This coming weekend, the participants in this year's Leagues of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) will meet in Arizona to both draft and celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the original fantasy baseball experts league. The annual auctions, and the resulting player prices, are an annual yardstick for auction drafters around the country who will scrutinize the results looking for clues to this year's bargains. I have spent much of the preseason looking at varying levels of sleepers and some of my favorite players I believe are poised to break out this year, but with these premiere auctions coming our way this weekend, today I want to dig a little deeper. The key to a successful auction is often in the bargains found late in the draft, when everyone is short on cash and looking for players who can give them the most bang for the precious buck. Since more outfielders are drafted than any other position, this is a prime place that I like to mine for gems. If you are patient, there are always useful outfielders that slide down in auction drafts, as owners tend to scramble to fill up the scarce positions first. I like to try and budget enough extra cash for my last few roster spots so I have a better chance of getting the guys I want even if it means going to $3 on some of them. Having that ability can often be the difference between getting an everyday player at a nice discount and being forced to take a $1 flier on a guy whose playing time is less secure, and as anyone can tell you, in single-league formats, playing time is everything. After the auction is completed, the reserve draft usually takes place immediately. I always try to have a general list of guys I want to target in the reserve rounds going into the auction, and will add to it as the auction comes to a close. The reserve round is a great place to hedge some of your purchases as well as grab a few lottery tickets. With that in mind, here is my short list of outfielders from the American League that I think make either great late targets or reserve round darts.
Robbie Grossman, HOU - There were not a lot of bright spots for the Astros last season, but the performance of Grossman certainly qualified as one of the few positives to emerge from a long 111-loss season. Injuries opened the door for the rookie early in the year, but he flopped in his initial stint in Houston, hitting a measly .198 in 28 games before getting sent back down to Triple-A. He got a second look from the team in late-August, and looked like a different player by ripping off a ten-game hitting streak upon his return, which got him promoted to the leadoff spot. A few days later, he reeled off another hitting streak of 14 games and was hitting a robust .322 in the second half when an oblique injury finished his season on September 3rd. He will enter the year as the team’s starting left fielder and will be given every chance to show that he can carry over the improvements he made to his game late last year. He doesn’t bring a ton of power to the table, but with regular playing time he could easily hit double digits in both home runs and stolen bases. George Springer is getting all of the hype this year, and deservedly so, but all that has done is knock the hometown boy’s stock down even further, making him even more intriguing for bargain hunters. Naysayers will point to an over-inflated hit percentage and a propensity for the strikeout as reasons to be leery of buying into his second half numbers. While it is very unlikely he could sustain that level of production for an entire year, I personally love seeing a young player make the adjustments that Grossman did last year, and I expect his manager did as well.
Abraham Almonte, SEA - Almonte was quietly acquired by the Mariners prior to last season from the Yankees in a deal for reliever Shawn Kelley in a roster-clearing move for newly signed Kelly Shoppach. He didn’t even get an invite to the major-league camp last spring, and opened the year in Double-A, where he hit a modest .255 with four home runs in 29 games. He was promoted to Triple-A and suddenly blossomed, hitting .314 with 11 home runs, 50 runs batted in and 20 stolen bases in 94 games. The Triple-A numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, since they came in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, but it is easy to see why the Mariners were excited to see what they had in the speedy outfielder from the Dominican Republic. He was given a September call-up and more than held his own with a .264 average, two homers and nine runs batted in. The one thing missing were the stolen bases, which was somewhat surprising since speed had always been a big part of his game at every professional level. Now that Nelson Cruz has landed in Baltimore, Almonte has a much clearer path to earning a spot on the Opening Day roster as the fourth outfielder, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see a path to a decent amount of playing time. The team has plenty of bodies to sort into their 1B/OF/DH situation, but it can be argued that none of them possess the speed or athletic ability of the young speedster. Dustin Ackley is a perpetual disappointment playing out of position, Corey Hart and Logan Morrison have one good knee between them and Michael Saunders can be maddeningly inconsistent. The team could certainly use his speed at the top of their lineup, and if he hits, he could eventually push Ackley off the roster. He’s a nice power/speed flier whose stock should continue to rise this month.
