2011 Draft Prep: Injury-risk sleepers

We've all been trained to resist it on Draft Day, that temptation to draft a player who could be great if he could only stay healthy.

So we let him fall, passing him over round after round for safer players with lower ceilings.

But at some point, it goes too far. The injury risk gets too much credit, and the potential reward doesn't get enough. The key is to figure out that point and to target the players who cross it.

Injury-risk sleepers, you could call them -- players whose reward outweighs their risk, according to average draft position. And fortunately for you, I've compiled a list of 12 of the biggest ones right here.

Granted, you won't find every known injury risk on this list. Some deserve to go where they do. Others could stand to fall a little more. The ones featured here are only the ones who have scared Fantasy owners into doing the irrational.

You wouldn't want to load up on too many of them. After all, you still have to field a healthy lineup every week. But if you mix in two or three at the appropriate times in the draft, you have the potential to strike gold.

And then, the only ones who'll be hurting are the owners who missed out.

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

Chase Utley, 2B, Phillies (Roto: Rd. 3, H2H: Rd. 4): Perhaps the third or fourth round sounds about right for a second-round talent who might end up needing surgery, but keep in mind Utley's average draft position is skewed by results from earlier this spring, when his achy knee was considered nothing more than sore. In our most-recent mock draft, he didn't get drafted until the sixth round, and in a recent chat session, more than 60 percent of CBSSports.com users said he was no better than a fifth-rounder. That's probably going a little overboard. He could miss only a month, for all we know, and if you have a shot at an elite second baseman at a time when Brandon Phillips and Martin Prado are going off the board, it's worth the gamble, especially since the position is deep enough that you can draft a Kelly Johnson or Gordon Beckham as a fallback option in the middle rounds.

Justin Morneau, 1B, Twins (Roto: Rd. 4, H2H: Rd. 5): Concussions have become serious business in recent years, so the uncertainty surrounding Morneau coming into the season was warranted. He wouldn't have missed the postseason if his condition wasn't especially bad. And then when the Twins kept pushing him back and pushing him back this spring, you had no choice but to pass him up for safer options. What if he was the next Corey Koskie? But he's back playing now and feeling good about it. The biggest questions seem to have been answered, meaning the former AL MVP who ranked right up there with Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera at the time of his injury, batting .345 with a 1.055 OPS, has the potential to do as much damage as any first baseman this season. Considering Pujols and Cabrera are both consensus first-rounders, Morneau in the fifth round is nothing less than a steal.

Kendry Morales, 1B, Angels (Roto: Rd. 6, H2H: Rd. 6): This is kind of a predictive pick. Morales' average draft position hasn't had time to change much, but with reports he might not be ready for opening day as he works his way back from a broken leg, some Fantasy owners might run the other way. But let's keep this injury in perspective. It's a broken leg. Granted, it's not the first thing he'd choose to break -- especially not in the gruesome way he did -- but it's not a joint that could alter his mechanics and sap him of his strength, and it's not anything that protects a vital organ. It's just a big bone that needs more time to heal. And probably not that much. If he's able to run on it already, he's not far from doing everything else he needs to do. He simply ran out of time for opening day. If you downgrade him more than a couple rounds past Justin Morneau and Adam Dunn, you're overestimating the risk.

Josh Beckett, SP, Red Sox (Roto: Rd. 9, H2H: Rd. 6): Beckett's 2010 was limited by a back injury that cost him two months of the season, and even when he returned, he wasn't up to his ace standards. Coming off a year when more than a handful of starting pitchers leaped up the Fantasy rankings, his 5.78 ERA and 1.54 WHIP were enough to bury him in some owners' eyes, bumping him down to Chad Billingsley and Shaun Marcum territory. But last year wasn't the first time Beckett disappointed with an ERA over 5.00, and the last time it happened, he bounced back with his best season yet, winning 20 games in 2007. The way he's raved about his back and how much better it feels this spring, you have to believe he was hurting more than he let on at the end of last year. Considering his track record and relatively young age, Beckett deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Joe Nathan, RP, Twins (Roto: Rd. 12, H2H: Rd. 14): Nathan missed all of last season, which is reason enough for him to fall on Draft Day. A stat line full of zeroes doesn't inspire much confidence heading into a new season. But Tommy John surgery is about as routine as a tooth filling these days, and Nathan is already looking like its latest success story, hitting the mid-90s with his fastball this spring. It's Billy Wagner all over again. Yes, the Twins could potentially open the year with Matt Capps as their closer just to ease Nathan back into the role, but nobody doubts their first choice is the one that averaged 41 saves and a 1.87 ERA for them from 2004 to 2009. Nathan was arguably the best closer in Fantasy during that six-year stretch, so this is probably your only chance to draft him on the level of Brad Lidge and Huston Street. Take advantage while you can.

