This column will take a look at some of the little known players in fantasy baseball who can make an impact on your team this season. We will be looking at players who can be had in later rounds of the draft or for a basement bargain price in auction leagues. These are players that your average fantasy column rarely covers. This advice is directed towards owners in deeper leagues but we will go over potential keepers and players who will become high draft picks down the road. I will go position by position and bring certain players to your attention who you may not have even heard of. I will write one evaluation of a “Diamond in the Rough” and an evaluation of a “Young Player to Watch”. A “Diamond in the Rough” can still be a young player but “Young Player to Watch” is strictly reserved for rookies/prospects. Of course, we will be starting with:
Diamond in the Rough
-Chris Snyder, Arizona Diamondbacks
Fantasy aficionados are starting to take notice of a young catcher in Arizona but it’s not the one that scouts have been raving about for years (Miguel Montero)…I’m talking about Chris Snyder. Snyder will get his at-bats this season, especially now that Montero is hurt, and I expect him to make the most of the opportunity. In limited time last season (only 326 at-bats) Snyder hit 13 HRs with a .252 average. Most full-time catchers get anywhere in the neighborhood of 450 at-bats (Jason Varitek) to 550 at-bats (Russell Martin). If you add an additional 100-150 at-bats or so to his total, he likely would’ve finished the season with upwards of 15 HRs. No question, Snyder can matchup with virtually any other catcher in the league power-wise and is well on his way in other departments as well like OBP% (.342) and SLG% (.433). He has all the tools to keep the starting job throughout the season and will almost certainly provide you with production comparable to other catchers who will be drafted long before Snyder’s name goes off the board. Think of him as a cheaper version of AJ Pierzynski. When drafting catchers I personally like to wait until the last rounds of the draft if I miss out on Victor Martinez and Russell Martin. Chris Snyder is a perfect example of why I do this. Why draft Pierzynski in the middle rounds when you can get Snyder (who may very well out-produce Pierzynski) several rounds later?
Projection – .270/15/62/.350/.445
Young Player to Watch
-JR Towles, Houston Astros
Towles has always been viewed as a high-end prospect and now his time has finally come. He will reportedly battle Humberto Quintero in camp for the starting job but should pull ahead in the competition early on. He has an excellent eye at the plate and is developing solid power as well. Throughout his minor league career he posted a .301 average, a .384 OBP% and a .471 SLG%. Needless to say, if those numbers translate to the majors, Towles has a chance to become an elite fantasy catcher in time. To give you a better idea of how good Towles is, take a look at the hottest catcher in fantasy, Russell Martin’s minor league stats: .281 AVG, .386 OBP% and a .419 SLG%. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Towles will be better than Martin, I’m just trying to point out that he is in that mold. A major part of it will depend on the adjustments that Towles makes in the big leagues but in limited time last season, he did not disappoint. In only 40 at-bats at the end of last season, Towles hit .375 and knocked in 12 RBIs which projected over 40 at-bats would’ve been close to 120 RBIs. It will obviously be difficult for him to keep up a torrid pace like that but there is little question that he is capable of producing in a big way offensively. The greatest part about Towles is his bargain basement price. I’ve already been in several drafts in which he’s gone undrafted. Keeper league owners take heed; do not let Towles go undrafted! He will definitely help out your fantasy team down the road and will likely make a contribution this season. Years down the road when Towles is a legitimate catching stud, you can brag to your league members that you always saw it coming.
Projection – .280/10/52/.355/.440
Diamond in the Rough
-James Loney, Los Angeles Dodgers
Throughout Loney’s minor league career, scouts always wondered if he had enough power to make him a legitimate all-star caliber 1B in the long-term. His highest HR total came in 2005 at AA Jacksonville when he hit 11 HRs and drove in 65 RBIs in 504 at-bats. That appeared to be his ceiling. He looked like a Mark Grace-type of 1B who was an excellent contact hitter without much power. In today’s game, getting production like that from a power position like 1B is undesirable to say the least. But at 6’2, 220 Ibs. Loney is no small fry. He’s a big lefty bat and anyone who has ever seen him can tell that power potential is there. People were still doubting Loney’s power potential when the Dodgers decided to make him their everyday starter at 1B half way into last season. That doubt quickly vanished after Loney hit an amazing 15 HRs in only 344 at-bats. On top of that, he hit a cool .331 and drove in plenty of runs down the stretch. He actually become one of (if not the most) reliable bats in the Dodgers’ lineup. Loney will see a full season’s worth of at-bats this year and will likely hit in the middle of the Dodgers’ now formidable lineup. Here is a guy with just as much (if not more) fantasy potential as just about any other 1B in the game…and here’s the catch…he can be drafted in the mid-late rounds of the draft and is coming off the board after 1B’s like Todd Helton, Kevin Youkilis and Carlos Pena in most draft. I personally expect him to outperform all of those 1Bs in a major way. I see big things for Loney this season. He is a definite mid-round pick in my book. If you miss out on all of the elite 1Bs in the first couple of rounds, wait out Loney and enjoy the ride.
