The inevitable rebuilding years can be arduous in many keeper leagues, but executed properly, a year or two near the bottom of the standings can yield a keeper list that stakes a contender's claim for many seasons. For tips on the process, see my article on rebuilding strategy. In this space, we identify some of the prime targets for rebuilding teams in NL-only leagues.
The NL All-Rebuilding Team below won't contain the obvious names. Even keeper league newbies already know to pursue high-upside hitters like Matt Kemp and Jay Bruce, along with talented young starters like Ian Snell and closers-in-waiting like Jonathan Broxton. Successful rebuilding usually involves looking deeper than the mere union of youth and talent. This list is therefore not for the shallowest of leagues, but is rather a catalog of NL-only targets who could be purchased for $10 or less in many auctions.
Montero's broken finger means that the more experienced Snyder has a firmer grip on the starting role. Snyder might hold it, as his contact rate and power are trending decidedly upward. Indeed, while Snyder hasn't broken through yet, he has the mark of a legitimate major league starter. Montero, however, has even greater potential. His minor league power was almost the equal of Snyder's, and he showed better contact ability. Twenty-homer power lurks within both players, and both are solid bets for future dividends.
Johnson is a prototypical injury pick for rebuilders. Like Mark Prior, his skills are not in dispute, but he can't seem to stay healthy. Hitters are far more likely to regain all of their pre-injury skills than pitchers, however, so it's a solid bet that Johnson will produce whenever he's in the lineup. Dmitri Young's presence ensures that Johnson will be a draft-day bargain for those who won't need his services until 2009 or 2010.
Second Base: Chris Burke, Arizona Diamondbacks
Burke failed in his first real shot at a starting job, but he's only 27 and has the offensive skills to earn another opportunity. He also has the speed to possibly remain keeper-worthy even if he's still in a utility role by the time your rebuilding is complete.
Shortstop: Felipe Lopez, Washington Nationals
Lopez regressed on the surface last year, but his skills were mostly constant. With Cristian Guzman and Ronnie Belliard around to cloud his playing time, Lopez could be one to avoid in 2008 for many owners. Those needing him in 2009 or 2010, however, will buy low, remembering that he's only 27 and is basically the same player who stole 44 bases in 2006.
Third base: Chad Tracy, Arizona Diamondbacks
Another player who will come at a discount due to competition for playing time, Tracy has the added benefit of an injury discount. Still recovering from knee surgery and unlikely to be ready for Opening Day, Tracy is only 27 and has significant power and batting average potential. Rebuilders can afford to wait until he regains his form. Buy low.
Currently trapped as a backup, Murton has everyday-player skills. He'll get there eventually, and if his climbing fly ball rate is the harbinger of more power, he will be a big earner when he does.
It's too bad Hairston leads the race for the Padres' left field job; otherwise he might come really cheap. In 637 major league at-bats, Hairston has flashed his minor league power (24 homers) but not yet his plate skills (.299 OBP). The power alone is enough for Hairston to hold a starting job, and if the plate discipline and contact skills he showed in the high minors ever emerge, he'll be a $25 player.
Anderson has little power, but makes good contact and keeps the ball on the ground enough to capitalize on his big-time speed. Mark Kotsay is ahead of him, but the 32-year-old is only a stopgap for the Braves. Top prospect Jordan Schafer currently wears the "center fielder-of-the-future" mantle, but he strikes out excessively and hasn't played above Class A. If Anderson plays well this year, he and his 50-steal speed could settle in as Andruw Jones' replacement for a while.
His control improved dramatically, while his strikeouts spiked just as sharply. An ace at home last year, Rodriguez posted mediocre overall numbers due to poor road performances. His best days are ahead.
Unfortunate hit and strand percentages wrecked his surface stats, but the 27-year-old left-hander is a live-armed talent. Now that he's in the rotation, weak control will mean some growing pains, but Sanchez is a potentially dominant starter.
A contender for the Brewers' rotation, Parra looks to be all the way back from his 2005 rotator cuff surgery. Though he lacks ace upside, Parra has the command to succeed in the majors. He could improve his control, but he's ready to be effective right now. Health and opportunity are the only obstacles.
Jimenez was ahead of the left-handed Morales in the minors, but both debuted in Colorado last year. Their minor league numbers are strikingly similar, both showing high strikeout capacity but also control issues. Both saw a dip in strikeouts upon reaching Double-A, and neither showed the command necessary for big league success in either the high minors or last year in the majors. Jimenez is more experienced, and he's the better of two poor bets for 2008 value. Rebuilders, however, should look to land either live-armed hurler, as both have the skills to emerge as productive starters, even in Coors Field.
Pitcher: Dustin Nippert, Arizona Diamondbacks
Nippert displayed solid command in the minor leagues, and he's flashed all of the elements required for success. A low strand percentage tainted his surface stats last year, but his ratios reveal potential. He's likely a couple years away from any sort of consistent effectiveness, but Nippert is definitely worth a flyer for rebuilders.
Pitcher: Heath Bell, San Diego Padres
An inflated hit percentage doomed Bell in 2005 and 2006, and last year's breakout is fully supported by his skill set. Bell is clearly a future closer, and in Petco Park he's a future relief ace. He's still worth paying for, even post-breakout.
Qualls and Cruz are very different pitchers, but they do have three things in common. Both are stuck behind Tony Pena and Brandon Lyon in the Arizona bullpen. Each took a big step forward with his strikeout rate last year, solidifying closer-worthy skills that are greater than those of Pena and Lyon. Finally, both are excellent targets for rebuilders.
The Marlins' bullpen is loaded with talented arms, but Lindstrom might have the best skills of all. He took a big leap forward in 2006, then built on his progress in last year's 67-inning major league debut. Expect Lindstrom to emerge this year as at least the clear No. 2 behind Kevin Gregg.
Despite poor surface stats, Bray is already showing the excellent command that was the hallmark of his minor league career. This former first-rounder is Heath Bell in the making. It's never too early to own future closers when they come with dollar price tags.
Will Harris is a fantasy baseball and college football analyst for ESPN.com.