- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Give credit to St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Carlos Beltran. He seemed a bit unwanted this past offseason, ultimately signing a contract on the other side of the state of Missouri from where he started his career, and he's producing major numbers at age 35, numbers I believe in. Who thought Beltran would not only replace the great Albert Pujols, but have an OPS more than 100 points higher? I like Pujols more in the second half, but Beltran ended up a surprise No. 16 for the rest of the season in ESPN Fantasy's mid-July rankings, quite a bit better than the staff rank of No. 34. And I love it!
The reasons why Beltran should not be recognized as a top-20 player are obvious, but it sure seems like in these rankings, I've put a bit more emphasis on first-half statistics than I tend to. I call it evolving. Beltran enters Friday as the No. 10 hitter on ESPN's Player Rater.
So I asked myself, what's fluky about his stats? Can he hit for power and drive in runs? Sure! Can he hit .300? Yes sir! Can he steal the occasional base, enough to differentiate himself from those who do not run? Absolutely!
Of course, there's also the durability thing, but I'm not a doctor, and unless it's Nick Johnson or Erik Bedard, I don't simply assume a player will get hurt. A year ago, Beltran played in 142 games for the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants. His OPS was better than .900 for each franchise. He hit for power, took walks and he stayed on the field.
I expect Beltran to sit more in the second half of 2012 (he's played in 82 of 86 games) because Lance Berkman's eventual return will allow Allen Craig to play some right field, but I view this positively. A rested player, especially at 35, is more productive that way. Sit 10 to 12 games in 10 weeks, I welcome that! Beltran's in a pennant race and he's a fantastic player. I believe in him.
Beltran wasn't the only player off to a terrific start that I seemed to place more trust in than the group. There are also players that I didn't rank as well as the group. Let's take a look at a few in each class.
Players I liked more
Edwin Encarnacion, 1B/3B, Toronto Blue Jays: I think a veteran player who has shown glimpses of breaking out in the past, and is on pace for 43 home runs, more than 100 RBIs and runs and is hitting .295, is a top-30 guy. So I ranked him 28th. The staff rank was 38. The Blue Jays gave him a three-year contract Thursday. I think the Jays believe this is a 30-homer guy, and now we don't need to worry about potential trades to lesser hitting parks.
Mike Trout, OF, and Mark Trumbo, 1B/OF, Los Angeles Angels: It's not really like the conservative me to rank youngsters this well, but I've got Trout 12th. The staff rank was 21st. I see some regression in batting average, but the counting stats are legit. As for Trumbo, a nice, humble fellow I was lucky enough to talk to while in Kansas City this week, the raw power guarantees he'll keep launching home runs. Even if/when he bats .260 the rest of the way, how many players can still hit another 20 home runs? He can.
Injured guys: I was notably highest on Philadelphia Phillies right-hander Roy Halladay, Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia and Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. If healthy, there's no debate. They were top choices on draft day. The question is less about when each will return from their disabled list stints and more whether they can succeed statistically. Well, I believe all three can. The Phillies acknowledge Halladay and his strained shoulder muscle are progressing way ahead of schedule, mostly because the pitcher isn't like anyone else. He's in remarkable shape. He works hard. Look for him back next week and rely on him returning to form. Pedroia should return from his thumb injury later this month, and his resume is impressive enough that I don't worry about lost power or a low batting average. He just needs to be healthy. And Stanton underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. His right knee had been a problem all year and still, he was hitting .284 with 20 home runs. Stanton will resume his power and can make a major impact in the final eight weeks. My rankings for this group seem substantially out of place with staff marks, but I'm buying low on each proven player.
Players I liked less
Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City Royals: It's been three months now, and this future star is behind Garrett Jones and Tyler Colvin on the Player Rater. June was substantially better for Hosmer, notably the five stolen bases, but otherwise he was still below the standards expected of him. This remains a deep fantasy position, and I can't pretend everything is simply fine now. He was my No. 100 option, as he's more Freddie Freeman than Mark Teixeira, while the staff rank was roughly the same as it was in mid-May (66th).
Ichiro Suzuki, OF, Seattle Mariners: I don't see it. Frankly, I thought I ranked the once-great Ichiro too well at No. 187. He ended up at No. 127. He's hitting .261 with a .288 OBP and four home runs, 12 stolen bases, outside the top 50 outfielders on the Rater, and he's 4-for-31 so far in July. He's 38, and he's acting it. Keep him owned, but facts are facts.
Tyler Clippard, RP, Washington Nationals: Even with the great Craig Kimbrel (but only slightly), I ranked relief pitchers worse than the group average across the board. It doesn't mean I don't like Clippard, John Axford and J.J. Putz, just that the saves market changes often, and you always sell high on a closer to fetch other needs. Huston Street likely will be dealt. Another few closers will get hurt. And some closers will get healthy, such as the Nationals' Drew Storen. We don't know if Storen inherits his old role initially, but there's enough question that I'd play it safe and move Clippard now.