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Friday, December 10, 2010
Notebook: Underrated deals

By Tristan H. Cockcroft

Consider it an eventful winter meetings when three of the 50 best players in fantasy baseball -- at least judging by our 2010 Player Rater -- end up getting traded or signing free-agent contracts: No. 2 Carl Crawford agreed to a seven-year, $142 million contract with the Boston Red Sox; No. 15 Paul Konerko got a three-year deal to stay with the Chicago White Sox; and No. 44 Adrian Gonzalez was officially introduced as a member of the Red Sox following his weekend trade.

We've covered them and some of the other big names this week, including the Baltimore Orioles' acquisition of the powerful but strikeout-prone Mark Reynolds, the Milwaukee Brewers' trade for Shaun Marcum to bolster the rotation and the Chicago Cubs' signing of Carlos Pena to fill their hole at first base. But fantasy leagues aren't won by only the big names; it's often the lesser names that make the difference.

So let's take a look through some of the week's transactions that might not have generated quite as many headlines, yet shouldn't go completely ignored:

Arizona Diamondbacks sign J.J. Putz

J.J. Putz
J.J. Putz had a bounce-back campaign for the White Sox in 2010, recording a 2.83 ERA, with four saves, seven wins and 14 holds.

The Diamondbacks picked up a low-cost closer candidate -- two years for $10 million -- but also one who comes with greater risk than many at the position. Putz has been a lot of good (see: 2006-07 as the Seattle Mariners' closer) but also a lot of bad (see: 2008 first half with the Mariners, 2009 as a New York Mets setup man); the bad primarily a product of injuries. He has made four trips to the disabled list in the past three years combined, including at least once in each season, including for an elbow surgery in 2009. At the same time, when healthy he's easily more talented than any other closer candidate on the Diamondbacks' roster; of course they had baseball's worst relief ERA (5.74) in 2010.

The chance that Putz loses his job is slim when the competition for saves includes Juan Gutierrez, Sam Demel and David Hernandez, but health risk could make handcuffing a wise strategy if you land him in an NL-only draft. Expect Putz to be the guy in the ninth inning for so long as he's injury-free, however, making him a sleeper candidate to crack the top 10 fantasy closers, but more likely one who falls in the low teens. He's more than capable of striking out more than a batter per inning -- he improved his K's-per-nine to 10.83 in his rebound 2010 campaign with the Chicago White Sox -- and might even shave a little off his 2010 ERA (2.83) and WHIP (1.04) in the National League.

Baltimore Orioles acquire J.J. Hardy

The Orioles continued their infield makeover. After landing Reynolds from the Diamondbacks, they acquired Hardy, plus fellow infielder Brendan Harris, from the Minnesota Twins in exchange for right-handed relief prospects Jim Hoey, Brett Jacobson and cash considerations. Like Putz, injuries have been a primary obstacle for Hardy, as wrist issues dogged him for a significant chunk of 2010. He's still an underrated hitter, however; a healthier second half last season helped him to .304 AVG/.363 OBP/.442 SLG numbers in 56 games after the All-Star break. Getting out of pitcher-friendly Target Field for hitter-friendly Oriole Park at Camden Yards should do him some good, and with some luck in the health department, he might yet have another 20-homer season left in his bat. Keep in mind he's still 28 years old, in his prime, and his defense should also be a plus for the Orioles' up-and-coming pitching staff.

Fantasy owners won't need to invest this much in drafts, but Hardy has top-10 sleeper potential among shortstops, though again, like Putz, he's more likely to finish in the low teens (and be drafted deeper in the top 20). Remember, it's a thin position.

Seattle Mariners sign Jack Cust, Miguel Olivo

Jack Cust
Jack Cust hit a career-high .272 in 2010 but only hit 13 homers in 112 games.

Interesting contrast in hitters the Mariners signed: two home run hitters, one who walks a ton (Cust) and one who rarely ever walks (Olivo). Cust's addition is the more curious, because he's most suited to serve as a designated hitter, the position Milton Bradley currently plays. The Mariners will apparently suffer with one in the outfield -- probably left field -- and one at DH on any given day, at the expense of their defense, so the days of them being one of the 10 best defensive teams in the game might be behind them. Cust should serve as a middle-of-the-order slugger, however, stepping into Russell Branyan's old role. As for the ballpark factor, important when discussing a power hitter, consider that Cust already played in a pitching-friendly venue in Oakland, so the difference should be negligible. He's probably a long shot to return to his 33-homer days of 2008, being that while Safeco Field's right-field dimensions are similar to that of Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum's, he's not strictly a pull-power type. shows that only five of Cust's 13 homers last season, and 35 of his 97 for his Oakland Athletics career, went to right field. Safeco is more spacious to left and left-center, where Cust hit 29 of his 97 career homers for the A's.

As for Olivo, he's apparently going to take over as the Mariners' starting catcher, meaning they've perhaps moved on from Adam Moore as their future answer at the position. But it's a poor landing spot for Olivo, being that his .269/.315/.449 rates of 2010 -- all but the slugging percentage a career high (that one was his second-best) -- were largely a product of playing at Coors Field, where he had .318/.349/.556 numbers. Safeco resides almost exactly on the opposite end of the spectrum, and remember, he has already called it home, when he had miserable .176/.218/.333 rates in a 104-game stint there in 2004-05. He might struggle to bat higher than .250, hit even 15 home runs and, considering his likely spot in the bottom three in a weak lineup, struggle to score more than 40 runs or drive in more than 50.

Kansas City Royals sign Melky Cabrera, Jeff Francoeur

Speaking of low on-base types, the Royals just landed a pair in Cabrera and Francoeur, and in the case of Francoeur, was there a more expected winter transaction than his? General manager Dayton Moore made no secret his interest in Francoeur -- stemming from the days when the two were with the Atlanta Braves a half-decade ago -- over the past calendar year. Here's the problem: Francoeur, despite being in the prime of his career, shapes up as an ideal platoon specialist, like another ex-Brave, Matt Diaz. He's a .256/.296/.403 lifetime hitter against right-handers, .299/.343/.481 against lefties, but will probably be asked to play regularly yet again. Fantasy owners targeting him in the late rounds should be in AL-only leagues, not mixed, and they shouldn't be fooled into thinking he's a "magical age-27 breakout candidate" (which is a myth). They'll be hoping he repeats a familiar trend: hot starts for new teams. Remember, in his first 50 career games for the Braves, he was a .339/.375/.644 hitter (.260/.303/.407 thereafter), in his first 50 for the Mets he was a .294/.322/.485 hitter (.258/.307/.399 thereafter) and in his 15 regular-season games for the Texas Rangers last season, he was a .340/.357/.491 hitter. In other words, if he starts off hot, you should be shopping him by May.

Cabrera's addition is a low-risk move, as he endured a miserable 2010 with the Braves, for which his conditioning was questioned. If that was largely the reason behind his drop to a .671 OPS -- his second-worst career number in the category -- then perhaps a fresh start will do him some good. He'll have to earn a job in either left or center field from a mix that includes Alex Gordon, Jarrod Dyson and Gregor Blanco, however, so no guarantees. Considering Cabrera has never shown a particular strength in any of the pertinent Rotisserie categories, at best he might be a "lite" version of David DeJesus, minus 20 points in batting average.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.