Zeroing in on the right cheap players can really pay off

ON FANTASY SPORTS

The Kickoff

Commentary

March 22, 2007|By CHILDS WALKER

I've reached that point in my fantasy baseball preparations where all the top players are slotted and my major strategies for each draft and auction have congealed.

But that doesn't mean I feel completely ready for the start of bidding Sunday. There's always more to do, especially when you play in deep leagues.

You may win largely because of a sound overall plan and smart bids on top players. But a few total dead spots on the roster can drag the whole enterprise down. Conversely, unexpected production from your cheapest five or six guys can bolster you through stretches when the stars aren't shining.

So I've spent the past few days combing depth charts for every major league team in search of the tastiest crumbs to fill those final spots on my teams.

A few types of players are obvious targets. There are the platoon outfielders, who won't post the gross numbers to draw a high bid but can give you 250 at-bats at a .290 clip. There are the utility players, who always seem dicey because they won't start Opening Day but who remain skilled enough that they may force their way into 300 productive at-bats. And there are the middle relievers, who might scavenge seven saves blown by an unreliable closer or swing into a starting role when injuries arise.

I want to know each and every one of these guys before I enter my first draft. Here are a few you may want to seek.

We'll start in the American League East with the Yankees' unsettled first base picture. Most expect them to trade for a better player at some point, but for the short term, Josh Phelps or Doug Mientkiewicz could give you some decent pop for a $1 price tag.

Toronto prospect Adam Lind won't start the season in the big leagues, but he is ready to hit big league pitching. Try to snag him as a reserve and hope Frank Thomas breaks down. If so, you could get a .290 average and 20-homer power for virtually nothing.

B.J. Upton never has locked down a defensive spot for Tampa Bay and carries a definite whiff of disappointment. But at least he'll start the season with the Devil Rays in a super-utility role, and he could get you 30 steals for a reasonable price.

I also like Greg Norton. He's blocked at several spots in Tampa Bay, but Jonny Gomes and Ty Wigginton are unreliable enough that Norton could find 300 at-bats and hit you 15 home runs.

The third base pool has grown so deep that a guy like Minnesota's Nick Punto is an afterthought. He has no power but will start and could swipe 20 bases at a position that's low on speed.

You also can't go wrong with Twins relievers Pat Neshek, Jesse Crain and Juan Rincon as highly skilled pitchers at the end of your staff.

In Cleveland, look for young right-hander Fausto Carmona to give you some cheap, useful innings as a spot starter or reliever. He was terrible at closer last year but could even get another shot there if Joe Borowski falters (which seems, oh, so likely).

Detroit's Marcus Thames hit 26 home runs last year and is hardly a secret, but he's not projected to start. Still, don't be afraid to bid on him. Gary Sheffield and Magglio Ordonez are old and fragile.

The fervor around Sammy Sosa has wiped Frank Catalanotto from the fantasy map in Texas. But Catalanotto is the more reliable player and I expect plenty of high-average at-bats from him as a part-time designated hitter and backup outfielder.

Jayson Werth has disappointed fantasy prospectors before with injury troubles, but he could get you 10 homers and 10 steals as a backup outfielder for the Phillies.

Like Werth, Nationals outfielder Chris Snelling has gotten hurt every time he seemed near a big league opportunity. But he's always raked when healthy in the minors and could shove either Ryan Church or Nook Logan aside.

Bob Wickman seems a good candidate for collapse as Atlanta's closer, so buy Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez in hopes that they'll pick up the pieces. Gonzalez closed in Pittsburgh and Soriano is an overpowering setup man, so either could step in comfortably.

Kevin Mench in Milwaukee, Preston Wilson in St. Louis and Jason Lane in Houston are all non-starters who could give you 15 home runs for a minor investment.

Nate McLouth in Pittsburgh and Chris Denorfia in Cincinnati are in a similar boat, only they offer more all-around skills.

Fantasy owners have always loved scooping up Colorado reserves because Coors Field guarantees a decent average and pop in limited at-bats. Jeff Baker is the Rockies' backup du jour for 2007.

And we finish in Los Angeles, where the Dodgers are stupidly blocking prospects James Loney and Matt Kemp with fading veterans Nomar Garciaparra and Luis Gonzalez. Buy the kids - Loney for his average and Kemp for his power and speed - in hopes that the old guys will break down.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Read a blog on fantasy sports at www.baltimoresun.com/fantasy.

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