How many leagues am I in this year? The answer I'll give you is "too many." I'm in hometown leagues, industry leagues, mono leagues and mixed leagues, some drafts and some auctions, money leagues and pride leagues. Tell me the format, tell me when the draft is, and I'll show up.
Invariably, I'll wind up with a few common-thread players every year, the portfolio that will, for better or for worse, have a lot to do with my success on the fake sandlots this year. You won't find a lot of first and second-round players on this list; it's very difficult to wind up with the same big-ticket items when the majority of your leagues are assembled through the old-fashioned serpentine draft (that's a rant for another day). There aren't that many slots that can legitimately land Miguel Cabrera. But the middle-round and late-round names start sounding the same, and with good reason.
This is what's in my wallet for 2012. Make me proud, men.
Jayson Werth: This path to profit is so easy, amigos. Werth's 2011 season was a disappointment, sure, but it wasn't a complete waste of time. He still whacked 20 homers, he still stole 19 bases in 22 attempts. His slash numbers also rebounded in the second half, not to elite levels, but to acceptable ones (.255/.345/.426). Go back and eyeball the player Werth was in 2008, 2009 and 2010. He didn't forget how to play baseball overnight. The park switch didn't help him, but it doesn't fully explain last year's dip. The horrible contract? So what? You don't have to pay him. Sometimes I think players with bad contracts get unfairly punished in fantasy baseball, for reasons I can't comprehend.
Call him a last year's bum, call him a proven player off a down year, call him a bounce-back candidate. All those terms and tags basically mean the same thing. Just be sure to call Werth's name in the middle rounds; he's a steal as your third or fourth outfielder, and that's the deal that's out there waiting for you in most mixers. His current ADP is 120. Last year it was 51.
Lorenzo Cain: I liked him before the exhibition season started, and then all hell broke loose in the spring games (.431/.473/.843, four homers, two steals). The batting slot could be a problem here — I'd like Cain a lot more at the top of the order, not in the bottom three — but at least it's not a deal-breaker in the AL. Conversely, you have to be careful not to roster seventh and eighth-place batters (and rabbits) in the NL, where the presence of the pitcher messes everything up.
Ryan Dempster: This one is so easy, and yet the discount applies almost universally. If you look at the secondary stats with Dempster over the last two years, you'll note that there's really no difference between what he did in 2010 and 2011. The ERA stat has all kinds of noise built into it. Dempster isn't going to compete for the Cy Young, but he'll get you a very affordable 180-200 strikeouts, alone with an ERA in the mid-to-high 3s and a ratio around 1.30-1.35. In medium and deeper groups, there's a spot for this type of arm; this is the perfect support piece for your staff. Go Dempster Diving in the late rounds.
Andrew Cashner: Big strikeout potential, check. Wide open spaces behind him (Petco Park), check. Spotty closer in front of him (Huston Street), check. The closer-in-waiting tickets are routinely overpriced, but here's one I couldn't stay away from. Even if he doesn't get a chance to close a few games out, I expect Cashner's 60-80 innings to be worth rostering.
Clayton Kershaw: This one surprised me, because while I love Kershaw, I don't see him as a vastly-superior value to some of the other big-name pitchers. But maybe it's the Vin Scully factor at play: nothing beats settling in for the second half of a baseball evening, with Kershaw on the hill and Scully on the mic. The game is supposed to be fun, right?
Brandon Phillips: The across-the-board contributors are routinely undervalued in fantasy baseball, with Phillips one of the best examples. Maybe he's not a .300 hitter, I hear you on that, and I understand his base-stealing percentage is not elite. But appreciate the level of consistency Phillips has given us since becoming a Cincinnati regular in 2006: you're getting four sure categories here, and his lifetime .272 average is fine. Durability also comes standard: he's only missed 66 games since joining the Reds. The Expo Alum has made good.
Edinson Volquez: His control is always going to be a concern, but there's a gigantic strikeout upside here and he now calls Petco Park home. I think we can all connect the dots. And he'll appreciate regular stops in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Freddie Freeman: If you phrase it as an either-or question with Freeman and Eric Hosmer, okay, I'll take Hosmer too. But does Freeman really deserve to go 65 picks later, on average? What was there not to like about Freeman's impressive debut at age 21? Usually well-established sophomores come with a buzzy tax, but it's missed Freeman this spring.
