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2012 Draft Prep: Injury-risk sleepers

by | Senior Fantasy Writer
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Oh, sure, he's great ... if you're trying to lead the league in DL stints.

Chances are if you've played Fantasy Baseball long enough, you've heard a comment or two of that ilk, usually followed by snickers -- the derogatory kind.

But in case you haven't figured it out by now, you're not out to avoid the snickers on Draft Day. You're out to assemble the best possible team by making the best possible use of your resources. And sometimes those snickers can grow so prevalent on a player that he falls to a point when the reward exceeds the risk.

And that's when he becomes a sleeper.

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Yes, in an ideal world, you'd draft a lineup full of hitters projected to play 150 games and a rotation full of pitchers projected to pitch 200 innings. But in an ideal world, you'd also have 12 first-round picks. If you think every one of your players can be both safe and talented, you're living in a fantasy -- the kind with a lowercase "f" -- and if you continue to pass on the talented players for no other reason than because they might lose time to injury at some point, you're limiting your team's upside.

Naturally, you wouldn't want a team full of risk-reward types either. A bunch of vacant lineup spots won't win you games. The key is knowing the precise moment on Draft Day when, if you do select one of those players and he does miss significant time, you haven't severely handicapped your team.

Listed here are 12 of the players who continually reach that point, according to draft averages -- in other words, my favorite of the injury-risk sleepers. Some of the notable omissions I may have already featured in my Undervalued and Underrated column . Others, such as Stephen Drew, Johan Santana and Jake Peavy, I'm just not as excited about drafting as these 12. It's my list, after all.

And now that it's in your hands, approach it carefully. Just because you get first snicker doesn't mean you'll have the last laugh.

Note: The numbers in parentheses reflect average draft position on CBSSports.com, assuming a 12-team league.

Josh Johnson, SP, Marlins (Roto: Rd. 6, H2H: Rd. 4)

If you're wary of drafting Johnson, you're not alone. Not only does he have only one 200-inning season on his resume, but he missed all but the first six weeks last year with shoulder issues, which are often the kiss of death for power pitchers.

But before you assume he's damaged goods, stop and ask yourself what specifically was wrong with him last year -- not the part of the body, but the injury to the part of the body. Drawing a blank, right? That's because I'm not sure anything was.

He felt some soreness, yeah, so the Marlins opted to shut him down. But to keep him down? They only took that approach when they were already out of the race. Obviously, Johnson is more valuable to them now, after they've gone all-in on free agency with the opening of their new ballpark, than he would have been last year, when they were simply biding his time. So they went the ultra-conservative route, taking dramatic steps to ensure they'd kick off the new era with the same old Johnson.

So far this spring, so good. Johnson has been hitting the high 90s with his fastball. If he brings his low-2.00s ERA with it, he's your ace, man.

Jason Heyward, OF, Braves (Roto: Rd. 10, H2H: Rd. 11)

So much uncertainty surrounds Heyward after his disastrous sophomore season that some Fantasy owners might decide they're better off letting him be someone else's problem.

But it's not like people are reaching for him in the fourth round anymore. This year, he's falling to Ichiro Suzuki-Jayson Werth-Michael Cuddyer territory.

The excuse for his struggles seems plausible enough. He hurt his shoulder in spring training and altered his swing in an attempt to play through it. Knowing his problem, he worked all offseason to correct it -- the Braves hired a hitting coach specifically for that purpose -- and all's well that ends well, right?

Except it hasn't ended well yet. Results this spring have been inconclusive, and even if you buy into Heyward's reasoning, the 22-year-old has been banged up enough in the majors and the minors that you still have to contend with the threat of him playing through something equally debilitating to his swing this year.

Still, a chance to get a player of his talent at such a discount is rare. Even if he just returns to his rookie numbers instead of taking the potentially colossal step forward, I'd be happy with that in the 10th round. You can keep your Cuddyer.

Ryan Howard, 1B, Phillies (Roto: Rd. 12, H2H: 12)

When Howard first went down with a torn Achilles tendon last October, you knew he would be an injury risk entering 2012. Maybe he'd miss the first month. Maybe he'd come back sooner. But there would be a definite waiting period followed by, most likely, a return to the status quo.

