Nick Blackburn (MIN, SP)
Y! Rank: 680

Some organizations just seem to have a knack for drafting and developing solid pitchers. The Oakland A's are one such team. The Florida Marlins are another.

But right now, the Minnesota Twins might have the most impressive collection of young pitching in all of the majors.

Francisco Liriano has the stuff to contend for a Cy Young if he can maintain his health over a full season.

Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey both posted excellent ratios in 2008 and have been the topic of many sleeper articles heading into 2009.

But Nick Blackburn, the fourth-man in what could quite possibly the best rotation in the league this year, has been largely overlooked by fantasy players.

Another in the long line of Twins pitchers with pinpoint control, Blackburn posted solid numbers in 2008: 11 wins, an ERA of 4.05 and a WHIP of 1.36.

Those ratios would have been even better had Blackburn not faded in September. Late season fades like Blackburn's is not unexpected when a young pitcher is asked to significantly increase his innings compared to previous seasons.

The greatest number of innings Blackburn had pitched in a season prior to 2008 was 160, and the Twins had him to throw 193 innings last year.

That's not such an obscenely high number of innings that I would worry about injury risks, and Blackburn should be more stretched out in 2009 and better able to hold up over the course of an entire season.

The only downside to drafting Blackburn is the fact that he'll struggle to even give you 100 strikeouts in a year. Blackburn's walk rate is so low and he induces so many ground ball outs that his low strikeout rate shouldn't affect his overall game, but it does reduce his fantasy value.

But if you're confident in the strikeout production of the rest of your staff, Blackburn makes for a great late round selection who should provide a lot of innings and significantly lower your staff's ERA and WHIP in the process.

2009 Prediction: 195 IP, 14 W, 3.65 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 95 K

Andy Sonnanstine (TAM, SP)

Y! Rank: 584

Similar to Nick Blackburn, Sonnanstine is an excellent command pitcher who, as the fourth man in an excellent rotation, is too often overlooked by the fantasy community.

In 2008, Sonnanstine had the 15th best strikeout-to-walk rate among all major league starters at 3.35.
That was better than elite-level pitchers like Johan Santana, Tim Lincecum, Jake Peavy and Brandon Webb.

It also is just scratching the surface of what Sonnanstine is capable of doing. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was 3.73 over 22 starts in 2007, and was an astounding 6.17 over four minor league seasons.

If he can push that rate back up, he easily could be in line for 150-160 strikeouts in 2009.

Sonnanstine won 13 games last year with a 4.38 ERA and 1.29 WHIP, all of which make for solid fantasy numbers. However, his BABIP was slightly elevated at .312, which suggests that those ratios are due to get even better in 2009 as that BABIP regresses to the .290-.300 norm.

Combined with the fact that he should be in line for a solid number of wins pitching for one of the best teams in baseball, his potential fantasy value could easily creep up to the second-tier starting pitcher level, roughly in line with what teammate James Shields did last season.

If Sonnanstine was a member of any other team (especially a team with a large fan base like the Yankees, Red Sox or Cubs), he would have almost certainly been the subject of significant hype over the past five years.

But because he pitches for the Rays, a team blessed with so many high-end pitching prospects, Sonnanstine has remained under the radar for the most part.

Take advantage of his low-profile and snag him with a late-round pick. At worst, he should be a solid back of the rotation fantasy pitcher, and at best he could give you second-tier talent at bottom-tier cost.

2009 Prediction: 190 IP, 14 W, 3.80 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 150 K

Sean Marshall (CHC, SP)

Y! Rank: 584

Marshall has already been the subject of a good number of sleeper reviews, but his ADP is still on the low side, so I think he's deserving of a spot in this column as well.

Marshall will start the year as the Cubs fifth starter, and should finally be in line for a complete season as a starter.

Lou Pinella is not one to tolerate slow starts from his young players (i.e. Felix Pie circa 2008), but with the departures of Sean Gallagher and Rich Hill for once Marshall doesn't seem have a whole of lot pressure on him at the back end of the rotation.

There are a couple of guys in the bullpen (Aaron Heilman, Chad Gaudin, Jeff Samardzija) with the potential to be starters, but none of them seem to really pose a credible threat to Marshall. If they're conscripted into the rotation during the year, it will more likely be to cover the inevitable Rich Harden injuries.

So, what can Marshall provide if he is actually given 30+ starts?

His career minor league numbers are excellent: 2.40 ERA and 1.08 WHIP over 54 starts. After a disappointing rookie year in 2006, his major league numbers have also been consistently good.

