In baseball, 27 is a magic number
Go ahead and look at last year's first round of your fantasy baseball draft and look at this year's projected top 12. You will notice some differences.
Pay special attention to the new first-rounders Robinson Cano and Joey Votto. Note how Miguel Cabrera has bumped back up into the early part of Round 1, perhaps on the verge of being drafted his earliest ever after a career-best .622 slugging percentage and 38 homers, swinging half his games in a pitcher's park.
Now look at their ages. If you have follow this writer's preseason series of how to find breakthroughs before they happen the better part of the past decade, you already know the age you will find -- 27.
History shows 27 is the age many players outperform their draft position because a man's physical peak comes around then and years of preparation allow them to blossom statistically. Last year's crop of 27-year-olds wasn't limited to the career years of elite stars Cabrera, Cano and Votto, three prime-aged stars likely to be selected in the top 10 on draft day this year.
Rickie Weeks at age 27 finally looked like more product than prospect -- or suspect -- hitting 29 homers, almost double his previous career high. And teammate Casey McGehee produced a .285 average, 23 homers, 104 RBI and 70 runs as a late-round bargain.
A slugger's prime has long been defined as somewhere between 26-32 and age 27 seems to be the high point, at least ever since Scott Boras highlighted that age in making Alex Rodriguez the highest-paid player in baseball history.
It isn't just limited to hitters. Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver were examples from the rubber last season. Verlander posted a career-best 3.37 ERA, and Weaver posted full-season bests in ERA (3.01), innings (224 1/3) and strikeouts by the widest of margin (233 up from 174).
Drafting players before their career pops is the best way to maximize the value of your picks and stack your fantasy team every spring.
This is Part I of a six-part series on finding those gems for 2011. The other categories: third-year starting pitchers, free agents to be, injury-risk sleepers, rookies and overlooked sophomores warrant their own separate discussions -- although many times a player fits into multiple categories.
Now the cynics will point to last season's 27-year-old busts of Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Grady Sizemore, Mark Reynolds, Adam Lind and Kendry Morales. No fantasy Rule of Thumb is foolproof. And everyone is one foolish walkoff homer celebration from a season-ending injury.
But targeting prime-time 27-year-olds can help guide you to unearth this year's champion. Cabrera, Votto and Cano led many teams to prize money in your leagues last year, guaranteed.
Here is 2011's crop of 27-year olds, broken down by position.
Note: These players will be 27 years old at some point during the upcoming season, whether they turned 27 during last season or not.
1. Joe Mauer, MIN
Mauer and McCann are more likely to be overdrafted because of their dominance at a thin position, so you cannot consider them value buys.
Mauer, a career .327 hitter, could come closer to his 2009 homer total of 28, though. It might lead you to take that shot on him late in Round 2 to lock up the premium player at the weakest offensive position in fantasy.
Montero and Iannetta, both of whom have shown flashes of top five catcher potential, are the biggest sleepers here. They finally won't have the likes of Chris Snyder or Miguel Olivo blocking their everyday duty, so they could breakout as nice finds after the top and/or second tiers.
1. Miguel Cabrera, DET
Miggy, Votto and Morales are in that special category of two-time 27-year olds. They don't actually get to be 27 twice -- wouldn't that be nice -- but they are still 27 on Opening Day, so they qualify for a second chance for a first big-time impression. Like Mauer and McCann, though, Miggy and Votto will be justly rated on everyone's boards.
The breakouts will be Fielder and Morales, especially because they have other reasons we could see their best yet. Fielder has free agency looming. Morales' draft value is weighed down because of the fear of the unknown coming off season-ending ankle surgery. These two potential fantasy leaders are going to be picked in the second tier of stud first baseman, but they could very well perform on the level of anyone, including Sir Albert Pujols.
Sanchez and Loney are going to be late-round picks in standard leagues, but they have the potential to be 25-homer, 100-RBI surprises, too. First base is a particularly deep position, so if you load up early on other positions and score with one of these fall-back options late, you can really have a great year and tick off your buddies.
Lind is actually DH-only in a standard league on draft day, but he should get 20 games at first for the Blue Jays this season and we list him here for the sake of argument (no other DH-only players are 27 this season; it's an old-man position). There is .300-30-100-100 potential here still.
1. Dustin Pedroia, BOS
Pedroia and Prado have already had surprisingly big years, Pedroia with his '09 MVP and Prado with his .307-15-66-100-5 breakout party last season. They should be drafted appropriately, although Pedroia is going to be much more affordable with the injury stigma weighing him down lower than last year's early second-round status.