Then, he suffered a setback, needing a second surgery to treat an infection, which has Fantasy owners thinking it's another Kendrys Morales situation. And it very well may be.

But Morales was going in about the sixth or seventh round last year, not the 12th. He was going at a point when you were still assembling the nucleus of your team, not just filling in the gaps. Teams lose their 12th-round picks all the time -- either to injury or underachievement -- and they recover from it just fine. Besides, a lost season isn't even the most realistic scenario for Howard right now. In six weeks, he could be back homering like one of the top power hitters in the game.

Look at it this way: If Howard was healthy, he wouldn't be going that far after the Prince Fielder and Mark Teixeira class of first basemen. To get him a full 10 rounds later is too much of a bargain for me to pass up.

Carlos Beltran, OF, Cardinals (Roto: Rd. 14, H2H: Rd. 11)

Beltran's resurgent 2011 season would be a little easier to trust if he wasn't 34 and hadn't lost most of the previous two seasons to a knee injury.

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I mean, yeah, it was good. His .910 OPS was 16th-best in the majors, and he ranked 16th among outfielders in Head-to-Head leagues and 25th in Rotisserie leagues. But clearly few Fantasy owners are willing to bank on him repeating it.

The question is what else could you do with your 12th or 13th pick in the draft. If you thought the alternatives for Jason Heyward were uninspiring, Beltran is going in the same range as Melky Cabrera and Ryan Roberts, who, useful as they may be, don't exactly have .900-OPS potential.

Old, injury-prone players generally aren't my fare in Fantasy, but when they come as cheap as Beltran is and are still able to produce like he does, what's the harm in taking a chance on them?

Kendrys Morales, 1B, Angels (Roto: Rd. 15, H2H: Rd. 15)

Yes, we all know the horrors that befell Morales last season. After already serving what seemed like undo punishment for celebrating a walk-off grand slam in May of 2010, missing the rest of the season with a broken ankle, he ended up needing a second surgery a year later and missing all of 2011.

That's nearly two full seasons we've gone without seeing Morales on a major-league diamond, but it doesn't change the fact that, when we last saw him, he was one of the best up-and-coming middle-of-the-order hitters in the game, compiling a .302 batting average, .548 slugging percentage and .901 OPS in 2009 and 2010.

Let me ask you, then: What's the risk in drafting him? Obviously, the threat of him missing even more time is the biggest one, but considering he has already been cleared to play in games -- something that never happened last spring -- that's becoming less and less of a concern.

OK, but won't he struggle after so much time away from the game? Maybe at first, but it's not like the injury was to his shoulder or wrist or some other part of the body that would change him mechanically. Once he sees enough pitches, he should get back to being the player he was in 2009 and 2010, which would make him an absolute steal with a 15th-round pick.

Tim Hudson, SP, Braves (Roto: Rd. 17, H2H: Rd. 14)

The more you read about Hudson's offseason back surgery, the more respect you have for the human body.

The herniated disc isn't an issue anymore. His back feels fine. The reason he won't be ready to go at the start of the season is because his abs need more work. And what's wrong with them? Collateral damage. His surgeons chose to access his spine through the front, meaning they had to move everything in between out of the way first.

That's parental advisory-type stuff. Hope you're not eating, kids.

It's a little unsettling to think about and perhaps probable cause to downgrade Hudson on draft boards. But if you can move beyond the weird-out feeling, you'll realize that because Hudson is feeling good and hasn't suffered even the slightest setback in his recovery so far, he's almost sure to come back when expected at the beginning of May. And because his injury wasn't to his elbow or shoulder, he'll be his usual innings-eating, strike-throwing, groundball-inducing self when he does.

Given their relative ceilings, you could argue Hudson is actually the safer bet to satisfy his Fantasy owners than the comparatively risky Shaun Marcum, and he's going a round or two later.

Francisco Liriano, SP, Twins (Roto: Rd. 18, H2H: Rd. 14)

Already this spring, Liriano appears to be a changed player. Through four appearances, he has a 2.77 ERA, recording 18 strikeouts compared to only two walks in 13 innings.

That's especially notable for him because he's as much of a performance risk as an injury risk. The main reason Fantasy owners allow him to fall so far is because they're looking at last year's 5.09 ERA rather than the injuries that contributed to it. From the moment he reported to spring training in 2011, Liriano complained of shoulder soreness, and it sent him to the DL twice during the season. Though he tried to gut his way through it, it severely compromised his control and also cost him some velocity.

