Tristan's Twenty

Some of the best fantasy values entering 2014 season

Updated: March 19, 2014, 2:25 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

When I say "it's all about value," there is one critical variable you need consider: "Value" is always relative.

You could show up at any draft or auction with any old cheat sheet from any source, and select players without having put in even 10 seconds' worth of your own research. In the end, the team you selected would most likely be one crafted around your chosen source's opinions, and depending upon the source, you might not fare very well.

Or, you could spend hours ... days ... even months meticulously preparing your cheat sheet, by personally examining players, then making your own rankings, projections and (where applicable) dollar values. You'd have injected yourself into the player valuation process and, if done properly, you'd probably enjoy greater success. Certainly you'd have a lot more fun playing.

Then, there's every approach in the middle. And on this sliding scale of draft preparation, understand this: Value emerges every time you discover an opinion of your own that varies from the public perception. So make sure you spend some time making your own calls on players.

No, value is not what we tell you it is. Is not what our Average Draft Position page tells you it is. Value is the difference between your opinion of the player and what the market in your particular league dictates that it is. Your goal is to find the player who your league believes is a 15th-rounder, but who you believe is a fifth-rounder, thanks to your extensive analysis. You'd then scoop up this player in the 13th or 14th round and -- voilà -- reap the reward of that huge profit potential.

So, as I compose my list of personal favorites this season, I'm taking a new approach: I'm letting you tell me who they are. I'm doing this by taking my personal rankings and comparing them to ADP; I'm doing this by identifying the players for whom my rankings elicit reactions that I'm "crazy." ("Crazy is on the bus, remember?" Underrated movie, just as is everyone on the list below.)

This is where I open my playbook, showing you my aforementioned "book values," revealing the players for whom my valuations are highest relative to the masses. These are the players I'd most love to put onto all of my fantasy teams come draft day, and they are players I call "Tristan's Twenty."

A caveat: Now that I've published these names, there's an excellent chance I won't get a single one. After all, publishing the list affords my competition an opportunity to bid me up, greatly reducing any chance of profit potential. Remember, there is always a limit to a player's price, even the ones you like best. The danger for those of you who compile similar lists of your own is that, at the actual draft/auction table, you might convince yourself that said player is worth the extra dollar (or worse, dollars) comparative to your projected price. Never go too far with your bidding. Paying $1 or $2 more for a player you think has a higher ceiling than what you've projected is forgivable; paying $8 or $10 more to get a guy you "love" is foolish.

The two ground rules, in the interest of balancing the picks:

• Ten players apiece from the American and National Leagues.
• At least one player from each position.

Now, here are "Tristan's Twenty," in no particular order:

Cabrera

Everth Cabrera, SS, San Diego Padres

Tristan: 63rd overall, No. 7 SS; ADP: 111th (114.0)

Cabrera is an apparent must on this list, a player for whom I have an apparent obsession this season. Look at that ranking/ADP differential: It represents a nearly five-round, approximate $6 auction value gap (when directly applying ESPN average auction prices). Frankly, I look at Cabrera's ADP and wonder whether everyone believes he/she is playing in a points-based league? In that format, correct, Cabrera does not belong among the top 100 players. In Rotisserie scoring, however, consider: At the mathematical midpoint of the 2013 season -- that representing a time one month before his 50-game, season-ending suspension -- Cabrera was a top-20 player overall on our Player Rater. And if you scaled his stats to a full 162-game schedule, he'd have led the majors with 54 stolen bases, not to mention earned Player Rater scores that would've made him an approximate top-20 player overall for the year. Most critically, he boosted his contact rate by 5 percent (81.2, up from 76.5 from 2009 to 2012 combined), while maintaining a walk rate noticeably higher than the major league average (9.4 percent, compared to the majors' 7.9). Cabrera might lack any pop whatsoever while whiffing a bit often for my tastes -- these are the traits that make him a considerably weaker points-based player -- but he's a smarter hitter than people perceive him to be.

