All experienced fantasy baseball owners know that fantasy baseball is not won in the first three rounds of the draft, but in the later rounds. It doesn't take an expert to know what to expect out of Albert Pujols, Hanley Ramirez, or David Wright, the first two or three rounds of a fantasy baseball draft contain some of the closest things to a "sure thing" in all of fantasy sports. No, the people who win fantasy baseball leagues are the people who are able to spot pre-draft gems and avoid overpaying for potential busts. That said, here are fifteen of the biggest names to keep an eye on to help give your fantasy baseball team that extra boost to the championship for the 2011 season:
Drew Storen, Relief Pitcher, Washington Nationals
Storen has been touted as and groomed to be a top-flight closer ever since the Washington Nationals in the first round of the 2009 Amateur Draft. Storen flew through the minor leagues, posting a total 2-1 record, 1.68 ERA, .82 WHIP, 15 saves, and a 64-11 K-BB in 53 innings over three levels of minor league ball. Storen, 22, continued to excel after being called up to the Nats last year, posting a 3.58 ERA and 52-22 K-BB in 55 innings. After trading away Matt Capps, Storen was made the closer and finished out 5 games in the last two months of the season without blowing one opportunity, and he should be a lock to be the closer. Storen looks like a very cheap source of saves, so look out for him in the later rounds.
Jonny Venters/Craig Kimbrel, Relief Pitchers, Atlanta Braves
The reason these two are grouped together is because Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez plans to use the tandem as Atlanta's closer. The pitcher who gets sent in for the ninth will be determined on match-ups against righties or lefties, so it isn't exactly possible to determine which will get most of the workload, or if either one will wrestle the job away from the other.
As a set-up pitcher last year, Jonny Venters was exceptional, posting a 1.95 ERA in 83 innings, with 93 strikeouts. However, the left-hander's control was erratic at times, as Venters gave out 39 free passes, good for a very unsightly 4.2 BB/9. Kimbrel, a 5-foot-11 righty, posted strikeout numbers that were simply unbelievable. In 20 innings, Kimbrel pitched to a 0.44 ERA with 40 strikeouts and 16 walks, good for a 17.4 K/9. In his minor league career, Kimbrel boasted a 14.4 K/9, but like Venters, he needs to improve on his control because his career 5.7 BB/9 in the minors is nothing to write home about.
Still, most fantasy formats only count ERA, strikeouts, saves, and sometimes holds; stats that this duo will provide excellent production for. However, if either or both of these two struggle, it's going to be from that lack of control that I've warned about.
Bobby Jenks/Daniel Bard, Relief Pitchers, Boston Red Sox
The obvious choice for the closer's role in Boston is Jonathan Papelbon. But Red Sox GM Theo Epstein has attempted to trade Papelbon, the all-time saves leader for the Red Sox, throughout the offseason and attempted to replace him with free agents Rafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera. Neither bit on Epstein's contract offers, but Boston didn't walk away from this year's deep free agent crop of relief pitchers empty handed, as they successfully landed former Chicago White Sox closer Bobby Jenks.
Many would look at Jenks' 2010 numbers and shrug, because of his 4.44 ERA, but his 10.42 K/9, 3.08 BB/9, 1.37 WHIP, .345 BABIP, and 2.59 FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching) show that he pitched much better than his standard stats suggest, with his BABIP and FIP numbers in particular demonstrating that the biggest contributor to his disappointing season was just a terrible defense. Long story short, that's a problem Jenks won't have to worry about in Boston, and should the Red Sox jettison Papelbon mid-season, Jenks and Bard will be left to compete to see who becomes closer.
Bard, thought of by many as a closer in making, has a dominant upper-90's fastball which he blew by hitters last year en route to a 1.93 ERA, 9.16 K/9, 1.00 WHIP, and .171 BAA in 74 innings. He has truly excelled as a set-up man, but it is not certain if he can make the transition to closer, which, aside from the Red Sox having an abysmal bullpen last year, is one of the main reasons the Sox brought in Jenks. All this said, Papelbon is for sure going to be the Red Sox closer in 2011, but it is unsure how long that will last, as the team is comfortable with letting him go. Keep an eye on these two guys in the event they do let him go.
