In about a month and a half from now, the grass on the fields of thirty Major League teams across the country will be greener than ever, and the millions of die-hard baseball fans who fill the seats of these historic venues well into the Fall Classic will again have something to be excited for. You don’t need them to tell you how important each game and moment within it is to leading their representative ball clubs to a World Series championship, and if you’re reading this you certainly don’t need me to reiterate how hungry you must be in regards to winning your next season’s fantasy baseball championship.
Some say that these championships are won on draft day. Let me be the first to tell you that isn’t true, and if it is and it has worked for those in the past then I simply don’t believe in that concept. Anyway, the main idea of this blog is to keep you from second-guessing, or to help you become the favorite to win it all from the jump. The only way that could succeed is if we agree to ignore the Miguel Cabrera’s and the Clayton Kershaw’s of the World. Why, you ask, should one not even fathom the idea of paying a close eye on some of the best players in the league when they could be the steppingstone to a fantasy championship? Well, quite frankly, you’re going to draft them anyway. The top-100 players in ESPN’s Fantasy Baseball rankings, both hitters and pitchers, aren’t much of my concern here, really. And they shouldn’t be yours, either. They help to solidify rotisserie categories you’re aiming to excel at, as well as provide any possible advantage for you in points leagues. Their respective teams will let these guys do what they do best, and trust me you will be rewarded for it.
This blog in particular, however, is (almost) all about the rest of the batch: the other 150 guys who are on the outside looking in, rookies or sophomores who either arrived in fashion in ’13 or are still aiming to take flight, and sleepers who are snatched in the late rounds who produce handsomely and others who should’ve been drafted earlier and sure-lier and were finally recognized in the waiver wire after a hot first few weeks. The old aforementioned analogy about winning championships on draft day applies to the mindset that you must be aware of the entire draft table and what each guy is capable of. If you choose to auto draft once you fill your starting lineups, you’re selling yourself short already. Some of the hitters and pitchers I list below won’t be drafted until the mid-to-very last few rounds, but have a considerable chance of boosting your team’s stats while garnering very little risk. Let’s start with…
1) Jose Abreu, 1B, Chicago White Sox
Placed somewhere around the 140-160 range in the overall ESPN player rankings for standard league fantasy drafts, Jose Abreu is a national no-name shipped over from Cuba with a large bat and an ever larger approach at the plate. To be totally honest with you, the only thing I knew about him at the jump was that he shares the last name of one of the most underrated left-handed power-speed threats of the early 2000’s: Bobby Abreu (Thanks to a good old copy of All-Star Baseball 2003, I can always relive his former greatness.)
But, hey, you wanna know why Chicago gave him $68 million for six years without even seeing him take an official MLB at bat? About three years ago in Cuba, in the 2010-2011 Cuban National League, he did this: .453 batting average, .597 on-base percentage, .986 OPS, and 33 home-runs in just 66 games. During the 2014 season, Abreu will turn 27 years old. 27 YEARS old! I’m just as shocked as you are that he destroyed Cuban pitching at 23-24, but don’t go putting stars and stripes all over his name on your “must-draft” list just yet…because there’s more, of course. Abreu has great swing mechanics, the type of consistent bat speed and arm leveling that’s being constantly compared to that of Buster Posey, Yoenis Cespedes, and the great Miguel Cabrera.
Just note that once he hits the Cell come Spring, all he truly has to offer is his power. He’s not an athletic first baseman, and he’s not very fast, either. If his one-trick pony isn’t working, and he can’t withstand a decent batting average, then he’ll have a hard time INITIALLY impressing in the States. But that sort of thing always happens, and it seems unlikely that the disparity between Cuban and Major League pitching is that great so at least right now he’s guaranteed to somewhat succeed in the Bigs. Expect him to be in he heart of the White Sox lineup barring any injuries and providing top-40 hitter production.
2) Sonny Gray, SP, Oakland Athletics
I remember watching every minute of last year’s ALDS between the A’s and the Tigers and being constantly blown away over how immensely impressive Sonny Gray was in particular. You may not have known this, but he was given the rights by A’s manager Bob Melvin to start the pivotal game 5 simply because he dominated the Cats in game 1 to the tune of 9 K’s on 4 hits and a couple of walks on just 8 full innings of work. Yes, those are a lot of numbers to read all at once, but of course I did that on purpose: they always jump out more that way. You know what else jumps out at the casual fantasy baseball fan? a 5-3 record, 2.67 ERA, a 67-20 K/BB ratio (in 64 innings,) and only 51 hits and 4 dingers allowed. He did that. I know, crazy right? He’s my sister’s age, and she doesn’t even like washing her own dishes after she cooks. That last part is overwhelmingly irrelevant, so just ignore it. But do yourself a favor and DON’T ignore Gray.
Oakland did the smart thing and tested his mettle by throwing him out there into the fire, the “trying to win the AL West and claim home-field advantage throughout the postseason” fire, and he responded with those aforementioned numbers. That’s exactly why I love Bob Melvin’s baseball savvy and this kid right here. He’ll likely get his 175+ innings (expect an innings cap due to age, but don’t sit on it) but everything else will be as sterling as a Lincoln Continental straight out the production lot. He’s well worth the mid-to-late draft ranking he’s currently placed in.