Projection – .325/28/110/.380/.540
Young Player to Watch
-Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds
Votto has essentially been the opposite of Loney early in his minor league career. No one has ever questioned his power potential. It’s always been right there for everyone to see. He’s another massive lefty bat standing at 6’3, 220 Ibs. In about 500 at-bats in AA and AAA in ’06 and ’07 respectively, Votto crushed 22 HRs in both seasons and established himself as the future at 1B in the Queen City. He was called up to the big league team late last season and made the most of the opportunity, hitting 4 HRs, knocking in 17 RBIs and posting a .321 average in only 84 at-bats. This performance has pretty much guaranteed the starting job to Votto, who will finally replace the light hitting Scott Hatteberg as the Reds man at first…barring injuries or any unforeseen collapse in spring training. If Votto does play the whole season, I have no doubt that he will provide excellent power numbers for your fantasy team. Depending on how many at-bats he is given, I honestly believe he could be a 30 HR guy as soon as this season. With that being said, do not overpay for Votto in the draft. He is a virtual lock to start at 1B this season but in baseball, nothing is set in stone. You always have to gauge what a player’s perceived value is to other owners regardless of what you see him doing that season. If other owners are letting Votto fall in the draft, don’t reach for him in the middle rounds. You may very well be justified in doing so when all is said and done but chances are you can get him at the end of the draft and fill other positions in the meantime. This is what makes Votto a steal…the potential for major production at the back end of the draft. Be patient and he will fall to you. Same goes for auction leagues. Obviously, you’re not going to break the bank for him but try not to get in a bidding war for him. Chances are, he’ll prove you right but if I have to pay above market value for him, I’d rather draft a 1B that’s a little more established.
Projection – .303/24/86/.360/.522
Diamond in the Rough
-Mark Ellis, Oakland Athletics
Simply put, Ellis is a very underrated player. No one ever pays much attention to him yet he produces at a level that is above the average 2B. People may not know this but Ellis hit 19 HRs last year with 76 RBIs and 84 runs. He even stole 9 bases and hit .276. Those numbers are almost identical to a player who’s getting drafted much, much earlier in fantasy…Kelly Johnson. Of course, Ellis is no spring chicken (in baseball years). He’ll turn 31 in June and probably doesn’t have nearly as much upside as a young up and comer like Johnson but he’ll get the job done. In most drafts I’ve been in, Ellis is not getting drafted. Surprising for a 20/10 2B. One reason for this may be his down year in ’06. In that season he didn’t produce on a level anywhere close to where he was last year. He hit a lousy .241 with 11 HRs. So was he a fluke? Well, not really. If you look at his ’05 season he actually hit .316, 13 HRs and a very nice .384 OBP% in 434 at-bats. I wouldn’t expect an OBP% quite that high this coming season but the fact that he has produced before tells me that he can produce again. Don’t go crazy when you’re drafting this guy…that’s why the column’s called “Diamonds in the Rough”. If you draft him anywhere remotely close to where Kelly Johnson is getting drafted, you will have defeated the whole purpose of this article. A name like Ellis is useful if you miss out on the guy you want early on or if you’d rather fill holes at other positions. For example, instead of taking Kelly Johnson in the 8th and Jose Guillen in the 15th, why not take Torii Hunter in the 8th and Ellis in the 15th? You’ll likely get better production out of that combo anyway. It’s really hard to explain why certain players garner fantasy attention and other deserving players do not but it’s easy to take advantage of. That’s how fantasy leagues are won. Anybody can draft A-Rod in the 1st round, it’s all about finding players late in the draft who will help your team throughout the season. Mark Ellis is one of those players.
Projection – .275/21/72/.358/.450
Young Player to Watch
-Asdrubal Cabrera, Cleveland Indians
Those of you who follow prospects may have heard of Asdrubal before. He’s one of the Indians top ranked prospects that is now just breaking his way into the majors. He filled in for a faltering Josh Barfield at the end of last season and likely has an edge on Barfield to start the season. No question, there will be a hard fought battle between the two in Spring Training and whoever wins will be starting and the other will be banished to the bench but I see Cabrera as the much more intriguing option. He can steal bases even though that wasn’t evident last year when he didn’t steal any bases in 159 at-bats. While in AA earlier in the ’07 season, Cabrera swiped 23 bags in 368 at-bats. That’s a pretty nice ratio. Whether he was intimidated by the moves of big league pitchers, was dealing with a minor injury or was told not to run by his coaches, I do not know but I do know that the ability is there. All he needs to do is capitalize on it at the major league level. To add to the speed, Cabrera has a good eye for the ball and is a good contact hitter. He gets on base at an acceptable level and has double-digit power in his bat as well, which makes him capable of producing across the board. Not bad for a weak position like 2B. With that in mind, nothing is set in stone for Cabrera and he will first have to beat out Barfield for the starting job. Assuming that happens, draft him in the later rounds or pay $1 or $2 for him in auction leagues and reap the rewards.
Projection – .285/13/65/12/.366/.428/ (The extra number  is for stolen bases)