Let’s kick off the season with a list of potential free agent players that I find interesting. I’m a firm believer that in any fantasy sport, the key to success is to be active in the free agent market early in the season. Seek out the players that show signs of long-term staying power and grab them before they become so hot that you have to fight off the other owners in your league in a bidding war. Then enjoy the fruits of their production in your starting lineup or deal them for other needs on your team. And if they don’t work out, dump them and look for the next up-and-comer. Never be satisfied with your entire roster, including the players way at the bottom. Also, never waste any roster space.
Early in the season is a prime time to take some chances on pitchers that may have slipped between the cracks on draft day. Keep an eye on “closers in waiting” and pounce when it looks like the player in front of them on the depth chart is faltering. Starting pitching is another area to keep watching. As teams get into their fourth and fifth starters, the aging veterans or young rookies start to get their feet wet. Make it a point to save 3-4 roster spots to take a chance on some starting pitchers that start out the season performing well.
We’ll start things off with pitching, as this is where I think some diamonds can emerge … a long list this week, but I think this is the most important position to look closely at this early in the season. Any comments and feedback regarding the content and/or future format, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kevin Correia, Pittsburgh
The Pirates’ opening day starter did not disappoint, allowing only two earned runs in six innings of work against the Chicago Cubs as he earned the win. The Pirates are very young at every position, including a feisty bunch on offense that can produce runs. Look for Correia to continue to excel as Pittsburgh posts some surprising fantasy numbers to support him.
Jeff Francis, Kansas City
After an injury plagued 2010 campaign, Francis kicked off 2011 by bottling up the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in recording his first win of the season. The Royals aren’t going to give him a lot of run support, but if the lefty can hold teams like he did in his opening start, then he’s worth a fantasy roster spot.
Chris Tillman, Baltimore
No, he’s not going to hold teams hitless in every start, but the youngster has a tremendous amount of talent that was on display as he held the Tampa Bay Rays at bay in his opening start. The Orioles have a young pitching staff, so Tillman is going to get plenty of opportunity to prove that he belongs in the major leagues. He’s worth a roster spot while you keep an eye on his next couple of starts.
Justin Masterson, Cleveland
After moving from Boston to Cleveland, Masterson did not perform well in 2010, disappointing many fantasy owners that had high hopes for him. With the fantasy “scorn” still fresh in many owners’ minds, Masterson submitted a stellar performance in his opening start of the season, holding the Chicago White Sox to a single run as he picked up the first win for the Indians this season. He certainly has the skills to be a solid major league player and fantasy contributor, so keep an eye on his next start and react accordingly. I’ve already made room for him on my roster.
The Nationals’ opening day starter did not disappoint against the Atlanta Braves, posting respectable numbers but not getting enough help to get a victory. That is going to be a repeat story this season. Hernandez will pitch a lot of innings, he won’t give up a ton of runs or hits, but he also won’t get a lot of offensive help so his win totals will be down. Innings guys have a lot of value so don’t be afraid to use a roster spot for the Washington ace.
Matt Harrison, Texas
An impressive debut against the Boston Red Sox lands him on the watch list this week. As was evidenced by the multiple long balls, the Rangers are going to score a ton of runs this year, and as a result, their starters will have the luxury of not having to be perfect to grab a win. He’s solidly entrenched as the Rangers’ third starter, so he will be getting the ball on a regular basis.
Brandon McCarthy, Oakland
Once a prized prospect for the Chicago White Sox, McCarthy has a second chance in Oakland this year. Currently listed as their fourth starter, McCarthy pitched well enough in spring training to earn the trust of management. Sometimes it takes a change of scenery for a pitcher to flourish, so keep an eye on McCarthy’s early starts this year.
John Lannan, Washington
The Nationals’ No. 2 starter is also not likely to post a bunch of wins in 2011, though he did get off on the right foot in his opening start. A solid effort, scattering a handful of hits against the Atlanta Braves while lasting long enough to get the first win of the season for Washington. Despite a disappointing overall 2010, he closed the season with some strong performances, so keep an eye on Lannan as he could be another innings/low earned run average/ walks plus hits per inning pitched players for your team.
