March 22, 2012

Last week we looked at the breakout and/or bounce back candidates on National League contenders. This week, we take a look at their American League counterparts.

Mitch Moreland, 1B, Rangers -- There's no doubt that Moreland was a disappointment last season, his first full campaign in the majors. He hit just .259/.320/.414 with 16 homers in 464 at-bats. Still, there are reasons for optimism heading into this season.

Moreland plays in one of the league's best parks for hitters. In addition, the Rangers feature a potent lineup from one through nine. No matter where he hits, he'll have ample RBI opportunities. The team's pursuit of Prince Fielder seems to have lit a fire under Moreland, who is just entering his age-26 season. Finally, Moreland dealt with a right wrist issue the entire second half of the season, during which he hit .241/.300/.367 in 199 at-bats after hitting .272/.334/.449 before the All-Star break. Moreland is completely under the radar, offering a super-cheap option in drafts.

Adam Dunn, 1B/DH, White Sox -- I know plenty of you were burned by Dunn's historically putrid season last year. I'm here to tell you not to blacklist the guy. Quite simply, players don't all of a sudden fall off a cliff at age 31. Looking at Dunn's advanced stats, they remained essentially in line with his career numbers. In fact, he posted a 20 percent line-drive rate, the fourth-highest number in his 11-year career. However, Dunn popped the ball up at a ridiculous 13.2-percent rate, the highest proportion since the second year of his career. Chalk it up to his first year in the American League, the pressure placed on him to be a big bat in the middle of the White Sox's lineup, whatever. Just don't expect it to happen again. This is a guy who everyone would have agreed was a mortal lock for 40 homers, 100 RBI and a .370 OBP before last year happened. Everyone except the elite of the elite is allowed to have one down year. Dunn isn't done yet.

Felipe Paulino, P, Royals -- Before we get to Paulino, let me first say that I think the Royals can be a fringe contender for the Wild Card, given that there are now two spots and they play in a weak division. If they can beat up on the White Sox, Indians and Twins, they should stay in the Wild Card race deep into the year.

As for Paulino, injuries kept him from fulfilling his promise in Houston. But last year he stayed mostly healthy, making 20 starts and 39 appearances. He posted 8.59 K/9 across 139.1 innings with a respectable 3.69 FIP. In addition, he gave up the fewest fly balls as a percentage of total balls put in play last year, while also inducing his highest proportion of pop-ups. He should spot start in Kansas City's rotation, especially given his strong spring, and has a better defense behind him than he has had at any point in his career. He has always been able to miss bats, but last year's numbers give fantasy owners reason to expect him to force more weak contact from hitters.

Kelly Johnson, 2B, Blue Jays -- Too often fantasy owners see BABIP as gospel. They'll see that a guy posted weak numbers with a low BABIP and attribute it to that. On the flip side, they'll see a guy with a .350 BABIP and assume that he got lucky. However, BABIP, while a meritorious stat, cannot be taken on its own. It's possible a guy posted a high BABIP because he hit more line drives. It's possible someone had a low BABIP because he popped the ball up more often than he did the previous season. Always remember that BABIP is not a be-all, end-all statistic.

Having said that, Johnson was incredibly unlucky last year. He posted a .277 BABIP, which contributed to a .222/.304/.413 line. However, his line-drive rate remained flat at 20.4 percent from the previous year, while he hit fewer ground balls and had a negligible increase in pop-ups. Yet in 2010, Johnson hit .284/.370/.496. So what happened in '11? Simply put, Johnson was unlucky. He still hit 21 homers and swiped 16 bags from the second base position, giving owners above-average production in both those categories. Don't be fooled by Johnson's seemingly poor numbers last year. He's still a quality fantasy starter.

Chat with me on Twitter, @MBeller.

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