Though it seems like he's been hyped as a prospect for years, Marshall is still only 26 years old and should just entering his peak years. He's got a lock on a rotation spot with one of the best teams in the majors, and should be in line for a solid number of wins.

The only thing I worry about is the potential for a second-half decline. Marshall has never pitched more than 150 innings in any season, and if the Cubs have a reputation for overly tasking their young pitchers. Especially if the Cubs are in the thick of a playoff race, Marshall might be pushed beyond his limits late in the season, and that could definitely have a negative impact on his performance.

That shouldn't prevent you from drafting Marshall, though you may want to consider trying to trade him if he puts up a good first half.

2009 Prediction: 180 IP, 11 W, 3.75 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 120 K

David Purcey & Ricky Romero (TOR, SPs)

Y! Rank: 870 & N/A

The draft philosophy of the Toronto Blue Jays in the first few years of the J.P. Riccardi era was to only spend their first-round pick on established college players who could supposedly make a quick and easy transition to the majors.

Overstepping prep stars with more upside for the "safe bets" sometimes paid off. When the Jays selected Aaron Hill at 13th overall in 2003, the next high schoolers to go off the draft board were Jeff Allison, Matt Moses and Eric Duncan, none of whom are exactly topping out many prospect lists these days.

But it also backfired to an embarrassing degree in 2002 when the Jays selected Russ Adams at 14th overall when high schoolers such as Scott Kazmir, Cole Hamels and Matt Cain were still available.
The Jays righted the ship in 2006, focusing on picking the best guy available rather than stubbornly sticking to the college-only dogma. That change in philosophy is already paying dividends with emerging star Travis Snider, selected at 14th overall in 2006.

Largely forgotten men were the Jays' first-rounders in 2004 and 2005, David Purcey and Ricky Romero. Neither player took the minors by storm, and they were somewhat written off as further testament that "polished" college pitchers don't necessarily translate to major-league ready talent.

Then last season, these two big lefties finally began to demonstrate why they were viewed as elite talents in the first place.

Purcey made the most notable improvement. In AA and AAA from 2005 to 2006, Purcey was generally awful, posting a combined 5.50 ERA and 1.56 WHIP.

Then in 19 starts at AAA last season, he cut his ERA almost in half to a solid 2.69, and posted the best WHIP of his career (including his college years) at 1.12.

That performance earned him a mid-season call-up. His overall numbers with the Jays in 2008 weren't spectacular: a 5.54 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP.

But if you remove his shaky first two appearances in April and May when he was called up just to make spot starts, his numbers were a much more respectable 4.84 ERA and 1.35 WHIP with a stellar 3.06 K/BB rate.

Purcey was involved in two pitchers-duels with Matt Garza late last year, losing the first game 1-0 to the Rays and getting his revenge with a 1-0 victory a few weeks later.

I had the pleasure of watching both games, and I can tell you, when Purcey's locked in he can be frighteningly good.

Ricky Romero also made some impressive strides in 2008. Romero floundered in AA over 51 starts from 2006-2008, posting a 4.97 ERA, a 1.57 WHIP and an ugly 6.5 K/9 rate.

Then, perhaps gaining confidence from what was really an underserved call-up to AAA, he turned things around in the second-half of 2008, posting much better numbers in seven late-season starts: 3.37 ERA, 1.45 WHIP and an 8.0 K/9 rate.

Perhaps those numbers are just due to the small sample size and are not actually an indicator of Romero turning a corner. But he's looked impressive in spurts this spring, and has earned himself a rotation spot with the Jays to start the year. I for one am very interested to see what he does with that opportunity.

The good news for both pitchers is that with the Jays' rotation decimated by injuries and the loss of A.J. Burnett, they are both likely to get long looks in 2009.

Based on the bizarre fluctuations in their stats and some articles I've read about them this spring, it seems as if a lot of their early set-backs might have been due to a lack of confidence and other head problems that tend to affect young pitchers.

If that's the case, having a firm rotation spot and spending a year under the tutelage of pitching Brad Arnsberg, known for bringing out the best from young pitchers, and Roy Halladay, who himself famously suffered from some head problems early in his career (10.64 ERA in 2000), should go a long way to ensure that those problems don't recur.

I truly believe that the impressive performances that Burnett, McGowan, Marcum and Litsch have put up over the past two years are due in large part to the guidance of Arnsberg and Halladay, and that guidance could pay huge dividends for Purcey and Romero in 2009.

