Each week we’ll be providing you with insight into the best (and worst) baseball players to play in your fantasy baseball league. Everybody knows about Miguel Cabrera, Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki and Justin Verlander, but here are five players who won’t be going in the first few rounds of your draft who nonetheless should be high on your radar this season.
1. Kendrys Morales, 1B, ANA: It’s pretty easy to move up after missing a year and a half thanks to one of the freakiest injuries sports has ever seen. Morales is prepped to make his return as the Angels’ designated hitter, which means he’ll get to hit behind Albert Pujols. He’s fallen to an average draft position of 173.7 in CBS Sportsline leagues, making him the 22nd first baseman to come off the board. It’s fair to have some concerns about his long-term ability to stay healthy given the severity of his injury, but let’s not forget how good he was before going down: 203 games, .302 average, 45 HR, 115 R, 147 RBI between 2009 and 2010.
2. Chris Sale, “RP”, CWS: Sale showed he had high-quality stuff in 71 relief innings last year, striking out 79 batters and posting a 2.79 ERA in Ozzie Guillen’s bullpen. The 23-year-old will be in Robin Ventura’s rotation this season. Sale’s changeup makes him an ideal choice for a transition to the rotation from the bullpen, and he should be expected to perform solidly above average in a starting role – much better than the types of starting pitchers that are going around his average draft position of 180. Don’t be fooled by his RP designation.
3. Jason Heyward, RF, ATL: What goes down must come up. When we’re talking about a 22-year-old who posted a .277/.393/.456 triple-slash line as a 20-year-old, we could be talking way up. It could be easy to dismiss Heyward based on his awful sophomore campaign, but before you do, consider that just six other players managed a .125 OPS+ before they could drink like Heyward. His potential ranks up there with anybody in the game.
4. Sean Marshall, RP, CIN: His 2.06 FIP over the last two years betters many of the game’s elite relievers. Now with Ryan Madson fallen to Tommy John surgery, Marshall looks to get the chance to close, and for a playoff contender to boot. Marshall warranted a look as a talented reliever to bring the ERA and WHIP down even in standard leagues, but now he becomes one of the most valuable relievers in any fantasy format thanks to his new role as the post-Madson closer.
5. Hanley Ramirez, SS, MIA: Last year was one to forget Hanley, between injury and managerial spats and just plain ineffectiveness. But this year Hanley gets to move out of the pitcher-friendly Pro Player (or whatever they call it now) Stadium and will be surrounded by a much better team, including new leadoff hitter Jose Reyes. The combination of a return to Hanley’s old performance and a better lineup in front of him could spell out a big year for the new Miami Marlins third baseman, who still holds tons of value thanks to his qualification at shortstop.
As much fun as identifying the sleepers and the comeback kids can be, there’s always the more depressing task of finding those prepared to tumble down the player rankings. These five seem primed for a down year in 2012:
1. Michael Pineda, SP, NYY: Pineda lost much of his value in non-keeper leagues when it was announced that he would begin the season at Triple-A. As he can no longer be counted on for 30 starts, his value drops by at least 10%. However, don’t be afraid to go after Pineda upon his return: he struck out over a batter per inning and should be able to pick up wins with the Yankees’ run support, so he should be a solid boost in at least two pitching categories when he makes it back to the majors.
2. Chris Perez, RP, CLE: Perez did his job last season for fantasy owners, converting 36 saves in 40 opportunities with a decent 3.32 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. But looking beyond the surface statistics we see one of the more vulnerable closers of the 2012 season. Perez lost his ability to miss bats in 2011, striking out just 5.9 batters per nine innings and drawing swinging strikes on just 5.6% of pitches – just over half the reliever average. Four out of the six projection systems on FanGraphs expect an ERA over 4.00 out of the Indians’ closer, and if that is the case, don’t be surprised if relief ace-in-training Vinnie Pestano gets some saves in Cleveland this season.
3. Ian Kennedy, SP, ARI: Kennedy was fantastic in all four categories a pitcher can impact last season, winning 21 games, striking out 198 batters, posting an ERA of 2.88 and a WHIP of 1.09. If he would do that again, one could completely justify his current 38 average draft position in CBS leagues. When we look at his career numbers – 30 wins in two seasons as a starter, 7.7 strikeouts per nine innings, a 3.65 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP – the luster starts to come off. His peripheral statistics agree: don’t expect Kennedy to live up to 20-win hype.
4. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS, CLE: Cabrera shocked the world with 25 home runs last season. That’s incredible power from the shortstop position, and it made him one of the great fantasy values last season. This year, we should expect a heavy regression. Beyond the fact Cabrera hit just 18 home runs in his first four seasons as a major leaguer, he was barely lifting the ball out of the yard. According to HitTracker Online, nearly two-thirds of his home runs were classified as “Just Enough,” or barely home runs. That’s nearly double the league rate — a sign that his power will collapse in 2012.
5. Ryan Howard, 1B, PHI: Obviously, Howard’s achilles injury has depleted his draft stock. The former all-star will certainly miss the first month of the season and likely a second as well. And although Howard’s power remains — he would be a near lock for 30 home runs if healthy — he doesn’t back it up with runs or batting average any more. His 27% strikeout rate suggests his new .253 average is here to stay, so don’t expect the same old Ryan Howard upon his return to the lineup.
Jack Moore is a writer for CBS Local Digital Media. His work can also be found at FanGraphs.com, DisciplesOfUecker.com, RotoWire.com, AdvancedNFLStats.com and ESPN. Follow him on twitter at @jh_moore.