It's a terrific feeling when you know you've got a fantasy baseball championship in the bag. Of course, you couldn't have done it alone. You might have drafted the team, watched the waiver wire and made the trades, but you didn't really coax the numbers out of the major leaguers. They did the heavy lifting for all of us. You were Ari Gold, the agent from "Entourage," sans the motivational tactics.
Not all the championships I've won feel the same. I remember certain players forever for what they did, like Dale Sveum way, way back in the day for his one good year. I'll also never forget Mike Fetters for the way I lost a championship because of how he got hammered one late-September game. The point is, there are certain players who helped many owners to fantasy championships this season, guys who were way off the radar back in March, and I tend to recall those performances from secondary players for a while.
Jose Reyes sits atop our Player Rater, passing Hanley Ramirez, Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday while people weren't watching. We all love these players, they've done great things, but how much pride can you take in knowing you selected Reyes with the fifth overall draft pick? If your last-round pick was Jorge Cantu, trust me, you'll remember that longer.
Anyway, I got to thinking, which I do only occasionally these days, about the starting lineup of forgotten players from the spring, the misfit toys who helped win fantasy titles. I'm going way off the radar here, because we've been discussing Carlos Quentin, Nate McLouth and Cliff Lee all season. And Aubrey Huff need not apply. Cantu can apply. Plus, hey, I had a lot of fantasy baseball teams, and I can tell you I didn't own some of the biggest surprises at all. I didn't own Lee. I didn't believe, and when I did buy in, it wasn't worth the price. Who knew he'd never lose again?
So, this blog still has my name on it, these are players who affected my teams.
Kelly Shoppach, C, Indians: I knew what he profiled as, because I have him on a dynasty simulation league team as my backup catcher. I knew he could hit for power, but didn't at all think he'd get the opportunity. Even when Victor Martinez did get hurt, I thought Shoppach would pop a few homers, but hit about .210, be an AL version of David Ross. OK, so apparently there was a frontline catcher lurking here all along, and he's not going away. I've been using him as my utility player in a league for the past month, because my other catcher is Geovany Soto. I have good catchers. Next season, by the way, Shoppach hits 20 homers again, and I'll reap that reward in sim. The Indians might have to trade him, unless Martinez is the regular first baseman, but I don't see that happening. For next season, and remember this has to be totally off the radar, I'm watching Max Ramirez, even if he's behind Taylor Teagarden. Watch Jarrod Saltalamacchia get sent off to Toronto or Pawtucket or something. And J.R. Towles can't be this bad.
Eric Hinske, 1B/OF, Rays: Look at first base, there's like one surprise, and it's Carlos Delgado. Well, I didn't own him on any teams, to the best of my knowledge. Delgado is the obvious pick. Hinske wasn't drafted in most leagues, and while he didn't win titles for people, he was helpful for a few months. His numbers don't look so good now, with nearly six months complete. This guy had 14 home runs and seven steals by the All-Star break! If you get someone to do that along with Hinske in the second half, that's a 28-homer, 14-steal season! I picked him up as a free agent in our 18-team office auction league. I should have stopped using him in July, but hey, it's an 18-team league. Free agency wasn't deep. Lyle Overbay and Jeff Baker were also helpful this season. As for next year, I'll go down the Daric Barton highway yet again, because there's no way he can hit .215 again. Plus, he played an inning at third base. Gotta love that.
Alexei Ramirez, 2B/SS, White Sox: I didn't know back in March that this guy would threaten to be the next Alfonso Soriano, but I knew who he was, and it seemed like most people in my leagues didn't, so I drafted him, then waited. Twenty home runs later, he looks pretty good, and for keeper leaguers, you'll like when he plays shortstop next season. Every Cuban player who makes the majors will probably be compared to Ramirez for a while, and fantasy owners will strike out, kind of like if you overdrafted So Taguchi thinking he would be the next Ichiro. If you enjoyed Ramirez this season, you might remember it awhile. Next year Tadahito Iguchi is going to find a job and go 15-15, Aaron Hill hits 20 homers, Emilio Bonifacio swipes 30 and you all know I'll be watching Eugenio Velez become a star. Or competent. If you thought I was going to say Matt Antonelli, I just can't recommend him until he proves he can hit a bit. I think Jayson Nix of the Rockies, who for some reason was horrible at the plate with the big club, has a better shot at this point, someplace.
Jerry Hairston Jr., SS/OF, Reds: Again, the overall numbers won't look like much, and the guy doesn't appear to own the oh-so-important health skill, because he can't stay on the field, but when he hit .351 before the All-Star break and stole 15 bases, it really mattered then. I bought in. Then I had to look elsewhere, but those numbers counted for a few of my teams. And remember, we're talking players who totally changed public perception. Mike Aviles came from nowhere and he's still good, but he didn't have a track record of burning owners before. As happy as Hairston made me, I don't know why Jeff Keppinger just stopped hitting. That wasn't supposed to happen. I couldn't justify owning both Hairston and Keppinger, a pair of singles-hitting guys playing out of position at short, for long. Clint Barmes is another guy helping me out. For next season, I don't see much here, but future Gold Glover Chin-lung Hu, extreme walker Cliff Pennington and even Reid Brignac seem like decent choices to shock us from nowhere.
