Baseball is a grind. It’s 162 games played nearly every day over a six-month period. By extension, then, the fantasy version of this unending onslaught of a sport can be — and often is — just as overwhelming.
Look, it happens: Late-summer hits and the portion of your brain that was tending to your fantasy baseball team on a regular basis instead shifts its focus to other things, like vacation, fantasy football or the hot chick named Tiffany who spent the summer as a lifeguard at the local beach and hung out all the time at your favorite bar.
That’s why, unless your team was good enough to be in contention all the way down to the stretch run, chances are, you missed out on a few things as the season wore on, particularly into August and September. That’s when the non-contenders tend to check out (if they haven’t done so weeks before), but it’s also about the time that even those chasing after that elusive championship start suffering from tunnel vision as their eyes become focused solely on the prize.
Now that we’re a couple weeks removed from the crush and rush of the final days of the fantasy season, allow me to point out a batch of American League outfielders who performed better than you might have realized, thanks to end-of-season surges or new opportunities. There just might be a nugget or two in here that you didn’t notice the first time around. You know, while you were too busy ogling Tiffany.
1) Josh Willingham, A’s
The 32-year-old never gets his due, but he always produces — here’s the catch — when he’s in the lineup. The injury-prone Willingham hasn’t topped 140 games played or 500 at-bats since 2007, and this year was no different, as he missed three weeks with a strained Achilles. And yet, despite that, as well as hitting in a ghastly pitcher’s park half the time, Willingham managed to set career highs with both 29 HRs and 98 RBIs.
2012 Impact: There’s absolutely nothing buzzy or hype-worthy about Willingham, but with power production becoming such a rare commodity, he’ll be one of the better late-round picks (think: rounds 16-20 in mixed leagues) to help owners address the HR and RBI categories, even accounting for the 20-30 games he’s liable to miss. If the free-agent-to-be lands in a better hitting environment — a given unless he goes to Petco, Citi or AT&T — he should be able to take advantage. A nice OF3/4 in most mixed leagues.
2) Vernon Wells, Angels
Wells is the very embodiment of a player who is better in fantasy than in real life. That’s probably why you missed the fact that he was actually fairly productive once he got past a heinous first month in Anaheim (.171/.207/.238). In fact, the 32-year-old finished with 25 HRs, 21 of which came after June 13 — meaning only 10 players had more longballs than Wells over that time. While it may seem like a completely arbitrary starting point, Wells had returned from a pulled groin just a week before.
2012 Impact: If you can get past the rep, Wells makes for another worthwhile end-of-draft pick or cheap auction purchase. Of course, that very rep is what’s going to help you get him cheap to be an OF4 or Utility player. The other thing that will help? His ugly .218 BA this year. He’s certainly in decline there, and his drastic fly-ball tendencies (48%) aren’t going to make it any easier, but the guy did own baseball’s lowest BABIP (.214), so at least some bounce can be expected.
3) Eric Thames, Blue Jays
Not much about Thames’ .262-12-37 rookie campaign jumps out at you, right? But you have to factor in a few things. First, he only got 362 ABs, little more than half a season. Second, he did smoke 24 doubles, which is promising for his power potential. And third, he scored 58 runs — 45 over the final three months, good for a 90-run pace — a nice tally in one of the more overlooked categories.
2012 Impact: If Thames, 24, is going to again spend most of his time batting second in the lineup (288 of his ABs in 2011), then he’ll continue to be an above-average scorer of runs, especially hitting in front of two-time reigning MLB home run champ Jose Bautista. And his line-drive stroke (22.7% LD) will also keep the extra-base hits coming, making him a very savvy late bench pick in deep mixed leagues, with the upside to become a viable fantasy starting OF as he improves his plate discipline (6% BB) and gets more experience as a big leaguer.
4) Nolan Reimold, Orioles
Remember when Reimold was a sleeper fave heading into the 2010 season, coming off a .279-15-45 rookie season (358 ABs), only to tank in his second year? Well, the 28-year-old had a nice bounceback in 2011, and practically nobody noticed. Blame it on his Baltimore Oriolesness. This year, Reimold managed just 267 ABs, but he was actually better than he was in 2009 on a per-AB basis in everything from homers (13 vs. 15), RBIs (45 vs. 45), runs (40 vs. 49) and SBs (7 vs. 8). He was particularly impressive when no one was paying much attention, piling up 5 HRs, 17 RBIs, 6 SBs and a .973 OPS in September.
2012 Impact: I full cop to being a Reimold apologist, having snatched him up in an AL league just before he made his 2009 debut, then enjoying his performance that year. There isn’t as much projection left here, given his age, but there’s no reason Reimold shouldn’t get be given a chance to get 450 ABs playing LF, DH and even a little 1B in Baltimore next year. He’s more of an AL-only play, but in that format, he’s capable of being a legitimate starting OF with the possibility to hit 15-18 HRs and swipe 10+ bases.
5) Alejandro De Aza, White Sox
De Aza got a few cups of coffee with the Marlins back in 2007 and 2009 but never really showed much. The 27-year-old Dominican suffered a few injuries along the way, and may now be turning into a late-bloomer. Given regular PT in August and September, De Aza hit .353 and .329, respectively, in those two months, while also stealing 12 bases in total. He doesn’t lack tools, as speed and defense were his calling cards in the minors (he has four 20-steal seasons), and he’s always shown a solid eye (11% MiLB BB rate).
2012 Impact: Tough to tell whether De Aza is just another late-season flash in the pan who turns out to be a career minor leaguer. At best, he’s probably no more than a solid fourth outfielder, with enough skills to fill in when a regular starter slumps or gets hurt. But with inconsistent Alex Rios and injury-prone Carlos Quentin on the White Sox, not to mention impending free agent Juan Pierre already gone, De Aza won’t be short of opportunities next year. One thing to watch come next spring is how new manager Robin Ventura treats him. Predecessor Ozzie Guillen became a fan, even admitting that De Aza was a candidate to lead off in 2012, which would obviously be a nice bump for his fantasy value. With Pierre out of the way and no other clear option, De Aza could be a sneaky AL-only OF if he can grab hold of that top spot.
Jason Catania is an MLB Lead Writer for Bleacher Report who also contributes to ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Insider and MLB Rumor Central, focusing on baseball and fantasy content. When he was first introduced to fantasy baseball, Derek Jeter had 195 career hits, Jamie Moyer had 72 wins and Matt Stairs was on team No. 3. You can follow him on Twitter: @JayCat11