Bailey

Homer Bailey, SP, Cincinnati Reds

Tristan: 48th overall, No. 12 starting pitcher; ADP: 75th (78.9)

I've probably been asked more questions about my Bailey ranking this winter than any player; understand that I've had him consistently ranked a top-15 starting pitcher in November, January and now March. He is the only major leaguer who has improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio in each of the past six seasons, his ground-ball rate has risen in back-to-back years and he even experienced a bump in velocity in 2013. Just 28, Bailey might yet have a chance to become the staff ace many scouts projected back at the time of his 2007 big league debut.

Martinez

Victor Martinez, DH, Detroit Tigers

Tristan: 117th overall, No. 3 DH; ADP: 145th (144.3)

Why is it that fantasy owners are so generally terrified of filling their DH/utility spot, to the extent that they'll often let DH-only players slide several rounds or sell for multiple dollars cheaper than they should? Martinez might not hit for as much power in his first season back following microfracture surgery on his left knee, but he did show consistent improvement throughout the year, to the point that he was a .367/.418/.518 hitter from July 1 forward en route to a just-outside-the-top-100 finish on our Player Rater. He's plenty capable of matching or exceeding his 2013 numbers, and here's the best part: He has at least a long-shot chance at capturing field eligibility at either first base or catcher by sometime midseason.

Castro

Jason Castro, C, Houston Astros

Tristan: 184th overall, No. 11 C; ADP: 188th (189.2)

Yes, I've ranked him behind his current ADP, but the point here is that I need a catcher on the list, and based upon the available options at the position and the 10-team, one-catcher mentality, I'd much rather wait until the 19th round to nab Castro than to have to reach for a more proven option earlier. Heck, I might grab him a couple rounds earlier, if need be. Castro made two big strides in 2013: He boosted his isolated power by 65 points (.209, up from .144) and he batted 94 points higher against left-handed pitchers (.242, up from .148), making him a more power-packed, compete slugger. I look at Matt Wieters going four rounds earlier or Wilson Ramos going two rounds sooner and think, will Castro's 2014 numbers really be any worse than theirs?

Alvarez

Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates

Tristan: 74th overall, No. 8 3B; ADP: 88th (89.9)

I'm actually surprised that Alvarez's ADP is as early as it is. He had the majors' 10th-worst qualified batting average (.233), his Player Rater score in the category was a 45th-worst minus-1.24 and fantasy owners have this historic hesitation to trust hitters with reputations as batting-average drains. Still, while Alvarez's rank/ADP split is among the narrowest on this list, the reason I'm including him is to stress how much of a must I consider him as the eighth (and absolutely no later than ninth) round of your draft approaches. He's a fastball killer (.598 slugging against them in 2013, eighth-best in the majors) who has quietly improved both his approach against breaking balls (15 homers against them combined in 2012-13, compared to zero in 2011) as well as his propensity to swing at bad pitches (swung 2 percent less often at "non-competitive," or far-outside-the-strike-zone, offerings in 2013 compared to 2012). Alvarez is a blossoming slugger, yet hit 36 home runs last season. If he has more growth potential, might he be 2014's Chris Davis?

Wheeler

Zack Wheeler, SP, New York Mets

Tristan: 127th overall, No. 34 SP; ADP: 170th (173.0)

Wheeler has raw stuff so good he'll one day thrive; control is what he needs to truly break through in 2014. But in his final seven starts of last season, he appeared to turn a corner: He poured 50 percent of his pitches into the strike zone, an improvement from his 38 percent rate in his first 10 starts, and he registered strikes 62 percent of the time, up from 50 percent. Wheeler is off to a good start in that regard this spring, too, with eight K's compared to two walks in 10 2/3 innings. A quick glance at his FanGraphs page shows how he posted negative run value with his curve and slider; those were almost entirely a result of initially shaky command of the pitches, not the quality of the pitches themselves. Once he improves in that regard -- something entirely possible with a pitcher still adapting to the majors -- his value will soar, and I certainly want to be riding shotgun on his bandwagon when it happens.