Brennan Boesch: He's a fastball-raking machine, and he'll see plenty of heaters given that Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are behind him in the Detroit order. Boesch's rookie year tanked in the second half, and a thumb injury wrecked his 2011 stats. I can't wait to see what he might do in a full season, surrounded by elite run producers.
Jeff Francoeur: The talking heads yap and yap about "not paying the freight on a career year" with Francoeur, but look at the ADP (181 in Yahoo). Is that an insane prize? I wish the Ferryman were that affordable. Frenchy's hacking approach makes him a lot of enemies, but he's in the middle of a solid lineup and he's a solid bet to go 15-15 if not 20-20 again. You're getting an easy discount here simply for being a contrarian.
Michael Cuddyer: Use him at first, use him at second, use him in the outfield, use him in that wonderfully-thin air. The market hasn't gone crazy for Cuddyer: you can still land him in the middle of the seventh round in standard Yahoo! leagues. Make sure you have a Swiss Army Knife or two, especially in leagues with daily transactions and limited bench space. Flexibility is your friend.
Adrian Gonzalez: His 2011 season was a little under the radar, masked by the historial September collapse in Boston. But what's wrong with a .338-108-27-117 line at the end of the day, especially when you know it doesn't represent the full upside of his abilities? Gonzalez's power stats didn't thrive in Fenway Park (it's a runs park more than it is a homer park), but he did hit .347 there. And the power stroke was in full effect on the road (17 homers, .579 slugging). One of the safest places to park your money.
Jimmy Rollins: He's reached the "boring veteran" part of his career, and that makes him a fantasy value in a lot of places (Andy Behrens stole him in the Friends & Family League with Pick 78). And don't write off Rollins as someone who can't help you in the power categories; he's collected 37 homers and 140 RBIs in his last two full seasons.
Francisco Liriano: Spring training numbers mean nothing, yap yap yap. Here's the thing: if you're going to look at anything from the spring season, pay attention to walks and strikeouts. I see 23 strikeouts for Liriano this spring, I see just three walks, and I see a guy who's healthy after a season of physical hell. I look at that roomy home park in Minnesota. I note that cheap ADP (241). You better believe I'm in.
Curtis Granderson: The Regression Police tail him everywhere, but Granderson's breakout against left-handed pitching dates back to the middle of 2010. And when you're coming off a 136-run season, you can withstand a lot of regression and still have a strong year. How many players would you figure to score more runs than Grandy in 2012? He's going to bat in a prime slot in the most bankable offense we have; the Yankees are first, first and second in runs scored over the last three seasons. And you can't call Granderson's 2011 dream season a Yankee Stadium mirage, because the numbers were almost identical on the road. Here's a first-round player that often comes with a second-round cost. We'll take the wins where we can get them.
Joel Hanrahan: This is how I like to attack the save position: get a solidified closer on a non-sexy team. Hanrahan's zesty strikeout rate also fits the suit nicely.
Austin Jackson: He's not the ideal man to bat leadoff but that's where Detroit needs him, and Jim Leyland is finally giving Jackson the green light to steal bases in 2012. What took you so long, skip? Jackson's 49-for-60 on the bases for his career. Look for Jackson to add 20-30 points in batting average this year, and steal at least 30 bags.
Mike Aviles: He's got a stroke perfect for Fenway, multiple positions of eligibility, and apparently a starting gig to open the season. Do the right thing, Bobby Valentine: don't mess with this guy. Just leave him alone.
Doug Fister: I know, I know, the infield defense is a problem. But Fister is still intriguing because of his sneaky strikeout spike in Detroit last year, the contours of the park, and the soft spots in the division. What opponent in the AL Central worries you? I don't see anyone fearsome.
Kelly Johnson: Don't sleep on the Blue Jays, perhaps the most underrated organization in baseball right now. Even in the loaded AL East, this team is going places. Johnson brings batting average risk to the equation, but I love him (likely) batting second in front of Jose Bautista, and there's a 20-20 possibility here.
