Fantasy baseball drafts will be upon us in no time. In a draft format league, come draft day you'll want to have a few players in mind that warrant your attention just a round or two earlier than your league mates might take them.
Here are five guys I would target earlier than most rankings and who I believe will end the season with the kind of numbers that will ultimately surprise the fantasy baseball world.
All projections are based on a 10-team, 25-round snake draft.
Projected Draft Round: 11th to 13th
Max Scherzer's season stats were that of a good No. 2 fantasy starter, finishing with a 3.50 ERA, 184 strikeouts in 195.2 innings and a WHIP of 1.25. The numbers to end the season were even better, as Scherzer gave up two runs or less in 14 of his final 19 starts.
Where he can and will rebound this year is in the wins column. He enjoyed little in the way of run support on the way to a 12-11 record on the season, but it's unlikely he'll suffer the same fate two years in a row.
The raw numbers themselves would have made a 15 or more win season very likely in 2010, but it just never materialized.
At only 26 years old, Scherzer is still learning to pitch. This will be his third full season in the big leagues, and I look for him to continue to improve. I believe he'll keep the strikeout rate intact and should bring down the walks a bit while almost certainly racking up more wins.
I also think that he's shown enough durability, always a concern with young pitchers, that he'll be given the opportunity to go deeper into games, and that should help his overall numbers.
While your league mates will likely target Scherzer in the 11th or 12th round, I wouldn't hesitate to take the plunge in the late ninth or early 10th.
Projected Round: Final rounds to undrafted
In early 2007 Cameron Maybin was a can't-miss 19-year-old outfield prospect in the Detroit Tigers farm system, earning a late season call-up in which he showed flashes of his amazing potential.
In fact, he was so can't-miss that he was THE player the Marlins coveted in the deal that sent Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to Detroit.
After late season call-ups in 2008 and 2009, Maybin enjoyed a solid spring training, and the Marlins named him their center fielder for the start of the 2010 campaign, just days after he turned 23. The season proved a disaster, as Maybin struggled, ultimately spending the season bouncing back and forth between the majors and minors.
While there is really no disputing Cameron Maybin's skill set, it's the strikeouts and the contact rates that had the Marlins concerned, so during the offseason they shipped him to the Padres in exchange for bullpen help. Petco Park is far from a hitter's paradise, but hopefully the change in venue will do Maybin some good.
The Marlins are notorious for rushing players to the big leagues, and the organization and the fans were determined that he would be a superstar from day one. That's a lot of pressure for a 23-year-old. At the start of the season Maybin will be just 24 and playing for his third team.
The Padres will urge him to use his speed to his advantage, a huge asset in cavernous Petco Park. They see Maybin as a leadoff hitter and starting center fielder. While the home runs will come in time, it's really the steals that should interest you. The Padres will be looking to manufacture runs and will surely be giving him the green light from day one.
I'm betting that with the pressure off a bit Maybin can improve his contact rate and get his average up around .260, or perhaps even better. Keep in mind that Maybin is a career .305 hitter over 418 minor league games. If that's the case, he could easily steal 30 bases or more and top 15 home runs.
This season isn't likely to be All-Star-caliber, but if you can grab the kind of speed/power combination that Maybin has in the final rounds of your draft, especially in a keeper or dynasty league (if his owner has given up on him), the pick could be very rewarding.
Projected Round: Late sixth to early eighth
What's not to like about Clayton Kershaw? He's posted back-to-back seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA and reduced his WHIP in each of his first three major league seasons.
He's averaged more than a strikeout an inning over the past two years as a full-time starter and also reduced his walks significantly from 2009 to 2010.
The best part: He'll turn just 23 shortly before Opening Day.
To be sure, Kershaw is a known and very highly thought-of fantasy pitcher. But the wins that normally accompany the gaudy numbers Kershaw posted in 2009 and 2010 just haven't been there. He's just 21-18 over that span. It's almost mind-boggling that a 2.85 ERA over the last two seasons has produced little more than what amounts to nearly a .500 winning percentage.
We're not in Felix Hernandez territory just yet, but Kershaw's 2010 season wasn't so different. Offensively it seemed as if the Dodgers' entire team fell into some sort of weird black hole, and I just can't foresee that happening again. Call it the law of averages, but I think Kershaw will get run support this season. If the Dodgers are contenders, he could easily find himself in 18-win territory.
If you want Kershaw, you may have to draft him as a No. 1 starter in the fifth round. But I do think that what we've seen so far may only be the tip of the iceberg, and he could easily finish the season as a top five starter.
Projected Round: Seventh or eighth
Martin Prado is a name shooting up fantasy draft boards this offseason. After establishing himself as a solid .300 hitter over the last couple of seasons, Prado showed his ability to be a very productive force at the top of the Braves lineup in 2010.
In fact, Prado hit .322 with 11 home runs when hitting from the leadoff spot. He also posted 40 doubles in 2010, and having just turned the magic 27 this offseason, he could easily parlay a few more of those into home runs and perhaps top 20 round-trippers in 2011.
The downside to Prado is that he doesn't run, but he is still likely to finish near the top of the league in runs, especially if he stays in the leadoff spot for the entire 2011 season.
While Prado spent the majority of last season as the Braves' second baseman, the acquisition of Dan Uggla likely means he will spend much of this season either manning the outfield or perhaps even first base. In most fantasy leagues, the second base and third base eligibility will stay intact, and that's really the key to Prado's value.
Second base and third base are arguably the two weakest positions after catcher. Aging stars and injuries seem to be a theme running through just about everyone's list of the top 10 at each position. While Prado could be hard pressed to finish in the top five of either one, he could easily hold enough value in both spots to finish sixth or seventh.
I think the average stays above .300, and the runs could even increase with the addition of Uggla and the continued development of Jason Heyward. If the top-tier folks are gone, I think Martin Prado makes a safe pick at either infield spot in the sixth round.
Projected Round: Ninth or 10th
Much like Cameron Maybin, Delmon Young was at one time the darling prospect of the baseball world.
The first pick in the first round by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2003, Young was enjoying a meteoric rise through the minors, dominating pitching at each stop along the way. Then an incident with a minor league umpire in which he struck the umpire with a thrown bat in 2006 cost Young 50 games and forever tarnished his reputation with the organization.
In 2007 he was handed the starting right field job for the Rays and had a solid but unspectacular season in which he finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting. That offseason he was shipped off to Minnesota.
Through his first two seasons with the Twins, Young played well enough, but given the expectations and the "can't miss" tag, he never quite seemed to fulfill his potential. But in 2010 Young put it all together. As the Twins' full-time right fielder, Young hit .298 with 21 home runs and 112 RBI. While early in his career Young posted double-digit steals, it appears that part of his game has gone by the wayside.
However, the most encouraging thing about Young's breakout year is the hitting numbers. Never before had Young hit more than 13 home runs in a season, and even then he struck out 127 times. Last season he dropped the Ks to 81, and along with 21 home runs he posted 46 doubles. History tells us that doubles can be a great precursor to predicting upticks in home runs, as they often signal a young player's power development.
At still just 25 years of age (I know, it seems like he's been around forever), Delmon Young isn't even to the prime stage in his career where the power numbers usually jump, age 27. Given last season's home run and RBI numbers, the reduced strikeouts and the huge doubles total, I think Young could easily hit over .300 with close to 30 home runs and 120-plus RBI.
While other people are gambling on Jacoby Ellsbury to bounce back or the upside of a Colby Rasmus or Mike Stanton in the seventh and eighth, go ahead and take Young. I think he's in for a very big year.