Those diamonds in the rough are the real jewels of fantasy

The Baltimore Sun

I've written football for six weeks in a row, so in the seventh, I'm resting. Besides, Week 1 of the NFL season produced not a single victory for my three teams. Eddie Kennison, Wali Lundy and Chris Cooley, you let me down.

But enough on that. Let's talk some baseball, a sport that has been much kinder to my fantasy fortunes this year. One of the fun things about any season is watching spectacular talent emerge. It doesn't matter if these players are on my team or not. I just like knowing there are a few more stars who will quicken my pulse and those of my league mates when they come up in future auctions. For all the talk of tactics and bargains, that's what this game is about to me - finding and enjoying guys who are superior practitioners of their craft.

The biggest sunburst, of course, plays two hours up I-95. I suspected before the season that the Philadelphia Phillies' Ryan Howard might be the next guy to churn out a run of 40-homer seasons. But did I think he'd have 56 and be a leading Most Valuable Player candidate by September of his first full season? Well, no. That's the beauty of any really great season. It knocks over the best expectation you could have possibly had.

I and other fantasy fellows worried before the season that Howard's struggles against left-handed pitching might hold him back. But he has hit a respectable .290 with a .586 slugging average against lefties. He gave Orioles fans a taste of what he could do during a June game at Camden Yards. Howard hit two home runs that day, one a soaring shot that landed well past the wall in center. It was a home run hitter's home run.

I have to give major credit to Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA forecasting system, which said before the season that Howard had a greater power ceiling than any other player in the big leagues.

Lost in Howard's leviathan shadow is teammate Chase Utley. Utley broke out last year, batting .291 with 28 homers and propelling himself to the top of most fantasy second base rankings. But he has done something harder this season by consolidating that career year with one just like it.

Now we can say that Utley is a true all-around star and worthy of being picked in the first round in 2007 (when Alfonso Soriano will no longer be an alternative at second base.)

Another guy who has backed up his breakout year splendidly is Cleveland Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore. The Indians' disappointing 2006 has prohibited any national appreciation of Sizemore's excellence, but he's one of the best players, fantasy or real, in the American League.

You want power? He has 23 homers, leads the American League with 50 doubles and ranks second with 11 triples. You want plate discipline? He already has 17 more walks than he did last year. You want speed? He has stolen 21 times, has been caught only three and leads the AL with 120 runs scored.

Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer is the same kind of Wunderkind, though he has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, so I can't say he's been unappreciated. Catchers don't hit .350, run well and play great defense at the same time. This one does.

Colorado Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins had a solid reputation coming into 2006 - decent average hitter with a little pop who was helped immensely by playing at Coors Field.

How many casual fans know that he's hitting .326 with 25 homers, 104 RBIs with a solid batting eye?

Those numbers match up nicely with those of the vastly more ballyhooed David Wright.

And how about the Florida Marlins' Dan Uggla? The aforementioned PECOTA system said that in his wildest dreams, he could expect to hit .268 with 15 homers. Well, he's hitting .293 with 24 homers, 85 RBIs and 100 runs scored for a totally unexpected wild-card contender.

You have to love it when stuff like that happens. I have no idea if Atkins and Uggla will repeat their feats. Probably not, since their track records gave no warning of impending excellence. But such prognosticating is for next season. For now, I'm enjoying this one.

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