- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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Knowledge is power.
They always used to spit those clichéd words out at us back in my school days. I'm sure you've heard 'em before. Chances are, you probably take that little phrase for granted.
If so, and you ignore that simple truth in fantasy baseball, you're making a mistake. A little knowledge goes a long way in our game, especially when it comes to familiarizing yourself with the unfamiliar. If you're a die-hard player -- and I hope you are -- you know well how many no-name types make significant fantasy contributions each year. Failing to gather a little knowledge about the newcomers puts you at a noticeable disadvantage, both in your title chases now and in your attempts in future seasons.
That's why today, in a look-back/peek-forward type of column, I'm offering a little more knowledge, a little more insight, about those "nobodies" who became so very important in 2007. Sure, most of these might be household names now, but recapping and absorbing this type of information each year is what makes a long-term contending owner.
Where did these guys come from? How unexpected was their performance? Where do they go from here? Each an important question, each addressed below.
We'll start this week with the National League:
Ryan Braun, 3B, Brewers: He's my choice for NL Rookie of the Year. Sorry, Troy Tulowitzki, you were good, but not this good. Despite the Brewers waiting until May 25 to grant him his MLB debut, Braun managed the ninth-most homers (34), and if you tack 10 hitless at-bats onto his total so he meets the requirement to qualify for the batting title, he would have ranked 22nd in batting average. We always knew this kid could hit; he batted .313 with a .947 OPS in his minor league career and topped .333/1.000 numbers in each of his three years at the University of Miami. Defense is Braun's problem; it's what cost him a spot in the Opening Day lineup, and he finished with 26 errors and a .895 fielding percentage, both easily MLB worsts. So he's a better fit as an American League designated hitter, so what? The only thing that bothers me about Braun is his plate discipline. Among players with 450-plus plate appearances who walked less than once per 15 PAs and struck out at least once per five at-bats, Braun, Hunter Pence and Alfonso Soriano were the only ones who batted at least .290 with an .850 OPS. That is a bit distressing and could mean a mild sophomore slump is in order. Frankly, though, if Braun doesn't finish 2008 as at least a top-10 third baseman, I'll be stunned. Floored, in fact.
Matt Capps, RP, Pirates: I won't call his a great season, mainly because the Pirates didn't generate enough save chances for him to make a significant fantasy impact, but I will say Capps did some great pitching in 2007. Working quickly and throwing strikes, as has been his trademark for years, Capps managed a 2.28 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 76 games, converting 18 of 20 save chances after taking over the role June 2. His only drawback: As a fastball/slider/occasional-changeup pitcher, he lacks an "out" pitch against left-handers; they hit him for a .281 batting average and .743 OPS. That's the kind of thing Capps needs to address if he's to join the league's elite, but there's a lot to like as a second-tier closer option for 2008. The Pirates have no reason to replace him, and he showed no signs of wearing down late in the year after 161 games pitched in 2006-07.
Manny Corpas, RP, Rockies: That his team has completed a most-improbable run to a spot in the World Series might help get his name out more than anything I might provide here. Still, for those of you who turned off the TV because your team already was out of it -- shame on you! -- Corpas is a Panamanian right-hander with a mid-90s sinking fastball and a slider (albeit an occasionally inconsistent slider) who rattled off 19 of 20 saves after taking over for then-injured Brian Fuentes on July 7. Amazingly, since that date (postseason included), Corpas has a 1.41 ERA, 0.83 WHIP and .199 BAA in 42 appearances, easily ranking as one of the game's most effective relievers the past three months. Of course, his level of dominance and postseason success might lead opponents to develop better scouting reports on him next season, and Coors Field does limit his ERA/WHIP upside in the long term, but Corpas has done more than enough to be back in the closer's role next Opening Day. I'd call him a solid second-tier closer.
Yovani Gallardo, SP, Brewers: In a year in which Homer Bailey and Phil Hughes seemed to garner all the rookie pitching headlines, Gallardo actually snuck in as a better option by far. All he did was string together back-to-back-to-back quality starts to begin his MLB career, and in 17 overall starts, he notched nine wins, a 3.74 ERA, a 1.30 WHIP and 93 strikeouts in 101 innings. Gallardo brings mid-90s heat, a power curve and a nice speed differential with his changeup; he usually is about 15 mph slower on the changeup. That's a pretty devastating mix of three quality pitches, backing up scouts' claims that he's ace material. I've heard all the comparisons in the past to Mike Mussina and John Smoltz, but frankly, watching him pitch, I've got a feeling he's more No. 2-starter material than an annual Cy Young candidate. Not that there's anything wrong with that; I'd call Tim Hudson that kind of pitcher, and Hudson isn't bad, not at all. Plus, I see no reason Gallardo can't be that No. 2 type as early as 2008 and for many, many seasons looking forward. Keeper-league owners, I'd say he's pretty much a must-keep.
