Fantasy: 20-20 All-Stars (Hitters)

Every year, players come out of nowhere to exceed all expectations. Chosen reluctantly late in the draft with a dwindling auction budget. or as free agents to fill a gaping lineup hole, they turn into valuable fantasy producers. They’re also difficult commodities to trade; few owners believe in Cinderella tales.

The only “formula” involved in these eight selections is my rough estimate of actual production, divided by what I thought they were worth preseason. If you own two or more of these guys, your team should be doing OK. So far …

C Russ Martin, Dodgers. On May 5, poolies examining the minor-league stats of this unheralded 23-year-old saw 74 at-bats in Triple-A with no homers, a few doubles and a decent batting eye. That made him a lukewarm potential replacement for anyone who actually owned foul-tip victim Dioner Navarro. Others who plucked Martin off the waiver wire, claiming they knew what would happen, are probably members of his immediate family.

His profile might have been higher had he played for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic, but Martin declined that invitation, trying to impress the L.A. brain trust in spring training. He had an instant impact as an emergency Dodger: the floundering 13-17 club suddenly won 18 of his first 22 starts. Less than two months later, Navarro’s been traded and Martin is the number one backstop in a pennant race.

Ausmusian glove work got Martin drafted as high as the 17th round. The storybook debut has been at the plate, not behind it. A 1-for-20 slump in the final week of May dropped him to .253/.345/.387 (respectable enough for a young catcher), but instead of fading, Martin responded with a torrid .329/.380/.494 June. Stealing three bases in two games against the Pirates last week was an exclamation point of sorts for our overall first-half Blind Squirrel Award winner.

Because 20-20 recognizes “best performance by the least likely,” the catching race was decided by a mere nod over highly improbable slugger Mike Napoli. The Angels backup, who began the season completely off the radar behind phenom Jeff Mathis, has notched counting stats similar to Martin’s in fewer at-bats. While everyone else waits for Napoli to come back down to earth, his owners keep enjoying the ride.

2B Dan Uggla, Marlins. How often does a Rule 5 selection pay immediate dividends? The rare $50,000 players who stick with their new teams all year tend to be backup infielders and middle relievers. Despite his opportunity with the Marlins, there was nothing to recommend Uggla, left unprotected by the Diamondbacks. At 26, Uggla still looked like organizational filler, not a prospect who could skip Triple-A and show dramatic improvement.

Undrafted in most leagues, Uggla didn’t do much in his first couple of weeks, but manager Joe Girardi, whose outfielders were hitting even worse, shook things up by moving him into the 2-hole. In mid-April, visiting the Smallpark in Ohio, the rookie homered in consecutive games, which inflated his OPS to .857, but by the end of the month, he’d dropped back to .253/.319/.410, and had struck out in six of his last nine at-bats.

Then he got hot again for a few days, making his job even more secure. In the absence of better middle infield alternatives, I decided on May 4 to pick him up, only to discover I’d been scooped—at 5:30 a.m.—by a rival owner who either stays up much later than me, or rises much earlier. To the astonishment of all, Uggla turned into the poor man’s Chase Utley, a 5-category contributor. Prior to a recent hamstring problem that sidelined him for eight games, Uggla was a no-brainer over Brandon Phillips at this contentious position.

SS Mark DeRosa, Rangers. Among “real” shortstops, presumed stars, including Jhonny Peralta and Bobby Crosby, have disappointed. Other regulars, like Khalil Greene, Russ Adams, Clint Barmes and J.J. Hardy, failed (for various reasons) to show anticipated improvement. There really isn’t an outstanding candidate who actually plays short, but in fantasy ball, the key is SS eligibility. In many formats, like the farce called inter-league play, Troy Glaus is now the world’s biggest, strongest shortstop.

At 31, DeRosa was typecast as a utility player: able to hit lefty pitching, no threat versus righthanders. Never was that split more pronounced than in 2005, his first season with the Rangers, when he smacked .322/.412/.627 in 59 at-bats against southpaws, compared to an anemic .191/.265/.315 in 89 at-bats against righties. Small sample size or not, it confirmed his reputation: useful 23rd man on a real club, zero fantasy value.

Fate intervened when rookie second baseman Ian Kinsler dislocated his thumb. An ankle injury left DeRosa unavailable through most of April, but after using D’Angelo Jimenez for a couple of weeks, Buck Showalter was understandably thrilled to pencil DeRosa in at second, batting ninth. The career understudy proceeded to have a career month.

By the time Kinsler returned, the red-hot DeRosa had become the skipper’s “irregular regular,” in the lineup nearly every day. Thanks to his unprecedented offensive surge—.329/.385/.465—against righties, Mark moved up to fifth in the potent Rangers order for a while, and has been batting second lately. Owners of Kevin Mench and Brad Wilkerson are justifiably furious when they sit, but DeRosa is in there until he cools off.

