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Tuesday, July 13, 2004
FLB Midseason Surprises

by Graham Hays
ESPN Fantasy Games

Ben Sheets
Starting Pitcher
Milwaukee Brewers
18 9 5 0 133 2.26
1. Ben Sheets, Milwaukee Brewers
On Pace: 17-9, 2.26 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 252 K
Best Guess: 17-10, 2.90, 1.00 WHIP, 225 K
First Half: With the exception of a couple of wins, Sheets has been every bit as good as Randy Johnson and Jason Schmidt. The only difference is Sheets was still available in the last two or three rounds of an average fantasy draft this spring. Sheets' strikeout-to-walk ratio improved dramatically in each of his first three seasons, suggesting big things in his future. But the leap from last season's 4.45 ERA and 157 strikeouts in 220.2 innings to this season's 2.26 ERA and 133 strikeouts in 123.1 innings is still remarkable. He even has a 3.07 ERA in the fives games he's lost.
Second Half: Fantasy owners have clearly warmed to Sheets, but he's still just the ninth starting pitcher off the board in an average ESPN midseason draft. Why the hesitation in accepting him as one of the elite? Brewers are four games on the right side of .500, but they've scored the third-fewest runs in the NL and have been outscored by their opponents. In other words, the team has been winning more games than it should and Sheets still has just nine wins in 18 starts. Sheets has the talent and the statistical growth history to suggest he's entirely capable of finishing the season with an ERA near 3.00 and 200 strikeouts, but those numbers may still net him just 15 wins.

2. Carlos Guillen, Detroit Tigers
On Pace: .324, 24 HR, 121 RBI, 119 R, 13 SB
Best Guess: .305, 20 HR, 95 RBI, 105 R, 10 SB
First Half: The Mariners look a little silly right now, but fantasy owners were right there with them this spring. A 23rd-round pick in an average ESPN live draft -- five rounds later than Rich Aurilia -- Guillen has already established career highs in home runs, RBI and stolen bases. Among players eligible at shortstop in ESPN leagues, only Alex Rodriguez ranks ahead of Guillen on the Player Rater.
Second Half: Guillen's slugging percentage actually increase in each of the season's first three months, so it's tough to write him off as a spring fluke. But in three seasons as a regular in Seattle, Guillen never slugged better than .400. Blame Safeco Field if you want, but Guillen actually slugged seven points better at home than on the road in those three seasons. And with so many Tigers hitters performing at seemingly the limits of their potential, RBI chances could slow if averages slip in the second half. Still, Guillen is 28 and has good plate discipline, so a career year isn't out of the question.

Danny Graves
Starting Pitcher
Cincinnati Reds
49 1 3 33 29 2.72
3. Danny Graves, Cincinnati Reds
On Pace: 61 saves, 2.72 ERA, 1.07 WHIP
Best Guess: 48 saves, 3.70 ERA, 1.20 WHIP
First Half: Hey, Eric Gagne didn't work out as a starter, either. A complete fantasy disaster as a starter in 2003 -- check out the 5.33 ERA and 60 strikeouts in 169 innings -- Graves reclaimed the closer's job he held for four seasons, beating out chic sleeper Ryan Wagner. And all he's done so far is set a career high in saves, saving 33 of Cincinnati's 47 wins and appearing in more than half of the team's games. Not only has Graves earned saves in back-to-back games a total of seven times, he's earned saves in three consecutive games a total of three times.
Second Half: Here is where any comparisons to Gagne end. Graves deserves credit for staying out of trouble -- he's issued just five walks in 49 innings -- but he's hardly overpowering hitters. He has just 29 strikeouts and has allowed nine home runs and a .253 batting average against. Combine his own vulnerability with the notion that the Reds simply can't continue to play and win this many close games, and Graves has the potential to be a mild second-half flop.

