Injury risks who may surprise
If Hanley Ramirez is healthy, he will have eligibility at shortstop and third base
After missing more than a season, Kendrys Morales is hitting and running in camp
Ryan Howard should be productive but is likely to miss first month of the season
When looking for inefficiency in the fantasy baseball marketplace, look no further than injury risk. It is here where talent and potential becomes a lot more affordable. You just have to assume the risk with the reward.
If you were a gambling type last year, you would have scored with Jacoby Ellsbury, 27, coming off that rib injury -- or Jose Reyes, also 27, coming off years of various injury woes. Ellsbury led many fantasy teams to titles, while Reyes at least allowed his owners to play with the house's money in the first half before succumbing to injury again.
Assuming risk with injury is a tricky proposition, but it can also be a rewarding one in getting players who outperform their draft position. Continuing SI.com's series on finding this year's fantasy baseball breakouts and sleepers with Part III, we examine the injury-risk sleepers to target on draft day. We have already broken down the top 27-year olds and third-year starting pitchers, while the contract-year candidates, rookies and overlooked sophomores are still to come.
Unlike many of those other categories, injury-risk players tend to already have shown big numbers and career years. Now you're hoping to catch it once again, albeit at a reduced rate.
Here are the top 10 injury-risk picks to put your money on this year, with their pre-spring Top 300 ranking in parenthesis:
Ramirez isn't necessarily a sleeper at his still-high going rate, but he is as affordable as he has been since his rookie season. Assuming the risk in Round 2 or 3, you could get a player who can perform on the level of anyone and do it with shortstop eligibility, third base eligibility (to come in-season) and numbers through all five categories.
Ramirez is coming off shoulder surgery (non-throwing), which always tends to be tricky for sluggers, but he has dealt with the issue for years and still has been productive. We should get a very good sense of just how healthy Ramirez is before draft day. The earlier you draft, the cheaper Ramirez should come.
Morales was on this list last year, but he provided his owners nothing and ended up having another season-ending ankle surgery. He is running and hitting early in camp this year and is targeting the second week of March to play in games. Because the Angels signed Albert Pujols and have sophomore Mark Trumbo and veteran Bobby Abreu (unless he is dealt) to be a DH, they can be very patient with Morales.
But make no mistake, a healthy Morales is going to be in the Angels lineup whenever his ankle permits. He is going to be a 30-homer, 100-RBI threat is someone you can pick up for less than double-digits in an auction.
Years of injury woes have placed Bailey in a perfect situation for a career breakthrough. The Red Sox should prove to be a lot healthier this season than last, and if Bailey finally holds up for a full season he should enjoy not only his first 30-save season, but also his first 40-save one.
The Red Sox have three elite starters and a solid supporting cast in the bullpen, so Bailey should get ample save opportunities, assuming he doesn't wear down and get banged up like he always is. In terms of talent, Bailey can be one of the best closers in the game. Now he just has to go out and do it over all 162.
Hughes is coming off a year that makes him look more like a bust than a breakout candidate, but it is still too early to give up on the one-time elite prospect. He reported to camp out of shape a year ago and it cost him his rotation spot. He now will compete with veteran Freddy Garcia for the No. 5 starter's job.
The Yankees didn't hold Hughes all these years to send him to the minors or the bullpen, so expect him to have every chance to claim the No. 5 starter's job behind CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova. A leaner Hughes can display Cy Young potential for a Yankees team that is going score runs in bunches and win games going away. He is already an 18-game winner and he might even have learned how to pitch a little along the way.
Posey is catching this spring, but you still have to fear there could be a Morales-like setback with his major ankle injury, particularly at the high-impact position he plays. If not for that gruesome home-plate collision last year, we might be talking about Posey leading the catcher position in drafts this spring. Instead, he might fall through Round 5.
The problem with the injury risk on Posey is we still haven't seen a full season from him in the major leagues. He was great in four months as a rookie, but you cannot always just project those numbers for a full season. That unknown might help Posey slip as well.
