Undervalued players to target
It's not too late.
OK, for some of you, it's too late. You invested heavily in Brandon Webb and Jacoby Ellsbury, you bit hard on Grady Sizemore and Rich Harden, and now your fantasy baseball team looks like Zach Galifianakis after a five-day bender. (Quick side note: did you ever wonder what the alternate title to "The Hangover" is in Israel? "Stopping in Vegas on the Way to a Wedding." How literal.)
For the rest of you, though, despite the fact that we're nearly two-thirds of the way through the regular season and the Aug. 1 trade deadline is nearly upon us, it's still very possible to rally in your standings. It always seems like a terrible problem. You say to yourself, "How can I possibly budge my team in ERA or home runs? I'm hopelessly behind!" But it happens every year. Someone zooms from nowhere on the strength of an incredible final six-to-eight weeks, and makes a run. Why shouldn't that person be you?
In that spirit, and with ESPN.com's standard baseball leagues' Aug. 13 (noon ET) trade deadline looming, today I'll take a trip around the diamond. At each position, my mission is twofold: to find a widely owned player to trade for, and find a scantily owned player (25 percent of ESPN leagues or fewer) who might surprise and/or be a deeper-league option. In each case, of course, the watchword is value. I'm trying to find guys who will return significantly more than I think you'll have to pay for them. So with no further ado
Trade For: Prince Fielder is only fantasy's No. 13 first baseman for the season, though of course he's been a bit better than that (eighth) during the past month. He's second in the NL in homers, but is hitting a career-low .262. There's an outside chance the Brewers deal him to a contender, but that would only increase his value. I'm guessing the Fielder owner in your league is still frustrated, having paid either a first- or second-round pick for him. My bold prediction: I say Fielder leads the majors in homers the rest of the way.
Add: I've never owned Chris Davis, because his hype was way too big for his upside, especially now that he's lost 3B-eligibility. But his ownership is down to 21 percent, and if I'm hungry for power, I'm biting. He absolutely has enough pop to hit double-digit homers the rest of the way, unless the Rangers deal for someone like Jorge Cantu, Ty Wigginton or Derrek Lee.
Trade For: Brian Roberts won't play every day for the Orioles right away, because the team wants to make sure his back can handle the workload. But based on a rehab assignment that saw him get red-hot with the bat right away, it's a decent bet that Roberts will prove himself worthy in all fantasy leagues. Can I promise he'll run like his old self? I cannot. But the Roberts owner in your league has the same worries. If you're looking to make a push in steals, this is a chance worth taking. I say Roberts gets 10 minimum from this point forward.
Add: The Rays use Sean Rodriguez four or five times per week, which is enough for him to score some runs, get a few RBIs and steal the occasional base. He's owned in 16.6 percent of leagues at perhaps fantasy's thinnest position, so don't expect miracles; his plate discipline is borderline awful. But the way he thumps lefties, I have a hard time believing he'll get too far in Joe Maddon's doghouse no matter what his OBP.
Trade For: I'm tempted to say Jimmy Rollins, because I'm such a big fan and because I think he'll try to pick the Phillies up by the scruff of their necks and submit a big final couple months. But I'm guessing his price tag in most leagues is too high, because we've been waiting for him to get healthy for so long. So instead I'll choose Jason Bartlett, whose overall numbers are awful (.241, 2 HR, 7 SB), but who has posted a .371 OBP so far in July. His ownership is actually down to 64.3 percent as last year's afterglow fades, but I'm betting he at least doubles his steals output from now until the end of '10. You shouldn't have to pay tons to take that chance.
Add: I know, yuck. Felipe Lopez is a shadow of the guy who stole 83 bases in three seasons in the middle part of the 2000s. But there just aren't any truly productive shortstops available in many leagues (Lopez is owned in 14.1 percent). Last year's .310 average was unrealistic, supported as it was by an uncharacteristic .358 BABIP, but he did hit a game-winning homer Sunday night. He's really only playing in St. Louis right now because David Freese got hurt, but Freese dropped a weight on his toe and looks like he'll miss another few weeks. Lopez could plug a hole in your deep-league middle infield until then.
