Wednesday, February 11, 2004
FLB By the Numbers: Sleeper picks
By Greg Ambrosius
The countdown has begun. In less than two months, the Major League Baseball season will be underway and all of your fantasy baseball drafts will be complete. Do you plan on waiting until the last minute to begin preparing for your fantasy baseball exams or are you ready for the big day right now?
Hopefully, you've already begun preparing for those all-important drafts. By now you should have every player ranked at every position, dollar values assigned to each player and a list of targeted players to get etched into your brain. If not, get going on all of that and then use spring training to add and delete to your lists.
I'll get you started today with a list of sleeper picks to watch for during spring training. These guys may be sleepers today, but with strong springs they could become household names. Here's why I think you should target these 20 Sleeper Picks on Draft Day:
Adam LaRoche, 1B, Atlanta: LaRoche is tentatively scheduled to platoon with Julio Franco at first base, unless the Braves grab a free agent during the next few weeks. This promising young hitter impressed the organization last year by hitting .295-8-35 in 72 games at Triple-A, posting a nice .360 on-base percentage. He has hit no worse than .278 during his trips from Class A to Triple-A the past two seasons and he was the best American hitter in the Winter Leagues this year, hitting .333 in 28 games with Mayaguez of the Puerto Rican League. The son of former major league pitcher Dave LaRoche also produced six doubles, seven home runs, 20 RBIs and 19 walks for Mayaguez. He's a great defensive first baseman and he has the potential to be one of the best sleeper picks of 2004.
Jerry Hairston Jr., 2B, Baltimore: Hairston missed most of last season with a broken foot and now must battle Brian Roberts for playing time. Before the injury, however, he was hitting .287 with all 14 of his SBs coming before May 20. He returned in September, but hit only .230-0-5 in 61 ABs. Although he needs to win the starting job first, I like Hairston's potential as a top basestealer who showed what he can do when healthy during the first seven weeks of 2003. At a weak position, Hairston could provide good value.
Aaron Miles, 2B, Colorado: Acquired in an off-season trade from the White Sox, Miles is projected to be the Rockies' starting second baseman heading into spring training, although he'll get stiff competition from Damian Jackson. Miles was impressive at Triple-A last year, hitting .304-11-50 in 133 games, while earning MVP honors in the International League. He then hit .333 in eight September games with the White Sox. The Rockies like his hard-nosed approach to the game and playing half his games at Coors Field certainly makes him a worthy pickup and a possible sleeper pick.
Mark DeRosa, 2B/SS/3B, Atlanta: DeRosa lost the starting second base job to Marcus Giles last year and filled the utility role in 2003, qualifying at SS, 2B and 3B. He hit .263-6-22 in 103 games, but with Vinny Castilla leaving for Colorado, DeRosa is now the projected starting third baseman in Atlanta and he's capable of double-digit homers with a high average. He's worth a pickup just for his versatility, but the starting job means this sleeper could awake in 2004.
Pedro Feliz, 3B/OF, San Francisco: It's time for the Giants to find a home for this guy and get him 400+ at-bats. Last year in a reserve role, he hit .247-16-48-2 in just 235 ABs. He then went to the Dominican League this winter, where he hit .355, good for second in the league, and was among the league leaders in hits. He should play plenty at first base and could even emerge in a platoon role at third base.
Bobby Kielty, OF, Oakland: Kielty moved to Oakland in an off-season trade with Toronto and is slated to start in left field. Although he hit just .244 between Minnesota and Toronto, GM Billy Beane loves his plate discipline and his .370 on-base percentage. He hit just .216 last year against right-handers, but the A's will stick with this budding prospect and give him 500+ at-bats. Just 27, Kielty is primed for a bustout season.
Jeromy Burnitz, OF, Colorado: This is an easy one: A flyball hitter moves to Colorado to play 81 games at a hitter's park. Burnitz hit just .239 last year, but he still came through with 31 homers and 77 RBIs between Shea Stadium and Dodger Stadium. Can he hit 40 with the Rockies? It's possible.
Jon Lieber, SP, Yankees: The Yankees took the gamble last year when they signed Lieber to a two-year, $3.5 million deal even though he was coming off elbow surgery. They felt he would be ready to join their rotation in 2004 and now their gamble is paying off. Lieber should be the No. 4 or 5 starter this year and is capable of 10 wins with a sub-4.00 ERA. He's far removed from 2001's 20-6, 3.80 season with the Cubs, but the talent and opportunity are there for Lieber to become a solid sleeper pick.
Eric Milton, SP, Philadelphia: Milton missed the first five months of last season after undergoing major knee surgery, but he made three starts for Minnesota in September, going 1-0 with a 2.65 ERA. The Twins traded him to Philadelphia in December, where he will be the No. 4 starter in the rotation. Just 28, Milton has the potential to post double-digit wins with a sub-4.00 ERA as his arm is sound, making him a solid sleeper pick in 2004.
Shingo Takatsu, RP, White Sox: Takatsu spent the past 14 seasons with the Yakult Swallows, but the White Sox signed him in January to compete with Billy Koch and Damaso Marte for the closer's job. Takatsu throws sidearm and relies heavily on a sinker, but he led the Japanese Central League with 34 saves last season and has 260 saves in his career, passing Kazuhiro Sasaki's record last season. He has saved 30 games in a season four times and he said he signed a $1 million deal with Chicago because he was promised a chance to close. If you draft early, grab this guy now before the rest of your league discovers Chicago's new closer.
