Brett Gardner (NYY OF)
Y! Rank: 764
It's rare to find a legitimate deep sleeper who is a member of the Yankees, the Red Sox or other teams with huge fan bases. Almost all fantasy players are homers to some degree, overvaluing players which belong to their favoured team.
When you multiply that effect by the number of Yankees fans out there, you get artificially high costs for players like Joba Chamberlain and Robinson Cano.
That's why it's so peculiar that a promising young player, who is a solid bet to be the starting center fielder for the Yankees, has been relatively ignored by the fantasy community. Especially when you consider that Gardner stole 50 bases last year between AAA and the majors.
Speedy outfielders seem to come in three general packages. There's the classic five-tooled player for whom speed is but one factor of a solid all-around game (e.g. Grady Sizemore, B.J. Upton, Alex Rios, and Matt Kemp).
Then there's the player for whom speed is the main attraction, but who provides a high enough average and scores enough runs to give value on multiple fronts (e.g. Ichiro, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Shane Victorino).
Finally, there's the speed specialist who brings in a huge amount of steals but struggles to provide even a replacement-level contribution in other categories, and, thus, has negligible fantasy value (e.g. Michael Bourn, Willy Taveras, Carlos Gomez).
So where does Gardner fit in?
Due to his lack of power, he cannot be considered a legit five-tooler. His three HRs this spring is an interesting development, but considering he only hit four HRs in two-and-a-half minor league seasons, this recent power surge is probably a statistical anomaly.
However, Gardner is a cut above the Bourns, Taverases, and Gomezes of the world.
Unlike those players, Gardner combines his speed with solid plate discipline. His strikeout-to-walk ratio in the minors was an excellent 1.23, compared to major-league ratios of 2.64, 2.81, and 5.12 for Bourn, Taveras, and Gomez respectively.
Gardner didn't demonstrate his plate discipline during short stint in the majors last year,ending the year with 30 Ks compared to eight BBs.
However, Gardner started out with a less-than-stellar K/BB in his first attempt at both AA and AAA, but he was able to adapt on his second go-around, which gives me confidence that he'll be able to do the same this year.
When a player combines plus speed with an established ability to get on-base, you get a prototypical leadoff hitter. The Yankees' lineup is in flux with the injury to A-Rod, but it wouldn't surprise me to see Gardner establish himself as the lead-off man at some point this season.
If he can do that, Garnder will score a load of runs, and he will become a significant fantasy force, much in the same way that Jacoby Ellsbury did last year.
It's a tricky proposition, given that Gardner's role as a starter is far from cemented and that he'll likely find the rigors of hitting in the AL East significantly more difficult and stressful than hitting in AAA.
But it's a gamble worth taking in the late rounds for teams short on speed, given the potential rewards that may be reaped.
2009 Projection: .275 AVG, 80 R, 40 RBI, 2 HR, 45 SB
Asdrubal Cabrera (CLE 2B/SS)
Y! Rank: 925
A tale of two shortstops: Troy Tulowitzki and Asdrubal Cabrera.
Both of these talented young infielders faced high expectations entering the 2008, coming off impressive 2007 campaigns.
Both struggled mightily in the first half of 2008: Tulowitzki posting a .166 AVG and .544 OPS in 151 ABs, Cabrera posting a .184 AVG and .529 OPS in 158 ABs.
Both dealt with midseason challenges. Cabrera was sent back down to AAA, and Tulowitzki overcame an injured quad and a hand laceration after slamming a bat down in frustration.
Both made a triumphant return in the second half, Tulowitzki produced a post-All Star line of .327/31/30/5/0 in 226 ABs, and Cabrera produced a post-All Star line of .320/32/33/5/3 in 194 ABs.
Tulowitzki is routinely one of the top 100 players drafted and is chosen in 98 percent of leagues. Cabrera is frequently banished to the waiver wire, chosen in only 8 percent of leagues.
Where's the logic?
The only difference between the two is the power potential of Tulowitzki, who put up an impressive 24 HRs in 2007. But do not give up on Cabrera's home-run ability. Power tends to come with age, and Cabrera is only entering his age 23 season.
In his first two major league seasons, Cabrera has hit a HR in 1.7 percent of his ABs. Stephen Drew's HR percentage over his first two years was only 2.3 percent, before he beefed it up to 3.4 percent by hitting 21 HRs last year.
Derek Jeter's HR percentage over his first two years was only 1.6 percent, before he increased it to 3 percent with 19 HRs in his age 23 season. Jose Reyes' HR percentage over his first three years was only a paltry 1.2 percent, but he was able to increase it to 2.9 percent with 19 HRs in his age 23 season.
I'm not projecting Cabrera to slug 20+ HRs in 2009, but 2B/SS prospects tend to be brought up from the minors at an early age on the basis of a strong glove, and as a result, their gradual development of power is harder to predict.
In any case, it's premature to expect a major power gap between Cabrera and Tulowitzki in 2009.
What I like most about Cabrera from a fantasy angle is that he's comfortably above average in all aspects of his game. He's not a slugger per se, but he can be expected to hit more HRs than the average shortstop.
He's not a speed demon, but he'll probably nab 10-15 bags. He's unlikely to ever challenge for the batting title, but he should be able to hit in the .280-.300 range.
Keeper league owners should note that Cabrera will be playing second base this year and, thus, might not be shortstop eligible come 2010. But, as for 2009, if you miss out on the first-round shortstops (Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, and Jimmy Rollins), don't pay outrageous prices for the Troy Tulowitzkis of the world.
Focus on filling up your other positions, and then nab Cabrera in a late round and watch him give you steady production across the board.
