Ah, the smell of fresh-cut flaxseed. The sight of cracker-jack lawyers and congressional hearings in bloom. The sweet sound of the crack of the gavel.
Yes! Baseball is back. And so are we for a fourth year of fantasy fun.
In the next three weeks, we'll explore the wild kingdom of pitching and map out different offensive strategies before wrapping up things with a first-round mock draft to lead us into the 2008 Major League Baseball regular season.
Without further ado, let's talk pitching -- a necessary evil in the fantasy game.
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No group has a larger say in determining our fate than pitchers, and building around them doesn't rank up there with investing more than $105 million in gimpy-kneed defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and receiver Javon Walker on the Really Bad Idea-meter, because good pitching can take you far.
But making it your foundation not only comes at the price of passing on the best hitters, the injury risk assumed is extreme.
The slightest twinges felt by pitchers can result in lengthy shutdowns that can leave you up a very unappealing creek without so much as a popsicle stick. Still, a strong staff all but guarantees success, so shop smart.
STARTERS -- The first round generally is reserved for offense, but Johan Santana and Jake Peavy are the exceptions. Santana (15-13 with 235 strikeouts, a 3.33 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in an "off" year in 2007) and Peavy (19-6, 240 Ks, 2.54 ERA, 1.06 WHIP) could go inside the first 12 picks because they can dominate four major categories.
The drop to the second tier of starters is hardly a drop at all:
Brandon Webb (18-10,
3.01 ERA, 194 Ks, 1.19 WHIP)
Josh Beckett (20-7,
3.27 ERA, 194 Ks, 1.14 WHIP)
Justin Verlander (18-6,
3.66 ERA, 183 Ks, 1.23 WHIP)
C.C. Sabathia (19-7,
3.21 ERA, 209, 1.14 WHIP)
All are bona fide aces who likely won't make it out of the third round. Sabathia and Webb already have Cy Young Awards on their résumés, Beckett is the new Mr. October, and Verlander is 20 wins and 225 strikeouts waiting to happen.
Also worthy of early-round selections are:
Dan Haren (15-9, 3.07 ERA, 192 Ks, 1.21 WHIP)
John Lackey (19-9,
3.01 ERA, 179 Ks, 1.21 WHIP)
Cole Hamels (15-5,
3.39 ERA, 177 Ks, 1.12 WHIP)
Erik Bedard (13-5,
3.16 ERA, 221 Ks, 1.09 WHIP)
Each has 20-win, 200-strikeout potential and should be gone by Round 6. Haren could go off now that he'll regularly face pitchers again in the National League.
The list of No. 1 starters extends to the next group:
Carlos Zambrano (18-13,
177 Ks, 3.95 ERA, 1.33 WHIP).
Roy Halladay (16-7, 139 Ks, 3.71 ERA, 1.24 WHIP).
Roy Oswalt (14-7, 154 Ks, 3.18 ERA, 1.33 WHIP).
Not one should last beyond Round 8, and all could be gone much earlier if there's a run on starters. Halladay's high ERA and lack of strikeouts have caused his stock to fall in recent seasons, and Zambrano can be as crazy at times as he is good, but both are solid options.
If you want to round up a few bats first, mid-round gold could be struck with:
Aaron Harang (16-6, 218 Ks, 3.73 ERA)
John Maine (15-10,
3.91 ERA, 180 Ks)
John Smoltz (14-8, 3.11 ERA, 197 Ks, 1.18 WHIP)
The lottery could still be won in later rounds, where up-and-comers Chad Billingsley (12-5, 141 Ks, 3.31 ERA) and Brian Bannister (12-9, 3.87 ERA, 1.21 WHIP) could be gifts. Joe Blanton (14-10, 3.95 ERA, 1.22 WHIP) and Oliver Perez (15-10, 3.56 ERA, 174 Ks) could also slide to the back end of drafts.
CLOSERS -- Round 4 figures to see the first firemen taken off the board with Jonathan Papelbon (1-3, 37 saves, 1.85 ERA, 0.77 WHIP), Francisco Rodriguez (5-2, 40 saves, 2.81 ERA) and J.J. Putz (6-1, 40 saves, 1.38 ERA, 0.70 WHIP) topping the list.
Though each is great, we suggest holding off on closers only because there are so many options available, and every season seems to produce three or four who come out of nowhere to drop 30-plus saves (see Jeremy Accardo, David Weathers and Kevin Gregg in 2007) on lucky owners.
Then again, who wouldn't want Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan or Takashi Saito working for them?
SET-UP MEN -- This could be the most underrated group in all of fantasy sports. Owners who load up on pitching early often make the mistake of adding "reaches" to round out their staff. But if you already have a couple aces up your sleeve, why endanger your ratios by taking high-risk starters and possibly negating what your best arms have to offer?
Middle men like Rafael Bettencourt, Jonathan Broxton, Hideki Okajima and Pat Neshek deliver fantastic WHIPs and ERAs, cherry-pick wins, rack up strikeouts and are only an injury away from closing.
That's our pitch for pitchers, now good luck with yours.
Stu Rosenberg's fantasy sports column runs Fridays. Reach him at email@example.com or 578-2300.