Ryan Wagner, RP, Cincinnati: Cincinnati's top pick in 2003 did a nice job for the Reds last year after being called up in July. But his workload was curtailed late in the year due to a heavy amount of innings pitched at the University of Houston, briefly in the minors and then for the Reds. His future is bright and he could vault past Danny Graves into the closer's role sometime in 2004. Opposing batters hit a mere .173 against him last year and just .143 with runners in scoring position, which shows you how tough he can be. Don't let this guy get past you on Draft Day.
Joe Nathan, RP, Minnesota: He's not a complete sleeper now because most people realize that he's first in line for the closer's job in Minnesota. But he still falls after the Top 200 in most early season drafts, which is way too late for a guy who has the makings of Eric Gagne of 2002 when he was converted from a starter to a closer. Nathan held opponents to a .186 average last year with the Giants as right-handers hit just .136 off him. That's nasty and he will be listed among the elite closers by season's end.
Cliff Lee, SP, Cleveland: Lee is Cleveland's best prospect who could be the team's ace this year. He moved up the organizational ladder last year, going from Class A Kinston (0-0, 0.00) to Double-A Akron (1-0, 1.50 in two starts) to Triple-A Buffalo (6-1, 3.27 in 11 starts). He earned nine starts in Cleveland despite pitching with a hernia that required off-season surgery, going 3-3 with a 3.61 ERA. He struck out 44 in 52.1 IP and held opponents to a .220 average, including .197 for right-handed batters. He has the stuff to be a great one, so get him while you can.
Jeremy Affeldt, SP, Kansas City: Manager Tony Pena insists that Affeldt will develop into one of the best starters in the AL and will open this season in the rotation, but he finished last season as the Royals' part-time closer, picking up four saves over the last five weeks of the season. In 18 relief appearances, he was 1-1 with a 2.56 ERA, four saves and 35 Ks in 31 IP. In 18 starts, he was 6-5 with a 4.39 ERA and 63 Ks in 94.1 IP. Opponents hit just .186 off him as a reliever and .285 off him as a starter. If he can solve the blisters problem, he will be tough and emerge as one of the AL's top starters.
Kurt Ainsworth, SP, Baltimore: Ainsworth suffered a fractured shoulder blade with the Giants in early June after going 5-4 with a 4.19 ERA and was traded to the Orioles in July with Damian Moss for Sidney Ponson. He came off the DL to pitch in three games for the Orioles, giving up three earned runs in 2.1 IP. But this big right-hander has great potential and he will be fully healthy by spring training and a potential sleeper pick on Draft Day.
Victor Martinez, C, Cleveland: Okay, so maybe he's already well-known for a sleeper pick. But I believe he will emerge big-time this year and provide great upside on Draft Day. Martinez, who won minor-league batting titles and MVP awards in 2001 and 2002, started last season at Triple-A Buffalo and hit .328-7-45 in 73 games before earning a promotion to Cleveland. He hit just .205 during his first 76 at-bats, but then hit .349-1-8 after Aug. 1. He missed three weeks of action in August with a high ankle sprain, but he showed what he can do at the major-league level and will continue that improvement in 2004.
Freddy Sanchez, 3B, Pittsburgh: Sanchez, Boston's former top prospect, will compete with Bobby Hill for the starting second base job this year in Pittsburgh. He hit .341-5-25 in 58 games at Pawtucket last year, before hitting .235-0-2 in 20 games with Boston. He only qualifies at third base to start the year, but don't be surprised if he gets 400+ at-bats as Pittsburgh's starting second baseman and blossoms into a solid sleeper pick.
Brandon Larson, 3B, Cincinnati: The Reds haven't given up on Larson just yet, even though he's failed to impress during each of the last three years at the big league level. He did it again last year, tearing up the International League as he hit .323-20-74 in just 72 games at Louisville. But then he hit a mere .101-1-9 in 32 games with the Reds. He will compete for the starting third base job if Cincinnati doesn't find anyone else via free agency, giving him his fourth and final chance to succeed at the big league level. I'm not sure he will, but he's worth keeping an eye on this spring nonetheless.
Ben Grieve, DH, Milwaukee: Grieve missed most of last season due to a blood clot in his arm, hitting just .230-4-17 in the 55 games he played with Tampa Bay. He hit just .208 against left-handers and just .149 with runners in scoring position. But he will likely start in RF for the Brewers and could be a good late-round pickup if he can somehow get his career back on track. Remember, he's still just 27 and his on-base percentage last year was .371, so it's not like he doesn't know what he's doing at the plate.
Brian Jordan, OF, Texas: The Dodgers cut ties with Jordan in October, but the Rangers signed the veteran to a one-year, $1.5 million deal in December and will start him in LF. He had season-ending knee surgery in July, but claims that he is fully healthy now and ready to produce for the Rangers. When healthy, he was solid for the Dodgers last year, hitting .299-6-28 in 66 games. He also tore apart LHPs (.397 compared to .259 vs. RHPs) and hit .292 with runners in scoring position. In this hitter's park, he could have a solid season hitting behind A-Rod.
(Greg Ambrosius is the editor of Fantasy Sports Magazine, whose first baseball magazine is currently on national newsstands. He's also the founder of the National Fantasy Baseball Championship, www.fantasybaseballchampionship.com, an MLBPA licensed contest with a $100,000 grand prize.)