Fantasy rankings predict playoff reality

Fantasy rankings predict playoff reality

The 2009 Major League Baseball season begins on April 5 with Braves at Phillies, and just for fun, let's skip ahead 162 games here and take a look at the Division Series matchups following the final Sunday of games on Oct. 4:

American League
Twins at Red Sox
Yankees (Wild Card) at Angels

National League
Cubs at Dodgers
D-backs (Wild Card) at Mets

OK, we all know it is not that easy. Everyone has a prediction at this time of year, and, frankly, that "Expected Eight" will not look a lot different than the general consensus, save for maybe a tweak here and a tweak there. But what makes that prediction especially unique from anyone else's is the source.

The MLB.com Fantasy Baseball rankings told us that.

For the first time, MLB.com is looking at the probable outcome of the regular season based solely on the aggregate use of the same player rankings that are utilized to guide Fantasy Baseball drafts and transactions. Whatever happens in the postseason is a greater unknown, as this decade has proven that any team can win the World Series once it survives the pennant races and gets into the field of eight.

The debate can rage on over these picks, but there is no debate about the increasing impact of the Fantasy mindset on the national pastime. More and more clubs are building talent with similar sabermetric notions espoused by Fantasy owners. Clubs look at WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched), OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage), VORP (value over replacement player), and other formulas and equations as well.

Plain and simple, now is a good time for everyone to look at Fantasy in a much broader way. It is not a bunch of baseball nerds and leagues. It is the way many people get truly "into" the game today, as opposed to the more "purist" ways of the past. Fantasy owners follow not just the teams, but also the players, and they generally know which ones are best, just as the general managers do in the front offices.

Fantasy is bigger than ever, and the valuation of players is bigger than Fantasy.

To illustrate this point, MLB.com ranked players by position within each league, based entirely on our MLB.com 2009 Fantasy Baseball Preview. Since Albert Pujols is the NL's top-ranked first baseman, he received a score of 16. Travis Ishikawa is the lowest-ranked starting first baseman and therefore received a score of one, and so on.

Fantasy-projected 2009 standings
AL East
NL East
Red SoxMets
*YankeesPhillies
RaysBraves
Blue JaysMarlins
OriolesNationals
AL CentralNL Central
TwinsCubs
IndiansReds
RoyalsCardinals
White SoxAstros
TigersBrewers
Pirates
AL WestNL West
AngelsDodgers
Athletics*Diamondbacks
RangersGiants
MarinersRockies
Padres
*Wild Card
Closers were ranked individually, but team bullpen rankings (all non-closers) were based loosely on our preview's team pitching-staff projections. Each bullpen score was multiplied by three. The bench score was based on the top bench player for each team. The total sum for each team determines the standings.

Under this system, the following teams would make the playoffs: AL East: Red Sox; AL Central: Twins; AL West: Angels; AL Wild Card: Yankees. NL East: Mets; NL Central: Cubs; NL West: Dodgers; NL Wild Card: D-backs. For those above predictions, we simply went by those club's total rankings and paired them as you would had they all finished in that order on Oct. 4.

Of course, Major League Baseball has proven over and over in this decade that all you have to do is get into the postseason, and then any of eight teams have an equal chance of winning. In 2003, we quoted Derrek Lee of the Marlins on the importance of being "battle-tested" and having a killer instinct often developed by Wild Card survivors; and Jeff Suppan said the same thing during the Cardinals' 2006 postseason run, saying that all you have to do is get into the field of eight and then no one is a favorite.

Still, it is worth extending our Fantasy theory just a bit further. The Red Sox and Dodgers each scored the highest total ranking in their leagues, mainly because they are each loaded with guys who score in double-digits at their position, a scary balance of highly ranked talent. Perhaps that is a harbinger of a thrilling World Series matchup that would bring Manny Ramirez back to Fenway Park, with manager Joe Torre and hitting coach Don Mattingly in the unique position of opposing a Red Sox club they once opposed as heated Yankees rivals.

The Red Sox finished with 206 points, and the Dodgers finished with 204. It is not apples-to-apples enough to predict that the Red Sox thus beat the Dodgers in the World Series, and remember that the All-Star Game winner also decides which league gets World Series home-field advantage.

In fact, this is not a perfect season predictor by any means. Defense remains the one missing variable here. It does not account for what a manager like Tony La Russa might do with a decent roster, compared to a less proven skipper.

MLB.com factors injuries into its player rankings -- forecasting which players are injury-prone based on the last three years is standard fare -- and that explains why Evan Longoria ranks higher than Alex Rodriguez, and why Troy Glaus ranks in the lower-half among NL third basemen. Still, one cannot account now for the inevitable loss of a franchise stud or that horrible, injury-riddled season that we all are familiar with at some point or other. Some years, it just happens, and it seems contagious.

