2009 Fantasy Baseball's "Comeback" Players

Lawrence BarrecaAnalyst IFebruary 21, 2009

Is there a better feeling in sports than watching someone rise and dominate after struggling in years past?

I realize that watching your team win a title is more exciting (trust me, I’m still waiting for my teams to pull it off), but gazing on as a “nobody” or an “injury-prone” player murders the competition day-after-day is truly something to see.

This was the case last season for Philadelphia Phillies’ closer Brad Lidge.

Lidge was one of two pitchers to win the Comeback Player of the Year Award in 2008, with Cleveland’s Cliff Lee taking the other.

In ‘08, Lidge was 2-0 with a 1.95 ERA and 41 saves. He would not blow a save during last year’s run to the playoffs, and in the end, his incredible feats on the mound help lead his team to a World Series Title.

It almost makes you forget his on-and-off career in Houston.

Now we look forward to 2009, where new men will rise to the occasion in order to redeem a lost season that occurred just a season before.

Below are 13 players who could potentially be comeback player candidates.

Let’s see who they are:

Victor Martinez (CLE) - What ever happened, Victor? I’m sure that’s what many fantasy owners were asking after he put up below average numbers in 2008. First, let’s look back at his 2007 stats.

Then, he hit for a .301 average, with 25 homeruns and 114 RBI. Now we come back to 2008, when he posted a .278 average, with two homeruns and 35 RBI.

See the difference? It seemed as though every statistic dropped in ‘08, leaving many fantasy owners to hang their heads in shame after drafting him so high. It wasn’t all Victor’s fault, though, as he fought through an elbow issue for most of the 2008 campaign.

 He would have surgery late in the year to help remove bone chips from the affected spot. Here we are in the 2009 offseason, as many analysts and fantasy gurus have to attempt to predict exactly how well he will produce next season. This one is difficult, for many can attribute his horrid ‘08 numbers to his elbow injury. With this holding him back, it made it difficult to even try to replicate his numbers from just a season before. So what can we look for?

Martinez will be back. Though he may have lost his full-time catcher’s role to Kelly Shoppach, the Indians’ staff will place him at first base and designated hitter, two places where injuries don’t come often. When it comes to fantasy, I would take Martinez higher than many predict.

Now understand, I’m not telling you to take him over a Brian McCann, Russell Martin, Geovany Soto, or Joe Mauer; I’m just saying that he may be the first guy to grab behind these four. His value may also be higher due to his position eligibility, so come Draft Day, look for him to be a starter for your fantasy squad.

First Baseman:
Nick Johnson (WSH) - Nick Johnson falls into the category of “injury-prone player,” as he has only played in a total of 38 games during the past two seasons. Not too encouraging for a fantasy owner looking to grab him in his/her draft. Let’s flashback to 2006 for a second.

That year, he hit for a .290 average, with 23 homeruns, 77 RBI, and 100 runs scored. This is what he is capable of, if he stays healthy. Going into 2009, it seems as though Johnson is taking a new approach to his training. Nationals’ hitting coach Rick Eckstein is teaching him to keep a consistent swing, no matter what pitch is thrown or where he wants to place it.

With this, Eckstein believes that the hits will finally come for Johnson. Using this technique may also lead to less stress on his oft-injured elbow, as he will now have to tuck it in more, leading to a minimal amount of threats to the place of concern. So how will he fare in 2009?

Obviously, his injuries will always make him a question mark to fantasy owners; however, I would be willing to take the risk in the later rounds. If this new swing aids his health and development, then he could truly become a force in the Nationals’ lineup. Let us also not forget the players protecting him in the batting order.

Washington recently acquired Adam Dunn to bat in the middle of the lineup (If you’re worried about Dunn taking Johnson’s place, don’t fret. Manny Acta, the Nationals’ Manager, prefers to have them both in the lineup.), plus youngsters Elijah Dukes, Lastings Milledge, Ryan Zimmerman, Jesus Flores, and Christian Guzman. If you want Johnson, grab him in the later rounds. Don’t be shocked if he is one of the better point scorers for your fantasy team come mid-season.