Chris Perez, Relief Pitcher, Cleveland Indians
Perez, the last of the sleeper candidate closers I have to write about, was once a highly regarded pitching prospect with the St. Louis Cardinals, but after a shaky 2008 and disappointing start to 2009, Perez was traded to the Cleveland Indians, where he continued to perform poorly. But that wasn't the least we will hear about Perez. He returned to the Indians last year and, under-the-radar, had himself a very fine season. In 63 innings, Perez notched a 1.71 ERA, with 61 strikeouts to 28 walks. Perez improved over the second half of the season, in which his ERA was just 0.63 and he closed out 16 games. The Indians don't have a lot of late inning options, so his role as the closer looks safe, but he still isn't likely to get love on draft day. Plan accordingly.
Drew Stubbs, Outfielder, Cincinnati Reds
Stubbs is a phenomenal young outfielder from the Cincinnati Reds, who will look to repeat as NL Central Division champions in 2011, but many have not heard of him. As I wrote in my own fantasy preview of the Reds for the upcoming season:
"In 2010, just three players reached the 20-home run, 30-steal plateau: Alex Rios, Hanley Ramirez, and Drew Stubbs. You may not have heard of Stubbs, a 26-year old who enters his third year in the majors in 2011, and sadly you may not be alone. Still, Stubbs it is imperative to keep an eye on Stubbs in your fantasy baseball draft, as he is not an overly hyped player yet he is one of the few out there who can give you 20-homer, 30-steal production.
Stubbs hit .255 in 2010, with 22 home runs, 77 RBI, 30 steals, 6 triples, and 91 runs. This being Stubbs’ first full year of action with the Reds, there is definitely room for more growth, so don’t be surprised if Stubbs is involved in the conversation for the biggest breakout of this baseball season."
Starlin Castro, Shortstop, Chicago Cubs
Castro, a 20-year old phenom for the Chicago Cubs, enters this year as one of the best known underrated players in fantasy baseball. It's hard to call him a sleeper, because he is well known, and it's hard to call him a prospect because he spent most of 2010 in the big leagues, but I personally feel that he is still worthy of a sleeper mention because his game has nowhere to go but up. See where we ranked him among Shorstops heading into the 2011 fantasy baseball season.
In 127 games for the Cubbies last year, Castro batted .300/.347/.408, with 31 doubles, 5 triples, 3 home runs, 41 RBI, and 10 steals. While his power hasn't fully developed yet, a lot of people think that he will become more powerful, and with shortstop such a thin position in terms of offense, can you argue against a guy who could hit .300 with potential double digit home runs and steals? And for keeper league formats, again, it is worth noting that he is just 20. This kid has a very long, bright future ahead of him.
Pedro Alvarez, Third Base, Pittsburgh Pirates
Is it just me, or has it been a long time since the Pittsburgh Pirates have been as excited about a player as they are about Alvarez? Alvarez, a second overall pick in the 2008 draft, was a juggernaut at the plate in his college days at Vanderbilt, destroyed minor league pitching for two seasons, and then lost a step after being called up to the Pirates in June.
Transitioning into the majors from inferior minor league competition is not always easy, so have no fear. Alvarez still hit 16 home runs and had 64 RBI in 95 games last year, with 13 more homers at Triple-A Indianapolis. He struggled against left-handed pitching in particular, but he should continue to improve this year and next, so don't hesitate to draft Alvarez, especially in keeper formats. See where we ranked him.
Dustin Ackley, Second Base, Seattle Mariners
Ackley, a second baseman, was the second overall pick in 2009, has been dubbed by some as "the next big thing." While his fielding skills may not translate to anything more than average, he has an impeccable eye for the strike zone, as he walked more times than he struck out at AA, drawing 55 free passes to 41 strikeouts. Between AA and AAA in 2010, Ackley batted .267/.368/.407 with 7 home runs, 51 RBI, 10 stolen bases, 33 doubles, and 8 triples.