But all that said, this is easily as good an approach as any other out there. And what makes this forecast perhaps more viable is the fact that MLB.com player rankings are regularly updated. These are updated through March 25 and are subject to change based on such factors as injuries and job battles. Go out and buy one of those preseason magazines, and you are stuck with values that are based on whenever the publication went to print. That's it, no update unless they do something online and you have to find out about it somewhere.

These are the rankings used by millions of fans to determine what they consider to be the best baseball players, and it just stands to reason that the more of those best players you have, the better that team should be.

Everyone is bracing for the usual shocker team to come out of nowhere and go deep into the postseason again this year. It was Colorado two years ago and the Rays last year. But if you had used these fantasy rankings then, you might have seen it coming. Those were teams with strong foundations, ready for the leap. Who might it be this time?

Some people think Dusty Baker's Reds -- even minus slugger Adam Dunn -- will be a surprise finisher in the NL Central. They have an outstanding pitching staff, and guess what? Cincinnati is the team right behind Chicago in that division -- not Milwaukee. The Reds are just eight points behind the Cubs in the rankings, followed distantly by the Cardinals, Astros, Brewers and Pirates.

That might come as a surprise to some Brew Crew faithful. The fact is, many individual player rankings on that projected starting lineup in Milwaukee are abysmally low. Lots of twos (catcher Jason Kendall, third baseman Bill Hall and bench player Mike Lamb). Ryan Braun and Corey Hart are each top-ranked 16s at the corner outfield spots, but there aren't a lot of high ranks. It doesn't help that Trevor Hoffman comes in as the new closer ranked fourth-worst among NL closers -- and that was before he was sidelined for a while with a strained oblique. Overall, the Brewers' bullpen scores a 15, compared to 33 for the Cubs. Pittsburgh's bullpen gets a 6, virtually nonexistent -- yet twice as much as that of San Diego, which has the lowest overall Fantasy ranking in the game.

Even if San Francisco's offense is untested, it has a big sleeper in Pablo Sandoval, who had a strong call-up stretch last year and is a top Rookie of the Year candidate. If Randy Johnson stays healthy and Jonathan Sanchez reaches his potential, who knows? And Kansas City fans have some just cause for new optimism; they are projected third in the AL Central with 128 points, and maybe it will be defense -- the missing factor in these rankings -- that will put them over the top.

Here were some other interesting things we found in the rankings:

• Joba Chamberlain of the Yankees and Max Scherzer of the D-backs are top-ranked among fifth starters, contributing to their teams making our predicted postseason.

• Last season, Francisco Rodriguez shattered the MLB saves record with 62 for the Angels, and Brad Lidge was a perfect 41-for-41 before going on to close out the World Series. Which feat was more impressive? Who would you rather have this season, now that they are in the same league, with K-Rod as a Mets stopper and Lidge back with the champs? In our rankings, Lidge edges out Rodriguez for top NL closer.

• The Red Sox bullpen scores considerably higher than the Yankees' bullpen -- which ultimately decides the AL East. Boston's 206 leads New York's 197 and Tampa Bay's 189. Boston's 14 rankings are David Ortiz at designated hitter, Jon Lester at No. 3 starter, and Jonathan Papelbon at closer. New York's, besides Chamberlain, are Nick Swisher as a (projected) bench player and CC Sabathia as the No. 1 starter. The Rays' 14s are Longoria at third and Scott Kazmir as the No. 2 starter.

• Speaking of the Rays, David Price is left on the rankings as a No. 5 starter, where he is currently a 13 -- behind only Chamberlain in the AL in that role. Price has been sent down to Triple-A Durham to start the season, but we expect him back up quickly and therefore did not remove him from the list. Replacing him would not have helped Tampa Bay catch New York for the Wild Card in our prediction, anyway.

• Brett Gardner is the lowest-ranked center fielder. He is projected to beat out Melky Cabrera for that starting job on the Yankees.

• Sabathia beats Boston's Josh Beckett as the top-ranked AL starter. Standing in between them are Roy Halladay of Toronto at No. 13 and John Lackey of the Angels at No. 12. Boston is even better if Beckett exceeds expectations in this slot.

• Cubs rotation-mates Rich Harden and Ted Lilly are the top-ranked third and fourth NL starters.

• Carlos Ruiz had a memorable World Series for the Phillies. According to these numbers, don't get too carried away. He gets a 1 for NL catchers.

• If Russell Martin's power continues to dip, as it did during the second half, do the Dodgers still win the NL West? The rankings also suggest the Dodgers won the division when they signed Orlando Hudson and Manny.

