Hitters to target for the second half
For Fantasy owners, the All-Star break is a time for reflection. In a sport that happens every day, six months of the year, it's the rare chance to pause and make sense of what all you've witnessed so far.
So I've done exactly that here, assessing which performances from the first half I trust and figuring out which players to target as a result.
You can call them second-half sleepers or busts if you'd prefer, but I simply identify them as hitters I like and hitters I don't like. Yes, I'm sticking to hitters for now. If you'd like to read up on starting pitchers, be sure to check out the latest from my colleague Al Melchior.
And ... break!
Note: Season-to-date stats are current for games played through Friday, July 11.
Hitters I like
Matt Adams , 1B, Cardinals: Most anyone with a platform to predict such things predicted 30-plus homers for Adams in 2014, which makes the 10 he has heading into the break (or at least the final weekend before the break) a bit of a letdown. But he's looked more like the breakthrough slugger he was touted to be in 26 games since returning from a calf injury in mid-June, hitting seven of those home runs to go along with a .358 (34 for 95) batting average. The last three have come against left-handed pitchers, which is especially encouraging with the Cardinals attempting to fit four players into three spots with Oscar Taveras in the mix. If Adams proves competent against lefties and continues to give the Cardinals the power they've lacked all season, he'll play. I'm a little skeptical of the batting average, as any observer of BABIP would be, but the overall production I'm convinced will go up.
Martin Prado , 2B/3B/OF, Diamondbacks: In Prado's case, I'll admit to having some blind faith. It paid off last year, when he rebounded from an even slower start to hit .324 in the second half. His track record has been too consistent for me to believe he won't do it again. In fact, in terms of batting average, he's been as reliable as any non-superstar over the last four years, the one blip being a .260 mark in 2011 when he battled a staph infection much of the year. His strikeout rate is higher than usual but still above-average for major-leaguers in general, and many of those strikeouts came early. He has just 21 in his last 42 games, batting .294 (48 for 163) during that stretch.
Manny Machado , 3B, Orioles: While projecting first-round numbers for him is something nobody is prepared to do, Machado may have as much raw talent as any player in baseball. It's why those Alex Rodriguez comparisons began when the Orioles selected him third overall in the 2010 draft and why they persisted even as he put up mediocre numbers in his quick climb up the minor-league ladder. At age 22, he hasn't fully capitalized on those talents yet, but he's at the point where any hot streak could signal a breakthrough. And he's on a hot streak now, batting .415 (22 for 53) with five home runs in his last 13 games. After he led the AL with 51 doubles last year, an improved home run total is the logical next step as he continues to fill out. Knowing the upside, I'd be willing to gamble on him while he's still affordable.
J.J. Hardy , SS, Orioles: As much as any player today, Hardy has a knack for cramming an obscene number of home runs into the span of just a few weeks, which seems odd given that he's not a monster home run hitter, having only once hit 30 in a season. But just look at last year as an example. In his first 30 games, he hit three home runs. In his next 29, he hit 10. In his next 53, he hit five. In his next 24, he hit seven. He finished with a thud, hitting zero in his final 23 games. Pretty bunchy, right? It's why I take a glass-half-full approach to him having only three halfway through the season. He has that much more ground to make up (and may have already started to make it up considering all three have come in his last 19 games). It wouldn't be unprecedented. Back in 2008 with the Brewers, Hardy hit two home runs in his first 53 games only to hit 22 in his final 93.
C.J. Cron , 1B, Angels: You think Cron is amped to be playing every day? In 17 games since Raul Ibanez last graced the lineup (he's since been banished to Kansas City), Cron has homered six times in 17 games, demonstrating the raw power that has some comparing him to Mark Trumbo . He may be even more than that. While Trumbo's proclivity for striking out has condemned him to a batting average in the .250 range during his major-league career, Cron maintained a surprisingly low strikeout rate in the minors and has shown his ability to make contact since his promotion. That's not to say he's Victor Martinez at the dish -- and in fact, his strikeout rate has risen with increased exposure -- but a batting average in the .275 range would help make up for his low walk rate, keeping him a respectable utility option in points leagues. His Rotisserie value should be obvious.
