FB107 – Off-Season Preparation

05/20/2007 12:00 AM - 

Fantasy University Series
Contributed By: Steve Siniski

When the temperature on the hot stove starts to cool off, the worst thing to do is put baseball on your backburner. Now is the time to lay the foundation for a successful fantasy campaign. Most point to late February (when pitchers and catchers report) as the start of the season, but the truth of the matter is, keeping up with the off-season movement can be just as crucial as the draft itself.

Knowing where windows of opportunity have opened, where they’ve closed and who is getting blown through them helps fantasy ballers bounce around some early sleepers and busts. There’s going to be more questions than answers at this point in the season, but a keen sense of what to ask leads to long-term success.

The New Year brings new faces in new places, old faces playing out the string and young ones hoping to make an impact. Identifying them is just the first of many steps in the race to fantasy baseball supremacy.  We here at fantasybaseball.com, the new mecca for fantasy information, want to point you in the right direction and help you stay on course through October. As you work your way through the site’s course of study, rejoice in the fact that this may be the first (and possibly only) time in your life homework has become fun!

Player and Manager Movement
Like the real game on the diamond, fantasy baseball is all about situations. Whether it’s going from first to third with two outs on a single to right field or identifying undervalued players – when opportunity knocks, be available to take advantage. Sifting through the overload of stars on changing teams is one of the keys to a successful fantasy franchise. Every fantasy team looks good after the first six or seven rounds, but picking stars is like shooting fish in a barrel.

Targeting players that have changed teams or simply have better situations on existing franchises can make spring training studies even more fruitful. The frenetic pace of change has been made more difficult these days, because franchises can move just as quickly (and swiftly) as the players themselves. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on players it seems like they start to switch divisions, leagues, or even cities. Confusing? Perhaps, and that’s why early preparation is crucial; it helps set the foundation for spring training and then the actual fantasy draft itself. Going in with a keen sense for who’s on first and what’s on second can only help you weed out the fantasy riff-raff.

For instance, what veterans coming off a career year are likely to repeat the hefty production? Have they changed teams? Was the particular supporting cast shuffled like a deck of cards in a casino? Did that player somehow manage to parlay big numbers into a big stay on the real-life waiver wire because he priced himself out of a solid contract? And finally, if said player is no longer on the roster, what players are filling in the hole? The list goes on and on for potential fantasy stardom for a number of players.

It is always better to begin this research early. Cramming may have worked in school, but fantasy baseball is for the long haul, 26 grueling weeks, so it’s not wise to let the information leak out of your ears just after it was absorbed.

Managerial changes also factor into the fantasy baseball landscape. Is the new front man aggressive? Is he known for avoiding the running game and playing for the home run rather than manufacturing scores? A difference in style can turn a 10-steal player into a 25-plus thief, or take the skills of a 30-30 player and make him one-dimensional.

One and Only Players
Lurking across the landscape like a one-hit wonder on the radio, a handful of players serve a purpose in just a single category. Closers are the typical one-hit wonders, but base stealers can also be categorized here.  We want to pinpoint the players most owners wouldn’t be able to find even if they had an official baseball register. These players can often be found in the later rounds at a discounted rate. If you can peg a few thieves capable of netting 15-20 steals or closers who can rack up saves for selection late, you’ll have a leg up in the early rounds. Paying top dollar for someone that will swipe 50 bases is great, but what about the homers, RBIs, runs and batting average categories? If you can load up on four-category players early, you’ll have a more balanced team. In terms of pitching, a closer will boost save totals, but the impact on ERA, WHIP and strikeouts is negligible because they throw a limited number of innings. Guessing which relievers will pile on victories is tough to figure out and will take a lot of luck.

Power hitters are historically easy to find in the later rounds of a fantasy draft, but it never hurts to have a few names bouncing around that provide home runs without destroying a batting average. At least the power hitters can contribute in homers, RBI and the runs that come with their trots around the basepath.

Effect of New Surroundings
Tread very carefully with the relocation of some players, and rejoice in the new-found surroundings of others. For instance, has a big-name star moved from the thin air of Coors Field to Dodger Stadium? Or was the shift in teams reversed? As a general rule of thumb, ballparks can have a profound effect on a hitter’s success. In the right situation, gap power can become home-run power, and a singles hitter can turn into a doubles machine if he’s got speed and moves from grass to turf. Conversely a move from, somewhere like Boston to Seattle, would threaten any big bat’s power numbers, but could help in the stolen base department. Unable to sit back and take aim at the Green Monster, a more aggressive approach fits better out West.

Key Pitching Categories
For stud pitchers, you often get what you pay for: Great numbers from guys that simply keep people off the base paths. Some pitchers just can’t seem to keep themselves out of trouble, or seem to have a knack from getting out of it all too regularly. Base runners are the enemy, because they affect WHIP, ERA and ultimately wins.  Pitchers who put themselves in binds can expect regular parades of runners crossing the plate.

It’s almost that simple.

We say almost, because there is another factor that can impact a pitcher’s success across the board: Defense. It’s not always the hurler’s fault, because the other eight players on the field may not have the softest hands in the business. Check the defensive stats, errors, unearned runs, and then gauge whether or not steps were taken to upgrade the weak points. Does a team have an all-hit, no-field outfit taking the field? Or did the franchise bring in one or two Gold Glove-caliber players to shore things up? Giving extra outs to an opponent doesn’t help your pitching categories and makes life tough on a variety of categories.

Rebuilding or Retooling?
The split between the haves and have nots in major league baseball are greater than any other professional sport. For every George Steinbrenner or John Henry, there are five owners who’d rather pocket the profit than put it back into their team. The biggest impact is felt on pitching staffs. Do they have a lineup of guys capable of keeping them in games? Or is the staff faced with the task of trying to offset poor run support? Teams in a perennial rebuilding mode rarely have solid fantasy staffs, however, their closers can be quite valuable. Unlike elite franchises that will win most of their games by 7-2 or 10-4 scores, bad teams will struggle to squeak by with one-run decisions.

Retooling teams have the players in place for postseason runs, and power-packed lineups afford new players a chance to broaden their stats, be it in terms of runs, RBI, or just average because they’ll see a better selection pitches.

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