Purcey's definitely the safer bet to start the year, but it would also be wise to keep a close eye on Romero, who probably has the better long-term upside.

2009 Prediction: Purcey – 180 IP, 12 W, 4.20 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 170 K
2009 Prediction: Romero – 100 IP, 8 W, 4.80 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 80 K

Brett Gardner (NYY OF)
Y! Rank: 764

It's very rare to find a legitimate deep sleeper who's a member of the Yankees, the Red Sox or other teams with huge fan bases. Almost all fantasy players are homers to some degree, overvaluing players which belong to their favoured team. When you multiply that effect by the number of Yankees fans out there, you get artificially high costs for players like Joba Chamberlain and Robinson Cano.

That's why it's so peculiar that a promising young player who is a solid bet to be the starting CF for the Yankees has been relatively ignored by the fantasy community thus far. Especially considering that player stole 50 bases last year between AAA and the majors.

Speedy outfielders seem to come in three general packages. There's the classic five-tooled player for whom speed is but one factor of a solid all-around game (i.e. Grady Sizemore, B.J. Upton, Alex Rios, Matt Kemp). Then there's the player for whom speed is the main attraction, but who provides a high enough average and scores enough runs to give value on multiple fronts (i.e. Ichiro, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino). Finally, there's the speed specialist who brings in a huge amount of steals but struggles to provide even a replacement-level contribution in other categories, and thus has negligible fantasy value (i.e. Michael Bourn, Willy Taveras, Carlos Gomez).

So where does Gardner fit in?

He doesn't really have the power to ever be considered a legit five-tooler. His three HRs this spring is an interesting development, but considering he only hit four HRs in two-and-a-half minor league seasons, it strikes me as somewhat of a statistical anomaly.

However, Gardner's also a cut above the Bourns, Taverases and Gomezes of the world. Why? Because, unlike those players, Gardner combines his speed with solid plate discipline. His strikeout-to-walk ratio in the minors was an excellent 1.23, compared to major-league ratios of 2.64, 2.81 and 5.12 for Bourn, Taveras and Gomez respectively.

His plate discipline didn't immediately reveal itself in Gardner's short stint in the majors last year, as he ended the year with 30 Ks compared to 8 BBs. However, Gardner started out with a less than stellar K/BB in his first attempt at both AA and AAA but was able to adapt on his second go-around, which gives me confidence that he'll be able to do the same this year.

When a player combines plus speed with an established ability to get on-base, you get a prototypical lead-off hitter. The Yankees line-up is in flux with the injury to A-Rod, but it wouldn't surprise me to see Gardner establish himself as a lead-off man at some point this year. And if he can do that, a whole lot of runs will follow and Gardner will become a significant fantasy force, much in the same way that Jacoby Ellsbury did last year.

It's a tricky proposition, given that Gardner's role as a starter is far from cemented and that he'll likely find the rigors of hitting in the AL East significantly more difficult and stressful than hitting in AAA. But it's a gamble worth taking in the late rounds for teams short on speed, given the potential rewards that may be reaped.

2009 Projection: .275 AVG, 80 R, 40 RBI, 2 HR, 45 SB

Asdrubal Cabrera (CLE 2B/SS)

Y! Rank: 925

A tale of two shortstops: Troy Tulowitzki and Asdrubal Cabrera.

Both entered into the 2008 season faced with high expectations as talented young infielders coming off impressive 2007 campaigns.

Both struggled mightily in the first half of 2008: Tulowitzki posting a .166 AVG and .544 OPS in 151 ABs, Cabrera posting a .184 AVG and .529 OPS in 158 ABs.

Both dealt with midseason challenges, Cabrera getting sent back down to AAA and Tulowitzki overcoming an injured quad and a hand laceration from slamming a bat down in frustration at his hitting performance.

Both made a triumphant return in the second half, Tulowitzki producing a post-All Star line of .327/31/30/5/0 in 226 ABs, and Cabrera producing a post-All Star line of .320/32/33/5/3 in 194 ABs.

Tulowitzki is routinely one of the top 100 players drafted and is chosen in 98% of leagues. Cabrera is frequently banished to the waiver wire, chosen in only 8% of leagues.

Where's the logic?

The only real immediate difference between the two is the power potential of Tulowitzki, who put up an impressive 24 HR in 2007. But be careful to not judge Cabrera too harshly on that front. Power tends to come with age and Cabrera is only entering his age 23 season.

