Speaking of topics that might be too “inside-baseball” for a blog post…
I really, really enjoy playing fantasy baseball. Baseball’s rich history of statistics, large selection of teams and players, and long season make it perfect for fantasy sports. I enjoy fantasy baseball so much that the other day I left a Planned Parenthood cocktails party/fundraiser event my roommate had organized in order to draft a fantasy baseball team, abandoning a swanky bar full of single, attractive, liberal women and a group of close friends, including one who was visiting from Brazil, so that I could steal internet from the Apple Store, create a pretend baseball team composed of Miguel Cabrera, Matt Kemp, and C.C. Sabathia, and subject myself to manically refreshing box scores all summer, praying for Carl Crawford to get just one more stolen base on a Sunday night.
Fantasy baseball isn’t won with players like Cabrera, Sabathia, or Crawford, however. The good teams are composed in part with All-Stars selected early on Draft Day, and in part with “sleeper picks” selected late in drafts and pick-ups throughout the season. The winning manager is the one who picked up Adrian Beltre during his torrid 2004 contract year, snagged Ryan Braun off waivers his rookie season en route to 34 home runs, or drafted Tommy Hanson last year to enjoy 14 wins and a terrific 2.51 ERA.
Now that I’ve drafted in both of my leagues (one for APDA, one for Tenafly), it’s safe to reveal some of my sleeper picks for this year:
1) Wade Davis, a young right-handed pitcher for the Tampa Bay [Devil] Rays.
According to FanGraphs.com, Wade Davis throws a solid 92 mph fastball, though he can dial it up to 94-96 mph when he needs to. His complete repertoire of pitches includes a changeup, a slider, a cutter, and a curveball. When called up last September, Davis recorded 2 wins and a 3.72 ERA in 6 starts. Nothing dazzling, but once you remove his horrible start against the Boston Red Sox, it shrinks to a 1.90 ERA. Not a terrific spring training, but I think a solid 3.50 ERA is within reach, and you’ll do well if you don’t start him against top offenses. Joe Niemann is another very interesting Rays pitcher to look at, with less dominance but better command.
2) Brett Anderson, left-handed ground-ball pitcher for the Oakland Athletics.
Brett’s average draft position (ADP) is 135.83 in CBS Sports fantasy leagues, but his numbers last year suggest he’ll do well. In the second half he posted a 3.02 ERA with an impressive 8.7 strikeout rate (K/9) and impeccable command (4.3 K/BB). I’m higher on Brett than Wade, and 15 wins with a 3.50 ERA is likely.
3) Neftali Feliz, a fireballing righty from the Texas Rangers.
Feliz is not lacking in skill, with a fastball that routinely tops 100 mph and a knee-buckling 78 mph curve. His ratios hold their own against Tim Lincecum’s. The only thing missing is a producing role–right now he doesn’t have a starting pitcher job. Frank Francisco is the Rangers’ closer (and a good draft pick as well), but if his health fails him as it has in the past, or if his fly-ball rate causes him to lose his job, Feliz is right there to replace him and managers should be ready to pick him up, or have him stashed away and helping with ERA, Ks, and WHIP in the meantime.
1) Howie Kendrick. 2B, LA/Anaheim Angels.
I am high on Howie Kendrick, who was a top prospect in the Angels organization for many years, and batted .350 in the second half of last year. I’m a sucker for average, and he can easily hit over .300 with a dozen or more home runs and some decent speed. If he continues to meet his potential, a season .330 is possible, which isn’t bad for an oft-undrafted second-basemen. He’ll allow you to invest in other positions.
2) Jason Heyward. OF, Atlanta Braves.
At least one player in every fantasy league knows about Jason Heyward, the next coming of Albert Pujols, Ken Griffey Jr., and/or Hank Aaron. Might as well make it you. He’s had a torrid spring training, with a 1.037 OPS (on-base plus slugging), and his homeruns have been leaving the park and destroying cars in the parking lot. Excellent plate discipline. You want him on your team when his bat starts destroying opposing pitchers’ ERAs. Moderate your high expectations for a 35 HR 100 RBI season–.280/22/80 is more reasonable, with huge upside–but prepare to enjoy watching him play as the Braves’ starting right fielder. Buy his rookie card and hope his first season in the bigs turns out better than that of uber-prospects Alex Gordon and Matt Wieters last year.
3) Chris Davis. 1B/3B, Texas.
A year ago I drafted Davis and Mark Reynolds, hoping for one of them to turn into a slightly better batting average version of Adam Dunn–high strikeouts, low batting average, but monster power numbers. Reynolds did that, belting 44 HRs last year while stealing 24 bases. This year Reynolds is too expensive for my taste, but Davis is still available thanks to a first half last year that hovered just above the Mendoza line. He was sent down, and when he came back up, he magically hit .298. This spring he’s got a batting average over .350. In 2008 he hit .294 with 36 homeruns, so owners should float a buck (or a late draft pick) on a sleeping giant who can potentially produce a 40 HR season and be this year’s Mark Reynolds–one year late. The tell-tale sign will be his successes (or lack thereof) against lefty pitchers.
Players who are ripe for a rebound
Don’t forget former aces, first-rounders, and/or top sleepers who experienced an injury or down year, who will slip down in the drafts, if not the minds of some owners entirely! The ones who start the season injured can still help your team come playoff-time (like Alex Rodriguez last September). Check out Tim Hudson, Johan Santana, Brandon Webb, Francisco Liriano, Gavin Floyd, and Kevin Slowey for pitchers; and Carlos Beltran, Manny Ramirez, and Grady Sizemore for hitters.