Surprises: Positional bargains

February 28, 2011

When I started playing fantasy baseball in 1988, “sleeper” meant something different than it does now.

Back then, if you did more research than your competitors, you could uncover a player who others didn’t know much about. You could wait on that player in your draft. When you picked him, eyebrows would be raised with at least one owner saying, "Who?"

Now, information is everywhere. People like me have jobs writing about this stuff (!!!), and you don’t need to be an insomniac with 17 magazine subscriptions to research stats on every player in every organization under the sun.

Sleepers aren’t unknowns anymore; let’s call them the “disrespecteds” instead. Using average draft position (ADP) mock drafts, you can learn which players are going later in drafts than they should, and target them as bargains.

With that in mind, here's one surprise at every fantasy position, using the ADPs at Mock Draft Central (thru February 27).

Catcher: Alex Avila, Detroit (ADP: n/a)

The 24-year-old Avila isn’t on the ADP radar, and that’s good for you. He hit 17 homers in 390 at bats between Double A and the majors in 2009, and went deep seven times in 294 at bats for the Tigers last season. Avila has always had a good eye, which portends well for his chances to mature as a hitter.

This season, with offseason acquisition Victor Martinez slated to spend most of his time in the DH slot, Avila should get the bulk of the at bats at catcher. He could hit 15-20 homers, with a batting average that won’t kill you (yes, I know he batted .228 last season). Avila would be a terrific second catcher in standard leagues.

First base: Justin Smoak, Seattle (ADP: 390)

Smoak is still a highly-regarded prospect, but nobody is giving him any respect this year after a rookie season in which he played for four teams (two in Triple A, two in the majors) and struggled to a .218 batting average and .678 OPS. Also, he plays home games in a pitcher’s park, which doesn’t help. However, Smoak played well in the Mariners’ organization after being traded from Texas, showing off his excellent plate discipline and above-average power.

Also, remember that the M’s opted to accept Smoak in exchange for Cliff Lee instead of fellow blue chipper Jesus Montero of the Yankees. That speaks volumes about how much they like him. Smoak might not become a star this season, but he should hit 20 homers with a decent batting average. He can be an interesting corner infield option in standard keeper leagues, with the talent to emerge as a solid fantasy contributor.

Second base: Sean Rodriguez, Tampa Bay (ADP: 355)

S-Rod was mentioned in our “top breakthroughs” article, but his ADP warrants inclusion here as well. Rodriguez has power and speed, and his low-walk rate last season was out of character with the rest of his career. He’ll bounce between the keystone and the outfield, and there’s no reason why he can’t hit 15 homers with 15-20 stolen bases.

Third base: David Freese, St. Louis (ADP: 391)

Freese will turn 28 in April, and he’s never going to become a star. However, with the hot corner being such a putrid fantasy position, it’s probably worth waiting until late in the game to draft your second option instead of wasting an earlier pick on the likes of Placido Polanco or Casey Blake. Freese might have broken out last year, but ankle injuries cut things short. Before that, he hit 26 homers at Triple A in 2008, and slugged 10 homers in 200 at bats at the same level in 2009. The Cardinals’ third-base job is Freese’s to lose, and his history suggests that good power and batting average will come if he plays.

Shortstop: Alcides Escobar, Kansas City (ADP: 354)

Escobar was awful last season for the Brewers. He batted .235 with a .288 on-base percentage and had just 10 stolen bases. That is pretty bad for a guy whose primary fantasy asset is supposed to be speed.

As bad as Escobar was, his .264 BABIP indicates some bad luck. Also, now that he’s in the American League, he won’t need to bat in front of the pitcher, which should help his stolen-base totals. Escobar could help you late on draft day if you’re looking for a middle infielder to provide 30 steals. He stole 46 between Triple A and the majors in 2009, so the ability is there.

Outfield: Josh Willingham, Oakland (ADP: 368)

Willingham is 32, and has shown a penchant for getting hurt. His new home in Oakland isn’t exactly hitter-friendly, either. However, over the last three seasons, he’s hit 55 homers in 1,148 at bats and posted a .475 slugging percentage. That’s not bad. He also had 15 homers before the Fourth of July last year. Even though he fell off a cliff after that, there’s reason to believe a knee issue bothered him all year long. When looking for a fifth outfielder in standard leagues, Willingham is a solid power option.

Starting pitcher: Jhoulys Chacin, Colorado (ADP: 298)

The only chance a Rockies’ pitcher has to succeed is to get plenty of strikeouts and grounders. In that regard, we might as well call Chacin “Ubaldo Junior.” Chacin whiffed a batter per inning in his rookie season. If his walk rate drops to the solid level he showed in the minors, he could really be a good one. I’ve got Chacin ranked in the mid-60s among starters, but his talent could help him outpitch that ranking and his ADP.

Relief pitcher: Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh (ADP: 294)

Hanrahan’s ADP might drop now that he’s officially been named the Pirates’ closer. But as long as people are glossing over him in drafts, grab him with a late pick and reap the rewards. Hanrahan shared closing duties with Evan Meek after Matt Capps was traded, and overpowered hitters with his high-90s heat. He struck out 100 batters in 69 2/3 innings for the season, and flashed the best control of his career. Hanrahan has whiffed 10.3 batters per nine innings in four seasons as a big leaguer.

If Hanrahan can keep the free passes to an average level, he should be a very good closer. Remember: Bad teams win close games, so don’t feel like your closer has to pitch for a contender.