In the first two years of his major league career Cabrera has hit a HR in 1.7% of his ABs. Stephen Drew's HR% over his first two years was only 2.3%, before he beefed it up to 3.4% by hitting 21 HRs last year. Derek Jeter's HR% over his first two years was only 1.6%, before he increased it to 3% with 19 HRs in his age 24 season. Jose Reyes' HR% over his first three years was only a paltry 1.2%, but he was able to increase it to 2.9% with 19 HRs in his age 23 season.

I'm not projecting Cabrera to slug 20+ HR in 2009, but 2B/SS prospects tend to be brought up from the minors at an early age on the basis of a strong glove, and as a result, their gradual development of power is harder to predict. In any case, it's premature to expect a major power gap between Cabrera and Tulowitzki in 2009.

What I like most about Cabrera from a fantasy angle is that he's comfortably above average in all aspects of his game. He's not a slugger per se, but he can be expected to hit more HR than the average SS. He's not a speed demon per se, but he'll probably nab 10-15 bags. He's unlikely to ever challenge for the batting title, but he should be able to hit in the .280-.300 range.

Keeper league owners should note that Cabrera will be playing 2B this year and thus might not be SS eligible come 2010. But as for 2009, if you miss out on the first round shortstops (Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, Jimmy Rollins), don't pay outrageous prices for the Troy Tulowitzkis of the world. Focus on filling up your other positions, and then nab Cabrera in a late round and watch him give you steady production across the board.

2009 Projection: .295 AVG, 80 R, 75 RBI, 16 HR, 10 SB

Chris Duncan (STL 1B/OF)

Y! Rank: 992

As a philosophy, I'm not crazy about late round sluggers. The Jack Custs, Russell Branyans and Marcus Thames of the world may be able to mash, but their free-swinging ways will kill your batting average, forcing you to find other players for your roster to make up for their inadequacies.

But with Chris Duncan, I'll make an exception.

In 655 ABs over 2006 and 2007, Chris Duncan hit 43 home runs, scored 111 runs, knocked in 113 batters and hit for a .273 AVG. To say those are solid fantasy numbers is an understatement.

Then last year, he suffered through a neck/back injury that severely affected his performance. While his injury was originally thought to possibly be career-ending, thanks to the miracles of modern science, surgery has reportedly corrected the problem and returned Duncan to full health.

Based on his spring training stats thus far, Duncan seems completely recovered from his surgery and ready to get back to his 2006-2007 performance levels. He's still in only his age 28 season, so he should be just entering his prime.

The only question is what kind of opportunity Duncan will get. With the Cardinals CF and RF options locked down with Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick (as long as they can remain healthy), and top prospect Colby Rasmus knocking at the door progressively louder each day, Duncan may find himself on the outside looking in. Playing time gets even more tight if the Cardinals eventually decide to take Skip Schumaker off 2B and move him back to the OF. There's no natural platoon situation available either, with Ludwick the only one of the above who hits right-handed, and even he generally hits better against righties than lefties.

While it's something that could very well change over last two weeks of spring training, as it stands right now, I think Duncan will get the first chance to prove himself in LF. If he can replicate the power of 2006-2007 while keeping his average up, Duncan could be a solid late-round fantasy option for teams short on HRs.

2009 Projection: .270 AVG, 65 R, 75 RBI, 25 HR, 3 SB

Daniel Murphy (NYM OF)

Y! Rank: 745

Daniel Murphy was one of the more surprising minor-league sleepers who emerged in 2008. He didn't even crack the Top 10 Mets prospects list of minor-league guru John Sickles. But he demanded the attention of the Mets with a solid performance in AA and earned himself a late season call-up in which he kept up his hot streak, perfectly replicating the .870 OPS he posted in AA.

In some ways, Murphy's low ranking this year is understandable. He's young and unproven, there are concerns that last year may have been a fluke, and he's blocked at his natural position (3B) by one of the best young players in the league (David Wright).

But there's a lot to like. He comes across as a very polished contact hitter, and combines it with solid HR power and doubles-generating gap power. He'll also snag a healthy number of bags. His strikeout rate in the majors seems artificially high compared to his numbers minors, so improvements with that should help stave off regression.

Jerry Manuel has given Murphy his blessing as the starting LF for 2009, and he'll likely platoon with Fernando Tatis, which should help keep his batting average up. He also spent some time at 2B in the Arizona Fall League, and with that position still somewhat of a question mark for the Mets, he may be able get some ABs there this season. If he gains fantasy eligibility at 2B, his value goes up even more.