4. Chris Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals
On Pace: 17-7, 3.87 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 175 K
Best Guess: 15-10, 4.15 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 170 K
First Half: Carpenter wasn't even assured a spot in St. Louis' rotation before the season, let alone a spot in fantasy rotations. Injuries limited the right-handed to just 13 starts in 2002 and forced him to miss the entire 2003 season. And it's not as if Carpenter, who had a career ERA around 4.80 entering the season, was exactly Mark Prior before the injuries. But he has been the Cardinals' most consistent starter this season, posting the best strikeout numbers of his career and teaming with fellow fantasy surprise Jeff Suppan to take advantage of the run production provided them.
Second Half: The word durability comes to mind. Carpenter has started more than 30 games or thrown more than 175 innings just once in his major league career. That's bad news for a guy who has already thrown 111 innings this season. The good news is Carpenter's vastly improved control -- just 24 walks to this point -- means he's throwing less pitches per inning than ever before. Carpenter's strikeouts suggest he's beating hitters more than simply getting lucky, but he also allows too many long balls to avoid a few slumps.

Lyle Overbay
First Base
Milwaukee Brewers
86 10 62 48 2 .344
5. Lyle Overbay, Milwaukee Brewers
On Pace: .344, 19 HR, 117 RBI, 90 R, 4 SB
Best Guess: .330, 20 HR, 100 RBI, 90 R, 4 SB
First Half: It's safe to say that Richie Sexson was in slightly more demand than Overbay during fantasy drafts. Despite his status as a well-regarded prospect in Arizona's system, Overbay looked a little too much like Travis Lee (at worst) or Sean Casey (at best) for many fantasy owners. Luckily, it turns out this is a pretty good year to mimic Casey's fantasy value. Overbay started as well as any hitter in the game, driving in 40 runs before the end of May. And just when it seemed like he's ready to fade, he breaks out a .422 average (19-45) in the first two weeks of July.
Second Half: Overbay hit for average in the minors, hits extremely well at Miller Field and hits almost as well against southpaws as he does against right-handers. In other words, he's going to hit .300 -- and probably considerably better than .300. But what about everything else? As mentioned with Sheets, the Brewers have the third-fewest runs in the NL. Sheets ranks fourth in the NL in RBI. Those two facts mesh about as well as oil and water, especially when you consider Overbay has just 10 home runs. Unless Overbay continues to hit around .350 and the rest of the Brewers lineup improves, he isn't going to maintain this pace.

6. Carl Pavano, Florida Marlins
On Pace: 17-7, 2.85 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 145 K
Best Guess: 16-9, 3.60 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 140 K
First Half: Pavano went 12-13 on a team that won the World Series, so it's no surprise fantasy owners weren't knocking each other over to claim him this spring. But stepping up with Josh Beckett nursing injuries and Dontrelle Willis struggling for consistency, Pavano has teamed with Brad Penny to solidify Florida's rotation. Unlike Sheets or Carpenter, he's made the list without much improvement in his strikeout rate, instead relying on slightly improved control -- including the fewest pitches per inning and pitches per plate appearance of his career.
Second Half: Improved control is great, but it's not the most solid foundation for predicting fantasy success. Opponents are putting roughly the same number of balls in play against Pavano as they always have, but they're hitting .238 against him -- compared to .271 for his career. Is that because he's matured to the point where he's making better pitches and maximizing his talent, or is he just getting a little lucky? The Marlins will keep putting all of their starters in a position to win games, but Pavano remains something of a fantasy question mark.

