"Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter. – Mark Twain
At 16, my driver's license wooed the ladies. At 18, I did my democratic duty and hit the polls. And at 21, I shotgunned an ice cold adult beverage for the first time legally.
Now inching my way toward the big three-0, each birthday passes with little fanfare and zero reward. On the bright side, I'm a short 32 years, 31 days and 16 hours away from a Rogaine discount at Walgreens and the senior citizen rate at the local links. Yippee skippee! If only Wrigley Field had an all-you-can-eat bratwurst section exclusively for thirty-somethings, then my 30th birthday wouldn't trigger a midlife crisis. Come on, Tribune Company! Generations of Evans have suffered for 99 painful years without a World Series title and all-inclusive ticket packages – plenty of brats included.
For fantasy baseball aficionados, age is more than just a number. It's a predictor of breakout success.
Conventional wisdom tells us hitters who turn 26 or 27, typically, springboard forward in plate maturation. To name a few, stars Travis Hafner, David Ortiz, Ryan Howard, Dan Uggla, Garrett Atkins and Matt Holliday exploded at these ages.
Why the performance spike?
For most experienced mid-to-high level talent, two-to-three years of quality big league at-bats translates into the confidence and discipline needed to sharpen power and contact skills. Although the late-mid 20s doesn't guarantee zenith totals, it gives fantasy followers insight into a player's career path. By grasping this concept, it helps owners target batters on the brink – a key asset to future drafts and opponent domination.
Here are 25 peak performers poised to surge forward and turn a profit for your team in 2007.
Outlook: Strong '06 second half (.289 BA, 25 HR, 66 RBI) and four straight years of increased walks suggests the habanera pepper is ready to blast 50 bombs. Slap the wallet for an extra dollar or two.
Outlook: Before he was befallen by a leg infection in July, Rios was on the verge of a .300-30-100-20 season. Finally filled into his large 6-foot-5 frame, Rios has cut back on punchouts and is a top-flight No. 2 outfielder capable of all-around, man-crush worthy numbers. "Oh, Rios, Rios" will have you "dancing on the sand" at a mid-level price.
Outlook: A Yeti at 6-foot-5, 250-pounds, his game is manly. Probably a year away from banner totals, if his plate discipline improves (50:15 K:BB ratio in 193 '06 at-bats), he's a shoe-in for 30 homers. Tremendous raw power makes him a top-20 one-bagger in mixed leagues and a bargain buy in the midnight hour.
Outlook: Due to a bum shoulder, the garden Gomes' numbers were subterranean for much of '06. Interestingly, his walks percentage jumped, along with his doubles, from the previous year in only 37 more at-bats, which shows a growth in patience. If he's 100 percent by Opening Day, 35 homers and a .270 average are attainable. I'm buyin' all day after Round 20 in 12-team leagues.
Outlook: Count Chocula's sidekick is primed for a wicked awesome year. A broken finger in the first week of '06 set Crisp back several weeks and sapped his bat speed. Healthy heading into spring training, his OBP numbers should hover in the 340s for much of the season, which points to a 20-20 campaign. Basically, he's a cheap version of Johnny Damon.
Outlook: It was a "Hip Hawpe Hooray" in the Colorado outfield in '06. Hawpe's success was due largely to a leap in OBP, up eight percent from '05. If he can solve the riddle of southpaws (.232 BA, 3 HR vs. LHP in 69 '06 at-bats), he takes a Garret Atkins-like jump in production.
Outlook: Swisher had a split-brained '06. After a torrid first half, his contact and OBP numbers plummeted after the break, ruining a killer season. His high strikeout-to-walk trends are eerily similar to batting average axe murderer Adam Dunn, but, unlike the Reds slugger, Swisher's high contact rates will help him hit above Kirstie Alley's weight.
Outlook: After 27 ding dongs in '05, many thought Tracy would take the next logical step and smash 30 homers in '06, but a decrease in contact and OBP in the second half eroded his power. Tracy needs to figure out lefties (.231 BA in '06) and show more consistency at the dish to be considered a trustworthy power option. A smooth swing and excellent batting average classifies him a borderline top-15 three-bagger. Chase him after Round 12.