2009 Projection: .295 AVG, 80 R, 75 RBI, 16 HR, 10 SB
Chris Duncan (STL 1B/OF)
Y! Rank: 992
As a philosophy, I am not crazy about late-round sluggers. The Jack Custs, Russell Branyans, and Marcus Thames of the world may be able to mash, but their free-swinging ways will kill your batting average, forcing you to find other players for your roster to make up for their inadequacies.
But with Chris Duncan, I'll make an exception.
In 655 ABs over 2006 and 2007, Chris Duncan hit 43 home runs, scored 111 runs, knocked in 113 batters, and hit for a .273 AVG. To say those are solid fantasy numbers is an understatement.
Then, last year, he suffered a neck/back injury that severely affected his performance. While his injury was originally thought to possibly be career-ending, thanks to the miracles of modern science, surgery has reportedly corrected the problem and returned Duncan to full health.
Based on his spring training stats thus far, Duncan seems completely recovered from his surgery and ready to get back to his 2006-2007 performance levels. He's still only 28 years old, so he should be entering his prime.
The biggest question with Duncan: How much playing time will he receive?
With the Cardinals' center-field and right-field options locked down with Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick (as long as they can remain healthy), and top prospect Colby Rasmus knocking at the door progressively louder each day, Duncan may find himself on the outside looking in.
Playing time gets even more tight if the Cardinals eventually decide to take Skip Schumaker off second base and move him back to the outfield. There's no natural platoon situation available either, since Ludwick is the only right-handed hitter and even he generally hits better against righties than lefties.
While it's something that could change over last two weeks of spring training, as it stands right now, I think Duncan will get the first chance to prove himself in LF.
If he can replicate his power during 2006-2007 season while keeping his average up, Duncan could be a solid late-round fantasy option for teams short on HRs.
2009 Projection: .270 AVG, 65 R, 75 RBI, 25 HR, 3 SB
Daniel Murphy (NYM OF)
Y! Rank: 745
Daniel Murphy was one of the more surprising minor-league sleepers who emerged in 2008. Prior to the season, he didn't even crack the Top 10 Mets prospects list of minor-league guru John Sickles.
But he demanded the attention of the Mets with a solid performance in AA and earned himself a late season call-up in which he kept up his hot streak, perfectly replicating the .870 OPS he posted in AA.
In some ways, Murphy's low ranking this year is understandable. He's young and unproven;there are concerns that last year may have been a fluke; and he's blocked at his natural position (3B) by one of the best young players in the league (David Wright).
But there's much to like about Murphy. He comes across as a very polished contact hitter, and he combines it with solid HR power and doubles-generating gap power. He'll also snag a healthy number of bags.
His strikeout rate in the majors seems artificially high compared to his minor-league numbers, so that will probably improve and help to stave off regression on other fronts.
Jerry Manuel has given Murphy his blessing as the starting left fielder for 2009, and he will likely platoon with Fernando Tatis, which should help keep his batting average up. He also spent some time at second base in the Arizona Fall League, and with that position still being a question mark for the Mets, he may be able get some ABs there this season.
If he gains fantasy eligibility at second base, his value goes up even more.
Still, do not overpay for Murphy. In a 15-team mock draft I did last week, Murphy went in the 12th round, which is far too early for my liking. If you run into a rabid Mets fan, you could face that type of overreaching, and I'd advise against indulging in it.
But if Murphy is still on the board in the 18th-20th round, he's definitely worthy of a place on your roster.
2009 Projection: .295 AVG, 75 R, 75 RBI, 12 HR, 12 SB
Ronny Cedeno (SEA 2B/SS)
Y! Rank: 980
I'm going out on a limb with this one, since I find Cedeno a maddeningly difficult player to project. In two stints in AAA Iowa in 2005 and 2007, Cedeno showed flashes of the talented hitter he may become: An average over .350 in both years combined with solid power and speed.
But he's been unable to translate that potential into major league results.
Was his AAA performances simply flukes? Was his numbers inflated by the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League? Or does Cedeno just need someone to give him enough steady major-league playing time to reach his full potential?
Traded to Seattle as part of the Garret Olson–Aaron Heilman deal, he was initially viewed by the media as some sort of throw-in. That surprised me, since the incumbent shortstop in Seattle, Yuniesky Betancourt, has done little in three seasons of 500+ AB per year to demonstrate why he should expect to hang onto his job.
Last season, Betancourt regressed offensively. His OPS dropping to an anemic .691. If your shortstop provides you with top-notch defense, like an Adam Everett or a John McDonald, you can sometimes stomach a below-average hitting performance.
But Betancourt also had the second-highest number of errors among shortstops in 2008, and he has made 63 errors over the past three years.
The Mariners have been forced to stomach Betancourt's mediocrity, since the only other option they had at shortstop was Willie Bloomquist, and, no offense to Willie, he's clearly a utility man, not a starter.
But now with Cedeno in tow, new Seattle manager Don Wakamatsu has a legitimate alternative. So far, Cedeno has been impressive in spring training, and it would not surprise me to see Betancourt relegated to bench duty sooner rather than later.
If he's given the opportunity, Cedeno may finally capitalize on his potential and turn some heads this year in the same way his possible new double-play partner Jose Lopez did last season.
Or he may not.
I'm not advertising Cedeno as a must-buy on any terms. But he's someone you should have your eye on, and he is probably worth a buck in an auction league, or a late-round draft pick if you have to fill a middle-infield position. There's still a lot of upside there that could be realized in 2009.
2009 Projection: .270 AVG, 65 R, 60 RBI, 8 HR, 8 SB