Fantasy baseball sleepers and undervalued - OF

by Tim Heaney and Nicholas Minnix on April 4, 2012 @ 09:20:14 PDT



Dexter Fowler, Colorado Rockies

Milwaukee Brewers OF Corey Hart
Open your Hart

His days as a hyped prospect are long gone. Naturally, this means most of the fantasy community has moved on. Bad idea, especially when ignoring someone with his home park.

Fowler, who'll turn 26 in March, revamped the posture of his batting stance during a stint at Triple-A Colorado Springs following a demotion last season. The switch-hitter also added a leg kick and adjusted his hand positioning on the bat when he returned to the Rox last summer.

These renovations have built a much stronger house - one that is gradually improving its left-handed swing and threatening to tap into more of his concealed power. He hit .288/.381/.498 in his final 271 at-bats last year while registering 10 steals in 13 attempts.

Fowler has added about seven pounds of muscle, shed 4 percent body fat and worked on his initial break when attempting steals. Though his knees bothered him in September, they're apparently a non-issue. He was planning on training with Matt Kemp, last year's NL MVP runner-up, before camp opens.

This isn't merely a "Best Shape of My Life" story; it's gasoline thrown on the kindling the five-category talent laid down in the second half of 2011. This pyre could produce one of the best fantasy outfielder values, especially if he can stay atop this order and leave the yard 10-plus times to go with his 30-steal, .280-plus BA ceiling. -TH

J.D. Martinez, Houston Astros

Another disappointing example of uniform stigma: "I won't draft any Astros this season!" Let everyone else say that. For the right price, every reasonable player warrants attention. After Houston traded Hunter Pence last July, Martinez had a brilliant August (.295-5-28) before fading in September. And he's Houston's most talented hitter not named Carlos Lee - perhaps not saying much, but it shouldn't be ignored.

There's uncertainty in Houston's corner outfield spots, but that'll only make that flawed yet promising 24-year-old even cheaper. First, the bad: He'll strike out more than 20 percent of the time, struggle to top the 80 percent mark on contact rate and need to solve right-handed hurlers.

When he connects, however, he scorches rawhide. Eye-popping line-drive rates during his farm time and in his initial MLB tour support his consistently high in-play averages. Old-time scouts smile at how the ball sounds coming off his bat. This favorable conjunction of skills might produce more hits falling or more of them turning into longer liners that could leave the yard; the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder has the frame to develop more in the latter.

Minute Maid Park aids right-handed power. Though this lineup serves as a trial for youngsters, Martinez will reside in the middle of it, which you won't find out of most comparable late-round mixed outfielders. -TH


Carl Crawford, Boston Red Sox

Not exactly what BoSox brass had in mind: Their prized acquisition swung at everything thrown in Boston, Brookline and other outlying suburbs of home plate, even though he failed to catch up to fastballs most of the time. As a result, his batting average and walk and strikeout rates were the worst in his career.

Crawford's vulnerability versus southpaws was exploited tenfold; outside offerings paralyzed him - seemed like the local media did, as well. A 24-game stretch on the DL halted momentum he was gaining in May and June. His 2012 lineup spot remains undetermined.

As if the putrid 2011 wasn't scary enough, Crawford might miss the first few weeks of the season, at minimum, while recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his left (top) wrist. Where's the silver lining? Frankly, it's that the wrist injury isn't expected to be a long-term issue. And don't forget Crawford's expected draft price and the abilities that hide beneath a deer-in-the-headlights season.

If he stops pressing, he should have a clearer head for strike-zone judgment. Swing tinkering in April and trying to regain his craft in the eight-hole seemed to help, but his aforementioned June sideline trip forced him to reset a month later.

His contact rate wasn't far off from his recent frequencies; he's in position to make stronger results of it. Since 2007, Crawford hadn't struck out at a rate higher than 15.7 percent before last season's 19.3 - plenty of room for a rebound. When he put the ball in play, he hit at least .316 to all fields. He's built for that production.

