Steals and saves. Saves and steals.
Very different categories, very different types of players who accrue them, yet both are very similar. How? These are the only two categories in a 5-by-5 league that can act as "lone" categories, in that players who record them might help owners in only that category.
If a batter gets a hit, he helps his average, can drive in runs and gets into position to score runs. When a pitcher has, say, a 15-win season, he usually has solid ERA, WHIP and strikeout numbers (although exceptions exist). But a saves horse or big-time base stealer can sometimes be only that. Shawn Chacon once saved 35 games while posting a 7.11 ERA. In 2000, Luis Castillo stole 62 bases yet knocked in all of 17 runs. In 1996, Delino DeShields stole 48 bases despite hitting just .224. And just last season, Juan Pierre racked up 40 steals but managed to score only 44 runs.
You get the point. One-category wonders push fantasy owners to scour the waiver wire for guys who might get saves or guys who don't play everyday but can steal bases. They have us making trades that seem ridiculous on the surface just to help those categories. And finally, they cause fantasy writers to overuse the phrases "saves are saves" and "steals are steals."
I'm not here today to help you with the sleeper saves candidates; Eric Karabell and his Relief Efforts column fill that role nicely. But as the Hit Parade writer, I can help you with the steals. I'll provide a list of names for you to research, and you can make the necessary pickups or trades to get them.
It's no secret, of course, that players who can steal bases and contribute mightily in the other areas (i.e., 20-20 players) are fantasy commodities. They get picked early in drafts, go for high prices in auctions, etc. If you can acquire a guy like that at a reasonable value in a trade, go for it. But sometimes, if you want to stay competitive in the steals category, you have to seek the one-category guys. That's what many of the players below are. You gotta do what you gotta do because, well, "steals are steals."
With that, I offer you this year's sleeper steals options. I expect the players below to steal 10 or more bases. Anybody with fewer than that shouldn't be considered a legit base stealer, and it might even be counterproductive to have him on your roster(s) if that's the only reason you have him.
For mixed leagues: Players with less than 50 percent ownership in ESPN.com standard leagues
Nyjer Morgan, OF, Pirates (43.7 percent ownership)
Eric Byrnes, OF, Diamondbacks (40.5)
Elijah Dukes, OF, Nationals (39.2)
Jordan Schafer, OF, Braves (30.8)
Endy Chavez, OF, Mariners (29.6)
Denard Span, OF, Twins (25.9)
Akinori Iwamura, 2B, Rays (20.1)
Kazuo Matsui, 2B, Astros (16.6)
Fred Lewis, OF, Giants (14.2)
Brett Gardner, OF, Yankees (13.1)
Dexter Fowler, OF, Rockies (8.7)
Michael Bourn, OF, Astros (8.2)
Luis Castillo, 2B, Mets (7.5)
Mark Ellis, 2B, A's (6.0)
Juan Pierre, OF, Dodgers (3.9)
Clint Barmes, 2B/SS, Rockies (3.8)
Julio Lugo (currently injured), SS, Red Sox (1.9)
AL-only (or deep-mixed) leagues: Players with less than 3 percent ownership in ESPN.com standard leagues
Chris Getz, 2B, White Sox (2.8)
Franklin Gutierrez, OF, Mariners (2.6)
Alexi Casilla, 2B, Twins (2.1)
Erick Aybar, SS, Angels (2.1)
Josh Anderson, OF, Tigers (1.9)
Julio Lugo (again, just in case), SS, Red Sox (1.9)
Ryan Sweeney, OF, A's (1.7)
Cesar Izturis, SS, Orioles (1.6)
Nick Punto, 2B/SS, Twins (1.5)
Dewayne Wise (currently injured), OF, White Sox (1.4)
Felix Pie, OF, Orioles (1.0)
Maicer Izturis, 2B/SS, Angels (0.9)
Ryan Freel (currently injured), OF, Orioles (0.6)
Brian Anderson, OF, White Sox (0.4)
Willie Bloomquist, OF, Royals (0.4)
Rajai Davis, OF, A's (0.3)
Brent Lillibridge, SS/2B, White Sox (0.3)
NL-only (or deep mixed) leagues: Players with less than 3 percent ownership in ESPN.com standard leagues
Chris Dickerson, OF, Reds (2.7)
Emmanuel Burriss, 2B/SS, Giants (2.6)
Colby Rasmus, OF, Cardinals (2.5)
Jerry Hairston Jr., SS/OF, Reds (1.7)
Andrew McCutchen (currently in the minors), OF, Pirates (0.6)
Joey Gathright, OF, Cubs (0.5)
Eugenio Velez, 2B, Giants (0.3)
Brendan Ryan, 2B/SS, Cardinals (0.3)
But I was talking with Jayson Stark in Florida just before Opening Day 2008, and when the subject of Sanchez came up, he shook his head. "It just doesn't seem like Sanchez has bought into the program [that he's ready to play]," Stark said. "I just don't think he's himself right now."
I think Jayson was right. Sanchez fell into a deep slump early and hit .213 in March and April and .227 in the first three months of the season. Then he came around -- perhaps his knee was doing better? -- and hit .335 in August and September. He's back to hitting .300 again in '09. Coincidence? I think not. This is the real Freddy Sanchez, not the April 2008 version.
