As a fantasy baseball manager, you can’t help but smile at some of the player splits that show up in April. When else can Chris Shelton shock the world with his inability to maintain the 120-homer pace he set in April of 2006? When else can a platoon player with a career .235 average suddenly challenge for the batting title by hitting .450 in the first month? And just think about all the pitchers over the years with sub-one WHIPs that became waiver wire mainstays by mid-May, never to be active in your fantasy lineup again. While most players’ quick starts can be taken with a grain of salt, you must keep in mind that for every Chris Shelton-wannabe, a diamond in the rough could be emerging, ala Curtis Granderson. Here are five players who I believe to be legit performers that you should feel comfortable with keeping in your lineup, even in shallow leagues for the rest of the season.
Nate McLouth (OF, Pit) – After opening the season with a 19-game hit streak, McLouth has went hitless in Pittsburgh’s last three games. Those who jump ship, however, will be kicking themselves at the end of the season, as McLouth has the skills to be a valuable asset to both the Pirates and your fantasy team all year long. Tabbed by his teammates as the player most likely to break out in 2008, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the lefty end up as a 25/25 guy while batting over .300. While he has only two stolen bases at the moment, it should be noted that he has logged five attempts. The fact that he’s been thrown out more than he’s reached safely is a fluke, as McLouth went a combined 32-for-34 in stolen base attempts in 2006 and 2007.
Casey Kotchman (1B, LAA) – Kotchman is another lefty I like in 2008. The 25-year-old has always been able to get on base, but has been criticized for a lack of power. After recording just 11 home runs in 437 at-bats in 2007, Kotchman has already belted six homers in a mere 78 at-bats this season. Batting sixth in the loaded Angels lineup, Kotchman will be an RBI monster and has a great chance to knock in over 100 runners over the course of the year.
Cliff Lee (SP, Cle) – Lee will not be Danny Almonte in the LLWS lights out all year, you simply cannot ignore how good he's been thus far. In case you haven’t noticed, Lee has won all four of his starts, has given up just one run and two walks and has logged at least eight innings and eight strikeouts in his last three games. If he can pitch even close to the way he has been for the rest of the season, he’ll be well-worth a spot on your squad.
Micah Owings (SP, Ari) – Owings went largely ignored among the fantasy nation on draft day this year, despite posting a very respectable 4.30 ERA and 1.284 WHIP in his 2007 rookie campaign. As good as the Diamondback hitters have been thus far on their own, it helps even more so that they play nine batters against eight whenever the skilled-hitting Owings takes the mound. At the ripe age of 25, Owings will compile respectable strikeout numbers while posting a solid WHIP and with the ability to go deep into games and pick up wins. He will be a solid contributor both this season and for many years to come.
Johnny Cueto (SP, Cin) – Sure, he's been on everyone's early-season favorites list so far following his stellar first two games of the season. Cueto has came back to earth and has lost the faith of more inexperienced fantasy owners in shallow one-year leagues. As a 22-year-old flyball pitcher, having his home games at the frightening Great American Ball Park Cueto will certainly experience his ups and downs throughout the year. If you’ve seen this guy when he’s on, however, you can’t help but be reminded of a young Pedro Martinez, and as long as he can stay healthy, his WHIP will remain low and he has the talent to garner a strikeout per inning all season.