*Disclaimer: I promised at the end of my last fantasy baseball post that I would post this up the week after. So, I apologize to anyone who was left waiting. I’m planning on redeeming myself with a more rapid approach by post one or two more posts this week, and then continue with two more every week after leading up to Opening Day.*
Spring Training is finally under way, and your favorite players are working on their swings and their windups for the night they once again hit the game’s biggest stage. Baseball is my favorite sport, and for the whole month of March I will be religiously watching any and every spring training game I get a chance to peek at, Yankee game or not. You’ll be surprised how much of an advantage it can give someone on draft day, especially since there are bundles of minor leaguers who could steal a starting spot or two on the depth chart and make an impact come April. Their surge into the player rankings just might be your gain, but let’s not forget the other guys who grace the top-300. I was just getting started digging through the sleepers last week, and I’m still barely scratching the surface here. There are way too many players you should be drafting, so I’ll try to split them up into their respective positions, in separate posts. But you’re not here for a well organized post. You want the scoop on who’s who and what’s what, and I’m willing to (somewhat) expose my draft strategy to do it. This week’s article will cover:
1) Chase Utley, 2B, Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies have been reeling for the last couple of years, and the dominance of their Big Three starters (Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay) hasn’t been as collective as we’d hoped. Sure, Halladay’s retired, and Lee will always be in trade talks when playoff contention is dissolving, but everday guys like Chase Utley are here to stay. And thanks to a two-year extension and a confidence boost, he certainly proved so in September of last season, batting .349 with a .394 OBP, 17 RBIs and an .859 OPS. 2013 was also the first time since ’09 in which Utley played in more than 130 games, making his .284 average, 18 homers and 69 ribbies overall easier to digest. The main roadblock in his career the last three or four years has been his knee problems, but even at age 35, I firmly believe that he’s still the perfect fantasy second baseman to draft if he’s healthy enough to put more than 140 games under his belt. Considering the fact that he was as healthy as he’s ever been for most of 2013, my prospects for his all around production this year are pretty high, especially since he was arguably the best second baseman in the majors during his prime. I definitely think that his #100 draft ranking is higher than it should be, but you need to understand that infielders are a scarce commodity this year, as per usual. So expect a solid 2014 with a lot of boom and little bust regarding the position, as long as his knee problems are finally behind him.
2) Billy Butler, 1B, Kansas City Royals
2013 was a good year to be a Royals fan, because even despite losing playoff contention they finally showed the world that they have the talent and the potential to be in the pennant hunt this year. Unfortunately for Billy Butler, his performance kinda let us down when all was said and done in September. Last season, his extra base hits, batting average, OBP and OPS were all his lowest since 2008. What’s even worse was that his Isolate Power nosedived to a career low .123. If you drafted him last year and had to put up with this, you have every right to be upset. But I’m here to tell you that from here the only way he could go is up. I mean, you gotta remember, Butler is only 27 years old. On top of that, Kauffman Stadium is no Coors Field. It’s very possible that hitters could have a down year here and there in that colosseum, in terms of power. However, everything from walk and strikeout rates to contact rates and BABIP last season were right in line with his career averages, so there’s no reason to believe that he can’t approach 25 (maybe 30) homers and 90-95 runs batted in. He’s also become a revered doubles machine, and he only had 27 of those in 2013. Watch those go back up as well. I could be wrong, and Billy Butler could just end up screwing everyone else over again. But let’s be real here: his swing mechanics, plate discipline, and overall consistency are WAY too solid to bet against. Wherever he landed in last year’s draft is probably where he should’ve been for this year’s draft.
3) Daniel Murphy, 2B, New York Mets
As a proud Yankees fan, I have every right to believe that Mets hitters like Daniel Murphy were injecting themselves with steroids or some sort of HGH whenever they have a great fantasy season. Was this how Marlon Byrd turned his career back around in 2013? Who knows, but anyone who’s not David Wright in this lineup doesn’t usually bat more than .280 or score 90 runs in the same year. The cloud of skepticism on my part comes from Citi Field, which has remained a mystery to the boys from Flushing, considering how the Mets sport a relatively poor offense at home. That sort of thing makes it really easy to appreciate the type of year that Murphy was willing and able to put up in 2013. What shocks me the most about this guy is that he has sported a career .290 batting average and an even better .319 hitter with runners in scoring position, and I’m just recently finding out about his exploits. The popularity of most Mets sadly falls in a vacuum these days, but on draft day Murphy makes for an intriguing mid-round pick. If anything, he stole 23 bags last year, an eye-popping career high and a high score in any Queens baseball arcade (if Queens does indeed endorse baseball arcades.) He was also both an excellent table setter and an awesome clutch hitter, with 92 runs scored and 78 RBIs due to a typically impressive .305 batting average with RISP. The only real issue he brings to the table is that he hasn’t truly cracked the code at home, sporting an okay .263 batting average, but surely makes up for it with a great .305 road clip. As the Mets continue to add pieces to their starting lineup, including Eric Young Jr. during the year and Curtis Granderson in the offseason, Murphy’s chances to provide and produce runs continue to rise. I have no qualms if you find him to be the first 2B you wanna get in the draft, especially because he seems poised to provide great year-round standard league value for a no-so-great-but-getting-there ballclub.