7. Adrian Beltre, Los Angeles Dodgers
On Pace: .315, 41 HR, 105 RBI, 90 R, 2 SB
Best Guess: .290, 33 HR, 95 RBI, 85 R, 2 SB
First Half: It's tough to give up on a guy who is just 25, but fantasy owners had plenty of reason to let Beltre slip this spring. Beltre was entering his sixth season as Los Angeles' regular third baseman, and despite decent power, had seen his average drop in each of the preceding four seasons. So what happens? He goes out and hits .315 with 22 home runs -- one shy of his career high -- in his first 82 games. If Scott Rolen wasn't around, Beltre would be right in the thick of the argument as fantasy's most valuable third baseman.
Second Half: It would be a lot easier to be optimistic about Beltre's chances for another big half if the Dodgers were out of the race and looking to trade him. He's hitting .331 with a .625 slugging percentage at home this season, which is great until you consider that his home is Dodger Stadium and he slugged just .368 there the last three seasons. Do you want to count on a hitter prone to strikeouts -- although he's showing improvement -- maintaining that kind of production in one of the league's best pitcher's parks?

Victor Martinez
Cleveland Indians
76 12 63 49 0 .290
8. Victor Martinez, Cleveland Indians
On Pace: .290, 22 HR, 117 RBI, 91 R, 0 SB
Best Guess: .310, 28 HR, 110 RBI, 90 R, 1 SB
First Half: Lots of fantasy owners considered Victor Martinez a viable sleeper at catcher this season, but not many of us expected him to add a name to the paltry list of legitimate sluggers at the position. Martinez crushed the ball in the minors, but hit just one home run in 49 games for the Indians last season. A slow start in April solidified his place on the fringe of fantasy rosters, but then Martinez hit .315 with 30 RBI in May. A slow start to July is his first sign of weakness since that opening month.
Second Half: Even the most pessimistic reviewer can find an occasional silver lining, and as metaphors get mixed, the sky is the limit for Martinez. The power he's showing this season is the power he showed throughout his minor league days and his plate discipline should ensure a good batting average. The only thing working against Martinez is the surprising offensive performance of his teammates. But if they keep reaching base, he'll keep knocking them in.

9. Jack Wilson, Pittsburgh Pirates
On Pace: .332, 15 HR, 66 RBI, 89 R, 11 SB
Best Guess: .290, 12 HR, 60 RBI, 80 R, 8 SB
First Half: It's tough to imagine a less likely candidate for a batting title. Maybe Rey Ordonez. Wilson earned a place in Pittsburgh's lineup with his glove, but he was an afterthought to the afterthoughts when it came to fantasy rosters before this season. But after hitting .332 in the first half, Wilson finds himself employed in 99 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues.
Second Half: Wilson has almost as many home runs (8) and walks (11). He's actually seeing fewer pitches per plate appearance than in either of the last two seasons. His average has dropped each month, from .363 in April to .282 thus far in July. Oh, and he's never slugged better than .353 during his time with the Pirates. It's been a fun ride, and he's making a graceful exit, but Wilson's time in the fantasy spotlight is about up.

10. Matt Lawton, Cleveland Indians
On Pace: .305, 28 HR, 91 RBI, 127 R, 30 SB
Best Guess: .290, 25 HR, 90 RBI, 105 R, 25 SB
First Half: In 114 games in 2002, Lawton hit .236 with 15 home runs and 57 RBI. In 99 games last season, Lawton hit .249 with 15 home runs and 53 RBI. Extreme optimists saw good power potential if Lawton could stay healthy. The rest of us saw an aging injury-prone outfielder who had never hit all that well for the Indians. But instead of sliding into Ron Gant-like oblivion, Lawton has rebounded with 15 home runs, 16 stolen bases and a .305 average.
Second Half: Lawton is impossible to figure out. He drew at least as many walks as strikeouts in seven of his first nine seasons, never striking out more than 81 times. Now he's on pace for triple-digit whiffs but hitting the ball like he hasn't in years. Then consider that he's hitting just .196 so far this month but has already slugged four home runs. This version of Lawton isn't like anything we've seen before, making it tough to predict where he goes from here.

Also Receiving Votes
Steve Finley
Craig Wilson
Jason Bay
Marquis Grissom
Ken Griffey Jr.
Lew Ford
Juan Uribe
Chone Figgins
Oliver Perez
Joe Nathan