They're the fall saviors, the nobodies-turned-somebodies, the players everyone writes off as roster scraps who instead write magical late-season scripts.
They are baseball's unsung heroes.
Every season there's always at least one. Browse the rosters of every champion over the years, and you'll see: Carlos Ruiz for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008. David Eckstein for the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals. Adam Kennedy for the 2002 Anaheim Angels. Pat Borders for the 1992 Toronto Blue Jays. Heck, even last season, who could possibly have imagined that Damaso Marte, a guy who generated just 53 outs for the New York Yankees in the regular season, would convert 12 of the 14 batters he faced in the postseason into outs?
Granted, those examples relate to postseason performance, and fantasy baseball doesn't traditionally count those numbers. But unsung heroes exist in the regular season, too, and that means they're present in fantasy. After all, this game mirrors the one on the field, right? Ultimately, there's a hero waiting to surprise at any time, be it April, October even September.
Now, the above description might trigger the reaction, "Oh, he's talking about sleepers." Not so; an unsung hero can be a sleeper, but he can also be a rookie making his debut, a veteran fresh off injury or even a battle-tested pro who, after a long, disappointing year, is finally hitting his stride. The bottom line is such a player has a set, perceived value among fantasy owners, but his September potential exceeds said value. That's why they're heroes: You slot them in the gaps between your superstars, and hope they do their best superstar impressions.
Today, let's play a little prediction game. Scouring the 30 big league rosters, let's pick a candidate to be each team's "fantasy unsung hero." No rules this time; some picks are relevant in shallow mixed and some might matter only in uber-deep, 13-team, 23-man-roster NL-only leagues. That's the nature of the exercise, because each team's talent pool varies. But to help give a sense of each player's perceived value, I'm listing the percentage of ESPN leagues in which he's available.
Let's get started
TOP 100 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Brandon Allen, 1B (available in 99.7 percent of ESPN leagues). I'm not starting on the highest of notes, but Arizona is the first team alphabetically, and hey, you never know, Allen might sneak in enough at-bats to make a difference. He clubbed 25 homers with 14 steals for Triple-A Reno, making huge advances with his walk rate (17.7 percent of his plate appearances, up from 10.1 in his entire minor league career). Plus, he has begun working in left field. It'd be silly for the Diamondbacks not to see what they have in this young slugger during the final month.
Atlanta Braves: Omar Infante, 2B/3B/SS/OF (available in 1.5 percent). This would have been bolder six weeks ago, but look at that roster; not a lot to get excited about. If you're not aware how valuable Infante has been of late -- .338 batting average since Aug. 1 -- chances are you gave up on 2010 way too early.
Baltimore Orioles: Felix Pie, OF (available in 98.0 percent). Since Buck Showalter took over as Orioles manager on Aug. 3, Pie has played all but six innings and batted .294 with 15 RBIs and four steals. Coincidence? I think not.
Boston Red Sox: Ryan Kalish, OF (available in 99.7 percent). Once the Red Sox are officially eliminated from postseason contention -- which is closer than you think -- it'd be foolish for them not to get an extended look at Kalish, one of their better up-and-comers. He's such a Red Sox prospect: Draws walks (12.2 percent of his PAs in the minors this year), makes consistent contact (81.9 percent of the time in the minors), smart on the basepaths (84.6 percent success rate on steals as a pro), decent pop (.154 career minor league isolated power). The returns haven't been good so far, but then he's also not getting consistent at-bats yet.
Chicago Cubs: Tyler Colvin, OF (available in 86.6 percent). He's another player whose team should really give him everyday at-bats in September, because Colvin might by all rights be a regular for the 2011 Cubs. He's a bit of a free swinger, which presents batting-average risk, but project his 2010 numbers to 500 plate appearances and he'd have 26 home runs and eight stolen bases.
Chicago White Sox: Omar Vizquel, SS/3B (available in 99.3 percent). Well, it can't be Manny Ramirez, right? Everyone knows who he is and what to expect. So why not Vizquel? It's no wonder he's having second thoughts about retiring after the season; he's a .311 hitter with seven steals since the All-Star break, starting 38 of 51 White Sox games during that time.
