Fantasy Baseball 2012: Who Among MLB’s Hottest Players are Legit?

Early in the season, it is difficult to distinguish hot players from truly talented ones.

We’re left wondering which of the league’s leading producers will sustain their production throughout 2012.

By identifying fantasy frauds now, you’ll be able to sell them while their stock is high.

Giving up on a rising superstar could haunt you all summer. But sticking with a scrub as he regresses from excellence to his actual playing ability can also be tough to stomach.

The following 10 individuals are enjoying off-the-charts success through the regular season’s second weekend. 

None have ever been considered extraordinary fantasy options.

I’ll tell you whether any are finally emerging as legitimate stars.

C Yadier Molina (St. Louis Cardinals)

St. Louis Cardinals starting catcher Yadier Molina had somewhat of a breakout year in 2011.

He finished with career highs in batting average (.305), home runs (14), runs batted in (65) and runs scored (55).

Now—with Albert Pujols gone and his ownfuture taken care of—Molina has become one of fantasy baseball’s elite backstops.

The first-place Cards lead the majors in scoring despite an injury to Lance Berkman and negligible contributions from Matt Holliday. The offense promises to be a potent one when those two get going.

Expect Molina to have ample opportunities to bat with runners in scoring position this season.

He always posts a sparkling strikeout-to-walk ratio and he’s completely capable of a batting average akin to 2011’s.

I’m only skeptical about his slugging.

He’s currently on pace for 300-plus total bases. That isn’t sustainable for a ninth-year player whose previous best is 221.

2012 Stats through April 15: .353 AVG, 3 HR, 10 RBI, 9 R, 1 SB, 4 BB, 6 K

3B David Freese (St. Louis Cardinals)

Teammate David Freese is nearly the National League’s top batter.

It’s as if the World Series never ended for him!

His early-season power numbers cannot realistically be maintained over six months (he’s averaging more than an RBI per game).

Although the St. Louis Cardinals third baseman won’t produce like Evan Longoria or Jose Bautista, he won’t be far behind, either.

The late-bloomer has been successful at every level of professional baseball, including in the big leagues for much of 2011.

Impatience at the plate will limit his on-base percentage and consequently, his runs scored. His line-drive swing won’t deliver more than 20 home runs.

Still, there is no shame in starting David Freese. He—like Yadier Molina—will reap the benefits of batting amid a great lineup.

2012 Stats through April 15: .406 AVG, 3 HR, 11 RBI, 6 R, 1 BB, 8 K

SP Lance Lynn (St. Louis Cardinals)

Rest assured, this is a league-wide article, but the St. Louis Cardinals have achieved a 7-3 record because of three, first-time fantasy studs.

Lance Lynn has already defeated two division rivals in 2012, the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs. He surrendered just one run to each.

He will stay in the rotation indefinitely with Chris Carpenter sidelined.

Mid-90s fastball velocity and a filthy curveball could contribute to countless strikeouts for the talented right-hander.

However, he will need to prove that his slider—abandoned a year ago when he was relieving—can be an effective third pitch.

Lynn is not an MLB ace, but he’ll continue to dominate lineups that are devoid of lefty power.

Pay close attention to his matchups.

2012 Stats through April 15: 2-0, 1.50 ERA, 12.0 IP, 13 K, 0.75 WHIP

LF J.D. Martinez (Houston Astros)

Outfielder J.D. Martinez has been a steady producer for the Houston Astros with at least one hit in every 2012 game.

But his success as a second-year outfielder is hardly surprising. Martinez was a .342 career batter in the Minor Leagues.

Veteran first baseman Carlos Lee has started strong, too. With him in the cleanup spot, Martinez should keep seeing hittable pitches.

However, he isn’t exactly the second coming of Hunter Pence, who—now with the Philadelphia Phillies—complements power-hitting with double-digit base-stealing.

The Astros frankly don’t have a deep batting order.

As a result, Martinez won’t touch home plate as often as somebody of his talent should.

2012 Stats through April 15: .371 AVG, 3 HR, 10 RBI, 5 R, 4 BB, 7 K

LF Shelley Duncan (Cleveland Indians)

Shelley Duncan has forever been a platoon player. That hasn’t changed despite his hot start.

Free agent Johnny Damon was just signed by the Cleveland Indians, a transaction that demotes Duncan from starting left fielder to his usual role.

Something of this ilk was inevitable.