You've got to guard against overpaying on Murphy. In a 15 team mock draft I did last week, Murphy went in the 12th round, which is too early for my liking. If you run into a rabid Mets fan, you could face that type of overreaching, and I'd advise against indulging in it. But if Murphy is still on the board in the 18th-20th round, he's definitely worthy of a place on your roster.

2009 Projection: .295 AVG, 75 R, 75 RBI, 12 HR, 12 SB

Ronny Cedeno (SEA 2B/SS)

Y! Rank: 980

I'm going out on a limb a little bit with this one, since I find Cedeno a maddingly difficult player to project. In two stints in AAA Iowa in 2005 and 2007, Cedeno showed flashes of the talented hitter he may become: an average over .350 in both years, combined with solid power and speed. But he's been wholly unable to translate that potential into major league results.

Was his AAA performances simply flukes? Inflation caused by the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League? Or does Cedeno just need someone to give him enough steady major-league playing time to reach his full potential?

Traded to Seattle as part of the Garret Olson–Aaron Heilman deal, he was initially viewed by the media as some sort of throw-in. Which surprised me, since the incumbent shortstop in Seattle, Yuniesky Betancourt, has done little in three seasons of 500+ AB per year to demonstrate why he should expect to hang onto his job.

Last season, Betancourt regressed offensively, his OPS dropping to an anaemic .691. If your shortstop provides you with top-notch defense, like an Adam Everett or a John McDonald, you can sometimes stomach a below-average hitting performance. But Betancourt also had the second highest number of errors among shortstops in 2008, and has made 63 errors over the past three years.

The Mariners have been kind of forced to just stomach Betancourt's mediocrity, since the only other option they had at shortstop was Willie Bloomquist, and, no offense to Willie, he's clearly a utility man, not a starter.

But now with Cedeno in tow, new Seattle manager Don Wakamatsu has a legitimate alternative. So far Cedeno has been pretty impressive in spring training, and it wouldn't surprise me to see Betancourt relegated to bench duty sooner rather than later.

If he's given the opportunity, Cedeno may finally capitalize on his potential and turn some heads this year, in the same way his possible new double-play partner Jose Lopez did last season.

Or he may not.

I'm not advertising Cedeno as a must-buy on any terms. But he's someone you should have your eye on, and who's probably worth a buck in an auction league, or a late-round draft pick if you have to fill a MI position. There's still a lot of upside there that could be realized in 2009.

2009 Projection: .270 AVG, 65 R, 60 RBI, 8 HR, 8 SB

To set some parameters for determining who is "undervalued", I'm only choosing players who are ranked above 500 in the Yahoo preseason rankings. These rankings are far from an exact science (there's a glut of about 50 mid-relief pitchers around 400 who really have no business being ranked that early), but it still serves as a fairly effective guideline.

Ryan Spilborghs (COL, OF)
Y! Rank: 839

In the 2008-2009 offseason, the Colorado Rockies shipped Matt Holliday out to the A’s and cut bait with Willy Taveras. The result is a whole lot of opportunity in the Rockies OF going into 2009, a fact which many baseball writers have recognized. However, while I’ve seen tons of articles about hot prospects Dexter Fowler and Carlos Gonzalez, some about what Seth Smith may be able to do now that he can stop riding the AAA shuttle, and even one article about how Matt Murton might finally be able to capitalize on his long-hyped potential, for some reason Ryan Spilborghs gets absolutely no love.

Spilborghs has been stuck in 4th OF purgatory for three seasons now. Yet, even with limited ABs, he’s been steadily progressing: .768 OPS in 2006, .848 OPS in 2007, .875 OPS in 2008. He’s a top-notch all around player with a little bit of pop and a little bit of speed (17 HRs and 11 SB in a combined 497 ABs over the past two years. He’ll also likely bat first due to his proven ability to get on-base (.407 OPS) and should be a vast improvement over Willy Taveras, who if he made it to first base could usually be counted on to get over to second (103 singles and 68 SB), but who more than two-thirds of the time couldn’t even make it that far. The advances that Spilborghs has been able to make in his walk rate (7.7% to 9.6% to 14% over the past three years) suggest that his high OBP is no fluke, and he should be able to use his batting order position to generate a solid amount of runs, batting in front of Troy Tulowitzki, Brad Hawpe and Garret Atkins.

Despite all the other OF candidates knocking at the door, count on Spilborghs to have the firmest lock on playing time. Gonzalez still strikes out way too much to be a major league OF, Fowler is a multi-tooled wonder but is only 22 and could use another half-season at least in AAA, and Murton and Smith should battle for LF/4th OF status.

