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.
CC Sabathia, New York Yankees
Some fantasy owners will come into this season considerably wary, for the first time, of the burly left-hander's durability. He pitched more than 237 frames in each of his five campaigns prior to 2012 (in which he hit 200 on the nose). The concerns about Sabathia's workload manifested in the few starts he missed near the end of last season because of elbow discomfort. After the playoffs, he underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone spur.
Cueto, Latos: Shhhhhhhhh
Is this the beginning of the end? Well, kind of, if you're a cynic. As far as the near future goes, the left-hander has more than likely put the worst behind him. Plenty of hurlers have pitched with a bone spur in their throwing elbows and paid a price for it - in terms of results, mostly. It seems that the Bronx Bombers' ace spent relatively little time with the problem. Or, at the very least, while it was developing, it had no discernible effects on his performance.
Down the road, perhaps within a couple of years, Sabathia may very well run into something more serious. But as far as 2013 goes, all systems should be a go. Relatively speaking, he's coming at quite a discount, though. -NM
Mat Latos, Cincinnati Reds
Pitchers residing in Great American Ball Park often occupy "do not draft" lists. Mistake: Latos and the other Cincy starters buck that perception, and there's a miniscule skills difference (minus maybe a few K's here and there) between his present-day profile and his desirable numbers from his San Diego days.
His control rate has remained below 3.00 in each of his three full seasons. You can't complain about last year's dip in both dominance and opponents' empty-hack rate. Each remained high, and the positive grounder-fly trend shows an optimal consolidation. (He was unlucky in homer allowance.) Latos' callback to his 2010 strand rate means he's inches from cementing that pattern - yes, when there's a track record, it's not luck. Not enough? His backing offense is pretty good.
Why pay hitter dollars for a famous arm when this location-independent ace will ease your wallet? -TH
Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds
I've stated my case: Cueto's development has been overlooked and has made him, prior to this spring, an underappreciated commodity. The purpose here is to argue that the rise in interest in him isn't great enough. He's almost in Matt Cain's class and, therefore, still isn't valued as he should be.
Cueto, 27, isn't quite yet a workhorse and hasn't delivered the strikeout prowess that he displayed in his rookie season. His numbers suggest that he's taken a dedicated approach to his career, however, so K's haven't been first on his priority list. He hasn't lost the ability to generate them. He's learned to keep the ball out of the air, essential to success at GABP.
Simply put, Cueto is worth the extra buck or two that your league-mates will probably be unwilling to spend. -NM
Doug Fister, Detroit Tigers
Control arms remain underappreciated in a strikeout-based fantasy world, and to a degree, rightfully so. But since landing in Motown, Fister has bolstered his cred.
The efficient worker followed up 2011 spikes in two-seamer and curveball potency with a career-high grounder inducement rate and another evidence point on his ability to force pop-ups. Most importantly, the deuce broke through as his chief strikeout pitch and top complement. Though his approach diminishes the chances of building on his punch-out growth, that level won't revisit the depths from his Seattle days, either.
When joined with his elite control, that's a sound profile that allows his owners to experiment elsewhere on commodities with less control but stronger K upside. Though the discount may not be as jaw-dropping in mono leagues, in a roundabout but difference-making manner, that staff-building utility carries understated importance. -TH
Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants
Understandable that most are avoiding the innings-packed, lean-limbed, funky-throwing righty after his craterous 2012 regular season. He lost fastball zip and nibbled while trying to avoid leaving meatballs over the dish; his predictability produced career highs in enemies' liner rate and HR/FB allowed.
However, he still punched out more than one batter per inning (with a step forward in swinging-strike inducement), and advanced metrics show his results should've been better. With restored four-seam velocity, his split-change, one of baseball's best pitches in recent memory, will make him dangerous again. Maybe his offseason cleansing of mindset and hair will push him toward that clarity.
Numerical and technical factors, regardless, point to solid odds of a correction - maybe not to past levels, but more realistically to a fresh baseline that befits a No. 2 mixed starter. Capitalize on a bear market for an established track record and one of the biggest potential payoffs at the position. -TH
Wandy Rodriguez, Pittsburgh Pirates
Among late-rounds mixed starting pitchers, Wandy hardly boasts magic, despite his clever, overused nickname. Former zealots learned from his cume 2012 numbers - and our prognosis last spring - that he's not joining the top ranks without Lucky Charms-esque fortune.
But there's often a need to balance excitement with stability, and when surfing for a cheap buttress, let the stigma of last year play to your advantage. A 6.00 ERA in June skewed an otherwise typical Rodriguez season. He looked more like himself after being shipped to the Buccos; though his dropping indicators cement his punch-out ability's reliance on deception, he restored some K promise last summer (albeit with a control slip) and should also strand more bag occupants.
The southpaw's owners must deal with some WHIPlash and painful dinger allowance, but his new favorable home park and typical grounder inducement provide reasonably priced cushion. Wandy has gone from undervalued, to overvalued, to a sturdy backup plan; his record of 200-ish frames keeps him afloat in a sea of volatility. -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 competes in Tout Wars and LABR and has won several industry leagues in both baseball and football.
During baseball and football season, hear him every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore. On Thursdays, he visits 106.1 FM WMTI in New Orleans and Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, where he often crashes other shows, as well.