Fantasy managers know that championships aren't won in the draft alone. They're won through endless hours of spanning the sports Web pages - team Web sites, injury lists, and of course, KFFL.com - as fantasy owners risk their job security while trying to find out which closer or platoon player is losing his.
Which outfielder will win a platoon battle? Which rookie utility player has a shot at stealing a job from an established veteran? Which catcher is losing time because he can't call a game with a young staff? These are only a handful of tangible and intangible mini chess games that take place during the marathon season.
And as the players bring their bottles of SPF-15 to Arizona and California, owners need to start paying attention to these Hot Spots, as they can provide some sizzle for the fantasy owner looking to snag some productivity in the lower rounds or on the wire. Here are some players whose new conditions can help their fantasy stat line in 2007.
Josh Barfield, 2B, Cleveland Indians
Hot Spot: Multitalented infielder moves to better lineup and could jump to the top of it
Analysis: Jesse's son is certainly excited to grab some offensive support, going from PETCO purgatory to Jacobs Field. With the Padres, Barfield was forced to team with Brian Giles - and sometimes Mike Piazza - to relieve some pressure from their pitching staff.
Oh, how Barfield's grass just gained some chlorophyll. He joins a young powerful
core that includes outfielder Grady Sizemore, designated hitter Travis Hafner
and third baseman Andy Marte. He's expected to hit near the bottom of the lineup,
but he could still drive in runs with the heart of the order in front of him.
In a poor man's mold of Sizemore, Barfield is a balance of power and speed and
doesn't have to wait around for the heart of the order to create runs.
Barfield had a stretch of 5-for-33 in 10 games near the end of last season, as his lack of offensive support wore him down. He's already a double threat, with 21 stolen bases to match his otherwise impressive 2006 line (.280, 13 HR and 32 doubles). It's hard not to think that in 2007 he could mimic his father's 1985 season: 27 HR, 84 RBI, 22 SB. Anyone who can affect that many categories at second base will be a valuable high mid-round pick.
Edwin Encarnacion, 3B, Cincinnati Reds
Hot Spot: Breakout candidate expected to bat cleanup
Analysis: Any time a young hitter approaches cleanup status, fantasy owners start drooling. Encarnacion showed signs of his emergence last season, netting 24 RBI in both April and August. With Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn hitting around him, Encarnacion could see some freebie pitches. After trailing off his hot start and missing time with injury, Encarnacion slugged seven homers in August. His 33 doubles in his 117 games prove that he is developing gap power, which will obviously help in the cavernous Great American Ball Park.
Consider Encarnacion, who turned 24 in January, ready to make a leap into 30-homer, 90-plus RBI territory.
There are several indications that he will already be able to carry a heavy portion of the load. As opposed to his .248 average against lefties, he hit 39 points higher (.287) against righties last year. And despite seeing a dip in average and slugging percentage away from Great American Ball Park, he knocked in 10 more runs on the road than at home. He still has time to improve against lefties, and he can already produce more runs away from one of the top three hitters' parks.
Any cleanup-hitting third baseman can allow owners to search for other less outstanding yet consistent players at other positions. With the powerful protection around him, he can settle into his new role with ease. Consider him to go as high as the fifth round.
Julio Lugo, SS, Boston Red Sox
Hot Spot: Base-stealing threat expected to lead off for high-scoring team
Analysis: The Sox finally got their mainstay at shortstop, and luckily his name isn't Edgar Renteria. The Sox coveted Lugo this offseason to lead off, despite the success of Kevin Youkilis. Lugo will have David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and J.D. Drew (all drove in 100 runs last year) to bring him around.
Lugo was pushed out of Tampa Bay for up-and-comers, and refused arbitration with the Dodgers. Lugo's power that produced 12 homers in 73 games for Tampa failed to translate to LA: his on-base percentage at Chavez was a whopping .278, and he failed to hit a long ball the rest of his season.
Nonetheless, Lugo has averaged 20 stolen bases the past three seasons, and has a .330 career batting average at Fenway Park. The Red Sox don't gear their game plan towards running, but having Lugo as a legitimate threat opens up their offense. He will be able to cut loose on the paths, and he could create some opposing defensive holes in the David Ortiz Shift. And his penchant for doubles won't be deterred by the Wall.
Lugo would have been a borderline pick as a Dodger, but as a Red Sox hitter, he will make some noise this year. His familiarity with the AL East will help in his transition, making him a pick for as high as round 13.
Darin Erstad, OF, Chicago White Sox
Hot Spot: Explosive offense gains experienced centerfielder
Analysis: Erstad joins another former World Series champion after being shoved aside in the Los Angeles Angels' crowded outfield and infield prospect logjams.
