Finding fantasy waiver wire value requires several different strategies, featured in this week’s debut of the Value Picks regular-season edition. To ensure availability, candidates for the VP list must have less than 20 percent ownership in ESPN leagues (I’ll typically reference CBS for comparison), a narrow band that still saw Luke Scott, Mitch Moreland, Pedro Alvarez, and Gaby Sanchez among last year’s VPs.

One VP strategy involves employing a contrarian philosophy. First base, third base and designated hitter are typical power positions, but power hitters are rarely on the wire, especially at the latter two positions. So, if you’ve got power elsewhere, you can look for value in lighter-hitting lineup additions, like the first VP.

Todd Helton, Colorado Rockies

Once a four-category fantasy player, Helton is being ignored by 97 percent of ESPN and 85 percent of CBS leagues, undoubtedly a reaction to his .256/.362/.367 line in 2010. That can be blamed partly on chronic back problems, as Helton’s just one season removed from 2009’s .325/.416/.489 performance. The Toddfather’s excellent eye remains intact (his 14.2 percent walk rate in 2010 nearly matched his 14.5 percent career average), but his .307 BABIP, the third-worst in his career, suggests back pain kept him from making solid contact.

CHIPPER’s injury projection rates Helton as very likely to miss up to 15 days and moderately likely to miss more than 30 days. To prevent this, he’ll occasionally sit in favor of Ty Wigginton, eroding Helton’s counting stats. But PECOTA’s 50th percentile gives Helton a .288 batting average, fourth among starting first basemen, and his projected .391 OBP is second only to Pujols. Helton’s batting average should crack .300 in his 70th percentile, but he won’t reach longball double digits until his 80th. Regardless, Helton is a top-notch Value Pick, providing a nice batting average boost in most leagues.

Jack Cust, Seattle Mariners

Helton highlights another Value Picks stratagem: don’t overreact to one-year performances. Short-sighted fantasy owners create valuable rebound candidates like Jack Cust, whose poor 2010 has left him languishing on the waiver wire of more than 99 percent of ESPN leagues and 92 percent of CBS leagues. Cust’s Three True Outcomes approach delivers saber-cat value, while making his batting average iffy for standard roto. Both systems recognize his power, however, and he’s averaged 24 dingers over the past four seasons.

But fantasy owners remember only Cust’s .272/.395/.438, 13-homer line in 2010, including .250/.384/.386 after July 31. Despite the results, Cust’s approach didn’t change, as his 16 percent walk rate and 30 percent strikeout rate were both consistent with his career averages. His line-drive rate rose from 22.7 percent in 2009 to 25.9 percent in 2010, eating away at his fly-ball rate, which fell from 39.4 percent to 35.0 percent. Hitting more line drives explains both why Cust’s BABIP rose from .319 to .387 and why his power dropped.

His ISO has fallen consistently over the past four seasons, and Cust has hit just .237/.359/.423 at Safeco in 117 career PAs, but PECOTA still gives him 21 homers in his 50th percentile. His struggles against same-side pitching also continued in 2010: his 161-point SLG differential is higher than his 107-point career split, and he only hit one of his 2010 longballs against southpaws.

The Cust of 2007-2008 won’t reappear, but he’s worth more than most owners are granting him, especially if Milton Bradley protects him against tough lefties. Despite PECOTA’s .225 batting-average projection, his .281 TAv is fourth among starting designated hitters, making Cust a fine addition in deeper mixed leagues, AL-only leagues, and any league that counts OBP.

Donnie Murphy, Florida Marlins

Danny Valencia, Minnesota Twins

Under-publicized small-market teams can provide value, like the two examples in the shallow third-base talent pool this week. I wrote about Murphy last week and Valencia much of the second half of last season: neither are overwhelming talents, but Murphy’s being ignored in both ESPN (0.0 percent) and CBS (one percent) leagues, while Valencia gets some CBS love (32 percent) and a passing nod from ESPN owners (3.9 percent).

Murphy’s value comes from his power upside and starting gig, and eventual replacement Matt Dominguez fractured his elbow, assuring that gig for at least two months. Losing time to Emilio Bonifacio and Greg Dobbs trims Murphy’s value, but I think he’ll exceed his .251/.302/.456 50th PECOTA percentile. The pitch that hit his hand Saturday doesn’t seem to have done any damage, and Murphy’s shortstop qualification adds to his value in NL-only leagues and deeper mixed leagues, so get him while other owners are sleeping.

Valencia’s .345 BABIP last season, along with his modest .274/.319/.397 PECOTA projection, may be deflating his value. But he had a .343 BABIP in the minors, and PECOTA jumps from a .255 to a .261 TAv in his 60th percentile, where his slash line rises to .281/.326/.407. His 14.3 percent strikeout rate in 2010 keeps his batting average high, while his 6.2 percent walk rate will deflate his OBP. Hitting eighth in the lineup won’t bring many counting stats, but he could hit higher in the order as he improves. With a guaranteed starting job, solid skills, and a decent upside, he won’t be this lightly owned later in the season.

Dan Johnson, Tampa Bay Rays

Yet another way to find value is to keep abreast of recent news. Dan Johnson earned the starting job in Tampa Bay, but he’s still on the waiver wire in more than 99 percent of ESPN and 92 percent of CBS leagues. I wrote about Johnson last week, but that didn’t translate into an ownership bump—I’m no Stephen Colbert, after all. Maybe that will change now that Jason Collette’s pointed out that hitting fifth behind excellent on-base hitters will add to Johnson’s value. Popular or not, Johnson makes an excellent early-season addition to nearly any team’s roster due to his walk rate and power potential.

Mark Trumbo, Los Angeles Angels

Last, don’t be afraid to seek short-term improvement with long-term upside. Kendrys Morales is about three weeks from returning, but Trumbo’s temporary starting role hasn’t garnered much attention from owners (1 percent ESPN, 27 percent CBS). Trumbo’s not a rock-solid investment: his 50th percentile PECOTA projection gives him 13 HRs in 350 PA, and his 19 percent whiff rate and 7.4 percent walk rate in the minors led to PECOTA’s .261 batting-average projection. A performance in his 90th percentile would deliver a triple-slash of .291/.333/.494, when he would barely crest 20 HRs with 500 plate appearances.

Trumbo should head to Triple-A when Morales returns, but Morales is not a lock either to return on schedule or to remain healthy, so Trumbo’s stay could be longer than expected. He’s got enough upside to make him a nice gamble if you’ve got a roster spot to spare, as he could have a few good weeks before returning to Salt Lake. 

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Amazingly Helton was available in my 18 team H2H league. Thanks for the heads up.
Thanks, Ogremace--glad I could help your team out. I'm amazed, too, that he'd be out there in such a deep league.

I think he's going to get snatched up pretty quickly in these first few weeks, but he'll be a VP until that happens.