In any baseball season there are surprises and disappointments. From a fantasy perspective, these are the individuals who have surprised so far in 2011. In some cases, their perceived overachievement may be supported by natural talent or past performance, in which case fantasy managers should hold onto them. Others are simply outplaying their abilities and are likely to revert to the norm, making them strong sell-high candidates. Which players to hold? Which to sell? These and other completely unrelated questions are answered below, position-by-position.
C – Alex Avila, Tigers
Victor Martinez isn’t the only ownable catcher in Detroit. Avila has displayed fair power and surprising contact over his first 200+ AB. Batting in the lower-middle of a solid hitting lineup (featuring Miguel Cabrera and Martinez), Avila has plenty of RBI opportunities and has capitalized on them so far. He is on pace for well over 80 RBI. The 20 home run power looks like it is for real. The batting average will be tougher for him to maintain. I don’t put as much weight in the trendy BABIP stat as some do, but Avila’s current .361 is significantly over his career average and portends reversion.
1B – Paul Konerko, White Sox
You’d think it would be hard for a player to overachieve following a 39 HR, 111 RBI, .312 AVG season. Fact is, most people thought 2010 was an unrepeatable feat for the 35 year-old Konerko – he dropped remarkably low in many fantasy drafts. He must get so sick of writers thinking he’s washed up. Not only is he repeating, he is outdoing his 2010. Konerko sits at 2nd in MLB in homers with 21, 3rd in MLB with 59 RBI, and 2nd in the AL with a .331 AVG. The average is the most anomalous statistic, as .313 is his previous single-season best. Chances are it will decline somewhat before the season ends. Despite his eye-popping numbers, Konerko is a tough sell-high because most owners are inexplicably wary and continue to undervalue.
2B – Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians
Sure he’s a shortstop in real-life, but he’s 2B-eligible in many fantasy leagues – and frankly there aren’t many overachieving second basemen right now. We knew coming into 2011 that Asdrubal was capable of hitting for average, but nobody foresaw him morphing into a 20-20-.300 candidate at this point in his career. His previous season-high in HR was six (in 523 AB), and in the first half of this season he’s already dropped 12 bombs. Even in the minors, he never cracked more than eight, which leads to the conclusion that his powerful start, nice though it is, does not represent the real Asdrubal. Find a buyer who believes the power is here to stay.
3B – Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
Like Konerko, Bautista is following up a stellar season with an even better one. Bautista was the source of widespread skepticism following his breakout 54-homer season. Steroid rumblings aside, there was an undeniable consensus that, no matter what, Bautista couldn’t replicate 2010. Even his supporters suggested a home run total backslide into the 30’s. To date, Bautista not only leads the majors with 22 HR, but is also maintaining a sparkling .325 AVG. This is a massive improvement over his so-so .260 mark from a year ago. Plenty of people will be interested in him, and some might advise selling high, citing probable batting average reversion. I for one have given up doubting Jose Bautista and his ability to re-invent himself. It would take a rich offer indeed to lure him off my roster at this point.
SS – Jhonny Peralta, Tigers
Overlooked in many a draft, Peralta has been one of the more valuable fantasy shortstops this year. He’s not doing anything too out of the ordinary relative to some of the numbers he put up between 2005 and 2008. I know it seems like he’s been around forever, but Peralta is barely 29 years old and is still capable of performing at the top of his game. A few disappointing power and average years and a team change led everyone to write him off. I think the 20+ home run power is still legitimate, though a dip back into the .270 range would not be surprising for Jhonny, who has been flirting with .300 for much of 2011. Given his positional value and lack of brand name, he is probable more valuable in your lineup than on your trading block.
OF – Lance Berkman, Cardinals
One of the few great players of the last decade who remains largely un-accused of PED usage, Berkman has shown everyone who doubted his aging knees that he is far from finished. His 17 HR and 51 RBI rank him among the league leaders in both categories and his .303 AVG doesn’t begin to convey how dominant he has been at times this season. Now with Pujols landing on the DL, Berkman should get to play more first base, which should theoretically put less strain on his knees. Remember however that Berkie hasn’t batted .300 since 2008 and hasn’t hit 30 or more homers since 2007. Plus he’s already put in a brief disabled stint in 2011. Though the optimal sell-high window may be past, you’ll probably still find takers for Berkman.
OF – Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
After an injury-plagued 2010, Ellsbury fell behind guys like Michael Bourn in the “speed guys” fantasy field. Now he is putting up the numbers that Carl Crawford was supposed to, roughly on pace for 100+ runs, 15+ HR, 80+ RBI, 50+ SB and a .310+ AVG. The average and speed come as no surprise – Ellsbury has displayed those at every level. In fact, his SB pace puts him well short of his 70 SB season in 2009. The power is new. Like Asdrubal Cabrera, Jacoby has never dropped bombs like this in the minors or majors. Boston is a good park for lefty power and it is possible Ellsbury has increased his strength, but a downtick in HR rate seems likely. It is hard to recommend selling any member of the juggernaut Red Sox offense at this point, but if a buyer thinks the power will last, try to use Ellsbury to pull a big fish.
