Just as there are fantasy busts year in and year out in fantasy sports, there are always guys that come out of nowhere to provide much-needed support to fantasy rosters. After all, Albert Pujols–as fantastic a player as he is–will simply not win you any championships. Roy Halladay will not win you any championships. Championships are won by those well-thought-out late-round picks and by making smart free agent pickups (along with knowing when to cut your losses with the disappointments) during the course of the season. Let’s take a look at each position to see who has been the best of the unheralded.
(NOTE: All stats as of June 12th)
First baseman: Gaby Sanchez (FLA)
Unless you are a baseball fanatic and/or a fantasy baseball guru, you might not realize what a spectacular season Marlins’ first baseman, Gaby Sanchez, is having. After all, the Marlins average about 37 people per home game, give or take a few. In May alone, Sanchez batted .345 with six home runs and 25 RBI. But that’s just part of the story. He ranks 8th in the National League in WAR (wins above replacement) at 2.5, which means that if Sanchez were taken off the roster and replaced with a minor leaguer, the Marlins would be 2.5 games worse off for it. And with the way the Fish are struggling to hit lately, that’s a scary thought to those few Marlins faithful. Sanchez had been highly touted for a long time in his rise through the Marlins’ farm system. However, there were questions as to how much of his minor league power would translate into the Majors. This year, he seems to be emphatically answering that question with, “a helluva lot”. Sanchez currently ranks twelfth in the National League with an .868 OPS. Not bad for the #28 ranked first baseman in preseason boards (which put him behind such elite sluggers as Derrek Lee, Aubrey Huff and Michael Cuddyer).
(Other candidates: Mark Trumbo, Todd Helton, Michael Morse)
Second baseman: Ryan Roberts (ARI)
Admittedly, I’m taking some liberties here because Roberts has just 32 AB as a second baseman this season, but that qualifies him at second base in Yahoo! leagues. Roberts, 31, has personified “late bloomer” this year in providing decent production in four categories: homers, RBI, runs, and steals. His .260 batting average isn’t great, but it isn’t bad, either. (Hey, he could be Dan Uggla, after all.) If you can get this clip: .260/8/24 with 32 runs scored and soon-to-be double digit steals out of your second base slot (one of the weakest in fantasy baseball), I’d be willing to guess you’d take that any day of the week. And it’s all the better when you consider that he was ranked 50 spots below Adam Kennedy in the Yahoo! second basemen preseason ranks.
(Other candidates: Jamey Carroll, Darwin Barney, Allen Craig)
Third baseman: Alex Gordon (KC)
I am aware that he has played exactly zero games at third base this season, but, like Ryan Roberts, he qualifies at the hot corner in Yahoo! leagues; and that is a much more valuable place for his production on a fantasy roster than in the outfield (where he has played virtually every game so far in 2011). Gordon has been a much-maligned for never living up to the immense hype that surrounded him all during his time at AA-Wichita and into his call-up to the big leagues in 2007. Though, to be fair, if you were widely called “the next George Brett”, you’d be hard-pressed to produce anything close to what was expected. Still, he’s been an injury magnet (played in only 123 games in 2009 and 2010 combined) and a strikeout factory (he has struck out in nearly 25% of his Major League at-bats). While the strikeouts continue to pile up, he has walked at a much higher rate than in years past, which has led to his .349 OBP. He’s had a fantastic turnaround, hitting .280 with seven homers, 33 RBI, 38 runs scored and 5 stolen bases. He will never be the next George Brett, but now that the pressure has waned considerably and he has switched positions, perhaps he can be a solid Major League contributor for a long time.
(Other candidates: Placido Polanco, Maicer Izturis)
Shortstop: Asdrubal Cabrera (CLE)
Cabrera has always been a solid-to-very-good on-base percentage guy, but this year, he decided to jack the power numbers up (his slugging percentage in 2011 is over 100 points higher than his career average). In his first four Major League seasons, Cabrera hit eighteen home runs combined. This year, he already has twelve. He has also given AL-only leagues a rare great option at shortstop. In total, if you extrapolate his stats out for the rest of the season, he is on pace for 105 runs scored, over 200 hits, 108 RBI, and a .302 average. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ll take that from a guy whose ADP was around 231.
(Other candidates: Jhonny Peralta, Erick Aybar)
Catcher: Alex Avila (DET)
If you can get a sleeper at catcher that pans out, you’re going to have a leg up on a lot of your league mates. Just getting production out of the catcher’s slot on your roster at all is an advantage. Alex Avila, the 23rd best catcher in Yahoo! leagues preseason ranks, got a decent amount of playing time last year in Motown, but his offensive numbers weren’t exactly Ruthian. He struck out in 25% of his at-bats, and hit just .228. With the acquisition of Victor Martinez, there was some discussion as to how much time Avila would get behind the dish. However, this is V-Mart we’re talking about here and his defensive “skills” at the backstop are about as good as, well, mine. When Martinez went down in April with a groin injury, Avila took hold of the fulltime catcher’s job and hasn’t let go. Avila has already surpassed his home run and RBI totals from last year in over 50 fewer games. He’s also batting 65 points higher and slugging over 110 points better than last season. Currently, Avila has the second highest OPS of any catcher in fantasy baseball with at least 160 at-bats (trailing only Brian McCann).
