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May 17, 2008

Fantasy Focus

10 Under the Radar

by Jeff Erickson

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Let's talk about 10 players (five pitchers, five hitters) who aren't owned in too many leagues and might not currently have a fantasy-viable role but could offer some value down the road. They are players are on the margins, but in deeper leagues, getting a few of these guys to pan out can make all the difference in the world. Many of these players are from either non-major-media markets, or on losing teams, but as you'll see, some of them don't fit that description. The "percent owned" figure that you'll see is for all CBS Sports leagues.

Jason Bergmann (5%): Bergmann's cover is blown following Thursday's superb effort against the Mets, but he has the skills to be a pretty successful pitcher. He got off to a terrible start in April and became the scapegoat for the Nats' early-season slide. Part of his ugly stat line includes a four-run, two-inning relief outing where he was used on just two days' rest after a start, and in his second start of the season, he had thrown four shutout innings before allowing one big inning. There's a pretty good chance that he's much better than he's shown. He's not someone you can use for all of his starts, but he could provide a profit if you spot him right. Just be aware that his next start comes against the Phillies--you'll probably want to wait until after that start to activate him.

Gregor Blanco (1%): That Blanco is owned in so few leagues is a surprise, at least to me. At worst, he's increasingly on the good side of the Braves' left field platoon, and has started four of the last five games there. Blanco isn't going to hit for power, but he will hit for decent average and draw a walk or two, and then once he gets on, he can steal a few bags. Moreover, he could have some job security; Matt Diaz has traditionally been slotted into a platoon role, and his early play as the everyday left fielder did little to dissuade manager Bobby Cox that he's anything more than a platoon outfielder. Meanwhile, Brandon Jones is doing little to distinguish himself at Triple-A Richmond (.271/.348/.386) and Jordan Schafer is still serving his 50-game suspension for using HGH. Blanco might not be an elite prospect, but he's a bit of a post-hype prospect who's cashing in on his newfound opportunity.

Jared Burton (2%): You'll see more relievers on this list, but that's because there's so much turnover in the set-up and closing roles, and there's usually more good talent available on the waiver wire. It's just a matter of finding the one you like. Burton's overall numbers don't look that special (4.58 ERA, 1.528 WHIP), but a quick look at his strikeout rate (23 strikeouts in 17 2/3 innings) and his track record from the second half last year suggests his talent. Francisco Cordero is firmly ensconced as the closer, and though he's walking a lot of batters, there's little chance of him losing the job without an injury. However, Burton is shaping up to be the top replacement option in the Reds' bullpen, ahead of David Weathers.

Freddie Bynum (4%): The four percent of owners that rostered Bynum probably did so in the last week, after Orioles manager Dave Trembley named him the starting shortstop. Bynum is the classic "better-in-roto-than-real-life" player. Last year he walked just twice in 96 at-bats with the O's, and has never been much of an on-base guy. But going along with those two walks were eight steals, and in many leagues, Bynum already qualifies at shortstop. Check your league's requirements, but he's going to get an extended run at the position. The O's have really nobody else anywhere close in their farm system or at the big league level who's a credible offensive option at the position. If you're in dire need of stolen bases, Bynum could be your guy.

Ronny Cedeno (5%): Cedeno isn't getting regular playing time now that Alfonso Soriano is back, but there's still some value here. If you look at Cedeno's minor league numbers, his walk and contact rates have been pretty good. So while a lot of his .350 batting average right now is fueled by a .417 BABIP, there's also some legit growth. Playing time will be a continuing issue, but view Cedeno as a potential starter elsewhere, if the Cubs continue to dangle him as a bargaining chip, as they were rumored to have done with Brian Roberts earlier.

Chase Headley (13%): Though the Padres have started the overhauling process by parting ways with Jim Edmonds, they haven't gone into complete rebuilding mode just yet. When they do, calling up Headley will be their first order of business. They recently announced that they're in no hurry to call him up, because they wanted to avoid him having to feel like he's a "savior" for his next start. How would calling him up in June instead of May change things? That doesn't pass the smell test. A more likely explanation is that they want to keep his service time down so that he doesn't become arbitration-eligible a year early as a "super two" player. Remember, he had a small cup of coffee with the big league club last year, so his callup has to come later than other prospects in his boat. Expect to see him in June. When he does arrive, Headley should be able to hit for average, though Petco will depress his power some; don't expect more than 10-15 homers. Many leagues will allow for minor league speculative pickups, so if you have a spot where you can stash Headley away, pick him up now while the cost is cheap.