Erstad came into a pile-up in Chicago that was temporarily cleared. Starting centerfielder Scott Podsednik will be out six to eight weeks after undergoing groin surgery, and the White Sox signed Erstad to slide him into Podsednik's place. He will alternate with second baseman Tadahito Iguchi in the top two spots in the order.
This bodes well for Erstad, a seasoned contact hitter who only made 95 plate appearances in 40 games last season due to recurring ankle and heel problems. After playing for the Angels for 10 years, his inability to play paved the way for the entrance of young talent including Howie Kendrick and Robb Quinlan.
But Erstad can get a second chance here, as he will be called upon to hold down the fort in the South Side. While Podsednik's absence will deprive the White Sox of a solid base runner and run-scorer, Erstad is a more well-rounded hitter who can occasionally spring for power. He will also steal some of Podsednik's runs. Erstad will turn 33 this season, and his ability to play every outfield position will benefit White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who will plug him in wherever necessary.
Erstad will also help fantasy owners with roster flexibility in the lower middle rounds. And depending on Podsednik's rehab, Erstad could keep his playing time if he gets off to a hot start.
Chris Burke, OF, Houston Astros
Hot Spot: Skilled youngster expected to play every day and bat second
Analysis: Burke has been jumping at the bit for playing time since he hit the game-winning blast against Atlanta in Game 5 of the 2005 National League Divisional Series. Now, he has received the starting centerfield job after the Astros traded Willy Taveras to Colorado.
This has all the makings of a fine season for Burke: batting second in front of free agent newcomer outfielder Carlos Lee and the studly Lance Berkman, in a hitter's park, with an ability to play both outfield and second base.
Burke might have to fight off Jason Lane, but a statistical comparison gives Burke the edge. Even with 15 homers, Lane's .204 average won't fly when Phil Garner has an all-around productive and consistent hitter behind him in Burke. Taveras was holding Burke back on pure athleticism alone, with his ability to run the bases his main reason for entering into games. But Burke gives you baserunning ability combined with an ability to create his own offense. And of course, having the complete package is better for the big club.
After having successful surgery to tighten his left shoulder capsule, there are no reports of setbacks in his recovery. Burke could hit the 20-20 plateau with 500 at-bats. And while Burke is not a name that should be in lights, owners should certainly have him on their radar, and look for him in the lower middle rounds as a possible sleeper for runs and RBI.
Magglio Ordonez, OF, Detroit Tigers
Hot Spot: Lone slugger joined by designated hitter Gary Sheffield
Analysis: Mags and catcher Ivan Rodriguez were the only veterans on a young Tigers team that whiffed its way out of the World Series. Now with the (insert synonym for loud-mouthed here) Sheffield entrenched, Ordonez will finally get some lineup protection.
Several young cubs had breakout seasons while also having growing pains. Curtis Granderson (174 K, .335 OBP) Brandon Inge (128 K, .313 OBP) Craig Monroe (126 K, .301) and Chris Shelton stole some run production from their elders as they struggled to lay off the high ones, and the low ones, and those pitches that change trajectory.
Sheffield gives the Tigers another established slugger and a potent offensive weapon for the heart of the order. While he will be making third base coach Gene Lamont cower in fear with each at-bat, Ordonez will be giddy with each plate appearance knowing that he has a partner in crime.
In the six seasons in his career when Ordonez played over 150 games, he has averaged around 31 home runs and 116 RBI. Without Sheffield, Ordonez was a top-15 outfielder. With the projection of some of the quickest wrists of the last decade, he will be worth considering as high as the fifth or sixth round.
Willy Taveras, OF, Colorado Rockies
Hot Spot: Team finds a speedy, everyday centerfielder and leadoff hitter
Analysis: The man that kept Chris Burke out of the starting lineup, Taveras consistently frustrated fantasy owners last season with sporadic bursts of stats, then periods of inactivity. Now, Taveras will have a chance to start in the Rocky Mountain outfield.
The Rockies have been missing an up-tempo leadoff hitter. Taveras will be fighting for the third outfield spot, but early indication says he has the inside track. He will be setting the table for Todd Helton and Matt Holliday if and when he cracks the starting lineup.
Taveras is a tempting option, and could trick some trigger-happy fantasy owners looking for a bonus to his stolen base totals. He played 149 games last season, and scored 83 runs while setting the table for Lance Berkman, Morgan Ensberg and the like. He struck out 15 less times while gaining nine walks. He has stolen 34 and 33 bases respectively the past two seasons.
But Taveras still falls short of "I need to pounce on this opportunity" status. His career OPS is a famished .669, and that was in the Minute Maid offensive banquet.
The main thing going for Taveras is his ability to threaten the base paths. He should near 100 runs, but he shouldn't be considered any higher than the middle rounds.