Jason Bay, OF, Mets (Roto: Rd. 13, H2H: Rd. 14): Bay, like Justin Morneau, is a former early-rounder coming off a serious concussion, but you could argue he comes with even less risk than his AL counterpart. He was ready to go at the beginning of spring training, and he immediately showed something at the plate. His drop in the rankings, therefore, probably has less to do with his injury than the fact he hit only six homers in 348 at-bats last year. For whatever reason, Fantasy owners seem all too eager to dismiss his track record, which includes four seasons with at least 30 homers in a span of five years. This spring, he's gone back to the basics, concentrating on hitting the ball back up the middle and eliminating his bad habits of a year ago. Knowing how quickly he bounced back from his only other down season -- an injury-plagued 2007 -- you can't afford to pass him up in the middle rounds.

Carlos Quentin, OF, White Sox (Roto: Rd. 14, H2H: Rd. 15): Quentin's most famous injury was his fractured wrist that ended what was looking like an MVP 2008 season with about a month left to go. But that one apparently opened the flood gates. He missed time last year with hamstring, knee, hand, and ankle injuries, keeping him from getting into a rhythm and preventing Head-to-Head owners from trusting him from one week to the next. And he also has a history of plantar fasciitis. Still, Quentin has impressive strike-zone judgment for a player with so much power potential, so that near-MVP performance didn't come out of nowhere. And if he ever stays in the lineup long enough to get his mechanics right, he's still young enough at age 28 to repeat it. If he's going off the board as late as low-upside players like Michael Cuddyer and has-beens like Carlos Lee, what do you have to lose?

Jake Peavy, SP, White Sox (Roto: Rd. 17, H2H: Rd. 14): Nobody was counting on Peavy for much entering spring training. Whenever a pitcher has shoulder surgery, it's a terrifying prospect for Fantasy owners. When it's such a rare surgery that no big-name pitcher has ever had it before, it might as well be a death sentence. Peavy didn't just tear his latissimus dorsi muscle; he ripped it from the bone. His shoulder literally fell apart. Some doubted he had even a puncher's chance of regaining his ace form, much less being ready for the start of the season. But when he made his spring debut March 4, it was like nothing had even happened. His fastball was touching the mid-90s, and it hasn't let up since. The more he pitches, the more he looks like the Jake Peavy of old. And considering the Jake Peavy of old won a Cy Young award and multiple ERA and strikeout titles, the Jake Peavy of now is well worth the wager.

Jair Jurrjens, SP, Braves (Roto: Rd. 18, H2H: Rd. 16): Jurrjens was the horse of the Braves pitching staff as a 23-year-old in 2009, pitching a career-high 215 innings. Predictably, he broke down last year, as has happened to so many young pitchers who were pushed as hard as he was so early in their careers. But before you stick him with the injury-prone label and declare him a likely candidate for Tommy John surgery, keep in mind his issues last year were mostly to his legs. He missed nearly two months with a strained hamstring and the end of the season with a torn meniscus that required offseason surgery. Other than a bout with shoulder inflammation last spring, his arm was just fine, as was his velocity and stuff. If anything, his legs helped preserve his arm for another season like the one he had in 2009, when he was a top-15 Fantasy option. What's stopping him from getting back there?

Coco Crisp, OF, Athletics (Roto: Rd. 18, H2H: Rd. 28): Crisp broke his left pinkie twice last year and had an intercostal strain in between, costing him a little more than half the season. He also missed most of 2009 because of two shoulder surgeries -- a different one for each. In short, he's a walking catastrophe. But when he was able to pick himself up and drag himself to the batter's box last year, he was one of the top five outfielders in the game. Yes, really. On a per-game basis, Crisp outscored every outfielder but Carlos Gonzalez, Josh Hamilton and Jose Bautista in standard Head-to-Head leagues -- a performance that has carried over to this spring. Odds are he'll slow down over a full season, but even so, a guy who was on a 15-homer, 60-steal pace through half a season deserves far more attention than he's getting in Fantasy. Injury risk or not, Crisp is worth drafting late.