Aaron Hicks, MIN - There is no way to sugarcoat the disaster that 2013 was for the former top prospect. Hicks was handed the Twins' centerfield job last year after the team traded both Denard Span and Ben Revere prior to the season which paved the way for the toolsy outfielder to become a trendy sleeper pick this time last year. He hit well in spring training, won the job outright and looked poised to break out as the new leadoff hitter in Minnesota. Unfortunately, he hit .113 in the season’s first month and never really recovered. He flashed a little power in May, hitting six home runs that month, but was back in the Minors by June. He got one more look in July and showed some improvement, hitting .230 and stealing five bases, but another bad slump forced another demotion, while a late-season trade for Alex Presley kept him there the rest of the year. With Byron Buxton breathing down his neck as the next big thing in town, Hicks will get one more chance to show that he belongs in the Twins' long-term plans. It is clear now that the team made a mistake in rushing him to the big leagues last year with nary a game at Triple-A, especially when he had a history of struggling in his initial steps up the ladder. But, he is still only 24 years old, and he should be given every chance to play his way back onto the big league roster. Darin Mastroianni and the aforementioned Presley will likely form an uninspiring platoon in centerfield to start the year, while Josh Willingham is both injury-prone and a prime trade candidate. The Twins won’t want to rush Buxton if they can help it, and can’t give up on Hicks yet. He is worth a reserve pick in AL-only leagues to see if he can show up motivated to put last year behind him and get his career back on track.
Jackie Bradley Jr., BOS - Hicks wasn’t the only rookie who turned heads in March only to struggle badly once the season began. Bradley tore the cover off the ball in Red Sox camp and forced his way onto the major league roster to begin the year. Once the real games started, however, he was overmatched and was sent back to the Minors after hitting only .097 in his first ten games. He was up sporadically the rest of the year until a September call-up where he fared a little better, hitting .243. The departure of Jacoby Ellsbury opens up an opportunity for the youngster to claim the starting centerfield job this spring, but the world champions aren’t just handing it to him. They went out and signed Grady Sizemore in free agency to push the rookie this spring, and he will be in camp hoping to prove he has something left in his surgically repaired knees. Despite bringing in the former All-Star, the centerfield job looks like Bradley’s to lose. While it is never easy to replace an All-Star caliber player, Bradley has the benefit of playing for the best offense in the American League, and as such there will be less pressure on him to produce offensively. He will likely bat ninth, which in this lineup is still a spot that can produce useful numbers.
David Lough, BAL - Lough actually benefits from the team’s recent signing of Nelson Cruz in my opinion. Since Cruz is a lousy defender, he will more than likely see most of his action at DH. That likely pushes Henry Urrutia, Lough’s toughest competitor for significant playing time, to the Minors to start the year since he still has options remaining. Lough is no great shakes, but he should be able to hold off Nolan Reimold, Delmon Young and others to start the year and can provide modest power with decent speed, with a little upside if he can somehow manage to win the leadoff job to boot.
Michael Choice, TEX - Choice came over to Texas in a December deal for Craig Gentry and looked like he had a chance to earn some real playing time until the team went out and signed Shin-Soo Choo to join Alex Rios and Leonys Martin in the Rangers outfield. He could still stick as a fourth outfielder and right-handed platoon mate with Mitch Moreland at DH, and has the power pedigree and home ballpark to be worth taking a $1 flier on in AL-only leagues.
Jarrod Dyson, KC - Dyson will once again likely be the odd man out in the Royals outfield, at least until Lorenzo Cain succumbs to his yearly injuries. Even if relegated to backup duty, Dyson can still provide value as a speed source to hide on your reserves, then plug into your lineup when the playing time materializes.