It was a disastrous season for the Twins, in large part because they lost their MVP in Mauer. But this is a new spring and Mauer says he feels like a new man, getting back up to his playing weight of 235 pounds. He has been given the 100 percent bill of health from his leg and pneumonia issues and should be able to get back to his pre-contract form.
Mauer won't hit 25-plus homers in the Twins' pitching-friendly ballpark, but he did get his stroke back in the second half of last season, hitting .314 with a .393 on-base percentage. If Justin Morneau (back, neck, concussion, foot and wrist) can get and stay healthy (a lot of big ifs there), Mauer could prove to be the most productive catcher in fantasy again.
Nathan didn't look like his pre-Tommy John self out of the gate a year ago, but assuming Neftali Feliz and Alexi Ogando remain in the Rangers' rotation this spring, Nathan is earmarked for the closer's job in Texas. That should one of the best places in baseball to be a closer again.
Nathan made a lot of progress in the second half and should have a great rotation and solid setup corps to get him some easy save chances. You cannot consider him an elite closer anymore, but the saves can come consistently from him even if his ERA is in the 3.00s.
Buchholz looked headed for a Cy Young Award, not an injury-risk list, but a stress fracture in his back has him cheaper than he has been in years. He is proving to be 100 percent early in spring, so he should represent a solid value after the top 25 starting pitchers are off the board on draft day.
The best part about Buchholz might be his age. He is 27 and reaching his physical peak. That is scary when you consider what he has already accomplished, including a no-hitter.
Like the Red Sox, the Mets have been snake bit by injuries the past few years. Murphy is an annual knee-injury victim, but he is finally going to be considered an everyday player in the majors, albeit at second base, where he blew out his knee last time.
If Murphy handles the position in spring and gets full-time at-bats, you are going to have a great late-round sleeper on your hands, one with versatility from a year ago, too. Murphy, like Buchholz, is in his physical prime at 27. Murphy has the makings of a .290-20-80-80 hitter.
The problem with Howard this spring is he won't be ready for the start of the season. So you're drafting more than the average injury risk here. You won't get anything out of him for at least the month of April. He tentatively hopes to return in May, but like Morales a year ago, it is a best-case scenario.
Achilles' injuries, though, tend to linger like ankle, knee or shoulder issues. Howard can be 100 percent of his highly productive self once he is ready for action. If you're in a smaller league where you can stopgap his fill-in early, stashing Howard on your reserves or DL spots, you can have yourself an early round run producer by mid-May.
The list of players dealing with injuries certainly doesn't stop at 10, or even 100. You can find some hidden gems by assuming some measure of risk on an injured player. If he proves healthy, you have yourself a bargain and maybe even a potential monster like Ellsbury and Reyes were a year ago.
Here are some other premium injury-risk bargains you might prefer to our 10 above (in order they appear in the Top 300): SS Reyes, Mets; 3B Kevin Youkilis, Red Sox; C Carlos Santana, Indians; OF Josh Hamilton; 2B Chase Utley, Phillies; 3B David Wright, Mets; 3B Alex Rodriguez, Yankees; RHP Stephen Strasburg, Nationals; 2B Rickie Weeks, Brewers; RHP Tommy Hansen, Braves; RHP Michael Pineda, Yankees; RHP Adam Wainwright, Cardinals; 3B David Freese, Cardinals; 1B Morneau, Twins; 1B Ike Davis, Mets; SS Stephen Drew, Diamondbacks; 2B Brian Roberts, Orioles; RHP Tim Hudson, Braves; RHP Huston Street, Rockies; 1B Mark Trumbo, Angels; RHP Roy Oswalt, FA; LHP Aroldis Chapman, Reds; OF Grady Sizemore, Indians; RHP Jake Peavy, White Sox; RHP Edinson Volquez, Padres; LHP Francisco Liriano, Twins; and LHP Johan Santana, Mets.
Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com. You can also find him on Twitter, where you can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice @EricMackFantasy. He reads all the messages there (guaranteed) and takes them very, very personally (not really).
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