As we near September and roster expansion, here are a few players to keep on your watchlist. Not only is it necessary to be vigilant for players who could be sleepers in next season's draft, but productivity for unheralded prospects can help you down the stretch, especially in head-to-head leagues. You won't find any discussion of Jason Heyward, Justin Smoak, or Stephen Strasburg here. I assume you already know they are must-have prospects in keeper leagues and middle-round draft picks next spring. I more concerned here with guys your leaguemates are likely to be completely ignorant of and who represent late-round steals.
Julio Borbon - OF - Texas Rangers
With Nelson Cruz on the D.L., Borbon has entered into the Rangers outfield and DH timeshare with Daniel Murphy, Marlon Byrd, and Andruw Jones. Borbon is having a huge series against Boston, going 6-for-8 with 4 SB in two games. His speed and defense could keep him in the mix as a defensive replacement and occasional starter for Ron Washington even after Cruz returns. Obviously, Cruz, Byrd, and Josh Hamilton are all likely to need regular rest.
In the long run, Julio Borbon's talents will probably land him somewhere between Willy Taveras and Juan Pierre. His primary weapon is, clearly, his incredible speed. This season in AAA he stole 25 bases in 32 attempts and in 2008 he stole 53 bases in 71 tries. Borbon has also shown good contact ability throughout his minor-league career, with a .310 average over three seasons. If he can hit .300 or even .290 in the majors he will find a job someplace. The test will be his plate discipline. Much like Pierre, he profiles as somebody who will be difficult to strike out, but equally difficult to walk. Despite hitting .307 at AAA this season, he OBP was a modest .367. He walked only 33 times and struck out 40 in 400+ AB.
Fantasy players recognize that players such like this, while sometimes frustrating if they're playing for your hometown team, are rotisserie gold, because they will bring useful numbers in the batting average and runs categories, and can single-handedly turn a team into one of the dominant forces in the stolen bases category. Even as a part-time player, given between 300 and 400 AB, Borbon is capable of providing 20-30 SB.
Kila Ka'aihue - 1B/DH - Kansas City Royals
If this season has proven anything, it's that the Royals are the most poorly run franchise in either league. Sure, Pittsburgh, Washington, Cleveland, and the Mets have had their share of bumbles, but they've also demonstrated that they have solid plans for the future and their fans have legitimate reasons for optimism. Not so in Kansas City. The Royals seemed primed to make a run at .500 going into this season, but nearly all of their hitters have underachieved and inexplicably they continue to give regular at-bats to Jose Guillen (688 OPS), Willie Bloomquist (657 OPS), Mike Jacobs (728 OPS), and, most distressingly, Yuniesky Betancourt (599 OPS), who they traded for mid-season!!! Considering the apparent ineptitude of GM Dayton Moore, it is almost impossible to predict what the Royals will do this September and during the offseason. But there is no doubt in my mind that Kila Ka'aihue should be given an opportunity to play everyday at the major-league level.
After hitting 37 HR and 100 RBI between AA and AAA in 2008 and performing well in a brief call-up in September, it seemed like the 25-year-old was destined to begin the season on the major-league roster. However, the addition of Mike Jacobs kept Ka'aihue at AAA (inexplicably considering how Jacobs has played). Ka'aihue has not replicated his power numbers from '08, but he still has 17 HR, an 858 OPS, and, most impressively, for the second consecutive season he has more walks (88) than strikeouts (79). There are only eleven players in the majors with a better BB/K ratio above 1.00. They include Albert Pujols, Dustin Pedroia, Chipper Jones, Adrian Gonzalez, Todd Helton, and Joe Mauer. My point being that BB/K rate is a pretty stellar indicator. Ka'aihue may not develop above-average power, especially for a first basemen, but his plate discipline and pitch recognition is superior and suggests that he could develop into a .300 hitter or better.
Jonny Gomes & Wladimir Balentien - OF - Cincinnati Reds
Gomes is 28 and has never been allowed 500 PA in a season. He has hit 20+ HR twice and, after hitting three in one game last week, is on pace to do so again in '09. Since June 7 Gomes is hitting .270 with 14 HR and a 956 OPS. He still averages around a stikeout a game and will no doubt continue to be streaky, but the power is very real. And, after the Chris Dickerson experiment failed, Jay Bruce broke his wrist, and Willy Taveras turned in the worst OPS in all of baseball, Gomes is likely to get everyday at-bats for the rest of the year. If he continues to perform, he could have an inside track for left field in 2010. Gomes is probably a .250 or .260 hitter at best, but given a full season of opportunities, especially in the Great American Smallpark, he will hit 30-40 HR. That's certainly worth a late-round flier in roto leagues.
For some reason the Mariners gave up on Balentien before they even gave him a fighting chance and the Reds got a 24-year-old who showed great power and a fair amount of speed and plate discipline in the high minors. Like Gomes, he is perfectly suited for the friendly confines of Cincinnati and, unlike Gomes, he is still very young and can play centerfield if absolutely necessary. Thusfar Balentien is making the Mariners look silly. In the seven starts he's made for the Reds, he's had a hit in every game and is batting .417 with a 1101 OPS. The NL will no doubt adjust to him, probably exploiting his tendency to overswing and chase pitches early in the count, but it is way to early to suggest that these are problems which can't be fixed.
Gio Gonzalez - SP - Oakland Athletics
The primary piece of the Nick Swisher deal with the White Sox which now looks like a Billy Beane heist, Gonzalez fell behind guys like Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, and Vin Mazzaro in the stockpile of young Athletics pitchers going into the season, largely because of his continued control problems. However, at a dozen starts at AAA he went 4-1 with a 2.51 ERA, .194 BAA, and 71 K in 61 IP, prompting Beane to find a place for him in the major-league rotation. His overall numbers are pretty mediocre, but if you disregard a start against the Twins in which he allowed eleven earned runs in three innings, Gonzalez has a respectable ERA of 3.65 in eight starts and 47 K in 44 IP. Gonzalez will continue to walk people in bunches, but he is also on his way to becoming one of the leagues premier strikeout artists. He will be at the back-end of the A's rotation from the start next year and, of course, benefits from Oakland's very pitcher-friendly home ballpark. Adding him in the late rounds will endanger your WHIP a little, but he could bring with him close to 200 K, a respectable ERA, and 10+ victories.
Aaron Poreda - SP - San Diego Padres
Poreda is also a product of White Sox scouting and development, but came to San Diego in the Jake Peavy deal. He has yet to make a major league start, but allowed just three earned runs in eleven innings of relief for the White Sox, striking out a dozen in the process. The Padres have sent him back to AAA to stretch him out. The adjustment hasn't been quick. He has a 9.64 ERA in three starts. However, in a dozen minor-league starts before he was promoted by the White Sox he had a 2.54 ERA and 78 K in 74 IP. Like Gonzalez, Poreda is only 22 and his still developing his control, but he is also likely to get a long look in the Padres rotation and the spacious confines of Petco Park. In the NL he might be able to keep his ERA below 4.00 and WHIP below 1.30, while giving you strikeouts in bunches.