Mark Melancon: I liked him more a month ago, when Dan Bard looked like one of the Boston starters. But either way, we should be hedging against injury-prone closer Andrew Bailey: it's a matter of when Bailey gets hurt, not if. Melancon isn't a strikeout ace but he will miss some bats, and when batters do make contact, it's usually on the ground.
B.J. Upton: I've avoided him for years, but this spring I wound up picking him a few times, even reaching for him in the Friends & Family League. It's a grab for some category juice (Upton's speed and power is clear to see), and a nod to Upton's age and the snappy way he ended last season. Is there one focused, mature season in here, waiting to get out?
Wilson Ramos: Here's a Top 10 catcher that you can get for peanuts, because the breakthrough he gave us last year wasn't quite loud enough to move the draft needle. Ramos's slash line was almost identical to Matt Wieters's, and the counting stats (48 runs, 15 homers, 52 RBIs) are ready to spike now that Ivan Rodriguez is out of Washington. Ramos should open the year in a good batting slot, as the Nationals have injuries to some of their other power sources (Michael Morse, Adam LaRoche).
Ubaldo Jimenez: I tossed all of his 2011 season in the shredder, it was all about the groin injury. Is he back to full health this spring? I haven't seen full evidence to support that idea, but I'm still intrigued at what a hale Jimenez could do against a non-threatening AL Central.
Dan Uggla: There's a wide range of outcomes with batting averages. Uggla hit .233 last year, the dark side, but he also hit .287 the previous year. The career average of .258 is acceptable when you consider Uggla's consistency as a run producer and power source (he's hit 31 homers or more for five consecutive years, a fantastic profile in the post-juice world we live in).
Roy Oswalt: In a mixed league with a short bench, you shouldn't waste a roster spot here. But if you're in a pool where the pickings are slim and you need to have some upside on a long bench, Oswalt makes sense. I'm fully expecting him to make 12-15 starts for someone, with an ERA in the mid-to-high 3s and an acceptable ratio. The Angels could be the ticket here, though I'd prefer Oswalt in a National League city.
Frank Francisco: The Mets might be a 95-loss team, but that's another way of saying they will win 67 games. Even bad teams can and will support a closer. Saves on a budget, that's always the goal. Brett Myers is another closer on a budget (and he comes with the nifty perk of dual eligibility).
A.J. Pierzynski: I have him as a No. 2 catcher in a couple of leagues that require two at the position. Dugout chemistry is not a rotisserie category. I'm just looking for an acceptable average and maybe 7-11 homers. Robin Ventura might use AJP in the No. 2 slot now and then.
Nick Swisher: Sometimes it's not about mid-round upside; sometimes it's about mid-round floor, certainty. Swisher brings a very stable profile of expect-it numbers, he's tied to a loaded offense, and he qualifies at first and in the outfield. You need some worker bees, too.
Chipper Jones: One of my all-time favorite players, and you can generally take him in the late rounds. I don't expect a lot, maybe 400 solid at-bats. Sentimentality isn't how you should play fantasy baseball, but there's an exception for everything.
Players I wanted to get but kept missing: Ichiro (one share), Prince Fielder (zero), Madison Bumgarner (zero), Adam Wainwright (one), Adam Dunn (really, I wanted him), Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira (batting average has been fluky, run production still elite), Cameron Maybin, Jonathon Niese, Cory Luebke (America's sweetheart), Shane Victorino (maybe underrated tag is wearing off).
Players I avoided by design: Shin-Soo Choo, Michael Pineda, Josh Beckett, Chase Utley (sadly, because I love his game), Yu Darvish (too popular and pricy; how can you make a profit?), Matt Moore (ditto), Alexei Ramirez, Tommy Hanson, Pedro Alvarez (uninterested at any price), Craig Kimbrel (never be first to a closer), Joe Mauer (one career homer at Target Field), Michael Bourn (locks you out of cheap speed later), Starlin Castro (improvement is priced into the ADP), Carlos Santana (hate to pay big ticket for an attrition position), Carl Crawford (you know the rant by now).