Granted, such injuries are nothing new for the perennial tease. Whenever the slightest thing goes wrong for him, you know it by his numbers, and considering he has yet to put together a 200-inning season, those slightest things seem to go wrong pretty often.

Still, Liriano is just a year removed from a 200-strikeout season. He has electric stuff and is healthy enough to make the most of it right now. He's a potential ace who has become an afterthought in Fantasy, which pretty much makes him a no-brainer in the late rounds.

David Freese, 3B, Cardinals (Roto: Rd. 15, H2H: Rd. 18)

The long-awaited breakthrough for Freese happened on the biggest possible stage last year. He hit .397 with five homers and a 1.258 OPS in the playoffs, winning both NLCS and World Series MVP.

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Safe to say nobody doubts his sleeper appeal anymore -- not after that display. But Fantasy owners know better. They've had him pegged as a sleeper since his days in the minors, where he was a .307 hitter with a .915 OPS. The problem is, despite being the Cardinals' opening day third baseman back-to-back-to-back years, Freese has yet to put together a 350 at-bat season, averaging 201.3 at-bats during that stretch. And it's not like he's slumping his way back to the minors or anything. So far, his career batting average is .298.

That part isn't new. What's new is that, even with his name in the national spotlight, he's still so darn affordable. Most of his injuries have been freak injuries -- such as a broken hand last year -- which means you can still hold out hope that, with the right combination of ducking and dodging, he might be able to play 150 games.

And with third base full of so many risky options anyway, from David Wright to Kevin Youkilis to Alex Rodriguez, this year seems like a good year to bet on it being the year for Freese.

Huston Street, RP, Padres (Roto: Rd. 15, H2H: Rd. 19)

Every year, Street always seems to come down with something that sidelines him for weeks at a time. Last year, it was a groin injury in September. In 2010, it was a shoulder issue in April, May and most of June. For three of his seven big-league seasons, injuries have limited him to fewer than 60 innings.

Of course, the flipside is that, for four of those seasons, he's been a-OK, which suggests he's not quite as brittle as his average draft position would have you believe.

I mean, it's not like he's falling because of performance issues. He's been as reliable over the years as any closer not named Rivera or Papelbon.

The one addendum that makes him especially worth adding to this list this year is that he's now in San Diego, where Heath Bell averaged 44 saves over the last three years. The Padres are constructed in such a way -- a light-hitting team in a pitcher's park -- that their wins are almost always of the 2-1, 3-2 variety. Anyone who closes for them, provided he stays healthy, is pretty much a lock for 40 saves.

So far, Street's career high is 37, so we're talking about a career season for a player who at times has been a Fantasy mainstay. I'd take him as my No. 2 reliever any day.

Yunel Escobar, SS, Blue Jays (Roto: Rd. 19, H2H: Rd. 17)

Escobar has never played more than 141 games in a season, which is obviously the big knock against him.

But keep in mind Ian Kinsler hadn't played more than 144 games in a season before last year, when he suddenly stayed healthy for 155. A shaky history isn't an automatic death sentence for a player, particularly one still in his prime at age 29.

Of course, that's kind of a dressed-up version of "anything could happen," which is hackneyed argument that could apply to any player on or off this list. But it's worth noting in Escobar's case because that shaky history is the only excuse Fantasy owners have to avoid him on Draft Day. It's not like he's dealing with any aches or pains right now. Meanwhile, when he's in the lineup, he hits .290 year-in and year-out -- try finding another surefire source of a high batting average late in the draft -- and he's one of the few shortstop-eligible players who knows how to take a walk.

On a per-game basis, he averaged more Head-to-Head points than both Alexei Ramirez and Jhonny Peralta last year. Considering how much cheaper he is than those two, I'm willing to accept the possible DL stint.

Jed Lowrie, 3B/SS, Astros (Roto: Rd. 25, H2H: Rd. 24)

Lowrie was a popular sleeper -- injury-risk or otherwise -- at this time a year ago, when he was coming off a second half in which he hit .287 with nine home runs and a .907 OPS.