3) Michael Wacha/Shelby Miller, SPs of the St. Louis Cardinals
I have a secret to tell you: I was born in New York as a die-hard Yankee fan, but I’ve grown up to also share a similar loyalty to the St. Louis Cardinals. I love the red birds so much that I wish they could somehow split their upcoming three game tilt with the Bronx bombers so that neither team doesn’t face any serious deficits in their respective divisions. But here’s where my love for the Cardinals gets really weird: I’ve fallen absolutely head-over-heels for their farm system. New York could go ahead and buy a million Carlos Beltran’s, but they won’t produce a Michael Wacha or Shelby Miller for centuries. In 2013, the former pitcher was clinching playoff finales and winning World Series starts, while the latter was a Yasiel Puig and Jose Fernandez away from putting together the most impressive rookie season in years.
I’m going to start with Wacha because maybe, just maybe, you haven’t read of or heard of his otherworldly exploits yet. Let’s start with how he lost his mind in September, when he posted a 1.72 ERA and .198 opposing batting average in five starts (one of which was almost a no-hitter.) If you like Peter Bjorn and John and Dig a Little Deeper, his postseason numbers pop up. Some idiot will look at his goofy smile in the draft without the knowledge that he had a 2.64 ERA, .91 WHIP, 4 wins, and 33 K’s in October and let him pass. I’d cover my face and wallow in shame if I were to let you be that guy. There’s so much more mouth-watering greatness to Wacha’s game, from his simple delivery and varying comparisons to teammate Adam Wainright (the bastard even looks like him,) to his iron arm and Houdini curveball. If this were the NBA and Wacha were Bradley Beal, then I’d throw on my corny hat and say that he’s the Real Beal. A careful understanding of that alleged pun will tell you all you need to know about this Texas A&M product.
The youth movement only continues with Shelby Miller, another Texas product who I’d like to call the Shelby Cobra (For those of you who don’t understand the reference, it is of that of the famed Shelby Daytona race car that left a historic mark on Le Mans racing back in the 60’s.) In all seriousness, his fastball is Shelby Cobra fast, averaging an uptick of 93.7 MPH. If Greg Maddux had his fastball, he’d be on the official MLB logo. I could be over exaggerating there, but Miller did have 15 wins with a 3.06 ERA and a sky-high 79.4 strand rate, all rookie numbers. His deficiencies were exposed as soon as the all-star weeds were pulled off the grass of Shea Sta–City Field after the All-Star Game, and he still managed a 3.28 ERA, 6 wins and 57 K’s through season’s end. He absolutely loves to go after his hitters, and his 1.0 HR/9 rate is a adverse affect of that, but strikeouts won’t come and go for him. He had 169 of those in a limited workload, so they’ll just keep coming and coming year in and year out. He’s still raw, and I can throw a changeup with more deception than he can, but he’s only gonna get better. He even said in an article last month that he’s hungry for a heavier workload. The Cardinals organization has no problem giving Miller 200+ innings, and if his heart is where his determination lies, his late 90s-early 100s draft value will only go higher, and higher, and higher.
4) Grant Balfour, RP, Tampa Bay Rays & Huston Street, RP, San Diego Padres
Here are a couple draft day steals for ya! Two aging, yet consistently productive closers with plenty of Major League experience, Balfour and Street come in hot in the mid-100s of ESPN standard league draft rankings. With Balfour, you can easily expect the same kind of fire and energy that made him a staple over in Oakland, while Street will make a nice complementary reliever to have on any roster. And here’s why:
First of all, Balfour has already spent a few years donning the Rays uniform, and while he struggled with them for a majority of his time in Tampa, he became rather comfortable in their sunny St. Petersburg surroundings in both 2008 and 2010. In the former year, he compiled a 1.54 ERA with a .89 WHIP, while posting a 2.28 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 57 relief appearances in the latter year. The fact that he basically transferred that success over by the Bay suggests that he found something in his delivery, or in his pitching habits, that desperately needed to be fixed. With his shockingly low draft value, you have to do yourself a favor here.
Same thing with Street, although he’ll never be a top-5 closer in my eyes because of Magglio Ordonez and game 4 of the 2006 ALCS. He’ll probably get overlooked a lot in many of your fantasy drafts, and maybe that’s because he wears those interlocked S and D letters on his cap. I’m sure even Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, knows how bad the Padres are. Hell, I’m sure even San Diego Governor Bob Filner would rather plea guilty for sexual harassment than watch the Friars at Petco Park. But that’s not Huston Street’s fault. But if you end up losing in a head-to-head most categories week because he squeezes out a close save on Sunday for your opponent, then that IS your fault (as it was mine last year, screw you Hello Manhattan.) Street has never had an ERA at or over 4 throughout his career, and he used to wrap up ballgames in Colorado. Had he pitched a full season in San Diego back in 2012, he could’ve probably won that Rolaids Relief award. I also think he secretly loves the sunny skies and warm weather over there, because he’s quietly come up with a combined 56 saves in 59 opportunities with the Padres. Could you ever imagine him closing out games for, say, the New York Yankees? Texas Rangers? Boston Red Sox? His contract is only through 2014, so in case the Friars tank again he could be on the move to a more promising squad. Regardless of what happens, he’ll get the ball in the ninth throughout the year, and more often than not he will make you proud for saving an extra RP spot for him.
I’ll be posting more finger-licking fantasy baseball goodness next week. Stay tuned!