Crawford leads Rays' fantasy rankings

Crawford leads Rays' fantasy rankings

Many fantasy fans prefer to stock their rosters full of players from their favorite team, as opposed to players who make a living playing for a feared rival. Wouldn't you rather go through the season checking Carl Crawford's stats every night, instead of a player from another American League East team?

If competing for a title feels empty without having a bunch of Rays on your team, here are 10 guys to focus on come draft day:

1. Carl Crawford | OF | $34
Crawford staggered to the finish line with a left hamstring injury in 2007, but by then, he had already turned in another All-Star campaign. The 26-year-old tied for the AL lead with 50 steals -- the fourth time he's topped the league in that category -- while a .358 second-half average allowed him to finish with a career-best .315 mark. Crawford did take a step back in the power department last year, but he's still fully capable of topping 20 long balls. With his potential, you shouldn't think twice about snatching him up at the back end of the first round.

2. B.J. Upton | 2B, OF | $26
Upton found a defensive home in center field in 2007, giving him the opportunity to stick with the Rays and deliver a breakout campaign. The noticeable flaw on his resume is the 154 strikeouts, and Upton could struggle to reach .300 again if he doesn't learn to make more contact. Then again, he displayed strong plate discipline for a 23-year-old (.386 OBP), a promising sign for things going forward. With the ability he carries as a potential 30-30 player and his eligibility at two positions, Upton will be tough to ignore once fantasy's biggest names go off the board.

3. Carlos Pena | 1B | $22
A rags-to-riches story in 2007, Pena went undrafted in most leagues and blossomed into the season's biggest surprise story, finishing with more homers and RBIs than any other AL first baseman. The bad news is that it probably won't happen again. Rarely are fairy tales followed by good sequels, and history shows few examples of players who start hitting 40 homers at age 29. Taking his recent and overall record into account, something along the lines of 30 jacks and 90-100 RBIs is a more reasonable expectation.

4. Scott Kazmir | SP | $21
Last year's AL strikeouts leader altered his mechanics midway through the season and was almost untouchable in the second half, posting a 2.39 ERA and striking out 124 batters in 94 1/3 innings. Consider that even while fighting his mechanics in the first half, Kazmir was striking out a batter per inning. He stayed healthy and made 34 starts last season, and the usual caveat about the injury risks for young hurlers is the only question mark that comes with the talented 24-year-old.

5. James Shields | SP | $15
Shields turned in a breakout 2007 campaign, as he learned to keep hitters from sitting on his plus changeup by mixing up his pitches better. Showing outstanding command, Shields ranked third in the AL in WHIP and BB/9 among qualifying starters, and only AL Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia had a better K/BB ratio. Just 26, the right-hander still has room to improve. And best of all, he remains relatively overlooked in Tampa Bay, so the opportunity to make a profit on Shields is there.

6. Evan Longoria | 3B | $13
It seems increasingly likely that Longoria will be the Rays' starting third baseman on Opening Day, which makes him a strong candidate for AL Rookie of the Year honors. The 22-year-old dominated while shooting up the organization, producing a .304/.388/.546 line. He's a good bet to hit for average and power from the get-go, and given his strong plate discipline and work ethic, he's a good bet to avoid prolonged slumps. A legit big league-ready rookie, Longoria will help any fantasy team in any format.

7. Jason Bartlett | SS | $8
Bartlett delivered uneven production in his first full season as a starter, but he showed promise as an offensive catalyst. Finishing with 50 walks against 73 strikeouts, the 28-year-old showed the kind of plate discipline that will likely help him boost his batting average in the coming years. He also displayed good wheels with 23 stolen bases, and he figures to run even more under manager Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay. Bartlett may bat ninth for the Rays, which hurts his chances of scoring runs, but the potential for a .280 average and 25 steals makes him tough to ignore in mixed formats.

8. Akinori Iwamura | 3B/2B | $7
Score one for international scouting. Iwamura averaged 35 homers over his last three seasons in Japan, but the Rays correctly anticipated that he'd be more of a table-setter than a middle-of-the-lineup presence. Sure enough, Iwamura spent much of the season in the leadoff spot and hit only seven homers, but he demonstrated unexpected speed with 10 triples and a dozen steals. With Longoria closing in fast, Iwamura is expected to shift over to second base, where he should be a useful middle-round option and put up numbers comparable to those from his rookie campaign.

9. Troy Percival | RP | $5
After signing Percival to a two-year, $8 million contract, the Rays are hoping he can party like it's 1999 this season. The team wouldn't be handing out that kind of bank for a setup man, so expect Percival and his 324 career saves to be the main ninth-inning option. Percival probably won't maintain last year's impressive comeback numbers over a full season, but the 38-year-old is a good bet to be a nice source of saves for a good portion of '08.

10. Jonny Gomes | OF | $5
Gomes has averaged 118 strikeouts in 360 at-bats over the last three seasons, which explains why his lifetime batting average is a paltry .242. Of course, with an average of 19 home runs in the same span, the 27-year-old clearly packs plenty of punch. He's also capable of helping out on the basepaths, as he proved with 12 steals in 2007. Gomes heads into '08 as the Rays' regular designated hitter, which means he's finally likely to receive 500-plus at-bats. Stomach the poor average, and he could give you 30 jacks and 15 steals.