4) Brandon Belt, 1B, San Francisco Giants
Oh, boy! let me be the first to tell you how juicy a pick up this man is on draft day. Brandon Belt has been hungry for big league success ever since getting the starting gig at first base all to himself a couple years ago, but never took off until right after last year’s All-Star break. It is then that he phoned Dominic Brown (who also faced the same problems earlier last season) for advice on his swing, who ironically fell off the map following the mid-summer festivities. Not only did Belt’s adjustments pay off, the results were resoundingly remarkable. Here’s what a few changes did to his production in 2013:
Pre-All Star Game (prior to swing adjustment): .260 BA, .330 OBP, .448 SLG., .714 OPS
Post-All Star Game (after swing adjustment): .326 BA, .390 OBP, .525 SLG, .915 OPS
This fascinating improvement in solid contact wasn’t the only perk to Belt’s new approach at the plate. He managed to compile 27 extra base hits in just 221 second half at-bats, while wrapping up the season with an awesome .192 Isolated Power. Had he been playing anywhere else, he could’ve easily broken 25 homers last year. His .260 clip against lefties last season is also encouraging, and should give him more important plate appearances in 2014 instead of falling into a mini platoon with a right-handed hitter. Brandon Belt certainly has the tools necessary to spray AT&T Park with doubles and triples galore, and the power indications he displayed towards the end of 2013 tell a totally different tale for his prospects than his similar resurgence in his 2012 second half. With all the mid-season adjustments and his impressive ability to use the whole field to get knocks, the sky’s the limit for Brandon Belt in 2014.
5) Jedd Gyorko, 2B, San Diego Padres
Maybe the most ironic baseball team to follow as a fantasy baseball owner, the Padres have the ability to lose a hundred games in real life while at the same time providing the necessary pieces to help you win in a standard fantasy league. Their pitching–mostly their starting pitching staff–is one of the few features that could pay dividends on draft day, but for this article I will stay true to the theme and talk about Jedd Gyorko. This kid amazes me every time he makes contact with a baseball. In just 486 rookie at-bats in 2013, Gyorko amassed 49 extra base hits with 23 home runs and 63 RBIs. He lifted enough weights to belt 13 of those in the spacious Petco Park, while doing so with an amazing .195 overall Isolated Power. His weighted on-base percentage, average batted ball distance, and HR/FB rate all rank 2nd, 3rd, and 2nd respectfully to Dan Uggla and Robinson Cano. The craziest thing about his potential is that for most of his second half, he was fighting a chronic groin issue that robbed him of 37 full games. If he gets the chance to play a full season with the comfort of a full year under his ledger, we could potentially be talking about a top-5 second baseman in fantasy. In fact, if San Diego discovers an extra bat, Everth Cabrera and Will Venable reach base consistently, or Chase Headley and Kyle Blanks figure it out at the plate, Gyorko could surpass 30 homers and 80 RBIs by the end of August. Regarding his position eligibility, that’s top-50, potential, everyone. I won’t knock on his poor contact rates or his batting average (75%, .249 BA,) or his terrible strikeout rate (23.4%) simply because that stuff doesn’t hang a sizeable enough cloud on his production. Though it can certainly create a myriad of hot-and-cold streaks, which is something you have to expect from him going in. If you’re in a roto most categories league and your team is supposed to thrive in batting average and runs with a little speed, you should probably look for an Aaron Hill or a Daniel Murphy to man your 2B spot. But in points leagues or teams with a dying urge for a full season power surge with a healthy dose of ribbies, Jedd Gyorko will be your savior.
6) Xander Bogaerts, 3B, Boston Red Sox
Now remember, Bogaert’s position eligibility could change within any waking moment, as John Farrel and Co. have yet to officially announce their Opening Day third baseman with Will Middlebrooks fighting for that spot as well. If indeed Bogaerts loses out, he would most likely shift to shortstop with Stephen Drew being a free agent, and ESPN leagues might add to his positioning early on in the year. Anyway, Xander Bogaerts is mainly on my radar (and should be on yours) because he’s MlB’s #2 prospect, and he also carries some World Series experience with his admirable Fall Classic performance last October. His overall 2013 numbers don’t leave much to behold considering he only got 71 total at-bats, but one thing I always admire about most hitters is plate discipline and solid contact. Bogaerts certainly has both, with a 22/11 K/BB ratio, .296 postseason batting average, and .412 playoff on-base percentage. His time in the Boston spotlight has undoubtedly been just a small sample size, but all these numbers look almost Xerox’ed in comparison to his minor league statistics. What this means for his production can lead to plenty of different discussions, but because the Red Sox would be springing him up to play everyday with the best run scoring team of 2013 entails that he’d initially find his way batting in the bottom third of the lineup. If that is the scenario he finds himself in, his ability to score runs in bunches is an advantage he may not realize for a while. But if he ends up batting 1st or 2nd because of Jacoby Ellsbury’s absence in this lineup, and stays there, he’s a solid candidate for 90-100 runs without a second breath. Bogaerts can definitely find his way on base without moving, and his plate discipline peripherals agree. But because the guy can flat out hit (and hit lots of doubles,) we could already be looking at the next Manny Machado. Not that he’d be on the same pedestal or anything, but I believe he carries a world of upside if the opportunity is there. He sure looked comfortable last season coming up, and you should be comfortable drafting him going in.
Here’s one more pointer. Notice how I didn’t discuss any shortstops on this list. My reasoning behind this is simple: The most notable players at the position are all within the top-100 on ESPN’s standard league draft rankings, an area I’m trying my best to avoid to highlight more of the sleepers on the entire list. What this means for you is that no matter who you’re aiming to draft, you must make it a priority to draft at least one shortstop ranked 1-100 before targeting the “other” guys. I will cover an article revolving entirely around players at this position, so I will provide further insight as to the significance of picking the right guy in the draft, and the implications (and the less productive shortstops) you will have to deal with if you don’t.