Trade For: Is it too late to deal for Aramis Ramirez? I'm not sure. I advocated trading for Ramirez a couple months ago, a strategy that's finally been vindicated by his 1.178 OPS in July. Maybe you can convince his owner in your league that you're overpaying for a hot streak; in fact, I think Ramirez has a great shot to continue his scorching ways. This year, he's been weighed down by horrible luck stats (BABIP and HR/FB), and now that those have balanced, the ball is finding open spaces after he hits it. I'd make him my No. 6 third baseman overall right now, and I believe you'll probably be able to get him for less than that ranking warrants.
Add: The nation is catching on to the Pedro Alvarez phenomenon; he's been the best player in fantasy at his position during the past seven days, and he's been added in more than 20 percent of leagues. He's probably not this good this fast, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to catch lightning in a bottle. Alvarez is as good a prospect as they come, and while he whiffs way too much right now, his "up" periods figure to be very, very up.
Trade For: Even in shallow mixed leagues, catcher is an awful, awful position. I mean, Miguel Olivo is still the top-rated guy here. I don't hate the strategy of just ignoring this position and trying to make up for a lack of production elsewhere, but if you want to go for value, I say go for Carlos Santana. He's every bit the prospect Buster Posey is, but while Posey has gone bananas, Santana has been merely adequate. But he's just as capable of turning in a hot month like Posey, possibly as capable as any backstop in the majors. There's no guarantee, obviously, but I think he's got more value than any other man at his position right now.
Add: Oh, heavens. I just threw up in my mouth a little. I'm getting ready to recommend Jason Kendall. Listen, there aren't any good catchers who are available in three-quarters of leagues. Kendall is the closest thing. Surprisingly, he's ranked No. 11 at his position for the season, but that's a pure condemnation of the state of the position. Kendall's taken in just 9.3 percent of leagues, and I expect him to hit .270 the rest of the way, knock in 20 more runs and perhaps steal five more bases. These days, that's production.
Trade For: The bloom is off Andre Ethier since his scalding May. Since then, he's hitting .245 with an OPS hovering around .700. But I still think he's the best player the Dodgers have, and his underlying numbers look hauntingly identical during the past three seasons. That means the 31 homers he drilled in '09 are still relatively within reach (though he did miss time on the DL this year, so he's on pace for 70 fewer plate appearances). Joe Torre knows Ethier has been putrid the past week and will do everything he can to wake the kid up, and that's something Torre's great at. I think Ethier snaps out of it and goes back to being one of the majors' best RBI machines, and soon. I'm buying him on this downturn. Nelson Cruz isn't on a downturn; he's off the DL and back to being a five-category stud. He doesn't have to keep hitting .330 to have immense fantasy value, though. Hitting .290 would be plenty. Obviously dealing for him is taking a big risk on his health, but those are the kinds of moves that make seasons (if they work out). Once again, if you can convince the Cruz owner in your league that they're selling at peak value, I'd do it. You'll pay for him, but it'll be worth that five-category goodness. Torii Hunter is the opposite kind of player from Cruz; he's so steady, his owners barely know he's there. Let me paint a scenario for you: You're after a big pitcher, and you can spare a true stud outfielder (Ryan Braun, for example). I love the idea of trading Braun and a decent pitcher for a great starter and someone like Hunter, who doesn't have the upside of a lot of guys, but who just keeps chugging along, and is already at 64 RBIs. He'll be underrated until the day he retires.
Add: Folks haven't jumped aboard the Tyler Colvin train, as he's taken in only 10.3 percent of leagues. But this former first-round pick is up to 15 homers in just 243 plate appearances. Sure, his strikeout rate is too high, his walk rate is too low, and the dingers are probably the result of a lucky HR/FB rate. But in most leagues, he's free. If you need power, take a chance. It seems Coco Crisp has been on 30 different teams the past few seasons (it's actually been only four in five years), plus it seems he's been hurt forever. But quietly he's stolen 11 bases in his past 22 games. His bat has been brutal (.162 average in July), but maybe a little unlucky (.269 BABIP, compared to a .305 career number). There aren't many guys with his speed potential who are owned in just 8.9 percent of leagues. Like Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata is a prized Pirates prospect, and like Alvarez, Tabata has stoked the fires lately. He's owned in just nine percent of leagues, but he's riding a six-game hitting streak and in his past 13 games is hitting .389 with a homer, eight RBIs, three steals and 11 runs. He'll surely cool off, but he's another kid with upside enough to carry you for a week or two at a time.
