- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
One of the annual components of my fantasy baseball draft preparation for any league is to take a look not just at current results from average live drafts but at what occurred in drafts a year ago. Fantasy owners are a reactive bunch, regardless of sport, and they tend to forget about players coming off injuries or just poor play, especially if age is a factor. I find it is wise to dig a bit deeper into why certain players underperformed statistically in the most recent season and analyze the chances of them bouncing back to previous levels.
Of course, not all the players pegged for a return to glory will achieve great things, but if you take chances on two or three long-shot options, even in a standard, 10-team draft, and one pans out, like Lance Berkman did in 2011, it's worth it. I pinned my proverbial flag to Berkman that year and was rewarded with stellar numbers. In 2012, Berkman was on everyone's bust list, and I expected regression as well, and wouldn't you know he managed to play in a mere 32 games. So what should we expect from the Big Puma this year?
In case you're deep into fantasy hockey season or enamored with the Manti Te'o coverage, you might have missed Berkman signing a one-year deal to be the designated hitter and bat third for Ron Washington's mighty Texas Rangers, essentially replacing departed Josh Hamilton in a still-feared lineup. Um, sign me up! Nobody knows if Berkman will stride/limp to the plate more than 500 times, as in 2011, or fewer than 100 times, as in 2012, but even in a standard league, I'll spend a late-round pick to find out, because this guy still has serious power and plate discipline.
Consider that Rangers Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus will regularly be on base for him, sluggers Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz will follow him, he'll hit in a hitter-friendly ballpark half the time, and he'll play the wretched Houston Astros 18 times this season. Plus, Berkman won't even need to bring a fielding glove with him (though he is first base-eligible in fantasy), and the Rangers can sit him against tough left-handed pitching. And the best part for fantasy: Berkman is totally off the radar.
To me, someone like Justin Upton doesn't truly fit the criteria, for these purposes, of a bounce-back player. Sure, the younger Upton disappointed based on expectations in 2012, but what is he really bouncing back from, a 17-homer, 18-steal, top-20 outfielder season? Evan Longoria and Troy Tulowitzki aim to bounce back from injury, along with myriad others, but again, these fellows put up some reasonable numbers while they were active in 2012 and fared well in my 2013 rankings. So let's focus on fellows that, like Berkman, didn't sniff the top 250 on ESPN's Player Rater last season and can be had at a significant discount from this time last year.
Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, Boston Red Sox: A top-10 pick a year ago, Ellsbury's lack of durability remains a considerable concern, and some people will avoid him all together. A likely top-50 pick in most leagues for 2013, I'm hoping for 140 games, 15 home runs and 40 stolen bases, which seem reasonable considering it's a contract year and the ability is there. With stolen base fellows like Ellsbury, Brett Gardner and, to some degree, Carl Crawford who are not recovering from leg woes, remember that nobody managed to swipe as many as 50 stolen bases in 2012, so they have serious value if 100 percent healthy.
Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City Royals: Speaking of ability, Hosmer went from draft-day sleeper to dropped in most leagues. A rotator cuff tear depressed his power and led to one lazy ground ball after another, but the skills are clearly present for 25 home runs, a strong batting average and enough steals to matter. He is a bargain if more than 15 first basemen go earlier, which is likely.
Roy Halladay, SP, Philadelphia Phillies: He claims he is healthy, and let's remember he was the first pitcher off the draft board in 2012. The thing is now you can likely get him outside the top 10 starting pitchers. It's all about value. Don't presume Cy Young Award-like numbers or a sub-3.00 ERA and 200 strikeouts, but don't be scared off by him being 35 either.
Dee Gordon, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers: The speedster stole 32 bases in roughly half a season, but now he is viewed as a failed prospect with little future as a hitter. That's how fast a dynasty league gem falls out of favor. Perhaps he starts 2013 in the minors, and he must hit better and take a walk occasionally, but take a chance on him late -- because when he does learn to hit and wins a starting job, multiple stolen base crowns could follow.
Ricky Romero, SP, Toronto Blue Jays: There seems to be little reason to even consider a player that posted a 5.77 ERA and 1.67 WHIP a year ago, but offseason procedures on his throwing elbow and both knees likely played a major role in his struggles. I'm not saying Romero, the 22nd starting pitcher in ADP a year ago, bounces all the way back to the 2.92 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 178 strikeouts of 2011, but those in deeper formats should consider the possibility of 200 healthy innings. Remember, a year ago nobody wanted A.J. Burnett, Bronson Arroyo or Ryan Dempster, but a solid track record should not be ignored.
Digging deeper: Logan Morrison, 1B/OF, Miami Marlins; Chris Young, OF, Oakland Athletics; Stephen Drew, SS, Red Sox; Peter Bourjos, OF, Los Angeles Angels; John Danks, SP, Chicago White Sox; Chris Carpenter, SP, St. Louis Cardinals.
Eric Karabell discusses the players he'd still draft in 2013 even though their fantasy value has fallen greatly since this point a year ago.