Major League Baseball teams are all in Florida or Arizona preparing for the 2002 season, and that can only mean one thing ? it’s almost time for your fantasy baseball league to start.

Here are some tips to help you get to the top of your league’s standings.

Be flexible

Whether your league has an auction or a draft, you need to be flexible when choosing players. If you set too many guidelines for yourself beforehand, you may be forced to pass up on a steal.

For example, you might decide ahead of time that you’re going to concentrate on hitters in the early rounds and then try to find some less well-known pitchers in the late rounds. If Pedro Martinez or Kevin Brown slips to the third round because everybody’s afraid of injury, grab him and adjust your strategy.

Closer theories

There are two main theories on what to do with the saves category and you can make good arguments for each. It is not as important which one you choose as it is that you choose early.

You do not, under any circumstances, want to end up with just one legitimate closer. Either try to win the category and take two good closers and a third pitcher who can get at least 20 saves or do not take any closers and just punt the saves category.

Middle relievers

They may look like players to avoid, but a good middle reliever can be a valuable commodity. Middle relievers who can pitch more than 75 innings and keep their ERA below 3.00 and their WHIP below 1.20 while posting at least one strikeout per inning are good to have, especially if you’re in a bad spot in the order when a run on closers starts.

Octavio Dotel (Houston), Felix Rodriguez (San Francisco), Kyle Farnsworth (Chicago Cubs) and Byung-Hyun Kim (Arizona) are the best middle relievers, but there are at least a dozen others who are better than a starter that gives you 10 wins at the cost of a 5.25 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP.

Steals

If you plan ahead, there is no reason to waste a pick or money on a player who can’t hit just to keep up in the steals category. Bobby Abreu, Roberto Alomar, Shawn Green, Derek Jeter, Andruw Jones, Alex Rodriguez and Ichiro Suzuki are just some of the offensive stars who should also steal at least 20 bases. Move all of them up accordingly.

Also, if you’re trying to decide between two similar sluggers, take a look and see if one of them is more likely to swipe a few bases. If you can stay close in the steals category without hurting your other offensive numbers to do so, it is a major victory.

Let other people ruin their teams with the likes of Tony Womack, Eric Young and Brian L. Hunter.

Stay smart

In an auction, don’t get caught in a bidding war. Go in with a set amount ? or at least a good idea of an amount ? that you’re willing to spend on each player, and do not go over that. Remember that not every player can go for more than he’s worth and find the bargains.

You can, however, go overboard with this. If you find so many bargains that you have a lot of money left when all of the good players are gone, you haven’t helped yourself.

In a draft, keep an eye on what positions you’re taking. There’s nothing worse than realizing that you don’t have a second baseman yet and the best one left is Mark Grudzielanek.

Sleepers

Every year there are some young players who burst onto the scene and start a race to the fantasy free agent page. Here are my top 10 newcomers in each league. None of these players have pitched more than 100 innings or played more than 80 games in the majors.

American League ? Carlos Pena, first base, Oakland; Toby Hall, catcher, Tampa Bay; Danyz Baez, pitcher, Cleveland; Joel Pineiro, pitcher, Seattle; Joe Crede, third base, Chicago; Vernon Wells, outfield, Toronto; Mario Ramos, pitcher, Texas; Eric Hinske, third base, Toronto; Erik Hiljus, pitcher, Oakland; Nick Johnson, first base, New York.

National League ? Josh Beckett, pitcher, Florida; Jose Ortiz, second base, Colorado; Juan Cruz, pitcher, Chicago; Bud Smith, pitcher, St. Louis; Marcus Giles, second base, Atlanta; Juan Uribe, shortstop, Colorado; Sean Burroughs, third base, San Diego; Kazahisu Ishii, pitcher, Los Angeles; Corey Patterson, outfield, Chicago; Brandon Duckworth, pitcher, Philadelphia.

Research

The best way to end up with a good team is to go into your draft or auction prepared. Find out as much as you can about everybody who is projected to start or get significant playing time in the majors.

To help get you started, here are my top 20 players in each league.

American League

Alex Rodriguez ? The best player in the majors is also the top fantasy choice.

Pedro Martinez ? No other AL starter is even close if he’s healthy.

Ichiro Suzuki ? League-leading average is worth more because he gets so many at-bats.

Jason Giambi ? Best offensive player in the AL the last two years.

Mike Mussina ? Most consistent pitcher in the AL.

Ivan Rodriguez ? Should get back to 30 homers and 90 RBI with an average above .300.

Tim Hudson ? Best of Oakland’s big three.

Manny Ramirez ? Could hit .330 with 50 homers and 150 RBI if he’s happy all year.

Barry Zito ? Worse ratios, more strikeouts than Hudson.

Troy Glaus ? Will outhomer every other AL third baseman by at least 10.

Next 10 ? Magglio Ordonez, Freddy Garcia, Juan Gonzalez, Mark Mulder, Nomar Garciaparra, Roger Clemens, Bret Boone, Miguel Tejada, Mariano Rivera, Keith Foulke.

National League

Randy Johnson ? Nobody will come within 100 strikeouts of the Big Unit.

Sammy Sosa ? A near-lock for 55 homers, and could hit 75.

Barry Bonds ? Won’t duplicate 2001, but will still be unreal.

Todd Helton ? Eventually Coors Field will give him either the Triple Crown or a .400 average.

Curt Schilling ? Not as dominant as Johnson, but almost as good.

Mike Piazza ? Will benefit from a new lineup more anybody in the majors.

Kerry Wood ? This is his big year, count on it.

Albert Pujols ? Last year was not a fluke.

Chipper Jones ? Still eligible at third base in most leagues.

Vladimir Guerrero ? Could be the best if he wanted to.

Next 10 ? Greg Maddux, Kevin Brown, Shawn Green, Roberto Alomar, Matt Morris, Al Leiter, Jeff Bagwell, Jeff Kent, Trevor Hoffman, Armando Benitez.

Jacobs can be reached at bjacobs@campustimes.org.



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