Freddy Garcia/Bartolo Colon, New York
As of press time, the Yankees had tabbed Ivan Nova as their fourth starter and Garcia as their fifth. Most have speculated that this was because of the three, Colon was a better fit to come out of the bullpen. The Yankees, like the Texas Rangers, are going to win their share of games, so whoever the starter(s) end up being are going to have some fantasy value. My guess is that both Colon and Garcia end up as regulars at the end of the Yankees rotation, so if you have room to stash Colon until that happens, then do so.
Jordan Walden, Los Angeles
With multiple implosions already under his belt this short season, the Los Angeles Angels were forced to move Fernando Rodney out of the closer’s role. Though the move is being reported as “temporary,” Walden has the skills to take the job and run with it. If nothing else, his short-term value as a closer is extremely high, so he should be one of the top free agents acquired if available.
Kyle Farnsworth, Tampa Bay
Joe Maddon isn’t tipping his hand, and with plenty of options to choose from, it’s a total crapshoot in the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen. My money is on Farnsworth, but even if he doesn’t assume the ninth inning role, he should get plenty of opportunity to see game action in the seventh and/or eighth innings.
David Hernandez, Arizona
He sits behind J.J. Putz as the eighth inning guy for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He can top 95 mph on the gun, and I don’t have a ton of confidence that Putz can handle the closer duties all season. At minimum, Hernandez will see plenty of action in the eighth inning, but he’s got plenty of upside as a “closer in waiting.”
Sean Marshall, Chicago
I don’t have a lot of confidence in Carlos Marmol to hold onto the closer’s role for Chicago all season. Marshall got a little taste with Marmol getting a night off, and though he struggled a bit, that is a sign that the Cubs aren’t afraid to go to him should Marmol falter. Keep an eye on this “closer in waiting.”
It’s impossible on draft day to be stacked at every position. There is always at least one offensive position that is a little weak, so don’t forget about the position players early in the season. Also of note, keep an eye on players that may not yet be position eligible for another key position. If you can grab a guy that is going to eventually qualify for middle infield, or catcher and can hit for power, that’s a valuable asset.
2B/OF Bill Hall, Houston
Hall is a guy that went undrafted in many leagues, but I love the potential here. The Boston Red Sox didn’t want to give him up, but they could not keep him, and that is Houston’s gain. He likely qualifies at both second base and outfield, with second base being his real value because Hall is a guy that has the potential to belt 20 home runs. He’s playing every day for the first time in three seasons, so look for him to post solid fantasy numbers at a position that does not have many power threats.
3B/2B Jose Lopez, Colorado
Lopez probably only qualifies at third base right now, but he’s playing second base for the Colorado Rockies so he should soon qualify there as well. Third base is an extremely thin position this year, and as discussed above, second base does not have many options for power. Like Hall, Lopez has 20 home run potential so if he’s available in your league, find room for him.
1B Mark Trumbo, Los Angeles
The Los Angeles Angels have a tremendous amount of confidence in the youngster, and fantasy owners should be salivating at the potential for power production. He’s going to get a ton of playing time between first base and designated hitter. The only question is getting some major league timing. After a tremendous spring training, I have confidence that he will become an above average fantasy contributor by midseason.
3B Kevin Kouzmanoff, Oakland
Perhaps the Oakland management should have tried to trade him earlier, as he’s been on an absolute tear all spring training and into the start of the regular season. With the third base position being so thin, Kouzmanoff isn’t a bad option to have on your bench to cover for your starter if needed.
DH Hideki Matsui, Oakland
Many leagues saw Matsui as an available free agent at the end of draft day, and that’s justified given the poor spring training he had. Look for the wily veteran to find his way and start contributing on his new team. He won’t be putting up the power numbers that he once had in New York, but look for solid contributions in all categories by midseason, worth stashing at the bottom of your roster.
DH/C Jake Fox, Baltimore
We’re reaching a little deep here, but catching can be extremely thin, especially in those leagues were there are two required to be in the starting lineup. He barely made the opening day roster, but given what’s in front of him in Baltimore, I can see him getting some playing time and eventually qualifying as a catcher by midseason. Yes, that’s a long way off, but for those deeper leagues, he’s worth a flier.
C Hank Conger, Los Angeles
Another reach here, but for deep and dynasty leagues, Conger is worth a roster spot. The Los Angeles Angels kept him on the opening day roster, so they clearly have confidence in the rookie. Any potential offensive production is way off, at least to midseason, but at a thin position, his future is very bright.