Cashner

Andrew Cashner, SP, San Diego Padres

Tristan: 116th overall, No. 31 SP; ADP: 162nd (164.4)

Those who paid attention through all six regular-season months of 2013 might remember Cashner's strong finish: He had the majors' sixth-best ERA (2.14) and third-best WHIP (0.95) after the All-Star break. Those who merely glance at his seasonal statistics see a pitcher whose strikeout rate was down. That's a mistake: The proper takeaways were his walk-rate decline (6.7 percent of batters faced, down from 11.0 percent from 2010-12 in the majors, or 10.0 percent during his minor league career), and the return of his strikeout ways of old during the second half (20.8 percent, up from 16.2 percent in the first half and closer to his 22.4 percent from 2010-12 in the majors, or 22.4 percent during his minor league career). Cashner did this via a slight increase in fastball velocity along with greater reliance upon his strikeout-generating slider; this pattern had the classic look of a pitcher progressing through the adjustment period of a reliever converting to starter. I think he's now primed for a full year as a 200-inning starter, at near-or-better rates to his final 2013 stat line.

Brothers

Rex Brothers, RP, Colorado Rockies

Tristan: 223rd overall, No. 26 RP; ADP: 254th (224.4)

Everyone wants to find 2014's Kenley Jansen; that comparison refers to the 2013 edition of Jansen, and if you've forgotten, it means the reliever mired in a setup role to begin the year, yet who quickly captures a closer job due to far-superior skills than the incumbent. Brothers is everyone's favorite choice, and I think those people are right. This isn't to say that I project Brothers to finish fifth among relievers on our 2014 Player Rater, the spot Jansen occupied to conclude 2013. It's saying that his projected ceiling for this year falls within range of it. Simply put, Brothers only continues to improve as a pitcher -- his most substantial gain in 2013 was a 53-point reduction in his batting average allowed to right-handed hitters, and 39 points in isolated power -- and he's next in line to LaTroy Hawkins, whose 1 1/3-run home/road ERA split (not to mention 6.4 home/road split in home run/fly ball percentage) is terribly disconcerting for a pitcher migrating to Coors. I wouldn't be shocked if Brothers is the Rockies' closer on Memorial Day. I don't think he'll cede the job again the next time he captures it, and I'd be much happier owning him than many of the lower-tier closers.

Moreland

Mitch Moreland, 1B, Texas Rangers

Tristan: 239th overall, No. 27 1B; ADP: 351st (2.1 percent owned)

I'm stunned that Moreland is going undrafted in this volume of ESPN leagues. Yes, his natural position of first base is now occupied by Prince Fielder. Yes, he has never managed better than a .275 batting average, 23 home runs or 60 RBIs in a single season. Still, Moreland projects to claim the lion's share of the at-bats at designated hitter, he'll sneak in enough time at first base (with Fielder the DH) and perhaps the corner outfield spots and the result should be a 525-plate appearance slugger who calls Rangers Ballpark his home. I think he'll be motivated by Fielder's arrival, and with his gradual improvements against left-handed pitchers (.163 isolated power thanks to 14 doubles last year), I believe he might step up his game to a .260-25-75 stat line (or more).

Ackley

Dustin Ackley, 2B/OF, Seattle Mariners

Tristan: 245th overall, No. 21 2B; ADP: 320th (3.7 percent owned)

Let's be clear upfront: I don't love Dustin Ackley. I don't think he's making the All-Star team; I don't even think he'll be a 20/20 player (those two measures casually chosen to represent a couple of high-end, real/fantasy game accomplishments). What I do love is the fact that nobody seems to want him, yet I see a player for whom I can wait, wait, wait ... and plug into my middle-infield spot where he's highly unlikely to hurt me. Ackley's .245/.315/.354 career triple-slash rates don't excite anyone, but those who absorb only those ignore the fact that, after a stint in the minors early last year, he returned to bat .304/.374/.435 with a 10.1 percent walk rate during the second half, including vastly improved performances against left-handed pitchers (.318 AVG in 74 PA). I think he's at worst a .270/.345 performer with 10/8 power/speed, and at best a .310/.390 with 16/14 stats. That's a mixed-league relevant player, and in a points-based/on-base percentage league, it's a potential steal of a deal.