J.J. Hardy, SS, Brewers: He was drafted in a fair share of leagues, for sure, but I doubt anyone expected Hardy to develop into the elite-caliber shortstop he became in 2007, especially in the first half of the season. Before Braun's and Gallardo's arrivals, Hardy was teaming up with Prince Fielder to carry the Brewers, dominating the NL Central. Through his team's first 50 games, Hardy batted .303 with 15 homers, 43 RBIs and a .937 OPS, ranking among the MLB leaders. Granted, from there, he had only .263-11-37-.708 numbers, rather ordinary totals, but put it all together, and you're talking about a shortstop with whom you must be familiar looking forward. No, Hardy didn't demonstrate he was the next Cal Ripken, but why can't he be a better version of, say, Travis Fryman or Bobby Grich? That's not the easiest thing to find among shortstops, and after the big boys at that position are off the board, you could do a lot worse than grab a guy with 30-homer potential who can bat nearly .280.
Tim Lincecum, SP, Giants: Like Gallardo, on draft day, Lincecum wasn't as highly regarded as either Bailey or Hughes. The main difference between him and Gallardo, though, was that while the Brewers took their time promoting their kid, the Giants couldn't ignore Lincecum's dominating numbers in Triple-A in April (4-0 record, 0.29 ERA in five starts). They summoned him in May, and while the early returns weren't exceptional -- he had a 5.88 ERA in his first nine starts -- Lincecum made the kind of quick adjustment to higher competition that you love to see in a rookie pitcher. From June 25 forward, he managed a 2.96 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, .223 BAA and 9.16 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio in 15 starts, rivaling the game's best starters during that span. Really, it was a shame his Giants weren't more competitive, or he would have been better in the wins category and perhaps his workload wouldn't have been so closely monitored in September. The latter should help Lincecum's cause for 2008, though, and while I suggested Gallardo might top out as a No. 2 starter, I see this right-hander as a legitimate future ace and Cy Young candidate. He throws nearly 100 mph with movement, a good curve and a respectable changeup; he's a clear power arm. Gallardo might be a "safer" bet in the short term, but here's your upside play, folks.
Hunter Pence, OF, Astros: There actually was a time this year when Pence was making a strong case for rookie of the year honors. He was batting .330 with 12 homers, 45 RBIs and a .919 OPS in his first 73 games. Then, his season came crashing down July 22, when he fractured his wrist, costing him a month. Pence finished with .306-5-24-.855 numbers in 35 games after returning, not bad numbers at all, but not enough to keep him in Braun or Tulowitzki territory. Incredibly, Pence hit at every single place he played in 2007, from his .571 batting average in 28 spring at-bats, to his .326 mark in 25 games for Triple-A Round Rock, to his .322 full-year mark with the Astros. This kid can rake, although it would be nice to see him cut down on his strikeouts, one per 4.8 at-bats with the big club. That's the kind of thing that might make him a candidate for a sophomore slump, although it will help him that he wasn't exactly overexposed. I can't help but feel a Vernon Wells comparison; he will have some great years, but his free-swinging ways might mean mild, yet frustrating, inconsistency.
Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies: He's generating a lot of recent buzz in the rookie of the year race, and while I prefer Braun for his hitting accomplishments, you can't fault "Tulo" for what he's done both with the bat and the glove over the course of a full six months. He batted .291, hit 24 homers, drove in 99 runs and ranked first in MLB among qualified shortstops in fielding percentage (.987) and range factor (5.39). Many of his hitting accomplishments were Coors-driven, though; he batted .256 with nine homers and a .719 OPS in 78 road games, average numbers at best. Not that I'm trying to knock Tulowitzki as a bona fide All-Star in the making. He is 23 and has a lot of great years ahead of him, especially with Coors helping his cause. Remember when this kid was compared to fellow Long Beach State alum Bobby Crosby? So much for that; Tulowitzki is worlds better already. He seems to only improve with experience, and that helps ease any worries he'll regress as a sophomore. Folks, this kid is legit, exposure or not.
Next week: "Nice Meeting You" Part 2, the American League ...
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
7hAdam Rubin and Kieran Darcy