April 11, 2008

Hoops win in hand, focus on baseball

Now that we've finished celebrating our first basketball championship, it's time to shift our attention to the diamond and get familiar with the names of some of tomorrow's stars.

"East bound and down, loaded up and truckin',
We're gonna do what they say can't be done.
We've got a long way to go and a short time to get there.
I'm east bound, just watch ol' Bandit run."

— Socrates, 335 BC

Now that we've finished celebrating our first basketball championship, it's time to shift our attention to the diamond and get familiar with the names of some of tomorrow's stars.

Ryan Braun, Chris Young and Troy Tulowitzki were draft-day curiosities who blossomed into fantasy heavyweights as rookies a season ago.

Less than two weeks into the regular season, which unknowns will make names for themselves in 2008 remains to be seen, but a handful of freshmen have already done enough in their brief time on the big stage to enter the national fantasy consciousness.

Here are some players with whom fantasy owners would be wise to get acquainted.

Johnny Cueto, SP, Reds — Cueto's name shot to the top of most fantasy free-agent request lists after his 10-strikeout big-league debut against Arizona last Thursday. For an encore, Cueto struck out eight without allowing a walk and yielded just two runs on five hits in 6 1/3 innings Tuesday against Milwaukee.

The hard-throwing 22-year-old has generated more buzz than any young hurler since Seattle's Felix Hernandez in 2005. Two starts do not make a career, but the kid looks like the real deal.

Jair Jurrjens, SP, Braves — Move over Mike Krzyzewski, there's a new name in sports that defies all tenets of linguistics. Jurrjens' (pronounced Zsa-eye-ear Jury), who came to Atlanta in the offseason trade that sent shortstop Edgar Renteria to Detroit, has produced a 1-1 record with eight strikeouts, three walks and a 4.38 ERA in his first two starts for the Braves, and could provide owners with double-digit victories and 130-plus strikeouts by October.

David Murphy, OF, Rangers — Murphy quietly batted .340 in 103 at-bats for Texas last season after being acquired in the trade that sent Eric Hinske to Boston last summer. A strong spring earned Murphy a spot in the Rangers' starting lineup, and he's made the most of his opportunity by hitting .385 (10 for 26) with a homer, three RBIs, six runs scored and two stolen bases entering play Thursday.

Murphy hit .275 with 14 HRs, 75 RBIs, 71 runs and 13 steals with Double-A Portland in 2005, and a full season's worth of at-bats at hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark in Arlington could see him produce similar numbers by season's end.

J.R. Towles, C, Astros — Towles hit .375 (15 for 40) with a homer and 12 RBIs as a September call-up last season, and has taken over as Houston's starting backstop this season after a strong spring. Towles, who has two home runs and four RBIs in his first 23 at-bats this season, demonstrated both power and speed in the minors (12 HRs, 55 RBIs and 13 steals for Class-A Lexington in 2006; 11 HRs, 62 RBIs and 15 steals combined during stops with Class-A Salem, Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Round Rock in 2007).

His average might not be pretty, but the Texas native could produce 15 homers and 60 RBIs, which any owner would be happy to take from a No. 2 catcher.

Nick Blackburn, SP, Twins — The 6-foot-4-inch right-hander (0-1, 2.25 ERA, 1.25 WHIP) was impressive in his first career start last Wednesday, allowing one run in seven innings while striking out six in a 1-0 loss to the Angels, then followed that up by allowing just two runs on seven hits with five strikeouts Monday in a 7-4 loss to the White Sox.

Francisco Liriano's impending return will force somebody out of Minnesota's starting rotation, but the highly-touted Blackburn could remove himself from the list of candidates if he continues to deal.

Carlos Gomez, OF, Twins — One of four prospects acquired from the Mets in exchange for two-time American League Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, Gomez can flat-out fly (64 steals for Class-A Hagerstown in 2005, 41 for Double-A Bingham in 2006). Gomez (.316 batting average, five runs, five steals) is the everyday starter in center field and could threaten 50 steals and 100 runs if he can keep his average in the .260 to .270 range.

Dana Eveland, SP, A's — Eveland, acquired in the deal that sent All-Star pitcher Dan Haren to Arizona, earned a spot in Oakland's rotation with a strong spring showing (1.29 ERA, 17 strikeouts in 21 innings), then solidified it by winning in his A's debut last Sunday against Cleveland, which managed just one run and six hits in seven innings against the left-hander. He also struck out seven against the Indians.

A's fans have learned to trust general manager Billy Beane, who always seems to have a trick up his sleeve — Eveland could be the latest.

Stu Rosenberg's fantasy sports column runs Fridays. He can be reached at or 578-2300.

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