The late winter air is ripe with fantasy baseball optimism as spring training games commence under the warm southern sun and fans speculate the fates of their teams' stars. But often, it’s not the stars who are the catalysts behind their teams' early season success, but instead, it’s the sleepers, the dark horses and unknown who catch the league by surprise.
Here’s a glimpse at a handful of players poised to play the role of the unexpected and deliver in 2011.
Tampa Bay may have lost some offensive pop with the departures of Carlos Pena (28 HR) and Carl Crawford (19 HR), but the Rays will look to newly appointed spark-plug Ben Zobrist to compensate for these franchise pillars. It’s unlikely that this utility man will ever return to his 2009 level though, which saw Zobrist post a career-year performance (.297 AVG, 27 HR, 91 RBI and 17 SB).
Adding additional value to Zobrist’s stock is his exceptional athleticism, which fostered a career-high 24 stolen bases. Manager Joe Maddon should continue to post the green light for his swift-footed middle infielder, who was thrown out just three times in 2010 and considering Zobrist’s above-average batting eye, Tampa Bay will have a reliable offensive threat.
Adam LaRoche will never have the glamour or flash of an Albert Pujols or Mark Teixeira, but the veteran first baseman will do at least one thing well: Hit for power. LaRoche’s 25 big flies in 2010 was the fifth time in eight years that the 32-year-old surpassed the 20-homer threshold and considering the healthy supply of available plate appearances in Washington, LaRoche looks to be a lock to again post impressive power numbers.
The lone caveat when analyzing the potential production from LaRoche is his notoriously slow starts. The owner of a .252 pre-All-Star game average, LaRoche is a strong finisher, whose .295 post-All-Star average is a better indication of how valuable the sweet-swinging lefty can be.
Amidst an American League loaded with young, promising backstops, Tampa Bay’s John Jaso has presented himself as one of the most undervalued and patient catchers in the league today. At 27, Jaso isn’t a kid and won’t develop into an elite-level catcher, but he will provide the serviceable stats required to fend off competition for Tampa’s starting catching job.
In just his first full season behind the dish for the Rays, Jaso displayed a high level of patience (.372 OBP) while also giving himself a chance at the plate by drawing more walks than strikeouts (59 BB to 39 K). Should he attain 450-500 plate appearances as the Rays’ full-time catcher, Jaso could amass a lofty hit total (10/25 in April 2010) and rack up an impressive amount of walks.
Entering a contract year, Mets’ Carlos Beltran will look to contribute from the middle of the New York lineup hitting behind Jose Reyes. After manning center field in Flushing since ’05, Beltran has asked for a move to right field to alleviate stress on his balky, surgically repaired knee, which limited him to a mere 64 appearances in 2010.
Beltran will be 34 this April and in order to cash in on another contract, the veteran switch-hitter will need to return to his customary combination of power and speed (eight seasons of 20-plus HR and 20-plus SB). Breathing down his neck will be emerging prospect Fernando Martinez, who owns many of the tools the Mets will look to build around. A slow start for Beltran (.281 career April batting average) will lead to a shorter leash and greater likelihood that young Martinez could replace the incumbent veteran.
Written exclusively for www.thefantasyfix.com by Conor Gereg.