Ryan Braun, Brewers — Matt Kemp is the Next Big Thing. Carl Crawford always has his supporters. Grady Sizemore was first in most lists in 2009, so why should we penalize him due to a freak elbow injury? With all that said, over the last three seasons, Braun’s averaged 34 homers, 106 RBI, 99 runs, 16 stolen bases and batted .308. And that’s with only 113 games played in his rookie year of 2007. He’s also just 26 years old, his walk rate is improving … he’s money in the bank, folks.
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Justin Upton, Diamondbacks — You thought 2009 was the breakout? A .300 average with 26 home runs, 86 RBI, 84 runs, 20 stolen bases and an .899 OPS? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!
Upton turned 22 in August, and it says here his superstar career arc will take a steep upward turn in 2010. While I was at "First Pitch Arizona," I was chatting with a couple of very knowledgeable D-Backs fans at the opening reception. At one point I asked them, "OK, how good is Justin Upton?" Both shook their heads in amazement, and one said, "As good as you can possibly imagine." Draft him early, and enjoy the explosion. I think he’s a top-five fantasy outfielder.
Carlos Quentin, White Sox — I know some of you are thinking that Quentin’s a one-hit wonder, with 2008 being his peak year. He hit 21 homers in 99 games in his injury-filled 2009, and his .236 BA was dragged down by an extremely unlucky .223 batting average on balls in play. We’re looking at another 30-homer, 100-RBI season, with the usual runs and RBI that go along with it. He’ll be fine, or spectacular if you have him for $2 in an AL keeper league like I do.
Jay Bruce, Reds — Bruce got hurt, he didn’t play well when healthy, Dusty Baker may or may not have wanted to play him yet, blah, blah, blah. Remember, we’re less than two years removed from some people considering Bruce as the game’s top prospect. He’ll turn 23 right around Opening Day, and he’s about to become an impact player. I personally guarantee 30 homers and a decent batting average if he stays healthy.
Strangely, his stats were eerily similar to Quentin’s in 2009. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but the numbers are pretty cool to look at.
Matt Joyce, Rays — Joyce spent most of 2009 in Triple-A after being acquired from the Tigers for hurler Edwin Jackson, so he’s definitely behind in the "who got the better end of the deal" race. If the Rays give Joyce a righty-mashing platoon role in 2010, he could hit 15-20 homers and swipe 10 bases. He’ll probably have a cringe-inducing batting average, so I’d recommend him for AL-only leagues and that’s all.
I’d have listed Joyce with the youngsters below, but you might remember he hit a dozen homers in 92 games for the Tigers in 2008.
Lastings Milledge, Pirates — 2009 was a lost season for Milledge, as he played for five teams between the Nationals and Pirates organizations. The Nats dealt him because they got sick of him, just like the Mets did. But he’ll only be 25 when the season starts, and I can’t get it out of my head that he hit 14 homers and stole 24 bases for the Nats in 2007. I feel like I could be happy with him as my fifth outfielder in a mixed league. Don’t forget about him, like many of your fellow owners already have.
Alex Rios, White Sox — The Blue Jays went into sell mode at midseason, and were able to unload Rios and his big contract ($59.7 million owed through 2014) on the White Sox, for whom he promptly fell on his face. What a disaster, right?
Not so fast. Even with his subpar 2009, over the last four seasons Rios has batted .284 with averages of 18 homers, 79 RBI, 84 runs and 22 stolen bases. Those aren’t superstar numbers, but unless you’re the GM of the fantasy version of the Yankees, everyone doesn’t need to be a superstar. As a No. 3 outfielder in a mixed league, Rios would bring plenty of value, and some upside as well.
Youngsters to Watch
Drew Stubbs, Reds — If Willy Taveras somehow stands in the way of Stubbs’ chance at the Reds’ center field job, then the team might as well fire its entire front office and let a fan or a computer or a monkey pick its roster and starting lineups. There’s no reason to think those options could be worse, since none of them would be likely to choose the guy with the .321 on-base percentage and no power to speak of.
If Stubbs gets a fair shot to win the job, he can bring plenty to the table for fantasy owners, as he hit 11 home runs and swiped 56 bases between Triple-A and the majors in 2009. His .267 batting average between the two levels wasn’t great, but his 66 walks are a very promising sign. As fantasy speed merchants go, Stubbs can be pretty good.
Matt LaPorta, Indians — The 25-year-old LaPorta had hip and toe surgeries in mid-October and might not be ready for the start of 2010. When he’s ready, he’ll play either first base or left field for the Tribe, but at the start of the season he’ll qualify in the outfield in most fantasy leagues.
LaPorta’s main skill is power — he hit 51 homers in 224 minor league games, which works out to 37 per 162 games. He’s a definite keeper league target, and a solid AL-only option as well.
Julio Borbon, Rangers — Whoooosh! The Rangers have a bit of a crowded outfield, with Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and David Murphy seemingly ready to impact Borbon’s playing time. However, there are already rumors from the winter meetings that the Rangers are floating Cruz’s name in trades, and it would probably be a smart move to move the injury-prone Hamilton out of center field.
If all that happens, Borbon could do some major fantasy speed damage after stealing 97 bases between the minors and majors over the last two seasons, including 19 in just 46 games in Texas. He could stand to be more patient, but he posted a .312 batting average over three minor league seasons. As a real-life starter, Borbon will have a lot of value in AL-only leagues.