Championships aren't won in the first few rounds of fantasy baseball drafts. Winning selections come in the middle and late stanzas, when fantasy baseball sleepers and undervalued players pop up.
Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves
Eatin' up Eaton
Heyward doesn't hit as well at Turner Field, and he still struggles versus left-handed pitching and in making contact. Don't expect .300 campaigns anytime soon without significant fortune.
Against southpaws, though, he added five homers and 32 BA points in more than double his 2011 sample - progress. Regaining strength in his right shoulder and retooling his swing erased bad 2011 memories and, more importantly, simply allowed him to hit the ball hard to all fields. (His boost in left-field in-play success was a major step.) His liner increase and noticeable drop in infield flies shows more authoritative connections.
Early indications say Heyward will hit second in a restocked lineup, which could lead to more swipes. Even with a tiny step forward, it's a dollar-collecting profile that could replicate a slightly cheaper version of Justin Upton. -TH
Shane Victorino, Boston Red Sox
Victorino hit only two home runs after his move to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012, and he batted just .255 for the season. That campaign is reminiscent of the downer of a year he had in 2010, when he rang up a career-high 18 jacks but batted only .259. The switch-hitter has been known to fancy himself a power hitter on occasion, and those times have been reflected more in his results than in his plate-discipline marks, but they're evident nonetheless. His worst numbers as a left-handed batter have come in those two years, too.
The fence at Victorino's new home yard won't tempt him to go up there hacking. In fact, Fenway Park may play significantly better for his speed when he puts the ball in play, which is still quite often. At 32, he isn't likely to steal 40 bases, but 30-plus is still easily within reach. His indicators against righties haven't deteriorated, despite his poor results against them in two of the last three seasons, so a more disciplined approach would yield a profitable season from Victorino. -NM
Nick Markakis, Baltimore Orioles
It's difficult to believe that the O's marched to the postseason in 2012 and Markakis wasn't a central reason for it. But that's primarily because he missed a month and a half with a broken bone in his wrist and then the rest of the season, including the playoffs, when he sustained a broken thumb about a week into September. This was after he'd undergone surgery to repair a torn muscle in his abdomen at the beginning of the calendar year and worked his butt off to be ready in time for opening day.
One thing Markakis, 29, isn't: injury-prone. Not because he came up against a couple of freakish injuries, anyway, including a small disc herniation in his neck that will delay his prep time; the team thinks he'll start 2013 on time. The left-handed hitter played in 157 or more games for five straight seasons before the last one. Although his body wasn't 100 percent last year, his outstanding control of the strike zone was intact, and he was experiencing a bit of a renaissance in his rate of round-trippers produced.
Markakis wasn't inclined to run last season, so there's no reason to expect double digits there, but this is a skilled, steady, quality hitter who's available at a good discount, otherwise, especially if your opponents overrate the severity of his latest setback. -NM
Ichiro Suzuki, New York Yankees
Was a move to the Bronx just what the veteran needed last season? Or were his improved results simply a product of the corrections due on a .261 average, four home runs and 15 stolen bases in 423 plate appearances with the Seattle Mariners? He hit .322 with five ding dongs and 14 thefts in a mere 240 plate appearances with the Bombers.
It's a little of both. Ichiro should spend half of his age-39 campaign in The House That Steinbrenner built, which is simply a big plus. Playing for a championship franchise certainly seems to have given his career a bit of a jolt, and although his physical ability has declined, he's aging gracefully. The health of Derek Jeter (recovery from fractured ankle) may even present Ichiro with some opportunities to lead off.
No one is urging you to pay for an easy .300 BA and 40 stolen bases any more. But his projection somewhat easily arrived at the possibility of double-digit home runs and another 30 swipes, and .280-plus is nothing to sneeze at. The market probably won't ask you to pay a lot for a good shot at those marks. -NM
Michael Cuddyer, Colorado Rockies
Cuddyer's first Mile High go-round was grounded by a season-ending oblique injury that cost him about two months. His splits weren't drastic, but you could tell he enjoyed Coors Field. His first half was typical Cuddy production; it's just that many 2013 drafters forget that he didn't have a legit chance to build on it.
Soon to be 33, he's not in any state of tangible skills upside, but profit earned simply from returning to 500-plus at-bats doesn't constitute a leap of fantasy faith in the middle rounds. Added bonuses, besides occupying one of fantasy's favorite hitter's parks: his additional first base eligibility and middle-of-the-order spot. -TH
Dexter Fowler, Colorado Rockies
Fowler took a major step - .293 BA, 10 of his 13 homers - inside the lefty batter's box. His power tapered off violently in the second half, but he still hit the ball hard for most of the year, including a 43.4 liner rate in August.
The next step toward a bigger payoff: extracting more base thievery from his 6-foot-4, 190-pound frame. The mass marks a buildup from more offseason workouts and may inhibit his ceiling, but the Rockies, so they've said, want him to run more and have called on the original Eric Young to help his larceny.
Fowler holds the "undervalued" tone, not "sleeper." But even if his clip dwindles, he'll offer four-category upside that could take a small step forward; doubters - there will be plenty - will help keep the investment reasonable. -TH
Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum, who competes in the prestigious LABR and Tout Wars, has won numerous industry leagues in both baseball and football.
He appears frequently, including every Sunday, on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, as well as every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore.