The Unsung Heroes of 2008

Though we still have a month and a half left in the season, I am fairly certain that putting together a group of the most unsung players to perform well this year is safe. I will probably post a final version of this same list in October or November, but here is how it is shaping up midway through August.

A lot of these lists that attempt to look at value or sleepers or hidden gems or whatever you want to call them end up becoming lists of the best seasons as if we didn’t know those were valuable number sets. I am trying to avoid that with this piece. What I am looking at is a comparison, by position, of players that were highly touted and those much less so. The purpose behind this isn’t to bash on some stars having an off season. In fact, several of those in the comparison are having brilliant years, rather the idea was to point out constructing a team is made more within the middle & end rounds of a draft/auction that it is with the star power. Plus this also serves as some good ol’ fashioned back-patting. These gents deserve a hand for their excellent performance and I am here to give it to them.

For this exercise, I took two underdog-types and two stars from each position (six total OFs instead of LF-CF-RF and only one DH) and compared the stat lines through August 15th. Yes, there is some cherry-picking here obviously, but as I mentioned I am not out to prove that star players aren’t necessary or anything silly like that. I picked mostly first and second rounders on the star side and I wasn’t afraid to pick Albert Pujols or Matt Holliday and throw them in here. I just wanted to see how the rag-tag group holds up against the creme de la creme.

Catcher
Stars: It would have been easy to pick Victor Martinez on the star power side, but I also think it’d have dented the credibility of this piece since he’s missed most of the season. I did pick two of the 4M-Catchers for the star power with Joe Mauer and Russell Martin. Mauer, for all of the amazing real baseball talent and value has, remains one of the most overrated fantasy baseball commodities in the league. It’s not that he doesn’t perform, in fact his value comes in arguably the most underrated category: batting average (or on-base percentage in some leagues). He has notched double-digit home runs and 80+ runs batted in once in the past four seasons and he’s pacing to miss both marks again this year. Given his usual cost, it’s tough to justify sinking that much money into modest production even if it as a painfully thin position.

If I am spending high on catcher (and 9 of 10 times, I’m not), then the money or draft pick is being invested in Martin. When speaking of 5-category production, the numbers of Hanley Ramirez come to mind which might make Martin’s 5-category offerings seem meager. They’re not. Again, the context of being a catcher is a very important factor. He is a little off of his 20-20 (actually 19-21) numbers from last year, but .290-90-15-70-15 is something we haven’t seen from a backstop other than Martin since Jason Kendall‘s 2000 season.

Unsungs: There is a field from which to pick from after you get past the 4Ms with Martin, Martinez, Mauer and Brian McCann and there were several strong candidates to fill these two slots. For the first spot, I picked Geovany Soto. He was a strong sleeper candidate in many circles and he hasn’t disappointed. He is on pace for 24-92 and a .286 average. He can also take a walk so his on-base is at a robust .365. He burst onto the scene with a 26-home run season in AAA Iowa after never reaching double-digits in six previous minro league seasons. He will be a high dollar acquisition in non-keeper leagues next year, but for now he is the most unsung catcher of the season.

Colorado’s Chris Iannetta is a classic post-hype sleeper after failing to bring his minor league success to the bigs in short stints during 2006 and 2007. Now, still just 25, he wrested the job from Yorvit Torrealba and he is now enjoying a breakout season. His raw numbers are good enough on their own, but considering he’s got 32 Runs, 14 home runs, 49 RBIs and a .270 AVG/.376 OBP, but when you see that he has done it all in just 237 at-bats, it’s hard not to be even more impressed.

Below each discussion is a stat-box comparison that includes the standard 5×5 categories in fantasy baseball as well as a dollar-value for each player:

First Base
Stars: Let’s start off with the gold standard: Albert Pujols. There may be no more valuable player in the entire league this season depending on when your league had its draft or auction. Concerns over Pujols’ elbow and the potential for it to take several games from his season severely depressed his value (severe being relative to his usual value) on draft day and thus, since he has put up the kind of Pujolsian numbers we’ve come to expect when health is assured. He is on pace for 31 home runs, which is one fewer than last year and 18 fewer than two years ago, so it’s safe to say that the elbow is probably in some pain. It hasn’t affected his ability to hit, just hit it very far.

The other choice for the stars section doesn’t have any problems hitting it very far. Ryan Howard has rebounded from a brutal start and has 33 homers and 103 RBIs this season. His .235 batting average has cut into his overall value despite that incredible power. If he continues to struggle with batting average, he’ll fall into the Adam Dunn zone in standard leagues. He is pacing to 43 home runs, shaving another four off of 2007’s total which was 11 away from his MVP season of 2006.