Hitters I don't like
Josh Harrison , 2B/3B/OF, Pirates: Harrison himself hasn't done anything to deserve this spot on this list. In fact, he's done all he could to stay mixed league-relevant, first by delaying Gregory Polanco arrival by playing so well in right field, then by filling in for an injured Neil Walker , then by filling in for an injured Starling Marte . But now that everyone's healthy, he just doesn't measure up in terms of talent, whether compared to Polanco, Walker, Marte, Pedro Alvarez or, of course, Andrew McCutchen . The Pirates have done a pretty good job of keeping him involved by rotating him through the several positions he's capable of playing, but that sort of arrangement can lose momentum quickly, especially if Harrison's production suffers with the inconsistent at-bats. Already, he seems to be feeling the effects with a .242 (8 for 33) batting average in 10 July games.
Casey McGehee , 3B, Marlins: McGehee currently ranks ninth among third baseman in Head-to-Head points leagues and 11th in Rotisserie, convincing Fantasy owners (and apparently Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, who nominated him for the final vote for the All-Star game) he's a legitimate option at the position. But while the reasons for his breakthrough are difficult to identify, the red flags are everywhere. For starters, he has just one home run, losing his most useful skill from his days with the Brewers, Pirates and Yankees. And while he's made up for it with a high batting average, his .371 BABIP -- fourth-highest among qualifying hitters -- suggests it's too good to be true. When it inevitably declines (along with his .398 batting average with runners in scoring position, which accounts for his 53 RBI), he won't have much to fall back on and will quickly become an afterthought in mixed leagues.
Kurt Suzuki , C, Twins: Unlike McGehee, Suzuki's .307 batting average is a little easier to believe thanks to a low strikeout rate that ranks third in all of baseball. But he's always made contact at a high rate, and he hit only .237 from 2010 to 2013. The closest he's ever come to his current mark is when he hit .279 way back in 2008. The "way back" is worth stressing because it's not like Suzuki is some 25-year-old just coming into his own. This much of a transformation this deep into a player's career is reason enough for skepticism. Even Carlos Ruiz showed flashes of potential in the years leading up to his 2012 season, and that was fluky enough. If you're looking for a replacement for Yadier Molina at catcher, Wilson Ramos , Travis d'Arnaud and Stephen Vogt are all better choices.
Erick Aybar , SS, Angels: Aybar has been a useful Fantasy shortstop before, but there's a difference between useful and fourth-best, which is where he currently ranks at the position in Head-to-Head points leagues. It's not like any one thing he's doing is so ridiculously out of character, but everything is just a little too good to be true. He already has 48 RBI after previously never having more than 59 in a season, but that's largely a product of him batting fifth in the order. He's also on pace for career highs in home runs and doubles -- not by a crazy amount, but expecting him to continue to do everything he's done better than he's ever done it before is a bit much to ask. Judging by his game log, he's overdue for a cold streak, having not had one since the first three weeks of the season, and when it comes, I suspect it'll correct his numbers just enough to bump him out of the top 12 at the position. As rapidly as middle infielders decline in the post-steroids era, I wouldn't expect a career year for Aybar at age 30.
Allen Craig , 1B/OF, Cardinals: The funny thing is I still trust in Craig's track record and consider him to be, at his essence, a .300 hitter. Unimpeded, he would probably bounce back with something close to his usual numbers, as I predict for Prado, but he's a victim of timing in this case, the most obvious choice to sit with Oscar Taveras in the mix. With a pronounced righty-lefty split this year, he'll still get a share of the at-bats, but unless the Cardinals commit to playing Taveras in center field every day, which they've been reluctant to do, it won't be enough to save his season. I wouldn't want to drop Craig yet just in case my theory is wrong, but I don't hold out much hope for him.