To win your fantasy baseball league, you don't want to merely draft with the rest of the crowd and cross your fingers, hoping your number has come up this year. You can do that -- slotting players by their past season's numbers or three-year averages -- but it just doesn't seem like a reliable way to win.
If everyone follows the same path, odds are they are going to wind up in the same place in the end: Listening to someone else savor bragging rights.
You want to find the breakouts before they happen. Targeting players on the verge of their prime is an outstanding way to do that.
Look at this year's projected first-round picks in fantasy baseball. Now, compare them to last year's: Welcome, Matt Kemp and Jacoby Ellsbury (at least in rotisserie formats) to Round 1. And then, deeper into your pre-draft rankings, consider last fall's World Series MVP, David Freese.
Where did these breakthroughs come from? Well, each of them was in his age-27 season. Their careers took a huge turn upward.
This writer has long held a belief there is something that happens to a baseball player at that age. He becomes acclimated to the major leagues, his body reaches his physical peak and his numbers can explode from their previous levels.
There are a number of ways you can find breakouts before they happen. We outline six of them in SI.com's fantasy baseball preview: 27-year-olds, third-year starting pitchers, sophomores, rookies, injury-risk sleepers and players in a contract year. This is Part I, and a personal favorite: 27-year-olds entering their prime.
A baseball player's prime is roughly the ages 26-32. Baseball history has bore that out, so management types and the game's power brokers adhere to that. We should in fantasy, too.
Sure, they are a number of cases where a player has already maxed out in fantasy value before his 27th birthday. And there are many 27-year-olds that never amount to much of anything -- even some with some incredible hype and potential.
But this 27-year-old fantasy rule of thumb is more about finding breakouts and sleepers, players who can outperform their draft position and make your fantasy baseball team a monster. At 27, if a player has yet to really soar to his ceiling, this is as good of a year as any to anticipate it happening.
With this 27-year-old breakouts list this year, we outline the top 10 27-year-olds who look the most capable of outperforming their draft position. Knowing Kemp is still 27 -- some players with birthdays falling within the baseball season get two years on the list -- won't help you much. He is already a top-three pick, if not the No. 1 overall in rotisserie formats.
This list is about potentially drafting the next Kemp and Ellsbury breakthrough player of the year.
Upton was on this list a year ago, too, and he had one of his better years (.243-23-81-82-36, .331-.429), but it wasn't quite the .300-30-100-100-30 fantasy monster he was supposed to become. Well, this is the year, particularly if you consider his contract situation. Upton is headed for free agency for the first time in his career next fall and he will be doing it smack dab in his prime. If there is a Kemp in this class of 27-year-olds this year, it is Upton. We could see him erupting to go .290-30-100-100-30 and maybe even make more fireworks in the postseason. That kind of potential for a player you are going to draft in Round 5 or later.
Price wasn't quite right a year ago, going 12-13, but he did set career highs in starts, innings and strikeouts. Now, he is going to get picked in a more reasonable range because fantasy owners love to overemphasize last year's numbers in general and win-loss totals specifically. The 27-year-old breakthrough theory is more targeted for hitters, but a pitcher can be physically ready to dominate at that age, too, and we still haven't seen the full-season best of Price. He is going to win a Cy Young and it wouldn't take much for him to beat his career bests across the board. He can be this year's Justin Verlander.
Two teams have already given up on Young, who was supposed to combine with the aforementioned Upton to form the top of the fantasy outfield class for years. Fantasy owners are certainly ready to give up on Young, too, who has performed all too similarly to his older brother. Young won't ever be the 30-steal threat he was supposed to be and he might never prove strong enough to hit 30 homers, but if there is a year things can suddenly come together, it is the year he turns 27. Also, if you want to find a sleeper, look at the top of your fantasy draft and pick a hitter that is hitting in front of the No. 1 overall pick. Young can soar, hitting fastballs in front of Miguel Cabrera. Young is a late-round pick any league and will be a bargain at that spot, assuming he doesn't do something stupid to hurt his spot on the team -- like he had done at various times before.
