We've survived the Ides of March and, although your draft and auction season is probably just beginning, mine is already wrapping up. Most blogger and fantasy analyst leagues and mocks happen well in advance of the season, so that there is a chance for commentary. As such, I've already done 8 drafts/auction in a variety of different formats and I'm beginning to feel like I've got a pretty good sense of the trends this March and some of the questions you need to ask yourself during your draft prep, like...
What can you expect from Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist?
Last season the Rays finished fifth in the American League in scoring. All the teams who finished ahead of them went to the playoffs. They had been the top scoring franchise at the All-Star Break. And yet, the Rays got very little from B. J. Upton, Dioner Navarro, and Pat Burrell. They lost Akinori Iwamura for the year. They lost Carlos Pena for all of the September. Where was all this production coming from? The obvious answers are Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford, but the big surprise in 2009 was how much the Rays depended on Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist...on both sides of the ball.
Until last year, Bartlett was viewed primarily as a defender. In both '07 and '08 he finished third among AL shortstops in UZR, but it both seasons his OPS was under 700. He was the classic "slick-field, no-hit" shortstop. But in 2009, his batting average jumped to .320, 44 points above his career average up to that point. His OPS jumped almost 200 points, to 879, as he hit more home runs in one season (14) than he had in 1700 previous major-league plate appearances (11). Thanks to a spike in OBP he was able to cash in more often on his speed and swiped 30 bases for the first time in his career and scored 90 runs. By the end of '09 Bartlett had set career highs in every statistical category and had gone to his first All-Star Game.
As 2010 begins, he is among the most coveted shortstops in fantasy baseball, especially in AL-only leagues. In many drafts he is the second player taken at his position, behind Derek Jeter. If you want Bartlett in an auction league, you'd better be prepared to pay $18-$20.
Unfortunately, there is almost no way that Bartlett will live up to that price. His BABIP in 2009 was almost 40 points above his career norm, which accounts entirely for his tremendously high average. Every projection I've seen has him settling back into the .280-.290 range. This, of course, is likely to effect his run, RBI, and stolen base totals. However, Bartlett did hit for a high average in the minor leagues, so I could see him once again breaking .300, though not by much.
There is even less reason to believe that the power is legit. Bartlett hit a grand total of nine homers in three seasons at AAA. His '09 slugging percentage was 20 points higher than his previous career high...at any level.
I isn't reasonable expect more from Bartlett in 2010 than .295 AVG, 80 R, 8 HR, 55 RBI, and 25 SB. Even those numbers might be slightly optimistic. Clearly, he's still worth owning, especially in AL-only play, where good shortstops are particularly scarce, but I'd let Bartlett fall behind Alexei Ramirez, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Miguel Tejada on my draft board and in an auction league I would prefer to $5-$8 on the potential of J. J. Hardy or Erick Aybar, than $15-$20 on Jason Bartlett.
Zobrist's case is very different. Although his 27 HR and 91 RBI seemed to come from out of nowhere, Zobrist has always been a very good hitter. His problem has been getting enough at-bats to put his talents on display. Whether because he was dogged by minor injuries or because he drew the short stick on the Rays depth chart, Zobrist hadn't gotten a full season worth of plate appearances at any level since 2006. The Rays brass bounced him all over the organization and the diamond the last three years, as he logged innings at every position besides pitcher and catcher. Nevertheless, he always posted solid averages (.316 in 364 minor-league games) and exceptional OBP (.429) and BB/K (1.29). There was evidence of developing power as well, although his .543 SLG in '09 may be a bit on the high side.
Settled into second base and getting everyday at-bats, I expect Zobrist could actually build on his '09 campaign, at least in three categories. I don't expect more than 25 HR and 15 SB (Zobrist has never run at a particularly high rate of success), but 100+ R and 100+ RBI are very realistic if the Rays continue to bat him fifth and I think his average will climb above .300. On my board he ranks just below the top tier of second baseman (Utley, Pedroia, Phillips, Cano, Kinsler) and I'd be willing to pursue him up to and perhaps slightly above $20, depending on the league.