Kawasaki, LaHair among early season fantasy baseball sleepers
After dazzling during spring training, Muneori Kawasaki has stolen base potential
Tigers' rookie Duane Below could pick up wins, strikeouts in Doug Fister’s absence
Cubs' 1B Bryan LaHair could take advantage of his first steady MLB playing time
In this week's edition of the column that I like to refer to as "Who's That?", we look at this season's least heralded foreign import, two young pitchers who have earned spots on major league rosters and a veteran minor leaguer finally getting a fair shot at playing time.
The latest Japanese talent to hit the shores of the Pacific Northwest, Kawasaki was a long-shot to make Seattle's roster when he came to camp as a non-roster invitee in spring training. But the lifetime .294 hitter dazzled manager Eric Wedge by leading all qualifying Cactus or Grapefruit League players with a .455 average while playing steady defense at both shortstop and second base. A left-handed hitter, the eight-time NPB All-Star has a similar approach at the plate as his heralded new teammate, Ichiro Suzuki, but with far less powerful results, as he produced a mere 27 home runs over the course of nine full seasons. However, what makes him so attractive to fantasy owners is his ability to run. In those same nine years, the 30-year old averaged more than 29 stolen bases, including a total of 105 over the past three seasons alone. Seattle's offense has been historically bad in recent years and will look to generate runs in any way possible. While Dustin Ackley is firmly entrenched at second, Brendan Ryan, a bigger (6-foot-2, 195-pounds compared to Kawasaki's 5-foot-10, 165) yet nearly as power-challenged player (153 AB/HR in the majors compared to Kawasaki's 169 AB/HR in Japan) has batted just .247 in his first season-plus with the M's. It's very conceivable that a platoon between the lefty-swinging Kawasaki and the right-handed Ryan develops, which gives the import the advantage. He's a good pickup for AL-only owners strapped for a middle infielder with the potential to be a big help in batting average and steals.
A classic example of when it's sometimes beneficial to lose, Tigers' rookie Duane Below was beaten out in the team's fifth-starter derby in spring training to fellow rookie Drew Smyly. Since Jim Leyland's team didn't need a five-man rotation for the first two weeks of the season due to scheduling, however, both Smyly and Below were optioned to the minors -- yet it was Below who got to travel north with the team when another lefthander, Luis Marte, was forced to the disabled list by a hamstring pull. That was the break Below needed to establish himself as a valuable part of the bullpen, notching a pair of wins in two appearances in a thrilling sweep of the Red Sox. Below's second career victory came in relief of an injured Doug Fister, and he pitched so well (2 1/3 innings, three strikeouts, one hit) that it's possible that the 26-year old Britton, Mich., native is in line to take Fister's turn in the rotation while he's sidelined by a strain in his left side. With a 3.13 ERA and 1.18 WHIP last season in Triple A and a career minor league rate of 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings, Below is in prime position to have fantasy value in the form of vulture wins and K's pitching for an explosive Tigers offense that has already displayed its knack for dramatic comebacks.
The epitome of a Quad-A player, the nine-year veteran of the Seattle and Chicago organizations has finally been given a fair shot at big-league playing time. Until this season, LaHair, 29, had accrued just 219 plate appearances in two trips to the majors despite blitzing the Pacific Coast League for 89 home runs over the past three years, including his 2011 MVP campaign when he hit 38 home runs and drove in 109 RBIs with averages of .331/.405/.664 for the Iowa Cubs. Now he's a starting first baseman who could take advantage of the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. However caveat emptor, LaHair's ride as a regular could be a short one. The Cubbies' first baseman of the future, Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer favorite Anthony Rizzo, is off to a torrid start hitting .474/.500/.947 with three home runs and nine RBIs to start the season at Iowa. Rizzo's arrival won't doom LaHair, who also played in the corner outfield spots in the minors, but he'll become a part-timer and pinch hitter. So in the short term LaHair is a low-risk, high-reward pickup. In the long term however, Rizzo is the player to have.
Rated by Baseball America as the eighth-best pitching prospect in the White Sox organization prior to the 2011 season, Harrell had two short stints with the club. He was unimpressive in middle relief, and was sent to the waiver wire by the Pale Hose last July. Picked up by the Astros, he promptly went 5-2 with a 1.72 ERA for Oklahoma City and earned a September call-up during which he displayed mixed results: He shut down the Brewers over 5 1/3 innings in his first start, but fell back into mediocrity the rest of the way, his ERA rising to 4.50 in mainly mop-up duty. After apparently falling out of contention for a rotation spot early in spring training, the righthander rallied to post a 2.16 Grapefruit League ERA and ended up with the No. 2 slot in Houston's young rotation after veteran Livan Hernandez was released. In his first start, the 2004 fourth-round pick showed why he was thought of so highly, blanking the Rockies over seven strong innings in which he retired 20 of the 23 batters he faced. While there's potential for NL-only owners, you have to take his success with a grain of salt. He's never been a big strikeout pitcher (six per nine innings in the minors) and fanned just four Rockies in his win over the king of craftiness, Jamie Moyer. However craftiness will take Harrell just so far for a rebuilding team which projects as one of the National League's bottom feeders this year. He's also of little value to NL-only owners in keeper leagues as the Astros migrate to the AL for the 2013 season. Of course, another gem against the Marlins in his next start would help strengthen his case as a fantasy option.