Fantasy: Overachieving or Underutilized?

If you look around baseball, there are always several instances where teams don’t use their resources in the same way you would use them if you were in charge. In some cases, it’s easier for a team to ignore how well a player is playing if their expectations for that player weren’t that high entering the season.

Here are some players who are doing more for major-league teams than expected and aren’t being rewarded with as much praise (and playing time, in most cases) as they should be.

OF Jason Lane, Astros

Lane has been jerked around quite a bit in his professional career. After hitting .316/.407/.608 as a 24-year-old in Class AA in 2001, Lane hit .272/.328/.472 in 111 games at Class AAA in 2002 and hit .290/.375/.536 in a 69 at-bat cup of coffee in the majors. However, the Astros didn’t have a spot for him in the outfield in 2003, so he spent a good chunk of the year back in Class AAA, where he hit .298/.374/.452 in 71 games.

Lane didn’t have much left to prove in the minors this year, but the Astros still didn’t have a place for him to start in the outfield this season. Until they traded Richard Hidalgo to the Mets, that is. Since Hidalgo’s last start with Houston on June 11, Lane is 11-for-35 (.314) with two homers, a steal, four runs and 8 RBIs in 10 games.

Unfortunately, Lane isn’t quite out of the woods yet. Monday was the first game he didn’t start since Hidalgo was benched (and he entered the game in the sixth and hit a solo homer), but manager Jimy Williams has an odd infatuation with Orlando Palmeiro despite the fact that he has a .232 GPA this season.

Hopefully, Lane becomes the regular starter in right field for the Astros with Palmeiro only playing as a pinch-hitter or to give Lane or another outfielder an occasional day off. If that’s what happens, Lane should be a very useful fantasy option.

He’s shown throughout his minor league and (brief) major-league that he’s got good patience, decent power and the ability to hit for average. He even stole some bases earlier in his career, although I don’t know that I’d expect many steals from him in the majors. With or without steals, however, he can help a fantasy team if he finally gets the chance to play every day.

2B Scott Hairston, Diamondbacks

Hairston has been playing pretty regularly for Arizona at second base since May 24, and he’s now hitting .297/.355/.541 for the season. Over a 550 at-bat season, his current production would project to 20 homers, 85 runs and 40 RBIs, pretty solid numbers for a second baseman.

Hairston was hitting .313/.375/.565 in 28 games at Class AAA before getting called up this year and he hit .276/.345/.469 at Class AA last year, so it’s not entirely surprising to see him hitting in the majors already. Why am I mentioning him if he’s playing well and can be expected to continue to play well? Because he may lose his starting job anyway.

Roberto Alomar was just activated from the disabled list, and it’s pretty likely that he’ll at least get a chance to win his starting job back. Alomar’s shown pretty convincingly over the last three seasons that he’s got nothing left in the tank, but he’s got 2,687 hits in the major leagues and Hairston doesn’t even have half that many at-bats as a professional.

So, Hairston will almost certainly lose some playing time to Alomar even though he’s almost certainly a better bet to be a productive hitter at this point. The best you can hope for if you have Hairston on your roster is that Alomar looks truly awful at the plate and shows no signs of getting better, and the Diamondbacks make Hairston the permanent starter again pretty quickly.

More likely, however, Hairston will lose a game or two to Alomar even if the Diamondbacks end up deciding that Hairston’s the better player for them to use. Hairston’s a pretty good fantasy option when he’s playing every day, but he won’t be so attractive when he’s getting a couple days off a week, unfortunately.

OF Matt Holliday, Rockies

Holliday’s played in the majority of Colorado’s games thanks to all of the injuries in the Rockies outfield, and he’s been a useful fantasy player to have. He’s been useless on the road with just a .234 average, three homers and 10 RBIs, but his .300 average, six homers and 19 RBIs at Coors Field have allowed his owners to platoon him to their advantage.

Now, however, Preston Wilson is back and Larry Walker is returning, which means Holliday’s days as a regular starter are over. He was easy to plug into your lineup whenever the Rockies were at home if he was playing every day, but he’ll be useless if he’s just a fourth outfielder with an extreme home/road split.

You might want to keep an eye on him if the Rockies end up trading Jeromy Burnitz, but there’s really no reason to waste a roster spot by hanging onto Holliday right now. He gave the Rockies more than they probably thought he would and now they’re ready to go with the guys they hoped to have much sooner than this.

