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Players I like more than most

3/12/2013

Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper forced his way into my overall top 20, and I've confidently penciled him in as National League MVP for 2013. It's safe to say I like him a bit more than most do, whether for fantasy baseball or otherwise. I've also predicted Texas Rangers right-hander Yu Darvish will lead the majors in strikeouts this season and take home the American League Cy Young Award.

But digging deeper down the rankings for players I seem to like more than others, I keep settling in at first base, especially on a wealthy, broken-down slugger for the team I root the most for -- real life over fantasy, every time -- and wonder why so many others simply refuse to see what I do statistically.

Ryan Howard was terrible in 2012. Nobody can spin his season positively, other than to say the big fellow was clearly far from 100 percent due to the torn Achilles tendon suffered during the 2011 postseason. Since he's a Phillie, some will say I have a clear bias for him, but I thought ranking him in the 15th round, as ESPN Fantasy did in its top 300, was foolish. He missed my top 100, but not by six rounds. One colleague said Howard wouldn't even hit as high as .200 this season. Hey, to each his or her own, but stemming from how I tend to view recent results in some sort of vacuum, and rarely gloss over skill sets and prior relevant analysis, I disagree.

On a pure baseball level, it's difficult to sugarcoat Howard's overall value when factoring in defense, baserunning, how he reacts when the other team has a left-handed pitcher hurling and, of course, the historic, eventual organization-killing contract. But even as he was regressing statistically -- and he's been barely replacement level for a few years -- Howard still hit for home run power and managed to drive in many runs, thanks to his lineup position and the gentlemen ahead of him getting on base. There aren't many consistent 30-homer, 100-RBI fellows left anymore; in each of the past two seasons, only 12 hitters reached both marks. Howard was among them in 2011, and even last season, as he was floundering to a .219 batting average and limping around, his 14 home runs and 56 RBI in 71 games were well on pace to reach those figures again. I think the power remains, which is why I suppose, in a roundabout way, I like him for fantasy more than others do. Sure, Howard might hit .240 or .250 providing that power, but that's enough these days.

Few seem to like New York Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, he of the dropping batting average, and he still found his way into the top 100. Now he's out, but only due to injury.

First basemen with power, like Howard, Chicago White Sox veteran Paul Konerko and the Nationals' Adam LaRoche, are undervalued this season. Don't focus on what they won't do, which varies from batting average woes to health to lack of upside. I wouldn't select these fellows over young bucks like Anthony Rizzo, Paul Goldschmidt or Eric Hosmer -- another guy I really like more than most, since he's in my top 100 -- but there's value to be had after Round 10.

Essentially, I'm wiping away Howard's 2012 season, because I don't think that's really him. I watched it play out every night, once he started playing, and he had one healthy leg, affecting his ability to drive the ball. The reasons to avoid Howard are obvious -- how he walked less, struck out more, all of it -- but I don't think it's as relevant as others believe. Check out ESPN's average live draft results; he's hardly being avoided. In fact, and this is certainly not an ideal gauge since spring training numbers often affect draft status, but no player in the top 200 has seen his stock rise more in the past seven days. People aren't scared, and it's not just a name value thing. Oh, and Howard has hit four home runs and knocked in 12 over parts of 14 games.

I would take Howard in the 10th round, but view this bigger picture: I'd also wait on first base and gladly scoop up Konerko or LaRoche shortly after.

Here are other players I appear to like more than most, with brief reasoning:

Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels: We've been over this. Check out what colleague AJ Mass wrote. That wasn't my doing!

Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Colorado Rockies: He's in my top 10, as is Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista, and Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria didn't miss by much. Each of these players can provide 140-plus games, with the requisite statistics we've grown to enjoy.

Bryce Harper, OF, Washington Nationals: He's ready. This season.

Ben Zobrist, 2B/SS/OF, Rays: He's ready every season, versatile statistically and for eligibility. Always a fave of mine.

Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City Royals: A year ago, everyone loved him. I change my mind on select players from one year to the next, but not youngsters with these skills. He's still going to be special.

Martin Prado, 3B/OF, Arizona Diamondbacks: Might not run as much, but versatile, safe for batting average, modest pop and will score runs. Add it up and that's valuable.

Matt Moore, SP, Rays: Not really the pitching version of Hosmer, since his 2012 was palatable, but nevertheless he underachieved. This year he won't.

Hunter Pence, OF, San Francisco Giants: Not saying he's a great player, but the counting stats should be there and there's no evidence his small sample struggles at AT&T Park will continue.

Shane Victorino, OF, Boston Red Sox: Another former Phillies outfielder past his prime but still capable of helpful power, plenty of speed and top-100 value at an inexpensive price.

Nick Swisher, OF, Cleveland Indians: Always seems to be there in my drafts, mock or otherwise, in the 17th round when I need power. And I always seem to take him.

Kevin Youkilis, 1B/3B, New York Yankees: Like Swisher, nobody seems to want him, but what a 20th-rounder. Has flaws, but still relevant.

Adam Eaton, OF, Diamondbacks: He's not Michael Bourn, but you can't tell me there's a 20-round difference for what should be similar value.