RF Alexis Rios, Blue Jays. As an emergency-callup rookie in 2004, Rios showed tremendous range (when he got a decent jump) and an occasionally-erratic gun, but was prone to brain cramps in the field and on the bases. During batting practice, Alex could extend his arms, routinely hitting frozen-rope homers to all fields. In games, he frequently seemed overmatched at the plate, his swing inside-out and tentative.

In 2005, his first full season, the 6’5” Puerto Rican did improve from one home run to 10 (prompting me to “predict” 100 this year) and became a more consistent outfielder, but his pitch-recognition skills seemed to regress. Rios showed only intermittent flashes of the exciting tools that reminded a few observers of a taller Roberto Clemente. Many Toronto fans—from radio call-in bozos to astute analysts—demanded a trade.

Unless it was a brilliant inspirational ploy, the Grapefruit League news that Rios would be the smaller part of a right field platoon with Eric Hinske this year suggested that the Jays were also losing faith in his development. Not even a “fanboy” like me could recommend owning him. Hitting coach Mickey Brantley helped him make some physical and mental adjustments, and Rios has proved countless naysayers wrong.

Yes, he cooled off for a couple of weeks in June, and there’s certainly no guarantee he’ll stay in Bobby Abreu’s class all season. Forecasting what Rios will do in the second half and in years to come depends on whether you consider his first half an arrival or a fluke.

CF Corey Patterson, Orioles. As mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the Cubs were determined to use “tough love” as a motivational tool for their disappointing former number one pick, while the Orioles staff has been more supportive. Hitting coach Terry Crowley developed a close personal rapport with Patterson while tweaking his approach, and two former Cubs managers, bench coach Lee Elia and third-base coach Tom Trebelhorn, also deserve kudos for their patience and understanding.

Patterson isn’t very good against lefties and won’t have nearly as much impact on the AL East as he does on a Roto team, where his 29 steals (in just 33 attempts!) are impossible to ignore. The occasional power is a bonus, and there’s no reason to assume he won’t keep getting on base at a .330 clip.

Among other deserving center field candidates, Curtis Granderson, a better player than Patterson on a much better team, was a tremendous bargain in many leagues. Eric Byrnes has been shockingly good.

LF Raul Ibanez, Mariners. We’d almost forgotten the second half of 2001, when Ibanez blossomed into a solid offensive performer, and his career year in 2002. Three ordinary seasons later, it appeared that he’d settled in as a well-compensated .800 OPS type. At 34, his completely unexpected June power surge earned this very close call.

Until recently, the easy winner would have been Nick Swisher, whose season is going in the opposite direction. After being overlooked in many drafts, he burst out of the gate with 10 home runs and a 1.142 OPS in April, continued to pound the ball in May and slumped to .218 with just three homers this month.

3B Freddy Sanchez, Pirates. On May 1, Joe Randa suffered a bone bruise. The next day, manager Jim Tracy, who had been using Sanchez sparingly at second, hitting seventh or eighth, inserted him at third base, batting third. Since an RBI double in the first inning, he’s been impossible to get out of the lineup. (Randa, a modern-day Wally Pipp, probably hopes there’s truth to recent trade rumors. It’s been a truly horrible season; he’s currently on bereavement leave after the death of a family member.)

The last week of May, a 10-for-13 stretch, raised Freddy’s average to .352, and a month later, it’s at .349—“counting three times” in BBFL, where OBP and SLG are categories. In 5×5 leagues, Sanchez isn’t quite as valuable; he’s not a source of homers or steals. However, he probably qualifies at second base and shortstop, where he’s an even more pleasant surprise to those who stuck with him longer than I did in April, or grabbed him as a free agent.

The Red Sox have two contenders for our third base nod. After his disastrous 2005 campaign, Mike Lowell figured to benefit from the change of parks, just not this much. Spring questions about playing time for Kevin Youkilis made him slip down many draft lists; he’s answered them with his bat.

1B Nomar Garciaparra, Dodgers. After three injury-plagued seasons in five years, and with his production down even when “healthy” compared to his awesome peak from 1998 to 2000, not many people expected Nomar to hit like a first baseman ever again.

At 33, playing home games in a pitchers’ park, his .424 OBP and .590 SLG are simply astounding, and concerns about his durability, aggravated when he missed the first couple of weeks with a rib cage injury, are beginning to fade. Having shortstop and third base eligibility in most leagues makes him a first-half fantasy MVP for those who took the risk.

Scott Hatteberg was briefly considered for this dubious honor, in part because Wayne Krivsky deserves accolades for so many moves. The rookie general manager with the alchemist’s touch can wait until next week, when we review the biggest bargains among fantasy pitchers.

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