Unearthing up-and-comers could provide you a real gem


December 22, 2005|By CHILDS WALKER

So we finally got around to putting up our Christmas tree the other night and I found myself smacked by the rush of the season.

As a kid, I loved popping the doors to the Advent calendar in a frenzied countdown to Christmas morning. But as an adult, I get sidetracked on the other aspects - finishing projects at work, the logistics of entertaining, the gift hunt for that person who staunchly refuses to want anything.

And yes, I really am going to write about fantasy sports here. I'm belatedly grasping for the joyous strains of the season. So I find myself thinking about stockings.

In my house, I always kind of knew the big gifts I'd get, the hot Transformer or Sega console or whatever nonsense I'd requested. But the stocking was where my mom worked her magic. It might be a new candy, a ticket to some event or a goofy stuffed animal. But it had a personal touch and it was fun and it surprised me.

What I'm going to do here is toss off a few players you should hope to find in your fantasy stockings for next year. It won't be Alex Rodriguez, LeBron James or Shaun Alexander. They're the big-ticket items and they'll deliver precisely what you expect. Here, we're looking for less-obvious pleasures.

Let's start with baseball as that's the next major sport in which leagues will draft. If there's one guy who played like a superstar last year, seems a good bet to do it again and didn't get much recognition, it's the Pittsburgh Pirates' Jason Bay. Bay isn't a sleeper. He had too good a 2005 for that. But your league mates may not grasp that he was on par with Vladimir Guerrero and Manny Ramirez.

He hits for average, he hits for power, he steals, he has a good batting eye and, at 27, he's in his absolute prime. I'm not saying he'll be better next season, but he's already great and if you can get him for less than superstar dollars, you'll be happy.

David Wright's obviously not a sleeper, either, as he was a star in his first full season as a New York Met. But I can't emphasize how much I like this guy - the broad base of skills, the power he showed at a young age in a tough park, the speed. He's often compared to Scott Rolen, but his skills may hit an even higher pitch. Think Mike Schmidt. Behind Albert Pujols and maybe Miguel Cabrera, he's the player I'd want most for the next 10 years.

For the once sure thing turned possible surprise, consider Randy Johnson. His age and mediocre ERA might scare off fellow owners, but there's little wrong with his underlying skills, and great power pitchers last longer than any other baseball species.

In the NBA, seek out a troika of young frontcourt players.

Chris Bosh plays in Toronto and has been overshadowed by draft mates James and Dwyane Wade. But he quietly has emerged as one of the NBA's best power forwards. He averages 22 points and 10 rebounds. Many compare him to Kevin Garnett, and while I don't think he has Garnett's passing skills, I see him as one of the league's 10 or 15 best players for much of the next decade.

I mentioned New York's Channing Frye once before, but this rookie power forward has been among the league's great revelations. A spotty performer at Arizona, Frye scores with unusual efficiency for a young player because he's springy around the basket and has a soft touch away from it.

Finally, I can't overstate my love for Dwight Howard. He just turned 20, but he's already one of the league's great rebounders. Get him now before his true dominance reveals itself.

In football, some of you are still fighting for championships this year (both of my teams lost last week) so it seems awfully early to think about 2006. My sincerest holiday wish is that you acquired the Kansas City Chiefs' Larry Johnson early in the season, before he became a stud player. Johnson probably will be the most common feature across championship teams this season. And if you've got him, needless to say, hold him.

Rudi Johnson of the Cincinnati Bengals reminds me a little of Bay. For two seasons, he has played at an elite level, but he rarely gets talked about with Alexander or LaDainian Tomlinson. Johnson is still young and plays on a balanced offense, so he'll be near the top of my draft list next year.


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