- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Once upon a time, a friend of mine owned and loved a certain 19-year-old Tampa Bay Rays outfielder named B.J. Upton, and he protected him for multiple seasons in our keeper league. Upton made it to the big leagues as a teenager in 2004, and we could see there was an intriguing talent lurking. Alas, Upton didn't do much until emerging in 2007, and while my friend kept him for a few seasons with little payoff, by then he had given up. Someone else has enjoyed Upton's rise (and, in a way, has been frustrated, as well!). In that same keeper league, I'm going through a similar situation with San Diego Padres outfielder Cameron Maybin, and Thursday's performance has my head spinning.
Think about the comparisons. Like Upton, the Detroit Tigers made Maybin a first-round pick (10th overall). He was rushed to the big leagues at age 20, fueling expectations. Unlike Upton, Maybin is now on his third big league team, but he's still teasing managers, scouts and fantasy owners with his raw skills. In Thursday's opener in St. Louis, Maybin hit seventh for the Padres, providing largely inconsistent at-bats until -- naturally -- smacking a monster, game-tying home run off Cardinals closer Ryan Franklin with two outs in the ninth inning. Two innings later, after an opposite-field single that led to the go-ahead runs, he limped off the field with lower leg cramps.
I admit I'm perplexed on how to evaluate Maybin's future. He should hit for moderate power -- this was a no-doubt, center field blast he smacked -- and he can run well enough to pile on the steal bases. He's raw, but here's an athlete who can hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases in the big leagues, and soon. Unfortunately, Maybin often has little clue how to handle the strike zone, as he's likely to produce prodigious strikeout totals as well. The Padres wanted him for the potential, but he's also perfect defensively for spacious Petco Park; he's a terrific center fielder. Really, when I think of giving up on Maybin, I think of my friend and how he's missing out on Upton. I don't want to miss out, too! And Maybin turns 24 on Monday, so he still time to figure this all out. I just would like to know when!
The Padres aren't likely to produce much offense this season, and fantasy owners have obviously noticed. Third baseman Chase Headley is owned in 96.3 percent of ESPN standard mixed leagues, and next among Padres is Maybin at 7 percent. That figure is up 2.8 percent in the past week, but I presume much of that came since his Thursday home run. I wouldn't call Maybin a must-own in 10-team leagues by any means, but obviously many of us play in deeper formats. I would say people are really missing out on right fielder Will Venable; he has power and speed (13 home runs, 29 stolen bases) and should keep improving, and yet he's owned in just 5.1 percent of leagues. Left fielder Ryan Ludwick is owned in only 2.8 percent of leagues. OK, so this isn't the best fantasy outfield, but there are possibilities here. Ludwick hit 37 home runs in 2008, and I say Venable could hit 20 homers and steals 35 bases this season.
Then there's Maybin, who has the potential to trump them all. ESPN Fantasy projects him as San Diego's top outfielder, with 12 home runs, 52 RBIs, 20 stolen bases and a .261 batting average, and I want to believe this can occur. I really do. I know he is capable of it. One game doesn't change anything yet, so we'll see if I have the patience to keep Maybin and his potential on that particular team before he truly breaks out.
By the way, pinch running for Maybin in the 11th inning Thursday -- and scoring a run -- was speedy outfielder Cedric Hunter, who made the team after a solid spring. Hunter is 23 and doesn't figure to develop much power, but I could see him stealing 20 bases as a regular, should the opportunity arise. Durability has been a problem for him, and while he is on the team, it's not likely that opportunities will arise soon; Chris Denorfia would be the player to gain should something happen to Maybin, Ludwick or Venable. In fact, the Padres figure to send Hunter to Triple-A Tucson this month as Aaron Cunningham, Eric Patterson and Kyle Blanks all figure into their immediate plans. Just keep the speedster's name in mind.