Moises Alou, OF, New York Mets
Hot Spot: Aging batsman joins prolific lineup
Analysis: The Mets replaced the aging Cliff Floyd with the perpetually aging (or ageless) Alou, who will serve as an expensive, but productive stopgap until Lastings Milledge earns his orange and blue stripes. Mets general manager Omar Minaya snagged Alou with a one-year, $8.5 million deal.
Fantasy owners know the deal with Alou: his name scares owners to the core even as they draft him, then they become surprised with his power tears…then he breaks, snaps, rips or obliterates some part of his body to leave his owners high and dry. But the Mets know a thing or two about working with productive super-veterans. If Julio Franco can still be considered a factor at 48, then the consistent Alou is certainly able to carry his load when he turns 41 in July.
Despite Alou's wear and tear from injuries the past two seasons (he only played 98 games last season and 123 games in 2005), he has hit at least 19 homers in the past three campaigns - including 22 in 345 at-bats last season. The pop is still there, and if the law of averages actually pans out, another hot start this year can be a shot in the arm - or maybe in Alou's case, a puddle on the hand.
Alou has had to carry teams in the past, but this time he will offer an offensive bonus without the pressure on his shoulders. In the background of this stacked offense, Alou can give you at least 15 home runs and 80 RBI.
Ryan Freel, OF, Cincinnati Reds
Hot Spot: Career super-sub in line for everyday job in outfield
Analysis: Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena were blocking Freel's way into the starting lineup in the past two seasons. Now both have been traded, and Freel can finally have a chance to fully benefit the fantasy owners that have added and dropped him at least three times in the same season.
He has had stolen base totals of 37, 36, and 37 the past three seasons respectively. As a full-time player, Freel would be a large threat on the base paths if he runs his way into the lineup card. His average could increase several points since pitchers won't want to pitch to the order behind him. Even in 432 at-bats, his 27 RBI weren't helpful. There has been talk of Ken Griffey Jr. moving to right field, which would further help Freel's cause by allowing him to stay in center where he would be most useful defensively.
Freel won't instantly whip homers and RBI out of his fleet-footed bag, but he could be a consistent run producer to complement his base thievery. Even with his newfound playing time, Freel still isn't worth drafting higher than the 15th round. Just as in how he won the starting outfield job, his speed is his main draw.
Greg Maddux, SP, San Diego Padres
Hot Spot: Hall of Fame starter moves to pitcher-friendly stadium
Analysis: Maddux is the latest in the round of future Hall-of-Famers who refuse to retire. After being left for dead in Chicago, Maddux resurrected his precision pitching with the playoff-bound Dodgers. He proved that he was far from irrelevant; after the All-Star break, he went 8-5 with a 3.88 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and a stellar .257 BAA.
Maddux will have a chance to extend his 19-season streak of 100-plus strikeouts in the mother of all pitchers' parks. PETCO certainly will be a welcome sight, as fellow hitter's bane Chavez Revine set the stage for his remarkable turnaround last season. Maddux is still a gritty pitcher, that works himself in and out of jams to make up for his slightly declining arsenal. His location is still precise even if his velocity has tanked.
His loss total was hindered by the offensively challenged Cubs, and that's a challenge he'll have to handle tenfold in San Diego. But the Bulldog is still worth considering in the middle rounds, as despite his age, he can be counted on to pitch smart games. Intelligent hurlers can especially succeed in San Diego, and having someone like Maddux as a number four or five fantasy starter could lead to bonus numbers for owners.
Horacio Ramirez, SP, Seattle Mariners
Hot Spot: Talented-but-injury-prone starter moving to very pitcher-friendly park
Analysis: Acquired from the Braves for reliever Rafael Soriano, Ramirez started only 14 games last season due to a strained hamstring in April and a sprained middle finger on his pitching hand that shut down his season in August. The lefty has been considered a breakout candidate since his 12-4 campaign in 2003, and failed to fully live up to the promise, with three seasons of over a 4.00 ERA.
In his only two full seasons, he has given up 21 and 31 home runs. The Mariners will hope Ramirez lives up to his promise, since they gave up a potential lights-out reliever in Soriano to get him. His entry into Safeco Field could help his transition, though he will be expected to help carry the load. In a rotation that includes "King" Felix Hernandez, 2006 playoffs hero Jeff Weaver and Miguel Batista, Ramirez won't be the ace, but he will be integral, especially given the inconsistency of the latter two starters.
In a healthy season, a minimum for Ramirez would be 11 wins with a 4.50 ERA. Keep a watch on him for the later rounds to steal some numbers. With a solidified closer in J.J. Putz, Ramirez could even receive four more wins than expected.