Perez

Martin Perez, SP, Texas Rangers

Tristan: No. 66 starting pitcher; ADP: 346th (2.3 percent owned)

You don't simply hand a pitcher a four-year deal worth $12.5 million when he's two years shy of arbitration if you don't see something potentially great in his arm. But that's exactly what the Rangers did this winter, and that's exactly what I see in him: He has a four-seam/two-seam/changeup combination that both narrows his splits as well as generates a healthy rate of grounders, and he's coming off a strong finish to 2013, posting a 3.19 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in his final 12 turns. His seven walks in eight innings this spring might be of concern, but in his defense, Perez has been working on a cutter, the experimentation a possible explanation, and his 6.7 percent walk rate between the majors and minors last season suggests he's not typically a shaky-control type. I love creative pitchers; at his price, Perez is well worth the stash.

Smoak

Justin Smoak, 1B, Seattle Mariners

Tristan: 232nd overall, No. 25 1B; ADP: 285th (235.2, 37.4 percent owned)

I've of the mindset that you need to take at least one power-upside bat -- I'd define that as a late-round/lower-priced shot at a 30-plus-homer season -- and Smoak is my favorite such choice entering 2014. Bear in mind he set personal bests in 2013 in home runs (20), slugging percentage (.412), walk rate (12.3 percent), on-base percentage (.334) and, perhaps most importantly, fly-ball rate (46.7 percent), which points to his adapting his swing to drive the ball. The few times I've seen Smoak this spring he appears to have improved selectivity, and I like that new manager Lloyd McClendon has been firmly behind him so far in camp.

Kluber

Corey Kluber, SP, Cleveland Indians

Tristan: 222nd overall, No. 59 SP; ADP: 302nd (8.1 percent owned)

One of two pitchers from my "Kings of Command" to make the list -- Bailey is the other -- Kluber's potential return on investment might the greatest of any of the nine picked for that column. He has been effectively undrafted in ESPN leagues, but I'd argue he's absolutely a mixed-league draft candidate, based upon strikeout potential that's near one-per-inning and a WHIP that showed substantial improvement in 2013 thanks to his mastery of both a two-seam fastball and cutter (those pitches added to his arsenal in the past three calendar years). This -- not Ubaldo Jimenez, Kyle Lohse or Wade Miley, all of whom have earlier ADPs -- is the kind of pitcher you need to be taking as last-man-on-your-staff selections with upside.

Cobb

Alex Cobb, SP, Tampa Bay Rays

Tristan: 89th overall, No. 26 SP; ADP: 112th (115.0)

By now, my longtime readers surely know my affinity for extreme-ground-ball pitchers with one true swing-and-miss pitch, and Cobb certainly qualifies: He had the majors' fifth-highest ground-ball rate among pitchers with at least 20 starts in 2013 (56.8 percent), and he held opponents to a .210/.265/.306 triple-slash line while recording 68 of his 134 K's with his changeup. Cobb doesn't get enough love because he missed time last year -- fantasy owners tend to embrace the theory, "Once injured, always an injury risk" -- except his injury was entirely the fluky variety, a concussion as a result of his being struck in the right ear by a line drive in June. Granted a full season, he might pitch well enough to garner some Cy Young Award votes.

Arenado

Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies

Tristan: 182nd overall, No. 16 3B; ADP: 214th (211.5)

His plate coverage is absurd. Consider: After the All-Star break, Arenado swung at 40 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, the fourth-highest rate in the majors; he nevertheless whiffed only 14.9 percent of the time during that span. It has been his M.O. through five professional seasons; he whiffed only 10.2 percent of the time during his minor league career, batting .299 but backed by a mere 6.8 walk rate fueling a .345 on-base percentage. Still, if I'm to pick a ballpark for a "put-the-ball-in-play" hitter, it'd be Coors, where the overall BABIP was a major league-high .325. Arenado's 2014 downside isn't as scary thanks to Coors, and his upside is that of a possible .300-hitting, 20-homer, 150-game player. Care to guess how many third basemen have achieved all three in the past five years? Five: Adrian Beltre (three times), Miguel Cabrera, Josh Donaldson, Pablo Sandoval and David Wright.

