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Childs Play

Some readers might remember that until last summer, Childs Walker wrote a weekly column on fantasy sports for The Sun. That ritual died for the cause of reducing newsprint costs (tough business, newspapers). But with the Toy Department open and its aisles boundless, Childs is back with his insights, laments and odes to joy regarding pretend baseball and pretend football.

The tendency, when you look at fantasy teams post-draft, is to fixate on the stars, the hot rookies and the obvious bargains. It's hard to win a title without a few big guns firing at maximum capacity, so it's human nature to dwell on such players.

But when you look at your league champion come season's end, you'll invariably find another species of player--unglamorous guys who earn $5 or $10 more than their draft-day price tags. The key, of course, is to grab a few of these guys early, whether from the waiver wire or as trade throw-ins. Their production will become apparent by midseason but for now, getting them won't require a fight. Here are some guys who strike me that way.

Ty Wigginton - The new Oriole was actually pretty popular at my A.L. auction, but if you're in a less Baltimore-centric league, his non-starter status might depress his value. Here's why it shouldn't. Wigginton could ultimately be eligible at every offensive slot but shortstop or catcher. He annihilates lefthanded pitching (.288 for his career compared to .264 against righties) so if Dave Trembley platoons him, his rate stats will actually go up and compensate for lost at-bats. Finally, Camden Yards favors righthanded power. Wigginton will not carry your fantasy team but could be an exceedingly useful component as the season rolls on.

Seth Smith - Coors Field is no longer the park that built Vinny Castilla and Dante Bichette into MVP candidates. But it's still a terrific place to hit, the kind of park that can turn Matt Holliday into a superstar or Clint Barmes into a useful player. Smith is starting in Coors. He offers some pop, has a good contact record in the minors and can run a little. That's the sort of player who could miraculously hit .300 with 20 homers and 10 steals for the Rockies. I'm not saying it will happen, but how many $5 players even present such possibilities? Teammate Ryan Spillborghs is another from the same mold.

Jody Gerut -  Remember when Gerut hit 22 homers for Cleveland way back in 2003? A lot of people liked him then, but various injuries kept him from any sort of production between 2005 and 2007. He resurfaced in San Diego last season with the same decent pop and an improved ability to hit lefties. Not many people noticed because the Padres are horrible. But fantasy owners shouldn't sneeze at guys who play regularly and could hit .290 with 20 homers.

Aaron Hill - He disappointed me and a lot of other folks last year when injuries derailed a potential breakout. But he's still a guy who makes good contact, still a guy who hit 17 homers at a weak offensive position in 2007 and still only 27 years old. If he stays healthy and gets a little luckier on fly balls leaving the park (2 percent last year compared to 9 percent in 2007), he could be a $15 player in A.L. leagues and a solid option for middle infield slots in mixed leagues. 

Mark Reynolds - I ripped on the guy last year when he got off to a hot start and interest went overboard. Now, he's a little underrated. His lack of contact skill will always make him a batting average risk. But if he can bump back to his 2007 rates, he could hit .260 or .270, like Adam Dunn in a good season. More importantly, he's capable of 35 home runs and stole 11 bases last year (not sure how many people realize that.) He's only 25, and when you combine the power and the speed, you have a pretty interesting package, especially in that park.  

 

Brandon Inge - He's another contact-deficient player, and that showed up big-time in 2008, when his average fell to .205. But Inge was very unlucky on balls in play and his average could easily rise 40 points, just with improved luck. He's starting at third but also eligible at catcher, where his 15 homers and 60-70 RBIs become real pluses. The roster flexibility afforded by his weird eligibility combination will only help more as injuries set in over the course of the season.

Brandon Moss - He was part of the Pirates' booty in the Jason Bay trade. Moss doesn't have the buzz of a top prospect, but he does have a regular job on a lousy team and the ability to slug .500 according to Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system. He's not a target in mixed leagues, but in N.L. leagues, he could become a keeper if you get him at less than $5. Oh, and Bill James loves him. 

Ben Francisco - It's hard to get much attention when you're playing beside Grady Sizemore and fighting for at-bats. Francisco is too old to be called a prospect, but he has already demonstrated 15-20-homer power in the majors, he makes enough contact not to kill your batting average and buried in his minor league stats are a few 20-steal seasons. If you can pick up a 20-homer, 10-steal candidate for less than $10, that's great in an A.L. league.

Bob Howry - A 35-year-old reliever with a 5.35 ERA? A target? Well, yes. Howry maintained a decent strikeout rate and reasonable control during his difficult 2008. He carries a long history of success, pitches in a forgiving park and sits behind a vulnerable closer in Brian Wilson. That's a nice package if it's available for $1 in N.L. leagues. 

Takashi Saito - I was thrilled to snag him for $1 in my A.L. league. Sure, Saito faces health and durability questions. But he's never been less than dominant in the big leagues and if something were to happen to Jon Papelbon, you'd have the closer on one of the best teams in baseball for pennies on the dollar.

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