Why should the real world get all the fun?
The All-Star break provides us fantasy owners with a few days' welcome rest, too. It's the one time all season where there aren't new numbers to be crunched, meaning far less likelihood of individual player values changing. It's a good time for us to sit back, reflect upon what has happened, evaluate where we stand and prepare accordingly for the near-half season ahead.
It also gives us a chance to award hardware to those most deserving; why should there only be real-life All-Stars, when there are just as worthy fantasy All-Stars? That's where this week's columns come in. Beginning with today's Hit Parade, we're handing out the hardware to two sets of All-Stars: One, the players who lead their respective positions on our Player Rater, and the other, the players who have provided the greatest value to fantasy teams, which are generally those who have most exceeded preseason expectations.
Unfortunately, we're also declaring first-half busts. Those disappointing performers deserve to be called out for three-plus months of lackluster statistics.
To the point of preparing accordingly for the near-half season ahead, we're looking forward to what might occur in the coming weeks. At each position we're tabbing a second-half value pick, a player whose prospects from this point forward might greatly exceed his currently accepted value.
Let's get started, shall we? We'll go position by position
TOP 100 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Player Rater All-Star: Miguel Olivo, Colorado Rockies
First-half All-Star: Olivo
At the time he signed with the Rockies on Jan. 4, who'd have expected that Olivo would not only unseat Chris Iannetta as the Rockies' starting catcher but wind up the top catcher in fantasy through half a season? A better question: Who could have expected that this career .243 hitter entering the year would bat .325 thus far? Coors Field sure seems to agree with him, as he's a .400 hitter with eight home runs and 31 RBIs in 36 home games. While fantasy owners have seemingly been speculating for years on young Rockies catchers (remember Ben Petrick, JD Closser and now Iannetta?), it's a free-swinging veteran who instead might finish with the greatest year ever by a Rockies catcher. Even if Olivo's numbers tumble in the second half, those Coors stats are tough to overlook.
First-half bust: Matt Wieters, Baltimore Orioles
Advertised as a future MVP candidate at the time of his May 29, 2009, major league debut, Wieters managed disappointing (comparative to expectations) .288/.340/.412 (AVG/OBP/SLG) rates as a rookie. Those rates have dipped to .245/.315/.357 as a sophomore. Part of the problem is that he's not seeing as many quality pitches inside the strike zone, only 45.5 percent of the time, down from 48.4 in 2009. He's swinging more often at pitches outside the zone, going from 25.7 to 30.1 percent. Perhaps Wieters has been pressing; it's not unthinkable from a still-learning sophomore on a team struggling terribly.
Second-half value pick: Wieters
His offensive issues are correctable, and is it fair to condemn a 24-year-old with scarcely a year's big-league experience? Wieters did conclude the season's first half with .354/.448/.521 rates and 11 RBIs in his final 15 games, during which time he had nine walks and six K's. It's progress, and I'm still a buyer.
Player Rater All-Star: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers
In addition to finishing the first half third among hitters on the Player Rater, he completed the best first half of his eight-year big-league career. Cabrera's .346 batting average, .651 slugging percentage, 22 homers, 77 RBIs, 27 doubles and 203 total bases all represent his best numbers in any half-season. He hasn't had a second-half OPS below .933 since 2004, so his chances of finishing among the top three hitters overall are exceptional.
First-half All-Star: Paul Konerko, Chicago White Sox
No one appreciated his 2009 contributions -- 28 homers and 88 RBIs -- enough, judging by his No. 22 average draft position among first basemen in the preseason. Konerko was clearly undervalued, and while his 39-homer, 122-RBI paces are a tad surprising, are they really that shocking for a player who has averaged 29-92 numbers in those categories during his White Sox career? Believe, folks.
First-half bust: Prince Fielder, Milwaukee Brewers
For the price of a first-round pick, all Fielder has provided is a personal low in batting average (.265) and full-season paces that would represent his worsts in RBIs (71) and strikeouts (158). He's suffering from a similar problem to Wieters; Fielder's percentage of pitches seen in the strike zone (40.8) ranks third-worst in baseball, so it seems pitchers are working around him, and he's not making especially good adjustments. His .263/.402/.599 rates, 13 homers and 20 RBIs in his past 38 games, however, do offer hope he can still be a top-10 fantasy first baseman from this point forward, even if he's not a top-10 player overall.
