- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Fantasy baseball is a marathon, with six months of games, so we realize that by the time August rolls around, some of you just aren't as interested as you were in April. Hey, that's fine. We've all been there, dealing with myriad injuries, a team that just can't figure it out or in a league with a runaway winner. Whatever the case, by August many fantasy owners turn their attention to football, a predictable result of a long baseball season.
Of course, baseball doesn't end when football training camps convene, and certainly not when that 17-week season is getting underway. Lots of things happen in a baseball season's final third that you might have missed, and by the time you get to spring training, you have to decide how to interpret those numbers, for better or worse. That's where we come in.
There doesn't seem to be a defining trend when it comes to whether August/September statistics are harbingers of good or bad for the following season. Trust me, I checked. In 2007, for example, there were very few young players who broke out in the final two months and then sustained their success the following season. The list of those who struggled that next campaign is considerably longer -- Jeremy Hermida, Khalil Greene, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Jarrod Saltalamacchia -- and those are just the hitters. Sure, some players finished 2007 strong and then had a big 2008 campaign, but most of them didn't really fit the pattern of young guys emerging, like Aubrey Huff and Jayson Werth. There was nobody like the current Pablo Sandoval, for example. How will he do? Ah, we'll get to that.
Anyway, I looked at hitters who seemed to take off in the final months of 2008, and wondered, are they bound to disappoint us in 2009, like much of the class of late 2007 bloomers? Well, let's discuss, shall we? Here are players who did some very nice things while you were watching Brett Favre join the Jets and other sagas from early in the 2008 fantasy football season, and with it my take on whether their strong finishing stats make me a believer or not.
Pablo Sandoval, 1B, Giants: Can I just declare right here and now how this guy is my big sleeper? I think there's little question the switch-hitter can rake, and kudos to the Giants for figuring this out, not only speeding his quick ascension through the minors, but then batting him third in their lineup over the final six weeks of the season. Yeah, Sandoval can be that good. In standard ESPN leagues, he's eligible at first base, but in some leagues, he's also eligible at third base and catcher. I don't think we'll see him at catcher again, but he's not in the bigs for his glove anyway. Sandoval hit .393 in August, then knocked in 20 runs with a .315 batting average in September. He's going to hit, and we know anyone who bats third in the lineup can accrue RBIs without even trying. I was shocked I was able to get Sandoval in the 23rd round of a recent mock draft, and think a 20-90-.290 season is certainly possible.
Shin-Soo Choo, OF, Indians: It seems like we've been talking about this guy for a while, even before the Mariners gave up on him. Choo's problems have been injuries and opportunities, from Tommy John surgery to the Indians constantly employing 15 corner outfielders at one time. Choo finally got his chance with the Indians in June, and in the final two months, he knocked in 41 runs, good for a tie for 12th in the majors in that span. Choo also hit .318 in August, and an even .400 in September -- this with 85 at-bats in each month -- and he held his own against left-handed pitchers as well. The Indians would be wise to let him play every day, and fantasy owners who believe could be in line for 20 home runs and a .300 batting average.
Lastings Milledge, OF, Nationals: I can't find too many people who think this big-time Mets prospect is really emerging. Maybe it's because they just don't like him. Wise fantasy owners know we're not breaking bread with these fellas, just investing in their stats. Sure, Milledge might not be the most mature fella, and placing Elijah Dukes next to him in the outfield seems dangerous, but statistically Milledge is showing more promise than many think. His overall 2008 stats don't seem overly impressive, with that .268 batting average and 14 home runs, but his most productive months just happened to be the final two. In August, he batted .336 with six home runs and six stolen bases, and this is when the Nationals weren't playing for a thing. I don't assume Milledge is going to be a low-average hitter, and I envision Mike Cameron numbers, but with a .270 batting average, starting in 2009. That makes him worth being a No. 3 fantasy outfielder.
Joey Votto, 1B, Reds: He would have earned top rookie honors in the NL if not for the stunning Geovany Soto season, and fantasy owners seem to treat Votto as an afterthought at a deep first base slot. What, only 24 home runs? Only 69 runs scored? Don't let Votto's seemingly average 2008 numbers fool you, as he had a huge September with nine home runs, a .309 batting average and even 18 runs scored. It's only going to get better, and I, for one, would prefer Votto to veteran standby favorites Derrek Lee, Carlos Pena and a few others who will go earlier in drafts. Plus, when compared to where Justin Morneau, Adrian Gonzalez and Prince Fielder are going to go, Votto is a huge value five rounds later.