Crawford's opportunities and attempts at taking second base dropped, but a season that's straightened out should kick-start the old Crawford between the bags. He'll be 30 years old for most of the season and has plenty of speed seasons left.

If Crawford slips (like he did in this site's Baseball Analysis Draft), wouldn't you be apt to tuck him away? He's eligible for a disabled list spot and could be obtained four or five stanzas later than when he used to go in many rooms.

Crawford returning to a mix of his 2009 and 2010 stat lines - not his best work, but more in line with his talent - would easily surpass what it'll cost to roster him. -TH

Corey Hart, Milwaukee Brewers

Chicago White Sox OF Alex Rios
It's about that time

Hart returned from a left oblique strain in late April. He slumped until late May, when a three-homer game coincided with his wake-up call. Another 23 homers followed on the season. The 18 he hit over the final three months show what happens when he's right.

His contact rate, which finished at a Chris Davis-esque 72.1 percent, per Fangraphs, should rebound in a full, healthy campaign. He might be called upon to play some first base against left-handed pitching; that's one way to recharge his batteries while keeping him upright.

In Rickie Weeks and new arrival Aramis Ramirez, he'll maintain competent support even without Prince Fielder (Detroit Tigers) and Ryan Braun (looming decision on 50-game PED suspension). Hart's RBI total dipped because he mostly hit leadoff for the final two-plus months. His excellent production there might prompt Milwaukee to keep him there, but he could also hit in the heart of the order to pick up some of the base-clearing slack left by Fielder.

Even though he'll likely start the season on the DL after arthroscopic knee surgery, the damage doesn't appear to be as severe as possibly thought. He could be available at a discount because of the injury. Throw in another year of 10ish stolen bases - Ron Roenicke proved last year he's giving his players the green light - and Hart could finish as a top-10 mixed outfielder. A few breaks could bump him up to a .300 batting average. Settling for his tangible potential to repeat 2010 (.283-31-102) will do, though. -TH

Alex Rios, Chicago White Sox

Those who bought him strongly after his 2010 rebirth were bitten by the volatility bug. The enigma doesn't take many walks, so he already was at a disadvantage even before his flawed plate campaign.

He chased more off-the-black pitches and paid for it with the highest infield fly-ball percentage of his career. His stick results were further hampered by the resurfacing of chronic soreness in his left big toe. The limited stride and drive by his front foot probably made him pull the ball more; his homer landing spots haven't been as concentrated as they were in 2011.

Sure, if it's chronic, there's a chance it could continue bugging him, but with power back in his feet, he'll be more comfortable and potent in spraying - or, at least going back up the box. This isn't to say he'll hit .300, but since he kept his 2011 contact rate near his career wheelhouse, stronger connections say he'll make his way there.

He seemed to square the sweet spot better after changing the hand positioning in his swing late last season; a five-homer September (.307/.341/.533) reminded us of what can happen when all is right and say he can rectify his issues versus right-handed hurlers. The 31-year-old will add at least 10 swipes to the equation, as well, while hitting in the middle of an order that could rebound in a big way.

New rule: Always buy Rios following a down year. Drafters seem to forget about him so easily when he's in the dumps but fall over themselves trying to get him after he puts it all together. Plucking him from fantasy clearance racks can easily reward you with a 20-20 season ... or, though less likely, 30-30. -TH

Jose Tabata, Pittsburgh Pirates

A lost 2011 saw Tabata fracture the fourth metacarpal in his left hand late in the year a few weeks after coming back from a month-plus absence due to a strained left quadriceps. Luckily, this is a 23-year-old, not a baseball geriatric; he has been hitting this offseason and doesn't appear to have any restrictions heading into 2012.

Concerns over his wrist affecting his hitting are marginalized by his initial value as deep mixed outfielder filler. The leadoff hitter swiped 16 bases in 334 at-bats last year, his second campaign, and showed significant improvement in his walk rate. Being RBI fodder for Andrew McCutchen isn't a bad gig.

