The Deep Sleepers 2009: Hitters, Part One

Chris UnruhContributor IMarch 20, 2009

TUCSON, AZ - FEBRUARY 22:  Ryan Spilborghs of the Colorado Rockies poses during photo day at the Rockies spring training complex on February 22, 2009 in Tuscon, Arizona.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

To set some parameters for determining who is "undervalued", I'm only choosing players who are ranked above 500 in the Yahoo preseason rankings. These rankings are far from an exact science (there's a glut of about 50 mid-relief pitchers around 400 who really have no business being ranked that early), but it still serves as a fairly effective guideline.

Ryan Spilborghs (COL, OF)
Y! Rank: 839

In the 2008-2009 offseason, the Colorado Rockies shipped Matt Holliday out to the A’s and cut bait with Willy Taveras. The result is a whole lot of opportunity in the Rockies OF going into 2009, a fact which many baseball writers have recognized.

However, while I’ve seen tons of articles about hot prospects Dexter Fowler and Carlos Gonzalez, some about what Seth Smith may be able to do now that he can stop riding the AAA shuttle, and even one article about how Matt Murton might finally be able to capitalize on his long-hyped potential, for some reason, Ryan Spilborghs gets absolutely no love.

Spilborghs has been stuck in fourth OF purgatory for three seasons now. Yet, even with limited ABs, he’s been steadily progressing: .768 OPS in 2006, .848 OPS in 2007, .875 OPS in 2008.

He’s a top-notch all around player with a little bit of pop and a little bit of speed (17 HRs and 11 SB in a combined 497 ABs over the past two years.

He’ll also likely bat first due to his proven ability to get on-base (.407 OPS) and should be a vast improvement over Willy Taveras, who, if he made it to first base, could usually be counted on to get over to second (103 singles and 68 SB), but who more than two-thirds of the time couldn’t even make it that far.

The advances that Spilborghs has been able to make in his walk rate (7.7 percent to 9.6 percent to 14 percent over the past three years) suggest that his high OBP is no fluke, and he should be able to use his batting order position to generate a solid amount of runs, batting in front of Troy Tulowitzki, Brad Hawpe and Garret Atkins.

Despite all the other OF candidates knocking at the door, count on Spilborghs to have the firmest lock on playing time.

Gonzalez still strikes out way too much to be a major league OF, Fowler is a multi-tooled wonder but is only 22 and could use another half-season at least in AAA, and Murton and Smith should battle for LF/4th OF status.

Given a full season of production, Spilborghs should make for the ideal fantasy fourth OF. A less sexy option than over-hyped sleepers like Elijah Dukes, Spilborghs is a balanced and reliable option who you can just plug into a line-up and forget about as he generates solid production on all fronts and hurts you on no fronts.

2009 Projection: .310 AVG, 90 R, 80 RBI, 20 HR, 12 SB

John Baker (FLA, C)
Y! Rank: 959

Sometimes fantasy players get these bizarre collective mancrushes on a certain up-and-coming prospect and blind themselves to the realities of the player’s situation, missing out on a more reliable bet in the process.

That’s about the only explanation I can think of for why Pablo Sandoval is drafted in 94 percent of leagues right now, while John Baker is only drafted in 10 percent of leagues.

Yes, Pablo Sandoval had an impressive September callup last year. And yes, his C/1B/3B positional eligibility is nice for the sake of versatility. But Sandoval is stuck in an existential dilemma where he can play many positions yet has no position.

He’s stuck behind elders Bengie Molina and Rich Aurilia at C and 3B, and it looks like the Giants are committed to giving Travis Ishikawa a chance to prove himself at 1B. He might be able to unseat Aurilia, but of all his potential positions, Sandoval has the least amount of experience at the hot corner, and his defensive abilities there are highly questionable.

Ultimately Sandoval’s in the position where, if he isn’t sent back to the minors for more regular playing time, he’ll pick up scraps from a variety of sources and maybe piece together 350-400 ABs this season.

John Baker, on the other hand, has an absolute lock on the C position in Florida. Who else is going to catch? Mike Rabelo, of the .612 career major league OPS and .675 career minor league OPS?

With Ivan Rodriguez signing with the Astros last week rather than the Marlins, I’d say there’s a better than average chance of Baker getting 500+ ABs this year.

So, what will Baker do with that opportunity? His 2008 callup was not far off from Sandoval’s: Sandoval in 145 AB = .345/24/24/3/0 (.847 OPS), Baker in 197 AB = .299/32/32/5/0 (.839 OPS).

The only difference between the two is age: Baker is now entering his age 28 season while Sandoval is entering his age 22 season. Baker struggled making the jump from AAA to the majors, spending three-and-a-half seasons at the AAA level.

But he improved his numbers each year, and had a solid showing in AAA before getting called up last year. Unless you’re in a long-term keeper league, his age shouldn’t be a hindrance, since Baker should be in peak-territory right now.

When you add the fact that he’s the Marlins’ undisputed No. 1 catcher to the fact that his excellent batting eye will likely have him at the two-hole in the batting order (in front of Hanley Ramirez, Jorge Cantu and Dan Uggla) he should be able to rack up some impressive counting stats from a position without a whole lot of depth.

2009 Projection: .285 AVG, 85 R, 70 RBI, 12 HR, 0 SB

Mike Fontenot (CHC, 2B)
Y! Rank: 867

A minor-league veteran of five-and-a-half impressive-but-not-amazing seasons, Fontenot stormed onto the scene in 2008, hitting .305 and smacking nine home runs in only 284 PAs. Just how good was Fontenot last year? If he had enough PAs to qualify, his .909 OPS would have been second only to Chase Utley’s .915 among second-basemen.

Better than Ian Kinsler. Better than MVP Dustin Pedroia.