Second Baseman:
Aaron Hill (TOR) - To say the least, Hill had some bad luck in 2008. First, he began the season by hitting well. In fact, here’s his stat line: .263 average, two homeruns, 20 RBI, 19 runs scored, four stolen bases. Then it all went south.

On May 29, he began working his way into the outfield as a shallow fly was threatening to land in play. Moments later, he collided with shortstop David Eckstein, an event that would end his 2008 campaign. He would suffer from post-concussion syndrome, leading to him having to look forward to ‘09.

Now in the offseason, Hill has confirmed that he is ready to begin competing once again. He states, "Everything is fine. I got the go-ahead about a month or so ago to go full time. It's been good fun getting here every day and actually doing some things." This is encouraging for fantasy owners. Hill has more “pop” in his bat than the normal second baseman, and a decent batting average doesn’t hurt. Like, Nick Johnson, Hill also has plenty of protection in the lineup.

Alex Rios, Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay, Scott Rolen, and Travis Snider should be able to provide support for Hill in 2009. Many first-timers may not know who Hill is on Draft Day, leaving you with a solid option in the later rounds. This 26-year old second baseman has tremendous upside, and he could very well be your starting second baseman before year’s end.

Troy Tulowitzki- Wasn’t this kid such a joy to watch in 2007? The young defensive stud showed off his talents at the plate, hitting for a .291 average, with 24 homeruns, 99 RBI, 104 runs scored, and seven stolen bases. His illustrious year helped lead his team to the World Series, where the Boston Red Sox would later defeat them.

How did Troy repeat in 2008? Not so well. He would finish with a .263 average, eight homeruns, 46 RBI, 48 runs scored, and one stolen base. This dip in productivity could be attributed to the “injury bug,” as a torn left quad benched him for a good portion of the year. He returns to Spring Training with one goal in mind: bouncing back.

Everyone knows of the potential that Tulowitzki possesses, and his ability to be a force in fantasy does not go unnoticed. Due to his poor ‘08, many fantasy owners may be skeptical on Draft Day. Don’t join in with this crowd. Tulowitzki is still a top fantasy shortstop in my mind, and his numbers in 2007 prove just what he is capable of. Grab him in the middle rounds for a solid pickup for your fantasy squad. Intend for him to be your starting shortstop on Opening Day.

Third Baseman:
Eric Chavez (OAK) - Chavez just can’t seem to catch a break these days. He has missed all but 113 games over the past two seasons, giving many fantasy owners the agony of having to search for a new third baseman to put on their squad.

Chavez did attempt a return in 2008, as he hit for a .247 average, with two homers, 14 RBI, and ten runs scored. Now in 2009, Chavez has set his goal at 140 games. He states, "If I can do that, then the numbers and the talent will be there." I won’t argue with that logic; however, the reality of the matter is this: Will he be able to stay healthy? My guess is both yes and no. He needs to do something different, whether it is through training or what-have-you.

He has had back problems, right shoulder tears, and left shoulder surgery. If he can stay healthy, then he should be a viable option in fantasy baseball. His comeback player status will stand pat as long as he can put up above average numbers, something that he hasn’t had the ability to do for a while.

Be weary on Draft Day, for he’s currently out with a shoulder injury until early March. If you really want him, wait for him to return, grab him, and see how he produces. Heck, for all we know, he could end up being a solid option at third base.

Designated Hitter:
Travis Hafner (CLE) - Hafner found his way onto my “2009 Fantasy Baseball Busts: Hitters” column as he provided as a grand example of the definition of a “bust.” In 2008, he hit for a measly .197 average, with five homeruns, 24 RBI, 21 runs scored, and a stolen base.

Horrid numbers from a power bat that had success for years before then. Now he returns in 2009 with a cleaned-out shoulder and new, optimistic attitude. Hafner’s upside can’t be measured, as he could very well be a .300-30-100 threat in 2009. Also, we must look at exactly where he plays on the field, or lack thereof. He doesn’t play on the diamond; instead, he is the designated hitter.