Eaton

Adam Eaton, OF, Chicago White Sox

Tristan: 189th overall, No. 51 OF; ADP: 215th (211.7)

Elbow issues cost Eaton the first three months of 2013, yet the elbow healed just in time for him to put forth a sizable enough sample of disappointing, and presumably injury-influenced, numbers, causing many fantasy owners to write him off. The proper reaction, however, is to write his 2013 off, accounting for the injury. Eaton is still the speedy, high-walk, good-contact hitter he was during his Arizona Diamondbacks days, and thus far in White Sox camp he looks every bit the part. Let's not forget that two seasons ago, he stole 46 bases combined in the majors, with a 10.2 percent walk rate and .359 batting average. Eaton might be the most nicely priced, potential .280/.360, 30-steal candidate out there. In short, I think he looks like a cheaper version of Norichika Aoki, who finished 76th and 112th on our Player Rater in his first two seasons.

Ventura

Yordano Ventura, SP, Kansas City Royals

Tristan: No. 71 starting pitcher; ADP: 283rd (234.3, 13.0 percent owned)

Ventura is simply fun to watch. He has a fastball that averaged 97.5 mph in his three starts last season and can touch 100 mph -- he threw eight of them clocked that fast -- and a wipeout curveball that should quickly develop into his strikeout pitch. Yes, he's a fly-baller, and yes, his so-so changeup might make him more susceptible to lefty-laden lineups, but the overall Ventura package is that of a possible 3.75-ERA, 160-strikeout pitcher, if he can sneak in a solid 25-27 starts. If not for a somewhat deeper American League rookie class, I might be tempted to pick him as my rookie of the year.

Peralta

Wily Peralta, SP, Milwaukee Brewers

Tristan: No. 76 starting pitcher; ADP: 384th (1.0 percent owned)

Peralta is another ground-balling, one-big-swing-and-miss pitcher who captures my eye: He had a 52.3 percent ground-ball rate last season, and he has a K-generating slider that limited opponents to a .209 wOBA from Sept. 5, 2012 (the date of his first major league start) through the end of 2013, that number 10th-best in the game during that time span. But what separate him from the aforementioned Cobb are his lack of a dominant pitch to use against lefties -- that would be the last step Peralta needs to take to become a mixed-league sensation -- and his far, far lower draft price. I see the skills of an ideal streamer candidate to begin 2014, one who, while stashed on your bench for those purposes, could elevate his game to every-start status.

Martinez

Carlos Martinez, RP, St. Louis Cardinals

Tristan: No. 44 relief pitcher; ADP: 314th (4.5 percent owned)

Though listed initially as a reliever, Martinez shouldn't be underestimated as a rotation candidate for the 2014 Cardinals. He has thrown remarkably well in three spring starts but, more importantly, reports on the progress of his changeup are good. Here's why that's important: He already possesses the high-90s fastball and curveball that make him a dark-horse late-inning relief candidate, but it's adding the change to counter lefties that would make him a more complete pitcher as a starter. Let's not overlook that Martinez whiffed 20.6 percent of hitters he faced -- that generally equates to about eight K's per nine -- combined between Double- and Triple-A in his career, posted sub-1.2 WHIPs at both levels, and will call one of the more pitching-friendly environments his home. If you were all in on Trevor Rosenthal a year ago at this time, you should be all in on Martinez this year for the same reasons: He could emerge as a fantasy-worthy starter in the best case, or a ratio-assisting setup man in the worst case.

Ryu

Hyun-Jin Ryu, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers

Tristan: 85th overall, No. 24 SP; ADP: 123rd (126.2)

Why aren't more people buying Ryu's 2013 U.S. debut? Is it merely because he's overshadowed on his own staff by Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke? That's a terrible reason, considering no one could've asked for a better transition to the States, one that saw Ryu make consistent improvements as the summer progressed. Consider this: He walked 8.1 percent of the batters he faced before the All-Star break, but only 3.3 percent after it; he lowered his well-hit average (the percentage of his at-bats that resulted in hard contact) by 29 points in the second half; and this spring he has maintained the control gains by posting a 4.5 percent walk rate. I think he's a potential top-20 fantasy starter, but he's being treated like barely a member of the top 30.

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