Ackley doesn't appear to be a home run hitter by any stretch, but it is still very likely that he develops mid-teens home run power. Where Ackley's value comes in is with his speed and gap power. Seattle calls home to a very spacious Safeco Field, so the fact that Ackley can drive the ball into the gaps and that he has the speed to stretch singles to doubles and doubles to triples will only boost his performance at the home field.
It is not yet certain if Ackley will start 2011 in the major leagues, but there's almost no question that he will be there by the end. Don't be afraid to stash this kid on your roster, especially in a keeper league.
Domonic Brown, Outfielder, Philadelphia Phillies
Between AA and AAA last year, Brown batted .327/.391/.589 with 20 home runs and 17 steals in 93 games, a little over half of a season. At age 22, the left-handed hitting right fielder was called up to the majors, where he struggled to a .210/.257/.355 line with 2 homers and 1 steal in 70 plate appearances. At his young age, Brown doesn't have it all put together yet, but he's sitting on a goldmine of talent, seems to be headed for the Phillies' starting right field job, and was rated as the #15 prospect in baseball by Baseball America before the 2010 season. He's worth more than just a look.
Brett Wallace, First Base, Houston Astros
Wallace, a former first round draft choice by the Phillies, has changed hands a lot over the past season. Formerly a St. Louis Cardinal, Wallace was traded to the Oakland A's in July 2009 as part of the Matt Holliday trade, and not even six months later he was traded to Toronto for outfielder Michael Taylor. Finally, last summer, Wallace was traded to Houston for minor leaguer Anthony Gose. Wallace used to be a third baseman, but because of concerns about his defense the lefty was moved over to first, replacing Houston icon Lance Berkman.
Wallace struggled in 159 plate appearances with Houston last season, batting .222/.296/.319, but if the 23 year old performs at anywhere near the level he did in the minors, he will be okay. In 2010 at AAA, Wallace hit .301/.359/.509 with a .868 OPS, 18 home runs and 61 RBI. Preceding the 2010 season Baseball America named Wallace as the #27 prospect in baseball, and the former Arizona State standout has a very high talent ceiling with power.
Neil Walker, Second Base, Pittsburgh Pirates
Walker, 24, was a former first round draft pick by the Pirates, who took him straight out of high school in 2004. He never received a lot of hype, but he did crack Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list four times, his last appearance on the list coming in 2008. He didn't exactly eat up inferior minor league pitching, finishing with a .273/.322/.441 career minor league line, but he finally got his cup of coffee with the Pirates after they traded away Freddy Sanchez to the San Francisco Giants. And finally, Walker delivered. He hit .296/.349/.462 with the Pirates last season, with 12 home runs and 66 RBI in 469 plate appearances. Offensive production at second base drops off significantly after the elite tier of players at this position, and even after posting good numbers last year Walker hasn't received much attention. Consider him a draft day bargain. Check our 2011 2B rankings to see where he landed.
J.P. Arencibia, Catcher, Toronto Blue Jays
When Arencibia made his major league debut, he became the first player since 1900 to knock four hits and two dingers in his debut. With mostly every established catcher out of the mix (John Buck through free agency, Yorvit Torrealba and Mike Napoli acquired then let go) in Toronto, the starting catcher's job is Arencibia's to lose. Last year at AAA Las Vegas, the 24 year old crushed 36 doubles, 32 home runs, and drove in 85 while hitting .301/.359/.626. These kind of numbers are simply unheard of at the catcher position, but his below average defense may foreshadow a future move to first base or DH. Still, Arencibia has massive power and should have no trouble capitalizing off of his opportunity to succeed in Toronto. Mark these words, he will become a force in the Blue Jays lineup. See where we ranked him heading into the 2011 fantasy season.
Freddie Freeman, First Base, Atlanta Braves
After the departure of Troy Glaus, Freeman, Atlanta's top prospect, becomes the starting first baseman. A former second round draft pick and now just 21 years old, Freeman hit .319/.378/.521 at AAA last season at age 20, with 18 home runs, 87 RBI, and even 6 steals. He also was able to leg out 35 doubles, won International League Player of the Year honors before being called up to the Braves. Freeman knows how to hit, and the only round tripper he had for the Braves last year came off of none other than Roy Halladay.