Your Daily Fantasy Rx
by Tim Polko
Oakland appears stuck on a statistical treadmill since the dual strengths of the organization are starting pitching and a continual influx of prospects yet successful playoff teams usually rely on a couple of elite hitters. Once Miguel Tejada departs this winter, Oakland will lack any elite hitters for the first time in nearly two decades as Eric Chavez's struggles might force the Athletics to give him a platoon partner if he doesn't learn to hit left-handers.
Jermaine Dye, Scott Hatteberg, Terrence Long, and Ramon Hernandez all could return even though none of them appear worth the contracts they own. Aside from Chavez, the only overly above average hitter is Erubiel Durazo. While Mark Ellis and rookie shortstop Bobby Crosby should provide solid defense in the middle infield, neither player is ready to emerge as an offensive force. Their outfield is in worse shape as Long, Eric Byrnes, and Dye might enter next year as the starters. The likelihood of Oakland returning to the post-season largely depends on Billy Beane finding a way to move Long while adding an elite bat to replace him in left field. The commitments to Hatteberg and Durazo, along with Dye's contract, prevent obvious upgrades anywhere else on the diamond.
Fortunately, Oakland's starting rotation contains as much upside and depth as any staff in the game. Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito all are perennial Cy Young candidates, Ted Lilly would qualify as a #2 starter on half the teams in baseball, and Rich Harden and Justin Duchscherer give the Athletics the best 5th starter in the game. Ideally, Beane should leverage Zito's superb reputation, reasonable contract, and declining skills into a stud offensive prospect or two, perhaps offering him to the Mets for Jose Reyes, Atlanta for Marcus Giles and more pitching prospects, or even Cincinnati for Austin Kearns or Adam Dunn. Unless they want Harden to close, Oakland should make room for both Harden and Duchscherer now, especially since Mike Wood and Joe Blanton might be ready by August. Transferring the team's starting depth into offensive improvement is the key challenge facing the Athletics.
Of course, the team's bullpen remains solid even if Keith Foulke departs. Jim Mecir, Chad Bradford, and Chad Harville comprise a quality middle relief corps, and Beane never struggles to find a decent closer or lefty reliever. Moving a starter or two to relief also would add depth.
Yet even with Beane's trading acumen, a likely depressed market, and the arrival of prospects like Crosby and Duchscherer, I still feel the Athletics missed their best shot at a title since Boston and New York are run be very competent executives and can triple Oakland's payroll. If Beane allows Eric Chavez to leave after next season as a free agent, I doubt we'll see this team reach the World Series before the end of the decade.
Bobby Crosby, 23, SS-R
Crosby, already among the favorites for the 2004 AL Rookie of the Year award, earned the PCL Rookie of the Year award and helped lead Sacramento to the PCL title. Committing only 15 errors in 125 games at shortstop nicely addressed the few remaining questions regarding his defense, and after only a little over two professional seasons, Crosby looks ready to replace Miguel Tejada in Oakland's lineup. Of course, with an 86% SB success rate, a.14 walk rate, and 60 extra-base hits in only 465 at-bats, only a meager .76 contact rate stands in Crosby's path to stardom. As he possesses the tools to overcome that current skill deficiency, in addition to the great patience suggested by a 4.21 #P/PA during his time with the Athletics, expect Crosby to spend all of 2004 near the top of Oakland's order. He could exceed $20 if his development continues and he sees even 90% of Tejada's playing time.
Even though a mid-season DL stint and a September call-up to Oakland cost him a few starts, Duchscherer still won the PCL Pitcher of the Year award as the RiverCats took home every major award in the league. He dominated fellow debuting prospect Chris Bootcheck in a September 9th rookie match-up, and while he faltered in his final two starts, Duchscherer still demonstrated both dominance and command. His outstanding 1.0 walk rate at Sacramento suggests he could succeed in any role on any staff in the majors right now, so we only can hope that Oakland will create an opportunity for him by dealing either Duchscherer or a current Athletics' starters like Ted Lilly. Of course, if nothing changes before Opening Day, Duchscherer still should break camp with Oakland as a middle reliever, and his impressive control means he merits keeping up to no less than $5. Although his somewhat advanced age limits his long-term upside, I still envision a very bright future for Duchscherer.