Given a full season of production, Spilborghs should make for the ideal fantasy 4th OF. A less sexy choice than over-hyped sleepers like Elijah Dukes, Spilborghs is a balanced and reliable option who you can just plug into a line-up and forget about as he generates solid production on all fronts and hurts you on no fronts.

2009 Projection: .310 AVG, 90 R, 80 RBI, 20 HR, 12 SB

John Baker (FLA, C)

Y! Rank: 959

Sometimes fantasy players get these bizarre collective mancrushes on a certain up-and-coming prospect and blind themselves to the realities of the player’s situation, missing out on a more reliable bet in the process. That’s about the only explanation I can think of for why Pablo Sandoval is drafted in 94% of leagues right now, while John Baker is only drafted in 10% of leagues.

Yes, Pablo Sandoval had an impressive September callup last year. And yes, his C/1B/3B positional eligibility is nice for the sake of versatility. But Sandoval is stuck in an existential dilemma where he can play many positions yet has no position. He’s stuck behind elders Bengie Molina and Rich Aurilia at C and 3B, and it looks like the Giants are committed to giving Travis Ishikawa a chance to prove himself at 1B. He might be able to unseat Aurilia, but of all his potential positions, Sandoval has the least amount of experience at the hot corner, and his defensive abilities there are highly questionable. Ultimately Sandoval’s in the position where, if he isn’t sent back to the minors for more regular playing time, he’ll pick up scraps from a variety of sources and maybe piece together 350-400 ABs this season.

John Baker, on the other hand, has an absolute lock on the C position in Florida. Who else is going to catch? Mike Rabelo, of the .612 career major league OPS and .675 career minor league OPS? With Ivan Rodriguez signing with the Astros last week rather than the Marlins, I’d say there’s a better than average chance of Baker getting 500+ ABs this year.

So, what will Baker do with that opportunity? His 2008 callup was not far off from Sandoval’s: Sandoval in 145 AB = .345/24/24/3/0 (.847 OPS), Baker in 197 AB = .299/32/32/5/0 (.839 OPS). The only difference between the two is age: Baker is now entering his age 28 season while Sandoval is entering his age 22 season. Baker struggled making the jump from AAA to the majors, spending 3½ seasons at the AAA level. But he improved his numbers each year, and had a solid showing in AAA before getting called up last year. Unless you’re in a long-term keeper league, his age shouldn’t be a hindrance, since Baker should be in peak-territory right now.

When you add the fact that he’s the Marlins’ undisputed #1 catcher to the fact that his excellent batting eye will likely have him at the two-hole in the batting order (in front of Hanley Ramirez, Jorge Cantu and Dan Uggla) he should be able to rack up some impressive counting stats from a position without a whole lot of depth.

2009 Projection: .285 AVG, 85 R, 70 RBI, 12 HR, 0 SB

Mike Fontenot (CHC, 2B)

Y! Rank: 867

A minor league veteran of 5½ impressive but not amazing seasons, Fontenot stormed onto the scene in 2008, hitting .305 and smacking 9 home runs in only 284 PAs. Just how good was Fontenot last year? If he had enough PAs to qualify, his .909 OPS would have been second only to Chase Utley’s .915 among second-basemen. Better than Ian Kinsler. Better than MVP Dustin Pedroia. Now granted, it was a small sample size, and I don’t realistically expect Fontenot to break the .900 OPS barrier again this year. But when I look at the second basemen market, I see five people who provide enough multi-category versatility to clearly be in the top tier: Utley, Kinsler, Pedroia, Brandon Phillips and Brian Roberts. If you miss out on one of these guys, the rest are, relatively speaking, a pretty even playing field. There are some guys who have decent upside in Alexei Ramirez, Howie Kendrick and Dan Uggla and one-category phenom Chone Figgins, but all of these options come with an inherent risk that in my mind far outweighs their current average draft position. By the time the dust settles, I don’t doubt that Fontenot’s overall 2009 fantasy value will actually outweigh at least one of those guys. Beyond those players, you’d have a hard time arguing a full season of production from Mike Fontenot would be substantially less valuable than any other 2B on the market.