Unsungs: If I want a no-average, power-hitter then I’d rather acquire Mike Jacobs, at least he’s open about being a batting average anchor with a .263 career average. He is a bit off that career pace at .246, but he also has a career-high 25 home runs and counting. Coming into the season, some pundits wrongfully characterized the Florida Marlins lineup as a one-trick pony (Hanley Ramirez), but I liked it with Jeremy Hermida, Jacobs, Cody Ross, Dan Uggla and Josh Willingham in the mix. Willingham has missed a lot of time, but Jorge Cantu has filled that void. At any rate, the depth of the lineup has opened up things for Jacobs to have a career year.

Kevin Youkilis gained notoriety well before he reached the bigs for his tremendous plate discipline. He was known as the “Greek God of Walks” after a 70-walk season in 59 games way back in A-ball during the 2001 season. He had a .512 on-base because he had a .317 batting average with those walks. He continued talking walks throughout his minor league, but never really displayed the usual power you like from a corner infielder. Since becoming a full-time in 2006, he has increased his power output yearly including his 2008 breakout that has him on pace for nearly 30 home runs. His walk totals are dwindling year-over-year since 2006, but he was quoted as saying that he was letting a lot of great pitches go by the wayside in order to garner that walk. He has now started to mash the ball in early counts: .469/.469/.876 with 10 HR and 27 RBI in 113 at-bats during 0-0, 0-1 and 1-0 counts.

Second Base
Stars: It’s been a “Tale of Two Seasons” for Chase Utley. After hitting 25 home runs before the All-Star Break, he has just five since. In fact, you could say it’s been a tale of two months considering that he had 18 home runs and 47 RBIs during April and May. Perhaps the Home Run Derby Monster got to Utley. Either way, he is going to finish with a tremendous season as the elite second baseman in all of baseball. He has definitely justified his early round/high dollar cost to fantasy owners.

Robinson Cano, however, has not. Three straight seasons of four-category production combined with the fact that he would be just 25 years old this season had expectations sky-high for Cano, but the season has been a complete bust. He hit .151 in April with just two home runs as his stock plummeted to a career-low, but he bounced back with a .295 average in May, but still just two home runs. He continued to hit the ball in June and July with .287 and .327 averages respectively, but he has yet to hit more than three home runs in any particular month.

Unsungs: It doesn’t get much more unsung than Mark DeRosa. He started the season looking over his shoulder to see if Brian Roberts would be brought in from Baltimore and even then he has still had to fight for every scrap of playing time he has received. That motivation and drive has resulted in a career year. Owners have come to expect a solid level production with a ton of position flexibility and he has once again delivered. He already has a career-high in home runs with 14 and could top 100 in both runs scored and runs batted in. I would be surprised if he was a double-digit investment in many leagues yet he’s returned $20 in value.

The reigning Rookie of the Year is now making a bid for this year’s Most Valuable Player. Dustin Pedroia does not put up the kind of flashy numbers you would expect from an MVP candidate whether considering real or fantasy baseball, but huge batting average and runs scored totals can be very underrated. Despite his hardware from 2007, he wasn’t a hugely sought after commodity this spring thus offering huge earnings against his cost. Pedroia’s big season will give him prominence on the fantasy landscape entering 2009, while DeRosa will likely continue to toil in relative obscurity.

Third Base
Stars: Fewer things say star power more than third base in New York. Alex Rodriguez and David Wright have continued their brilliance again in 2008. They have combined for 50 home runs, 167 runs batted in and 30 stolen bases while hitting .301. Known for being huge power sources, the New York duo earn their huge price tags by adding average and speed to that incredible power. Even more amazing is that A-Rod is pacing to register is lowest at-bat total (504) since 1999 after missing time to injury earlier this season. A full season of numbers might have landed A-Rod back-to-back MVPs regardless of a playoff berth for the Yankees. Wright, meanwhile, hasn’t displayed the same type of speed he did a season ago, but he’s still been a 5-category superstar worth every bit of his draft day cost.

Unsungs: The guys mentioned here had both fallen on the fantasy radar after a decline in production, though one significantly more so than the other. Jorge Cantu had a slim shot at a starting gig with the Florida Marlins at an unsettled third base thanks to the void left by Miguel Cabrera. He has taken this opportunity to channel his 2005 season that saw him hit 28 home runs and drive in 117 runs. He is currently on pace for 27-89 as well as 92 runs scored. In leagues where he was actually rostered at the draft/auction, he probably has a double-digit price tag in a scant few. You would be hard-pressed to find a better candidate for Comeback Player of the Year.

The power has never been in question for Troy Glaus, but his health from year-to-year is always a concern. He is on pace for almost 700 plate appearances during his first season with the St. Louis Cardinals and he has been able to put up a very nice season. He could reach 30-100 by season’s end, but more importantly is that his .275 average is no longer than the anchor its been the past seven years hanging around .250 more often than not.

Next up: the outfielders & designated hitters.

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