High Risk, High Reward
Unlike many academicians, I've never been one to believe that there is a 1:1 correlation between risk and reward. High risk doesn't necessarily mean high reward, nor does high reward mean high risk. However, there is a group of players Antonio Alfonseca could count on one hand who qualify as high risk and high reward this coming season.
Don't confuse these players with guys like Nomar Garciaparra or Frank Thomas. Garciaparra, in my judgment, is certainly a risky bet at this stage but can no longer be thought of as someone who could deliver a high reward. Thomas, on the other hand, is a relatively low risk (at least in relationship to the contract he signed), yet is unlikely to post more than moderate rewards for his new employer or fantasy owners.
Instead, what we're looking for are players who can make or break their teams. If healthy (and in uniform), the chosen six could put up MVP or Cy Young-type seasons. If not, well, they will serve to do little more than to frustrate anyone who has banked on their success.
Barry Bonds - 41 - OF - San Francisco Giants
Bonds was an even bigger wild card last year. Nobody really knew if he was going to sit out the first month or half or the entire season. As it turned out, Bonds played only 14 games and had just 52 plate appearances. He was a major disappointment for Giants fans as well as fantasy owners who gambled and took him early in their drafts.
Although Bonds is far from completely healthy this year, he is planning on being in the lineup on opening day. Whether his tender right knee can hold up all season is the question at hand. The Giants are likely to go as far as Barry takes them. If Bonds plays 120 games, he will be worth an early-round pick in most fantasy drafts. If he plays 140 games, he could be the MVP.
Bonds hit his first home run of the spring on Sunday. Just be sure you don't draft him with the expectation that he will be the Bonds of old. But don't completely dismiss him either. Advice: if you can't resist the temptation of taking Bonds, make sure you get a quality fourth outfielder as a hedge.
J.D. Drew - 30 - OF - Los Angeles Dodgers
Drew played just 72 games in his first season in Los Angeles. In J.D.'s defense, he only missed nine games during the first three months. However, he had the misfortune of breaking his left wrist when Brad Halsey hit him with a pitch last July. Drew missed the rest of the campaign, giving his detractors plenty of ammunition to second guess Paul DePodesta's decision to sign the man who has a reputation for being fragile.
When Drew is in the lineup, he is one of the most productive offensive players in baseball. J.D. put up a .286/.412/.520 line with 15 HR and more BB (51) than SO (50) in half a season. If Drew's spring stats (7-for-15 with two triples and two home runs) are any indication, his wrist appears to be fully healed.
A healthy Drew will make new GM Ned Colletti look a lot smarter than his predecessor. The risk to the Dodgers is twofold: (1) if J.D. plays well, he has the ability to opt out of his contract; (2) on the other hand, if Drew gets hurt and/or plays poorly, he sticks around for the last three years of his contract and collects the remaining $33 million owed to him.
Ken Griffey, Jr. - 36 - OF - Cincinnati Reds
Griffey played 128 games last year, the most since 2000. Be mindful of the fact that Junior has averaged fewer than 90 games over the past five seasons. Importantly, he turned 36 in November and is heavier and slower than ever.
I would be surprised if Griffey hit .300 with 35 HR again. He is a much better bet to go yard 35 times than hit .300. Junior has cranked three homers in the WBC but two of them came against South Africa in a 17-0 romp.
Griffey will hurt the Reds defensively in center field. He is more suited to be a designated hitter at this point in his career and would be more likely to avoid the disabled list if allowed to ride a stationary bicycle in the clubhouse between at-bats.
Honorable mention: Jeff Kent and Jim Thome.
Roger Clemens - 43 - SP - ???
Clemens holds all the cards here. The Rocket is unsigned and is the only person who knows whether he will play this year. Clemens said he plans to retire after the World Baseball Classic, yet reserved the right to change his mind this spring or summer.
If Roger wishes to pitch for the Astros, he will have to wait until May 1 to sign a contract. The Yankees, Red Sox, and Rangers are supposedly in the mix as well. No matter which direction Clemens chooses, don't look for him to return until at least May. I wouldn't be surprised if Clemens sat out even longer, although I would be shocked if he hung up his spikes for good.
Clemens won't add to his Cy Young Award collection this year, but he is likely to be more valuable to his real baseball team than to his fantasy owner -- if he chooses to play.
Mark Prior - 26 - SP - Chicago Cubs
Prior is one of the best pitchers in baseball when he takes the hill. He has struck out more than a batter per inning in each of his first four seasons in the big leagues and is averaging 10.6 K/9 for his career. Mark ranked fifth last year (among those with at least 10 GS) with 6.65 K/100 pitches. Number one? None other than teammate Kerry Wood (7.27 K/100).
Prior and Wood, when healthy, give the Cubs one of the best starting rotations in the league. They both pitched 211 innings in 2003 but neither has thrown more than 166 frames since. Whether Dusty Baker is to blame or not is one thing but recognize that history is not on the side of Mark or Kerry approaching 200 innings this year.
Prior's chances of making his first regular-season start on April 5 at Cincinnati will hinge on his ability to throw 80 pitches before that date. He has yet to pitch in a spring training game. However, Prior reportedly threw about 35 pitches on Sunday in a two-inning simulated game at HoHoKam Park. The outing was behind closed doors so that might tell you something. Remember, you've been warned.
Ben Sheets - 27 - SP - Milwaukee Brewers
Sheets is much better than generally believed. Despite a 12-14 record in 2004, the former #1 draft pick was one of the top pitchers in the NL that season. His numbers weren't quite as good last year, but they were more than respectable.
Ben's fastball has been known to hit the upper-90s and his curve ranks among the best in the biz when he's got it working. He is as talented as they come but is a health risk to both the Brewers and whoever drafts him in fantasy pools.
Sheets was disabled twice last year, once with an infection in the inner ear and later with a torn muscle in his right shoulder. Furthermore, he left in the first inning of his most recent spring start due to a muscle irritation in his right side. Team doctor William Raasch examined Sheets over the weekend, diagnosing him with a strain of an adjoining muscle. He will undergo physical therapy and is hopeful of throwing from the mound later this week. Watch him closely and track his progress.
Honorable mention: Curt Schilling, Jason Schmidt, and Kerry Wood.