2B Mark Bellhorn, Red Sox

Bellhorn was supposed to just be a backup infielder when the Red Sox signed him, but he was pressed into full-time duty when Nomar Garciaparra’s injury was worse than initially believed. Bellhorn played very well in Garciaparra’s absence, but it was generally assumed that he’d take a spot on the bench with Pokey Reese playing second once Garciaparra returned.

I’m happy to say that has not been the case, however. Bellhorn has sat in just one of the 11 games the Red Sox have played since Garciaparra came off the DL. Sometimes Bellhorn’s replaced Reese at second base and other times he’s replaced rookie Kevin Youkilis at third base, but he’s played and he’s now hitting .260/.393/.426.

Bellhorn’s on pace for 17 home runs, 114 runs and 93 RBIs, which are all excellent totals from a second baseman. He’s far outplayed the expectations anybody could have had for him, but the Red Sox got him for his on-base percentage and he hasn’t disappointed there.

Things will get more convoluted when third baseman Bill Mueller comes off the DL in the next week or two, but I’m hopeful that Bellhorn will continue to play nearly every game. If he does, he will continue to be a very useful fantasy option. If he loses too much playing time and/or gets bumped from the number two spot in the lineup, he will start losing value rapidly.

IF Michael Cuddyer, Twins

Cuddyer was actually mostly an outfielder in the Twins plans before this season, but injuries forced him to play the infield regularly from May 9 to June 6. During that time, he went 25-for-95 (.263) with eight doubles, a triple, three homers, 13 runs and 14 RBIs.

Those aren’t great numbers, but it was one of the longer stretches he’s ever been left alone in the lineup for, and he was beginning to show some of the potential that a lot of people have talked about over the years. Unfortunately for Cuddyer and all of his fantasy owners, he’s only gotten 17 at-bats in the dozen games since Luis Rivas came off the DL.

With Koskie healthy, Rivas playing better than he ever has in his life and the absolute logjam in Minnesota’s OF/1B/DH situation, there just isn’t enough room for Cuddyer to get regular playing time. I think he has the ability to be a solid major-league hitter, which would make him a very nice fantasy option since he qualifies at second base, but it doesn’t look like he’s going to get much more of an opportunity this season.

If the Twins were smart, they’d either trade Cuddyer to a team who can use him or trade some of their other players so that they could use him, but I doubt that will happen. Minnesota will continue to field a sub-par starting rotation while staying overstocked with outfielders, and Cuddyer’s ability to hit a baseball will do your fantasy team no good while he’s on the bench.

OF Jeff DaVanon, Angels

The Angels probably thought their outfield would be strongest part of their club this season and they’ve been right so far, but they probably didn’t expect DaVanon to be one of the players to make them right. Filling in after injuries, DaVanon has really helped Anaheim by hitting .312/.401/.440 and he’s helped fantasy teams with three homers, 10 steals, 18 runs and 17 RBIs.

Now that Garret Anderson and Tim Salmon are both healthy, however, there are more players than positions, and DaVanon seems to have been the odd man out recently with just five at-bats in his last six games. Part of that is due to the fact that those games were in NL parks, however, so we still have to see whether Anaheim uses DaVanon or Salmon more often once there’s a DH spot available.

Unfortunately, the Angels also signed Raul Mondesi when all the injuries made them take leave of their senses, and he’ll be back from the DL at some point. Once there are six players (Anderson, Vlad Guerrero, Jose Guillen, DaVanon, Salmon and Mondesi) for four positions (DH, LF, CF and RF), it will be difficult to see DaVanon playing regularly.

He’s been a very pleasant surprise to both the Angels and his fantasy owners, but it doesn’t look like he’s going to get the opportunity to show whether or not he can perform like this for an entire season. It’s a shame, too, because he might be my third choice if I had to pick from that group of six.

1B Hee Seop Choi, Marlins

Faced with budgetary restrictions, the Marlins decided to send Derrek Lee to the Cubs for Choi this off-season and it’s looking like the fabulous decision many people thought it was at the time. Lee’s doing well in Chicago, but Choi’s hitting .266/.383/.538 for Florida.

The only problem is that he’s only on pace for 148 games and 432 at-bats. The reason? The Marlins are not using Choi against left-handed pitchers at all. Choi has 184 at-bats this season, and 170 of them are against righties. People say that Choi can’t hit southpaws, but he’s only gotten 35 at-bats against them in his three-year major-league career.

