Drew Silva

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The NL's Hidden Gems

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Spring training doesn't officially open until next week, but we don't care. It's time to declare this "baseball season."

The Rotoworld Online Draft Guide is now live and it features more great content than ever before. Want to take a look at a Mock Draft already? It's in there. Enjoy prospects? Take a look at our Top 100. Want projections and profiles on over 1,000 players? They're all in there, too.

Dominate your draft this season.

There are many different ways to win a fantasy league. Picking the right guys at the top of the draft can help, but identifying talent and production where others in your league don't is probably even more important. We call these hidden commodities "fantasy sleepers," and they can be found at all positions. Below, some names in the National League that are at least worth monitoring...

Aaron Harang, SP, Padres

The right-hander finished with a hideous 6-7 record, 5.32 ERA and 1.59 WHIP across 111-plus innings last season for the Reds and drew very little interest through the first couple weeks of free agency. But the Padres identified Harang as someone who might do well in the colossal confines of Petco Park, and so they snatched him up with a one-year, $4 million contract in early December. He should easily be worth the investment. Harang's tenure in Cincinnati came to a rough close, but much of that can be blamed on his tendencies as a flyball pitcher. And flyball pitchers don't have a prayer in the Reds' Great American Ballpark. His strikeout rates have always been good and he won't be taken deep nearly as much out in sunny San Diego.

Craig Kimbrel, RP, Braves

The Braves haven't fully committed to Kimbrel as their closer for 2011 and they've even floated the possibility of having him split ninth inning duties with Jonny Venters. That should all change by mid-spring. Kimbrel, 22, is one of the best young relievers in the game and proved it last year when he rattled off 40 strikeouts over his first 20 ¨ø major league innings. That high strikeout rate isn't some kind of anomaly, either. He's been cutting batters down at an alarming pace since turning pro three years ago. In 2009, Kimbrel fanned 103 hitters in 60 minor league innings. In 2008, he struck out 56 batters in 35 1/3 innings. With a fastball that averaged 95.4 MPH last season and a slider that works as a deceptive out pitch, Kimbrel has all the tools to become a dominant ninth inning presence.

Pablo Sandoval, 3B, Giants

If the Giants hadn't won the World Series last October -- err, November -- Sandoval's highly disappointing 2010 season probably would have grabbed more headlines. But he took a comfortable back seat as Giants fans celebrated in Panda hats and was mostly absolved of his many wrong-doings while the club and its fans paraded through the streets of San Francisco. Sandoval did not enter spring training in good shape and then appeared to pack on about 40 pounds as the year went on. His numbers followed along on that ugly path and he wound up with a .732 OPS -- a whole 211 points lower than the stellar .943 OPS that he posted as a second-year player in 2009. Things have changed this winter. Sandoval looks downright svelte and should be ready to climb back into fantasy relevancy.

Dexter Fowler, OF, Rockies

Fowler's days of inconsistent playing time are just about over. The Atlanta, Georgia native should have center field all to himself this season in Colorado and is poised for a fantasy breakout. Fowler struggled at the plate for much of 2010 and was even demoted to the minors at one point, but he has turned in productive batting lines at every level of the minor leagues and he has the ability to climb toward respectability in that department heading into his third full major league season. Of course, batting average and RBI totals aren't what make the 24-year-old attractive to prospective fantasy owners. Rather, it's the fact that he has swiped 40 bases in 58 chances over the last two years and is likely to be given more of a green light in 2011. Draft him for his stolen bases and consider the rest gravy.

Daniel Hudson, SP, Diamondbacks

Because the Diamondbacks were so far out of first place when the trade went down and because they remained very far from first place in the months following the deal, Arizona's brilliant late-July swap of Edwin Jackson for White Sox prospects Daniel Hudson and Daniel Holmberg largely flew under the radar. It was a brilliant move, made even more brilliant by Hudson's dominating second half. The 23-year-old right-hander turned in a 7-1 record, a 1.69 ERA and a 0.84 WHIP over 11 starts with the Diamondbacks, striking out 70 batters and walking only 16 across 79 ¨ø innings. He's obviously not going to have that kind of success over the course of an entire season, but coming anywhere close would make him a top fantasy starter.