Jones is coming off a career year and clearly has his arrow pointing up. While he is still a few years from free agency, he is in a make-or-break time for his earning potential at the back end of his arbitration years. Jones won't steal 30 bases, but he can be a fantasy monster in stretches. He hit .343 last May, slugged seven homers in June and hit .320 and stole five bases in July. He can put it all together in his age-27 season, making a .285-30-100-90-15 campaign a reality.
Salty was supposed to be the burgeoning stud fantasy catcher when he arrived in 2007 with 11 homers in 308 at-bats. He hasn't been able to play a full season since, although he came close last year with the Red Sox. With the likes of Carlos Santana, Buster Posey, Alex Avila, Matt Wieters, Miguel Montero, J.P. Arencibia and Wilson Ramos going off the board before Salty in most drafts this spring, there is an opportunity to catch a sleeper here. Salty is capable of going .265-20-80-65 (.330, .500), great production that comes as a fallback catcher option.
Gamel is going to try to replace Prince Fielder at first base in Milwaukee, a tall order, but at least it gives one of Triple-A's best sluggers a chance to make an impact in the major leagues. There wasn't much of an opening with his questionable glove at third, but if he wins the first base job this spring, look out. Gamel went .310-28-96-90-2 (.372-.540) in 493 Triple-A at-bats a year ago. Save for a batting average more likely in the .260-.270 range, Gamel can reach those numbers in his first full season in the majors. He can really hit and he is going to be a real steal late.
This is what the 27-year-old theory is all about: Talents like Stewart. They get lost for a few years and suddenly find it. The Rockies could really regret giving up on Stewart, who will get plenty of rope to succeed in Chicago with the rebuilding Cubs. Stewart won't even get picked in many fantasy leagues, but he can perform like a top 12 fantasy third baseman. A .275-30-90-90 season is not out of the question yet. Watch him closely this spring.
Like Gamel, Murphy needs to prove capable of a position switch, but he can really hit. He has tried to transition to second for years, but injuries and a body better suited for the corners has quite him from really taking off. Murphy has the makings of a .290-20-80-80 hitter, which would be outstanding production for a late-rounder who is eligible at first, second and third base on draft day. It is a make-or-break year for Murphy with the rebuilding and patient Mets, but his fantasy value all hinges on his ability to play second every day. He isn't going to play first (Ike Davis) or third (David Wright) and Murphy failed miserably in his attempt to play the outfield. If second doesn't work out, maybe he takes third base if Wright is traded midseason. Regardless, Murphy's bat needs to find its way into the Met lineup and deeper fantasy rosters.
Unless you follow spring training stats, S-Rod doesn't look like much. He really is a burgeoning slugging middle infielder, though. He is competing for the starting shortstop job in Tampa (over a better glove man in Reid Brignac), but even if Rodriguez doesn't win out, he will get enough at-bats -- with second, third and shortstop eligibility -- to prove as a worthy late-round pick in fantasy. The versatility and unrealized pop is going to come in handy. He could have a J.J. Hardy-like breakthrough among slugging infielders.
Lowrie was a man without a position or a job in Boston, but he should find Houston and it's equally favorable hitter's park suits him nicely. He will be handed the starting shortstop job without his chain being jerked and he should start jerking balls out with more consistency. Lowrie got off to scorching start last season, hitting .368 in April, before more injuries and lineup blocking got in his way. With that behind him and a second chance at an age-27 breakthrough, our bet is Lowrie proves to be a gem as a late-round infielder.
You might not like these picks; in fact, you might be sick of waiting on these guys to reach their potential. But there are a number of 27-year-olds you can target throughout your drafts that can enjoy career years as they start their baseball prime. Here are the other top 27-year-olds by position, draft them in abundance.
Saltalamacchia Born: 05/02/1985
Prince Fielder Born: 05/09/1984
Neil Walker Born: 09/10/1985
Troy Tulowitzki Born: 10/10/1984
Evan Longoria Born: 10/07/1985
Kemp Born: 09/23/1984
Tim Lincecum Born: 06/15/1984
Joakim Soria Born: 05/18/1984