Trade For: On average, Zack Greinke was the No. 5 starting pitcher taken in fantasy drafts this spring, but he's been only the No. 31 performer at his position to this point. No, he probably isn't pitching as well in '10 as he did in '09. But he's also been unlucky; his strand rate sits at 66.8 percent, which is the 11th least-favorable mark among all qualified major league starters. His WHIP is still 1.14, he's still getting his owners a decent 7.65 K/9 and he's actually walking hitters at the lowest rate in a full season in his big league career. You probably won't get a bushel of wins from him, but I think you can get him relatively cheap. Dan Haren was traded Sunday to the Angels, and I don't think it hurts his value at all. (For a more complete take on this, see my trade spin.) Yes, league-switching pitchers going from the NL to the AL tend to suffer a bit. But Chase Field is such a hitter's park that I'm guessing a move to Anaheim will cancel out the AL's tougher lineups, to say nothing of Haren's stated desire to play in a pennant race. You have a great story to tell the Haren owner in your league: "Oh, he's mediocre. Oh, he's a bad second-half pitcher. Oh, coming to the AL is so tough." Well, there's nothing mediocre about 141 strikeouts in 141 innings, and I don't believe in "first-half pitchers." So I say buck the trend, and get him at a discount. Ricky Nolasco's ADP was 20th among starting pitchers, but he's been only No. 45 at the position overall this year. Yet check out those strikeouts his past six outings: 50 in his past 41 1/3 innings. The dude is dealing. True, when you watch him pitch, he can be maddening. He cruises along, but when he gets in trouble, he tends to unravel. Still, right now I have him pegged as a borderline top-20 starter again, and I probably won't have to pay that much to get him in a trade.
Add: Brett Myers is lost in the Houston wasteland, but he's thrown five quality starts in his past six outings, and whiffed eight Cubs his latest time out. Don't rule out the possibility that the Astros could trade Myers to a contender, which would almost certainly boost his fantasy profile. At the moment, he's owned in 25.2 percent of leagues. I've been hyping Kris Medlen on TV for a month, but I haven't gotten his needle to move; he's still owned in just 8.4 percent of leagues. He pitched out of the bullpen the first couple weeks after the All-Star break and got crunched by the Marlins his first time back in the rotation, but watch the little guy throw and you'll see someone whose stuff belies his size. The Braves are trying to limit his innings, but he's got exactly a 4.00 K/BB rate, and hasn't allowed more than two free passes in any game this year, which is the path to a 1.19 WHIP. While John Maine is out for the season and Mike Pelfrey has faded, Jonathon Niese has surprised even the Mets. Since coming off the DL in early June, the young lefty has posted a 2.69 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP and 50 K's in 60 1/3 innings spread across nine starts. He's still owned in only 23.4 percent of leagues, and should be picked up in loads more.
Trade For: I think the Rockies will stay in the ultra-competitive NL West all year, and Huston Street will be a big part of that. It's never advisable to pay a ton for a closer, but I think you can get Street at a discount, since he's still got "only" six saves after returning from his shoulder injury. He's throwing very well, has no threats to his job, and features 15 strikeouts against just one walk. He's threatening my top five closers right now. Jonathan Broxton has been atop that closer list for most of this year, though I did put Mariano Rivera slightly above him in my most recent rankings. If ever you're going to pounce on an elite guy at a discount, this might be the time, because stories about Broxton's loss of velocity and tired arm during his post-All-Star-break struggles have been numerous. But he threw much better (and harder) on Saturday. I'm still a believer.
Add: Before the season, I was asked which Chicago closer I'd rather own: Carlos Marmol or Bobby Jenks. I said neither. I was half right. Marmol has been a revelation, but Jenks is Jenks. He's a human high-wire act who often is his own worst enemy. At the moment, the White Sox seem to be ready to employ a closer-by-committee, which means both Matt Thornton and J.J. Putz may be worth adding. Each is owned in between 12 and 18 percent of leagues, and each is pitching quite a lot better than Jenks (who pitched in a non-save situation Sunday). The Chad Qualls mess in Arizona has Diamondbacks interim manager Kirk Gibson scratching his head, and thinking about any number of guys. Aaron Heilman was pitching well until he actually started closing, and then he spit the bit. So Juan Gutierrez may be worth a speculative add. He's owned in just 3.3 percent of leagues, and posted Arizona's most recent save, last Tuesday.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy and follow him at www.twitter.com/thewriterboy.