Surprises: Infield

I’m reviewing a number of sleepers, bounce-back and breakthrough players among the infield positions (and at catcher).

I’ve left two Chicago middle infielders, Starlin Castro and Gordon Beckham, out of the mix because of their well-chronicled paths to 2011.

I’ll get things started with a potential superstar in Cleveland.

Carlos Santana, Cleveland

I debated long and hard about Santana’s inclusion herein. Ultimately, I decided that the gap between the selection points of the top catchers (including Buster Posey) was wide enough to warrant his inclusion. I’ll use a quick example to make my point. In a recent FOX Sports Fantasy Magazine draft, I had Posey pegged slightly higher than Santana and selected him in the fourth round. Santana didn’t come off the board until the ninth round.

That phenomenon has been commonplace this winter. While Santana ranks highly on most boards, there is a significant separation in selection points between the Cleveland catcher and his upper-tier counterparts. Santana whetted the appetites of fantasy owners and gave Cleveland fans a glimmer of hope in his 46 games last season. He ripped 19 extra-base hits (including six home runs) with 22 RBI in 150 at-bats. Santana also walked more than he struck out while posting a .260 batting average.

Did you like Posey’s numbers last year? Look for Santana to approach those heights in 2011.

J.P. Arencibia, Toronto

Arencibia is a powerhouse prospect who dominated the Pacific Coast League last season and will get his shot this spring. His preseason value took a brief hit when Mike Napoli came to town. But, before Napoli unpacked, he was on his way to Texas and Arencibia’s status as a breakthrough candidate was restored.

He batted .301 with 32 home runs, 36 doubles and 85 RBI at Triple-A in 2010. He’ll blow past Jose Molina to start this spring.

Jesus Montero, New York Yankees

Russell Martin’s balky knee makes Montero an intriguing player to watch this spring. Montero appeared slated to start the season in the minor leagues, but Martin’s knee may open up an opportunity in camp. His bat is major league-ready (.289 with 21 home runs and 75 RBI in the minors last season), but his glove still needs work.

Hank Conger, Los Angeles Angels

How long a leash does starter Jeff Mathis have in Los Angele? In portions of six major league seasons, Mathis has generated a .199 career batting average with 40 extra-base hits in 1,034 plate appearances.

Conger batted .300 with 11 home runs, 26 doubles, 49 RBI and a nearly even walk-to-strikeout rate in 108 Triple-A games last season. He may supplant Mathis this spring.

First base

Freddie Freeman, Atlanta

Freeman batted .319 at Triple-A Gwinnett last season with 18 home runs, 35 doubles and 87 RBI. He teams with Jason Heyward to form a dynamic duo from the left side of the plate.

Mitch Moreland, Texas

In a brief interview conducted during Super Bowl week, Nolan Ryan told me that the Rangers envisioned Moreland as the everyday first baseman. Moreland hit nine home runs and drove in 25 runs with a .255 batting average in his 145 at-bats last season. Moreland exhibited a decent batting eye with 25 walks against 36 strikeouts. He averaged one extra-base hit per 10 at-bats during his minor-league career, so there’s definitely potential for big-time power production in this potent lineup.

Kila Ka’aihue, Kansas City

Ka’aihue hit 24 home runs with 78 RBI in 94 games at Triple-A Omaha last season while drawing more walks than strikeouts. He translated some of the power to the big leagues immediately with 15 extra-base hits (eight home runs) and 25 RBI in 180 at-bats last season. Ka’aihue only batted .217 in 52 games, so there’s still tremendous room for growth.

Juan Miranda, Arizona

The longtime Cuban prospect toiled in the New York Yankees organization for years. He’ll have the opportunity to win the full-time first base gig in Arizona this spring. It’s his first true chance to break through on the next level, as he won’t get lost in the numbers game for at-bats.

Miranda batted .285 last season at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre with 30 extra-base hits (including 15 home runs) and 43 RBI in 340 at-bats. His home ballpark is mighty friendly (ranks top-10 for hitters in the past three years) and there’s plenty of room in the power alleys.

Brett Wallace, Houston

Wallace’s strikeout rate leaves you uneasy as you ponder his selection in the final rounds of the draft. He struck out 50 times in 144 at-bats for the Astros following his callup last season. Taken further, Wallace also struck out three times per walk for Triple-A Las Vegas prior to his callup. I can’t ignore his power potential given his minor-league history and hitter-friendly home park. Wallace hit 18 home runs with 24 doubles and 61 RBI while batting .301 in 95 games.

Second base

Aaron Hill, Toronto

Hill was another player whose entry here was long debated before I finally firmed up the list. He is being dismissed by many fantasy owners this spring who are scared off by his dismal .205 batting average. I believe their dismissal of this powerhouse is short-sighted.

Hill still slammed 26 home runs while experiencing that catastrophic 81-point drop in batting average. His flyball rate rose, and he experienced a ton of bad luck. Hill’s contact rate dropped just 1.6 percent, and he’s never been a walk generator anyway.

In the past two years, Hill has hit 62 home runs and owns a .270 lifetime batting average. He won’t approach the Mendoza Line again.

