As you may have noticed, things have been a little busy in the land of Hippeaux. I apologize for the fact that, at the time of year when many are itching for preseason predictions and analysis, I've been busy with my day job. Over the weekend, I'll get out the "ouija board" and continue my series on Tout Wars. I will obviously have an unfair advantage in my predictions, having already watched a game or two of Milwaukee v. Cincinnati. In the meantime, here's a lineup of guys I'm "touting" for breakout campaigns in 2011. I know it's belated, but there are still plenty of drafts on the horizon.
Russell Martin - C - New York Yankees
What's new, right? Martin's always been among my favorites and it's going to pain me dearly to see him in pinstripes, but as a fantasy owner, this is a dream come true. For one thing, Martin's popularity has absolutely tanked. After his first three seasons, when Martin was averaging 14 HR and 16 SB a year, we probably got a little giddy, ranking him alongside the McCann's and V-Mart's of the world. Now, coming off two seasons in which he was dogged by injuries, buried in a mediocre lineup, and discouraged by an unsupportive organization, he's been more or less forgotten (he's the 17th most popular catcher in ESPN standard leagues). The argument for Martin goes like this:
1.) He's a high energy player and excellent defender who Joe Girardi is going to fall in love with. So long as his hip is fully healthy, I think he's a synch to start 140 games.
2.) Even in his worst years, he's shown good plate discipline. He's going to get on base. Batting at the bottom of New York's lineup, that should mean solid runs and probably solid RBI as well (for his position).
3.) He's the only catcher in fantasy baseball who gives you any steals (double-digits in 4 out of 5 seasons and was on pace for that again last year before his injury).
4.) He's still just 28.
(P.S. In BLOGZKRIEG! I insured myself by adding Jesus Montero for a surprisingly cheap price. I recommend this course of action in deep leagues. If Martin goes down or fails to perform, you can bet Montero will be his replacement, either behind the plate or at DH, with Posada moving as well.)
Kila Ka'aihue - 1B - Kansas City Royals
I've been promoting the Kila Monster for three seasons now, ever since he posted a 1085 OPS and a 104/67 BB/K ratio in the high minors in 2008. The Royals, of course, would seem to have botched his development, flipping him back and forth between leagues and never giving him a prolonged look in the majors. This year, he has until July (by which time Super Two eligibility will have expired and K.C. might be tempted to promote Eric Hosmer). Ka'aihue showed how serious he was about taking advantage of his opportunity by hitting .397 with a 1307 OPS this spring. Obviously, we can't read a ton into those numbers, but I think it suggests that he's chomping at the bit to show off his skills for teams who might free him from baseball purgatory. Don't reach, but as a cheap corner infielder or utilityman, Kila has a lot of upside and not that much downside.
Rickie Weeks - 2B - Milwaukee Brewers
You're going to be reading quite a bit about the Brewers in these pages in the coming months, just as you did about the Rangers in 2010. Hopefully, I can spur them to the same sort of luck. Many will question Weeks ability to duplicate what he did last year (.269 AVG-112 R-29 HR-83 RBI-11 SB-830 OPS), but I think that's just the beginning. It feels like Weeks has been around forever, but that's just because he was such a high profile prospect and got promoted at such a young age. He's still just 28, with plenty of room for improvement, if he can just stay on the field. Oh...you say...well, isn't that his problem? Let me just name a few guys getting drafted ahead of him: Chase Utley, Ian Kinsler, and Dustin Pedroia. You want a bastion of health at this thin position? Get in line.
Pablo Sandoval - 3B - San Francisco Giants
Kung Fu Panda's incredible offseason health regimen has turned him into a preseason favorite for Comeback Player of the Year. In BBA BLOGZKRIEG! I had to go all the way to $19 to roster him, which I was more than willing to do. Let's face it, you can't hit .330 with a 943 OPS over a full season at the age of 22 as a "fluke." It just doesn't happen. His belly has disappeared. His skills haven't.
Mike Aviles - 2B, 3B, SS - Kansas City Royals
Aviles has a strong chance of being this season's Martin Prado. Don't overestimate his value, but don't ignore the fact that he's hit .298 over three big-league seasons, despite hitting only .183 in his injury-shortened 2009 campaign. Aviles is a legitimate .300+ hitter who throws in double-digit power and double-digit speed and, perhaps most importantly, will qualify at three shallow infield positions in most leagues. Like Prado and Placido Polanco before him, he's great insurance against injury and batting average protection. Buy with confidence.
