Eric Mack
Thursday February 17th, 2011

Sometimes you have to go against the grain when trying to win a game where everyone is so competitive. The one who can score on the calculated risks can be the one that comes out on top in your fantasy league.

It is the hardest pill to swallow -- the injury risks -- but it can be the Popeye spinach for your fantasy team. Some people just outright ignore players with injury histories.

Ask the Josh Hamilton owners. Ask the Rickie Weeks bargain-bin hunters. Look at those who lucked into Vladimir Guerrero in the latter rounds last year.

That trio was among the top 25 hitters in fantasy a year ago. They went far lower than the top 25 hitters on draft day, though.

Tim Hudson, Brett Myers, Billy Wagner -- they were among the top 25 pitchers at year's end. Wagner was the third-best closer in fantasy in standard leagues. Yet, those pitchers went in the mid-to-late rounds. Myers might not have been picked at all in some formats. That's some bang for your fantasy buck.

This is Part IV of the series on finding inefficiency in the fantasy marketplace: The injury-risk sleepers. Unlike 27-year olds and third-year starting pitchers, we have seen the injury-riddled vets during better days. The potential has been realized before, but an injury-prone perception still weighs down their value and makes them potential bargains.

The second-half of the series on finding fantasy bargains deals with the unknowns in finding this year's fantasy team. And it begins with the veterans who have injury stigmas attached to them. And also those overlooked sophomores who failed to impress as rookies and the rookies who have still yet to do anything.

Not all of us can think alike, and only one team is going to win. The one that scores a breakthrough player coming off an injury just might be the one that does.

Here are the top-injury risk sleepers to target on draft day.

Career highs by category: .301 AVG, 9 HR, 60 RBI, 98 R, 70 SB Projections: .291-12-75-105-50

Before his injury-ruined 2010, Ellsbury was the second-best fantasy outfielder in standard scoring leagues. No fooling. The good news is his injury was a freak accident -- not related to his valuable legs (it was his ribs) -- and it just didn't get enough time to heal. It has now. He might not get picked among the top 10 outfielders this spring. He should, though. He has the potential to be better than anyone at his position, because of the steals ... and, oh, the fact he is in his prime at age 27 helps, too.

Career highs by category: .306-34-108-86-3 Projections: .285-30-100-90-0

Morales' career highs all came in his one full season in the major leagues in '09. He lost most of last year to a broken ankle incurred in a fateful walkoff homer celebration. Apparently ankles snap when jumping wildly onto home plate amid a mass of humanity. The ankle can sap a player's speed for the rest of his life, but Morales makes his bones hitting bombs and driving in runs. If you assume mild improvement on his lone full season's numbers, he should smash those projections and perform like a top-five fantasy first baseman -- if not top-five hitter overall. That, despite the fact he will be go among the top 10 at his position on draft day.

Career highs by category: 12 Wins, 1.34 ERA, 95 Ks, 0.908 WHIP, 47 Saves Projections: 2-2.75-75-1.107-32

Nathan is this year's Wagner, who overcame the same elbow-ligament replacement surgery. Nathan won't be 12 months out of surgery until Opening Day -- unlike Wagner who was over 18 months removed -- but he is a few years younger at the time of surgery/return. That counts for something. The fact Nathan might not open the year as the Twins' closer should only help him fall further on draft day, if not out of the draft pool altogether. The Twins are a top contender with a deep pitching staff, all of which could combine to make Nathan the rags to No. 3 overall closer story Wagner was.

Career highs by category: .318-33-78-75-20 Projections: .275-32-105-90-20

If Nathan is this year's Wagner, Cruz could be this year's Hamilton. In stretches, Cruz was perhaps the most productive outfielder in fantasy. It certainly helps he is in that potent Rangers lineup and plays in a hitter's park. The issue is whether anyone will get a full season out of him. Like Weeks' breakthrough first "full" season a few years before free agency in '10, Cruz could be next in that regard. You should doubt he hits .300 for a full year, especially with that strikeout rate, but even a .270 average over 500-plus at-bats for the first time could mean 100-plus RBI -- maybe even 120 in that lineup/ballpark.

