Fantasy championships are won and lost in those middle rounds, when you hem and haw as the 90-second clock winds down, wondering if you should go with the guy at the top of the draft list, or someone a little deeper who you have a really great feeling about this year.
Maybe it's a bounceback. Maybe it's a rookie trending upward. Heck, maybe it's a suspended catcher.
The top 10 storylines below serve one purpose -- to dive a little deeper into the pool of Fantasy enigmas.
Why should you bump Roy Halladay up in your queue just a bit? Which team may be bad in real baseball, but full of nice sleepers in Fantasy? And how did we manage to squeeze a Mark Bellhorn reference into this column?
Read on, Fantasy owner! These players may change the fortunes of your entire summer.
Which Dodgers RP should you invest in?
The only thing Kenley Jansen did wrong as the Dodgers' closer last year was to have heart problems. Performance-wise, he was a stud: a 2.35 ERA, 0.85 WHIP and 99 strikeouts in 65 innings. But the Dodgers, as they collected big names and paid them big money, snagged supplanted closer Brandon League from the Mariners at the deadline and signed him to a three-year deal this winter, strongly intimating that he would be the team's closer going into 2013.
My best guess: There will be a lot of League doubters out there, who will hate-bid Jansen up in auctions -- possibly to a price equal to or exceeding League's. But for all the injustice doled out here, League is a relatively solid closer, who had great numbers (2.30 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, six saves) in 28 games with the Dodgers last season. Don Mattingly was reluctant to give up on Javy Guerra last year and could apply the same somewhat-stubborn attitude in 2013. While Jansen may be the better pitcher, League will likely be the better value pick in 2013.
Is Byrce Harper overrated?
Ken Griffey Jr., Mickey Mantle, Alex Rodriguez and Mike Trout all had 19-year-old seasons that ranged from disastrous to pedestrian. But when they came back at age 20, the doors were blown wide open. Griffey, Mantle, Rodriguez and Trout were All-Stars; Mantle finished third in MVP voting; Rodriguez and Trout finished second. There's a certain amount of talent needed to play in the majors at age 19. And after a year of learning, the talent can really explode the next year.
My best guess: The problem here is that Harper may end up getting hyped to the point of overrating. He may finish 2013 producing $34 worth of value, but he probably could have been purchased for about $25. However, thanks to Trout's 2012 and Harper's high profile, he'll get driven up in a lot of drafts and auctions. This selective look at history suggests Harper will explode, but it's not why people are buying him -- it's because they know the name and want in on the phenomenon. Harper will be overrated, but for all the wrong reasons. Think of him as a really awesome album you love that is now burning up the charts because it was in a Target commercial.
Josh Beckett's outlook in Los Angeles
It's easy to not like Josh Beckett. Between the fried chicken and golfing stories -- combined with a 5.23 ERA and crashing-to-earth strikeout rate over his first 21 starts last year -- he's not the most embraceable of baseball players. But Beckett is a fun little enigma to own. He rotates great seasons and crappy ones on a regular basis, and when he's on, he's on, delivering a low ERA, WHIP and high strikeout rate. Driven out of Boston by fans with short attention spans (Beckett had a 2.89 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 2011), he landed in Los Angeles, where he finished off 2012 with a 2.93 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in seven starts for the Dodgers.
My best guess: Beckett is only 32 and is leaving behind the funky dimensions of Fenway Park and a daily dance with designated hitters for the larger Dodger Stadium and the chance to face a pitcher at the plate at least twice a game. There aren't many healthy pitchers heading into 2013 with such low stock. But all one has to do is practice some optimism -- change is usually good, and in this case it could be great. Beckett will be available late, amongst the Coco Crisps and Gavin Floyds of the draft world. At that point, Beckett is a no-brainer bargain pick.
Is Roy Halladay finished?
Roy Halladay hadn't seen his ERA touch the 4.00 level since 2004, when he pitched through shoulder injuries and made two trips to the DL to rest his arm. He told reporters after that season he had pitched hurt all year. Last season, Halladay also battled shoulder and lat injuries (brought on, he said recently, by lower back pain early in the year), finishing with a 4.49 ERA in 25 starts. He'll be 36 in May and there isn't a long list of pitchers who have kept up a sub-3.00 ERA as they neared 40. But Halladay is a conditioning freak and is probably in better shape than most 26-year-olds, so maybe 2013 was just a 2004 redux -- a down season marred by injuries that he tried to pitch through.
