Bobby Abreu is not a young man, at least in terms of major league baseball years. He'll turn 37 during spring training, his defense has become even more of a liability than in past seasons, and he's coming off a year in which he posted his worst OPS since becoming a full-time regular in 1998. Yep, go ahead and pass on this guy ... and I'll gladly draft him in the 10th round. His numbers warrant that.
Many fantasy baseball owners want nothing to do with an "old guy," even if he remains productive, and this discrimination shows in draft rankings and results. Yes, older players are more at risk of suddenly hitting a statistical wall or seeing their production decline, but Abreu finished the 2010 season as fantasy's No. 87 player overall, according to the ESPN Player Rater, and No. 32 among outfielders. I wouldn't say Abreu's run of being fantasy-relevant is over yet.
Abreu hit .255 with 20 home runs, 78 RBIs, 24 stolen bases and 88 runs scored in 2010. While those numbers represented a drop in production from the previous season, it was still the ninth time that Abreu registered 20 or more home runs and stolen bases the same year. For perspective, only six other players accomplished this feat in 2010. For 2011, we at ESPN Fantasy project a better batting average (.268), similar power numbers (17 home runs, 85 RBIs), fewer stolen bases (18) and more runs scored (90), which would get Abreu similarly ranked on our Player Rater. However, he's ranked in the 13th round, behind numerous outfielders he outperformed in the worst season of his career. They happen to be younger, but not necessarily better.
I look for value in fantasy drafts, and there are generally two classes of undervalued players. One class is that of the injured players few think are reliable. That's another blog for another day. The other class: older players perceived to be on the decline. Older folks don't recover as quickly from injury, don't suddenly regain their power or speed (not in this "cleaner" era, at least) and occasionally spiral into irrelevance more quickly than expected. But Abreu hasn't lost the ability to hit for moderate power and steal enough bases to matter. This, my friends, is where the wise fantasy owner can reap the benefits of perception and cash in with value pick after value pick.
Abreu is one of those hitters on my list, but he's hardly alone. Let's go position by position, targeting players on the wrong side of 35 years old. For the purpose of this list, even 34 is too young. I think these players can still help fantasy owners, and judging by the built-in fantasy discount often based solely on their birth year, you can get them cheaper than you should be able to.
Jorge Posada, C, New York Yankees: Catchers rarely remain productive once they get past 35, but Posada, with 40 homers over the past two seasons, has been. I can't find him in anyone's top-10 catcher rankings, except mine. Hey, I'll be happy to take those 20 home runs in the final round (of a one-catcher league). He's only two seasons removed from an .885 OPS and 22 home runs, and doesn't have to catch regularly, if at all, anymore. Others: Rod Barajas might hurt your team's batting average, but he has 36 homers over the past two seasons. He seems safer than Bengie Molina at this point. Of course, in a two-catcher league, you will have to consider both.
Lance Berkman, 1B, St. Louis Cardinals: I've written and spoken of my affinity for Berkman quite often this winter. The fact is he still hits right-handed pitching, and whether he hits second or fifth in his new lineup, he still should be attractive to fantasy owners. Plus, he'll add outfield eligibility. Like Abreu, I don't care if he can actually play the outfield well. It's not going to cost him many at-bats. We do project across-the-board improvement for Berkman, but a drop of more than 15 rounds from 2010 drafts. Others: I could see Derrek Lee hitting 25 home runs with 90 RBIs. How much earlier will Billy Butler go in your draft for similar production? Also, powerless Todd Helton could hit .300, if healthy. He still has good plate discipline.
Luis Castillo, 2B. New York Mets: It would have to be a really deep league, or an NL-only format, but Castillo did hit .302 with 20 stolen bases just two years ago. Everyone simply assumes Castillo is done, but stranger things have happened, and it's not like the Mets have an All-Star in waiting.
Derek Jeter, SS, Yankees: Go ahead, choose Elvis Andrus over him. I don't think it's close, though. Even in Jeter's worst season, he was far more valuable. Watch his batting average climb back up to .300, the stolen bases increase past 20, and he'll score plenty of runs. Others: You don't want Orlando Cabrera anymore. I'm not sure what the Indians are doing. Instead, grab 35-year-old Marco Scutaro. He's still productive.
Scott Rolen, 3B, Cincinnati Reds: Fantasy's No. 10 third baseman last season, Rolen remains risky due to chronic health issues. But look what he did in 133 games in 2010, hitting 20 home runs with a .285 batting average, posting his best year since 2006. He's not a bad corner infielder in a deeper league, and you can get him after Round 20. Others: Placido Polanco is a career .303 hitter. He had offseason elbow surgery, and I'll take the over on a .303 batting average in 2011 (along with 85-plus runs scored). I'd take Polanco over Chipper Jones. Alex Rodriguez doesn't belong in this conversation, since he's the rare 35-year-old that is still coveted.
Torii Hunter, OF, Los Angeles Angels: Abreu's teammate ranked one spot ahead of him on the Player Rater. Now 35, Hunter shouldn't be expected to hit 25 home runs or steal 15 bases, but he's not declining as quickly as you think, and his 152 games played were his most since 2007. I trust a similar underrated season is ahead, and at a bargain price. Others: There are more older yet productive outfielders than any other position. A few I'll keep on my radar include: Magglio Ordonez, Johnny Damon, J.D. Drew, Manny Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano. None of them are as good as they used to be, but not all draftables need to possess major upside. Also, Ichiro Suzuki is like A-Rod; his value is not being suppressed by age.
David Ortiz, DH, Boston Red Sox: I refuse to count out a player who has hit 60 home runs and knocked in 201 runs the past two seasons, and done so despite theoretically skipping production the past two Aprils and being only a minor threat against left-handed pitching. Against right-handers, he still rakes. Yet he barely cracks our top 125 this season. Others: Jim Thome is a wonderful last-round pick if you need power and still have the DH slot open. That's 25 home runs! Hideki Matsui and Vladimir Guerrero will be drafted earlier, and should be, but all three of these guys are more valuable than their age suggests.