Career highs by category: .319-31-86-102-31 Projections: .281-22-75-105-23

Speaking of injury-risk sluggers in that optimal Texas environment ... despite being just 28, Kinsler has career highs that would make him a first-round pick if he could put them altogether. Injuries have plagued him throughout his career and kept him from reaching 500 at-bats for a third consecutive season. There were good signs a year ago, though. His average was up along with his walk rate. If his power returns and his health remains good, he could be ready for a monster year that could top all fantasy second basemen.

Career highs by category: 19-2.28-240-1.044-0 Projections: 12-3.36-180-1.186-0

You will notice more hitters than pitchers in this top 10. That is because pitching requires pristine health and one injury can lead to another. Peavy is the poster-boy for that. Peavy hasn't had a full season since his career high 223 1/3 innings and 240 strikeouts in '07. Reports are he is ahead of a timetable that put him on track for the start of the season. He could have a very good contender to pitch for. If he reaches 180 innings -- a pretty tall order -- he could perform like a top-10 fantasy ace again. He might not get picked in the top 45 starting pitchers this spring.

Career highs by category: .260-16-60-72-14 Projections: .275-20-80-80-5

Here is a real sleeper slugger of the group. If you have heard of Gordon, you know he isn't worth a ... um, uh ... pick. But let's humor ourselves for a minute and buy into the reports he has totally reconstructed a swing that has kept him from making good on that elite talent. It has been hard to imagine he came more highly touted than Ryan Braun and Evan Longoria among former third-base prospects. He won't get drafted in many formats as an outfielder now, but age 27 can do a lot for lost souls, err, swings. He could be the most popular waiver pick-up of the year.

Career highs by category: 13-3.25-239-1.269-0 Projections: 14-4.01-180-1.300-0

Kazmir has had just one 200-plus inning season in his injury-plagued career. He has had notorious issues with high pitch counts that might have led to those injury woes. The Angels have some things working in their favor for a rebound, though. Kazmir is entering his prime years at age 27 and he is playing for a rather large $13.5 million club-held option that comes with a more affordable $2.5 million buyout if he posts the stinker seasons he has in the past two. It is time for Kazmir to step forward ... as a pitcher that might rank in the top 80 starting pitchers in fantasy right now.

Career highs by category: .321-34-130-97-3 Projections: .286-30-100-90-0

There was a raging debate on whether Morneau could hit .300 again after alternating years above that threshold and going somewhere in the .270 range. Well, how about him hitting .345 before getting another concussion-inducing blow to the head? This is a year he is due to drop into the .270 range, and Morneau reportedly still wasn't 100 percent or swinging a bat before pitchers and catchers reported. It could affect him in spring training and perhaps even the season. In fact, he might never be the same if you consider post-concussion syndrome has ended some careers, like former Twin Corey Koskie. But, here is where risk and reward must be weighed. A healthy Morneau is an AL and fantasy MVP. A fuzzy one could be done for his career. Let's assume the best and he winds up closer to the former.

Career highs by category: .326-17-83-118-20 Projections: .300-18-80-110-18

Let's finish this list in the same place we started it -- with a 27-year-old former fantasy star that is coming off a freak (not chronic) season-ending injury for the Red Sox. All of Pedroia's career highs came in his surprising AL MVP campaign in '08. But he has been remarkably close to that career-best pace in the second half. His broken foot has gotten ample time to heal and shouldn't really affect his game much, if at all. Pedroia was slugging at a 25-homer pace before his injury, so an age-27 breakthrough of .330-25-100-120-20 might be possible (even if beyond most of our imaginations for the pint-sized originator of the "Laser Show").

There are hundreds of players who can, and will, fall to you later than usual because of injury risk dragging down their values. We cannot go in depth on all of them here, but you should follow them closely as spring training evolves. Or, you can use this list as a who-to avoid, if you want to follow the sheep and minimize risk.

Here are some of the top injury risks to watch, broken down by their position they are eligible at on draft day and listed by our rankings:

Catchers Jorge Posada, NYY; Carlos Santana, CLE; Miguel Montero, ARI; Russell Martin, NYY; Ryan Doumit, PIT; Jarrod Saltalamacchia, BOS.