Here, player’s rarely are injured due to their lack of playing time on the field, giving them more value than the average batter. Look for Hafner to remain on the draft board for a long period of time, giving you the opportunity to grab him in the later rounds. If everything goes right for “The Pronk,” he could return to his top DH form before you know it.

Jeff Francoeur (ATL) -
“What happened, Frenchy?” That’s the question that many Braves’ fans were screaming as they yelled into their TV sets while watching a game. Jeff Francoeur was a stud from ‘05-’07; however, he finally hit the wall in 2008.

Last season, he hit for a .239 average, with eleven homeruns, 71 RBI, and 70 runs scored. So what exactly happened to him? Some say that Francoeur’s new workout plan may have done the trick.

During the 2008 offseason, Jeff began lifting weights on a more regular basis, leading to bigger arms, but not bigger production. "I did it with the right intentions," Francoeur stated, "but I just got too big."

So how does 2009 look for the 25-year old? One has to believe that it looks bright. Not only will he have solid protection in the lineup from Brian McCann, Chipper Jones, Yunel Escobar, Kelly Johnson, and Casey Kotchman, he will also be back at full-force and ready to compete at a high level once again.

Though many fantasy owners left their 2008 teams with hanging heads due to Francoeur’s production, they should not look for the same next season. He will always be a power threat as long as he’s at the plate, and now that he returns with a different mindset, he should be able to replicate his numbers of old.

If you wish to draft him, he should be around in the later rounds. Grab him then for a solid fantasy pickup. He could be your most productive outfielder at season’s end.

Delmon Young (MIN) - When the Twins acquired Young in a deal that involved starter Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett, I am sure they were hoping for a bit more production.

In 2008, Young hit for a .290 average, with 10 homeruns, 69 RBI, 80 runs scored, and 14 stolen bases. Not the most astonishing numbers from a player who was expected to have a breakout year in Minnesota. Now in a crowded Twins’ outfield, Young isn’t only playing for his own production; he’s also playing for his job.

Denard Span is giving him a run-for-his-money in left field, as center is occupied by Carlos Gomez and right by Michael Cuddyer. This may just be the extra motivation that Delmon needs to succeed. He has already begun making tweaks in his swing during Spring Training, and hitting coach Joe Vavra believes they look promising.

If this helps, Young could become a top fantasy outfielder in ‘09. For now, it looks like he will be on the draft boards for a long time, giving you the opportunity to grab him in the later rounds. Look for him to finally have his coming-out season next year.

Ryan Church (NYM) - Church began the 2008 season white-hot, yet his production slowed after a slew of dismal occurrences began to take their tolls. He was sidelined for months by a concussion, forcing many excited fantasy owners to have to search for other outfield options.

In the end, Church would finish with a .276 average, 12 homeruns, 49 RBI, 54 runs scored, and two stolen bases. Going into 2009, it appears as though he is back and healthy, an encouraging sign for those who wish to grab him in their upcoming drafts. So how do I think he will produce next season?

In a lineup stacked with studs, it would be hard for him not to get the proper protection he needs to succeed. Also, he should be hitting more towards the bottom of the batting order, taking some of the pressure off during the game. All in all, Church should be a solid addition to any fantasy squad on Draft Day.

If you wish to get him, take him in the later rounds. He should remain available at that time, due to the fact that many new owners may not have a clue who he is. You’ve got to love it when you’re drafting against people who have never done it before.

Starting Pitchers:
Rich Hill (BAL) - I’m sure Cubs fans know who this guy is. Remember him? He was the “future ace” from 2007 who went 11-8 with a 3.92 ERA and 183 strikeouts. So whatever happened to him in ‘08?

He started five games for Chicago before he would find himself in Class-A Ball and later on the disabled list. Now with the Orioles, he is looking for a fresh start in “Charm City” as he fights for a rotation spot.