Now, granted, it was a small sample size, and I don’t realistically expect Fontenot to break the .900 OPS barrier again this year. But when I look at the second basemen market, I see five people who provide enough multi-category versatility to clearly be in the top tier: Utley, Kinsler, Pedroia, Brandon Phillips and Brian Roberts.

If you miss out on one of these guys, the rest are, relatively speaking, a pretty even playing field. There are some guys who have decent upside in Alexei Ramirez, Howie Kendrick and Dan Uggla and one-category phenom Chone Figgins, but all of these options come with an inherent risk that in my mind far outweighs their current average draft position.

By the time the dust settles, I don’t doubt that Fontenot’s overall 2009 fantasy value will actually outweigh at least one of those guys. Beyond those players, you’d have a hard time arguing a full season of production from Mike Fontenot would be substantially less valuable than any other 2B on the market.

The only question is: Will the Cubs give him the opportunity to provide a full season of production? The only explanation I can think of for Fontenot’s 867 ranking is that someone at Yahoo thought that Aaron Miles would actually win the 2B job outright just because the Cubs invested $4.7 million in him this offseason.

In reality, the Cubs are simply one of the few teams that can readily afford to spend that kind of money on a high quality back-up. Miles admittedly had a pretty good 2008 season, but it was the first time in his career that he posted an OPS higher than .700. Is Miles better defensively than Fontenot?

Not really, Miles has a career UZR of -6.5, which puts him as a slightly below average defensive 2B.

Fontenot is admittedly known more for his bat than his glove, but I see no evidence of him being a significantly less competent fielder than Miles, especially given that he has an already established rapport with his double-play partner Ryan Theriot going back to their college days.

To my eyes, everything about Aaron Miles screams utility man: switch hitter without significant LH/RH splits, experience playing 2B, SS and 3B. Unless Fontenot gets injured, or the Cubs finally decide to pull the trigger on obtaining Brian Roberts (both of which I think are low probability propositions), I would be shocked if Fontenot didn’t get at least 450 ABs this year.

When you add to all of this the fact that Fontenot is entering his age 29 season and should be at or near his peak performance this year and that his counting stats should be substantial hitting in the potent Cubs lineup, you’ll be looking at some major value coming back if the Cubs do the right thing and let Fontenot loose.

2009 Projection: .290 AVG, 85 R, 80 RBI, 18 HR, 8 SB

Skip Schumaker (STL, 2B/OF)
Y! Rank: 543

As with the discussion of Fontenot above, this is another example of why the aggregation of mid-level talent in 2B allows for some late round bargains to be had. Schumaker has always been a talented hitter, but never made many waves in fantasy circles.

That's probably because there's a general tendency to focus on one-category heroes for the third-fourth OF slots, to balance out a hole in your lineup or cement an advantage in a certain category.

That's why players like Michael Bourn or Marcus Thames, while having substantially less real baseball value than Schumaker, are often seen as more desirable fantasy players.

But if Schumaker attains 2B eligibility, his value immediately skyrockets. Look at the 2008 breakdowns of Schumaker compared to Placido Polanco, a player who is being touted as a sleeper by many fantasy writers: Polanco = .307/90/58/8/7, Schumaker = .302/87/46/8/8.

When you add in the fact that Schumaker had 40 fewer ABs and is five years younger than Polanco, you've got to view them as almost identical in value. Yet Polanco is currently being drafted in 71 percent of leagues, while Schumaker is only drafted in 20 percent of leagues.

Some doubt that Schumaker has enough defensive skill to make it as a 2B for very long. That may be, but as a fantasy owner, all I really care about is whether or not he makes the 10 starts required to gain eligibility at 2B/MI, and I think that La Russa will stick with him at least that long.

His value may decrease if the Cardinals do eventually give up on him at 2B, but he should still be able to get enough ABs as a utility/4th OF to maintain a decent value for a MI.

The downside is that Schumaker is unlikely to have more than 10-15 HR or steals, and won't provide much in the way of RBIs. But with an average above .300 and the bounty of runs that should be generated batting in front of Albert Pujols/Rick Ankiel/Ryan Ludwick/Troy Glaus, Schumaker makes for an excellent backup option at 2B/MI.

2009 Projection: .315 AVG, 95 R, 60 RBI, 12 HR, 8 SB

Travis Buck (OAK, OF)
Y! Rank: 1034

One of my pet peeves with fantasy baseball writing is the tendency to always compare a sleeper candidate to a breakout player of previous year (e.g. trying to find the "Cliff Lee of 2009").

That being said, I can't resist the temptation here, because when I look at Travis Buck going into 2009, I can't help but think of how people viewed Carlos Quentin going into 2008.

Quentin had been touted as a prospect for years, quickly climbing up the minor league ranks, demonstrating legit power and never posting less than a .900 OPS at any level. Then one bad run of 263 PA in the majors at the age of 24 and suddenly he's labelled a bust.

Travis Buck was a whole lot of awful in his short stint in the majors last year. But, he's only 25, he showed a lot of promise in his September call-up with the A's in 2007, and he put up impressive numbers in the minors.

Plus, from everything I've read about him, it seems as if the A's management are dedicated to giving him every chance to succeed and he's got little competition in LF this season (he'll likely be platooned with Rajai Davis/Chris Denorfia against LHers, but that might actually be good for his overall stats).

Don't get me wrong, I'm not expecting Buck to pull a Quentin and hit 30+ HR this year. He never really demonstrated that level of power. But he does have a very nice all around game, including a little bit of speed potential.

He probably won't ever be a 20/20 guy, but 15/15 is within reach. Overall, as long as he's able to cut down his strikeout rate a little bit, he's a guy who could surprise a lot of people this year.

2009 Projection: .285 AVG, 70 R, 75 RBI, 14 HR, 7 SB


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