BY DAVID KOMER
Grady Sizemore: AP
Over a month into the baseball season and a pair of Cleveland teammates are headed in opposite directions.
It wasn't long ago that on a plethora of draft boards in preseason magazines and draft lists, outfielders Grady Sizemore and Shinn-Soo Choo were ranked roughly between the bottom of the top 10 and the early 20s. While Choo is hitting fantasy expectations and beyond, Sizemore owners everywhere are griping -- and understandably so.
Heading into this week, Sizemore, who many expected a return to his 2008 form (.268, 33 home runs, 90 RBIs, 38 steals) before injury derailed his '09 season, has been unstartable. Sure, it's been a little more than a month and he battled an early-season back injury, but he's hitting .213 with 0 homers, 12 RBIs with 23 hits and 30 strikeouts. Yikes. When you consider his preseason draft value, which usually saw him get snapped up as a No. 2 or 3 outfielder (even a No. 1 in larger leagues), Sizemore has been one of the year's biggest early disappointments.
Sizemore's partner in the outfield, Choo, has been one of the bright spots on an Indians team treading water. After a solid '09, some questioned his upside and propensity for strikeouts, but instead he's delivered across the board, hitting .315 with 34 hits, four home runs and 19 RBIs,not to mention a career-best on base-percentage of .431. In his last 10 games, Choo's hit at a .300 clip with six RBIs.
As an owner of both in different leagues, I've tasted the sweet as well as the bitter on both. Brandon Costa of MLB.com speculates that Sizemore can still turn it around thanks to Choo's production and protection in the lineup, pointing out that Sizemore has hit in seven of his last nine games. While I'm far from shoveling dirt on the Indians' centerfielder, outfielders are always available on the waiver wire. Keep a close eye on Grady and don't be afraid to shake things up by burying him on the bench or throwing him into trade packages for fellow owners who might fancy a big name. With his track record it's not out of the question he turns things around, but the clock is ticking.
No matter the fantasy sport, older players with bigger names get taken late or end up as waiver wire fodder as result of sliding downwards or plateauing production. Usually seen as a stop-gap or as a late-round gamble, this season some of the overlooked, over-30 crowd has shown they're not quite ready to fade into that good night. Here's a standout five-spot of my favorite 30 and over surprises thus far, ranked from the top. ...
1. Barry Zito: In one of the best career comebacks since Betty White, Zito, formerly a walking bullseye for critics of his huge contract, has been on a mission. It's hard to believe this is the same guy who averaged 10.5 wins and over a 4.00 ERA the past three years, while after one month and six starts, is almost halfway there at 5-0 with an ERA cut down under half. So far, he's rocking a 1.49 with 28 strikeouts and a WHIP of 0.92. Will he continue at this clip, probably not, but enjoy it while you can. And should he stay relatively consistent as the summer begins without much of a dip, this could develop into one of the biggest fantasy (and reality) baseball storylines of the year.
2. Livan Hernandez: While Zito was barely on the radar at the start of the season, Hernandez was basically in the recycle bin. Not even ranked on many preseason lists, the savvy veteran has been a revelation in Washington. After posting a 9-12 mark with a robust ERA clocking in at 5.44 with Arizona, this season he's 4-1 with e second-lowest 1.04 ERA in baseball and a WHIP of 0.99 (although he'll never be a strikeout king, currently sitting at 14). Even in his only loss to Colorado, he had a heroic outing, going eight innings allowing four hits and two earned runs.
3. Ivan Rodriguez: We're staying in the Nation's Capital for this one and it shouldn't be hard to see why. Catcher, always one of the hardest spots to fill for those missing on grabbing one of the top five to six top tier picks, has been a little easier thanks to Pudge. At 38, his hitting had eroded in recent years with last season's .249 average and 47 RBIs while hardnosed defense remained his trademark. Not this year. Rodriguez is currently hitting .393 with 35 hits and 13 RBIs, while his .417 on-base percentage stands as the highest of his career.
4. Paul Konerko: Sure there were more trendy first base options on draft day, but for those who waited to grab the White Sox veteran, there are grins aplenty these days. Solid but unspectacular numbers were his calling card with 28 home runs and 88 RBIs last year with a flyball rate that had begun to climb to 46 percent, which called into question a power decline. Not a chance. Enter this spring, where the south-side slugger leads the majors in home runs with 13 and tied for sixth in RBIs with 27.
5a. Ty Wiggington; 5b.Alex Gonzalez: OK, so a slight cheat rounds out the list. Both guys could easily be a forgotten fantasy footnote by July, so I figured we'd spread the spotlight around for the suddenly slugging, 30-plus journeymen. Wiggington's numbers were 11 home runs and 41 RBIs in 122 games a year ago. This season he sits tied for second place in homers with 10 and has already racked up nearly half his RBI total of a year ago with 20. In the meantime, his average has picked up by 10 points to .283 for the Orioles.
For Gonzalez, the power surge has been even more unexpected, as he's only hit the 20-home run mark once in his career. This season with his 10 home runs he's already bested his 2009 total of eight, while his 27 RBIs are on pace to smash last year's mark of 41. It also hasn't hurt that his average is up from to .270 -- not bad for a guy the Blue Jays took a one-year flier on.
It's hard not to love Atlanta Braves' rookie wunderkind Jason Heyward, whose Paul Bunyan-esque hype has been all that and more. Heyward's eight home runs, 26 RBIs and .296 batting average combined with a magical debut has brought new meaning to the tired cliché of "Hotlanta."
But don't sleep on the American League's top new face, Austin Jackson. The Tigers' unpopular offseason trade of Curtis Granderson brought a package that included the former Yankees farmhand as the lynchpin of the deal. So far, it's not hard to see why. Jackson's provided Detroit with the best leadoff man its seen in years, while hitting .360 (just the second-best average in MLB) with a home run, 10 RBIs and six stolen bases. Both rookies, one heralded from day one, the other a darkhorse, have both added a welcome new jolt to fantasyland.