• These rankings suggest the Mets will avenge back-to-back defeats by edging out Philly for the NL East crown. The Mets have 201 points, just two more than Philly. The Mets have three top-ranked players: David Wright (third base), Carlos Beltran (center field) and Johan Santana (No. 1 starter). But if Ryan Church and Daniel Murphy do not reach expectations, do the Mets still make the playoffs?

That thin line between the Mets and the Phillies, and that AL East 1-2-3 picture, are not the only ones in these team rankings. The Dodgers' 204 points is only two more than Arizona. The Twins have 147 compared to a close 140 for the Indians.

We can predict the Division Series matchups as well as any "expert" out there by using this fantasy system. It is a fun way to look at the possibilities of this season, and it is yet another demonstration of how Fantasy Baseball has outgrown its box and become a major part of the national pastime. Understanding the player rankings and following individuals in this way might win you some dough in a league this season, and it also might help you successfully predict who will be playing after Oct. 4.

The line is being blurred between Fantasy and reality, and we think that is a good thing. This stuff is not just for geeks anymore. It looks like Twins at Red Sox and Yankees at Angels in the AL, and Cubs at Dodgers and D-backs at Mets in the NL. Feel free to disagree in the comments here, but keep in mind that these aren't opinions. They are the popular numbers of Major League Baseball talking.