Chipper Jones, 3B, Braves (Roto: Rd. 25, H2H: Rd. 25): I know what you're thinking: This might be the dumbest inclusion on any preseason list this spring. And it might be. Why jump back on the Jones bandwagon when his career is on its last legs? Well, it's different now. Yes, he's coming off his most serious in a long line of injuries over the years. Yes, he's showing clear signs of decline at age 38. But now, nobody's drafting him as a starter or even a sleeper. Chances are nobody's drafting him at all. If his spring performance is any indication, he's far from done. He still has one of the best walk rates in the league and still hits for power. Whether or not he spends half the year on the DL, his position offers so little middle-to-late-round talent that you'll end up starting him more often than you expect. For the price of a late-round pick, he can only wow you.

Koji Uehara, RP, Orioles (Roto: Rd. 20, H2H: Undrafted): Perhaps you're thinking Uehara doesn't belong on this list because even if he overcomes his elbow soreness this spring, he still has to fend off Kevin Gregg for the closer role -- and that's true. But given the way Uehara performed in relief last year, it's his job to lose. Uehara, who has experience closing from his days in Japan, was 13 for 15 in save opportunities down the stretch and finished the year with a 0.96 WHIP and 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings. The only closer to outperform him in both categories last year was Billy Wagner, who's obviously not an option this year. No, Uehara isn't necessarily out of the woods even if he overcomes this elbow injury. He has spent time on the DL each of the last two years with separate injuries. But if you have a chance to get a potentially elite closer for next to nothing, why not take it?

Conversely, you'll also find players whose risk of injury doesn't get enough credit -- ones drafted under the assumption they won't miss any time when, more often than not, they will. Here, briefly, are six players to approach with caution.

Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Red Sox (Roto: Rd. 1, H2H: Rd. 2): Bumping a third- or fourth-rounder like Gonzalez up to the first or second round just because he's changing ballparks is already a risky strategy. Combined with his return from shoulder surgery, Fantasy owners are clearly viewing him with rose-colored glasses. Until I see clear signs of his usual 40-homer power, I'm taking my chances with Mark Teixeira or Prince Fielder instead.

Josh Johnson, SP, Marlins (Roto: Rd. 3, H2H: Rd. 2): Perhaps Johnson's struggles this spring have nothing to do with the shoulder soreness he felt at the end of last season, but with so many legitimate aces available in the second and third rounds, why take a chance on the guy with a history of arm troubles and only one 200-inning season under his belt?

Kevin Youkilis, 1B/3B, Red Sox (Roto: Rd. 3, H2H: Rd. 3): Youkilis is one of a handful of high-end options at a weak third-base position, so his draft position is easy to justify. But just because his numbers are safe doesn't mean he is. He has yet to play more than 147 games in a season and his move to the hot corner will only put more of a strain on his body.

Ian Kinsler, 2B, Rangers (Roto: Rd. 3, H2H: Rd. 4): It's never the same thing twice for Kinsler, but it's always something. In five seasons as an everyday player, he has played an average of 123.6 games, with a career high of only 144. His bat seems to have come back around this spring, but you'll be scrambling for a replacement eventually.

Nelson Cruz, OF, Rangers (Roto: Rd. 3, H2H: Rd. 5): Cruz's numbers weren't far off from teammate Josh Hamilton's last season, which has Fantasy owners itching to approach him the same way. But he has yet to play more than 128 games in a season -- a product of chronic hamstring problems. He'll have a hard time producing like a third-rounder if he's sitting half the time.

Jonathan Broxton, RP, Dodgers (Roto: Rd. 12, H2H: Rd. 12): Broxton may seem like a value in Round 12 considering he was the top Fantasy reliever just a year ago, but after back-to-back midseason breakdowns, the jig is up. His body is too big to last a full season, and when it turns on him, he's not the same pitcher. Don't expect a long leash this time.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter . You can e-mail us your Fantasy Baseball questions to DMFantasyBaseball@cbs.com . Be sure to put Injury Risks in the subject field. Please include your full name, hometown and state.

Senior Fantasy Writer

Raised in Atlanta by a board game-loving family during the dawn of the '90s Braves dynasty, Scott White was easy prey for the Fantasy Sports, in particular Fantasy Baseball, and has devoted his adulthood... Full Bio

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