Cincinnati Reds: Ryan Hanigan, C (available in 99.8 percent). It's rough being in a two-catcher league sometimes, but Hanigan is one of those perfect part-timers to slot in as a No. 2, primarily because he's sound enough in batting average not to hurt you. He's almost evenly splitting time with Ramon Hernandez, and he's a .320/.419/.441 (AVG/OBP/SLG) career hitter at Great American Ball Park, where the Reds will play 13 more games. Oh, incidentally, they'll also play two more at Colorado's Coors Field and three at Houston's Minute Maid Park.
Cleveland Indians: Michael Brantley, OF (available in 98.9 percent). Frankly, I'm surprised he didn't get a chance with this team sooner. He's a high-on-base speedster -- a perfect combination -- and certainly his future is brighter than that of Trevor Crowe or Shelley Duncan.
Colorado Rockies: Todd Helton, 1B (available in 62.5 percent). I bet you were expecting Dexter Fowler or Eric Young Jr., right? That's the fun of the "unsung hero"; it's usually not the guy you expect. Helton isn't an unfamiliar name, but a lot of people have written him off as finished. I look back to 2007 and 2009, however, when the Rockies rallied from similar deficits in the standings, and point out that Helton's performance was a driving force behind their comebacks.
Detroit Tigers: Casper Wells, OF (available in 98.6 percent). The Tigers are another team that would be smart to audition some rookies as everyday players, and Wells definitely fits the bill. A caveat: He's not a .333 hitter, having batted just .250 for his minor league career, whiffing 28.4 percent of the time. But Wells' pop is legit, as he had 63 homers combined from 2008 to '10, and he's capable of swiping a handful of bases for AL-only owners, too.
Florida Marlins: Cameron Maybin, OF (available in 95.4 percent). I admit, I guess I'm a sucker for Cameron Maybin. Maybe this is his last chance with the Marlins, and most likely it's his last with me, but the guy did put up some decent numbers in Triple-A ball (.338/.407/.508 in 33 games) and he did have a surprisingly good September under similar circumstances last season (.293/.353/.500 in 28 games in the month).
Houston Astros: Jeff Keppinger, 2B/3B/SS (available in 85.9 percent). Don't forget about Keppinger, a .281 career hitter (.286 this season) who seems destined to play often enough down the stretch to tally a sneaky-good runs scored total. Batting second, as he has for the past week, will sure help him in that department.
Kansas City Royals: Kila Ka'aihue, 1B (available in 99.9 percent). There always seems to be some sort of Triple-A-dominating, slugging first baseman lurking with the Royals -- Ken Harvey, Justin Huber and Ryan Shealy immediately come to mind as past examples -- and perhaps Ka'aihue is merely next in line to disappoint at this level, or worse, to not get a legitimate chance to do so. But for all the lessons of Royals seasons past, Ka'aihue's minor league numbers are difficult to ignore. He shaped up as a 100-walk, 30-homer dynamo, and it'd be unfathomable if the Royals weren't willing to at least give him everyday at-bats this September.
Los Angeles Angels: Hideki Matsui, OF (available in 25.9 percent). He has disappointed for much of the year, but three things you should keep in mind: He's a .403/.507/.694 hitter in his past 19 games, he'll be a free agent at year's end so motivation is high, and the last time he was headed toward free agency, last September, he managed .314/.410/.488 rates in the season's final month.
Los Angeles Dodgers: James Loney, 1B (available in 5.9 percent). Not a lot of quality beneath-the-radar choices on this roster, so I'll go with Loney, a .307 hitter with an .880 OPS in his career in September, his best OPS in any month.
Milwaukee Brewers: Lorenzo Cain, OF (available in 99.8 percent). He's speedy and efficient on the basepaths, routinely piling up 20-plus-steal campaigns in the minors and maintaining a 78.2 percent success rate on steal attempts as a pro, and is adept enough at getting on base to make good use of said speed. Cain averaged one walk per 11.8 of his PAs in the minors this year.
Minnesota Twins: Danny Valencia, 3B (available in 94.6 percent). Jim Thome is a tempting pick, but a battle-tested veteran on a hot streak like his seems somewhat obvious. So instead it's Valencia, who, among players with at least 200 plate appearances, ranks third in baseball with a .343 batting average. He also routinely hit for high averages in the minors; his career mark there was .298.
New York Mets: Ike Davis, 1B (available in 77.7 percent). With his team out of the race, Davis no longer faces the pressure to be a leading man at such a young age. Sure enough, he's a .338 hitter in his past 20 games, and has hit three home runs in his past four. Don't be shocked if that continues through month's end.
