Last Impressions Are Lasting Impressions
GM's. Fantasy owners. Even everyday fans. Anyone interested in baseball always has an interest in identifying those players most likely to exceed expectations. Whether a leg up on one's competitors or barstool sports argument fodder, finding the sleepers represents a feather in the cap.
One method in identifying such players is taking a look at the prior season's second-half statistics. Simply pulling up Post-All Star numbers from a given season is hardly the best means of predicting the proceeding season's dark-horse improvement candidates. On the whole, more scientific methods that factor a wider array of data points like PECOTA or ZIPS will prove more accurate. Still, second-half numbers can help to pick out the guys flying under the radar heading into a new year.
Sometimes players who have mediocre numbers over a full campaign post a strong second half, and their full-season numbers may not portend what the following season has in store as well as their second-half numbers. I am well aware that second-half numbers can also represent little more than a 60-game hot stretch. But this piece will seek to find the players at each position (pitchers next week) who impressed after the All-Star break last season and look primed for big things in 2007.
As promising young backstops go, everyone knows about Joe Mauer but what about Brian McCann? The 22-year-old catcher who posted a 146 OPS+ in 2006 is highly regarded, but I am not sure baseball fans fully appreciate just how good Brian McCann appears to be. I'll still take Mauer for his superior ability to reach base, but catchers that can hit this well at such a young age are a rarity, and I think 2007 is the season McCann begins to get the appreciation he deserves.
Now 32-years-old and being written off by General Managers and fantasy owners everywhere after posting a full season that hardly stood out after a crummy first half (.706 OPS), the savvy fan can look for a bigtime bounce back from Richie Sexson. He was phenomenal in the second half, and his impressive numbers listed above are even more so when you consider that Sexson plays his home games in the spacious Safeco Field in Seattle.
Sure, I would like to see him with a little more discipline at the plate and, yes, I understand that the .365 batting average is hardly sustainable. But we are talking about a 24-year-old second baseman with one of the prettiest, most athletic looking swings in the game who hits with power like no other at his position in today's game. If he stays healthy, Cano should be an absolute force in 2007.
Atkins has been highly touted since he joined the Colorado Rockies and showed promise here and there over the years before putting it all together over his final 73 games of 2006. Confident and smack in his prime at the age of 27, look for Atkins to emerge and join the impressive group of top-tier third basemen. Miguel Cabrera, Aramis Ramirez and David Wright would be best served to press on and not look back. Atkins is gaining on them.
For those who wrote off Rafael Furcal after his slow start in 2006, they sure missed one heck of a good baseball player during the stretch run. How good was Furcal? His .963 second half OPS was good for 16th best in the National League. And remember, he's a shortstop...with one of the best gloves in the game...playing home games at Dodger Stadium. In short, he was one of the very best players in baseball after the All-Star Game. Look for him to be excellent once again in 2007.
I know, I know. His minor league track record underwhelms. Many smarter than me will probably have Duncan on their "primed for a 2007 crash landing" list. Not me and I will tell you why. I love the high on-base percentage without the superb batting average. It's suggestive of a mature, sustainable approach. This is not Jeff Francoeur smacking and hacking his way to a .400/.400/.500 type of 35-game start to his MLB career. Duncan looked the part of a veteran player combining a great physical and mental approach. That's why I believe that even if he does not quite keep it up, he will still be a very good player.
Ryan Church famously and absurdly lost his starting role and roster spot on the Opening Day Washington Nationals to Brandon Watson and although it took him too long to get back up with the big club, when he did, he impressed. 28 years old now and ready to assume a full-time starting gig in the Big Leagues for the first time in his career, Church has a chance to be one of the best center fielders in the National League.
Maybe this is a homer call but that's a damn impressive line from an agile outfielder playing home games at Chavez Ravine. Now J.D. will be playing home games at Fenway (we think), and I look for him to come to play in order to silence a Red Sox fan base grumbling as a result of Drew's soft perception (deserved or undeserved).
There you have it, baseball fans. These are the guys I expect to exceed expectations in 2007. GM's still have time for a trade, fantasy owners can make a mental note for their upcoming drafts and the barstoolers can store up some ammo. These eight will come to play in 2007.