Kendrick and Lowrie are two potential 20-homer breakthroughs, though.
Kendrick has long been considered a future batting champion. If the career .295 hitter didn't finish at a career-low .279, you could have called his first season as a 27-year-old breakout his best yet. He still could be a .320-20-100-100-20 beast and he might not be drafted in the top 15 at his position.
Lowrie battled mono last season but finished as the Red Sox's everyday second baseman because of Pedroia's misfortune. He hit nine homes in 55 games, roughly a 25-plus homer pace. He heads to spring training behind Marco Scutaro on the depth chart at shortstop. It should be said again this season: Lowrie will finish the year as the Red Sox's starting shortstop even if he doesn't open it as it. Boston has a great lineup and ballpark in which to be a slugging middle infielder; ask Pedroia. Lowrie might be out of the top 20 fantasy second baseman or shortstops, but he will perform like a top-10 option once he plays every day.
1. Ryan Zimmerman, WAS
This is a bumper crop of 27s at the hot corner. Zimmerman is a star but he hasn't quite put .300-30-100-100 together in one season yet. He should be able to as a second-round pick this year.
Johnson, Headley and Valencia had some huge weeks last season but have yet to show the consistency to be true every-week starters at the position in fantasy. Lopez still might have a 25-homer, 100-RBI season in him and he has Coors Field to light up to after being drowned in Seattle's pitcher's park for years. Freese looks like the Cardinals' regular third baseman going into spring training for the first time and he is capable of being a 20-homer threat as a late-round pick or in-season waiver-wire acquisition.
1. Hanley Ramirez, FLS
You don't need a birth certificate to know first-rounders Ramirez and Tulo are in their primes. Reyes just hasn't put the anticipated .300-20-80-120-50 campaign together. Still, he is capable of those lofty standards that would make him a Round 1 performer, even if he won't get picked up until after the first few rounds.
Nishioka is an unknown from Japan, but he could slap his way to .300 and 25-plus steals either as shortstop or second baseman. Casilla could be a similar steal later, too, if he starts at the other middle infield spot for the Twins.
1. Ryan Braun, MIL
Braun's 27-year-old status is what keeps him the No. 1 outfielder this spring over Carlos Gonzalez.
Otherwise, the 27-year-old breakout theory is what guys like Ellsbury, Kemp, Upton and Gordon are all about. They have long been considered big-time prospects who just haven't fulfilled their massive potential. Ellsbury could be a .300-20-100-120-50, Kemp a .300-35-110-100-30, Upton a .300-30-100-120-40 and Gordon a .290-30-100-100-10. None has come close to those blockbuster campaigns yet.
If there is one position where we had to put our money on having the highest success rate of outperforming their draft position, it has to be outfield.
1. Tim Lincecum, SF
Although the 27-year-old theory pertains more to hitters, you can certainly apply it to pitchers as well. Pitching takes more conditioning, craft and feel, so age isn't as important as experience and preparation.
This is still a real impressive crop, though. The top 12-13 pitchers can contend for a Cy Young, if they haven't already won one (Lincecum twice, Greinke once). Any of them could rise up to win 20 games as soon as this year.
All of these 23, which make up almost one-quarter of our top 100 starting pitchers to target on draft day, can win 15-plus games in their age-27 season. A few personal favorites who could provide the most bang for the buck with a career year: Johnson, Liriano, Billingsley, Volquez, Slowey and Kazmir. The latter is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, but like all of these potential fantasy aces, age is on his side in Anaheim.
1. Joakim Soria, KC
Relief pitcher is a weird position because value is mostly affected by role and not necessarily talent or inning quality. If there is a fantasy position least enhanced by being age 27, it would be the closer spot.
Axford is still 27 after a breakthrough last year and he will be a closer behind a vastly improved Brewers rotation that should win a lot more games and get him a lot more save chances. He is not the arm Broxton or Street are, though, and either could be a top-five closer in performance even if they are drafted after the top 10 at the position.
All told, you can see you could conceivably draft a fantasy team comprised entirely of 27-year-olds and do quite well. Highlight all the above names and target them throughout your draft. But the most important strategy to take out of this entire discussion is to consider a player's age more significantly than you ever have before.
It is just at the ripe age of 27, we can see the big numbers come for the first time -- before the results inflate their draft stock.
Eric Mack writes bi-weekly for SI.com. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter