This article is part of our The Long Game series.
The midway point of the season is rapidly approaching. The league's new format for All-Star voting, in which the top 20 vote-getters are split between two debate stages on consecutive nights or whatever, is in full swing. Pennant races are becoming clearer. And in the fantasy realm, certainty (misplaced or otherwise) is creeping in on which players are good and which ones aren't. The big breakout names – your Lucas Giolitos and Ketel Martes – are open secrets. However, there's another group of players who may also be having breakout seasons that aren't so obvious, because they got a late start on it. A miserable start to 2019 created a statistical hole they've been trying to climb out of for the last month, and as a result a glance at their overall numbers tends to produce shrugs and glazed looks. If they keep doing over the final three-plus months what they've been doing over the last little while, though, they could be the kind of cheap midseason acquisitions who help bring home titles. And if they end up regressing... well, at least they were cheap.
From a keeper and dynasty perspective, these guys can be real assets. Everyone wants the latest hot young prospect, but a veteran with a low salary can be a key building block for future championships as well, whether by providing value on their own or via trade. The most important thing in a rebuilding year is to acquire profit potential wherever you can find it, and then use the offseason to sort out which players you actually want to rebuild around and which can be shopped.
Ozzie Albies, Atlanta : Due to his youth and recent prospect pedigree, Albies will be the most expensive player on this list to acquire, but he could pay off in a major way – provided your expectations are in line with his actual production. Despite the power display he put on in the first half last year, the 22-year-old has long been viewed as a possible asset in steals. He's certainly got the wheels for it, and Albies swiped at least 29 bases across all levels in three straight seasons on his way up the ladder in the Atlanta organization. He hasn't been running much this year, though (just five steals in seven attempts) which leaves his fantasy value dependent on his bat. On May 16, he sat with a weak .254/.307/.427 slash line. Since then, he's been raking at a .343/.418/.552 clip in 122 plate appearances with four homers and 19 RBI – that's more RBI than Christian Yelich and a better OPS than Kris Bryant over that stretch, and Albies has done it mainly from the bottom half of the order. He's also posted a strong 14:17 BB:K in 29 games. Atlanta's offense is stacked, so even hitting seventh will give him plenty of run-producing opportunities, but if he moves back up to the top more frequently it will only improve his outlook for the rest of the season. If you target Albies, target him for a plus batting average and good counting stats from a middle-infield spot. If he starts running too, it's just a bonus.
Jackie Bradley Jr., Red Sox : Including JBJ here is a bit of a cheat, because odds are he'll be his usual super-streaky self straight through to October, with some roster-crippling lows following his roster-carrying highs. He's on a high right now, though, which means he should be active everywhere. Over his last 111 plate appearances, Bradley's slashing .276/.360/.592 with seven homers and 17 RBI. In fact, he's got as many doubles and singles over that stretch (10 of each), and the seven homers account for his entire seasonal total. That hot stretch has pushed his slash line on the year all the way up to... .208/.304/.370, which tells you how bad things can get when he's slumping. Even if he stays locked in it'll be a while yet before Bradley's overall numbers look respectable, so there's still a buying opportunity here.
Garrett Cooper, Marlins : Cooper's basically only been healthy for a little over a month, so his seasonal numbers (.304/.380/.480 with six homers and 20 RBI in 35 games) are a close match for his performance during the period I looked at. I've still including him, though, because he was hurt, and as a Marlin with no real prospect pedigree he's an easy guy to dismiss. His numbers in the high minors have been excellent, though – .330/.392/.564 with 23 homers and 107 RBI in 122 Triple-A games – and Miami certainly has no one pushing him for playing time. Cooper's already 28 years old, so the future is now, but he's the kind of player who could easily turn in a few solid seasons before pumpkining, or more likely, getting traded back to the Yankees and becoming a premium bench player mid-2020 or so.
C.J. Cron, Twins : Cron really is the Rodney Dangerfield of MLB. No respect, I tell ya. He hit 30 home runs for the Rays last year and got designated for assignment for his troubles. This year, he's having the best season of his career, and nobody's noticing because so is seemingly every other Twin. One time he got lost at the airport before a road trip and asked a passing flight attendant if she could help him find the rest of the team. She said "I dunno, there's a lot of places they could be hiding." No respect. Cron's slashing .298/.353/.585 over his last 102 plate appearances with five homers and 21 RBI, and while the batting average might not be sustainable, the power numbers absolutely are with that lineup around him.
Brian Dozier, Nationals : Dozier looked D-O-N-E done a few weeks ago. He was hitting below .200* as late as May 16, but since then he's slashed .294/.351/.565 in 94 plate appearances with five homers and 17 RBI, and put to rest any talk of Carter Kieboom pushing him aside at the keystone in Washington, at least for now. If the Nats do pack it in for 2019, Dozier could be the first guy out the door, but there likely isn't a big market for 32-year-old second basemen with spotty recent track records, and there's still time for the team to get back in the NL East race anyway. It's almost a Catch-22 – the longer he stays locked in, the more likely he is to be dealt if the team falls out of the playoff picture, but also the more likely they are to stay in the playoff picture. Predicting what the Nats do between now and the trade deadline is one of the toughest calls in baseball right now.
JaCoby Jones, Tigers : It might seem like Jones has been around long enough that he's an established commodity, and he is 27 years old, but he's also only had one full MLB season under his belt, so the potential for untapped upside is there. His recent tear – .322/.385/.586 over his last 97 plate appearances – puts his power/speed profile in a whole new light, even if it does come with big warning flags (.434 BABIP, 29.9 percent K rate). If you elect to pick him up, be ready for a batting average crash, but he could give you 15 homers and, more importantly, double-digit steals over the rest of the season even if he hits .230. Daz Cameron is also flailing badly at Triple-A Toledo (.098/.203/.196 in June), so Jones has plenty of job security in center field.
Kevin Kiermaier, Rays : Health, not talent, has always been the thing standing between Kiermaier and true stardom. Even when banged up, he's been good for outstanding defense, but this year the bat has been matching the glove. He's slashing .296/.330/.541 over his last 104 plate appearances with six homers, 19 RBI and seven steals, and he has yet to miss consecutive games this season. If he can stay in one piece, the 29-year-old is entirely capable of putting together a long-awaited breakout campaign.
Lance Lynn, Rangers : Most of the pitchers on streaks right now are getting plenty of headlines – Giolito, Hyun-Jin Ryu, etc. Lynn, however, seems to be slipping under the radar, in large part due to some bad luck, and that makes him the one pitcher who made the cut for this list. The right-hander ranks fourth in the majors in K-BB% since May 16, behind only Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Shane Bieber. He's also fifth in ERA minus FIP over that stretch (a gap of 1.41 – the only pitcher with a base ERA under 4.00 during that period whose FIP still lags by more than a run), and his 2.77 xFIP and 2.80 SIERA during that month are miles better than his 4.16 ERA on the year. Slow starts to seasons are nothing new for Lynn, and while pitching in Arlington over the summer carries some risk for a guy who's had trouble keeping the ball in the yard in the past, the fact of the matter is he's pitching like an ace at the moment, even if he isn't quite getting ace-like results. A combination of career-high fastball velocity (93.7 mph) and career-high slider usage (17.3 percent) seems to be fueling his run, so there's reason for optimism that he can keep up the strikeout rate at the very least. A 32-year-old with a journeyman label on his forehead shouldn't be too expensive to acquire, but Lynn could pay major dividends.
* - Mario Mendoza had a career batting average of .215, so I refuse to call .200 "the Mendoza Line".