Bounce-back player can provide lift


Destination Mind Games

May 09, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER

For two seasons, Toronto Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells led a dual existence.

In the real world, his power and defensive skills made him one of the American League's best at his position.

But in the fantasy world, Wells was a real, if not whopping, disappointment.

That's what happens when you hit .317 with 33 homers and 117 RBIs at age 24 and then post an average line of .271 with 25 homers and 82 RBIs in your next two seasons. Wells further ticked off fantasy owners when he promised to steal more bases and didn't follow through (nagging injuries were partly to blame).

This year, of course, Wells has been a fantasy superstar, maybe the best position player in the non-Albert Pujols division.

Perhaps he's just having a well-timed hot streak. But let's pretend he isn't and talk about a class of breakout player that Wells represents. We could call them the "Clan of the Interrupted Career Arc" or "The Post-breakout Breakout Boys."

These are players who get us all excited by flashing remarkable skills in their early 20s. Being the unrealistic sots that we are, we expect them to keep climbing into Willie Mays territory. But you know, most of them don't. That's why Willie Mays is Willie Mays and Cesar Cedeno (who hit .320 with power as a 21-year-old) is a name forgotten to the casual fan.

Many players who have a big season at age 24 will either hit a plateau or take a step back, just as Wells did. So when you hear the Baseball Tonight guys say, "If he's this good now, imagine what he'll be in a few years," be very, very skeptical.

But - and this is the key lesson here - doused expectations create future buying opportunities for the savvy fantasy owner. During the run-up to draft time, we're all casting about for breakout picks. We look for the guy who was great in 2004, disappointed in 2005 and seems primed for a rebound in 2006. But every owner does that, so those players aren't undervalued.

The more interesting players are one-time phenoms who have had two or three disappointing seasons in a row. They have truly lowered expectations, but the skills that allowed them to wow you in the first place aren't gone.

Derrek Lee is a perfect example. He first got us excited when he hit 28 homers for the Florida Marlins at age 24. So he became an annual pick for a breakout power season. Lee's homer totals the next four seasons were 21, 27, 31 and 32 - no quantum leaps to be found.

But his batting eye got a little better and he moved to a better home run park in Chicago and voila! At age 29, Lee hit .335 with 46 home runs for the Cubs. Now, that was probably something of a fluke. But if you can catch the right fluke at the right price, it can mean a fantasy championship. And the best bets for unexpected greatness are slightly disappointing players in their physical primes.

Others from recent years? Paul Konerko of the Chicago White Sox. David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox. Aramis Ramirez with the Cubs.

The Oakland Athletics' Eric Chavez is another one who might be in the midst of such a season. I look at the Texas Rangers' Hank Blalock and see the profile.

These aren't easy guys to spot. A lot of them never have that monster season. But it's worth looking.

This isn't virgin ground I'm walking. Baseball analysts from Bill James to John Benson to Ron Shandler have long said that the best breakout candidates are guys who established themselves in their early 20s and are entering their late-20s peaks.

I give all credit to Baseball Prospectus author Nate Silver and his PECOTA projection system for flagging Wells this season.

"Sometimes the best breakout candidates aren't players who have never been spoken about before, but rather, guys who have failed to live up to expectations in the recent past," Silver wrote. "PECOTA foresaw this pattern last season with Andruw Jones, and it sees the same potential in Wells - a player who, like Jones, does too many things well on a baseball diamond to settle for league-average production."

One final point of clarification. I mentioned in an earlier column that I didn't plan to offer opinions about the Orioles, because I interview them regularly. In the same phrase, I said I wouldn't write fantasy material about the club's regular opponents. That was a mistake. I'm sorry for any confusion that incorrect phrasing may have caused.

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