We've reached the midway point of the 2012 season, so let's take a look back at the most surprising players in fantasy. Some are overachievers who won't possibly be able to keep up the insanely great pace they've set, but for others (I'm talking about you, Mike Trout!) it's just a sign of things to come. Here are the best emerging players from the first half.
When the season began there was no way that Middlebrooks, the starting third baseman at Pawtucket, would claim a regular job in one of baseball's most fearsome lineups without the sky falling. But guess what? He's the starting third sacker, and for a short time his presence in the lineup made it necessary for Gold Glove first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to brush off his outfielder's glove. When that wouldn't work any longer, Kevin Youkilis found himself headed to the South Side of Chicago.
Ah, the life of a big league closer. Signed as a free agent by the Angels, Rodney flopped and barely got a job with Tampa, where he was seen as support for closer Kyle Farnsworth. But when Farnsworth went to the DL, Rodney reprised his old persona as a lockdown closer, and has once-again mastered the endgame to the tune of 23 saves (tied for the ML lead) in 24 chances. Sorry, Farnsworth faithful. The ninth inning at the Trop is Fernando's paradise.
Sound familiar: I was so high on him at my drafts that I held onto extra funds just so I'd be sure that he'd be available to me as my shortstop, and much to my delight he went for no more than $2 in my AL-only auction leagues. Then came the sick feeling of "Why did I pass up on all of those decent shortstops to draft a guy who is barely hitting above the Mendoza JUNIOR line (.103) five weeks into the season." Well, following a position change and a tweak to his hands and batting stance, Plouffe has become synonymous with home runs in Minneapolis. In fact his 18 pre-break home runs (so far) has him among the likes of Harmon Killebrew, Justin Morneau, Tony Oliva and Kent Hrbek when talking about the most first-half home runs for the Twinkies.
The presumptive 2012 AL Rookie of the Year and potential MVP candidate leads the league in steals and batting average, all while flashing power and highlight-reel athleticism with the leather. He may have started the year in the minors while Vernon Wells and Bobby Abreu took his roster spot, but there's little doubt who really belongs in the Angels outfield now. He's here for good.
So this is what those scouts have been talking about for all these years. McDonald has been a revelation for the suddenly-dangerous Buccos, who are contending with great pitching. McDonald and A.J. Burnett have combined for a 17-5 record and have the Pirates seriously talking pennant for the first time since Sid Bream slid in safely under a Mike LaValliere tag in 1992. A 2.45 ERA, 90 strikeouts, eight wins and a 1.00 WHIP for someone who was virtually invisible to mixed-leaguers has to stand as one of the season's biggest surprises.
When Chris Carpenter couldn't answer the bell for the start of the season, Mike Matheny turned to Lynn in hopes of keeping the Cards above water from the fifth spot in the rotation. Not only has Lynn succeeded at keeping St. Louis in the NL Central race, he has become one of the league's biggest winners along the way, taking 10 of 14 decisions in 16 first half starts. It's a tough act to repeat in the second stanza, but fantasy owners would also be lost without him.
So much for the notion that LaHair, the poster-child for Quad-A players, would merely be a placeholder in Chicago while Anthony Rizzo ripened in Triple A. Not only did LaHair force his way into a permanent spot with the Cubs (or possibly a contending trade partner), he's now learning a new position, right field, to clear room for Rizzo. Oh, yeah, he's an NL All-Star, too.
The Melkman could always hit a little, but while playing for one of the worst offensive teams in the game he's hitting a lot, leading the majors in hits, eight more than Miguel Cabrera (no relation). He's been close to the top in batting average (.352) and runs scored (53) all season. Not only was he a fantasy steal, he was a downright heist for the G-men, stolen from the Royals for Jonathan Sanchez.
The majors' best winning percentage, two-consecutive one-hitters, fourth in the bigs in strikeouts, a microscopic 0.88 WHIP -- all from a knuckleballer who could've been had in the 20th-something round in virtually every mixed league on the planet? Dickey has more wins than Tim Lincecum, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Josh Beckett COMBINED. He's the steal of 2012.