Jensen Lewis (2%): Most bullpen speculators are going after Masahide Kobayashi right now, and with good reason after he picked up the save when Rafael Betancourt couldn't finish the job on Thursday. But don't forget about Jensen Lewis, either. His velocity was down initially this season, but has since returned to normal levels. Lewis has also been pitching well, throwing 7 1/3 scoreless innings after Thursday's game. He's not the first or even second option to pick up saves now or in the future--Joe Borowski is due back soon--but he can provide high-leverage innings at a dirt cheap acquisition cost, which can be pretty valuable in 4x4 leagues.

Ross Ohlendorf (1%): Kei Igawa flopped in his one start and was sent back down, Philip Hughes is out for a while, and Ian Kennedy's first start in his return from his one-start minor league demotion didn't go well. Darrell Rasner is holding down the fourth starter's job, but he's hardly someone we can consider "safe" for remaining in that rotation. Ohlendorf has been pitching reasonably well in relief for the Yankees this year after making their post-season roster in 2007, striking out 22 batters in 23 1/3 innings. Ohlendorf came over to the Yankees in the Randy Johnson deal and spent an early part of last year on the DL, but finished the season on a high note. He doesn't have the upside of Hughes or Kennedy, but he is learning how to get major leaguers out in his current bullpen stint, and there's some hope that he could eventually fill that rotation slot.

Glen Perkins (4%): The Twins called up Perkins as a short-term fill-in for the injured Scott Baker, but there's a reasonable hope that he can hold down a spot in their rotation, or at least stick as a long reliever once Baker comes back. Look at some of his current competition. Livan Hernandez is doing an excellent job as an innings-eater right now, mostly on the basis of cutting his walk rate in half from last year. However, I can't shake the feeling that he's this year's version of Ramon Ortiz, turning in a good six weeks before turning back into a pumpkin. If Hernandez doesn't flop, both Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey are candidates to lose their respective slots. Blackburn is Minnesota's answer to Brian Bannister, succeeding despite an ultra-low strikeout rate and a G/F that isn't extraordinary. The odds are that he won't be able to keep a sub-4.00 ERA while putting that many balls in play. Slowey has problems with the longball; he's already given up four homers in 14 innings, after allowing 16 in 66 2/3 innings at the major league level last year. In many ways, his development corresponds with Baker's in his first two years in the majors. Meanwhile, Perkins lost most of 2007 with a shoulder injury, and initially his command suffered this year in the minors. That's not that unusual for pitchers returning from arm injuries, and Perkins might not yet be past that. But he has more upside than Blackburn and possibly Slowey, and the fact that he's a lefty can't hurt. Temper your short-term expectations, but he's a pitcher who could be a positive force over the second half of the season.

Cody Ross (2%): I've always had a soft spot for Ross. He overcame a major knee injury suffered at the start of his major league career, he's a Three True Outcomes hitter, and he's one of those rare throw-lefty, bat-righty guys like Rickey Henderson. He's on the wrong side of a platoon with Alfredo Amezaga in center field, but he's starting to get some starts against righties and responding by hitting for power. Don't look for him to repeat last year's .335/.411/.653 line, but Ross is capable of hitting 15-20 homers with the proper amount of playing time. Amezaga is overexposed as an everyday player in center, and Ross gives them the potential to get more production from a position that they've struggled to fill for years. The big risk with Ross is that he could get buried whenever the Marlins decide to call up Cameron Maybin, but Maybin is struggling right now at Double-A Carolina (.236/.371/.400 with 55 strikeouts in 140 at-bats).

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

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Future Shock: Agents, ... (05/16)
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Fantasy Article Fantasy Focus: Preempt... (05/09)
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Fantasy Article Fantasy Focus: Keeper ... (05/30)
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