Drew Storen, RP, Nationals

For many, Storen is "that guy the Nats took in the first round the same year they got Strasburg." Which is true. Storen went nine picks after Stephen Strasburg in the first round of the 2009 MLB Amateur Draft. But the 23-year-old reliever out of Stanford University is going to begin painting his own legacy this season. Storen possess a high-velocity fastball that averaged 94.4 MPH in 2010 and a sharp slider that works well as a complimentary pitch. He also has a curve and changeup that will probably see a little more action as he continues his development. The Nationals haven't officially named him their 2011 closer, but that should change within the first couple weeks of Grapefruit League play. Storen has the goods to convert any and all save chances that the Nationals provide him this season.

David Freese, 3B, Cardinals

Since veteran Scott Rolen left town after the 2007 season, the Cardinals have gone through a mixed bag at the hot corner. Troy Glaus had one nice year in 2008, but injuries caught up to him in 2009 and St. Louis was forced into giving looks to guys like Brian Barden, Tyler Greene, Joe Thurston, Jarrett Hoffpauir, Khalil Greene and eventually Mark DeRosa. Last season, the tide shifted. At least for a couple of months. Freese, who was acquired by the Cardinals when they traded Jim Edmonds to the Padres in December of 2007, roared out to a .318/.386/.460 batting line over his first 201 plate appearances and tallied 31 RBI in his first 48 games. An ankle injury cut his season short and another ankle injury bit him this winter, but he's entering spring training in good health and is an intriguing option at a very shallow fantasy position. Let's just hope Tony La Russa doesn't fall in love with Nick Punto's grittiness.

Mike Minor, SP, Braves

It's easy to forget that Minor was a selection in the 2009 MLB Amateur Draft because he has already made a relatively big splash in the world of professional baseball. The 23-year-old out of Chapel Hill, Tennessee and eventually Vanderbilt University posted 146 strikeouts in 120 2/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last season before the Braves called him up to the majors in early August. Minor hit some rough patches in his first taste of the big leagues, but he also showed flashes of dominance via a cool 43/11 K/BB ratio and all signs point to him capturing Atlanta's fifth rotation spot this spring. He's young and not quite seasoned enough, but upside is something to invest in when making picks on draft day and he has gobs of it. We're thinking Minor might be capable of 160-plus strikeouts if given ample looks this season.

Jose Tabata, OF, Pirates

What do you get when you combine good on-base abilities with promising base-stealing potential? A fantasy star. Tabata never topped 10 home runs in a minor league season and probably won't ever be a big power threat in the majors, but he swiped 25 bags in 31 chances last year at Triple-A Indianapolis and he stole 19 bases in 26 chances once promoted to the big leagues. That's 44 stolen bases in 56 chances altogether in 2010. The 22-year-old also had strong on-base percentages throughout his time in the Pirates' farm system and he registered a respectable .346 OBP in his first introduction to the majors last season. The Pirates have tabbed Tabata as their starting left fielder for 2011. As long as he stays healthy, the kid is capable of doing serious damage on the basepaths.

J.J. Putz, RP, Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks had one of the worst bullpens in recent memory last season and made several moves this winter in order to change that fact. They picked up David Hernandez and Kam Mickolio from the Orioles for third baseman Mark Reynolds, and they also decided to buck up and buy a quality closer, signing Putz to a two-year contract worth $10 million. Putz was one of the most reliable setup men in baseball last season, posting a 2.83 ERA and 1.04 WHIP across 54 innings while striking out 65 batters and walking only 15. He has enjoyed success in the ninth inning in the past and should finally bring stability to the back end of Arizona's bullpen. We're guessing that he will get overlooked in some leagues because of the Diamondbacks' recent failures at closer.

Drew Silva is a baseball editor for Rotoworld and also contributes on NBC Sports' Hardball Talk. He can be found on Twitter.
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