You're not looking for power here, but his mix of speed, grounder propensity and batting eye make him a quite useful value outfielder for batting average and stolen bases. -TH

Jason Bay, New York Mets

Detroit Tigers OF Delmon Young
Young: in prime position

"I'm never drafting him again. He's burned me too many times." That logic limits your opportunistic horizons. No question Bay is flawed: His contact rate won't jump above 80 percent anytime soon; his clip won't surpass .270, either, at that rate. The 33-year-old's best campaign in recent years came with the help of Fenway Park, which boosts right-handed hitters' batting averages.

This isn't to say he'll experience a similar breakthrough in 2012, but Citi Field's decision to move in and lower its fences - especially the left-field barrier that was also cursing David Wright - should improve the club's opportunities to produce runs. Bay, a known pull hitter, gives this a thumb's up.

An intercostal strain right out of the gate limited his early-season contributions. A slump jeopardized his playing time, but he picked things up in June only to ride the roller coaster back down. After enduring several dings, he hit three homers in a six-game September stretch before a sore shoulder and an illness rendered him useless for the final few weeks.

Injuries will be a problem but not enough of one at the clearance-rack tag Bay will brandish. How farfetched would it be for his output to resemble lines from his Pittsburgh Pirates days on the similar park-enhancing premise of what gave him an elite year in Beantown?

His blue and orange threads are drafter repellent. Deep mixed outfielder fillers could do worse than capping their group with a middle-of-the-order bat who'll approach double-digit steals (frequency, not ability) and move closer to 20 homers as long as he's upright. -TH

Delmon Young, Detroit Tigers

Let's see: From about mid-April through the All-Star break, Young dealt with, first, a pretty bad oblique strain and, second, an ankle sprain, each of which landed him on the disabled list and clearly affected him at the dish. Those things would go a long way toward explaining why he hit .268 with 12 ding dongs and 64 RBIs a year after the roto crowd overvalued his 112-RBI campaign with the Minnesota Twins.

In what seemed like a desperate attempt to add some punch for the stretch run, the Tigers swapped for Young in a waivers deal. After his arrival in Motown, Young - who at the time was just starting to feel like he was 100 percent - hit .274 with eight homers and 32 RBIs in 40 games.

In 2012, the 26-year-old is expected to bat fifth in one of the premier American League lineups. He moves to a club that plays its home games in a ballpark that's notably friendlier to right-handed batters. Most importantly, he's healthy. If he stays that way, he's going to make some pretty smart roto players a tidy profit. -NM

Jason Kubel, Arizona Diamondbacks

Kubel's injury history surfaced again last year with a sprained left foot that hobbled him for a chunk of the year. That shouldn't hide the effort he made to increase his contact, which revealed itself in his 82.3 contact rate and 21.3 percent liner rate. Keeping up this approach will keep his BABIP somewhere around or marginally above .300; that .273 average might even improve, because of his focus on hard connections.

This approach limited his power upside while his home contests took place in Target Field. In the friendlier Chase Field, the soon-to-be 30-year-old could leave the yard more often even by accident. Gerardo Parra will likely steal some at-bats, but left field is Kubel's domain if he's healthy and staying afloat at the dish. A consolidation of his former 20-homer output and his new clip-based style is within reach, and a likely spot in the middle of the order should boost his run production potential from his days in Minnesota.

His components haven't jelled just yet, but they're close, and it won't be expensive to take the chance that they will. -TH

Vernon Wells, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Let's be honest: Nobody likes Wells. Nobody. When people draft him, you hear them deflate. I guess I'll take him. Yeah, the guy who batted only .218 last year. Yep, the same one who hit a mere 15 jacks to go along with a .260 BA in 2009. You got it - the same one who hit .245 with 16 dingers in 2007. Yesss, the fella this whole crowd overvalued in each of those years.

It's kind of nuts, when you think about it. Because Wells, 33, batted .303 with 32 round-trippers in 2006. He dropped a .300 BA with 20 bombs in limited PT in 2008. And two years ago, he hit .273 and touched 'em all 31 times. In fact, even last season, he deposited 25 baseballs beyond outfield walls, putting him on a pace that was nearly as good as that of his 2010 campaign for home runs.

