Undervalued players comprise one of the most important groups to target in any draft. If you can identify them in the next few months and hit on a few once baseball draft season rolls around, you'll reap the rewards all year long.
Quite often, last year's busts end up being undervalued in the current year. While some players go bust in the first year of a real career decline, others simply have one bad year that ends up being an anomaly. Let's start separating the latter from the former, with four guys who can't wait for the 2012 season to begin.
Hanley Ramirez, Marlins -- Ramirez's 2011 was so bad, right in the middle of his prime, that I wouldn't have believed his stats when I sat down to write this had I not marveled at his struggles for most of last season. After five seasons in which he never posted on OPS less than .833 -- including three years of a .900-plus OPS -- Ramirez hit .243/.333/.379 with 10 homers in 92 games. A shoulder injury suffered in August cost him the rest of the season, but it was already a lost year for a guy who likely went no later than third in any draft across the country. His line-drive rate dipped to a career-low 15.9 percent, while his ground-ball rate topped 50 percent for the second straight year.
So why do I like Ramirez to bounce back? Come on, it's Hanley. This is a phenomenally talented guy who is in his age 29 season. Before last season, he was a bankable top-five fantasy player for three years running. The Marlins have a nice core around him with Jose Reyes, Mike Stanton, Gaby Sanchez and Logan Morrison, and the new stadium can't be any worse on hitters than the old one. He'll have eligibility at shortstop and third base, two of the shallowest positions in fantasy baseball. In Ozzie Guillen, Ramirez has a manager who will give him the green light on the base paths, no matter where he hits in the order, welcome news to fantasy owners. Is he the first pick? No. Is he a top-five pick? Probably not. Is he a first rounder? Absolutely.
Colby Rasmus, Blue Jays -- Conventional wisdom is that Tony LaRussa killed Rasmus' tenure in St. Louis. The talented center fielder and the no-nonsense coach never saw eye-to-eye, and that ultimately earned him a ticket north of the border to Toronto. Not true. You know what really killed Rasmus' career as a Cardinal?
After belting 23 homers in 2010, Rasmus hit just 14 last year. The reason? He stopped squaring up the ball and started getting underneath it. A lot. Rasmus had an infield fly ball percentage of 15.5 a year ago, a threefold increase over his first two years in the majors. As you might expect, his line-drive rate fell to 16.5 percent after coming in at 19.6 percent and 19.4 percent the previous two seasons. It's easy to fault LaRussa, but you might get fed up, too, if your supposedly up-and-coming centerfielder started hitting as if he were swinging a lob wedge.
Why do I like Rasmus in '12? Other than those unsightly pop-ups, his numbers were pretty steady last season. His K-rate fell 5.5 percentage points to 21.1 percent. His walk rate dipped a few points, but still came in at a respectable 9.5 percent. Despite a terrible year, he managed to hit 24 doubles and six triples, so the guy still has a knack for hitting for extra bases. Let's not forget that he turned 25 in August, and has yet to have his 1,500th career at-bat. At the expectant price, I'm willing to give him another shot in my outfield.
Just quit it with the pop-ups, Colby.
Adam Dunn, White Sox -- This is a personal one for me. In all my years of playing fantasy sports, I've never been as wrong on a player as I was on Dunn last year. Somewhere buried in the SI.com archives is an article I wrote last March making 11 bold predictions for the 2011 MLB season. Sometimes "bold" ends up becoming "foolish," and that's never been truer than my prediction that Dunn would lead the American League in home runs last season. What we all know now, none better than my fellow Chicagoans unfortunate enough to be White Sox fans, is that Dunn had a historically awful season in '11. From '04-10, Dunn averaged 40 home runs with a .381 OBP and .533 SLG. In '11, he hit .159/.292/.277 with 11 homers while absorbing 1,452,943 boos from White Sox fans (number approximate).
So why will Dunn, he of the precipitous decline, bounce back? Because power doesn't just disappear in one year. Because U.S. Cellular Field is still one of the best places to play for a power hitter. Because, at 32, his best skills -- power, a great eye and bat speed -- should still be there. Because he's had an entire year to adjust to American League pitching. Because he still took walks at a 15.1-percent rate last year.
But mainly because he owes me for last year.
Mat Latos, Reds -- Latos isn't a true bounce-back candidate after a strong '11, but we'll wedge him in here because I believe he will be undervalued by many fantasy owners who'll downgrade him after his move to Cincinnati from San Diego. It's true, Latos left behind one of the league's preeminent pitcher's parks for a bandbox, and while his ERA and WHIP could take a hit, I think the move East is something you can exploit in your draft.
For all intents and purposes, Latos has been the same solid guy each of his two full seasons in the majors. In '10, he struck out 9.21 batters per nine innings. Last year, that number dipped a bit to 8.57. In '10, he walked 2.44 batters per nine innings. That number was slightly worse in '11 at 2.87. He has surrendered about three-fourths of a home run every nine innings of his career. His BABIP in '10 was .273, and it was .284 last season. He got 1.1 ground balls for every fly ball in '10; last year, that number fell to 1.04. As such, his ERA in each of his first two years has been great. Last year, he posted a 3.47 ERA, with a 3.16 FIP. At age 24, he's still got plenty of room to improve.
So how do you take advantage of these facts come draft day? Play up the move to Cincinnati. Talk about how a pitcher without extreme ground-ball tendencies is bound to struggle at Great American Ballpark. Play up the fact he went just 9-14 a season ago. Even if you're someone who is seduced by the evil stat of pitcher wins, remember that he's going from a below-average Padres squad to a Reds team that figures to compete for the NL Central crown.
Some of those fly balls that found gloves in San Diego will be souvenirs in Cincinnati, but some of the ground balls that scooted into the outfield in will find gloves in one of the league's best defensive infields. There are some things to hate about Latos' move, but more to like, and nothing should keep the talented 24-year-old from continuing his ascent up the totem pole of starting pitchers in the majors.