It’s pretty hard to prove that you can do something if you’re never allowed to try it. I could understand platooning Choi if the Marlins had a first baseman who was murder on left-handers, but I want you to take a guess as to who they’ve been using at first base instead of Choi recently when a lefty is starting for the opponent.

Stumped?

It’s Damion Easley. That’s right, the same Damion Easley who has been a poor-hitting second baseman for much of his career and who the Detroit Tigers gave a lot of money to just go away at the beginning 2003.

How you could ever play Easley at first base is completely beyond me. How you could play him there when you have an actual first baseman who could probably outhit him with his legs tied together and one arm tied behind his back is borderline insanity.

And if the Marlins are that insane, then Choi may never get a chance to play every day. What that means is that he’ll only be a useful fantasy player, for the time being, instead of the star fantasy first baseman he could become if was allowed to hit against lefties and showed that he wasn’t terrible at it.

SP Jaret Wright, Braves

Wright has been a pleasant fantasy surprise thus far with five wins and a 3.41 ERA, but it looks like he might lose his spot in the rotation whenever Horacio Ramirez is ready to come off the DL. Ramirez only has two wins, but he has a 2.28 ERA and, at age 24, he’s a bigger part of Atlanta’s plans for the future than Wright is.

Paul Byrd just made hit debut with the Braves and pitched quite nicely, Russ Ortiz and John Thomson are going to stay in the rotation, and Mike Hampton appears to be a less likely candidate for a move to the bullpen than Wright.

That’s not to say Wright’s getting a completely raw deal or that his absence will crush your fantasy team. His 1.47 WHIP is not good, and while he has 59 strikeouts in 74 innings (7.18 K/9IP), he also has 35 walks, which is way too many (4.26 BB/9IP).

Still, if Wright and Hampton switched statistics for this season, there’d be no question that you send the guy with the 5.28 ERA to the bullpen instead of the guy with the 3.41 ERA. But the Braves were expecting more out of Hampton than they were out of Wright, so they’ll likely let Hampton keep starting and thank Wright for his effort while asking him to go to the pen.

OF Jason Bay, Pirates

Bay was the biggest part of the package Pittsburgh got in exchange for Brian Giles last year and he’s hitting .281/.340/.563 in the major leagues at the age of 25. Unfortunately, the Pirates aren’t using him on an everyday basis. Why? Daryle Ward and Randall Simon are too important to leave on the bench too often.

And you wonder why the Pittsburgh franchise is in the rough shape it’s in…

Ward I can kind of, sort of understand because he’s still somewhat young (he turns 29 on Sunday), he’s always been regarded as a potentially very good hitter who just can’t play defense and he’s pounding the ball right now. He’s hitting .291/.321/.554 with 10 homers in 148 at-bats and it’s hard to take somebody out of the lineup when he’s doing that.

Randall Simon, on the other hand, has never (as far as I know) been regarded as a potentially very good hitter and he’s certainly not pounding the ball right now. In fact, he’s hitting a putrid .209/.258/.244 for a .177 GPA. The Pirates would be better off just releasing him and paying him whatever they owe. Instead, they’re letting him steal at-bats from one of the most promising young players in the organization.

Bay has the potential to hit 25-30 (or maybe more) home runs in a big-league season right now, but he’s never going to come close to those totals if he’s not playing nearly every day. I could maybe see making Bay spend half his time on the bench if the Pirates were loaded with talent, but their not. The fact that Bay has gotten just 36 at-bats in 19 games this June is a travesty, for him, for your fantasy team and for the good fans of Pittsburgh.

2B Jose Hernandez, Dodgers

Hernandez is hitting .322/.422/.506 for the Dodgers and I’m not saying I think that’s a level you can expect him to maintain, but he’s not far removed from hitting .288/.356/.478 for the Brewers in 2002. He was awful (even worse than that, really) last year, but that’s just one season.

I’m not even really saying that the Dodgers should be using Hernandez more than they are. Adrian Beltre is in the middle of what might be a breakout year for him at third base, Cesar Izturis is finally providing a tiny bit of offense to go along with his stellar defense at shortstop and Alex Cora has surprisingly been one of the five or six most-productive second basemen in the NL.

Still, Hernandez would hit 23 home runs and steal 12 bases if he could maintain this level of production for a 500 at-bat season. If he were to find himself with a regular job either because somebody got hurt in LA or because he got traded elsewhere, he might actually be a very useful fantasy option, especially since he should qualify at second base, third base and shortstop in most leagues.

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