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Six hitters who surprised us in 2014
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It's mid-November, there is a chill in the air and most people are still thinking about their fantasy football team. Not me!

While my football teams are playing well and I'm in the hunt for a championship, I'm also thinking about the upcoming baseball season, thanks to a colleague coming up to me this morning talking baseball trades.

It definitely got the juices flowing.

So I pulled out the baseball statistics and began combing through the numbers to see who made a significant leap forward last season.

Today we will evaluate a half-dozen hitters who stepped up in 2014 and hopefully will continue to play at the same level or better in 2015.

You won't find Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton or Andrew McCutchen on this list, because we already know what they can do and so does everyone else in your fantasy league, so they certainly won't be a bargain come draft day.

No, this is about guys further down the rankings.

For our purposes we are going to concentrate on a player's OPS. For the uninformed, OPS is the sum of on-base percentage and slugging percentage. While it's not perfect, it's a widely accepted statistic that measures power, contact ability and patience.

All of our hitters posted an OPS of .800 or better and none had a 2014 Yahoo ADP (average draft position) under 100.

Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Chicago (ADP 118) - We saw Rizzo's power potential back in 2012 (15 HR, .805 OPS in 337 at-bats), but he struggled in 2013. Last season he found his batting stroke and posted career-highs in homers (32), runs (89) and OPS (.913) despite missing 20-plus games. What was particularly exciting to see was his improved ability to hit left-handed pitching. The career .193 hitter against lefties heading into 2014, batted .300 with a .928 OPS against southpaws last season. With all the young and exciting offensive talent soon to join him on the Cubs, he's going to be the "straw that stirs the drink" and we expect this level of production to continue into 2015 and beyond.

Neil Walker, 2B, Pittsburgh (ADP 230) - Walker isn't a flashy second base option and that's why he frequently gets overlooked on draft day. But since becoming an everyday second baseman in 2010, he's posted at least a .742 OPS and owns a career .772 OPS after last season's .271 BA, 23 HR, 76 RBI .809 OPS production. He was the 21st second baseman off the board, but finished the season inside the top-10. It's time fantasy owners start paying attention to the 2014 NL Silver Slugger Award winner.

Justin Morneau, 1B, Colorado (ADP 233) - The former American League MVP had been off fantasy radar screens for the last three seasons, primarily as he struggled with his health. In his first season with Coors Field as his home ballpark, Morneau rose from the ashes. Interestingly, it wasn't the long ball, he hit just 17 homers, it was an NL-leading .319 batting average that led his revival. Lest you think he's a product of the light Colorado air, Morneau batted .309 with an .839 OPS on the road. With all the talent available at first base, Morneau is likely to be overlooked again next season and should be a nice bargain.

Anthony Rendon, 3B, Washington (ADP 250) - Rendon was a first-round selection of the Nationals in 2011, but didn't get much respect on draft day because he didn't have a regular position to play. Washington had Ryan Zimmerman at 3B and Danny Espinosa starting at 2B and Rendon was the team's utility player. Then Zimmerman got hurt and Rendon grabbed the opportunity and wouldn't give it back. He batted .287 with a league-leading 111 runs, 21 HR, 83 RBI and an .824 OPS. He was so good, the Nationals were forced to move Zimmerman to the outfield. Rendon's got the talent and the right team surrounding him to be a solid fantasy option and his multi-position eligibility makes him even more valuable. He'll likely be a top-50 selection in 2015, so while he won't be a bargain, he should give you fair-market value.

Lucas Duda, OF, New York Mets (ADP 313) - Duda looks the part of a power hitter and in 2014 he became that guy crushing a career-high 30 homers with an .830 OPS. However, there are a number of red flags which fantasy owners should be aware of before selecting him too high in 2015. He plays half his games in pitcher-friendly Citi Field. This red flag could be negated if the Mets follow through on rumors that they are again going to move the fences in, particularly in right-center. The larger concern is that Duda can't hit left- handed pitching. He hit 28 of his 30 dingers against right-handers and batted just .180 in 111 at-bats against southpaws. That's a problem and it's the reason you shouldn't go overboard in picking him at the 2015 draft.

Josh Harrison, 3B/OF, Pittsburgh (ADP 318) - Harrison was the Pirates "do- everything" guy in 2014. He played 2B, SS, 3B, and OF and did so in exciting fashion batting .315 with 77 runs, 13 HR, 52 RBI, 18 SB and an .837 OPS. He was a career .300 hitter in the minors, but in part-time major league duty had never produced anything close to last season's numbers. For that reason, I'd be wary of selecting him too high in 2015.




Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Steve Schwarz at sschwarz@sportsnetwork.com.


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