Each spring, players return to camp with various tales for reporters as to why they are on the verge of a breakout season. This year was no exception, as players discussed stories of their weight loss or gain, laser eye surgery, and new off-season training programs. As a fantasy analyst, I like to think a player's performance is based on the development of his skill set over thousands of hours of practice, but tales of sudden career renaissance are always fun to take a look at.
So let's Stock Watch this year's spring training clichés. Special thanks to Tim Dierkes at RotoAuthority.com for compiling an exhaustive list http://www.rotoauthority.com/2009/02/spring-training.html of this brand of winter wish-casting.
Heath Bell, RP, Padres: He claims to have lost 25 pounds this winter thanks to rigorous workouts on the Wii Fit. What you should be more interested is his career 8.95 K/9 and the fact that he has replaced all-time saves leader, Trevor Hoffman, as the closer in San Diego.
Todd Helton, 1B, Rockies: The franchise icon has publicly stated his back feels "100 times better than it felt last year during the season." He's always been able to hit, batting .300 in each full season he's been in the majors, a streak that ended due to a back injury in '08. With Matt Holliday gone, Helton will once again be counted on to be a big run producer in the middle of the Colorado lineup.
Edwin Encarnacion, 3B, Reds: Upon his arrival to spring training, the Reds' third baseman stated he was going to stop trying to pull the ball so much. Looking closer at his stats reveals something more substantial, three-year growth in his home run total. If that trend continues, he'll be challenging 30 home runs regardless.
Jeff Francoeur, OF, Braves: Another weight loss success story, dropping 18 pounds this off-season. Frenchy actually made strides in cutting his strikeouts while maintaining his walk and contact rates. He blasted a home run in his first at bat of the new season and should be on your radar in mixed league formats.
Barry Zito, SP, Giants: The quirky lefty "committed himself to his fitness and off-season program like never before," while training with teammate Brian Wilson over the winter. He cut down significantly on his home runs allowed in '08 (16, down from 24 in '07), but took a significant step backward in control (5.10 BB/9). If he gets that number back to around his career average of 3.45 BB/9, he could be a nice bargain innings eater in deeper mixed formats.
Willy Taveras, OF, Reds: Fast Willie came to camp with a bold prediction: "I can steal 100 bases." If his average on balls in play rebounds (.298 in '08, .321 career average) he could hit around .275-plus. He's a single category contributor no matter how you look at it, but could single handedly win the steals category for you if he comes close to his personal forecast.
Luis Castillo, 2B, Mets: The injury prone Mets' second baseman lost 17 pounds this winter with the hopes of staying healthy for the '09 campaign. While he was cutting weight, the Mets were busy training Daniel Murphy how to turn the double play from second base. Fernando Tatis also received late spring work at second base, a position he played very early in his pro career. If Castillo stumbles out of the gate, either of these outfielders could become infielders given the recent signing of Gary Sheffield.
Bill Hall, 3B, Brewers: Hall decided it was his batting eye that needed correction after his miserable '08 season (.225/15/55), so he opted for LASIK eye surgery. He'll be on a short leash during the early going, with top prospect Mat Gamel nearly major league ready (with the bat, at least), but Hall is a terrible fielder, too, according to "John Dewan's Fielding Bible - Volume II."
John Maine, SP, Mets: He decided to add a new curveball to his arsenal during the off-season. If his spring training results are any indication as to how effective that pitch is (6.31 ERA over 25 2/3 innings), you should probably find another option before he hurts you in those categories. The status of his shoulder is also an open question.