Let’s look at his chances. The Orioles rotation is a mess to say the least, as the only two known locks for the Opening Day roster are Jeremy Guthrie and Koji Uehara. Behind them, there seems to be a million pitchers looking for a shot at the bigs, with Hill’s name being thrown into the mix. It seems like the third slot in the rotation is his to lose, because his experience and upside give him a leg-up on the competition.

Next, we take a glance at his injury history. He missed most of last season due to a lower back injury, something that Hill credits his loss of command to. "Last year was a season lost to injury,'' Hill said. “ My back the whole season was never really healed. I never really gave it a chance to let it settle down. It was always go, go, go, go, but getting home and working with some of the trainers, we were able to figure out what the problem is and get it right.” (Quote from the Baltimore Sun)

Now with Hill at 100 percent, Oriole fans can look for a different pitcher on the mound this summer. If he lives up to his potential, then he could be one of the bigger signings by the Orioles this year. He has deadly breaking pitches when they’re on, and his stuff is electric while at his best. Look for him to be a serious comeback contender in 2009.

Justin Verlander (DET) - What ever happened to the no-hitter throwing stud the Tigers had in Justin Verlander? After winning the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2006 and dominating in 2007, many expected him to continue his success in 2008. Don’t expectations hurt sometimes?

Last season, he went 11-17 with a 4.84 ERA and 163 strikeouts. “Wow” was all I thought as I looked at those stats at the end of last year. It was horribly disappointing, especially because he had everything around him to succeed. He had a solid offense to provide run support (Whenever you have Curtis Granderson, Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, Placido Polanco, and Gary Sheffield behind you, you better win some games.) and an average bullpen to close out matchups.

So what was the problem? Verlander himself was. In order to redeem himself in the minds of many fans, he will have to go out in 2009 and return to his previous form. As far as fantasy goes, he shouldn’t be taken as high as he normally would; however, don’t second-guess his upside. He could be an excellent pickup during the middle rounds of a draft.

Relief Pitchers:
Chris Ray (BAL) - Two Oriole pitchers on a comeback players’ list? I must be dreaming. Either that, or reality is just playing a crummy joke on me. Either way, Ray almost has to be on this list. Ray missed all of the 2008 season with ligament-reconstruction surgery, something that upset many Oriole fans.

Now going into 2009, Ray has currently lost his closer’s job and is fighting to become the setup man for the time being. Don’t get me wrong, he still has a shot to be saving games before Opening Day; however, the coaching staff in Baltimore seems more confident in veteran George Sherrill for now, and they plan to slowly work Ray back into the ninth-inning role.

For fantasy, Chris Ray should mold into a solid fantasy pickup before season’s end. He says that he is back at 100 percent, giving some owners the chance to breathe a sigh of relief.

If you plan to draft him, do it in the later rounds. He should still be available at that time. Trust me, when Chris Ray is throwing fastballs in the high 90’s and sliders that break off the plate mid-season, you’ll realize why he’s here.

Mike Gonzalez (ATL) - We now conclude our list of comeback player candidates as we look at Atlanta’s Mike Gonzalez. Gonzalez missed most of the 2008 season due to Tommy John surgery; he came back for 33.2 innings to go 0-3 with a 4.28 ERA and 44 strikeouts.

Now with a full offseason of rest, Gonzalez believes that he is fully recovered and ready to compete once again. “I always felt the only issue for me was my health," Gonzalez said. "I'm 100 percent now. I don't see any reason I'm not going to go out there and dominate." That should be music to fantasy owners’ ears.

Now at 30-years old, Gonzalez is hitting the prime of his career, and it’s about time that he returned to his form of old. If he comes back as he says he will, Mike could be one of the more dominant closers in baseball.

From a fantasy standpoint, look at him as a top-15 closer on Draft Day. He should be available in the later rounds, barring someone else realizes his upside and grabs him before then. Picking him up could provide plenty of saves to your fantasy team.

Lawrence Barreca is a fantasy baseball/football columnist for
www.fantasyfootballmaniaxs.com.  For more fantasy sports information, be sure to visit the Maniaxs.


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