Second-half value pick: Adam LaRoche, Arizona Diamondbacks
His second-half history -- a career OPS 133 points higher than in the first half -- is difficult to ignore, and his current home ballpark is the most hitter-friendly in which he has ever played, as evidenced by his eight homers and 36 RBIs in 44 games there so far. LaRoche should make a run at top-10 first baseman status.
Player Rater All-Star: Robinson Cano, New York Yankees
That he was this productive in a half-season's work isn't any surprise. What's surprising is that he did it in the first half of the season, as long-time Cano keeper-league owners know how his second-half OPS is 103 points greater than in the first. His full-season paces are .336-30-107-4 with 113 runs, and considering an average second-half performance for him (scaled to remaining Yankee games) is a .330-11-46-2-43 line, he'll likely finish in this spot.
First-half All-Star: Martin Prado, Atlanta Braves
Though he's "only" on pace for 19 homers and 72 RBIs, Prado has been one of the most valuable fantasy picks to date, thanks to his .325 batting average (ninth best in baseball), 61 runs scored (sixth best) and the fact that he qualifies at three different infield positions (also first and third base). The homers are a bit out of the ordinary, but the batting average and runs scored are not; he hit .311 and totaled 100 runs in 757 plate appearances in 2008 and 2009. Be aware his current pace is 753 PAs, so his 113-run pace looks entirely realistic.
First-half bust: Aaron Hill, Toronto Blue Jays
No one believed he'd match 2009's 36 homers, as his 14.9 home run/fly ball percentage was significantly better than his career rate at the time. Sure enough, that percentage has dipped to 9.4 this year, within range of his 8.1 career number. Still, Hill's pace of 24 homers is respectable and should have been expected. It's everything else that shouldn't. His line-drive rate is a major league worst 9.2 percent, and his well-hit average of at-bats, per Inside Edge, has dropped 62 points, to .217, from last year's number.
You might remember him as a preseason sleeper after a spring-training performance that saw him bat .460 with six home runs, but once the regular season began, Rodriguez couldn't squeeze in enough at-bats to get into a similar groove. Lately, though, the Rays have been finding places for his bat, as he has appeared in their past 39 games and started 35 of those. In those 39 contests, he's a .301 hitter with 20 RBIs and 22 runs.
Player Rater All-Star: David Wright, New York Mets
A heck of a comeback he has enjoyed this season, maintaining 26-homer, 120-RBI and 28-steal paces, which are a lot closer to his 2005 to 2008 norms than last year's 10-72-27 numbers in those categories. Citi Field still gobbles up his potential homers -- he has hit 10 of his 14 on the road -- but a stronger, healthier lineup surrounding him has helped keep him productive, even if he's more likely to finish in the mid-20s in homers than near his personal best of 33.
First-half All-Star: Scott Rolen, Cincinnati Reds
Everyone asks about Rolen's "out-of-nowhere" bounce-back campaign, but those people seem to forget the fact that he managed .320/.377/.469 rates the first half of last season, stroking line drives all over the field. The only thing that's out of character for Rolen is the power, but Great American Ball Park has a way of helping in that department. Perhaps Rolen's .282/.354/.431 second-half rates of 2009 are again a reasonable expectation from him down the stretch, but considering how little he cost in the draft, can his owners complain?
First-half bust: Pablo Sandoval, San Francisco Giants
It's difficult to explain Sandoval's sluggish first half, besides the fact that he rarely sees pitches within the strike zone, with a 37.9-percent rate that ranks second-worst in baseball. Perhaps that's causing him to press, but two other things stand out: His .289 BABIP is significantly lower than his numbers of 2008 and 2009, and his 5.5 home run/fly ball percentage is down from his past norms as well. Sandoval could be a buy-low candidate, but maybe more on the chance he can amass .290-10-35 than .330-15-50 second-half numbers.
Second-half value pick: Ian Stewart, Colorado Rockies
During the past three seasons, the Rockies have performed significantly better as a team after the All-Star break than before it, and if that holds true again this year, it's only going to help their individuals pad their runs/RBI totals. Stewart only continues to improve his contact rate, posting a career-best 74.4 percent so far, and his line drive rate is a robust 25.7 percent.
