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Fantasy baseball sleepers, undervalued - SP

By Tim Heaney and Nicholas Minnix
Edited by Nicholas Minnix and Tim Heaney

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.

Cincinnati Reds SP Johnny Cueto
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

Kyle Kendrick, Philadelphia Phillies

It was nothing new: The Phils moved Kendrick into the rotation last season for a lengthy spell because injuries depleted it. What was new: his changeup as a weapon and following the coaching staff's directive to pitch more aggressively. What resulted, after the All-Star break: a 2.87 ERA, a 6.78 K/9, a 2.18 BB/9 and a 51.1 percent ground-ball rate.

The right-hander's rate of K's per nine last year is anomalous in the context of his career, but his method, continued, will help him retain most of that gain. Kendrick raised his rate of first-pitch strikes notably, stayed down and reduced the rate of contact against him to just above 80 percent. His cut and sinking fastballs were accompanied by that improved changeup, the crafting of which is a specialty for pitching coach Rich Dubee.

Is Kendrick ascending to fantasy ace-dom? No. Is he a breakthrough candidate with the upside to round out your mixed-league staff or be an inexpensive, mid-grade anchor of your NL-only staff? Absolutely. -NM

Shaun Marcum, New York Mets

After his June 14 start last season, his ERA sat at 3.39. Subsequent elbow issues cost him about two months, and his return produced a 4.32 second-half ERA. He probably wasn't right on the mound as last year came to a close.

He's landed in an optimal environment to recapture that early success, though. Citi Field's neutrality bodes well for someone who will not miss calling Miller Park home. The 31-year-old hasn't walked more than 2.98 per nine in any of his seasons with 21-plus starts. Above-average left-on-base percentages look like the norm. His diverse arsenal keeps batters guessing, and staying in the National League should preserve his solid if not outstanding dominance; the 7.91 K/9 he logged last year is probably his apex.

With a sound limb, Marcum, for mixed leagues, is a Connect Four special ... "Pretty sneaky, sis." -TH

Hyun-Jin Ryu, Los Angeles Dodgers

Tampa Bay Rays SP Alex Cobb
Not an entree, but a great side dish

Skepticism over Asian imports in recent years - outside of Yu Darvish - keeps their prices low. Ryu will turn 26 before the season starts, which means he should carry his overseas brilliance across the Pacific.

The David Wells comparison fits: The slightly tubby Korean wields low-90s giddy-up - more about efficiency than power - with fine off-speed and breaking stuff. The southpaw gave up a bit too many homers back home, but he could resurrect the output Ted Lilly and Chris Capuano gave their owners as part of this rotation, much of which was padded by Dodger Stadium.

Adding the lack of opponents' book on him should aid Ryu's transition and help him carve out a productive "rookie" season as a mixed back-ender. -TH

Alex Cobb, Tampa Bay Rays

This year, for the first time, Cobb entered spring training with a rotation spot that's his to lose. He pitched well in place of Jeff Niemann in 2012, with a 7.00 K/9 and a 2.64 BB/9 in 136 1/3 stanzas, but he didn't begin to see it reflected in his results until after the break, when he registered a 3.40 ERA. The right-hander, as expected, kept the ball out of the air most of the time (21.2 percent fly-ball rate).

That's Cobb's M.O. He pitches to contact more so than he goes for the K, so bargain shoppers should expect a somewhat lesser rate of strikeouts. But he prevents long-ball damage. Folks concerned about his issues with walks in the past two seasons (mostly on the farm) should take solace in his rapid improvement in that area under the direction of Tampa Bay and Jim Hickey. Historically, wildness has been a relatively short-term issue for him.

Cobb's numbers aren't flashy, but now that he's ironed out some wrinkles and he's a favorite to pitch for the Rays, he's a potential money-earner. The likelihood that he'll deliver is compounded by the fact that mixed-league intrigue doesn't seem to have risen in step. -NM

Jason Hammel, Baltimore Orioles

When a pitcher with a 4.99 ERA and a 1.47 WHIP in 732 lifetime innings entering a season busts out a 3.43 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP in 118 frames one year, roto managers will be skeptical. It's understandable. Hammel's 3.20 BB/9 wasn't much different from his career rate of walks issued, but his 8.62 K/9 was by far a personal best. Something is fishy.

To be sure, Hammel doesn't project to repeat his success from 2012 so readily. But the 30-year-old's increased usage and velocity of a two-seam fastball accounts for much of this statistically supported breakthrough. He also reduced the rate of fly balls against him to less than 30 percent - which comes in handy at Camden Yards. Knee soreness that caused him to miss multiple stretches of starts and eventually led to surgery (with more missed starts) prevented what otherwise could've been a superb year. He's healthy, this spring, and boding well for this year is the fact that he picked up right where he'd left off in each of his outings following an absence.

Hammel has taken his game to the next level. His draft stock hasn't done enough of that, however. He's an exciting mixed-league piece and could easily be a steal in AL-only auctions, if the crowd is full of doubters. -NM

Ivan Nova, New York Yankees

Seems basic: Anyone who produced a 5.02 ERA last season is bound to rebound. But few acknowledge it, especially since the 26-year-old's drop-off is widely labeled a harsh counterbalance of a lofty, wins-fueled 2011. In 2012, Nova took "Bronx Bomber" to a new level, allowing 1.48 homers per nine innings and surrendering a 22.4 liner percentage.

His inflated HR/FB (16.6, compared to 8.4 the year before) and, more importantly, sparkling K/9 (8.08, 5.33), BB/9 (2.96, 3.10) and swinging-strike percentage (9.0, 6.6) say he was short-changed, though. Nova's velocity held up, too. Larry Rothschild attributes the righty's woes - only mildly counteracted by a sparkling June - to Nova's stubbornness with pitch sequencing and selection. The rotator cuff inflammation that sidelined him may have bothered him before and after the DL stint.

He'll have to fight for his spot, but with a job, splitting the difference of the last two years alone looks like a productive outcome. When buying a minimal improvement, remember he has yet to maximize his deceptively intriguing tools that could make him one of baseball's true breakthrough hurlers. -TH


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