He's terribly overpaid, but that doesn't mean he's a terrible player. And in yet another season in which you don't have to overpay for him, either, what do you have to lose? Wells' BA foundation has certainly declined, but nothing about it says that his average on balls in play should've ended up at .214. Any reasonable amount of correction there, and a man who'll hit near Albert Pujols is due for a pretty nice rebound. -NM

Marlon Byrd, Chicago Cubs

Byrd, in 182 plate appearances through the May 21 contest in which a pitch dotted his eye: .308/.346/.419. Byrd, in 300 plate appearances after Alfredo Aceves fired that errant breaking ball at his head: .255/.311/.380. The center fielder hit pretty well for about a month after the five-week layoff, but it was clear that he just wasn't right to close the campaign.

Looks like a pretty easy incident to come back from, eh? Byrd's production prior to the destruction of his face was on par with his line from the season before, when he was a fine player with whom an owner in a deep mixed league was willing to fill out his outfield. He brought that same decent BA foundation, with his hard line-drive stroke and 12- to 15-home run power.

Byrd, 34, enters a contract year with that ability and now, perhaps, more. This past offseason, he changed a lot of things about his lifestyle, all for the better. The right-handed hitter says that his personalized diet has upped his energy level, and his training in the martial arts discipline Muay Thai has improved the quickness of his hands and the involvement of his lower body in his swing.

Buy what you want from that story. The bottom line: Rotisserie managers will ignore Byrd this spring, and that makes him a likely profit earner. In NL leagues, where outfield depth is lacking, he's a nice undervalued target, and in very deep mixed setups, he'll be worthy of a final-round flier, at least. -NM

David DeJesus, Chicago Cubs

Right after the All-Star break, in 2010, DeJesus - while still a member of the Kansas City Royals - suffered a complete tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right thumb. He finished that season with a .318 BA, five home runs and three stolen bases in 394 plate appearances. An injury like that takes months to heal completely.

That offseason, the Oakland Athletics dealt for the left-handed hitter and slotted him in right field. He ended up playing in 131 games (collecting 506 plate appearances) and registering an anemic .240 average, 10 ding dongs and four thefts. In late July of that season, he experienced soreness in the same thumb he'd injured the year before and sat for nearly a week.

He'd shown signs of old self at times here and there beforehand, but from that point forward, DeJesus was healthy and played without pain. He hit .276 with five ding dongs, 22 runs scored and a steal in just 148 plate appearances. He registered a .356 OBP and a .465 slugging percentage during that stretch, too.

This past winter, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took advantage of a market that was bearish for DeJesus, whom the duo has viewed as a valuable player because of his defense and ability to get on base. The move to Wrigley Field should increase optimism about the 32-year-old's chances to contribute. Fortunately for NL-only fantasy leaguers, the price tag should be sweet. Those in deep mixed leagues are likely to find a use for him as a FAAB pickup, too. -NM

Ryan Ludwick, Cincinnati Reds

Many expected the left-field gig to be Chris Heisey's to lose. Reports say Ludwick and Heisey will platoon; both are righty hitters and perform better versus the same handedness. Ludwick was a much more consistent hitter versus southpaws last year but has a career advantage when facing righties.

This could be a matchup situation for the early part of the season, but Ludwick has more immediate upside than Heisey, who still needs to cut down those K's in order to be a full-time player. Ludwick has more experience in an everyday lineup.

Though his big breakout year included an inflated batting average on balls in play, he has been suffocated in recent seasons by his home parks in San Diego and Pittsburgh. St. Louis didn't offer friendly confines, either, but his stock has taken an unjust hit in the last few seasons.

When you're scraping the bottom of the deep mixed outfield barrel, Ludwick's upside - 20 homers or so being the headliner, with the possibility for more thanks to Great American Ball Park - shouldn't be ignored. Even if you have to tuck him away, there'll be plenty of times during the year when he'll come in handy.

He could be a steal in NL-only, too, especially if your competitors overrate Heisey's abilities. Recent Reds prospects, sans their dynamic duo of Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, have been highly overrated. -TH

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About Tim Heaney

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.

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