30 Questions: Can Ryan Garko take the next step?

Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.

Can Ryan Garko take the next step?

If only Indians first baseman Ryan Garko had stayed a catcher. Back in the day, Garko was a minor league backstop, and if he'd been deemed worthy of wearing the tools of ignorance in the majors, he'd already border on fantasy superstardom. His breakout 2007, in which he hit .289 with 21 home runs and 61 RBIs in 484 at-bats, would've made him the third-most valuable fantasy catcher in the American League. Of course, the second-most valuable catcher in the AL was Garko's teammate, Victor Martinez, so the position change turned out for the best. But still, as a first baseman, Garko wasn't anywhere close to elite last year.

Will 2008 change that? Probably not. But will Garko's production jump with a full season of big league at-bats in his age-27 season? I believe it will.

Garko is already a very good hitter against lefties; in '07, he hit .310 with a .914 OPS versus southpaws. The 2003 third-rounder out of Stanford also saw an uptick in production after the All-Star break, as his overall OPS jumped 43 points, and the difference between his walks and strikeouts dropped from 37 to 23. We also should note that Garko's increased rate of extra-base hits in the second half corresponded with an increased fly ball percentage over all of 2007 (he hit grounders in 42.4 percent and fly balls in 41.1 percent of his contact situations in '06; his numbers in those categories in '07 were 37.7 percent and 43.8 percent, respectively). When those factors converge, especially for a hitter entering his prime years, a power spike often follows.

There's a bit of playing-time danger for Garko, based on the personnel Cleveland expects to keep on its major league roster in 2008. The reason he became the Tribe's full-time first baseman in the first place involved the near-legendary struggles of Andy Marte. The Indians' initial plans for '07 had Marte winning the third-base job and Casey Blake playing a fair amount at first. Instead, Marte spit the bit and was dispatched to the minors. Now Marte is out of options, so he'll be on the big club by hook or by crook, and of course, Blake is still around, too. Should Garko struggle, or should Marte absolutely light it up this spring, it's not impossible that Garko could find his season at-bat total fall something short of the 530 I currently project for him. In addition, remember that Martinez played 30 games at first in '07; when the Indians rest V-Mart, they hate losing his bat and don't want to sit full-time DH Travis Hafner, so when Kelly Shoppach is behind the plate, Garko usually sits.

Still, there's potential for excellent value in Garko. Among 1B-eligible players, he's currently being taken 17th in ESPN.com mixed-league drafts, on average near the beginning of the 15th round. Garko will probably strike out roughly 100 times, so you'd be hard-pressed to say he's a good bet to hit .300, but between .285 and .290 sounds possible, and I'm counting on career-highs in homers, RBI, runs scored and OPS. If he wins the fifth hitting spot in the Indians' lineup over Blake, so much the better for his RBI potential, but Garko actually batted 83 points higher out of the No. 6 hole in '07, so that wouldn't be a problem, either.

Is Garko the player who Ryan Howard is? Of course not. But you can get him on the cheap while padding harder-to-fill positions with higher-rated players. I believe when all's said and done in 2008, Garko will have given you one of the best bangs for the buck of any first basemen in fantasy.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.