It’s March, and somewhere, in the lands of grapefruit and cacti, they are playing actual baseball. We may now officially discuss the 2009 fantasy baseball season.

While it’s currently 11 degrees outside without the wind chill in Baltimore, my mind is drifting to a sunny, breezy April afternoon when the runs will start counting and the teams will stop wearing those lame batting practice caps.

I am hopeful because there is a blank slate, not just for my beloved Orioles, but for a new and promising fantasy season.

Let’s get real for a second: Fantasy baseball is the original of the time-wasting fantasy sports. It set the bar with the pen-and-paper rotisserie leagues of the 1980s, forcing players to pore over box scores daily and tally up their team’s total performance.

However, as times have changed and the NFL has become the most popular team sport in the United States, there seem to be more people wanting to pretend to be Ozzie Newsome as opposed to Andy MacPhail. The advancement of online stat-keeping and web-based league management came along right as fantasy football and the NFL really started to take off in the 1990s. Like most success stories, fantasy football has been the beneficiary of perfect timing.

Fantasy football has a lot going for it, because anyone can basically walk into a draft with a cheat sheet and a prayer and feel like a full participant. (That person even has a better chance of winning than anyone, because in fantasy football, much like NCAA bracket pools, the less you know the better). There is no pressure to check your team every day (even though I do), and you can follow along with the action on Sundays as you’re taking in the real football like a normal human being. It’s a very accessible fantasy sport.

In some ways, the difference between fantasy football and fantasy baseball beautifully illustrate the differences between the sports themselves. Football is egalitarian and highlight-driven. In fantasy football, everyone has the same chance of winning from day one. Almost all leagues use cumulative categories versus averages, because it’s about impact and short-term production in the NFL.

Baseball is the polar opposite. It’s a marathon season requiring research and daily diligence to the hitting trends and probable starters. It requires hard work and math (two things that often confound me, even in a fantasy world). In real baseball, generally the teams that spend the most money are the only ones with a chance at being competitive. In fantasy baseball, the people that do the most homework and stay on top of their stuff every single day are the only ones you’ll find in the top half. Individual performances in single games matter, but in baseball it’s more important to put together an impressive month than an impressive afternoon.

So, you can see why it’s been easy to avoid fantasy baseball and play in two football leagues. But this year will be different. After two years on hiatus, I am throwing myself back into fantasy baseball. I have my online rankings, my Baseball Prospectus 2009, and my surely-misguided gut instincts.

Image courtesy of the Baltimore Sun

In order to get the lay of the land, I decided to start in my back yard and take a look at which Orioles are fantasy-relevant*.

The Stud

1. Nick Markakis, RF
Markakis is a great fantasy guy because he does a little bit of everything. He’ll hit for power, average, drive in runs, and swipe ten bags or so for good measure. He’s probably a couple years a way from being a Top 20 overall player, but if he goes anywhere past the second round, he’s a steal.

The Second Fiddle

2. Brian Roberts, 2B
If you are in an AL-only league, B-Rob will be in your Top 5 for second basemen. He carries tremendous position value because of how crappy the second-sacker will be if you wait until the later rounds to grab one. The caveat here is that he just got paid and that he is 31 years old.

The Sell High

3. Aubrey Huff, 1B/DH
I have to place a cautionary tag on Huff this season. He popped 32 homers and hit .306 last year as a DH, which will have the non-Oriole fans in your league eager to take him earlier than he would go. This is a question of two things: 1) Does your league have a DH spot. If so, Huff is a great play once you’ve filled your key positions. If not, you can do better as far as everyday first basemen are concerned, especially if you’re playing AL-only. 2) Do you believe that Aubrey Huff will actually hit .300 and hit 30 homeruns again? It feels weird even typing it.

The Keeper Leagues

4. Matt Wieters, C
5. Adam Jones, CF

It is conceivable that we will all be a little grayer and our blood pressure will be a little higher until Wieters delivers on his messianic promise. The expectations that have been heaped on him by the organization, the fans, and any media outlet that ranks prospects are enormous. The fact is that there has been just enough hype to almost make it all tangible. You want to say, “Yes, Wieters is a sure thing. Pencil him in hitting #3 and catching every day for the next 17 years.” However, the kid has yet to swing a major league bat in an official game. That’s a little thin to waste on a high pick for a guy who will most likely be in Norfolk, at least until May. He’s going higher than he should because the buzz is officially on. Still, in a keeper league, this could be your only chance at nabbing him. For Jones, the keys are twofold and very simple: stay healthy and improve plate discipline. It’d be a nice bonus if his speed helped him evolve into 20 steals-a-year guy.

The Bargain Bin

6. Jeremy Guthrie, SP
7. George Sherrill/Chris Ray, RP
8. Melvin Mora, 3B

All value picks. Guthrie will probably help out your Wins and WHIP, but you are sacrificing K’s big time. In Al-only Mora has value as a 3B but his age and his streaky 2008 are concerns. Can you bank on another huge one-month stint for Melvin to get his 20 dingers? As far as the Saves situation is concerned, it’s basically take Sherrill if he falls to you at a decent position, but keep an eye on the waiver wire for Ray. With his disastrous finish last year, big George will no doubt be on a short leash, especially if Ray pitches well as his set-up guy.


* People will tell you that you should not have players from your team on your fantasy team. If you can evaluate them objectively, I think that you should pick the best players. Period. If you were a hiring manager, would you automatically eliminate people who had the same eye color as you? The truth is you’re going to be dejected if either side (fantasy or reality) doesn’t perform. If you get the double-whammy, so be it. It can’t be any worse than the people who openly (albeit briefly) root against their home team players for fantasy purposes.