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RotoAuthority Unscripted: Value Changers

I know the most about fantasy baseball in March. You know the feeling--mock drafting, poring over last year's stats, re-sorting leaderboards for every possible category--we are rarely more expert than in the last moments before the draft. (During the draft, clearly, most of us are less than experts.)

Then the season gets going, and our perception narrows. We zero in on our own fantasy teams, occasionally sparing ourselves the time to cheer on our favorite real club. Sure, before making trades we'll go over opposing players with a fine-toothed comb, and we learn to scour the waiver wire like Hector Santiago and Donnie Murphy are the most interesting people in the world...but, day in and day out, few of us pay truly careful attention to most of the hundreds of players owned in our fantasy leagues.

The effect of this phenomenon? Well, for me, it means that each January, when I shake off the morning dust of the offseason dive back into fantasy baseball like a kid on Christmas there always seem to be a couple players whose stat lines make me go, 'What? Who even is that?' Hot streaks that I dismissed in April turned out to be great seasons; players too consistent to even check on either raised their game to the next level or fell off a cliff. 

Today, we're going to get a head start on some of those surprising players, and take a look at some guys whose value has changed significantly since the start of 2013.

Josh Donaldson is the guy who inspired this article, and far and away the sleeper whose name I would go back in time and whisper to myself the night before all my drafts. Alas, he's already the subject of an article on Fangraphs.com (the featured one, no less). He's been good enough that you've probably heard about him as successful, and have filed him away to research and maybe draft next year. Donaldson owners are hoping you wait till next year to think about just how good he's been, because I guarantee anyone who owns this guy is targeting him for 2014.

With a Yahoo! O-Rank of 346, this guy was ignored in a lot of drafts (actually, he's somehow still only 86% owned in that format) and yet here's the stat line he's given us: .297/.371/.494, with 21 homers. He's come basically out of nowhere, without a great minor league track record. At 27, he certainly wasn't a prospect, and tradition demands that I warn you he's at his athletic peak.

What do you do with him next year? My jury's still out, but only because the track record isn't there, as this season looks very legit. He's been a top-five third baseman this year, and I have to think it'll be worth taking him among the top ten next year, at a position that has had more than its share of disappointments.

Speaking of disappointments, Ian Kinsler has certainly been one. He saw a big decline between his superstar 2011 and his just-okay 2012, and this season has continued the downward trend. Before looking at his numbers, I figured him for a decent but declining good second base option. Nope. Instead, Kinsler's slash line reads .271/.336/.404, with fewer than 11 homers and 13 steals. He's someone I'll be avoiding on next year's draft day, as he's fallen a long way down the depth chart at his position.

Like everyone else in the entire world, I figured Alfonso Soriano had cemented himself as a player: a bad average guy, whose speed was gone, and hit between 20 and 30 homers, and got every ounce of his value from those homers. Right now, he's got only a .254 average, but his 32 homers have drawn out 98 RBI's. He's even added 17 steals. With the Yankee lineup around him, Soriano looks a lot more like a number two or three outfielder next year than the number four or five he was coming into this season. He's even retaken his place as the "best player in baseball named Soriano," which is a title he hadn't had in long time.

Hunter Pence is in a similar boat. His trends were so ugly that I refused to draft him...then he was too good to trade for. In 2012, Pence gave owners a .253/.319/.425 line with 24 home runs and five steals. This year: .289/.340/.474 with 20 longballs and 21 steals. I can't say why he's picked up the running game, but I like it. The slash line has improved a lot, too, and suddenly his overall pattern looks different: instead of measured decline, maybe last year was simply an aberration.

Ben Zobrist was a RotoAuthority favorite before the season (he's on most of my teams), but Mr. Swiss Army Knife hasn't been as sharp as in the past. While his average and speed have held steady, his power has tanked, from 20 homers to 11, and a .471 slugging to just .413. Sure, it's nice for him to play basically every position, but you'd like a lot more than that for a fourth-rounder. Don't expect him to carry that price tag next year, but don't expect him to be a good bargain either: late bloomers have the tendency to fade out early, and Zobrist may be on that road at 32. (Counterpoint, though: he had a similar power slump in 2010 and responded with back-to-back 20-homer seasons. Go figure.)

Sticking with second basemen, Daniel Murphy has been a very quiet, very useful guy. With double-digit homers, nearly 20 steals, and a slash line of  .284/.318/.407, he's basically been Zobrist this year, but might have gone undrafted. That probably won't happen again next year, as he'll be a MI target for plenty of bargain hunters.

Speaking of Mets, what about Marlon Byrd? This guy had the best stats on my waiver wires forever, until someone couldn't stand it anymore and picked him up. Good call, it turns out. Rocking a 366 Yahoo! O-Rank, I'm thinking Byrd didn't fly high in many drafts. (Sorry, couldn't help it.) That didn't stop him from smacking 22 homers with a slash line of .288/.334/.516. Sure, he's got a .352 BABIP, but that's still pretty great for a guy who wasn't even expected to start before the year. Normally, I'd call a season like this an anomaly (maybe I still will), since Byrd is 36 and has plenty mediocre track record behind him. Interestingly, however, he has done this before, back in 2009. I would totally take a flyer on him next year if he's assured a starting OF job, which is a lot more than I would have said a couple months ago.

Alexei Ramirez is an interesting case, because he's totally changed as a player. At one point, he was a great mid-round power source at shortstop, nearing 20 homers, without killing you in average. Maybe he'd even sprinkle in a few steals. He began his transformation by purging himself of any semblance of power in a very disappointing 2012. Then this year, he finished it off by tacking on 50% more steals (with half as many homers) and upped his batting average. If you can expect 30 steals from a shortstop, you stop worrying about home runs--otherwise I wouldn't have been stuck with Alcides Escobar in so many leagues. Ramirez's transformation is pretty much the opposite of what you expect from a 32-year-old, so I won't be breaking the bank to draft him, but he's a lot more interesting now than a year ago.

Fortunately, these are the only ballplayers who've changed in value since last year, so you won't even need to keep preparing for 2014...oh, wait. Nope. There's plenty more and maybe we'll examine some of them next time. Or maybe not. This column is, after all, unscripted. 

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