Ryan Braun - LF - Milwaukee Brewers
There are different breeds of "sleepers." Mike Aviles and Ryan Braun are definitely not of the same species. That said, every year there is a premier player (or two) who consistently fall to far. Last year's examples were Miguel Cabrera and Josh Hamilton. This year I think that distinction belongs to the two Brewers sluggers, Braun and Fielder. A popular new crop of young, high-upside outfielders, led by Carlos Gonzalez, Jason Heyward, Andrew McCutchen, and Mike Stanton have seduced fantasy leaguers into believing there is a panoply of five-tool options in the outfield. When you have to fill five slots, as is the case in most leagues, that's simply not the case. If Braun is still around at the end of the first round or goes for less than $40 in a standard mixed league auction, you'll regret letting him go to somebody else. This is a guys who's 162-game averages are .307 AVG-111 R-36 HR-118 RBI-18 SB-918 OPS. Yes, please! Oh, and he just turned 27.
Delmon Young - LF - Minnesota Twins
For some reason, people hate Delmon Young. I don't know exactly why it is. Maybe it dates back to that minor-league fracas he got himself into. Maybe it's because he often looks a little lackadaisical, even a little confused, in the spirit of J. D. Drew and B. J. Upton. To me, he seems like a quiet unassuming kid. I emphasize kid because last season, prior to which a whole lot of pundits were ready to declare the former #1 pick a bust, Delmon Young was 24-years-old. Remember what you were doing when you were 24? Who's the bigger "bust"? Delmon proceeded to hit .298 and drive in 112 runs. Now, I'm the first to admit, he got a lot of RBI chances. I wouldn't expect him to match that total. But I see no reason why he can't improve in every other category, as he continues to cut down on strikeouts and improve his power and discipline. I'll guarantee you this, he's better than the 25th best outfielder in fantasy baseball.
Jay Bruce - RF - Cincinnati Reds
I know, I know: "BANDWAGON!!!" Sometimes the conventional wisdom is simply wisdom. Bruce has made strides in each of his first three seasons. Everybody knows he's a industrial-strength toolbox. Last year, he started to lay off pitches that even the catcher couldn't reach. And, really, that's about all he can't hit. Second half splits in 2010: .306 AVG-30 R-15 HR-34 RBI-0 SB-951 OPS. Don't be the fool who takes him ahead of Ichiro or Shin-Soo Choo, but don't be the idiot who believes he'd be better off with Corey Hart.
The following pitchers I covered in the most recent edition of "21st Century Cys," so I won't belabor the point with more than a few additional words:
Francisco Liriano - SP - Minnesota Twins
Say hello to the 2011 AL Cy Young.
Chad Billingsley - SP - Los Angeles Dodgers
Could be the Ubaldo of 2011, which doesn't mean he won't suffer from a second-half slide.
Ian Kennedy - SP - Arizona D-Backs
Yankees fans will be cursing the trade that sent Kennedy to Arizona about every fifth day.
Here are the underrated veterans:
Carlos Zambrano - SP - Chicago Cubs
No more Lou Pinella. No more Derrek Lee. No more Carlos Silva. No more Milton Bradley. Perhaps Big Z will get pissed off be somebody else, but in the second half of 2010, he showed what he could do with a little anger management: 8-0, 1.58 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 64 K, 74 IP. I'm obviously hoping for more of the same in 2011. As an added bonus, Z's meltdown from a season ago has made him eligible as a relief pitcher in many leagues. Depending upon your scoring system, that could dramatically increase his value.
Fausto Carmona - SP - Cleveland Indians
In 2007, Carmona was the best pitcher on a staff that also featured C. C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee. The following two seasons, things went terribly wrong. Last year, Carmona recaptured some of that former glory and earned himself an All-Star bid (the truly pathetic quality of his teammates didn't hurt). Carmona won't pile up strikeouts, but he keeps the ball on the ground and has the potential to pitch deep into games, giving you significant aid in ERA and even WHIP. Victories may be few and far between in Cleveland, but even with some bad luck, he got 13 in 2010. This is a very strong pitcher who is almost always available in the late stages of your auction or draft.