He looked ready for the majors in 2002, and now unless Oakland unexpectedly deals Mark Ellis, German heads back to Sacramento for a fourth season. I simply don't know why the Athletics haven't leveraged German into a resource at the major league level if they at least won't use him as an infield reserve and pinch-runner. Not only does German owns the speed and plate discipline necessary to be an asset, he could approach a $20 roto value in a full-time job. Unfortunately, we probably should ignore him until he finds the necessary opportunity to display his skills.
We knew San Diego erred two years ago by not even protecting Koonce in the 2001 Minor League Rule 5 draft, however after posting a .274/.440/.487 line at AA Midland last season and winning the PCL MVP in 2003, Oakland obviously made one of the best selections in that draft's history. The only reason Koonce won't post double-digit value next year is if Billy Beane's fascination with Scott Hatteberg and Erubiel Durazo keeps Koonce from a full-time job. He certainly owns the skills necessary to emerge as a solid starter for the next few years, so while he doesn't possess great long-term value, his recent performance ranks him among the best rookies in baseball in terms of overall hitting ability. If he even wins a bench job in the majors, spending a few bucks on Koonce makes a lot of sense as a starting job should increase his value by an order of magnitude.
Joe Blanton, 22, RH Starter
Blanton completely dominated A-ball and then maintained his effectiveness despite a double-promotion to the hitter-friendly Texas League. He belongs on the same advancement path as Rich Harden, so while Justin Duchscherer and Mike Wood should get the first shot at any rotation openings, Blanton could earn a starting slot by the second half of next year. Consider spending a high minor league pick in any draft since I don't see Oakland dealing him and his upside ranks with any pitcher in the organization.
Although a strained left thumb cost him half the year and he hasn't develop any power yet, the combination of a .18 walk rate and .84 contact rate should push him to the majors by the end of next season. If you're looking for a catcher likely to earn a starting job no later than 2006 and post a respectable BA that won't hurt your team, Brown is among the best bets in baseball. His excellent plate discipline will enable him to overcome his unimpressive athleticism, however he also doesn't offer enough upside to merit a high draft pick in most leagues.
After committing 33 errors in 126 games split between second, third, and shortstop, Bynum appears destined to peak as a utility infielder given his patience and speed skills. His relatively consistent production makes him a little intriguing, however Oakland simply doesn't have a place for him to play right now, making Bynum an unnecessary fantasy gamble.
Consistently solid power and plate discipline marks give Edwards the ability to reach double-digit value if handed an everyday starting job in the majors. Unfortunately, about a half-dozen 1B/OF with more upside rank ahead of Edwards on Oakland's depth chart, so he'll be lucky even to break camp in the majors. He isn't a viable minor league pick, although if you see him on the free agent wire, consider spending a buck of FAAB since he's a safer pick than many players.
His .350 career minor league slugging percentage will keep Flores from a significant role in the majors, but his plate discipline, speed, and ability to play anywhere except catcher make him a more valuable player than many current big league reserves. If Oakland gives him a chance ahead of someone like Frank Menechino, Flores offers enough upside to help many fantasy teams.
After displaying solid command and dominance over the last four seasons, some team should take a chance on him in the Rule 5 draft if Oakland doesn't protect him. Of course, his slow rise through the system suggests scouts don't particularly like him, yet his overall upside makes him a good long-term candidate for an Athletics' bullpen spot, albeit not a viable fantasy choice at this time.
Grabowski is nearly a mirror image of Sacramento teammate Mike Edwards, except Grabowski can catch a half-dozen games every year and Edwards plays more on the left side of the infield. Grabowski offers good patience, decent power and speed, and enough overall offensive ability to merit a bench job in the majors. Unfortunately, Oakland appears determined to keep him in the minors, and he matches up with the Athletics' needs better than almost any other team. Expect him to receive a larger opportunity sometime in the next few years, but don't roster him until he appears to own a secure role.