John Baker, C, Marlins: I don't see this fella getting drafted anywhere in the standard leagues. Sure, you only need 10 catchers, and few would consider him in that class, so why mess around with Baker? Well, batting average counts, people, and it's one of those categories that easily gets forgotten on draft day. While everyone clamors for the power brought by Mike Napoli and Kelly Shoppach -- legit power, incidentally -- wouldn't it be nice to have a catcher who can hit .300? Baker hit for average in the minors and brings his plate discipline to the majors. The Marlins batted him second much of September, when he hit .351, and his cumulative numbers in that No. 2 lineup spot jump out, with a .329 batting average and .420 on-base. Baker might hit eighth this season, and he might need to be platooned against southpaws, but he's a good bet to hit for average and possibly reach 10 home runs if the Marlins let him play semi-regularly. Whether that gets him drafted in your league is up to you, but for those who end up with Adam Dunn types, think about what a decent-hitting catcher can do to help.
Mike Aviles, 2B/SS, Royals: When this guy first got called up, there was very little downside for the Royals, who probably should have dealt Mark Grudzielanek and flat-out benched awful Tony Pena a year prior to give Aviles a chance. Basically, Aviles was going to play if he hit. I doubt the Royals expected a guy with marginal minor league stats, at the age of 27, to hit .325 with double-digit power in 101 starts. Aviles is a right-handed hitter who did most of his damage against lefties, which is normal, but there are warning signs. He'll continue to face southpaws, of course, but I doubt he succeeds at the same rate. He's not a walker and doesn't possess great speed, and teams tend to get a book on hitters like this, especially ones who repeat Triple-A three consecutive seasons. Aviles is going to hit some, but I see him getting projected a bit too well. He might hit double-digit homers again, but as for that .325 average, go ahead and knock 50 points off it right away. I don't consider Aviles a top-10 middle infielder at either spot, but more of a reasonable middle infield placeholder.
Denard Span, OF, Twins: The Twins probably wouldn't have made it as far as their one-game playoff with the White Sox without Span, a former first-round pick who in more than 2,000 minor league at-bats stroked all of 10 home runs. Then he comes to the Twins to fill in for Michael Cuddyer and plays terrific defense in right field. But to add to that, he suddenly draws walks, hits six home runs and bats .294. From Aug. 1 to the end of the season Span led the major leagues in runs scored. Denard Span? It just doesn't add up. There's no rule that someone with modest minor league stats can't emerge with the big club, but the only number I see continuing is his speed. He's fast. Don't expect power, don't count on a high batting average and expect his high .339 batting average on balls in play to normalize. I think the Twins will spot Span in as a fourth outfielder -- sorry, but there's no way Delmon Young will be benched -- and he'll have some value in the deeper leagues, but as of now he doesn't seem draftable in 10-team leagues.
Andre Ethier, OF, Dodgers: With Ethier, it comes down to value. He should be drafted in 10-team leagues, but not because he batted .368 the final two months with a .649 slugging percentage. He reminds me of Conor Jackson. Both players should hit for average and knock in runs depending on their lineup spot, but asking for 20 homers every season seems wishful. Ethier did much of his season damage late, hitting seven home runs in August and batting a crazy .462 in September. Thank Manny Ramirez for that. Normally I don't buy into the theory that lineup protection means much, but in Ethier's case it really sparked him, getting to hit second ahead of Ramirez. Maybe Manny returns to L.A., maybe he doesn't, but take away Ethier's September and he hit .277. Would you still draft Ethier as a No. 2 fantasy outfielder if he had hit .277?
Jose Lopez, 2B, Mariners: I tend to be more negative when analyzing hackers, I admit it. Lopez did nice work in 2008, reaching career highs in home runs, RBIs, runs, batting average, you name it. And he's on my bust list for 2009. Maybe he's this season's Jeff Francoeur, a similar hitter with poor plate discipline. Lopez delivered nine of his home runs and 30 RBIs in August and September, when the dead-in-the-water Mariners moved him to cleanup and fifth in the order. I don't think Lopez is the next Jeff Kent, with a large power ceiling. I think this is it. If he goes 15 and 80 this season, and hits .270, take it. Lopez is certainly draftable, but I think his counting numbers, quite a bit of which came late in 2008, make him a bit overrated for this season.
Chris Dickerson, OF, Reds: Dickerson toiled in the minors for six seasons, compiling a .260 batting average, striking out way too much and rarely being thought of as someone who would star in the majors. The Reds called him up after the Adam Dunn trade in August and he was an instant hit, batting .324 with a crazy .662 slugging percentage in August, then getting hurt in September. Dickerson's final stats are a bit out of whack. He has moderate power, though nothing special, and few think he can hit .300 again when he accomplished this in 2008 due to an unsustainable .410 BABIP. The Reds didn't view Dickerson as a leadoff hitter or center fielder, bringing in Willy Taveras, and they certainly haven't anointed him as a starter in left field, either, as Jerry Hairston Jr., Jonny Gomes and Jacque Jones also have a shot in a crowded outfield. At this point, Dickerson is likely to platoon, at best, and he isn't draftable in standard formats.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.
Eric Karabell looks for some potential sleepers in young players who finished 2008 on a high note.