While I do agree with Brad Evans' take that many fantasy owners should be patient and trust their drafts in the season's early going, I will add that it's never too early to improve your team. A few scenarios could put you in a group of fantasy owners whose patience probably won't be rewarded as much as the next guy's might be: maybe you drafted early and your team looks different now on paper than it did on draft day; perhaps you simply got off course on draft day and find yourself overloaded at certain positions or sorely lacking in certain categories; and maybe you are one of the 27 percent of owners in the Yahoo! game who have no qualms letting auto-pick do its thing, but now find yourself with a differently composed squad than you had hoped for. Let's take a look at 10 hitters and 10 pitchers currently owned in less that 50 percent of Yahoo! leagues who can help the fantasy owners who find themselves in one of those scenarios, whether the needs be general or specific to certain categories. Many of these players can be an asset to any fantasy team, however, so read on even if you are pretty comfortable with where you are at right now. At the very least, the following 20 players should be occupying your "Watch List."
Alex Gordon (KC – 3B) 49 percent
Delmon Young shouldn't be owned in twice as many leagues as Gordon, but it's not because Young should be owned in fewer than the 99 percent of leagues that he currently is. It's because this Gordon kid has a chance to really do some things, too, now that he's officially been named the team's starting third baseman. He put up a .325/.427/.588 line with 22 steals in Double-A last season and he's mashed in spring training this season, putting up a .364/.470/.636 line in 55 at-bats. I know, I know, spring stats don't mean squat, but if his OPS were .606 instead of 1.106, he'd be headed down to the minors for seasoning instead of hitting fifth for the Royals. Hit the waiver wire and snatch up this five-category contributor before he goes for .285/80/24/85/12 in someone else's lineup.
Ryan Shealy (KC – 1B) 44 percent
Two Royals to lead the column – don't forget that good fantasy players can be found on every kind of team. This is a 27-year-old who, while waiting patiently behind Todd Helton in the Rockies' minors system, put together a .319/.408/.591 line in 1,674 at-bats, hitting 36 home runs every 162 games. In parts of two seasons in the bigs, Shealy has hit .294/.359/.457, with nine home runs in 293 at-bats. Finally a full-timer from the get-go, he is a good bet for a .280 average with 20-plus home runs – Shealy is a great pickup to supplement power numbers. Another scenario if you currently have two stellar first basemen – trade one to improve one of your weaker positions and grab Shealy off the wire.
Ty Wigginton (TB – 1B, 2B, 3B, OF) 43 percent
I'll preface anything I say about Wigginton with the fact that his position eligibility gives him an uptick in value, particularly in deeper and/or head-to-head leagues. Wiggy hit 24 home runs and drove in 79 runs in just 122 games last season, but also without a set position (obviously) or spot in the batting order. This season, he is set to play the majority of the team's games at first base, and is likely the team's cleanup hitter, as well. Pick him up and plug him in at second if your team is starved for power numbers, or go get him if you need some help with roster flexibility.
Kevin Youkilis (Bos – 1B, 3B, OF) 41 percent
Youkilis is a player who I targeted in many of my leagues, because of both his positional eligibility and his expected production. He's a great player to have as a backup to both corner infield positions, although his power numbers won't be on par with the upper-tier players at those positions. That said, anyone who can post an on-base percentage close to .400 in front of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez is going to cross home plate with regularity – 110 runs scored for Youkilis is a realistic expectation, along with a .285 average and 15 home runs. I'm comfortable with Youkilis in a third outfielder or utility role in standard leagues.
Chris Burke (Hou – 2B, OF) 33 percent
Okay, so Burke isnt exactly raking this spring, as hes got a .205/.266/.329 line in 73 at-bats. Still, hes been assured that he is the teams starting center fielder, and he showed good fantasy potential in 2006, hitting nine home runs and stealing 11 bases in 123 games, mostly as a part-time player. The 27-year-old certainly has plus-speed, and he averaged 40 steals per 162 games as a minor leaguer. Teams who are desperate for some extra steals would be wise to add Burke to their roster as a pre-emptive move – if he shakes his spring woes and gets out of the gate quickly, he wont be available for long.
Edwin Encarnacion (Cin – 3B) 25 percent
Encarnacion will end up out-producing a number of third basemen who were drafted in front or instead of him (ADP of 217.1 and 30 percent draft rate). Encarnacion hit 15 home runs and drove in 72 runs last season at the tender age of 23, numbers that look a bit more impressive when you consider that they came in just 117 games. Playing half of his games in Great American Ball Park will help his home-run total approach 25 this season – not too shabby for a waiver addition.