After dominating the Southern League as a reliever in 2003, Hooten moved to the Texas League and a part-time rotation job, surprisingly maintaining his good control even as his strikeout rate understandably fell. While he doesn't look like a long-term solution for anyone and belong on fantasy teams right now, Hooten merits a shot at AAA to see if he can maintain this level of effectiveness against tougher competition.
Oakland drafted Johnson in the 7th round of the 2001 draft out of the University of Nebraska, and despite aggressively promoting him, they've seen his contact rate rise from .74 to .80 and now an impressive .85 mark in his AA debut. With a steady .13 walk rate and two straight .500+ slugging percentages, Johnson only needs to echo these numbers at Sacramento to remain in line to displace Erubiel Durazo in 2005. The Athletics' surprising fascination with Scott Hatteberg might keep Graham Koonce and a couple other older minor leaguers from contributing in the majors, but Johnson owns as much overall offensive potential as anyone in the system and certainly deserves a shot in the majors. Spend a mid-round pick on him next spring, and you might find yourself with a $30 player by 2007.
Selected one year and two rounds later as fellow Nebraska product and now Midland teammate Dan Johnson, Komine struggled in the California League in 2002 before dominating in the Midwest League this year. His continued effectiveness in the Texas League strongly suggests he'll enjoy a productive big league career even if he stands only 5'9". Oakland's pitching depth keeps me from recommending him to fantasy owners at this time, but don't ignore him altogether since he could reach the majors in the second half of 2004.
I see little reason Kusiewicz couldn't emerge as a successful starter in the majors, so he definitely deserves a LOOGY opportunity in the near future. Unfortunately, since he hasn't even debuted in the majors yet despite several strong campaigns in the upper minors, he'll need a surprisingly strong showing in any opportunity he receives in order to secure even a bullpen spot, not to mention any fantasy consideration at all.
Unimpressive control likely will keep Lehr in the minors since Oakland possesses the flexibility to roster pitchers with more immediate upside on the Athletics. Of course, he certainly could succeed if given the opportunity, but I expect Lehr will need to change organizations before finding a significant bullpen role.
While he finally returned to Sacramento after four tours at Midland, Lockwood lacks the power to emerge as more than a part-time player in the majors. He isn't a viable fantasy pick and probably will remain at AAA about as long as he stayed in the AA Texas League.
Something apparently clicked for Mabeus last winter as he dominated two leagues upon finishing his conversion to the bullpen this year. He suddenly looks like one of the strongest closer prospects in the minors, and after a year at Sacramento, I expect him to emerge as a vital part of the Oakland pen. Assuming he doesn't regress after this breakout, he'll merit fantasy consideration almost as soon as he reaches the majors.
Despite decent plate discipline, Morrissey hasn't adjusted to AA offensively in two years and continues to experience severe defensive problems. He no longer ranks as a strong prospect and may struggle to see much time in the majors. I see no reason to either draft him or even retain him on a minor league roster at this point.
Prieto managed a .291/.398/.507 in 446 AAA at-bats, along with 19 HR, 25 SB, and a 67:79 BB:K, only two years ago, yet despite his quantitative problems over the last couple seasons, his continually solid plate discipline will keep him employed in the upper minors indefinitely. Hopefully he'll finally debut in the majors in the next few years as more teams look for solid OBP sources, but he obviously isn't a roto target at this time.
As Oakland appears to emphasize offensive development in the minors more than defensive skill, particularly in the last couple of draft classes, Rheinecker's high hit totals aren't an overt surprise. Of course, considering he posted a very solid hit rate in 20 AA starts a year ago, his overall progress in remaining an effective starter negates his skill ratio decrease in my mind. He now qualifies as perhaps the Athletics' most underrated pitching prospect, and only the starting pitching depth ahead of him keeps me from recommending Rheinecker in minor league drafts.
I don't know why Adam Melhuse received a promotion to Oakland over Rose, particularly considering the latter catcher is younger, owns betters power, and should possess a higher overall upside. However, if Melhuse struggles next year, Rose easily could emerge as a solid second catcher in AL-only leagues, so keep an eye on this situation.