Player Rater All-Star: Hanley Ramirez, Florida Marlins
Wow, couldn't see that one coming. Even in a "down" year by Han-Ram's standards -- and it can only be termed that because he's not the base stealer he once was -- he finds himself on pace for a .301-24-99-33 campaign. In a year where so many quality infielders have spent noticeable time on the disabled list, Ramirez remains the one rock for fantasy owners up the middle.
First-half All-Star: Rafael Furcal, Los Angeles Dodgers
Speaking of middle infielders who have made DL trips, Furcal spent nearly a month of the season there, yet the remainder of the season's first half was one of the most productive middle infielders in fantasy. His .333 batting average would lead the National League if he had the plate appearances required to qualify. Since his return to active status May 25, he's a .346 hitter with six homers, 29 RBIs and 35 runs scored. Furcal might spend the rest of his career fighting nagging injuries, but when healthy he's among the most productive at his position.
First-half bust: Jason Bartlett, Tampa Bay Rays
Regression for Bartlett was about as predictable as anything this preseason, but who could have guessed that in a year's time he'd have lost 89 points in batting average, not to mention almost entirely stopped running? His four stolen bases in six tries are most disconcerting on a team that never hesitates to grant the green light on the base paths. AL-only owners might have to keep Bartlett around, but in mixed leagues there isn't much hope for a quick turnaround.
Second-half value pick: Stephen Drew, Arizona Diamondbacks
Historically more of a second- than first-half player, Drew twice in four big-league seasons has managed a .300-plus batting average and .850-plus OPS after the All-Star break, but he has never accomplished either before the break in his career. While he did endure a rocky first half, he did finish on a positive note, batting .318 (14-for-44) in his final 13 contests.
Player Rater All-Stars: Carl Crawford, Tampa Bay Rays; Josh Hamilton, Texas Rangers; and Alex Rios, Chicago White Sox
Now this is the kind of power production people should have expected from Crawford during his prime years -- paces of 21 homers and 94 RBIs to go along with 58 steals. He picked a good time to put forth a career year, as he's a free agent at season's end. Quite the coincidence, eh? Hamilton, finally healthy, might find himself a prime candidate for Comeback Player of the Year honors, as he performed as well during the first half as he has at any other stage of his career. His 64 RBIs fall short of the 95 he had the first half of 2008, but his .346/.390/.625 rates and 22 home runs all represent personal bests before the break. People tend to doubt Hamilton's ability to stay healthy -- and they do so with good reason -- but if he has done so for this long, why are we so quick to doubt it'll continue? Small sample size, yes, but Rios' .199/.229/.301 rates, three homers and 29 K's in 146 at-bats during a late-season run with the White Sox in 2009 probably scared many prospective fantasy owners away during the preseason. He has bounced back in a major way, however, batting .305 -- a career best -- and maintaining 29-homer and 44-steal paces. Rios has also maintained career bests with his walk and strikeout rates, which bodes well for his chances at keeping this up.
First-half All-Stars: Rios; Chris Young, Arizona Diamondbacks; and Corey Hart, Milwaukee Brewers
Like Rios, Young has a legitimate shot at a 30/30 campaign, with full-season paces of 28 homers and 31 steals, except that his batting average (currently .266) isn't quite so impressive. No one buys Young for his batting average, however, so don't be afraid to trust him making a serious run for 30/30 status. He does, after all, have a lifetime second-half OPS 96 points greater than in the first half. Though Hart no longer steals bases at the rate he did when he was two or three years younger, his power has taken a significant step forward this season, which isn't entirely out of character for a player who, at age 26, managed 45 doubles. He already has 21 homers; that's three shy of his previous career best. The only thing not to like about him, in fact, is that the last time he was a first-half standout, in 2008, he endured a miserable swoon after the All-Star break. But back then, he allowed himself to become more undisciplined at the plate down the stretch. You'd have to think that with a couple of years' more experience he won't be at as much risk for that.
Here's how bad his first half was: He actually endured a stretch of 66 games during which time he batted .178/.231/.291, hit only six homers and struck out in 27.1 percent of his at-bats. By the way, Lind appeared in just 86 games total, meaning that dreadful slump encompassed more than three-quarters of his first half. Sure, it was nice to see him hit three home runs and bat .333 in his final six contests leading into the break, but he has a lot of work to do to get even in the ballpark, value-wise, of where he was picked in the preseason.