Aaron Hill, 2B, Blue Jays: I'm as guilty as anyone for missing on this guy. I mean, the red flags were there; he had a .263 average with little pop in 2008, and he was shut down by a head injury. But like many of you, I took his 2008 performance into play too much and not enough of his 2007 showing (.291-17-78). You see, Hill has been around a while, but he just turned 27 years old. Recent studies have shown that most star big leaguers have their true breakouts in the seasons when they are 25 to 27 years old, and Hill was just arriving at his before a wash of a 2008 season. Now he's picking up where he left off, and it should culminate in about a .300-23-87 season.
Brandon Phillips, 2B, Reds: It's still too early to panic about Phillips, and you can't do much with him right now anyway. But I must admit I'm getting concerned about Phillips. He has only 46 at-bats this season, but if you go back to Aug. 1 of last season, he has batted .187 in 198 at-bats. I don't expect a high average from him anyway, but something tells me this is more than just a slow start. He was dropped to sixth in the lineup Wednesday and has just one homer and one steal.
Vladimir Guerrero, OF, Angels: I'll leave the injury analysis to Stephania Bell, but I have my own ways of determining the severity of injuries. And one of them is simple manager comments. In my reading, I've found Angels manager Mike Scioscia to fall on the optimistic yet semihonest side when discussing injuries. In other words, he's well-informed and usually gives the best scenario. So I do not like what I'm hearing from Scioscia regarding Vlad. "Right now he's at risk even swinging the bat," Scioscia told the Los Angeles Times. "This is a significant injury he has."
This doesn't sound good, and even though this isn't a leg injury, I'm telling you, I've been calling for an injury from him for the past few years. He's not in the best shape and reportedly has one leg longer than the other, and those years of playing on the turf in Montreal have done him no favors. I look back at the Expos teams, some of which had winning records in the years Vlad played, and among players such as Jose Vidro, Brad Wilkerson, Brian Schneider (to an extent), Michael Barrett and Rondell White, a few of them fell apart awful quickly after leaving there.
Carl Crawford, OF, Rays: Just had to throw him in. Pop quiz: How old is Crawford? Tick, tick, ding! He's 27. He seems older, but that's it. He's not showing a decline or "breaking down," or anything like that. It's just a slow start is all.
Pickups of the week
Mixed: Julio Lugo, SS, Red Sox. In case you didn't get the hint(s) above.
No better time for a stolen-base stat. Bobby Abreu has been more like vintage Juan Pierre this season. He's tied for the league lead in steals with seven, and he's hitting .370, but somehow he has managed to score only eight times and drive in six runs, with no homers. Don't expect that to continue, though.
Mike Napoli, C, Angels: For those of you who thought his value would increase following Vladimir Guerrero's injury, I'll note that Napoli hasn't started a game at DH this season.
Pablo Sandoval, C, Giants: Got in his first start at catcher Wednesday and easily held his own. No wild pitches, no passed balls, only one steal allowed and no runs scored by the opposing team. (And Barry Zito was the pitcher!) Look for him to average at least a start per week back there for the foreseeable future.
On the docket
Oh no, my Rockies hitters (Garrett Atkins, Chris Iannetta, Ryan Spilborghs, Troy Tulowitzki, etc.) have struggled! Woe is me! No worries. They've played just three of their first 14 games at home. Beginning Friday, they'll play 14 of 19 games at Coors Field. Look for at least a few of those guys to show signs of life at the hitters' palace.
Emmanuel Burriss, No. 2, Giants: Burriss isn't hitting well, but he is intriguing in that No. 2 hole. He quietly posted a .357 OBP hitting mostly seventh or eighth last season, and if he can get on base at a clip like that in the 2-hole, he'll be quite a prize given his speed. Good buy-low option.
On the farm
Adam Rosales, IF, Reds: The Reds took a little heat for not considering him for a bench spot coming out of his fine spring, but he just wasn't versatile enough for that. Rosales, 25, is not really considered a top prospect, but he has proven he can hit for extra bases at the top levels, and he's already off to a .409-average, four-homer start at Triple-A. More importantly, he has played all four infield positions. I expect him to get a cup of coffee at some point this season, and I could see him showing immediate power.
Will Venable, OF, Padres: I've been a fan of his .290 average and gap power for a while now, and although he is striking out too much in Triple-A, he's also hitting .327. He'll likely be the next man called up should something happen to a current Padres outfielder.
Feel free to make them a variable, but be sure not to factor in ballparks too much when setting your lineups this early in the season. In April, the winds, weather and density of the air can be very different than the other baseball months, which tend to be closer to the norm. And I'm not talking about just cold-weather cities such as Chicago. Dodger Stadium was actually a hitters' paradise in April 2008, as teams hit .273 and averaged a combined nine runs per game. In the other five months, teams hit .247 and averaged 7.3 runs per game. And sure enough, Dodger Stadium already ranks third in Park Factor and seventh in runs per game. Plus, as much as we have preconceived notions about ballpark factors, they change from season to season. Let April pass before settling your mind on which parks are favorable and unfavorable.
Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN Fantasy.