If you're going to gamble on an Oakland minor league middle infielder, a category that no longer includes Crosby as he'll start in the majors next year, gamble on Rouse. Acquired in the Cory Lidle trade from Toronto last year, a healthy wrist enabled him to triple his double total while boosting his walk and contact rates. Expect his offensive development to continue as he replaces Crosby at shortstop in Sacramento in 2004, although he'll also play more at second base given the reasonable likelihood that Rouse will displace Mark Ellis the following season.
If Stanley can echo this performance at AAA Sacramento next year, he'll qualify as a solid AAAA player capable of contributing as a fifth outfielder, defensive replacement, and pinch-runner, thus giving him double-digit roto upside if any team gives him the necessary opportunity. I don't see him finding much playing time with Oakland given his almost complete lack of power, and he may not possess enough speed to truly contribute in the majors, but his plate discipline at least will keep him employed at AAA indefinitely. Former second round picks who maintain decent batting averages and own good defensive skills also generally receives more chances than other players, however Stanley also certainly isn't a viable fantasy choice right now.
One of the more promising pitching prospects in an impressive system, Wood possesses superior control and could develop into an ace if his dominance improves. He likely will enter spring training with good a chance to win a bullpen spot and possibly even a rotation job. I wouldn't target him in a minor league draft since Oakland's pitching depth makes any promotion uncertain, but if he breaks camp in the majors, he warrants consideration in the late rounds of your draft. While you shouldn't expect superlative numbers, he won't hurt you and could emerge as a valuable long-term property.
Yarnall failed to impress in a relatively comfortable situation after two years in Japan, and I'm no longer he'll succeed in the majors even if he converts to relief. Avoid him until you see some sign Yarnall can regain the effectiveness he once demonstrated in the Yankees' system.
An ever-increasing strikeout rate suggests Ziegler may peak as a AAAA starter or need to convert to the bullpen, yet his outstanding control indicates decent long-term upside. Don't draft him now in any league, but if he impresses at AAA, he'll merit fantasy consideration once he reaches the majors.
Nick Swisher, 22, OF-S
I'm not sure whether to list Swisher with potential reserve help after his 287 AA at-bats or leave him off the list entirely due to his .74 contact rate at AA, limited power, and non-existent speed, so I'll place him here and let you decide whether to gamble on him. That terrible AA OBP really worries me, as do warnings from nearly every scout and analyst that Swisher can't man center field. I also can't find a good comp for him among players near the majors; Bobby Kielty might be the closest match. Considering Kielty's rather low ceiling, Swisher may not match his pedigree as a 16th round pick and the son of a major leaguer. Yet his walk rate and overall production in the California League suggest an impressive offensive future. If Oakland left Swisher at Modesto all year, watching him watching him hit .296/.418/.550 in 450 AB with 35 2B, 25 HR, 108 RBI, 95 R, and a 103:123 BB:K, I believe he'd rank among the game's elite prospects. Unfortunately, his difficulties at Midland color our view, and since Swisher similarly struggled in his first couple months at Modesto last year, I'm still going to recommend him to fantasy owners; just don't spend a high pick on him given his questionable immediate future.
While I don't see a lot of long-term upside for many of the lower level prospects in the system, Oakland has more rookies ready to contribute in the next year or two than the vast majority of teams. Crosby, Koonce, Duchscherer, and German all deserve starting jobs now, and Dan Johnson, Joe Blanton, Jeremy Brown, and Mike Rouse should join them in 2005. If Oakland is willing to trust their youngsters rather than overpay players like Scott Hatteberg based only on their big league experience, the Athletics will establish a tremendous homegrown core, providing an excellent supporting cast to Eric Chavez and the aces currently in the rotation.
Current ranking of potentially helpful fantasy depth for teams discussed thus far in 2003, based on both the quality and quantity of players ready to contribute in the majors, as well as consideration of the trade value of minor league draft picks from the lower levels of each system:
1. Minnesota Twins(Restovich, Mauer, Crain, Balfour, Bartlett)
7:00(CDT): New York Yankees @ Florida
Florida's late-inning implosion last night places them in a very unenviable position today. While Carl Pavano saved the team in the NLCS, I fully believe that Roger Clemens needs to win his likely last start in the majors. The Marlins likely will require an outstanding performance from Penny tomorrow to take the Series back to New York.
1. Bobby Crosby, SS
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