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Buy or Sell: Opening Week Surprises

We’re only a week into the season and, as usual, a bunch of guys have come out of fantasy obscurity to make notable impressions over the first 5 or 6 games.  Many of these guys may be just smoke and mirrors and will disappear back into the ether over the next couple weeks, but some of them could be the breakout stars that help proactive managers win fantasy leagues.

Keep in mind that it’s often better to say “why not?” in regards to unexpected breakout players, as saying “why bother?” usually prevents you from picking up that eventual waiver savior.  I’m trying to use an optimistic eye here, we’re talking about using the last few spots on your bench to speculate on upside plays, and if they don’t pan out you’ll just drop them and give another guy a shot a couple weeks later.  You might swing and miss a few times, but if you want to hit a Home Run, you’ve got to take the bat off your shoulder.

With that in mind, here are some of the biggest movers and shakers of the first week of MLB 2014 (disclaimer: don’t interpret the buy or sell literally and go out and trade away or for the guys mentioned, necessarily.  Interpret it as me buying or selling the likelihood of the player continuing to play at a level above his usual expectations).

Emilio Bonifacio – Bonifacio has stormed out of the gates before, only to be waiver wire fodder a couple weeks later, and is even the poster boy for not trusting early season hot streaks in some circles.  But he hasn’t really had a secured spot in any lineup throughout most of his career, and when he has played he’s mostly been a bottom of the order hitter, limiting his production opportunities.  This year, the Cubs know they’re not playing anything, so they’ll have no reason to move Bonifacio out of the leadoff spot even if he struggles a bit, and the last time he played a full season (2011) he did this: 78-5-36-40-.296/.360/.393.  Obviously the Cubs are bad, so run production could be hard to come by, and Bonifacio is unlikely to replicate that .296 average, but he’s eligible at three positions (2B, 3B, OF) and has very clear 40+ SB upside, giving him significant fantasy value even in shallower leagues.  Expect a line similar to 2011, minus about 30 BA points, and you won’t be disappointed.  But if he’s put things together at age 29 or the Cubs offense matures quicker than expected, his upside is even higher.  Verdict: buy, especially if you need SB.

Justin Smoak – Smoak has done nothing but disappoint throughout his young career, never hitting over .240 or OPSing over .750.  While he did hit 20 HR last year, he’s never managed more than 53 R or 55 RBI despite getting at least 427 AB each of the last three seasons.  There haven’t really been any signs of growth before the early breakout this year, but the Mariners’ lineup looks much improved, he’s hitting behind Brad Miller and Robinson Cano which should provide many RBI opportunities, and Safeco Field is not the offense suppressor it once was before the fences were moved in.  At 27 years old, with a good pedigree, and with seemingly everyone in baseball (and fantasy) already given up on him, he’s the classic post-hype sleeper candidate.  He’s certainly not a lock to keep producing all year, but his spot in the lineup makes his upside worth gambling on.  Verdict: buy, but don’t trust.  Be prepared to bench (and eventually drop) at the first sign of one of his patented prolonged cold streaks.

Casey McGehee – He has shown the ability to put up good fantasy numbers in the past, following up a strong rookie showing in 2009 (.301 BA with 66 RBI in 355 AB) with a 104-RBI, .285 BA campaign in 2010.  Plus 3B is a bit of a minefield this year, so if you need 3B help and have someone you were going to drop anyway, I understand if you want to take a chance on McGehee.  Not gonna stop you.  But since that 2010 season he’s hit just .221 over 864 AB while missing significant time due to injuries and ineffectiveness.  He’ll turn 32 at the end of the season so it’s not like injury is no longer a concern with him, and he’s incredibly slow, with only 2 career SB and 213 career R in almost 1900 AB.  This makes him at best a 3-category player, and his HR and RBI are also at risk playing half his games in Marlins Park and all his games in the Marlins lineup.  Hitting behind Giancarlo Stanton should help some, but it also means he’ll be hitting with the bases empty about 40 extra times after Giancarlo clears them.  Verdict: sell, except for deeper leagues and filling otherwise un-fillable holes at 3B.

Charlie Blackmon – A popular waiver pickup after Friday’s 6-hit game, Blackmon is doing his best to stake his claim to the up-for-grabs CF job in Colorado.  He’s shown that he can hit for average at the major league level, posting a .309 clip in last year’s half-season trial, albeit without a lot of production elsewhere.  With little category juice to speak of, a less than ideal glove in CF, and no guarantee to keep seeing ABs over veteran Drew Stubbs and toolsy Corey Dickerson (probably the best athlete of the bunch), he’s far from a lock to continue being a valuable fantasy contributor.  Still, he’s currently in the lead for the starting job and is certainly passing the eye test right now, and COL is always a good place to do your home cooking.  Plus, potential .300 hitters are harder and harder to come by these days.  You could do worse for the last guy on your bench.  Verdict: a soft buy, mainly for deeper leagues.

Dee Gordon – Much like Bonifacio, there is almost always value in guys with 40 SB upside and multi-position eligibility.  Gordon is eligible at arguably the two toughest positions to fill (2B, SS) and does his hitting in one of the best lineups in the league.  Let’s overlook his past failures and just consider what could happen if everything goes right for him this year.  If he keeps the average up high enough to remain in the lineup every day, and moves up to be hitting at the top of it with regularity, he could easily give us a 100 R, 50 SB season.  He’s hot right now and running wild, and as long as he is the Dodgers will keep him in the lineup.  I’m already starting him at short in two leagues and intend to keep him there until he convinces me I shouldn’t.  Verdict: buy, but keep an eye on that batting average.