Ramon Ortiz, SP, Minnesota Twins
Hot Spot: Veteran at the back of the rotation for a winning team
Analysis: The Twins were desperate for another starter after Francisco Liriano's left arm checked out for the season, and Ramon Ortiz - well, he was available. In a meandering career, Ortiz's stock has resembled a rapid heartbeat. His six years with the Angels were filled with Ervin Santana-like hype, then he flopped with the Reds and Nationals.
Now, Ortiz is projected as high as the number three spot in the rotation, with inconsistent Carlos Silva and the new starter Glen Perkins behind him.
Ortiz has given up at least 31 dingers the past two seasons, and he doesn't have the electric stuff he showcased in his six seasons with the Angels. Even with his prime, he gave up 40 homers in 2002.
Ortiz produced three straight seasons of at least 13 wins in Los Angeles (then Anaheim), so he has proven that he can produce if he plays for a contender - the Twins are most certainly a contending team. Ortiz is well past his prime, but can still provide a decent option for the bottom of a fantasy staff when drafted in the late rounds. Pitching in front of another solid closer in Joe Nathan will bolster his chances for a win, especially now that he has an offense backing him up.
James Shields, SP, Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Hot Spot: Back-of-the-rotation starter who was impressive last season
Analysis: While projected ace Scott Kazmir made the headlines in Tampa Bay last season, another young pitcher showed potential to develop into a quality mid-range starter. Shields jumped out of the gate after getting called up in May by winning his first four decisions.
His competition, however, adjusted soon after, and Shields lost six straight, only lasting five innings in three of those starts. It really was a Tale of Two Shields: His win streak produced 25 IP, and he averaged 5.5 strikeouts a game. His skid produced several outings of seven-plus earned runs.
Shields relied heavily on his changeup, and struggled against right-handed hitters. His inability to sustain outings longer than five innings during his skid hurt his chances of scoring decisions in his favor.
Shields has been projected as the No. 3 starter on the young staff. With a young offense on the rise, Shields can rely on his hitters a little more while taking some chances in developing his pitching. He's not worthy of being considered for a breakout season in the likeness of Kazmir 2006, but Shields could certainly give you 13 wins if he matures in his command this year. There's nothing wrong with giving Shields a look in the low middle rounds to give yourself some pitching depth.
John Smoltz, SP, Atlanta Braves
Hot Spot: Team's bullpen has vastly improved
Analysis: Smoltz will turn 40 in May, and has a chance for his third straight season of at least 14 victories. Smoltz knows how to limit his mistakes; he hasn't let up more hits than innings pitched since his rookie season in 1988. The borderline future Hall-of-Famer returned to the rotation two seasons ago, and didn't miss a step. He will try to improve on his 16 wins last season.
But last season, Smoltz wished he could've been his own closer. The Braves' bullpen hung him out to dry by blowing save opportunities in six of Smoltz's starts. If not for his three complete games, Smoltz would've compiled his lowest single-season win total since 1999.
Now the Braves have two seasoned late-inning relievers: veteran closer Bob Wickman (33 saves in 2006); newly acquired Rafael Soriano; and former Pirates closer Mike Gonzalez (24 saves in 2006). Add in returning relief-win specialist Oscar Villarreal and veteran Tanyon Sturtze, and Smoltz has some extra security behind him.
The potential for those extra five wins gives Smoltz considerate value for the sixth round. With Smoltz, you know what you get every season. And with his reloaded pen, you'll get a few extra wins.
Brian Wilson, RP, San Francisco Giants
Hot Spot: Closer Armando Benitez may be finished physically
Analysis: The Giants' closer situation has plagued fantasy owners since the days of Robb Nen. For the past two seasons, the likes of Matt Herges and Tyler Walker gave managers false hope in acquiring saves while Dustin Hermanson and Tim Worrell were saviors in the short run a few years back. New manager Bruce Bochy was used to having Trevor Hoffman back in San Diego, and he will surely keep Benitez on a short leash with his health and consistency issues.
The Beach Boy now has a chance to assume the closer spot. Wilson had an underwhelming 2006, with an ugly K/BB ratio of 21/21. It's his impressive offseason in the Puerto Rican Winter League that makes the Giants feel that he can take over if Benitez runs out of gas: Wilson has put up 15 strikeouts and a .135 batting average against in his first 10 2/3 innings. Scouts love his fastball, and the Giants hope he can add to his only career save, which he earned the night after suffering his first career blown save.
All competent fantasy owners must look out for potential new sources for saves,
and this might be the best chance for a closer change to happen during the season.
Benitez has been anything but healthy for a long time now, and if Wilson shows
some promise, the Giants will most likely pull the trigger.
Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum competes in Tout Wars and LABR and has won several industry leagues in both baseball and football.
During baseball and football season, hear him every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore. On Thursdays, he visits 106.1 FM WMTI in New Orleans and Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, where he often crashes other shows, as well.