Fantasy Baseball 2011: The 9 Biggest Surprises of the Season

Craig RondinoneCorrespondent IJune 23, 2011

Fantasy Baseball 2011: The 9 Biggest Surprises of the Season

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    To win a fantasy baseball league, you don’t just need Jose Bautista bopping 50 homers and Roy Halladay twirling double-digit complete games.  You need a player who comes out of nowhere and puts up humongous, All-Star numbers when pundits predicted he was washed-up, not much or not ready yet. 

    It is that guy you drafted in the second-to-last round or you spent $1 on in your auction.  The guy you only picked up because he is on your favorite team, you have his Topps rookie card or he shares the same first name as your son or dog. 

    There have been more surprises in fantasy baseball this season than there have been on Days of Our Lives.  Here are the nine biggest, and best, surprises in fantasy baseball so far this year

Lance Berkman, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Berkman looked as over the hill as Evander Holyfield when he finished the 2010 season as the part-time designated hitter for the New York Yankees.  He could not hit a lick right-handed, and his power and bat speed left-handed had dwindled as well.

    So when St. Louis ponied up a whopping $8 million for Berkman to be a full-time outfielder, many mouths dropped.  But all Berkman has done is benefited from returning to the National League and batting behind super sluggers Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday.  His 17 homers, 51 RBI and 1.013 OPS rank him among the league leaders.  And now he qualifies at both first base and the outfield for the rest of the season. 

    Berkman is back, baby!  

Jason Bourgeois, Houston Astros

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    Ninety-nine percent of fantasy owners in mixed leagues did not even list Bourgeois on their cheat sheets, and the percentage was probably not much lower in NL-only leagues.  He was a 29-year-old part-time player who had hit .220 and .189 in the two previous seasons and shown flashes of speed and absolutely zero power.   

    Yet the French-sounding speedster has been better fantasy-wise than bigger-named outfielders such as Adam Dunn, Jason Bay and Jason Heyward.  Bourgeois has parlayed a super start into a regular starting gig (when he is not injured) and hit .359 with 17 stolen bases.  Look for him to keep burning up the basepaths with fellow greyhound Michael Bourn at the top of the Astros order.    

Michael Morse, Washington Nationals

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    Washington believed it compensated for the loss of Adam Dunn by signing Jayson Werth to an astronomical sum that even Vernon Wells would have scoffed at.  Little did the Nats know that the guy who would really replace Dunn’s power was on their roster already.

    Morse showed signs of power during the second half of the 2010 campaign, but he has suddenly become a full-fledged cleanup hitter in 2011.  He has 13 homers and 43 RBI in just 212 at-bats and is sporting a .302 batting average.  Morse is a late bloomer who is finally living up to the power potential several scouts believed he had when he was in the Seattle Mariners organization a zillion years ago.

Danny Espinosa, Washington Nationals

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    Fantasy owners knew the switch-hitting Espinosa had the power-speed combo that could make him special someday.  What they did not know was that Espinosa was going to put everything together so soon and turn “someday” into “right now” overnight.

    Despite hitting .241 (the average is climbing, though), Espinosa has already slammed 13 homers, driven in 45 runs and swiped eight bases.  That would be swell if he played any position, but considering he is a second baseman it has swiftly vaulted him right up with the likes of Chase Utley, Ian Kinsler and Robinson Cano among the kings at that spot.  A 20-HR/20-SB season is well within reach if Espy stays on this fantasy fast track.  

Asdrubal Cabrera, Cleveland Indians

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    Cabrera was not even the most highly sought Cabrera on his own team during March drafts.  Now is he is the best shortstop to own in fantasy (apologies to Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki). 

    As-Cab is the only shortstop with double-digit homers and steals at this stage of the season, ranks second in both runs and runs batted in at the position and is hitting a cool .295.  All this from a guy who had three homers and six steals in 97 games during an injury-plagued 2010 that made many fantasy owners forget about him.  You just never know when the light switch will go on for young players, and Cabrera is a prime example.  

Melky Cabrera, Kansas City Royals

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    The Royals love bargain-basement outfielders they can get on the cheap, which comes as no surprise since their owner is the former CEO of Walmart.  So when the Royals signed Cabrera off the scrap heap and plugged him into center field, fantasy owners thought he was just keeping a seat warm for one of K.C.’s up-and-coming studs moving up in the minor leagues.   

    Not so fast, Chuck Carr!  Cabrera’s numbers are utterly fantastic and totally unexpected across the boar—nine homers, nine steals, 42 runs batted in and 42 runs scored.  Maybe all of the Royals’ young phenoms have infused Cabrera with new life.  Or maybe he is trying to prove to the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves that they made mistakes letting him go.  Cabrera has been a multi-category monster this year and shows no signs of slowing down. 

Jeff Karstens, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Pittsburgh is normally the place where starting pitchers go to give up tons of runs and watch their fantasy values sink like Indiana Jones in quicksand.  Just ask Zach Duke.  Karstens seemed to be another casualty after posting a 5.42 ERA in 2009 and a 4.92 ERA in 2010 and going 7-16 over the two years.  His fantasy worth heading into the 2011 season could not have been more than $1 in auction leagues.

    And if you were the lucky son of a gun to pony up that dollar, you have gotten more bang out of your buck than your average McDonald’s customer.  Karstens has been surprisingly phenomenal this season thanks a 2.54 ERA and 1.08 WHIP.  He should have seven or eight wins but Pittsburgh’s poor run support for him has turned some victories into no-decisions for him.  Still, Karstens has done much more than any fantasy expert could have envisioned.     

Philip Humber, Chicago White Sox

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    Remember a few years ago when Humber was part of the steal of a deal the New York Mets made with the Minnesota Twins when the Mets acquired Johan Santana?  Humber was a prime prospect then.  He was arguably the linchpin of the package going to Minnesota.  Three years later, Humber had two major league wins and was fighting to make Chicago’s Opening Day roster.

    And now Humber has turned into a quality start machine.  Nine of his last 10 starts have been quality, and in his “bad” start he had the audacity to allow four runs in 7.2 innings, so he is no Fausto Carmona.  Humber has quietly become the best No. 5 starter in baseball. 

    The White Sox have a knack for taking failed prospects from other organizations and revitalizing their careers.  Gavin Floyd is the perfect example.  But the stats Humber is supplying to fantasy owners—7-3 record, 2.90 ERA, 0.98 WHIP—would have been impossible to fathom back in March.     

Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Hanrahan has always had as much heat as a brick-fire oven.  He struck out 100 batters in only 69.2 innings in 2010 as one of Pittsburgh’s setup men.  But while his 98 mph fastball always helped him in the strikeout category, he was never able to give fantasy owners much of anything in the saves, ERA and WHIP departments. 

    Until now.     

    Hanrahan has been the best closer in fantasy baseball this season.  He boasts a 20-for-20 in save opportunities, 1.31 ERA and 0.96 WHIP.  This is what you would expect from Brian Wilson or Mariano Rivera, not Hanrahan.  Maybe the difference is that he is not trying to strike out the world anymore.  He is averaging under a strikeout per inning for the first time since 2007. 

    Whatever the reason, Hanrahan has been one of the most valuable players to own in fantasy baseball in 2011.