First basemen Kevin Youkilis, BOS; Justin Morneau, MIN; Kendry Morales, LAA; Lance Berkman, STL; Todd Helton, COL.

Second basemen Chase Utley, PHI; Dustin Pedroia, BOS; Ian Kinsler, TEX; Rickie Weeks, MIL; Brian Roberts, BAL; Howard Kendrick, LAA; Jed Lowrie, BOS; Freddy Sanchez, SF; Carlos Guillen, DET; Mike Aviles, KC; Alexi Casilla, MIN.

Third basemen Alex Rodriguez, NYY; Aramis Ramirez, CHC; Chipper Jones, ATL; Scott Rolen, CIN; Placido Polanco, PHI; Miguel Tejada, SF; Edwin Encarnacion, TOR; David Freese, STL; Mark Teahen, CHW.

Shortstops Jose Reyes, NYM; Jimmy Rollins, PHI; Rafael Furcal, LAD; Tejada, SF; J.J. Hardy, BAL; Asdrubal Cabrera, CLE; Lowrie, BOS; Edgar Renteria, CIN; Casilla, MIN; Orlando Cabrera, FA.

Outfielders Hamilton, TEX; Ellsbury, BOS; Nelson Cruz, TEX; Carlos Quentin, CHW; Curtis Granderson, NYY; Grady Sizemore, CLE; Manny Ramirez, TB; Jason Bay, NYM; Magglio Ordonez, CHW; Adam Jones, BAL; Chris Coghlan, FLA; Johnny Damon, TB; Travis Snider, TOR; J.D. Drew, BOS; Alex Gordon, KC; Josh Willingham, OAK; Mark DeRosa, SF; Pat Burrell, SF; Matt Joyce, TB; Dexter Fowler, COL; Kyle Blanks, SD; Cameron Maybin, FLA; Aaron Roward, SF; Jonny Gomes, CIN; Juan Rivera, TOR; Nate McLouth, ATL.

Designated hitters Guerrero, BAL; Adam Lind, TOR; Hideki Matsui, NYY; Jim Thome, MIN; Travis Hafner, CLE; Eric Chavez, FA; Dan Johnson, TB; Nick Johnson, FA.

Starting pitchers Josh Johnson, FLA; Chris Carpenter, STL; Roy Oswalt, PHI; Francisco Liriano, MIN; Josh Beckett, BOS; Hudson, ATL; Myers, HOU; Jaime Garcia, STL; Shaun Marcum, MIL; Brett Anderson, OAK; Edinson Volquez, CIN; Jake Peavy, CHW; Ted Lilly, LAD; Brandon Morrow, TOR; Johan Santana, NYM; Kevin Slowey, MIN; Jair Jurrjens, ATL; Ian Kennedy, ARI; Tommy Hunter, TEX; Daisuke Matsuzaka, BOS; Scott Kazmir, LAA; Bud Norris, HOU; Jake Westbrook, STL; J.A. Happ, HOU; Jon Niese, NYM; Homer Bailey, CIN; Jordan Zimmermann, WAS; Kyle Drabek, TOR.

Relief pitchers Mariano Rivera, NYY; Andrew Bailey, OAK; Jose Valverde, DET; Brad Lidge, PHI; Jonathan Broxton, LAD; Francisco Rodriguez, NYM; Huston Street, COL; Joe Nathan, MIN; Fernando Rodney, LAA; Koji Uehara, BAL; J.J. Putz, ARI; J.P. Howell, TB; Brandon Lyon, HOU; David Aardsma, SEA; Jake McGee, TB.

Like all the rest of the categories in our preseason series on potential breakouts and sleepers, it is advisable to highlight these names on your cheatsheets or mark them with an *. It shouldn't be a mark of warning as much as a mark that suggests this player is potentially better than this if he can stay healthy for a full season.

Sure, many of these players might be injury busts again, but the purpose of this fantasy rule of thumb is to score potential stars on the cheap. They already are coming cheaper than their talents or past production suggests they should.

Eric Mack writes bi-weekly for You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy. Hit him up. He honestly has nothing better to do with his free time.

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