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February 16, 2007

Fantasy Focus

Last Year's Bums

by Jeff Erickson

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Articles on sleepers and busts are popular this time of year, for good reason. Over at Rotowire, we have one ourselves, written by Steve Moyer for our fantasy baseball magazine. While one size doesn't fit all, one thing I've noticed with many sleepers is that they're also the sleepers of the other smart guys in the league, which means you won't get that many of them on the cheap.

There's another category of player, however, that you might be able to acquire cheaply. My colleague Gene McCaffrey from Wise Guy Baseball Wise Guy Baseball coined the term "Last Year's Bums," or (mostly) established players that, for whatever reason, had terrible years last season, often sinking their fantasy owners in the process. How often do you hear at your draft "I'll never own that guy again-he killed me last year!"? I've heard it plenty already, in my various mock drafts, often from other people in the industry. We all have our biases, and these biases create inefficiencies in the draft market, which you could exploit. The idea here is that we're betting on these players rebounding in 2007, after their ugly 2006 campaign. This isn't the safest category of player to own-you wouldn't want to build a team full of these players. But if you get one or two late in your draft or for a low price in your auction, you might profit nicely, and doing so will allow you to spend more liberally on surer commodities in the draft or auction.

First Base

After Mike Jacobs made a splashy debut with the Mets in 2005, homering 11 times in only 100 at-bats, expectations were high in 2006. He got off to a terrible start, however, hitting just .192/.310/.370 in April. His slow start partially obscured good months in June and July, although he faded badly down the stretch after injuring his ankle. Still, even in a down year Jacobs slugged 20 homers, and the potential is still there for a 30-plus homer season. He'll fall down to around the 20th first baseman selected in most mixed league drafts, allowing you the luxury to fill up at a weaker position.

Casey Kotchman missed most of 2006 with mono and was pretty awful when he did play. He appears to be finally over that, having played a full season of winter ball in Puerto Rico. He still has some doubts to overcome, most notably his lack of power so far. Juan Rivera's broken leg provides a playing time opportunity, either at first base or DH, at least when there's a right-hander on the mound. In many mixed leagues, he's been going undrafted or taken as a reserve pick. I know I've touted (and owned) him before and been burned, but he's one player I'll keep going back to the well on.

Others worth noting: Dan Johnson, Craig Wilson

Second Base

Jorge Cantu isn't a scouty or stathead's type as players go. He strikes out a lot, walks infrequently, and plays a mediocre brand of defense at second base. In the long run, his defense will probably move him off the position. His 2006 season was marred by injury-he fouled a ball off his foot during the first week of the season, finally going on the DL a few weeks later when a further exam revealed a fracture. That said, it's hard to forget his 2005 season (28 home runs, 117 RBI), or the power he displayed in the minors in 2004. Second base is a weak position this year, and while you'll have to get your speed elsewhere, in many leagues you can add power at a scarce position fairly cheaply with Cantu.

Third Base

Twice now in the last three years Morgan Ensberg has tried to play through an injury, and both times it has come back to bite him. Last year it was a painful shoulder injury that limited his ability to hit for power and average, that after he got off to a blazing start over the first two months. Despite hitting just .235 with 58 RBI on the season, Ensberg was able to maintain a .396 OBP and an 858 OPS. His power when he's healthy remains legit, so he's a very good candidate to top 30 homers again, provided manager Phil Garner doesn't do anything nutty like play Mark Loretta over him during a slump.

It wasn't that long ago that Eric Chavez was a potential MVP candidate, but now that notion seems fairly far-fetched, especially after he hit just .241 with 22 homers and 72 RBI last year. Back in 2002 he hit 34 homers as a 24-year-old, but since then his power has receded, while his platoon split has become more pronounced. Still, much of last year's drop-off can be attributed to nagging hamstring, ankle, and shoulder injuries that limited him to 137 games and 485 at-bats last year. Because expectations were so high for Chavez, it's easy to focus on his negatives while overlooking what he can bring to the table. With so many hyped third basemen in the game (generally legitimately so), you can safely wait 80-plus picks and still get Chavez to hit 25-30 homers for you.

