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Sleepers & Busts: Aging First Basemen

If far too many years of fantasy baseball has taught me anything, it's that there's nothing more tantalizing in the game than the upside of a rising star. The concept of getting your hands on a player who reportedly has first-round talent in his veins in the fourth or fifth round is alluring. It's the reason that Desmond Jennings, Brett Lawrie and Eric Hosmer were so commonly selected inside the first 60 picks last season despite each having just half a season under his belt.

Often times, we fall too deeply in love with the optimism of these picks, though. It's hard not to. Dreaming big is part of what makes fantasy baseball so damn fun. But just ask the managers who drafted Jennings, Lawrie and Hosmer in the fifth round last season exactly how that optimism came back to bite them.

The other side of the coin in that situation is that guys who have been solid regulars for years often fall to the wayside. Ditto for veterans coming off of injuries. Winning teams so often contain at least one (usually more) player who dropped significantly due to his age. I'm kicking off this week's column with a player who was unquestionably one of the key driving forces behind a league championship in 2011...

Lance Berkman, 1B, TEX - ADP 219

After Berkman's dreadful 2010 season most wrote him off. I remember being shocked to see the Cardinals of all teams -- a team with Albert Pujols manning first base at the time -- sign Berkman. I scoffed at the concept of him patrolling the outfield. Then I picked him up as a free agent in the season's first week and became his biggest cheerleader as he hit .301/.412/.547 with 31 HR, 90 runs and 90 RBI. He even kicked in a pair of steals just for laughs.

Berkman tallied just 97 plate appearances last season and still managed to display a 14.4% walk rate. His swinging strike total jumped quite a bit, and he swung at an unusual amount of pitches outside the strike zone. That's a 97-PA sample size, however.

In 2013, Berkman will move to one of the game's most notorious hitters' havens and join a lineup that includes Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, Elvis Andrus and A.J. Pierzynski, among others. He'll see significant time at DH, which should keep his legs healthy, and he'll have a nice supporting cast. I don't know that another 30-homer season is in the offing, but there's a better chance of it for him than there is for Brandon Moss, who for some reason is going almost two full rounds ahead of Big Puma.

Berkman's coming off the board later than names such as Moss, Justin Ruggiano, Dayan Viciedo and Adam Eaton. Even Alex Rodriguez, who won't play until the All-Star break, is ahead of Puma. There are question marks surrounding Berkman, but his pedigree, supporting cast and home ballpark are all in his favor.

Final Ruling: Sleeper

Justin Morneau, 1B, MIN - ADP 202

Not far ahead of Berkman on the current draft board is the 2006 AL MVP, whose career was nearly destroyed by a concussion suffered in the midst of what was shaping up to be a historic 2010 season (.345/.437/.618 in 81 games).

To say Morneau was a 2011 afterthought would be kind. In terms of fantasy relevance, he was among the most inconsequential hitters in baseball as he dealt with post-concussion symptoms and recurring injuries to his wrist and neck.

Last season was a different story. Morneau hit a respectable .267/.333/.440 with 19 homers. His walk rate crept back up to about league average, and his 17.9% whiff rate wasn't terrible. In the second half, he hit 289/.354/.439. The obvious red mark when looking at Morneau's splits is that he seems to have lost all competency against lefties. Morneau in his prime clobbered same-handed pitching. Morneau in 2012 hit .232/.271/.298 against southpaws. Ouch.

That line, however, includes an abysmal 4-for-42 (.095) start against left-handers. Morneau himself said many times early in 2012 that he found himself unable to get his timing down against left-handed pitching. From June on, he hit a far more respectable .269 against lefties, although admittedly his home run damage came almost entirely against righties.

Still, if Morneau is able to hold his own in terms of batting average against lefties, his .290/.371/.531 line against right-handers becomes pretty enticing. He's injury-free this offseason -- the first time he's been on a normal routine since the 2009-10 winter. Target Field will sap his power, but this is a former MVP-caliber  player who's shown signs of life and is being drafted at the end of the 17th round. I prefer him to Moss and to Kendrys Morales as well, who's going a full 40 picks earlier.

Final Ruling: Sleeper

Ryan Howard, 1B, PHI - ADP 135

Not every aging star is a bargain. It must be a name brand thing with Howard for him to be drafted this highly following such an unsightly 2012 season. Upon returning from an Achilles injury, Howard batted .219/.295/.423 with 14 home runs in 292 trips to the plate. Your first instinct might be to chalk the average up to poor luck -- maybe he was plagued by a low BABIP! Not so.

Howard's .287 BABIP was low by his standards, but the clear culprit in his horrific season was a lack of anything resembling strike zone knowledge. Howard struck out in 33.9% of his plate appearances and walked in 8.6% -- both career worsts. He swung out of the zone at an astonishing 37% clip -- more than six percentage points above the league average -- but made contact on just 50.2% of those offerings. That's 16 percent (!) below the league average rate. Only six players with 250 PA or more had a higher swinging strike rate than Howard's 15.1%.

Essentially, Howard treated his at-bats like childhood birthday parties, electing to hack at imaginary pinatas and play Pin the Tail on the Donkey rather than put the ball in play.

Gone are the days of Howard being an elite first baseman. Somehow, he's going one spot ahead of Adam LaRoche. If you find yourself deciding between these two, don't let nostalgia win out.

Final Ruling: Bust




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