Minnesota's Trevor Plouffe is on pace for a 30-homer season. Raise your hand if you saw that coming. Yeah, didn't think so. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
It's All-Star season! You knew that, of course, as All-Star balloting slammed shut today with the announcement of the winners (David Freese and Yu Darvish) of the online fan vote for the final roster spots. Most of you probably saw your favorite fantasy players make the team, and will anxiously await the festivities in Kansas City next week. Others may have pulled a Sandy Alderson by raging against Giants fans for apparently stuffing the ballot box by voting for stuffed animals. Hey, who doesn't want to see Brandon Crawford starting in the All-Star Game?
Tonight, though, I'm going to pay a little tribute not to the big fantasy stars, but to some of the underrated fantasy producers. These are players who are having very good fantasy season but who are toiling in the shadow of their more heralded fellow athletes. These players are underrated for various reasons. They might be playing for bad teams, might be getting little television exposure, or they might just be heretofore non-prospects that no one, even the most rabid fantasy mavens, paid any attention to as they made their way to the minors.
After the jump, a list of my own personal favorite underrated fantasy producers of 2012.
Willingham always seems to fly under the radar every fantasy season. Once upon a time, he caught the eye of fantasy owners by coming up as a catcher with power. A lot of the shine went off that star once the Marlins converted him to the outfield, but he settled in as a consistent, if unspectacular, second-tier slugging option. Even as a consistent 25-homer threat, first with Florida, then with the Nationals, many thought that he was due for at least one bust-out 30-35 homer year.
That year appears to be now. Willingham is currently busy justifying the three-year, $21 million deal the Twins handed him by being a one-man wrecking ball, mashing 18 homers through Wednesday. He appears well on his way to the 30-homer season his fans had been waiting for, and he should smash the career-high total he set last year with Oakland. Despite a somewhat inexplicable All-Star snub, he's having a star-level season. He hit home runs, draws a lot of walks, knocks in runs, and doesn't kill you in the batting average category. Not bad for a guy who is seemingly greeted with yawns every fantasy draft.
Ross has always been a flawed hitter prone to blazing hot streaks where he looks like Joe Dimaggio (just ask any Phillie fan), and I'm not sure many expected him to do a whole lot in the American League East. After all, he was coming off of a mediocre 2011 season where even his usual 20-homer power dipped and he fell out of favor with a Giants team that loved him so after his 2010 postseason heroics.
Signed by the Red Sox before the season as a fourth outfielder, Ross has played everyday thanks to injuries to Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury, and he hasn't let the opportunity fall by the wayside. Ross came into the day hitting .275/.350/.550 with 12 home runs, terrific numbers for a guy who was probably waiver bait as late as mid-June. The power has always been real, but this year he's continuing to show an improved eye at the plate. He may be due for some regression (history has shown he's not this good), but those lucky enough to own him so far aren't complaining.
Well, I thought he was done. Kubel spent the last two years existing as one of those blah .750 OPS-types that don't hurt your fantasy team, but don't especially help, either. Just when it appeared that his magical 2009 season would never be repeated, Kubel decided to start crushing the ball again once he landed in the Arizona desert. Kubel was initially expected to split time with Gerardo Parra in the outfield, but he's taken over the everyday job by hitting .296/.367/.533 with fourteen home runs.
To be fair, much of his production has come at home, where the desert air helps fly balls go bye-bye. Kubel has hit a scorching .341/.417/.689 at home, but a more pedestrian .252/.316/.381 on the road. If you have the roster flexibility to micromanage his starts, you have a bona fide All-Star when he plays home games.
I have absolutely no idea where this guy came from, and I doubt anyone else does, either. However, if you nabbed him on waivers right after he started hitting home runs all over the place, you found yourself a dirt-cheap source of power who is eligible at just about every position on the diamond.
Plouffe sports a career minor league slugging percentage of .406. He slugged .392 last year in half a season with the Twins. Aside from a flukish-looking 2011 first half at AAA Rochester, there was no indication, ever, that Plouffe was capable of this. Maybe Plouffe has three more months of this in him and he's a legit 30-homer threat, or maybe he'll ride the Chris Shelton train to second half obscurity, but either way, he's been one heckuva fantasy find this year.
Headley's numbers don't look great at first glance. .271/.372/.421 is a great line at Petco Park, but fantasy owners don't get their stats adjusted for environment. Still, Headley has given owners subtle value by being San Diego's top run producer (42 RBIs) and by being able to draw a lot of walks. This helps any team that is weak at third base. He's even thrown in 10 steals, to boot. He's not a star fantasy player, but he's steady. With an .848 road OPS, one wonders what he could do if traded to a different, more neutral, ballpark.