Anyone remember the 1994 flick "The Shawshank Redemption"?
Sure you do. These days, it's on cable virtually around the clock, and I'd bet that at some point in the 13 years since it was originally released into theaters, someone recommended that you see this vastly underrated, totally underappreciated movie.
I still remember the day "Shawshank" came out; I actually passed on a local free preview of it, and have regretted it ever since. It wound up earning a paltry $18 million, $7 million less than it cost to make, and didn't win a single Oscar. Still, if you've seen it, surely you'd agree that it was award-worthy, even for something like screenwriting or cinematography?
All I can say is, people don't always latch on to the great things right away. Sometimes, it takes time for us to recognize the greatness in a film, or in this column's case, in a baseball player. Sometimes, in fact, we never notice it. Those, though, are the true finds of the fantasy baseball world, the players you steal away from an unsuspecting owner in a trade or at the draft table, and keep cleverly hidden in a dark corner of your roster, never to be noticed by your opponents until you've claimed your league championship.
Sadly, today, it's my duty to uncover those sneaky, underrated players you've got tucked away. These 10 fellows, like the "Shawshank" example, never seem to get a second glance, never earn you a truly fair trade offer for them in return. But if you own them, surely you have and will be pleased with the results at season's end.
1. Todd Jones, RP, Tigers. Admit it, you were among the countless people who believed that by now, Joel Zumaya would be the Tigers' closer. That goes to show you, people chase the upside, the "sexy" pick from a team's bullpen instead of the less-exciting, yet reliable enough reliever. Sure, Jones doesn't grab your attention with his ratios, but did you know that since June 15, 2006, he's 35-for-40 in save chances with a 2.29 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 59 regular-season appearances? Put those numbers up against any closer in the game and he's right there with the best. Plus, with Zumaya out, the Tigers contending and Jones on a closer's contract, it's not like there's any real threat to his job security.
2. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Padres. He's slumping a bit in May, with a .234 batting average, so of course today some people might be hopping off the same Adrian Gonzalez bandwagon they were boarding by the thousands one short month ago. That's no surprise; Gonzalez has spent his entire professional career answering to critics who doubted this former No. 1 overall pick because he didn't race to the big leagues with MVP-caliber numbers. Has anyone considered that maybe it was asking too much for a kid who only two weeks ago turned 25 years old to hit for huge power numbers in his early pro career? Quietly, Gonzalez is developing into a bona fide power source, a heart-of-the-order hitter a team can build around. One of these days, you'll wake up and he'll be that fantasy slugger who, back in 2000, you thought he'd someday be. But by then, it'll be too late to buy in.
3. John Smoltz, SP, Braves. It's not so much that no one gives Smoltz due credit; it's that they don't give him enough credit, at least not in fantasy. The baseball pundits are already chattering about Smoltz's Hall of Fame chances, but in fantasy, what do I constantly hear when Smoltz's name comes up? "He's old." "He's brittle." "He's bound to decline someday." Why do people assume that collapse has to begin today? After all, since his return to the rotation in 2005, Smoltz has 36 wins, a 3.22 ERA and 435 strikeouts, each a top-10 number in MLB during that span. Fantasy owners love chasing upside, which is why guys like Felix Hernandez, Scott Kazmir and Ben Sheets got drafted ahead of him in the preseason, but aren't they all every bit as risky as Smoltz at his age?
4. Mark Teahen, OF, Royals. It's not merely that he's a Royal that makes him underrated; it's the story of his pro career. The Athletics, with all their sabermetric genius, gave up on him in 2004 to stick with Eric Chavez, and then after a year of letting him get comfortable at the big league level, the Royals got sick of his act and demoted him to Triple-A ball in May 2006. Then, when Teahen tore it up after many fantasy owners had ceased paying attention to the goings-on in K.C. late last season, he got overshadowed again by top prospect Alex Gordon, who forced his shift to the outfield. You might have stopped reading Royals box scores after Gordon got off to that dreadful start, but if you did, you missed the fact that Teahen's batting average is back over .300 and he's on pace for a 20-steal, 90-RBI season. That's not bad, especially not for a third-base eligible player.
5. Jeff Francoeur, OF, Braves. In today's sabermetric-obsessed game, it's hard to find a fantasy owner who trusts a free swinger. You'll hear them recall the days of Rob Deer and Gorman Thomas, players who could belt 30 home runs but otherwise kill your team batting average with their strikeout-prone ways. Still, while I agree that most free swingers wind up doomed to the kind of career path that made that '80s duo .225 hitters in the end, there are exceptions to the rule. Vladimir Guerrero and Alfonso Soriano, for instance, are truly special hitters, and I think Francoeur, with the similar athleticism he brings to the table, fits that classification. By the way, something you might not have noticed: Francoeur is on pace to double his walks total from 2006.
6. Kevin Youkilis, 1B, Red Sox. In his case, his performance has a lot to do with his spot in the batting order, No. 2 ahead of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, one of the most favorable lineup spots in baseball. Let's not knock Youkilis' raw talent, though. The "Greek God of Walks" as nicknamed in "Moneyball," Youkilis had a .444 career on-base percentage in the minors, a .381 mark in 2006 and he's at .429 this season, and that .287 career MLB batting average isn't bad, either. Bottom line: You can't make this guy swing at a bad pitch, and that's quite an underrated trait in today's game.
7. Magglio Ordonez, OF, Tigers. Raise your hand if you knew Ordonez was on pace to top a .350 batting average, 40 home runs, 150 RBIs, 150 runs scored and 200 hits this season. Now, Ordonez owners, put your hands down. Anyone left? Now, I agree that there's little chance Ordonez maintains those ridiculous paces, but why don't we call him an automatic for .300-30-100 numbers anymore? It's probably because he missed most of the 2004-05 seasons, but for the past year-plus, he has looked remarkably healthy.
8. Aaron Harang, SP, Reds. His 2006 season probably came as more of a surprise to fantasy owners than any other pitcher's, but the seeds had all been planted the year before, when he had a 3.83 ERA and 1.27 WHIP, and 3.52/1.29 numbers after the All-Star break. No, Harang isn't a fantasy ace, the kind of Cy Young favorite you'd want at the top of your staff. As a No. 2 starter, though, he's excellent. All of his command ratios are right in line with his 2006 numbers, and despite a high-fours ERA, he's on track for 18 wins, 200 K's.
9. Chien-Ming Wang, SP, Yankees. I'm going to continue to stick up for this guy, because there's too much criticism directed at Wang based on his painfully low strikeout rate. Of course it's a drawback that to this point of his career, he averages fewer than 3.5 K's per nine innings, but if you put that aside, he's actually a pretty consistent starter, especially if you know how to use him right. Start Wang in all his home games -- where he's 18-7 with a 3.41 ERA lifetime -- and he's a great fantasy option, and merely avoid the road starts against elite offenses. The funny thing is that so many people are willing to discard Wang, when all you really need is the right game plan for using him.
10. Michael Cuddyer, OF, Twins. All the press in Minnesota focuses on the Twins' two left-handed hitters, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, but fantasy owners shouldn't quickly overlook the man who bats between them (when they're both healthy). Cuddyer finally realized his potential with a 24-homer, 109-RBI campaign in 2006, and if you want to call his 2007 season a disappointment, well, it's quite an impressive "down" year since he's on pace for roughly 20 homers, 110 RBIs and 105 runs scored. Once Mauer gets back into the lineup, Cuddyer's numbers could really begin to rise.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.