The only question is: will the Cubs give him the opportunity to provide a full season of production? The only explanation I can think of for Fontenot’s 867 ranking is that someone at Yahoo thought that Aaron Miles would actually win the 2B job outright just because the Cubs invested $4.7 million in him this offseason. In reality, the Cubs are simply one of the few teams that can readily afford to spend that kind of money on a high quality back-up. Miles admittedly had a pretty good 2008 season, but it was the first time in his career that he posted an OPS higher than .700. Is Miles better defensively than Fontenot? Not really, Miles has a career UZR of -6.5, which puts him as a slightly below average defensive 2B. Fontenot is admittedly known more for his bat than his glove, but I see no evidence of him being a significantly less competent fielder than Miles, especially given that he has an already established rapport with his double-play partner Ryan Theriot going back to their college days. To my eyes, everything about Aaron Miles screams utility man: switch hitter without significant LH/RH splits, experience playing 2B, SS and 3B. Unless Fontenot gets injured, or the Cubs finally decide to pull the trigger on obtaining Brian Roberts (both of which I think are low probability propositions), I would be shocked if Fontenot didn’t get at least 450 ABs this year. When you add to all of this the fact that Fontenot is entering his age 29 season and should be at or near his peak performance this year and that his counting stats should be substantial hitting in the potent Cubs lineup, you’ll be looking at some major value coming back if the Cubs do the right thing and let Fontenot loose.

2009 Projection: .290 AVG, 85 R, 80 RBI, 18 HR, 8 SB

Skip Schumaker (STL, 2B/OF)

Y! Rank: 543

As with the discussion of Fontenot above, this is another example of why the aggregation of mid-level talent in 2B allows for some late round bargains to be had. Schumaker has always been a talented hitter, but never made many waves in fantasy circles. That's probably because there's a general tendency to focus on one-category heroes for the 3rd-4th OF slots, to balance out a hole in your lineup or cement an advantage in a certain category. That's why players like Michael Bourn or Marcus Thames, while having substantially less real baseball value than Schumaker, are often seen as more desirable fantasy players.

But if Schumaker attains 2B eligibility, his value immediately skyrockets. Look at the 2008 breakdowns of Schumaker compared to Placido Polanco, a player who is being touted as a sleeper by many fantasy writers: Polanco = .307/90/58/8/7, Schumaker = .302/87/46/8/8. When you add in the fact that Schumaker had 40 fewer ABs and is five years younger than Polanco, you've got to view them as almost identical in value. Yet Polanco is currently being drafted in 71% of leagues, while Schumaker is only drafted in 20% of leagues.

Some doubt that Schumaker has enough defensive skill to make it as a 2B for very long. That may be, but as a fantasy owner, all I really care about is whether or not he makes the 10 starts required to gain eligibility at 2B/MI, and I think that LaRussa will stick with him at least that long. His value may decrease if the Cardinals do eventually give up on him at 2B, but he should still be able to get enough ABs as a utility/4th OF to maintain a decent value for a MI.

The downside is that Schumaker is unlikely to have more than 10-15 HR or steals, and won't provide much in the way of RBIs. But with an average above .300 and the bounty of runs that should be generated batting in front of Albert Pujols/Rick Ankiel/Ryan Ludwick/Troy Glaus, Schumaker makes for an excellent backup option at 2B/MI.

2009 Projection: .315 AVG, 95 R, 60 RBI, 12 HR, 8 SB

Travis Buck (OAK, OF)

Y! Rank: 1034

One of my pet peeves with fantasy baseball writing is the tendency to always compare a sleeper candidate to a breakout player of previous year (i.e. trying to find the "Cliff Lee of 2009"). That being said, I can't resist the temptation here, because when I look at Travis Buck going into 2009, I can't help but think of how people viewed Carlos Quentin going into 2008. Quentin had been touted as a prospect for years, quickly climbing up the minor league ranks, demonstrating legit power and never posting less than a .900 OPS at any level. Then one bad run of 263 PA in the majors at the age of 24 and suddenly he's labelled a bust. All the fantasy owners who gave up on him so early must have been regretting it more and more with each of Quentin's 36 HR last season.

Travis Buck was a whole lot of awful in his short stint in the majors last year. But, he's only 25, he showed a lot of promise in his September call-up with the A's in 2007, and he put up impressive numbers in the minors. Plus, from everything I've read about him, it seems as if the A's management are dedicated to giving him every chance to succeed and he's got little competition in LF this season (he'll likely be platooned with Rajai Davis/Chris Denorfia against LHers, but that might actually be good for his overall stats).

Don't get me wrong, I'm not expecting Buck to pull a Quentin and hit 30+ HR this year. He never really demonstrated that level of power. But he does have a very nice all around game, including a little bit of speed potential. He probably won't ever be a 20/20 guy, but 15/15 is within reach. Overall, as long as he's able to cut down his strikeout rate a little bit, he's a guy who could surprise a lot of people this year.

