Kawasaki, LaHair among early season fantasy baseball sleepers
In this week's edition of the column that I like to refer to as "Who's That?", we look at this season's least heralded foreign import, two young pitchers who have earned spots on major league rosters and a veteran minor leaguer finally getting a fair shot at playing time.
The latest Japanese talent to hit the shores of the Pacific Northwest, Kawasaki was a long-shot to make Seattle's roster when he came to camp as a non-roster invitee in spring training. But the lifetime .294 hitter dazzled manager Eric Wedge by leading all qualifying Cactus or Grapefruit League players with a .455 average while playing steady defense at both shortstop and second base. A left-handed hitter, the eight-time NPB All-Star has a similar approach at the plate as his heralded new teammate, Ichiro Suzuki, but with far less powerful results, as he produced a mere 27 home runs over the course of nine full seasons. However, what makes him so attractive to fantasy owners is his ability to run. In those same nine years, the 30-year old averaged more than 29 stolen bases, including a total of 105 over the past three seasons alone. Seattle's offense has been historically bad in recent years and will look to generate runs in any way possible. While Dustin Ackley is firmly entrenched at second, Brendan Ryan, a bigger (6-foot-2, 195-pounds compared to Kawasaki's 5-foot-10, 165) yet nearly as power-challenged player (153 AB/HR in the majors compared to Kawasaki's 169 AB/HR in Japan) has batted just .247 in his first season-plus with the M's. It's very conceivable that a platoon between the lefty-swinging Kawasaki and the right-handed Ryan develops, which gives the import the advantage. He's a good pickup for AL-only owners strapped for a middle infielder with the potential to be a big help in batting average and steals.
A classic example of when it's sometimes beneficial to lose, Tigers' rookie Duane Below was beaten out in the team's fifth-starter derby in spring training to fellow rookie Drew Smyly. Since Jim Leyland's team didn't need a five-man rotation for the first two weeks of the season due to scheduling, however, both Smyly and Below were optioned to the minors -- yet it was Below who got to travel north with the team when another lefthander, Luis Marte, was forced to the disabled list by a hamstring pull. That was the break Below needed to establish himself as a valuable part of the bullpen, notching a pair of wins in two appearances in a thrilling sweep of the Red Sox. Below's second career victory came in relief of an injured Doug Fister, and he pitched so well (2 1/3 innings, three strikeouts, one hit) that it's possible that the 26-year old Britton, Mich., native is in line to take Fister's turn in the rotation while he's sidelined by a strain in his left side. With a 3.13 ERA and 1.18 WHIP last season in Triple A and a career minor league rate of 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings, Below is in prime position to have fantasy value in the form of vulture wins and K's pitching for an explosive Tigers offense that has already displayed its knack for dramatic comebacks.
The epitome of a Quad-A player, the nine-year veteran of the Seattle and Chicago organizations has finally been given a fair shot at big-league playing time. Until this season, LaHair, 29, had accrued just 219 plate appearances in two trips to the majors despite blitzing the Pacific Coast League for 89 home runs over the past three years, including his 2011 MVP campaign when he hit 38 home runs and drove in 109 RBIs with averages of .331/.405/.664 for the Iowa Cubs. Now he's a starting first baseman who could take advantage of the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. However