(Other candidates: Jonathan Lucroy, Russell Martin, Yadier Molina)
Outfielders: Lance Berkman (STL), Matt Joyce (TB), Melky Cabrera (KC)
The Renaissance Man, Lance Berkman, is having one of the most remarkable seasons I can remember. He’s right in the heart of the early MVP race and having his best season since 2006, when he had an astounding 45 homers and 136 RBI. (He was also getting on base 42% of the time during that otherworldly season.) Berkman isn’t quite on pace to match those insane numbers (though he does have a higher OPS than at any point in his career), but if he were to somehow keep this up, he’d be somewhere in the neighborhood of 39 homers and 110 RBI. Not bad for what was essentially a scrap-heap signing. Meanwhile, down in St. Petersburg, we have Matt Joyce, whose career batting average is similar to such fantasy juggernauts as Kevin Kouzmanoff and Rod Barajas. He has been putting up numbers that are just mind-boggling. Joyce has always had power and plate discipline, but a .330 BA through 60 games is just ridiculous for him. What’s really intriguing about Joyce is that he is still accepting his fair share of walks even though his power numbers have increased. I don’t expect the batting average to keep up all year (who does?), but with his good eye at the plate, he’s going to keep hitting homers and driving in runs. Now, I feel the need to rant a bit. Can someone rationally explain where all of this production from Melky Cabrera came from? Did all of that time on the Atlanta bench last year cause him to suddenly remember how to hit a baseball? The only thing that Melky did well last year was produce outs for opposing pitchers. This winter, Cabrera became the latest player to join “Braves West” in Kansas City (along with another former Brave, Jeff Francoeur) and he has absolutely thrived. He already has twice as many home runs (and more steals and just two fewer RBI) as he did last season in 85 fewer games. Not to mention he’s slugging over 100 points higher this year, as well. He should continue to see regular playing time in KC because the Royals are, as usual, not getting even an iota of good pitching, and will have to outslug other teams to beat them most nights.
(Other candidates: Jose Bautista [come on, did anyone honestly think he would continue this absurd pace???], Jeff Francoeur, Corey Patterson, Brennan Boesch, Johnny Damon)
Starting pitchers: Alexi Ogando (TEX) & Anibal Sanchez (FLA)
As far as transitions from the bullpen to the starting rotation go, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger success story than Alexi Ogando. Ogando was one of Texas’ best pitchers last season, giving up just six runs in 44 games with a .208 BAA. With Cliff Lee spurning the Rangers to go back to Philadelphia, the Rangers needed someone to step up and fill the gargantuan void he left behind. With all the injuries they’ve suffered and the downright mediocrity of Colby Lewis and the sometimes-shaky starts of Derek Holland and Matt Harrison, Ogando has been a major reason that Texas has stayed on top of the AL West again this year. Ogando, 7-0, has a microscopic WHIP of 0.90 thanks to Christy Mathewson-like control, along with 60 strikeouts and he should be getting strong consideration to start the All-Star Game for the AL. Over in the NL, the Marlins, though they are plummeting massively right now, have really struck gold with one of their young pitchers, and no, I’m not talking about Josh Johnson. (He has no place in a column like this.) Anibal Sanchez seems to flirt with a no-hitter every other week. Last year, Sanchez averaged allowing a hit per inning and had a middling 1.34 WHIP. This season, he is missing bats with remarkable regularity. Now, he striking out a batter per inning and walking much fewer batters than he ever has before. Really, the only knock on him this year is that he is allowing more home runs on average. But he’s allowing solo homers by and large, and is staying away from catastrophic innings. He was ranked in the high 200’s on the overall preseason boards, but now sits in the top 60.
(Other candidates: Bartolo Colon, Dillon Gee, Josh Tomlin, Charlie Morton, Phil Humber)
Relief pitchers: Fernando Salas (STL) & J.J. Putz (ARI)
Cheap saves are easy to come by every season in fantasy baseball. This is no secret. However, finding a newly anointed closer midway into the year who manages to cement his status and give you strikeouts and a good ERA and WHIP are sometimes very difficult to find. Because Ryan Franklin was so horrific in the ninth inning, he lost his job as the Cardinals’ closer just days into the season. Tony LaRussa would then employ the closer-by-committee. However, about three weeks in, Fernando Salas seized control of the closer gig and has not relinquished it. He has stabilized a vulnerable bullpen, converting eleven of twelve save opportunities and giving up only six runs all season so far. None of his saves, however, were more impressive than his outing on June 7th, which saw him come into the 8th inning in a bases loaded, no out jam, and retire all six men he faced for a two-inning save. LaRussa’s quote: “That was beyond the call of duty.” Speaking of stabilizing bullpens, let’s talk about J.J. Putz. Arizona’s bullpen was so hideously bad last year that A.J. Hinch and Kirk Gibson considered calling FEMA for disaster relief. We’re talking maybe the worst bullpen in baseball history. They were dead last or next to last in virtually every conceivable pitching statistic. This year, J.J. Putz has been stellar, allowing only 25 baserunners in 27 innings (just six walks), and converting 17 of 19 saves for the resurgent Diamondbacks. I suppose it helps that he’s actually completely healthy.
(Other candidates: Mark Melancon, Kyle Farnsworth, Jordan Walden)