Obviously, his final 2011 numbers pale in comparison, but think back to the way he started the year. He hit .368 with three homers and a .962 OPS in April. The turning point came on May 29, when he injured his shoulder in a collision with Carl Crawford. He was never the same after that, hitting .197 with a .562 OPS the rest of the way, and the performance ruined him in the eyes of many Fantasy owners.

But you have to keep it in perspective. Over his last 328 healthy at-bats, Lowrie has hit .296 with 12 home runs. Combined with his high walk rate, that's more or less an elite shortstop.

Lowrie has the kind of track record that suggests if one little thing goes wrong, he's ruined, but after an offseason of rest and in a new environment where he's the one and only choice at shortstop, he's back to swinging a hot bat this spring.

Erik Bedard, SP, Pirates (Roto: Rd. 26, H2H: Rd. 23)

It seems like a distant memory considering he ended last year battling through a strained side muscle in eight mostly ineffective starts with the Red Sox, but Bedard actually had something of a successful bounce-back season after three straight years of shoulder woes.

His velocity was pretty much back to normal, and for 16 starts with the Mariners, he was consistently pitching seven innings with his usual high strikeout rate and low WHIP. So far this spring, he hasn't had any aches or pains or muscle pulls with the Pirates, which means he's actually in better condition than he was to begin last year.

Will he stay healthy for a full 30 starts? Probably not. But when he is healthy, he'll be more or less an every-week option in mixed leagues.

And he'll cost you next to nothing on Draft Day.

Conversely, you'll also find players whose risk of injury doesn't get enough credit -- ones drafted under the assumption they won't miss significant time even though their histories suggest otherwise. Here, briefly, are six players to approach with caution.

Jose Reyes, SS, Marlins (Roto: Rd. 2, H2H: Rd. 3): When was the last time Reyes went a whole season without a hamstring injury? 2008? He was playing for lifelong financial security last year and still landed on the DL twice. Something tells me he has a few more DL stints in store this year, except without the career-high .337 batting average. I can think of better uses of my second-round pick.

David Wright, 3B, Mets (Roto: Rd. 3, H2H: Rd. 5): So Wright has the same injury that sidelined Ryan Zimmerman for 60 games last year and stifled his power numbers beyond that, yet he's going to play through it like it's a case of the hiccups? Riiight. Wright may be able to avoid surgery, but his past attempts to play through injury haven't been so successful. I had my doubts about him anyway, so this abdominal tear is even more reason for me to go for Brett Lawrie instead.

Josh Beckett, SP, Red Sox (Roto: Rd. 8, H2H: Rd. 6): Beckett missed time last season with a hyperextended knee. He missed significant time in 2010 with a strained back. All told, he has only one 200-inning season in his last four, averaging 177 innings during that stretch. Granted, nobody's drafting him to be a 220-inning ace, but it's not like he has a steady track record performance-wise either. Madison Bumgarner and Ricky Romero are looking more attractive to me.

Chase Utley, 2B, Phillies (Roto: Rd. 7, H2H: Rd. 8): Utley's right knee was messed up last spring, and he ended up missing almost a third of the season. Now that both knees are messed up ... man, who knows? If nothing else, you can assume his days of hitting .300 with 30 homers are completely behind him -- not that he's done either since 2009. How are less-than-elite numbers over a partial season worth a seventh-round pick?

Tommy Hanson, SP, Braves (Roto: Rd. 8, H2H: Rd. 8): Hanson is working his way back from a partially torn rotator cuff, which is scary enough on its own, but the one detail that keeps getting overlooked is that he completely remade his delivery in the offseason. Granted, it was to prevent future wear and tear, but who's to say his arm won't buckle with the unfamiliar motion? Who's to say he'll even be the same guy with it? He hasn't exactly dominated this spring.

Andrew Bailey, RP, Red Sox (Roto: Rd. 12, H2H: Rd. 13): Bailey led all full-time closers with 83 1/3 innings during his rookie 2009 season, and he's been paying for it ever since, missing a month in 2010 with an intercostal strain and nearly two last year with a forearm strain. Let's not even mention the on-and-off elbow soreness. So far this spring, more of the same. He didn't debut until March 12, missing time with a back strain. Honestly, relievers like Sergio Santos and Jordan Walden seem safer to me.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Scott White at @CBSScottWhite . You can also e-mail us at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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