When healthy, Grady Sizemore uproots center fielder Michael Brantley and shifts him to left.

Also, Matt LaPorta is wreaking havoc at Triple-A Columbus. He could see time at the position if recalled.

Duncan has exhibited uncharacteristic plate discipline through eight games while still hammering extra-base hits.

Alas, he’ll lose value with a lack of plate appearances.

2012 Stats through April 15: .320 AVG, 2 HR, 6 RBI, 7 R, 8 BB, 6 K

2B Omar Infante (Miami Marlins)

Omar Infante is off to an atypical start.

He has been on MLB rosters since 2002, but fantasy baseball owners may not be familiar with him.

Before last year, he had never held down a starting job. Even then, he was a nondescript middle infielder who couldn’t crack single digits in home runs or stolen bases.

Through Jackie Robinson Day, he inexplicably leads the NL East with four bombs. That puts him on pace to match the cumulative total of his first 10 seasons!

He obviously won’t.

Infante is a singles hitter who bats out of place on the Miami Marlins. Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio and Hanley Ramirez are staples atop the lineup.

He’ll cool off soon and return to being an unexciting second base option.

At least he contributes a good batting average.

2012 Stats through April 15: .343 AVG, 4 HR, 6 RBI, 9 R, 1 BB, 1 K

SP Matt Garza (Chicago Cubs)

Overlooking his 2011 win-loss record and taking the Chicago Cubs brutal defense into account leads to the revelation that Matt Garza (left) is terrific.

Seriously. Put him in the same class as Matt Cain and Cole Hamels.

Unfortunately, his franchise began the rebuilding process this winter.

The lineup sans Carlos Pena and Aramis Ramirez will be pretty anemic. The bullpen has also thinned out with Jeff Samardzija in the starting rotation and Sean Marshall on the Cincinnati Reds.

Garza will be hard-pressed to exceed his 10 victories from last summer…unless every outing is like April 12.

Use him strictly for whiffs and WHIP.

He could ascend to fantasy ace status, though, if contract extension talks break down.

Then, the Cubs might trade Garza somewhere with a better surrounding cast. 

2012 Stats through April 15: 1-0, 1.23 ERA, 14.2 IP, 14 K, 0.75 WHIP

LF Josh Willingham (Minnesota Twins)

The Minnesota Twins threw a lot of guaranteed money at free-agent outfielder Josh Willingham this winter ($21M through 2014).

It’s looking like a wise investment.

The club is struggling, but Willingham is constantly reaching base and not striking out nearly as often as most general managers feared he would.

The first thing to drop will be that astronomical batting average (his name is Willingham, not Williams).

However, his power is legitimate. He could finally surpass 30 home runs after exceeding 25 twice before.

One walk for every two strikeouts is a given considering the non-threatening hitters who follow him in the lineup.

Overall, Willingham is poised for a strong year.

2012 Stats through April 15: .419 AVG, 4 HR, 7 RBI, 7 R, 1 SB, 4 BB, 6 K

SP Chad Billingsley (Los Angeles Dodgers)

Chad Billingsley barely qualifies for this list.

He tossed 200 innings, punched out 201 batters, won 16 times and kept his earned run average low in 2008.

It would have been an ”extraordinary” campaign had his WHIP been slightly better.

Now in his age-27 season, he appears to have developed the command necessary to co-lead the Los Angeles Dodgers pitching staff.

Granted, his first two 2012 opponents—the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Diego Padres—didn’t have reputable offenses.

But Billingsley threw nearly 68 percent of his pitches for strikes against them.

If he can stay in that neighborhood, his tremendous stuff will take care of the rest.

2012 Stats through April 15: 2-0, 0.63 ERA, 14.1 IP, 15 K, 0.63 WHIP

CF Austin Jackson (Detroit Tigers)

The Detroit Tigers pay many of their position players to focus on hitting. Austin Jackson among them.

Still pre-arbitration eligible and banking only half a million dollars in 2012, Jackson has earned the everyday center field job with his fielding prowess.

An embarrassing strikeout rate and low batting average estranged him to fantasy baseball owners in 2011.

Fresh off that sophomore slump, he has been incredible this April.

Swing-and-misses are part of his game. Getting on base at a .512 clip surely isn’t.

But even after a slight reggression to realistic numbers, Jackson will emerge as a stud.

2012 Stats through April 15: .412 AVG, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 10 R, 1 SB, 7 BB, 10 K

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