguing than the whispered three-team deal involving Randy Johnson and Nomar Garciaparra. This deal is contingent on the Chicago Cubs getting involved in the process. Boston doesn't have the prospects to ship to Arizona to complete the deal, but the Cubs are heavily steeped in developing arms and bats. Power-hitting prospect Jason Dubois and speed merchants Calvin Murray and Dwaine Bacon are among those mentioned as part of the package.
For those of you competing in AL-only or NL-only leagues, this trade stands both as a blessing and a curse. Not often will you see players of this magnitude enter your league, nor at positions that have huge impacts. Pitching is at a premium in the AL, and most of the big-time shortstops lie in the AL.
Nomar owners were just starting to get used to having him in the lineup (4 HRs, 16 RBIs, .327). Depending on the activity of your league, your best replacement on the waiver wire likely is Angel Berroa. He hit .277 in June with 15 RBIs before regressing to the Mendoza Line for the first half of July. Otherwise, you'll need to bank on fan favorite Pokey Reese producing better than his career-high 52 RBIs.
Big Unit owners have to replace double-digit wins and a mound of Ks. There's no standout on the NL waiver wire that doesn't blow up your ERA or WHIP totals, but a return to pitcher-friendly Pac Bell for lefty Shawn Estes might be a nice short-term fix. It's still in the rumor phase, but in 2001 (his last season in SF), Estes went 7-2 with a 3.15 ERA at home.
One other candidate who may be flying under the radar in your league due to his total of five wins is Pittsburgh Pirates lefty Oliver Perez. He's averaging better than a strikeout per inning with an excellent 3.24 ERA. His ERA ballooned in August last year, and a couple of dates against the surging Atlanta Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals will be a good measure of where Perez will stand for next year's draft.
There are at least two dozen other rumors, some real and some fabricated. It should make for an exciting couple of weeks up to the deadline. Keep an eye on these pages for more information on comings and goings and the fallout.