Jorge Cantu, 3B/1B, Marlins: Think back to what you thought of this guy in March. You remembered his stunning 117-RBI campaign from a few years back, but maybe you thought in a Tony Batista kinda way Cantu had gone away and would never hit again. The Marlins' third-base job was wide open, and the team basically told us by how it was using players that Cantu was winning this job. He hit .457 and knocked in a ton of runs in the spring. Well, he won the job and now he's higher on the Player Rater than Garrett Atkins, Evan Longoria, Adrian Beltre, Troy Glaus and all but about four primary third basemen. Cantu might go 30-100. Think about that for a free agent you picked up in mid-April. I'm convinced Brandon Wood of the Angels has a 30-home run season in him, and he's the next Glaus. I really am. Maybe it happens in 2009. Let him strike out, just teach him how to walk more than once a week. I also refuse to give up on Andy LaRoche of the Pirates, and while the improvement for Andy Marte has been slight, there should be an Alex Gordon season in him eventually. Amazing how the bar has been so lowered for that Gordon guy, eh?
Fernando Tatis, OF, Mets: There are so many outfielders who fit some description of coming from nowhere, but think about where this fella came from. Then, even when he was playing, nobody wanted him in fantasy. Finally, he hurts his shoulder and he was so important to the Mets, the pundits were calling his loss a significant one! I was obviously playing fantasy back when Tatis was a really good fantasy third baseman, when he cracked a pair of grand slams in one inning at Dodger Stadium, so I remember how he disappeared and angered all his keeper owners. We must have long and short memories in the fantasy biz. Tatis was a revelation this year. He wasn't Ryan Ludwick, who actually ranks a spot ahead of Carlos Quentin on the Player Rater, but he did help us. Also, I'd bet unless you already knew the answer, if I asked you for the over/under on Jayson Werth home runs this season you'd probably pick around 14. Now look up his numbers, the power, the speed, it's hard to believe Geoff Jenkins got so many at-bats. Denard Span, Shin-Soo Choo and Willie Harris are a few others I guessed right on. Next season I see all the following being very relevant to our game: Nelson Cruz, Michael Cuddyer, Rocco Baldelli, Brandon Moss, Matt Diaz and, eventually, my boy Sam Fuld. Ya gotta believe!
Ryan S. (Chicago): "Hey Eric, I've got a fantasy baseball keeper question for you. I'm in a 12-team head-to-head league and I can keep two of the following rookies: Geovany Soto, Jay Bruce or Evan Longoria. Who do you think has the most potential for next year?"
Karabell: That's a shame that you can keep only two of these stars, but I have to pick Bruce as the odd man out. Yes, he could be a superstar who hits 35 homers and steals bases as well, but I still like Longoria better, and have already committed to him in my top 25 overall. Longoria is better. As for Soto, I don't think he'll match Bruce's numbers, and certainly he won't run, but he's a catcher. Bruce is an outfielder. Soto might be the top catcher in our rankings next season, certainly top five. Joe Mauer is wonderful, but it's not like Soto hit .250, or Mauer stole bases.
Mike (Los Angeles): "What's up, EK? I have a huge dilemma for keepers in baseball. We can keep any six. The choices are David Ortiz, Brian Roberts, Evan Longoria, Jason Bay, Nate McLouth, Ichiro Suzuki, Ryan Braun and Curtis Granderson. Which two do you drop? The Answer Guys suggest dropping Big Papi and Ichiro. I would really appreciate your thoughts."
Karabell: Well, nobody can be wrong in this exercise, and I would never bad-mouth a colleague. I wouldn't drop Ichiro. He's not too old to continue to do this for a few more years, hitting better than .300 with 40 steals a year and runs scored. Bay sticks out to me as someone I would cut before I would part with Ichiro. After that, I think Ortiz would be my choice. He's probably capable of another 40-homer season, but if I were ranking this group, the next option would be Granderson, and I like his 20/20 potential. He's young, healthy, and isn't stuck in your utility slot. While I don't always use next season's rankings as a guide -- as in, where are they likely to go in a draft and can you get them back -- this is a decent place to start. I think Bay and Ortiz would stick around the longest in a draft.
Thanks to those who made the Baseball Today podcast such a big hit this season. In April it was apparently one of the top podcasts on iTunes. I had a blast hosting with Peter Pascarelli, and here's some good news: It's not over. Even with the fantasy baseball season ending this week, the Baseball Today podcast will keep going Monday through Friday until the World Series ends, and even after that there are discussions about it being weekly through the offseason. No, it's not fantasy, but it's good baseball discussion, with good guests and e-mails and we have a blast. Thanks for making the show a big hit.
And, of course, thank you for reading the blog. Please keep sending comments by clicking here. I read all feedback, whatever the topic, and post at least one e-mail in every blog. Also, if you have topics or general thoughts, send them in. Enjoy your week.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," will be released soon. You can e-mail him here.