Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Burning Up the Bases written for Sportsblurb.com

posted by Jon Williams

Burning Up the Bases

By Jon Williams

08/07/06

Every fantasy baseball owner has a need for speed. Baseball’s base stealers have always been a precious commodity, and they have grown even more precious with the proliferation of the so-called Moneyball mindset. I do think we’re about to see a return to a more exciting brand of baseball. The vast majority of baseball teams – especially the bad ones – seem to annually attempt to mimic the characteristics of the best teams. This year, one of the better teams is without a doubt the New York Mets. And the Mets, as you may know or can guess by my clever lead in, use the stolen base as a key part of their offense.

What you as a fantasy owner must do is spot the stolen base talent being underutilized by teams that might use a similar style of offense in 2007. This week, I’m going to give you the key players on the three teams I can see giving the stolen base a bigger part in their game plans next year. Am I a great guy or what?

A little less running into walls and a little more running on the basepaths would do wonders for Aaron Rowand's fantasy owners...

Philadelphia Phillies

1) Aaron Rowand

2) Michael Bourne

3) Shane Victorino

He has not shown it this season, but Aaron Rowand can steal bases. He is not a blazing fast, Carl Crawford-type, but he has displayed the ability to take bases at a good percentage. The Phillies are almost guaranteed to have a new manager in 2007, and whoever is running the show next year would be wise to use some of the speed he will have on his roster, as well as utilize the base-stealing ability of almost everyone on the projected 2007 Major League roster. If that turns out to indeed be the case, Rowand could easily be a 20/20 guy in 2007.

Michael Bourn is the next home grown Philadelphia star. At the University of Houston, Bourn honed his ability to hit for average, get on base, and steal bases. As the 2003 fourth round pick of the Phillies little has changed. With Bobby Abreu traded to the Yankees, and Pat Burrell rumored to be following him in the off-season, the opportunity will be there for Bourn to claim a spot in the outfield in 2007. Bourn has a batting line of .288/.388/.396 in the minors and would be a very dynamic #2 hitter behind star shortstop Jimmy Rollins and might even push Rollins to the #2 spot. If Bourn makes the team and does what he has shown the ability to do, the Phillies will be a very exciting team to watch.

He may not be as flashy as Michael Bourn, but Shane Victorino has probably already earned a spot on the 2007 major league roster of the Phillies. His .310/.377/.534 showing at Triple-A Scranton has already earned him a call-up to fill the spot vacated by Bobby Abreu. He’s off to a respectable .267/.330/.424 start in 191 Major League at-bats this season. He has only stolen two bases without being caught but could easily steal 20 bases if given the opportunity.

Kansas City Royals

1) Alex Gordon

2) Joey Gathright

3) Esteban German

The Kansas City Royals have a much brighter future than most believe. Their minor league system may not be deep at the moment but they have a few guys that project as the heart of the order for the next decade. Next year, the fantasy baseball magazines will tell you all you need to know about Billy Butler, Ryan Shealy, and Justin Huber. But the star of the Kansas City system by far will be third baseman Alex Gordon. The former Nebraska star has been compared to Chipper Jones with his beautiful swing and his projecting to hit for both power and average. Gordon already shows solid plate discipline, and many believe he should be in the Majors already. As of this writing, he is at Double-A Wichita, batting .316/.416/.559 with 20 home runs in just 383 at-bats. I know what you’re wondering, though – can he steal bases? He presently has 20 stolen bases and has been caught just three times. Gordon is the infield version of Carlos Beltran – yes, he is really that good.

Joey Gathright is not a great hitter; he can, however, use his speed and slap-hitting ability to hit for a respectable average, as he has shown he can do in the minors. He’s hit .316 in over 1,200 minor league at-bats with a .390 on-base percentage. Most importantly, the man is blazing fast. He has stolen 165 bases and been caught stealing 50 times in his Minor League career. That’s just over 40 stolen bases for every season spent in the minors, and he has made spent some time in the Majors just wasting away on the bench or he might have stolen even more.

I really hope that the Royals replace manager Bob Boone, as he has made one of the best performers on his team almost irrelevant. This season, 26-year-old Esteban German has batted .321/.430/.378, but cannot seem to get at-bats ahead of 36-year-old Mark Grudzielanek (.286/.325/.394 in 388 at-bats). A team like the Royals needs to give at-bats to the players that can play a part in the future of the team, rather than ancient mediocrities that will be here on the roster for one season at the most. German has the speed and the know-how to steal 30 to 40 bases. All he needs is an opportunity.

Pittsburgh Pirates

1) Chris Duffy

2) Nate McLouth

3) Jason Bay

Chris Duffy was supposed to be the starting center fielder for the Pirates in 2006. He lost the opportunity by hitting just .230/.288/.344 in 61 spring training at-bats. Duffy did not respond well to the May demotion and refused the assignment for almost a month. He did finally report and got to work on the things lacking in his game. At Triple-A Indianapolis, Duffy has been pretty impressive in 116 at-bats with a .349/.415/.509 batting line with 13 stolen bases and he has been caught just three times. Duffy was recalled after the Craig Wilson trade and has not done much yet, but the Pirates seem to have more faith this time around. Duffy has a career minor league line of .299/.354/.415; if he could come close to that in the Majors, 25-30 stolen bases a season is a distinct possibility.

Nate McLouth is similar to Duffy, but has better speed, slightly better power, and is two years younger at just 24-years-old. McLouth has spent the entire 2006 season in the Majors and should be in line for the starting right field job in 2007 when Jeromy Burnitz finally departs. For the season, McLouth is batting just .228/.292/.360 in a sporadic 250 at-bats as an occasional starter and defensive replacement. McLouth still has the spark that won him most exciting player votes in the minors. In a full season of at-bats, McLouth could steal 40 bases by managing just a league average on-base percentage.

He will not come cheap but Jason Bay is a great base stealer. In the Majors, Bay has attempted just 36 steals and been caught just eight times. In the Minors, Bay was a 30-40 steal guy. That ability is still there; it just needs to be tapped. By increasing his stolen base attempts, Bay could become the most valuable fantasy outfielder in almost any style league. For the Pirates, something as simple as a change in managerial philosophy could change them from one of the more boring offensive teams in the league to one of the most exciting. The Pirates want desperately to be the Oakland Athletics but they just don’t have the personnel and do not seem to grasp how to acquire it. I’m sure Billy Beane wouldn’t share this with the Pirates but I will – the secret of Moneyball was not acquiring on-base specialists; it was making the best use of the players available to you. The Pirates have speedy defensive slap hitters; design the offense around them and it might actually work for both the Pirates and fantasy owners everywhere.

Feedback can be sent to jonwilliams@sportsblurb.com.

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