Outlook: "Peppermint" Patterson was a minty fresh option in his new Orioles digs for speed-seeking owners. He's yet to reach his power ceiling and, if he can ever exude patience, 30 homers is no delusion. Of course, his value is driven by steals. Still, continued improvement in contact rates and strikeouts per at-bat could push him into 25-homer territory. If you can stomach inconsistencies and an average under .270, his speed/power combo upside is incredibly intriguing.
Outlook: On pace to surpass 20 homers for the first time in his career, a sprained finger in early August eliminated any hope for a breakout campaign. Back to 100 percent and entering his fourth full season, Greene will finish with top-five power numbers among shortstops. An excellent blend of thunder and lightning, if Greene can stay healthy, and be less conservative on the base-paths, a 25-homer, 12-steals spike is possible.
Outlook: A stellar .357 OBP in the first half of '06 showed that Jacobs' ladder is not rickety. Although his OBP dipped below .300 after the break, his improved eye will help him flirt with a .290 BA. With raw 25-30 power, he's a nice corner infield option in deeper leagues.
Outlook: A trendy sleeper since biblical times, many Rip Van Winkles want the KC outfielder to become their personal DeJesus. Terrific contact rates and career .362 OBP are positive upward indicators. Throw in 8-12 steals, 10-15 homers, a .300 BA and he emerges a solid fifth outfielder in '07.
Outlook: Now with "Free" Wily Taveras doing belly-flops in Colorado, Burke is a full-time center fielder. Eligible at arguably the thinnest position in fantasy (2B), the third-year vet is an intriguing double digit steals and homer prospect. Primarily known as a speed demon in the minors, eclipsing 30 steals in Double and Triple-A, Burke packs enough boom to be a poor man's version of Tadahito Iguchi. Currently at 90 percent after offseason shoulder surgery, a history of high contact rates could mean a 15-15 season if he can draw more walks.
Outlook: "Baby Grand" tickled the ivories in the first half, sporting a .289 average, 11 homers, 42 RBI and 5 steals. However, due to a dramatic downturn in plate patience after the break, he went out of tune. With a full year under Granderson's belt, experience should help any consistency issues. A .280 average, 25 homers and 15 stolen bases is probably the upper limit.
Outlook: Likely sandwiched between Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley in the batting order, Victorino will be a quality source of batting average, runs and, hopefully, steals. One of the better homegrown base burglars in the Philly organization, Victorino swiped a mere four bags in 153 games last season. New base coach Davy Lopes was hired to help the Flyin' Hawaiian become more aggressive on the bases. Although he notched two seasons of 40-plus steals in the minors, even if he develops a mean streak on the basepaths, a maximum of 25 swipes in the bigs seems realistic.
Outlook: A "Foreigner" to many fantasy followers last year, Johnson recently blamed his dismal campaign on reoccurring "Double Vision," caused by a reaction to prescription medicine. Demoted in May after a frigid start, Johnson played "Urgent" at Triple-A Sacramento punishing pitchers en rote to a .314 average, 7-homer, 44 RBI line in 169 at-bats. The epitome of the Moneyball philosophy, his keen eye (career 97:90 K:BB ratio) and near full-time gig at first could help him accumulate 18-23 homers and 70-plus RBI.
Outlook: Blalock mimics hammerin' Hank in the first-half every year, but always fades in the dog days of summer. A decrease in homers and RBI in three consecutive seasons has dropped his draft stock to Round 15 in 12-team mixed leagues. Offseason shoulder surgery and a reinvented approach to lefties could jump him back to '04 totals (32 HR, 110 RBI), but I'm still selling come July.
Outlook: Because of persistent back problems, Crosby is the ultimate "what if" player. He has not totaled 500 at-bats in a season since his rookie year in '04, but 20-25 homers, as always, is foreseeable if his balky back isn't covered in Icy-Hot patches. Reports say he'll be ready by spring training and, with his value at a forgettable late-round low, he's a prime target.