My best guess: From 2008 to 2011, Halladay had a 2.59 ERA and 1.07 WHIP, with almost a strikeout per inning. He finished that run at 34 years old, not exactly within the widely-accepted "peak" range. Did all the innings finally catch up to him? Maybe. But one could argue that even if those innings caught up, he paid for it with the injury and he's had an entire offseason to rest and re-tool. Hiding in that high ERA is still a perfectly good 1.22 WHIP, so Halladay didn't completely implode last year. To say Halladay is finished would be an overreaction (one which could benefit the smart drafter, as hordes of owners will overreact and drive his price down on Draft Day). We probably won't see a 2.75 ERA from Halladay in 2013, but 3.20 is within the realm of possibility and might even be his worst-case scenario if it really was his shoulder that ran up his 2012 ERA.
The Twins are full of Fantasy sleepers
Gut reaction to the Twins trading away Ben Revere and
My best guess: Center field will boast two possible Fantasy sleepers -- either would-be starter Aaron Hicks, who has a big bat and could see a Plouffeian-type outburst of power, or speedster Darin Mastroianni, who has Tony Campana speed and could steal 40 bases even if stuck in a reserve role. Ryan Doumit will have catcher eligibility and play every day across a few positions. Josh Willingham has hit what might be the quietest 64 home runs in baseball over the last two seasons. Chris Parmelee has hit 13 or more home runs in five of his last six minor league seasons. And Brian Dozier should snag a starting middle infield job and get a chance to show off some speed and batting average skill. And that's just the bats. Vance Worley's elbow problems are behind him after bone chip surgery and Liam Hendriks will probably get one last chance to capitalize on impressive minor league numbers (2.85 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in more than 500 innings) at the back of the rotation. And if Rich Harden can prove he's healthy, the 31-year-old could be a tremendous source of strikeouts with a decent ERA and WHIP.
Why you should dismiss Ricky Romero's 2012
What was wrong with Ricky Romero in 2012? If you said, "He walked more batters," you'd be right. But also lazy. Romero led the league in walks issued last year, with 105. The real question is why did Romero walk so many batters? His WHIP had been on a progressive decline in each of his three major league seasons, and it brought his ERA down with it. Suddenly, in 2012, after two seasons of improvement, he just started walking people again? The answer may be linked to some quiet surgeries Romero had once the season wrapped. Romero had arthroscopic surgery on his elbow in October and received platelet-rich plasma injections in both of his knees.
My best guess: Romero pitched injured in 2012. He saw his ERA jump from 2.92 in 2011 to 5.77 last year. His WHIP went from 1.14 to 1.67. Romero was 3-0 with a 3.18 ERA through his first five starts. He went downhill from there. The likely scenario for 2013 is Romero has a few bumpy starts in the beginning as he shakes off rust and regains strength following surgery. Then he takes off and builds on the gains he made from 2009 to 2011. He'll be forgotten come drafts this year, but if an astute owner wants to ascribe his struggles in 2012 to pitching hurt, they could be in line for a Draft Day steal in Romero.
Stephen Drew and Mike Napoli will thrive in Fenway
In 2003, Kevin Millar set a career high with 25 home runs. In 2004, Mark Bellhorn set career highs in doubles (37), RBI (82), average (.264) and had his second-highest OPS (.817). In 2003, David Ortiz set career highs in home runs (31), doubles (39), RBI (101) and OPS (.961). In 2003, Bill Mueller hit .326 with career highs in home runs (19), doubles (45) and OPS (.938). In 2012, Cody Ross had his second-best season in home runs (22), OPS (.807), RBI (81) and doubles (34). In 2012, Mike Aviles set career highs in home runs (13), steals (14) and doubles (28). In 2010, Adrian Beltre set a career high for doubles (49), while having his second-best season in home runs (28) and OPS (.919). What do all these stat lines have in common? They're the first (and, in some cases, only) year these players spent with the Red Sox. Most of the players have shown flashes of brilliance earlier in their careers at some point, but had been pushed to the fringes of Fantasy relevance before a season with the Sox gave them a career renaissance. None were high-profile signings (Beltre, remember, had fizzled in his four previous seasons with Seattle), but all returned value on Fantasy investments.
My best guess: Enter Stephen Drew and Mike Napoli. In 2011, Napoli hit 30 home runs with a .320 average, but battled injury last season and saw his numbers decline across the board. Much has been made of his 1.107 OPS in Fenway (over 19 at-bats), although his bounceback could be a combination of factors, including the less rigorous duties at first base and a season without a nagging quad injury. So we can't chalk any big numbers entirely to the magic of donning the Red Sox uniform. Drew, on the other hand, has a chance to really break out for Boston -- or at least equal his best season, which is a somewhat common theme for these recent Red Sox transformations. The 15th pick of the 2004 draft, Drew will be 30 in March, and had his best season in 2008, when he hit 21 home runs, 44 doubles, and sported a .291 average. Since then, he's had a messy output of stats: a .258 average and about 10 homers per year over four seasons, with Drew getting 500-plus at-bats in just two of those seasons. But put a healthy Drew in a hitter-friendly park like Fenway, and you could have a recipe for renaissance -- one which recalls the early-aught seasons of fellow reclamations Bellhorn, Millar, and Mueller.
