Harris: Under the radar
I liked "Vanilla Sky." A lot.
I'm no fan of Tom Cruise. Other than "Almost Famous," I can take or leave Cameron Crowe. And before "Volver," Penelope Cruz couldn't act her way out of a paper bag. I'd read indifferent reviews of "Vanilla Sky," studiously avoided it in the theaters, and only a desperate hunt for anything decent on the tube last winter led me to one of its 8,000 reruns on Bravo. And I wound up really, really liking that movie.
It's a nice feeling, right? Coming upon something new for which you had no expectations? Realizing that all the negative publicity -- or complete lack of publicity -- was (at least in your opinion) so much hooey? I mean, I've still got Paul McCartney's silly theme song in my head.
Yes, there's a lot to be said for getting in on the ground floor of something good. For me, Nirvana's "Bleach," David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" and David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" will always feel like mine, because I felt like I discovered them first. (I didn't, of course, but every time I recommended them to a friend, it felt that way.) So it is, too (to torture a metaphor no more) with baseball players. I remember visiting Winter Haven, Fla., former spring training home of the Boston Red Sox, when I was 6 years old and seeing a rookie named Fred Lynn. For as long as he lasted in Boston, Lynn was my guy.
So far, 2007 has been filled with surprising and quiet players who are fast becoming many fantasy owners' "guys." Late-round draft picks or free-agent acquisitions who've contributed in ways you never thought possible, while they've flown almost completely under the national media radar. These are players with extremely high ratios of performance to "Huh?" factor, and if you bought early, they've become a sublime pleasure to root for. But to make this list, pretty much no one needs to be talking about you (which is why J.J. Hardy and Jack Cust aren't mentioned), and you couldn't have done it before (hence no Mike Lowell hey, it's my list). Here's my top 10:
1. James Shields, TB -- (3-0, 2.94 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 62/13 K/BB in 67.1 IP)
Shields showed flashes in June and August last year, but tended to have trouble in the second halves of games; his ERA during his first 75 pitches in outings last year was 2.76, but beyond pitch 75, it was 11.40. So far in '07, this split has been 2.94/2.95. His bullpen has cost him four possible wins in which he left with a lead, which certainly limits his value a bit, but Shields throws a lot harder than you think and when he's down in the zone, he's tough. I'd avoid selling high and hang on to him.
2. Tom Gorzelanny, PIT -- (5-2, 2.43 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 36/16 K/BB in 59.1 IP)
If his name was Bill Jones, maybe he'd have caught on sooner, but the kid with the funny last name has turned into the Pirates' ace. He'll never be a strikeout-per-inning guy, though he does occasionally touch 93; changing speeds and keeping hitters off balance is his specialty. The league hit .223 against him after his call-up in July 2006, and is only hitting .237 off him this year. While it's tough to predict a ton of wins playing in Pittsburgh, Gorzelanny remains on the verge of being a top-20 pitcher in the NL.
3. Shane Victorino, PHI -- (.268 BA, 2 HR, 17 RBI, 24 R, 16 SB)
Victorino may very well be the embodiment of this list, considering Philly fans have felt this way about him for a couple of years. A former Rule 5 pick plucked from the Dodgers, Victorino is now the Phillies' starting right fielder and No. 2 man, ahead of Chase Utley and (eventually) Ryan Howard. He's a slap hitter with tons of speed who stole 45 bases in his first professional season (at Double-A), but hadn't stolen 17 since. Suffice it to say he'll top that mark easily in '07. He ain't Jose Reyes, but then again, Jose Reyes didn't go undrafted in your league.
4. Al Reyes, TB -- (1-0, 12 SV, 1.31 ERA, 0.53 WHIP, 24/5 K/BB in 20.2 IP)
Not exactly an overnight sensation, Reyes first made the bigs in 1995 with Milwaukee, and has kicked around seven organizations. He's always been a high-strikeout guy, and pitched in 65 games for the '05 Cardinals before needing Tommy John surgery. For that reason alone, Reyes deserves a fantasy nation's worth of good wishes, but he hasn't needed them since being named the Rays' closer this spring. He's been a dominant 12-for-12 in save chances, and the league is hitting .093 against him. It wouldn't be a shock to see him dealt before the deadline, but until then, ride with him and smile.
