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As the season wears on and free agent pools dry up, arguably the most important skill you can develop as a fantasy owner is the ability to spot players of value before your competition does. Anyone can wake up one morning, turn on Sportscenter, see that Phil Nevin has been traded to the National League and throw in a bid on him. It’s knowing where to look to find players before they become newsworthy that can separate the champions from the runners-up.

Lest you think I’m overstating how important it is to cultivate this ability, here are the top free agent hitters available in my AL-only and NL-only leagues (aside from Nevin and Jerry Hairston, of course, both of whom just arrived): Josh Paul, and Marlon Anderson. I wish I were kidding. Anyone in either league who gets caught short on their roster due to injury or trade has no free agents they can turn to and expect to hit above .250, much less supply any power or speed.

Know Who’s In Season

One common mistake you can make when hunting for future free agent purchases lies in researching players your league’s rules won’t allow you to pick up. It might seem a basic point, but it’s an easy one to forget as you sift through page after page of A-ball stats, and if the time you can devote to your league is limited, that will end up being time wasted. For instance, some leagues allow you to sign players on the DL or minor leaguers before they actually get added to a major league 25-man roster, but most won’t. Even if your league has extremely restrictive rules covering who’s available to be purchased, you can still hunt around for the players likely to become eligible for purchase. Especially in leagues where free agents are given out on a first-come-first-served basis, having those names at the front of your mind can give you that extra edge in being the first to recognize their value.

History Is Destiny

If there’s one good thing about injury-prone players, it’s that they provide a constant source of opportunity for other players in their organization. When the A’s signed Frank Thomas to be their DH, you knew that would mean some extra at-bats for other players on the Oakland bench, as well as a possible major league stint for Doug Clark or some other lucky River Cat in the middle of a good stretch with the bat. The key in identifying useful potential free agents though is not to look for players who have already been hurt, but to look for the ones who will probably come up lame somewhere down the road, players such as J.D. Drew or Jose Vidro. Identifying (and rostering, if you can) the players who will likely be pressed into everyday duty when… sorry, if those fragile regulars go down can provide you with a nice production boost at a very opportune time. If you happen to not be the owner of the injury-prone player in question, so much the better. Not only have you improved your own team, but you’ve also denied another team an easy solution to their sudden problem.

Tomorrow’s Marginal Players, Today!

Speaking of Clark, every season there are a handful of minor league veterans who put together good seasons in the high minors–whether that season is unexpected, or right in line with their careers–and translate that success into some major league action. Players such as Rick Short and Emil Brown fit this bill from previous seasons, and this year we’ve already seen Mike Vento get his moment in the sun. Taking a peek at the Triple-A leaderboards and noting the players who aren’t prospects, guys who are already in their late 20s or even on the wrong side of 30, can still pay dividends a month or two down the road when you’re the only person in your league that has any clue who they are.

Missing The Forest For The Trees

When laying the groundwork for future free agent acquisitions, it’s all too easy to get caught up in looking at the numbers, and at individual players, and forgetting that baseball is still a team game (this is true in most facets of fantasy baseball, in fact). Opportunity is a huge part of this equation, and knowing the situation and tendencies of a player’s organization can be instrumental in figuring out who will get those opportunities. Take the example of Kansas City. With Allard Baird at the helm, this year’s Royals seemed committed to burying their prospects behind mediocre (if not downright bad) veterans. Picking up a player like Justin Huber was simply a wasted effort, as he had neither a major league track record of any quality, nor a difficult-to-spell last name. With Baird out of the picture, however, the equation may have changed. New regimes rarely stand by the mistakes of the old, so suddenly players like Huber have a much better chance of acquiring value than they did last week. A team may be in a rebuilding mode and therefore more likely to experiment with an unproven commodity, or maybe their manager has been unafraid of using his bench–factors such as these can help you dig up a free-agent find. Individual player performance is still the overriding concern, but understanding the context in which that performance is (and could be) happening can’t be overlooked.

Erik Siegrist is a senior beat writer for RotoWire, covering the Marlins and Nationals. He can be reached by clicking here.