Fantasy baseball 2011: Lesser-named guys who can lift your team

Stacked below the wrapped spare rolls of industrially uncomfortable toilet paper were a half-dozen of those extremely shallow fashion magazines that show just how superficial we’ve allegedly become.

One showed Katie Holmes in a $1,500 jumpsuit. A naked model sat behind a Versace bag. The whole issue of Elle was a collage of well-known celebrities and well-known brand names. As if the only way to success was to be like one of them, dress like one of them or buy a bazillion dollar purse or pair of shoes.

Fantasy baseball owners can get just as starry eyed when it comes to stud players with big names. So much so that they’ll continue to ride that big name regardless of how long that early or mid-season slump continues. But fantasy championships aren’t won on the backs of your fantasy studs, but instead the diamonds in the rough. Here are a few you need to know.

Michael Cuddyer, MIN.

Most people who’ve played fantasy baseball with at least a somewhat open mindset have heard of Cuddyer. Many of them, especially those in Yahoo leagues, know that Mr. Cuddyer has played enough games at second base to be eligible there. Those in ESPN leagues just recently were able to capitalize on the extra eligibility.

Starting the season eligible at first base and outfield, Cuddyer was on many “watch” or sleeper lists during the preseason. Both first base and, to a lesser degree, outfield, are much deeper positions than second base.

Looking at ESPN season projections, Cuddyer would rank as the fourth-highest second baseman in RBI and in the top 10 in runs scored. He’d produce more runs, RBI and a better batting average than guys like Aaron Hill, who many are still locking into their second base or middle infield slots each week.

Cuddyer’s numbers so far this year don’t tell the full story, making him even more of a sneaky play. A balky hip and overall underperformance of the Twins overall lineup have hampered his stats in general, but there is still plenty of upside as Cuddyer has been declared fully healthy moving forward. He may lose time at second base when Tsuyoshi Nishioka returns from the DL, but Cuddyer will still find plenty of playing time regardless of where he does play.

Josh Willingham, OAK.

Just dropped in a very competitive 15-team experts roto league I’m in, Willingham was a player I had no trouble picking up.

On the surface, we all know Willingham can do better than the .238 season batting average so far. However, he has sported a .262 over the past 15 days and .294 during the past seven.

Even with not-so-stellar numbers overall, he has already batted in half (30) of the projected runs that ESPN suggested he would for the entire season. He also already has half of their season-long stolen base estimate for him and a third of the runs scored (21) they predicted. With a solid 2-for-3 outing Friday, he hit his eighth homer of the season – ESPN guessed he’d hit 16 for the whole season.

Yes, injuries are a concern for Willingham, but he’s also a guy you don’t want to miss out on when he’s on a tear.

So Willingham is looking like he’ll surpass expectations, yet only finds himself on a roster in 9 percent of ESPN leagues and 15 percent of Yahoo rosters at the moment.

Mark Trumbo, LAA.

First base is an overall deep position, but it also has seen some hills and valleys as a whole this year. Adam Dunn and Justin Morneau have been major under-achievers. Kendrys Morales has been lost for the season. And in his stead, Trumbo has emerged.

Trumbo’s overall season stats have obviously been impressive.

His numbers, obviously, have already dwarfed the stats predicted for him for the full season. His eight homers have been very helpful for those who’ve invested in him so far. His RBI numbers will continue to improve as he flexes his muscles. The four stolen bases have been a very nice surprise, as well.

The only issue at the moment has been Trumbo’s declining batting average, something that most young players struggle with at some point or another early in their careers. Trumbo is still worth more than most consider, especially those who are fixated on his .189 average over the past 15 days.

Bud Norris, HOU.

High strikeout pitchers aren’t always great in the ERA department. Just ask Jonathan Sanchez. However, Norris, who is tied for sixth (with Justin Verlander and James Shields) with 73 strikeouts after Saturday’s game, hasn’t done too poorly in overall ERA to date, dropping to 3.76 after an uninspiring outing Saturday against the Diamondbacks.

Even in that game, Norris may have allowed a total of six runs, but only two were earned.

One obvious issue for Norris is the lack of run support from the Astros lineup, and despite some interesting overall numbers for the 2011 season so far, he sports just a 2-4 record.

However, few pitchers can provide his strikeout potential, something that Norris has shown in years past and is not some fluky 2011 phenomenon.

If you’re heading into an intense trade situation, dealing a Jonathan Sanchez (or other high-K, somewhat streaky ERA option) for Bud Norris may be a sneaky-good move depending on what you can get.

Charlie Morton, PIT.

Meet the opposite of Norris. Morton is having a breakout season of his own, and many haven’t bought in because of the team he plays for and because he hasn’t been able to produce huge strikeout numbers.

Sure, the 33/29 strikeout-to-walk ratio isn’t exactly stellar. But the 2.61 ERA and 1.31 WHIP are very much for real. One wouldn’t give him a great chance of racking up wins with the Pirates organization, but he does have five to date and some appealing matchups on the horizon.

Mark Melancon, HOU.

I’m not an Astros fan in the least, so the fact that I have two pitchers from Houston on here is more coincidence than anything else.

There are a ton of names I’d love to list here instead. Fernando Salas, Sergio Santos and others included. However, closers are a unique beast in that when they start to take off, they are snatched up quickly.

Melancon is available in many more leagues than Salas, Santos or other closers who currently have the job. His ERA is a shaky 1.93, but he does have three saves in the closer role so far. Regardless of the big contract, Brandon Lyon has no guarantee that he’ll still have the closing gig when he returns from the DL, something that may be tricky in itself since he’s battling a right biceps tendinitis and a partial rotator cuff tear – and he wasn’t exactly lights-out before the shoulder issues.

The ’Stros are also in a rebuilding mode and Melancon presents the future. As long as he doesn’t have a total meltdown he should see the majority of the save opportunities moving forward. That may not be a lot according to some looking at the Houston lineup – but at least the wins the Astros do get will likely be close.

Zach Duke, ARI.

Sort of a more speculative add, Duke missed the first two months of the season with a broken hand. His career stats aren’t super-stellar, but for some reason, he’s always a guy I find myself gravitating to.

Saturday night, Duke had a successful return to the bigs with a three-hit, one-walk, four-strikeout victory over seven shutout innings.

Now while that was against the Astros. Then again, his next opponent is the Nationals.

Have you seen our can’t-miss advice on successful fantasy baseball trading and our discussion on how to be successful using free agency?

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