Mike Aviles, Kansas City

Aviles rebounded from an injury-shortened 2009 season to hit .304 with eight home runs, 32 RBI and 14 stolen bases (with 19 attempts) in 110 games. The power numbers aren’t overwhelming, but they’re passable. His ability to hit .300 (.298 lifetime mark) with double-digit stolen bases cannot be dismissed for a middle infielder. Can he finish a season?

Dustin Ackley, Seattle

Ackley probably won’t break camp with the team, but his bat won’t be left behind for long. The former first-round pick (second overall in 2009) batted .267 between Double-A and Triple-A last season with solid power (48 extra-base hits), speed (10 stolen bases) and an advanced batting eye (75 walks against 79 strikeouts).

His resume is mighty impressive, as Ackley won countless honors during his tenure at North Carolina as the best hitter of the decade. Ackley batted .412 in college and appeared on the College World Series All-Tournament team three times.

 

Neil Walker, Pittsburgh

Walker burst onto the scene following his late May call-up. He batted .296 with 44 extra-base hits (including 12 home runs) and drove in 66 runs. Walker dominated at PNC Park, generating a batting average 61 points higher than his road mark.

He generated those lofty numbers in just 110 games for the Pirates and demonstrated strong power numbers during his minor-league career (had one extra-base hit per 10.5 at-bats). Let others worry about win-loss marks and the insignia on his cap. Walker can hit.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Minnesota

Nishioka generated a career .293 batting average with 174 stolen bases in eight years in Japan. He shan’t offer much in the power department (55 home runs), but he knows how to use the field and should run frequently for the Twins.

Shortstop

J.J. Hardy, Baltimore

Hardy hit 50 home runs and 60 doubles with 154 RBI in the 2007 and 2008 seasons combined. That snapshot represents the longtime prospect’s ceiling. Unfortunately, the injury issues that have plagued his career continue to crop up each and every year.

Last season, he missed 61 games because of a wrist injury. If healthy, Hardy’s power numbers will rebound in a much- improved Baltimore lineup. He’ll slide toward the backend of the draft based on his team insignia and lengthy injury list.

Reid Brignac, Tampa Bay

The versatile Brignac assumes the starting shortstop role following the departure of Jason Bartlett for San Diego. He batted .256 with 22 extra-base hits (eight home runs) and 45 RBI in 113 games across myriad positions for the Rays in 2010.

Brignac demonstrated solid power during his minor-league career, posting four seasons with at least 15 home runs and six seasons of at least 26 doubles. His high-strikeout rate (one per 3.91 at-bats) is moderately concerning, to be sure, but everyday at-bats will yield a strong output.

 

Yunel Escobar, Toronto

Escobar was on his way to joining the elite at the shortstop position following two fantastic seasons for the Braves. In 2008 and 20009, he batted a composite .294 with a total of 78 extra-base hits and 136 RBI.

The wheels came off early in 2010. Escobar struggled markedly at the plate and was eventually moved to Toronto. He batted .275 with the Blue Jays and hit all four of his 2010 home runs in 60 games for the Blue Jays. He looks to build on this moderate improvement in 2011 while batting in a more advantageous hitters’ park. Escobar owns a .289 career batting average, and I expect to see his power and batting average contributions fall in line with his career marks.

Third base

Chris Johnson, Houston

Johnson is one of the most intriguing players to watch on the draft board this season. He appeared in 94 games for the Astros and launched 35 extra-base hits with 52 RBI on the strength of a ridiculous .420 BABIP. Johnson batted .308 despite striking out in 26.7 percent of his at-bats.

Therein lays the big question for 2011. Johnson strikes out with great regularity, and one can hardly bank on him repeating the ridiculous BABIP. He struck out six times per walk. Even if his batting average drops markedly, Johnson is going to launch a hefty extra-base hit count at Minute Maid Park.

Mark Reynolds, Baltimore

Don’t be afraid of his batting average. Acknowledge that Reynolds’ mark is going to be a drag on your team’s overall ranking. Don’t anticipate a repeat of last year’s .198 disaster.

Reynolds averaged 34.7 home runs and 94.7 RBI in his three full seasons in Arizona, while stealing a total of 42 bases. He will strike out a ton (42.3 percent of his 2010 at-bats), but an out is an out. I anticipate that he bats in line with his .242 career mark. It’s not fantastic, but you’ll breathe a little easier.

Mike Moustakas, Kansas City

When will you cash your lottery ticket? The 22-year old former second overall selection (2007) wore out opposing Double-A and Triple-A pitchers last season. He batted .322 with 77 extra-base hits (36 home runs) and 124 RBI. Watch him closely this spring. Moustakas may get a shot to start the season in Kansas City.

Danny Valencia, 3B, Minnesota

Valencia batted .311 with 26 extra-base hits (including seven home runs) and 40 RBI in 299 at-bats for the Twins in 2010. He demonstrated solid pop and great gap power in the minor leagues, hitting 14 home runs and 38 doubles while splitting time between Double-A and Triple-A in 2009. The Twins have rebuilt the lineup for 2011 and welcome Justin Morneau back to the mix.

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