OF – Curtis Granderson, Yankees
A slight tweak to his batting approach has turned Granderson into the Jose Bautista of 2011. He has always had a ton of talent but has struggled to find consistency and has struggled against LHP. This year he has nine HR in 89 AB against lefties. His batting average is very up and down, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he can keep it in the .270 to .280 range in which he’s currently hovering. Here’s an interesting split: in 2011, Granderson is batting .359 in day games and .238 at night. Perhaps it’s a vision thing – maybe get the guy some of those sport-specific, glare-resistant contact lenses or something? If Baby Grand has really fixed his approach against lefties, the top-tier power could remain a fixture of his game – he’s shown 30-bomb pop even when he struggled against southpaws. Batting second in the Yanks lineup makes one a lock for a slew of runs and RBI, and Curtis is on pace for 100+ of both.
SP – James Shields, Rays
Perhaps no one has overachieved more impressively so far than James Shields. After posting an ERA over five last year, he is throwing to the tune of a 2.40 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 2011. Though he has been one of the more consistent workhorses in baseball over the last five years, Shields hadn’t turned in a complete game since 2008. This year he has more CG than Roy Halladay (not an easy feat), and three of those have gone for shutouts. He’s also on pace for 200+ strikeouts and, at the halfway point, is a legitimate contender for AL Cy Young. The guy is a hell of a competitor and I’d love to believe in him, but I think he is at the absolute peak of his game right now. The only place to go is down – find someone who thinks he can maintain his Halladay-esque numbers.
SP – Josh Beckett, Red Sox
This is the dominant Beckett that always lurks beneath the surface, waiting for his body to be free of aches and pains. As soon as the nagging injuries begin, his fastball starts hovering up in the zone just a bit and the home runs start flying. That hasn’t happened so far in 2011 – Beckett has surrendered only four gopher balls in 92 innings. With the Red Sox offense finally living up to its monstrous ability, he should rack up plenty of wins even if his major league-best 1.86 ERA rises, as it probably will. I am skeptical that Beckett can avoid blisters, pulls, strains and other such hindrances over the remainder of the season. If you can market him as a top tier starter – on a level with Cliff Lee, Justin Verlander and the like – do so.
SP – Bartolo Colon, Yankees
Yet another AL East representative – but here’s one that no one saw coming. The last time Colon pitched like an elite starter was his 2005 Cy Young season. Though he’s currently sidelined with a hamstring strain, Colon should be back for the second half of 2011. When Phil Hughes started throwing like a Little Leaguer, the 38 year-old made the unlikely move into the Yanks’ rotation. Right away, you could tell there was a difference – whereas Colon had always looked kind of broad and squishy, he now looked stout and brawny. Then the news trickled down about his stem cell plasma therapy performed during the offseason. The space age procedure has rejuvenated the old hurler to the point that many fans and MLB officials are suspicious – an investigation is now under way. In the meantime, stash Colon on the DL; he’ll be more valuable as an active player when he returns than as trade bait.
RP – Joel Hanrahan, Pirates
The only precedent for his break-out 2011 was a strong partial 2009 in which he finished with a 1.72 ERA – but without the pressure of closing. His career ERA still sits above four. Some guys flourish when they are suddenly handed ninth inning duties after years of setting up. This isn’t the case with Hanrahan – he has taken on part-time closer roles before, and has had mostly ugly results. There is no one thing to point to with him this year. He just goes down as another early feather in Pittsburgh pitching coach Ray Searage’s hat, who has turned a bunch of no-names and has-beens into a surprisingly solid pitching staff. In the already tenuous world of closing, I’d be wary of investing too much in Hanrahan. Even with the success he’s had so far, it might only take one bad month to lose his job. Ride the wave while you can, but if you find a generous buyer desperate for saves, pull the trigger.
RP – Kyle Farnsworth, Rays
The grizzled veteran carries a 2.17 ERA to go with only one blown save in 16 attempts. This is a guy who, coming into the season, was supposed to be middle relieving at best while rookie Jake McGee got a shot at closing. In his 13-year, 6-team career, Farnsworth has been at times mediocre and at times dominant. The handful of times he’s been handed closer duties he’s actually been very solid, including a stellar 2005 stint with Atlanta in which he went 10 for 10 in save attempts, struck out 32 in 27.1 IP and sported a 1.98 ERA. His strikeout rate has diminished, but Farnsworth has undoubtedly found his groove this year. With the Rays there will always be games to close, and Farnsworth’s age, lackluster past, and unimpressive strikeout rate decrease his value in the eyes of many fantasy players. Hang onto him.
There are plenty of other overachievers across the league. Names like Carlos Beltran, Todd Helton and Ryan Vogelsong spring to mind. But there is only so much space here. Visit us next time, when we talk about some of the pathetically underachieving players during the first half of 2011, and advise fantasy owners to either cut ties or stick with them.