Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Under the Radar All-Stars at Mid-Season

Catcher: Dioner Navarro, Rays: Navarro was much overlooked in 2008 drafts, because he hit only .227-9-44 in 2007. A lot of people missed the fact that he was age 21 to 23 in his first three major league seasons. Astute owners noted the age factor, liked the .271 average with eight homers in the second half of '07, and remembered that Navarro hit .341 in the Double-A Eastern League at age 19. He was just too good for the minors. Navarro has always had a strong throwing arm and has improved his game-calling and pitcher-handling in 2008; ask any pitcher on the Rays staff. Navarro was available for about $2 in a lot of leagues this year and has been worth more like $15.
First base: Adrian Gonzalez, Padres: At age 26, Gonzalez has joined the top tier of all hitters. He's third in RBI in the majors, while playing with one of the weakest offenses, and in a home park that favors pitchers. Anybody who can get to 30 homers and 100 RBI at age 25, as A-Gon did last year, can reach 40 homers and 130 RBI eventually. Gonzalez is just doing it sooner rather than later.
Second base: Ian Kinsler, Rangers: Anyone who paid the $20-plus that Kinsler was worth in 2007, when he reached the elusive 20/20 mark in homers and steals even while missing a month with a foot fracture, has been richly rewarded in 2008. Now Kinsler is on track for 40 steals and isn't far from a pace of 30 homers. Oh - and he's leading the AL in batting. At this rate he'll be worth $47 in 2008, uninflated, making him the league's most valuable player. Scouts have loved Kinsler since he was in high school, and stat-gazers have loved him since he hit .402-11-52 with 16 steals in half a season for Class A Clinton in 2004. Kinsler is 26.
Third base: Evan Longoria, Rays: Everybody knew that Longoria would be a future star. The only question was when. He was discounted on draft day, because he wasn't in the majors. The smartest (or luckiest) prognosticators in 2008 guessed that Longoria would make his debut soon after a brief minor league stint (that moved his free agent year back to 2014) and that he would become a star right away. He's getting better as the season progresses. Longoria hit .300 with eight homers in June, and he began July with a 9-for-19 (.474) streak.
Shortstop: J.J. Hardy, Brewers: A classic age-26-and-under-with-experience player, Hardy looked like he had a track record before the '08 season began, as a guy who could hit .270 with 20-something homers and 80 RBI. Look again. Although he was disappointing in April-May, Hardy put together a 16-game hitting streak June 11 to July 4, and he was last week's NL Player of the Week, going 18-for-30 (.600) with six homers. Even with the slow start in '08, Hardy should finish the year with career highs across the board.

Left field: Carlos Quentin, White Sox: If you know who Chris Carter is, then you know what the ChiSox gave up to get Quentin in December. Although Carter is still just 21 and has fine power potential, right now the trade looks pretty lopsided. Quentin has soared in 2008. Playing injury-free, he is showing tools converted into skills as an all-around star. He always had top prospect status. He is still just 25.
Center field: Josh Hamilton, Rangers: Leading the majors in RBI (on pace for 150-plus) Hamilton continues his amazing comeback from baseball oblivion. He was out of the game for three years. The Reds got a good rookie season from him in 2007, and the Rangers got him in a trade for pitcher Edinson Volquez. The biggest winners are the many Rotisserie owners who guessed correctly that Hamilton's '07 season pointed upward. Hamilton is showing why he was the first overall pick in the 1999 draft. He is among the best natural talents of the decade, and he has arrived.
Right field: Milton Bradley, Rangers: Yes, I know he's usually a DH now, but he qualifies for right field in Rotisserie. Why would anyone have a career year at age 30? One reason is the ballpark. Bradley began the week hitting .369-13-32 at home, and .283-4-22 on the road. And he had all four stolen bases at home. Before 2008 Bradley played mostly in pitchers' parks such as the Dodgers' and the Athletics' homes. Another plus for Bradley is being in a strong lineup. Texas leads the majors in runs scored in '08.

Starting pitcher: Edinson Volquez, Reds: The biggest clues that Volquez would be good in 2008 were his 94-97 MPH fastball, and the fact that the Reds gave up Josh Hamilton to get him. Volquez was excellent in the minors in 2007, working at three levels. He did his best work at the Triple-A level, going 6-1 with a 1.41 ERA in 51 innings. When you see a line like that, and you know the pitcher throws serious heat, taking a flier is often a good idea. Certainly it was in this case.
Relief pitcher: Salomon Torres, Brewers: Among the several relievers who came out of nowhere to get saves in 2008, Torres gets my nod as the smartest pick. Why? First, he was in a bullpen with a shaky ace, Eric Gagne. Second, he has the stuff to close. And third, he's done the job before. When an ace slumps or gets injured, most managers give weighty consideration to the question: who else has been a closer? Even the guys who haven't done it for years can be clever picks, and Torres had 12 saves in 2006 and 12 more in 2007.

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