Valuable RPs who could start mid-season
There are three pitchers who could be the answer to the sure-to-be-asked "Who is this year's Kris Medlen?" question. And while they may not be obvious candidates, they could come closer than you think. Those three pitchers are: David Phelps (Yankees), Hector Santiago (White Sox) and Robbie Ross (Rangers). Each has a different trail to blaze to get into the rotation.
• Phelps is the closest to a rotation spot, primed to take Ivan Nova's role. The 26-year-old started 90 of his 91 minor league appearances, producing a 2.51 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 515 1/3 innings. He also began to improve his strikeout ratios as he progressed up the system and posted a 3.77 ERA in 11 starts with the Yankees last year.
• Santiago was replaced as the Chicago closer by the end of April, but was quietly stretched out and made four starts for the White Sox in September. The result? A 2-0 record with a 1.86 ERA and 1.19 WHIP, striking out 26 batters in 19 1/3 innings. However, Santiago will have to hope for at least one injury or implosion from a lined-up starter to crack the rotation.
• Ross may have a slightly easier path to the rotation than Santiago, but he's still not fully in the mix just yet. The 23-year-old had a 2.22 ERA in 65 innings for the Rangers last year, but was used exclusively as a reliever. Like Phelps, though, he was used primarily as a starter in the minors, when he had a 2.88 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 381 2/3 innings. Ross had a similar K/9 ratio as Phelps, as well.
My best guess: Phelps gets the role out of spring training, Santiago goes to the bullpen and Ross leapfrogs over Martin Perez at some point to take over the fifth starter role in Texas. At this point, they're all AL-only options, with Phelps having the most value, Ross coming in second (although don't expect those six vulture wins in relief this year) and Santiago in third. All have nice sleeper value.
Is new Tigers closer Bruce Rondon for real?
The Detroit Tigers played in the World Series last year. If anything, they improved in the offseason, shedding Delmon Young and bringing in Torii Hunter. Victor Martinez, who missed all of 2012, is coming back healthy to start at DH. The Tigers are in an even better position this year than they were last. Which would logically lead to this line of thought: with the Tigers unafraid to spend money on free agents, they passed on a series of available late-inning pitchers with experience at closer (Rafael Soriano, Matt Capps, Jonathan Broxton) and put their faith in 22-year-old Bruce Rondon, who has never pitched above Double-A.
My best guess: Rondon not only hits triple-digits on the radar gun, but early reports out of spring training are that his changeup and slider are above-average complements, as well. Recent history has shown us that a pitcher doesn't have to be well-seasoned to be effective -- Drew Storen saved five games the year after he was drafted (and then saved 43 the next), Addison Reed pitched a total of 7 1/3 innings in the majors before saving 29 games last year, Tom Wilhelmsen was working in a tiki bar in 2009 and had 29 saves in 2012. Rondon has shown skill and has been able to get batters out. He has the faith of a team that will consider anything outside of a World Series win this year to be a disappointment. Rondon may go late in drafts because of a perception that he isn't ready, but one needs to look no farther than the last few years to see that's foolish logic.
Can Ichiro Suzuki enjoy a renaissance in 2013?
For 10 years, Ichiro Suzuki was the picture of consistency: 200 or more hits, a .300 batting average, about nine home runs, 30-40 steals and around 100 runs scored. Sure, there'd be minor fluctuations, but he was dependable, and it made Suzuki a safe Fantasy pick. But in 2011, he hit a wall. Suzuki's average dipped to a career-worst .272. He hit just five home runs. For the first time in his career, he failed to reach the 200-hit mark. Last year looked like an extension of that slump, as Suzuki was on pace for a .261 average,with 26 steals and seven home runs.
And then he was traded to the Yankees.
In 67 games, Suzuki was reborn. If you extrapolate his numbers with the Yankees over a full season, he would have this line: .321 average, 12 home runs, 34 steals. It's not the Ichiro of 2004, but it was a major turnaround from the previous season and a half.
My best guess: Playing for a contender rejuvenated Suzuki. Additionally, he got to move from the cavernous SAFECO to the cozy confines of Yankee Stadium -- with the bonus of the left-handed hitting Suzuki aiming at the short right field porch for half of his games. And let's not forget about the whole "far superior lineup" thing. There was probably some built-in bump there anyway from playing in September against expanded rosters and lesser talent, but still, for 2013 Ichiro gets to play 81 games in Yankee Stadium, a home park that fits his style of play. He may not steal 40 bases, but he should see enough of a jump in average and power to make up for the loss of speed.
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