5. Fausto Carmona, CLE -- (5-1, 2.77 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 20/15 K/BB in 55.1 IP)
Specialty sinker, thy name is Fausto. First Carmona made the Indians simply because Cliff Lee was injured out of spring training. Then he got a reprieve from the minors when Jake Westbrook's oblique went kablooey. All he's done in the interim is outduel Johan Santana in a 2-0 gem. All this is especially surprising given how badly Carmona imploded in his momentary role as Cleveland's closer in the second half of '06. The question going forward for Carmona is: Is he a Chien-Ming Wang stuff-alike, i.e., a non-strikeout guy who can get by with heavy pitches, or will his lack of K's catch up with him? It also remains to be seen what the Tribe will do with Carmona once the other starters are healthy. Because of so many question marks, Carmona is a guy whom I might consider selling high.
6. Kelly Johnson, ATL -- (.279 BA, 6 HR, 26 RBI, 33 R, 4 SB)
Coming into '07, Johnson was coming off Tommy John surgery and potentially battling for an outfield slot, but this former minor league shortstop beat out Martin Prado for the second base job and began the year ablaze: his April OPS was 1.066 (he's just .687 in May, though he did homer in Boston over the weekend). More valuable as a fantasy infielder than an outfielder, Johnson has gotten on base at an above-.350 clip in most of his minor league stops, and that should continue this year. His early power, however, was an illusion.
7. John Maine, NYM -- (5-2, 2.77 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 49/30 K/BB in 55.1 IP)
If it's possible to be underexposed in the Big Apple, Maine is. All it took was a poor outing against the Yankees Sunday night to send Maine's owners sprawling to the waiver wire, but talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth. Remember, this is a guy who threw 26 consecutive scoreless innings in July 2006. That said, the Orioles were right about one thing when they threw him into a deal for Kris Benson: Maine doesn't have a great fastball. His last three outings (6.19 ERA, 2.00 WHIP, 12 BB) have seen him struggle with his command and fall back on his fastball at the expense of his breaking stuff. He's not a sub-3.00 ERA guy, but don't hate. He'll win 15 for this team.
8. Jeremy Accardo, TOR -- (0-0, 4 SV, 0.00 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 21/6 K/BB in 19 IP)
Accardo was a high-strikeout pitcher in middle relief for the Giants in '06, but was mediocre (5.97 ERA, 1.64 WHIP) after coming to Toronto in a July trade. A crazy set of circumstances, including B.J. Ryan's blown-out arm, Brandon League's bad shoulder and Jason Frasor's struggles, has led to Accardo inheriting the Jays' closer role, which he deserves considering he hasn't given up a run yet in '07. Do I think he'll allow any runs this year? Yes, I do. But if you grabbed him before your league-mates, you're loving this guy right now. There's no reason to think he won't hold down the job all year.
9. Ryan Garko, CLE -- (.317 BA, 6 HR, 15 RBI, 17 R, 0 SB)
If his name was Bill Jones, maybe he'd have caught on sooner, etc. "Garko" is fun to say (and by the way, "Donnie Darko" is one weirdly cool flick), and it's nothing but clear skies, and a full-time job at first, for this 26-year-old sophomore. Even when Andy Marte came back, the Tribe decided to leave Garko's big bat in the lineup, so Marte will only start versus righties. It's not a fluke, people; Garko had 45 RBIs in 50 big league games last year, and has been an over-.350 OBP guy his entire career. His is a pretty good bat to have hitting eighth, which gives an indication of how strong Cleveland's lineup is. He should be owned in all leagues.
10. Reggie Willits, LAA -- (.346 BA, 0 HR, 7 RBI, 20 R, 10 SB)
The beneficiary of all the finger fractures in Anaheim has been Willits, who finds himself batting leadoff despite the fact that the team features Gary Matthews Jr. and a now-healthy Chone Figgins. When Garret Anderson returns from injury, though, playing time may get harder to find for Willits, unless the team tires of Shea Hillenbrand (and really, who doesn't?) and moves Anderson to DH. L.A. won't have to cross that bridge for at least a couple of more weeks, though, and between now and then, Willits continues to be an incredibly inexpensive source of steals.
As for me? I'll see you in another life, when we are both cats.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com.
You can e-mail him here.
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