FANTASY vs. REALITY
In MLB.com's Fantasy meets Reality, players are ranked by position within each league, based entirely on our MLB.com 2009 Fantasy Baseball Preview. Since Albert Pujols is the NL's top-ranked starting first baseman, he received a score of 16. Travis Ishikawa is the lowest-ranked first baseman and therefore received a score of one . . . and so on.
POS
Red Sox
Pts
Yankees
Pts
Rays
Pts
Blue Jays
Pts
Orioles
Pts
CVaritek3Posada10Navarro8Barajas1Wieters11
1BYoukilis9Teixeira13Pena11Overbay1Huff8
2BPedroia13Cano11Iwamura6Hill3Roberts12
SSLowrie 6Jeter13Bartlett9Scutaro2Izturis5
3BLowell7Rodriguez13Longoria14Rolen6Mora8
LFBay11Damon9Crawford13Snider4Pie2
CFEllsbury10Gardner1Upton12Wells8Jones5
RFDrew6Nady8Joyce2Rios14Markakis13
DHOrtiz14Matsui6Burrell11Lind10Scott4
BNBaldelli11Swisher14Kapler4Inglett1Wigginton13
SPBeckett11Sabathia14Shields9Halladay13Guthrie2
SPMatsuzaka13Burnett12Kazmir14Litsch4Uehara1
SPLester14Wang10Garza13Purcey6Hill2
SPWakefield11Pettitte12Sonnanstine13Janssen1Hendrickson2
SPPenny11Chamberlain14Price13Richmond2Hennessey1
CLPapelbon14Rivera13Percival4Ryan8Sherrill3
BPBOS42NYY24TB33TOR36BAL9
Total206197189120101
POS
Twins
Pts
Indians
Pts
Royals
Pts
White Sox
Pts
Tigers
Pts
CMauer14Martinez13Olivo4Pierzynski7Laird2
1BMorneau12Garko4Jacobs5Konerko7Cabrera14
2BCasilla7Cabrera5Callaspo1Getz2Polanco8
SSHarris3Peralta12Aviles11Ramirez14Everett1
3BCrede5DeRosa4Gordon10Fields2Inge1
LFYoung8Francisco3DeJesus6Quentin12Guillen7
CFGomez7Sizemore14Crisp6Owens2Granderson11
RFSpan4Choo3Guillen5Dye9Ordonez10
DHKubel8Hafner7Butler9Thome12Sheffield1
BNCuddyer5Shoppach7Teahen2Betemit3Thames12
SPLiriano7Lee10Greinke6Danks4Verlander5
SPSlowey10Carmona5Meche9Buehrle7Galarraga6
SPBaker12Pavano4Bannister3Floyd8Bonderman7
SPPerkins8Reyes10Hochevar6Contreras5Jackson9
SPBlackburn10Lewis9Davies7Colon8Willis5
CLNathan12Wood9Soria11Jenks7Lyon2
BPMIN15CLE21KC27CWS18DET12
Total147140128127113
POS
Angels
Pts
Athletics
Pts
Rangers
Pts
Mariners
Pts
CNapoli12Suzuki5Saltalamacchia6Clement9
1BMorales2Giambi6Davis10Branyan3
2BKendrick9Ellis4Kinsler14Lopez10
SSAybar4Cabrera10Andrus8Betancourt7
3BFiggins12Chavez3Young9Beltre11
LFAbreu10Holliday14Murphy5Chavez1
CFHunter9Sweeney3Hamilton13Gutierrez4
RFGuerrero12Buck1Cruz7Suzuki11
DHRivera2Cust5Blalock13Griffey3
BNMatthews8Garciaparra9Byrd8Johjima6
SPLackey12Duchscherer3Millwood1Hernandez8
SPSantana11Eveland3Padilla2Bedard8
SPWeaver11Gallagher5Feldman1Morrow9
SPSaunders14Braden7Harrison3Silva4
SPAdenhart3Anderson12McCarthy4Washburn6
CLFuentes10Devine5Francisco6Walker1
SULAA30OAK39TEX6SEA3
Total171134116104
POS
Mets
Pts
Phillies
Pts
Braves
Pts
Marlins
Pts
Nationals
Pts
CSchneider3Ruiz1McCann16Baker9Flores5
1BDelgado8Howard14Kotchman4Sanchez2Dunn9
2BCastillo2Utley16Johnson13Uggla14Belliard3
SSReyes15Rollins14Escobar8Ramirez16Guzman6
3BWright16Feliz3Jones14Cantu8Zimmerman12
LFMurphy4Ibanez13Anderson7Hermida9Willingham8
CFBeltran16Victorino14Anderson2Maybin7Milledge11
RFChurch6Werth8Francoeur3Ross4Dukes10
BNTatis13Jenkins3Diaz6McPherson7Johnson9
SPSantana16Hamels13Vazquez10Nolasco8Lannan1
SPPerez7Myers13Lowe11Johnson9Olsen1
SPMaine13Blanton10Jurrjens11Volstad9Cabrera4
SPPelfrey12Moyer10Kawakami13Sanchez8Zimmermann4
SPGarcia13Happ6Glavine4Miller11Balester5
CLRodriguez15Lidge16Gonzalez6Lindstrom2Hanrahan5
BPNYM42PHI45ATL18FLA21WSH9
Total201199146144102
POS
Cubs
Pts
Reds
Pts
Cardinals
Pts
Astros
Pts
Brewers
Pts
Pirates
Pts
CSoto14Hernandez8Molina7Rodriguez10Kendall2Doumit 13
1BLee11Votto10Pujols16Berkman15Fielder13LaRoche 7
2BFontenot4Phillips15Schumaker5Matsui9Weeks11Sanchez 7
SSTheriot5Gonzalez2Greene4Tejada9Hardy10Wilson 3
3BRamirez15Encarnacion7Glaus5Blum1Hall2LaRoche 4
LFSoriano15Dickerson2Duncan1Lee14Braun16Morgan 3
CFFukudome5Taveras10Ankiel12Bourn3Cameron8McLouth 13
RFBradley9Bruce14Ludwick13Pence15Hart16Moss 1
BNGathright8Hairston11Duncan12Erstad1Lamb2Hinske 10
SPZambrano5Volquez7Wainwright4Oswalt11Gallardo6Maholm 2
SPDempster14Harang12Lohse3Rodriguez6Parra8Snell 2
SPHarden16Cueto14Wellemeyer6Hampton2Bush8Gorz'nny 5
SPLilly16Arroyo14Carpenter15Moehler2Looper6Duke 3
SPMarshall14Owings8Pineiro7Backe1Suppan12Ohl'dorf 2
CLMarmol11Cordero13Perez3Valverde14Hoffman4Capps 9
BPCHC33CIN36STL30HOU27MIL15PIT 6
Total195183143140139 90
POS
Dodgers
Pts
D-backs
Pts
Giants
Pts
Rockies
Pts
Padres
Pts
CMartin15Snyder6Molina12Iannetta11Hundley4
1BLoney6Tracy3Ishikawa1Helton5Gonzalez12
2BHudson12Lopez10Burriss6Barmes8Eckstein1
SSFurcal13Drew12Renteria7Tulowitzki11Cabrera1
3BBlake6Reynolds11Sandoval10Atkins13Kouzmanoff9
LFRamirez13Jackson10Lewis5Smith2Headley9
CFKemp15Young9Rowand6Spilborghs1Gerut4
RFEthier11Upton7Winn5Hawpe12Giles2
BNPierre15Byrnes16Schierholtz4Stewart14Hairston5
SPBillingsley9Webb14Lincecum15Jimenez3Peavy12
SPKuroda5Haren16Cain15Cook4Young10
SPWolf12Davis7Johnson15Marquis3Baek1
SPKershaw11Garland9Zito7De La Rosa5Correia1
SPSchmidt10Scherzer16Sanchez15Smith9Hill3
CLBroxton12Qualls8Wilson10Street1Bell7
BPLAD39ARI48SF24COL12SD3
Total20420215711484

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.