- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
I'm almost embarrassed to admit it now, but in two of my leagues -- at least as far as I know -- I anxiously awaited the return of Jerry Hairston Jr., and willingly activated him today. It doesn't really matter that this guy entered 2008 seemingly offering nothing to fantasy owners. I wasn't even sure he had a team to play for, and even if he did, it didn't matter. Hairston was an outfield-only utility guy with no power, no batting average and whatever speed had been on display so many years ago and wasn't worth it ... let's just say this fella was not on anyone's fantasy baseball radar, and when he started playing well, nobody believed it.
Leave it to Dusty Baker to give him a chance, and look what happened: Here's a mildly valuable shortstop I can't wait to get back in my lineup after a relatively quick DL stint for a broken left thumb. Again, this newfound dependence on Hairston is not a source of pride or anything, but while there are many surprises this season in fantasy baseball, I think this one kind of needs another qualifier. It's past a surprise. No, Hairston isn't Josh Hamilton, knocking in a run per game, or the guy he was dealt for, who might start the All-Star game for the NL (Edinson Volquez). Those are surprises! He's not Justin Duchscherer, threatening to win the ERA title, or Xavier Nady, on pace for 107 RBIs. Those guys had jobs, they were being drafted someplace, somewhere, and when they were available on free agent lists owners weren't loathe to click on their names. Hairston wasn't even thought about in 20-team leagues. The last time we saw him, in Texas last season, he hit .188.
Now he's the starting shortstop and leadoff hitter for a major league team, and it's not a joke. Who knew he could even play the position regularly? He never had before. I can't say anything bad about that decision now, because Hairston has earned it. In May he hit .343 with nine stolen bases in 10 attempts. As a leadoff hitter, on a team that doesn't have any other options -- no, Corey Patterson should not be leading off, we all see that -- Hairston is hitting .360 with a .422 on-base percentage, with the same number of walks to strikeouts. Now you know and I know -- c'mon, let's be realistic -- that this guy isn't likely to hit .300 all season, but I am just fine with that. I want the stolen bases. Hairston is running, for some reason, and as long as Baker keeps letting him play, why can't that continue? This would be a top-20 base stealer if not for the missed time. He's tied for 29th in baseball in steals as it is, but only three steals outside the top 20, and in half the at-bats. The only player with more steals in fewer at-bats is Rajai Davis of Oakland.
So I activated Hairston in weekly leagues Monday, punting aside the no-longer-smokin' Jeff Baker in one deep league and meaningless David Eckstein in another, hoping he can keep a respectable batting average and steal 20 more bases. While I would probably play Jeff Keppinger over Hairston if I was managing the Reds, and I'd certainly take Keppinger if I didn't need the steals and I was thinking OPS, I doubt Baker will do this. It looks like Hairston is his starting shortstop. If only Edwin Encarnacion would go on the DL, these guys would hit 1-2 in the order. I also have Keppinger on one of those teams, but I need a second baseman, so he doesn't suffice. Because of an odd eligibility rule in this league, I can play Hairston there. But because of the steals, I would use him over Keppinger at shortstop in fantasy, too.
Hairston is a great example of a player 99 percent of fantasy owners didn't think much of when he started playing. His track record precedes him, and tells you what you thought you needed to know. This is a player you don't need to deal with. He's not good. Maybe we were wrong. Hairston, now 32 and irrelevant in fantasy since about 2002, sat there on most waiver wires forever. He's out there on plenty of wires now, too. If he steals a base or two Monday for the Reds, he'll become very popular again. And you'll just have to forget most of this decade.
I began to wonder, who else is having a decent fantasy season, but seemed so unlikely to do so, they sat on waiver wires while we kept going to the Mark Loretta well? I don't mean Carlos Quentin, either. Yes, that's unlikely, but he's young, always had power, it was one bad season, and he got a new start. Hairston was more buried than Carlos Pena a year ago. I thought he might have been out of baseball. He's not going to hit 40 homers, but how often does that ever happen? Fantasy teams win titles because of the little guys sometimes, and having a 20-steal middle infielder you plucked off waivers for nothing is very helpful.
I never like to say a player stinks. Hey, I can't play in the majors, and I know it. Jerry Hairston Jr. has more power and speed than I, this is not a debate. But I thought the guy was toast, and that's if I even bothered to think about him at all. Here are other hitters contributing to deep leagues.
Catcher: Paul Bako of the Reds -- maybe it's a Cincy thing -- has twice as many home runs as Jorge Posada and Joe Mauer. The batting average stinks, but in NL-only leagues this guy, who hit two home runs the past five seasons, has been a dollar find.
First base: Aaron Boone of the Nats once had a 26-homer, 32-steal season. He won a pennant for the Yankees as well. The Indians gave up on him in 2006, and now he's a corner infield fill-in type, and he might hit double-digit homers. There aren't likely to be major shockers at first base; Jason Giambi doesn't qualify. You were drafting him. John Bowker is young.
Second base: Jeff Baker doesn't really qualify here. He's 27, but the Rockies clearly had the opening at second base. Clint Barmes might be more apt. Who thought he had anything left? (Trade him now, by the way, it's only getting worse.) Alexi Casilla isn't old, but who thought he'd still resurface? He hit .222 with the Twins last season, and couldn't keep the starting job after supposed older clone Luis Castillo was dealt. Casilla was hitting .218 at Triple-A Rochester when the Twins called him up this year. I thought it was a nice gesture. Even the Twins couldn't have imagined he'd hit .313 and bat second.
Shortstop: I have a lot of names here. Speaking of Twins, Luis Rivas had his chances. Now he's a Pirate. Ben Zobrist helped someone in one of my leagues last week when he hit a pair of homers. And how about Cesar Izturis of the Cardinals? Once a durable little base stealer who hit .288 for the Dodgers in 2004 with 25 steals, Izturis can't really hit, but he does have six stolen bases and a lot more walks than strikeouts, which normally means a batting average spike is coming. In Izturis' case, maybe that means he hits .260. Hey, you had probably forgotten about this guy years ago.
Third base: Jorge Cantu and Russell Branyan seem like good choices, but the former was selected in my NL-only drafts, and the latter isn't that much of a surprise, as I noted in a recent blog. He's got power, he's showing it off. How about Ramon Vazquez of the Rangers? He's hitting .326, nearly 100 points better than what he did last season. The Rangers keep waiting for Hank Blalock, but I don't think he's going to play third base anytime soon, or push Chris Davis out of first base. Vazquez reminds me of former Phillie Abraham Nunez, now a Mets farmhand, except he's hitting.
Outfield: Ryan Ludwick and Nate McLouth aren't eligible, since they played plenty last year, and played well. Eric Hinske, however, is different. He might go 25-90. I spent a buck on him in our 18-team office auction and got chuckles. Really, a dollar? Someone else spent a buck on Brandon Moss after he homered in Japan. Nobody laughed at that? Hinske is having a career year, a better pace than when he won top rookie honors. Luis Gonzalez, Gabe Kapler, Jody Gerut and Brian Anderson of the White Sox also make sense in this category. Kapler was a minor league manager last season! He has the same number of home runs as B.J. Upton.
I'm almost embarrassed to admit it now, but in two of my leagues -- at least as far as I know -- I anxiously awaited the return of Jerry Hairston Jr.