New York Yankees: Curtis Granderson, OF (available in 0.9 percent). He let a lot of fantasy owners down the first half of the season, but there's reason to believe he might make up for it by being one of the top 50 players the rest of the year. Since hitting coach Kevin Long helped make some mechanical adjustments to his swing in early August, Granderson has registered .273/.354/.557 rates, including seven home runs in his past 26 games.
Philadelphia Phillies: Carlos Ruiz, C (available in 57.1 percent). There's that name again! Ruiz, an annual postseason standout (.303/.420/.485 career rates in 32 games), often gets a jump start on his October heroics, having managed an .807 lifetime OPS in September. He's also a .290 hitter with 14 RBIs in his past 25 games.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Ryan Doumit, C/OF (available in 51.5 percent). Who doesn't love the catcher who doesn't have to don the tools of ignorance on a nightly basis? Doumit is barely making even half the starts behind the plate since Chris Snyder's acquisition, but he has starts in 17 of the Pirates' past 19 games nonetheless, with nine of them coming as the right fielder. Doumit is also hitting .296/.415/.537 during that span, which beats the majority of catcher-eligibles.
St. Louis Cardinals: Skip Schumaker, 2B/OF (available in 96.8 percent). He's hardly exciting, as mostly an "empty batting average" type, but he batted .300 or better in each of the past two seasons and is a .316 career hitter after Sept. 1.
San Diego Padres: Nick Hundley, C (available in 99.6 percent): There's batting-average risk with Hundley, but he has a surprising amount of pop, and don't overlook that, after Wednesday, the Padres play more road games (13) than home (11), including three at Colorado's Coors Field next week.
San Francisco Giants: Freddy Sanchez, 2B (available in 83.0 percent): Talk about a batting-average specialist; Sanchez is a .297 lifetime hitter who has finished at .291 or higher in five of six previous full big league seasons. He's also a .330 hitter since Aug. 1, getting hot at the right time for the playoff-hopeful Giants.
Seattle Mariners: Russell Branyan, 1B (available in 88.9 percent): His batting average is terrible, but if you need cheap power, Branyan can sure offer it in spurts. He has gone deep nine times in his past 23 games, and don't overlook that among the Mariners' remaining road games, three apiece will be played at Toronto's Rogers Centre and Texas' Rangers Ballpark.
Tampa Bay Rays: Matt Joyce, OF (available in 99.3 percent): Brad Hawpe might have something to say about Joyce's amount of playing time the remainder of the year, but Joyce really deserves regular at-bats, or certainly every at-bat against a right-hander. He's a .249/.353/.519 lifetime hitter against righties, including all 23 of his home runs, and has .281/.405/.561 rates in his past 21 contests.
Texas Rangers: Julio Borbon, OF (available in 72.8 percent): He's a better hitter than his .274 year-to-date batting average suggests, and sure enough, in his past 19 games, he has batted .311. Borbon is also speedier than his 2010 stats show, only two seasons removed from a 53-steal campaign in the minors. Plus, with Josh Hamilton nicked up, we'll probably see a lot of Borbon from this point forward.
Toronto Blue Jays: Travis Snider, OF (available in 97.1 percent): I admit, I guess I'm a sucker for Travis Snider. But while that's the same opening line that Cameron Maybin got, I don't necessarily see this as Snider's last chance in Toronto, not to mention I see Snider's September upside as somewhat greater. He has more power for one, he's in the more hitter-friendly home ballpark and he's a left-handed hitter on a team that's noticeably right-handed, meaning the Blue Jays would surely love if he pans out. Snider's problem is the strikeouts; he has whiffed in 28.4 percent of his big league at-bats this year. Let's call this one a hunch.
Washington Nationals: Danny Espinosa, SS (available in 94.7 percent): Hey, it worked for the Nationals when Ian Desmond got a proverbial cup of coffee last September, right? Espinosa sure looks the part of the streaky performer, especially looking at his strikeout rates, but he was a 20/20 player in the minors this season and missed the club by just two homers in 2009. He's off to a hot start for the Nationals, who probably want to get a look at him as a potential starting middle infielder next Opening Day. Why not hope for a repeat of Desmond's 2009?
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.