2009 Projection: .285 AVG, 70 R, 75 RBI, 14 HR, 7 SB

Two years ago, after over five years of playing vanilla Yahoo fantasy baseball leagues, I was offered a vacant roster in a keeper league run by a friend. The format of the league was the typical mixed league 5x5, but with 20 teams and full 25 man rosters. The deep league format was a struggle at first, but it also provided a challenge and a competitiveness that the vanilla leagues were lacking. In these past two years, I've become a far more active fantasy baseball owner than I ever was in the past.

From my perspective, the whole point of playing fantasy baseball is to as accurately as possible emulate the experience of a real General Manager. The increase in player scarcity in my deep league (500 players drafted rather than the standard 240) gives that experience a fresh dose of authenticity. A much higher level of evaluative skills is required to fill every position with valuable contributors and to find the right mix of players to ensure multi-category competiveness. At the same time, the 20x25 format, still only covers two-thirds of the players in the majors, allowing you to not have to draft the absolute dregs of the league and providing a free agent pool that isn't entirely barren.

The deep league format also places a higher premium on an owner's ability to identify the players that are most crucial to the success of any fantasy baseball team: the break-out candidates. Scanning other fantasy baseball sites, I'm always amazed at how much time is dedicated to debating the virtues of early-round players: Hanley Ramirez vs. Jose Reyes or Ryan Howard vs. Mark Teixeira or Tim Lincecum vs. Johan Santana. The reasons these players are always selected so early is because a high-value return is an almost certainty, whomever you choose. You don't win a league by having your two best players outperform another owner's two best players; you win a league by having 90% of your roster outperform 50% of his roster.

In order to do that, you need to have the foresight to identify which players are likely to substantially improve their performance over the previous year. Not that there's anything remarkably profound or original in that statement, making that type of prediction is the bread and butter of every fantasy baseball writer out there, predictions which are easy to make and hard to get correct on a consistent basis. In fact, with all of the fantasy baseball sites out there today, hype inflation has made it increasingly difficult to get value for the elite level breakout candidates.

The difference with this blog is that it will focus on the fringes, the players that are on few people's radars yet, but who, in my humble opinion, have a good chance at providing significant value in the future. Obviously, the target audience is other deep-leaguers, but hopefully the analysis will be useful to those in the more generic fantasy leagues as well, if only to identify the players you should be keeping an eye on.

When I'm analyzing a player's potential, I tend to base it on a combination of three main factors:

1. The Stats
I'm not as slavishly committed to statistical analysis as other fantasy writers out there, but checking a player's stats is still always my first course of action. I rely largely on the same stats as everyone else, although I do tend to highly value plate discipline (low K/9) in a young hitter and control (high K/BB) in a pitcher. I also try whenever possible to account for park factors, minor league level, or other factors that can artificially inflate or reduce a player's statistical performance.

2. The Opportunity
This is something that should always be carefully considered when assessing a player's potential fantasy contribution, and is way too often overlooked by fantasy players. Even if a player has superb minor league stats and an intriguing package of skills, if he plays for a team that is unlikely to give him a long enough leash if he doesn't immediately reproduce his minor league performance at the major league level, he may not be worth the pick-up. I look at two things on this front: what the organizational depth chart is like (whether the player faces competition for playing time either at the majors or from an up-and-coming prospect) and what the expectations of the team are (i.e. a team like the Royals are much more likely to let a player overcome a few initial bumps than a team that is in the thick of a playoff hunt like the Yankees or the Red Sox).

3. The Intangibles
Sometimes, a player comes from completely out of nowhere to perform well on the major league level, and you have to determine whether that performance is something likely to continue, or whether it's some kind of statistical aberration. To do that, you have to look beyond the stats. For example, Denard Span, who had hit for a .689 OPS at AA in 2006 and a .678 OPS in AAA in 2007, suddenly hit for a .819 OPS in the majors in 2008. The fact that he got laser eye surgery in the offseason before 2008 goes a long way to explain this sudden improvement, and why r egression might not be in store for 2009.

I spend a lot of time watching games and reading about all aspects baseball, and in this blog I'll endeavour to share my insights with the rest of the fantasy baseball community. In the next week, I'll post my top 10 undervalued hitters and pitchers for 2009, and then throughout the season I'll try to post 3-5 deep sleepers each week. Then, at the end of the season, I'll evaluate the accuracy of my projections to determine how reliable my advice really was.