Second-half value picks: Carlos Beltran, New York Mets; and Carlos Quentin, Chicago White Sox
I've mentioned a few times on these pages that I regard Beltran's potential as a .280-25-100-5 type, scaled to remaining Mets games. (That means .280-11-46-2 numbers the rest of the way.) He probably won't attempt many steals, and he'll be as risky in the health department as anyone, but at this stage of the season it's foolish not to play for the upside. Quentin might currently be sporting a .244 batting average, but if you're putting much stock in that, you're undervaluing him. He's a .368 hitter with 11 homers and 28 RBIs in his past 21 contests. He could easily challenge for top-10 outfielder status the rest of the way, health willing.
Player Rater All-Star: Vladimir Guerrero, Texas Rangers.
First-half All-Star: Guerrero
I always believed that the move to Texas would help delay Guerrero's decline at least slightly, but no one could possibly have expected he'd maintain full-year paces that would put any season he produced the past half-decade to shame. Guerrero was a .394/.471/.705 career hitter (50 games) at Rangers Ballpark entering the year, and sure enough, he's a .340/.381/.585 hitter in 49 games there this season. It's not like the ballpark factor is going away, either, so there's not a lot of reason to expect him to decline in performance, at least not significantly.
First-half bust: Andruw Jones, Chicago White Sox
Not that he was highly regarded on draft day, but Jones was a hot pickup early in the regular season, thanks in part to his scorching-hot April (.259/.394/.630 rates). People were theorizing that the Jones of his prime years in Atlanta was back, and that he'd suddenly recapture everyday at-bats. Unfortunately, he ran cold almost immediately thereafter, and is a mere .170/.280/.295 hitter who has averaged but 2.2 plate appearances per White Sox game since May 6.
Upgrade your roster
Add: Chris Davis, 1B, Texas Rangers
Drop: Justin Smoak, 1B, Seattle Mariners
To think, there was a point a few weeks back when this appeared to be an imminent change at first base in Texas, as Davis, who had been demoted to the minors due to a slow start, was tearing things up in Triple-A, while Smoak, who was recalled to take Davis' place with the Rangers, was struggling to adapt to big-league pitching. Instead, thanks to the Cliff Lee trade, both of these players now get a chance to play every day.
So why Davis over Smoak? Two reasons: One is the ballpark factor, as Rangers Ballpark is significantly more hitter-friendly than Safeco Field. If Smoak couldn't cut it in Texas, what chance does he have of breaking through in Seattle? The other is that Davis has a track record of strong second-half performance, having managed .291/.332/.523 numbers after the All-Star break last season, including .308/.338/.496 rates in a 36-game, late-season call-up after a similar stint in the minors.
Also consider adding
Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates: Though he got off to a somewhat slow start, he seemed to pick up the pace heading into the All-Star break, batting .289 (11-for-38) with three homers in his final 10 games.
Brad Eldred, OF, Colorado Rockies: Even if he's only a platoon man for the next couple weeks, he's a powerful bat who might do enough to make an impact in NL-only leagues. To that point, he had 22 homers and 64 RBIs in 71 games for Triple-A Colorado Springs at the time of his promotion.
Chris Iannetta, C, Colorado Rockies: He's not going to steal too many starts from Miguel Olivo, but even part-time catchers have a place in larger fantasy leagues that require two catchers, particularly NL-only formats. Though Iannetta has appeared in only seven of the past 16 Rockies games, he has batted .286 (8-for-28) with four homers and eight RBIs in them.
New position qualifiers
Twenty games: Pat Burrell (OF), Bobby Crosby (SS) and Ruben Tejada (2B)
Ten games: Juan Castro (3B), Jerry Hairston Jr. (2B) and Wilson Valdez (2B)
Five games: Joaquin Arias (1B), Bill Hall (SS), Adam Rosales (1B) and Ben Zobrist (1B)
One game: Brad Eldred (1B), Alcides Escobar (OF), Chris Getz (3B), Chris Gimenez (C), Anderson Hernandez (3B), Chris Iannetta (3B), Paul McAnulty (1B), Aaron Miles (SS), Cody Ransom (2B), Niuman Romero (1B) and Oscar Salazar (2B)
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.