I think I've disseminated enough fantasy advice for one year and now it's time to reflect. This week I'm going to focus on the pleasant surprises. These were the pitchers and batters that exceeded expectations. They were late-round picks or undrafted free agents that contributed in a big way. These are the guys who won the fantasy titles for you. All better this week, and no worse.
Cliff Lee, SP, Indians: Believe it or not, the best pitcher in baseball had to fight for his spot in the rotation during spring training. Lee has pitched like a left-handed Greg Maddux in his prime: 22-2 with a 2.36 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP. Lee has 157 strikeouts and only 28 walks in 210 innings. An undrafted fee agent in most leagues, Lee was picked up very early by savvy owners. Lee went 5-0 with a 0.96 ERA in the April. He cooled down a little, but was still Cy Young worthy the rest of the season.
Salomon Torres, RP, Brewers: The Brewers signed closer Eric Gagne to a $10 million contract. That didn't work out so well. Factoid: Milwaukee has 44 percent of its team payroll dedicated to three pitchers: Gagne, Ben Sheets and CC Sabathia. Fortunately, they got good value from Torres, and so did anyone that plucked him off the waiver wire. Torres didn't become the closer until the end of May, when Gagne went on the DL. Nevertheless, he recorded an impressive 27 saves in less than four months. Torres is tied for 17th in the league in saves, but everyone above him on the list was drafted in the spring. Torres was the best fantasy free agent reliever.
Ryan Doumit, C, Pirates: Though he's wearing down in September, Doumit was a spectacular fantasy catcher for most of the season. He was hitting as high as .365 in mid-June. Doumit's average stands at .319 with an .856 OPS. Before the season a lot of people feared he would be splitting time with Ronny Paulino, so Doumit went undrafted in most leagues. At a weak-hitting position, Doumit was a revelation.
Kevin Youkilis, 1B/3B, Red Sox: Youkilis built a reputation as a strong first-half performer that would fade in the second half. Last year he hit 100 points lower in the second half. This season, he has shown more stamina and has had no appreciable decline. Youkilis hit .314 with a .933 OPS in the first half and he is hitting .311 with a .979 OPS in the second half. Mea culpa: I had him pegged as a "sell high stock" at the All-Star break. Youkilis was a late round draft pick that out-performed all but a handful of first basemen -- a great value.
Alexei Ramirez, 2B/SS/OF, White Sox: Ramirez, a rookie, was an undrafted free agent in most leagues. The versatile second baseman played enough games at shortstop and the outfield to get ratings there as well. Ramirez is hitting an even .300 with a healthy 17 home runs for a middle infielder.
Ty Wigginton, 3B/2B/1B/OF, Astros: Wigginton may not play again this season, as he is nursing a groin injury. So his current numbers may be his final numbers: .294 average, 22 HR and a .915 OPS. Wigginton was hurt and missed most of April and didn't get his bat going until late in the season. However, there was nobody was hotter in August than Wigginton. He hit .379 with a 1.200 OPS and led baseball with 12 homers in August. Even with a shortened season (344 at bats), Wigginton was a huge lift this summer. Qualifying at four positions is a big plus.
Cristian Guzman, SS, Nationals: The Nationals are not a total fantasy wasteland. They had Jon Rauch save 17 games for them in half a season. And they had Guzman. The 30-year old shortstop proved he is fully recovered from the shoulder injury that cost him all of 2006 and much of the 2007 season. His stats are nearly identical to those he posted as a 23-year old Twin back in '01. He is hitting .313 with 9 HR and 75 runs scored. In '01 Guzman hit .302 with 8 HR and 80 runs scored.
Ryan Ludwick, OF, Cardinals: The Cardinals outfield was very crowded at the start of the season with Ludwick, Rick Ankiel, Skip Schumaker and Chris Duncan jockeying for playing time. Fantasy draft boards ranked both Duncan and Ankiel much higher and consequently Ludwick went undrafted in most leagues. Ludwick turned out to be the best of the bunch. He is hitting .293 with 33 HR and 101 RBIs and 97 runs scored.
Xavier Nady, OF, Yankees: The Pirates figured that the X-man was at the peak of his value and sent him to New York in a midseason deal. That move may have been a little premature since Nady has continued to hit for the Yankees. Nady was a late-round pick that far exceeded expectations. Overall he is hitting .314 with 24 HRs and 90 RBIs -- those are all career highs.
Nate McLouth, OF, Pirates: Nady's former teammate was also a late-round pick. McLouth has been a very nice rotisserie performer: a 20/20 season with 106 runs scored and 92 RBIs.
Aubrey Huff, DH/1B/3B, Orioles: The 31-year-old Huff came out of nowhere to post his best numbers since '03. Huff is hitting .314 with 31 homeruns which doubles his homer total of '07 and reverses a four-year decline. Huff got better and better as the season wore on -- He's hitting .367 with a 1.083 OPS since the All-Star break. Eligibility at both corner infield positions is a bonus.