Angel Pagan – This guy’s been around for awhile and we pretty much know what we’re going to get from him – decent speed and R, replacement level RBI and HR, a BA that won’t kill you…and a couple trips to the DL.  During his three mostly full seasons from 2010-2012 he averaged 554 AB and 81-9-60-32-.280, which made him a fairly useful 4th or 5th OF in medium to deep leagues.  But those were the only seasons in his 8 year career in which he’s played more than 88 games, and in one of those three he only played 123.  He’ll turn 33 this July, so it’s reasonable to assume his SBs could be on the decline while his injuries (if possible) are on the incline.  If you’re in a deeper league and that kind of 80-10-60-20-.270 line is of use to you as OF depth, then go for it.  Hopefully your league has multiple DL spots.  Just don’t pick him up expecting anything more than that, despite his hot start.  Verdict: sell, except for depth in deeper leagues.

Other Notes – Brad Miller sure looks interesting as a dual-eligibility MI with pop hitting in the middle of that improved M’s lineup.  He does have an 8/0 K/BB ratio so expectations should be tempered a bit, especially in BA, but as someone who was typically drafted in the 15th round or later, he is shaping up to be one of the better values of 2014.  He’ll end the year as a top-10 SS, easily…Melky Cabrera looks like a nice value as well, as he’s hitting at the top of a loaded TOR lineup, has always hit for decent average, and is even flashing a little power in the early going this year.  He may move down the order if/when Jose Reyes returns, and the power may or may not be real, but if he stays healthy he should turn a profit either way in that productive lineup…Torii Hunter is the newest example of the Boring Old Vet, as he’s now been a steal in drafts for a couple of years running.  It would be a shock if he didn’t end up a good 7-10 rounds more valuable than where he was drafted…Giancarlo’s HR on Saturday was one of the most insane I’ve ever seen, regardless of what the final measurement is.  I watched it 5 times in a row (I love you DVR!) and screamed “Oh my god!” out loud every single time, even though I was sitting at home by myself.  I’d put the over/under for his HR this year at about 45.5, and I still might take the over.  Should have reached for him in the 2nd round…Josh Hamilton looks like a whole new player after last year’s nightmare, and at this point (and in that lineup) he’ll have to get injured to not significantly outperform his ADP.  Of course, that injury is always a possibility with him, but he’s one of the few guys in the league with genuine 1st round upside…Desmond Jennings (who I’ve always loved, but finally gave up on and didn’t draft anywhere this year) might be putting it all together, as he’s gotten a hit in all but one game this year and has 5 doubles already, good for a .522 SLG.  He’s always had 20/20 or better upside with good on-base skills, and he hits near the top of a sneaky good TB lineup.  Maybe he figures it out this year as a 27 year old…Other guys catching my eye are Michael Cuddyer (didn’t think he’d repeat the BA), Brandon Belt, Dustin Ackley, Todd Frazier, Anthony Rendon, Marcell Ozuna, Juan Lagares, Yangervis Solarte, Adam Eaton, Jose Abreu, and Adam Lind (well, mostly just his bright red goatee).

Other Notes, Part II – I haven’t talked about pitchers yet since we have even less data on them after one or maybe two starts (as if one week is enough data for hitters…), but here are a few things of note from the bump…It was a rough opening day for closers as four of them either lost their job or, unbeknownst to us, never had it to begin with.  Jose Valverde is a good bet to hold on to the job all year, as Bobby Parnell now seems destined for Tommy John surgery.  Sergio Santos, Francisco Rodriguez, and Matt Lindstrom are all threatened by recovering incumbents (and general ineffectiveness), but those recoveries are not going very smoothly and those replacements have the potential to put up some pretty useful saves totals.  They should be owned in all but the shallowest of leagues…Jose Fernandez is absolutely filthy and my pick to be the #1 fantasy pitcher this year now that Kershaw is out for at least a month…James Paxton looked great in his first start and is another Mariner I’d advocate picking up…Yovani Gallardo has now opened the season with 12.2 scoreless innings, as he appears to be carrying his strong 2nd half from last year over to this year…Michael Wacha reminds me so much of Adam Wainwright.  I think he’ll end up the best of the Redbirds great young arms (beating out Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, et al.)…Tyler Skaggs looked excellent throwing 8 shutout innings in Houston on Saturday, with 5 K, 4 H, and only one BB.  BBs have always been the bugaboo with Skaggs, so if he’s figured something out this year he could be pretty valuable in that LAA rotation, but do keep in mind that start came against the lowly Astros.  Let’s see what he can do against the Rangers of Mariners before getting too excited…Nathan Eovaldi has looked pretty strong giving up 5 ER over 13 IP with 14 K and 1.00 WHIP through his first two starts.  Despite their hot start, people still expect the Marlins to be bad this year, understandably depressing Eovaldi’s expectations (primarily in the W department), but he’s got one of the hardest fastballs in the league among starters, which means his uptick in K/9 could be legit, and he pitches in the easiest division and in a great park for pitchers.  Worth a spot on your watch list at least.

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