Ronny Paulino (Pit – C) 8 percent
I'm not here to tell you unequivocally to drop whoever it is that you've currently got as your starting catcher in order to pick up Paulino. I'm just going to say that, unlike many of the catchers that remain after the big three are off the board, Paulino has the ability to be a substantially positive impact on fantasy team batting averages. He hit .310 in his impressive rookie season a year ago, and currently owns a .500 average in 46 spring at-bats. He's in a real groove – despite having the 10th-most at-bats, he also leads the team with 15 runs batted in and is second with four home runs in spring – and should get serious consideration from fantasy owners who find themselves with too many big boppers who hit for a low average.
Shane Victorino (Phi – OF) 7 percent
Victorino is in a fantastic situation to succeed – the 26-year-old is the starting right fielder for the Phillies, and figures to bat second in the lineup, after Jimmy Rollins and before Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. He's got a chance to score a lot of runs if he can get on base at a reasonable clip – he hit .287/.346/.414 in 415 at bats last season, and currently has a .338/.373/.465 line in spring. But what could really make Victorino a waiver gem is his potential for steals – he averaged 43 per 162 games in his minor league career, and has been working with Davey Lopes this pre-season with the intention of really making things happen on the basepaths. What's not to like about a player who could potentially score 90-plus runs and steal 20-plus bags?
Corey Hart (Mil – OF) 3 percent
Hart has been gathering steam as a sleeper candidate, although, as evidenced by his percent-owned number, the hype hasn't carried over to Yahoo! leagues as of yet. The low-down on Hart: he's 25 years old, locked in as the starting right fielder for the Brewers, and he'll be a five-category contributor at some point – how soon is the only question that remains. He averaged 22 home runs and 33 steals per 162 games in the minors, and, in 87 games for the Brewers last season, hit nine home runs and stole five bases. If you are in a league with any depth, Hart should already be a major blip on your radar.
Maicer Izturis (LAA – 3B, SS) 2 percent
Those of you looking for some runs and steals to offset the loss of Chone Figgins for at least the season's first five weeks need not look further than Figgins' replacement in the Angels lineup. Izturis will put up Figgins-esque numbers in the short-term, and he'll be worth a pick-up while he's a regular even if you don't have Figgins occupying a DL spot on your team.
Clay Hensley (SD – SP, RP) 37 percent
Hensley has a great chance to out-pitch a number of the plethora of pitchers who currently occupy roster spots in his stead. His numbers in his eight relief appearances in 2006 (6.30 ERA, 2.00 WHIP, .364 BAA) helped to take a bit of the shine off of his numbers in his 29 starts, which included a 3.56 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and .243 BAA in 177 innings. That ERA is significantly better than your average fifth fantasy starter, and pitching in Petco Park gives the 27-year-old that much more of a chance to maintain or improve it. If he can put up a strikeout rate closer to what he did after the All-Star break last season (7.1/9) than before (4.8/9), he'll be even that much more rewarding to fantasy owners who took a chance on him.
John Maine (NYM – SP) 20 percent
You can refer to my pitcher profiles column for a detailed breakdown of Maine, but my opinion of him as a strong sleeper remains, particularly in light of his current percent-owned numbers.
Jorge Julio (Fla – RP) 9 percent
Okay, so Julio hasn't exactly been lights-out in some recent seasons. Even with that in mind – and I'm borrowing this obvious but eloquent quote – closers monopolize the saves category, so you've got no reason to not go after him now that he's been named to the position for the Marlins, even if it's just as trade bait. He should strike out around a batter per inning, so he moves above some other low-level closers with tenuous grips on their roles in value on that stat alone. If he stays healthy and simply comes in somewhere around his career numbers of a 4.20 ERA and 1.38 WHIP, he should hold the job all season.
Jonathan Broxton (LAD – RP); Dan Wheeler (Hou – RP); Justin Duchscherer (Oak – RP); Fernando Rodney (Det – RP); Scott Linebrink (SD – RP); Bob Howry (ChC – RP); Matt Capps (Pit – RP)
Here's where I give my little spiel about the underappreciated value of the middle reliever. None of the seven players listed above is owned in more than 40 percent of Yahoo! leagues, and most are closer to 10 percent. Their average line from 2006 works out to five wins, five saves, a 3.17 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and 68 strikeouts in 73 innings pitched. Having one of these types of solid middle relievers really, truly, does help a fantasy team. You can look at them as steadying influences on ERA and WHIP; it particularly comes in handy if you've got a low-tier closer who, outside of accumulating saves, is, shall we say, less than effective. Strikeout rates around one per inning help supplement team strikeout totals; of the 138 pitchers who threw at least 100 innings last season, only 34 had a higher K/9 rate than what these seven pitchers averaged (8.4/9). You can also look at them as save-vultures and closers-in-waiting; as an example, Wheeler saved nine games last season, and will be closing sooner than later if Brad Lidge's spring numbers (12.38 ERA, 2.13 WHIP) carry over to the regular season.