Shortstop

Jhonny Peralta might be the Captain of the "Last Year's Bums" team. His decline in 2006 had no ready explanation, at least in terms of a major injury as a cause. We probably shouldn't have expected him to repeat hitting for the .292 average he had in 2005, but his drop in power was a bit of a mystery. He worked hard on his conditioning over the offseason, following manager Eric Wedge's suggestion in September that Peralta could lose some weight. At any rate, some recovery should be expected, even if it's short of 2005 levels. In the RotoWire Magazine Mock Draft, Peralta was taken with the 160th overall pick, as the 14th shortstop. If his production nears his 2005 output, that'll be a significant bargain.

After signing with the Red Sox in the offseason, Julio Lugo might not be as much of a value pick as others on this list. If he sticks in the leadoff slot, his run-scoring potential will be fairly obvious. Still, after last year's collapse with the Dodgers, his former owners might be among those who stay away from him, as will others who fear that the Red Sox won't let him run. Don't worry about the latter factor-as Coco Crisp demonstrated in limited playing time last season (22 stolen bases in 105 games), if a player has the ability to steal bases, manager Terry Francona will let him do so. One added bonus is that because Lugo played 29 games at second base last season, he'll qualify there in most leagues.

Catcher

Mike Napoli slumped terribly in the second half last year, hitting .164 after the All-Star break, pushing his overall batting average down to .225. However, batting average has never been his strongest suit, not for any extended period of time. Despite those struggles, Napoli still swatted 16 homers in only 298 at-bats, ending up with a .455 slugging percentage. Owning Napoli isn't for the faint of heart, especially with him on a batting-average dependent team like the Angels, but it's hard to ignore his power upside. He's worth more in simulation games like Scoresheet or Strat-o-Matic than he is in roto, but it's hard to ignore an OPS over 800 from the catcher slot.

Dioner Navarro is with his fourth professional organization already, so it's easy to see him as a failed prospect. While it's true that his power hasn't yet arrived, there's reason to believe he'll still improve. He just turned 23, and there are plenty hitters that are still developing in the minors at this age. Given the demands of the position, catchers need to be given even more rope to improve. His walk rate and BB:K ratio have been pretty good over his career, too: 51 walks and 72 strikeouts in 451 career major league at-bats. He has the profile of someone who could take the next step this year, all for the bare minimum cost in your league. He's an ideal second fantasy catcher.

Outfield

Pat Burrell was made the scapegoat for the Phillies' failure to make the playoffs, and he was the subject of multiple trade rumors this offseason. He struggled defensively and hit .222 with runners in scoring position last year, contributing to a paltry .258 batting average. However, if you look at all of his numbers, he had a decent enough season, hitting 29 homers and netting 95 RBI despite that low average with runners in scoring position, and drawing 98 walks to end up with a .388 on-base percentage. Like Ensberg, Burrell spent the season playing through an injury; in this case, it was an injured right foot. Players with Burrell's profile (no speed, high walks, and high strikeouts) seem to be a lightning rod for criticism with fans, as there's the perception of a certain lack of effort. This often translates into lower costs in fantasy leagues. In offseason mock drafts, he was going as late as the 15th round in 14-team mixed league drafts.

Jeremy Hermida has already rated mention as a post-hype sleeper by Joe Sheehan, and there's probably a lot of similarities between this group of players and those. It may take a year or two for his power to fully develop, but his numbers are fully explained by his hip injury and his attempts to play through it. Hermida has been going even later than Burrell in my mock drafts and for much less in mock auctions. Save some of your endgame dollars for Hermida, particularly in mixed leagues, because he'll be there for the taking, with perhaps one other competitor in your league to compete with.

Jeff Erickson is the Senior Editor at RotoWire, and the host of XM Radio's "Fantasy Focus." He can be reached here.

Related Content:  Fantasy Drafts,  Year Of The Injury

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