Quad-A, what? Bryan LaHair has proven his many doubters wrong with a scorching start to 2012. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
In one fantasy league that I play in, I have an almost grotesquely comic love/hate waiver wire thing going on with Raul Ibanez. Ibanez and I go way back, to a fateful day (in that same keeper league) in 2003 when I received him in a package in which a fledgling rookie named Mark Teixeira went the other way. It constituted one of the most idiotic trades I've ever made, or that anyone has made, ever, for that matter. Now, nine years later, Ibanez is back on my team in my sad last ditch attempt to add instant power to a plummeting offense.
I've dropped Ibanez, I kid you not, three times, only to pick him back up again with more dreams that his ancient bat still has some fantasy relevance in it. It's like a dysfunctional high school relationship. First he's back on my team, then he stops returning my texts, and I drop him. Then we patch things up, then I get two rings and straight to voice mail, and he's dropped again. Then my team goes into a hitting slump, Lionel Ritchie starts to play in my head as I stroll across a deserted boardwalk, and it's back to the waiver wire. Raul Ibanez, I wish I could quit you!
If that overly disturbing analogy isn't enough for you, consider that Ibanez has hit six home runs in the month of May and has more than proven his worth on a fantasy roster. He entered Tuesday with a .561 slugging percentage, and has been a solid pickup for managers in deep leagues, even though he sits against left-handed pitchers. More than worthy, at least, of the see saw fashion in which I've treated him in my league.
His resurgence has been a bit surprising, since he's 40 and coming off of two subpar years. His last two seasons in Philly were pretty sub-optimal for a guy hitting in a homer-friendly ballpark in the National League. It stood to reason that a switch to the AL would be the final fork embedded in his back. Nope. All he's done is hit a bunch of home runs, and he's continuing to produce for the Yankees' rather geriatric lineup.
The following is a celebration of some more hitters who are doing far better than we ever could have expected going into the season. These players were likely on your waiver wire as the baseball season dawned, but as we enter June, they have proven to be solid fantasy producers when they were expected to ride the scrap heap all year. After the jump, five surprisingly effective fantasy hitters and whether or not they can keep it up.
Perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised by this at all. After all, LaHair spent all of 2011 making a mockery of AAA pitching, and has spent most of the rest of his career beating up minor league pitching in similar fashion. Yet somehow he's still gotten stuck with the dreaded Quadruple-A tag, despite being given very few legitimate opportunities in the big leagues. It's kind of evident that a franchise doesn't know what it's doing (much less the sixth best org...har har) when it lets a hitter of LaHair's caliber walk away for free in order to give a full season's worth of at-bats to Casey Kotchman. That's exactly what happened when the hitting-starved Seattle Mariners declined to keep LaHair, despite a very solid minor league resume, and then suffered through a year of historically abysmal offense in 2010.
It was pretty much assumed that LaHair was a lame duck starter for the Cubs this year, an easy filler option to keep the seat warm for Anthony Rizzo when the latter inevitably burst on to the major league scene. Well, Rizzo is destroying the ball in AAA, but LaHair's place as the Cubs' starting first baseman is in no jeopardy. That's because he's ripping to the tune of .315/.415/.629 with ten homers, numbers that even the most fervent member of the Free LaHair movement would never have dreamed possible.
His ridiculously high April BABIP (.600!) inevitably came down in May, but the power has remained. Don't be surprised if his batting average continues to dip; he simply strikes out too much to maintain his lofty .315 pace. The power and walks are legit, though, making LaHair one of the best bargain bin pick ups of the year.
Back in April, I spent a good portion of this article whining about how I was forced to overbid on Jonathan Lucroy in an NL-only draft because he was essentially the best of the worst in a barren pool of National League catchers. Well, Lucroy must have read those words, plastered my picture over a dartboard (because the opinion of Paul Rice carries great weight amongst major league players don'tcha know), and used it as motivation to have the best two months of his life.
Lucroy entered today hitting a scorching .339/.386/.545, and he's been on an absolute tear the past few weeks. He was actually a pretty darn good hitter in the low minors, so perhaps this is a legitimate breakout after an initial hibernation period at the plate. Or perhaps it's just a fluke. Lucroy will probably cool down once the calendar hits June, but ride the hot streak as long as you can. He's been one of the more pleasant surprises at a premium position thus far and still projects as one of the better catcher options in the NL.
Escobar came to the Royals in the Zack Greinke deal, and was immediately heralded as the man who would be the starting shortstop on the next good Kansas City team (and the first, really, since 1989..ugh). His main attribute, however, was his flashy glove. His bat was seen as a work in progress, and he didn't disappoint in that arena in his initial year in Kansas City. By hitting .254/.290/.343 in his first season in Royal blue, Escobar carried on in the fine tradition of Yuniesky Betancourt, the legendary Tony Pena Jr, Angel Berroa, and the immortal Neifi Perez as Kansas City shortstops who doubled as complete offensive eunuchs.
This season, however, something has changed. Escobar suddenly looks as though he has a clue. As of Monday, he was hitting .296/.338/.415, with seven stolen bases. That's not great, of course, but that's enough to make him a more-than-serviceable fantasy option at the traditionally weak shortstop position. His history of utter ineptness at the plate gives one pause, but he's still young enough to make it believable that he'll continue to develop at the plate and maintain his current statusas a guy you won't be embarrassed to have as your starting shortstop.
Up until the middle of 2011, Jack Hannahan was nothing if not consistent. He started in the Tigers' organization and impressed with his glove, but quickly fell out of favor because he couldn't hit. He then moved to Oakland, and became the team's everyday third baseman in 2008. He again impressed with the glove (17 fielding runs better than an average third baseman, according to Baseball Reference's calculations), but quickly got run out of town because he couldn't hit. He latched on with the Mariners, where he impressed with the glove, but quickly fell out of favor because...you guessed it...he couldn't hit.
Then something happened. Midway through 2011, Hannahan decided to start using a heavier bat, and make a few tweaks in his swing, and he started hitting. He hasn't stopped since. Hannahan hit a decidedly un-Hannahanian .420/.491/.660 in August last year, and the new-found hitting competence has carried over into 2012, as he enters the day hitting .287/.365/.436. For those in desperate need of a third baseman, he's been a nice surprise. While the whole "swing adjustment" thing is usually bullcrap designed to explain away small sample size fluke hitting, Hannahan's solid 2012 has proven that in this instance it might be the real deal. Assuming he recovers from some recent injury woes, he should continue to be a good, not great, third base option in deep leagues.
Another random catcher having the best two months of his baseball existence, Ellis earned the starting catcher job in LaLa Land simply due to a lack of better options, but he's run with it. Entering Tuesday, Ellis was a walk-drawing machine, taking 23 free passes and posting a scintillating .321/.446/.491 line. That's going to get him into the All-Star Game if he keeps it up. Since he's a 31-year-old career backup catcher, though, you shouldn't bet your Benz on him doing so.
Ellis has always had a very good eye, and he was always a good bet to be a better-than-average offensive catcher. Being squashed behind Russell Martin (and, ugh, Rod Barajas) for so many years never helped his cause, of course, but it's fun to see him thrive when finally given a chance. The batting average isn't real; he's more like a .270/.350/.390 guy. That still makes for a decent fantasy catcher, however, so Ellis should remain one of the better bargain pickups of the season.
Which of these surprising hitters will go on to have the best 2012?
Bryan LaHair (78 votes)
Jonathan Lucroy (49 votes)
Alcides Escobar (29 votes)
Jack Hannahan (5 votes)
A.J. Ellis (11 votes)
172 total votes