Outlook: A critical part of the lopsided eight-player swap between the Reds and Nationals last July, Kearns had his best season as a pro. Although he hit a meager .250 as a National, his .381 OBP in Washington is a great sign of plate maturity. If not for the cavernous specs of RFK, he would be much higher on this list. For now, anticipate similar borderline No. 4 outfielder totals unless he avoids the temptation to pull and/or improves his approach to right-handers (.236 BA in '06).
Outlook: After a brat-barfing 26:3 K:BB ratio in his first 98 at-bats of '06, Duffy walked the plank to Triple-A. However, after a two-month minors stint he returned a revamped player. Duffy posted a much improved .345 OBP down the stretch, which led to 23 second-half steals. If he can carry over the plate patience and find ways to get on base, 40-50 steals is a legit possibility. Pass on Juan Pierre early and roll the dice with Duffy late.
Outlook: Laird is a southpaw masher. In 85 at-bats against lefties last year he tallied a first-rate .400 average with eight doubles and three homers. Interestingly, he only hit .241 versus righties. As a full-timer this season, don't expect another .296 average. However, in a hitter's park and with double-digit power, he should be a stable No. 2 catcher capable of a .270 BA, 12 HR, and 50 RBI.
Outlook: A favorite snoozer of mine, Hairston should break camp as the D-Backs fourth outfielder. At Triple-A Tucson in '06, Hairston again ripped up the PCL racking 20 homers, 63 RBI and an impressive .358 OBP in 396 at-bats. He's one Eric Byrnes hammy tweak away from tremendous power and average value. Consider this late-bloomer a bargain basement buy in NL-only leagues.
Outlook: In the wee hours of your draft, do it all for the Nook-y. Slated to be the Opening Day starter in center, Logan will have to improve on his career .317 on-base percentage to draw considerable fantasy interest. However, with a more discernable eye, better plate contact and 500 at-bats, 30-35 steals are very possible. For about the same price as a bag of Cheetohs in auctions, you won't find a cheaper source of steals in Grand Canyon-deep leagues.
Outlook: Known for his electric speed and razor-sharp eye, Theriot "The Chariot" was the Ben-Hur of utility men late last season. In 134 at-bats, the youngster hit .328, stole 13 bases and totaled an impressive 18:17 K:BB ratio. Lou Piniella plans to use him wherever needed, possibly in center, which, along with his wheels and middle infield eligibility make him an attractive low dollar buy. If he logs 350 at-bats, 25-plus steals are a certainty.
Outlook: Uribe should have learned from the Johnny Cash classic, "Don't Take Your Guns to Town." Uribe expects a full acquittal from an October gun incident in the Dominican Republic is imminent and vows to be in camp on time. Yes, his .235 average from '06 makes him avoidable, but his high contact rates imply a .270 rebound is possible. Only one of eight middle infielders to reach 20 long-balls in '06, he's more valuable than you might think. Anticipate 24-28 homers and 80-85 RBI if he hires Perry Mason.
POS=Position played at 10 or more games in '06
ADP=Average Draft Position for 5x5 mixed leagues from Mock Draft Central
AAV1= Fantasy Auctioneer Average Auction Value for 5x5 mixed leagues from December expert drafts
Other 26s : Russ Adams, Jason Bartlett, Jose Bautista, Jason Botts, John Buck, Jose Castillo, Branden Fahey, Ryan Garko, Freddy Guzman, Joe Inglett, Fred Lewis, Todd Linden, Felipe Lopez, Laynce Nix, Ronny Paulino, Jason Repko, Cody Ross, Jeff Salazar, Chris Shelton, Chris Snyder
Other 27s: Garrett Atkins, Chris Burke, Freddie Bynum, Bernie Castro, JD Closser, Chris Denorfia, Adam Dunn, Choo Freeman, Gabe Gross, Bill Hall, Matt Holliday, Ryan Howard, Cesar Izturis, Jeff Keppinger, Ryan Langerhans, Adam LaRoche, Hector Luna, Pete Orr, Antonio Perez, Albert Pujols, Kelly Shoppach, Ryan Spilborghs, Cory Sullivan, Dan Uggla