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Wish list around the horn

These are the guys whose names you can hardly wait to yell out when your draft spot comes up. They're the guys who break your auction bank. They're the guys who will (hopefully) carry you to a fantasy baseball championship.

Let's take a trip around the horn, breaking down the best fantasy players, position-by-position:

*Catcher: Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins -- Almost the equivalent of drafting a defense in fantasy football. Once you get past the top three or four at this position, it's grab a guy, any guy. Mauer is the best of the bunch, but not without concerns. He hit all of one home run at home last season (the Twins moved into Target Field, an outdoor facility). He's also coming back from offseason knee surgery. He's still just 27, though, in the prime of his career and the face of the franchise.

*First base: Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals -- As sure a thing as the next Charlie Sheen meltdown. Pujols has hit .331 and averaged 41 home runs, 123 RBIs and 119 runs during his 10-year major league career, never finishing with worse than a .312 batting average, 32 homers, 103 RBIs or 99 runs in a single year. His 408 career homers are the most by any player in his first 10 seasons.

*Second base: Robinson Cano, New York Yankees -- The Bronx Bombers' next superstar, Cano has had two straight seasons with 200-plus hits and exactly 103 runs scored. Batting fifth in the Yankees' lineup behind Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira might also bring better power numbers. Cano should be a first-round pick in your league.

*Third base: Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays -- Where have you gone, Mike Schmidt? The hot corner might be the most uncertain fantasy position behind catcher. The reason for that is a power outage. Other than the almost out-of-nowhere 54 homers by Toronto's Jose Bautista last season, no other third baseman hit more than the 32 by Arizona's Mark Reynolds (now with Baltimore). In that regard, Longoria was a bit unlucky. His homers-per-fly-ball rate of 11 percent last season was 8 percent lower than his career average. If that improves, which it should, Longoria will be a 30-homer candidate. His walk and strikeout ratios also improved last season, showing good plate discipline.

*Shortstop: Hanley Ramirez, Florida Marlins -- Right behind Pujols on the list of consistent, dependable fantasy options. First, the bad news: Ramirez saw just 44.3 percent of pitches inside the strike zone last season, the lowest total of his career. That means pitchers are trying to work around him. The good news: It didn't work out so well. Over the last two months of the season, Ramirez hit .344 and slugged .567.

*Outfielder: Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers -- New Red Sox acquisition Carl Crawford is getting plenty of love as the No. 1 outfielder, but I'll stick with Braun, who's been an elite fantasy option for four straight seasons. It should be noted that Braun's home run total has dropped in each of the past two seasons. His ground-ball rate of 48.3 percent last season was a career high. He has cut back his strikeouts, though, and remains a capable base-stealer (77.8 percent success rate). He might not hit 40 bombs, but he's more than capable of contributing in otheroffensive categories.

*Starting pitcher: Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies -- He's a workhorse (majors-leading 250 2/3 innings), a winner (MLB-best 21) and has no-hit stuff (four shutouts, nine complete games, one perfect game). What's not to like? If Halladay had a weakness, it was that his strikeout total wasn't always great. Well, he's worked on that. He averaged 7.86 strikeouts per nine innings pitched last season, and limited his walks to just 1.08 per nine.

*Relief pitcher: Heath Bell, San Diego -- It's popular to say that Bell is helped by pitching in cavernous Petco Park, but he actually had a better ERA on the road last season. Either way, he puts up big strikeout totals and should challenge for the league lead in saves.


Understanding BABIP

It's easy to get lost in an alphabet soup of statistics when playing fantasy baseball. One set of numbers that owners should try to grasp, however, is BABIP. That stands for batting average on balls in play.

Tristan Cockcroft of published a column last month that does a nice job in explaining how BABIP can help examine players. As Cockcroft explains, the statistic can be especially useful when evaluating pitchers. Specifically, it can spot fluky seasons.

When a pitcher has a BABIP that is unusually high or low, he will usually return to trending toward the league average, which in 2010 was .297.

One such pitcher who could have a bounce-back year is the Red Sox's Josh Beckett. He had a BABIP of .349 in 2010 (he was also battling a back injury). Beckett did, however, have a K/9 ratio of 8.18. If his health problems are behind him, he could be in store for a much better '11 season.

On the other side of the plate, Toronto second baseman Aaron Hill had an unlucky 2010. His BABIP was .196, 30 points below the next-lowest mark in the majors and nearly 100 points less than his career average. It stands to reason Hill will improve that number.


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