July 24, 2008

After the festivities at the All-Star break, Major League Baseball has reached the next season landmark. Several teams have played their 100th game of the year. At this point in the season, there are few secrets left to uncover when it comes to breakthrough players. The months ahead may provide a few late season call-ups who can make an impact, but rather than focus on the unknown, let's take a look at three players who have already enjoyed special performances this season. In this week's article, we offer the projections of three players who have surpassed preseason expectations, and now must be considered fantasy studs. The results will provide you with an idea of where some of the newest stars rank. Can you identify the fantasy stars based on their statistics alone? Feel free to Name That Game!

523 at-outfielder is this?

A) Cody Ross, MarlinsB) Rick Ankiel, CardinalsC) Marcus Thames, Tigers

The player revealed: OPTION (B) -- Rick Ankiel, Cardinals

The Past:

While Josh Hamilton has certainly created the most buzz, Ankiel has an inspiring story himself. The former Cardinals hurler inexplicably lost control of his pitches and several injuries forced him to end his pitching career. So what did he do next? Like the Bambino 80-plus years ago, Ankiel established himself as a hitter, and climbed through the minor leagues all over again. Fantasy managers will recall that Ankiel wasn't just a pitcher; he was a sensational talent. In fact, after recording an 11-7 season with 194 strikeouts, Ankiel finished second for the NL Rookie of the Year Award. After wildness and injuries curtailed his pitching career in 2004, Ankiel stroked 21 home runs between Class A and Double A in '05, and then smashed 32 home runs in just 389 at bats at Triple A in '07. He added an additional 11 home runs that season, and earned a reputation as a legit power threat who at times struggled to make contact. Ankiel's fantasy value shot through the roof prior to the '08 season when word spread that Cardinals manager Tony La Russa considered Ankiel as the team's cleanup option, batting behind Albert Pujols.

The Future:

In his second part of his major league career, Ankiel has not been overcome by high expectations. He kicked off the major league season with a solid five home runs and .290 average in April. The 29-year-old slugger did struggle a bit in May as the Cardinals outfield suddenly became crowded with the overachieving Skip Schumaker, Ryan Ludwick and Brian Barton all rotating starts. In June, Ankiel returned to form as a slugger, blasting seven home runs despite a .238 average. Thus far in July, Ankiel has an additional seven home runs, 19 RBIs and a .343 average through 18 games. In his prime and finally healthy, Ankiel has evolved into an elite slugger. The Cardinals are contending thanks to the success of both Ankiel and Ludwick, as La Russa is once again pressing all the right buttons. Coming into next season's fantasy draft, for the first time, Ankiel will be considered a proven commodity. He'll likely be grabbed in first four rounds of the draft.

653 at-bats, 110 runs, 14 HR, 74 RBI, 16 SB, .321 AVG

Which second baseman is this?

A) Dustin Pedroia, Red SoxB) Robinson Cano, YankeesC) Kaz Matsui, Astros

The player revealed: OPTION (A) -- Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox

The Past:

A second-round pick by the Red Sox out of Arizona State, Pedroia hit the road running in his professional career. In his first season of pro ball, Pedroia hit .357 with 34 runs in 42 games while competing at the lower minor league levels. The next season, Pedroia split between Double and Triple-A. He blasted 13 home runs with a .293 average, but struggled a bit at Triple A. In '06, Pedroia adapted well to the increased competition and hit .305, leading to his first taste of the major leagues. The 31-game stint was not pretty, as Pedroia hit just .191, but he did belt two home runs and only fanned on seven occasions. The next season, Pedroia was a major leaguer for good, as he earned the AL Rookie of the Year honors thanks to a .317 average, eight home runs, seven steals, and 88 runs scored. Nonetheless, due to his lack of outstanding power or speed, Pedroia was a middle round selection in most fantasy drafts for the '08 season.

The Future:

After a strong rookie campaign, Pedroia seemed to play to the low expectations of fantasy managers early in the season. In April, his .306 average was solid, but he managed just 13 runs, 1 home run, and 13 RBIs. In May, the middle infielder belted three home runs, but his average slid to .260 for the month. Ever since, Pedroia has been as good as anyone. In June, the 24-year old blasted four home runs to complement a .356 average. In July, the average is up to .398 along with 16 runs in 18 games. The power and speed are both developing for the Red Sox talent. In fact, Pedroia is not far off pace for a 15-15 season.

530 at-bats, 78 runs, 31 HR, 97 RBI, 10 SB, .272 AVG

Which third baseman is this?

A) Evan Longoria, RaysB) David Wright, MetsC) Ryan Braun, Brewers

The player revealed: OPTION (A) -- Evan Longoria, Rays

The Past:

Even with the poor seasons, the Tampa Bay Rays remained optimistic over the years as they were awarded top draft picks. In '06, they grabbed Longoria, a star from Long Beach State who played the hot corner. The third overall selection dominated the lower levels of the minor leagues so quickly, that he earned a promotion to Double A after just 36 games at Class A. By '07, Longoria split time between Double-A and Triple-A and powered 26 home runs, 95 RBIs, and a solid .299 average in just 136 games. There was little doubt that Longoria would be in contention for the Rookie of the Year Award at the major league level in '08.

The Future:

Though he looked prepared for a promotion to the major leagues, the Rays played it safe with Longoria, sending him down to the minor leagues to start the '08 season. It took just seven games there before he earned the call to the Show. By no means has Longoria repeated the sensational impact of last year's rookie of the year, Ryan Braun. In fact, Longoria struggled early in the major leagues, combining for seven home runs and a .247 average through the first two months of the season. In June, Longoria raised his game to a new level by smashing eight home runs, 19 RBIs, 19 runs, and a .300 average. In July, Longoria has four home runs, 13 RBIs, and a .292 average. While the strikeout total is a bit higher than fantasy managers would prefer, Longoria has proven to be a capable major league hitter with 30-plus homerun potential and even some sneaky speed (six steals). Just 22 years old, the future is bright for Longoria, which makes it likely that he'll be off the draft boards by the end of the third round in next year's fantasy drafts.

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