Surprise Gifts in 2011

If you were surprised by a puppy, car, or (gulp) an engagement ring under the tree, just wait until the 2011 baseball season. There are some players that may have been written off or that just simply never get accounted for who could shock fantasy teams to the top. Here are some players to watch for and why they can help.
1. Javier Vazquez – Let the record state that Vazquez can’t be effective as a member of the New York Yankees. Where he can be effective is as a National League pitcher. His numbers are better across the board in the NL (3.56 ERA, 8.5 K/9, 1.15 WHIP vs. 4.65 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 7.95 K/9) over his career. While many savvy owners are aware of this, there are those that think perhaps Vazquez’s most recent problems are more a result of him being in his mid 30s. Tim Hudson and Chris Carpenter are two starting pitchers that are still effective at that age, and Vazquez in the no pressure zone of South Florida can thrive.

2. Grady Sizemore – To date, Grady Sizemore has not had any setbacks after microfracture surgery last June. The surgery is certainly scary, but there are several success stories in all of pro sports. Amare Staudamire of the New York Knicks and Kenny Phillips of the New York Giants are two excellent examples that players can get their old games back. True, his stolen bases could never be the same, but Sizemore is still valuable without the 30 steals that made him a top five pick in many leagues just two seasons ago. He has had a season with 101 walks, a different season with 33 home runs, and a third season with 134 runs scored. Next year he will be 28 years old.
3. Wilton Lopez – Anyone that has a strikeout to walk rate of 10:1 deserves to be on some sort of radar. He is not likely to be named the Astros closer with Brandon Lyon still on the roster after ending the year as the closer, but Lyon has always been a little shaky. The brilliant strikeout to walk rate is not anything new for Lopez. Over the course of his minor league career he had a K:BB of 5 to 1.
4. Jordan Walden – Let’s pretend that Fernando Rodney doesn’t dominate for the first two months of the season. Don’t the Angels have to look at a 23 year old who was highly regarded before coming up last season and upon coming up struck out 23 in 15.1 innings?
5. Bud Norris – There is a lot to like here. Norris held hitters to a .235 average in the second half, had a 9.25 K/9 inning rate for the season, and is only 26 years old. Those numbers tell one story, but a 4.92 ERA and 1.48 WHIP tells another. Norris had terrible luck stranding runners last season and should benefit from better luck in 2011.
6. Jacoby Ellsbury – Ellsbury has taken all the heat he can handle even during the winter months in Boston, but in his defense rib injuries are tough to heal from. The 96 runs scored and 60 steals he averaged in 2008 and 2009 are too hard to dismiss after one injury. Going into last year there were some arguments from fantasy people that Ellsbury was worthy of a first round pick. Terry Francona has already said publicly that even with the addition of Carl Crawford, the Red Sox are best with Ellsbury batting first. If he hits leadoff and stays healthy, why can’t he lead the league in runs scored?
7. Jimmy Rollins – Speaking of leading the league in runs scored, Rollins averaged 115 per season from 2004 through 2008. That would have tied Albert Pujols for the lead this year. Rollins was hurt last year, but he is just one season removed from leading the National League in at-bats and plate appearances, so it’s not like he’s a Brandon Webb type of liability from a health perspective. The numbers have been down the last couple seasons for him, but he is going to be the leadoff hitter of the NL’s best lineup next year.
8. Matt Wieters – In the impatient world we live in Wieters is at the Delmon Young stage of his career. He has failed to match the lofty expectations that were set for him after dominating minor league pitching in 2008 and 2009. There is a difference between failing to meet expectations and failing though. In his 800 at-bats, Wieters has averaged 14 home runs and 70 RBI for a 162 game season. Those numbers are adequate for a catcher. At this point in his career, what is more likely to happen he gets worse, stays the same, or improves?
9. Jason Bay – Citi Field. Concussion. Post-contract hangover. Not being able to deal with the pressure of New York. Make your excuse for Jason Bay and someone else in your league will have another. That’s exactly why he will be a surprise this season. Expectations are too low. Citi Field is not a great place to hit, but in a short sample size Bay’s numbers were much better there last year than they were on the road. He’s been a good baseball player regardless of venue his whole career, so that issue should be taken care of. He’s had enough time to recover from the concussion, and if we go by what the NFL says each concussion is an independent event. The other two issues are psychological, and there might be something to them. Then again Bay thrived in front of sell outs in Boston and was good from day one playing for the minimum in Pittsburgh.
10. Aroldis Chapman – The best arm in the Reds bullpen will be the closer sooner or later. Unfortunately, Franciso Cordero is being paid $12 million this season, but based on the interest from the fans last year it won’t hurt the team from a business standpoint to shift Chapman into the bigger role.
11. Randy Wolf – Nobody likes the aging starting pitcher strikes out only 6.3 hitters per 9 innings the last two seasons, but occasionally they have decent seasons out of nowhere. That’s what Wolf will do next year except it won’t come from “nowhere.” It will come from him building on the momentum he had built up last September when he ended the season with six consecutive quality starts. In fact Wolf’s quality pitching dates back to his last start in the month of July – from July 26th on he had a 2.67 ERA. Don’t ignore the human element here either. The Brewers are expected to compete next season and as a veteran that should help motivate Wolf from start to start.
12. Aaron Hill – Hill had an awful 2010 seasonWith a .196 BABIP usually the problem is poor luck, but he wasn’t unlucky. He was bad. Going into last year, Hill had a line drive rate close to 20% for his career, but his line drive rate went down to 10.6% last year. In 2009 he was amazing and in 2010 he was the opposite. If he can correct his problems in batting average though Hill will be a quite a good value next season. How many second basemen would like to finish with 26 home runs in an awful season?