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Thursday, August 09, 2007

2007 Kisses and Curses - Part 1

One is tempted to wax poetic about the expectation with which every season begins. Players from the Diamondbacks to the Devil Rays pronounce, assuredly, their intentions for October. For some, undoubtedly, it is just another in the long string of cliches which comprise their dialogue with the media throughout the season. For many, however, these enthusiastic predictions are sincere, often among the only sincere statements they prove capable of. Similarly, as fans, and fantasy-junkies especially, we begin each season with pronouncements and predictions. Sleepers and keepers; steals and busts and locks; overrated and underrated; can't-miss prospects and falling stars. If we have the guts, around this time of year, in mid-August, we must size ourselves up. Sometimes we resemble the White Sox, the Giants, and the Athletics. All that spring training effusion was just so much hot air. Other times we are like Detroit, Cleveland, and Anaheim, right where we expected to be. And then, on those rare occasions, as with the Diamondbacks and the Mariners, there we are, but we're not exactly sure how it happened. This edition of The Sporting Hippeaux isn't about teams, it's about players. We've got those that have lived up to - no - exceeded our expectations: the Kisses. And those that have failed them: the Curses. We all know, regardless of spring platitudes, every year is a little of both.

Ryan Braun - 3B - Milwaukee Brewers (Kiss)

Ironically, since recalling the mighty Braun from Triple A on May 25, the Brewers are 29-39. That is, after starting the season 31-15. Nonetheless, Braun is not only the best rookie of 2007, he has been arguably the best hitter in the league ever since he joined it. Check this out. These are stats for some of the MVP front-runners since May 25:

Alex Rodriguez (991 OPS, .292 AVG, 18 HR, 63 R, 66 RBI, 9 SB)
Magglio Ordonez (897 OPS, .344 AVG, 6 HR, 42 R, 49 RBI, 2 SB)
Vladimir Guerrero (908 OPS, .325 AVG, 8 HR, 39 R, 52 RBI, 1 SB)

Prince Fielder (1009 OPS, .287 AVG, 20 HR, 47 R, 50 RBI, 0 SB)
Miguel Cabrera (1091 OPS, .350 AVG, 20 HR, 41 R, 49 RBI, 0 SB)
Ryan Howard (1070 OPS, .296 AVG, 26 HR, 52 R, 70 RBI, 0 SB)

Ryan Braun (1060 OPS, .349 AVG, 21 HR, 53 R, 55 RBI, 10 SB)

Besides telling you that the rumors of Miggy's weight problems and Ryan Howard's regression might have been a bit exaggerated, the numbers suggest that Braun was, like Pujols and Ichiro before him, an MVP candidate from the moment he stepped on the field.

Alex Gordon - 3B - Kansas City Royals (Curse)

It was not Braun, but Gordon, who got all the rookie hype going into the 2007 season. He was coming off a stellar performance at the 2006 Futures Game and, unlike Braun, he was given a starting role on opening day. Unfortunately, Gordon has followed in the footsteps of many preseason rookie-of-the-year favorites. Of the thirteen rookies with 250 plate appearances, he is 11th in AVG and OPS, 12th in SLG, 7th in HR, and 8th in RBI, despite having the 4th most at-bats. Despairing fantasy owners should remember in this case especially, this year's curse is next year's kiss.

Eric Byrnes - OF - Arizona Diamondbacks (Kiss)

...and vice versa. It's almost impossible not to root for Eric Byrnes. He shamelessly flirts with Fox anchor, Jeanne Zelasko, and employs the word "Dude" in every potential grammatical situation. And this season, for the first time, he is outplaying nearly every outfielder in the National League. He shouldn't have been reporting from McCovey Cove during the all-star game, he should've been starting in center field. But beware. Byrnes is the prototypical sell-high player. He's never shown skills like this before, he's over thirty, and despite his big contract, he's going to have lots of competition for playing time in the Arizona outfield in the next couple seasons. I hope he, like Gary Matthews Jr., is just a late-bloomer. His personality certainly suggests as much. Don't go putting $30 Million on it. Oops.

Nick Swisher - OF - Oakland Athletics (Curse)

In my 12-team Salary Cap Keeper league draft this April, Nick Swisher was the #1 pick. Spurred no doubt by accounts of his down-on-the-farm winter workout and his 35 HR/95 RBI performance in '06, this owner drafted Swisher ahead of guys like Dice-K, Prince Fielder, Sheffield, Helton, Francoeur, Sheets, and Robinson Cano. To be fair, had he fallen to me, I would've picked him ahead of all but Prince, Sheff, and Cano. When the season began it looked like a fair choice. In April and May Swisher accumulated 9 HR and 32 RBI, with a respectable average. Unfortunately, he has added only 5 HR and 23 RBI in the interceding months, while hovering around the Mendoza line. The one promising sign is that Swisher has cut back on his strikeouts (a discouraging 152 in '06), while continuing to improve his plate discipline. His OBP remains outstanding (.392) even during his power shortage. Many critics will suggest that the much-heralded Swisher has settled into the league as Adam Dunn Lite, but next year he will be 27, that magical number for baseball players, and there is still a fair amount to get excited about.

Erik Bedard - SP - Baltimore Orioles (Kiss)

Bedard is striking out hitters at an obscene rate. At this pace he will easily surpass the 250 K plateau, which hasn't been done since 2004, and could reach Big Unit-levels (he's currently on pace for about 275). During his current 8-game winning streak he has 80 K in 60 IP, with a 2.24 ERA and a .167 Batting Average Against. Whether it is the tutelage of Leo Mazzone or thet magic 27, Bedard has officially arrived as one of the few true Aces in the major leagues, alongside guys like Santana, Halladay, Zambrano, and Oswalt.

Dontrelle Willis - SP - Florida Marlins (Curse)

Of course, pitchers are more susceptible to chance and whimsy than any other set of players. The list of supposed aces who've had catastrophic seasons in '07 includes Cris Carpenter, Rich Harden, Kenny Rogers, Jose Contreras, Randy Johnson, Ervin Santana, Freddy Garcia, A. J. Burnett, and Barry Zito. These ten pitchers will make a combined $76 Million in 2007, but so far have accumulated a record of 40-66. Granted, many of them have spent significant stretches on the DL, which is why Willis seems to most fit the moniker "curse." The former Cy Young runner-up has not won a game since the end of May. He's dropped nine straight decisions. His ERA is a full run higher than in any of his previous four seasons. He's on pace to walk the most batters in his career, while striking out the least. Because of age and histories of injury or inconsistency, we could have probably foreseen the potential struggles of all these pitchers save Santana, Carpenter, and - especially - Willis.

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