There's no debating it; the stolen base is back. After a five-year dry spell, the lack of swipes around the league became a common topic for fantasy statheads looking to gain an edge on the competition. Heck, we placed premiums on pure speedsters like Juan Pierre, Chone Figgins and even (cough) Scott Podsednik in an effort to secure the ever-so-scarce category.
Last year, however, was a different story. Led by Jose Reyes and his 78 thefts, the league as a whole was off and running, stealing a total of 2,918 bases on the season. Comparatively speaking, that was the most in a single season since the league stole 3,103 back in 2001. Now, don't get me wrong, stolen bases are still a scare commodity in fantasy leagues. The adjoining chart, which details the average number of stolen bases and home runs per team, illustrates this fact.
Clearly there is still a great divide between home runs and stolen bases. But even so, steals are making a comeback and it's not exactly tough to explain why. Take a look at the table below:
As you can see, baserunners are becoming increasingly successful at their craft. So successful, in fact, that even Billy Beane and the "Moneyball" pundits would (or should) agree that stealing a base is now worth risking an out. We're well past the 70 percent threshold where, according to the "Moneyball" faithful, the benefits of a stolen base start to outweigh the risk of being thrown out. Of course, there is some debate as to whether we should praise the runners or condemn the pitchers and catchers. It seems to be a mixture of both, but there's no denying that most of the blame can be placed on the pitchers and catchers. I mean, there's a reason why not many could take a base against Joe Mauer and the Twins or Yadier Molina and the Cardinals but anyone with even a hint of speed could steal off the San Diego Padres. I like to call it the Mike Piazza effect, where organizations have forgotten the importance of a top-notch defensive catcher, mostly because of the new crop of offensively -gifted backstops. The pitchers are equally as bad, as their ability to hold runners has steadily deteriorated, probably due to the lack of stolen base attempts in the past five years. I have to believe that at some point, organizations will make an adjustment to combat the growing number of speedsters, but the change will likely be gradual, and shouldn't occur this season.
In any case, the fact remains -- and I've gone back through history to prove it -- that baserunners are enjoying record-high success on the base paths. And it's not even close. We call it an unofficial record, but at no time in the history of the game have runners even come close to stealing bases at a 74.4 percent success rate. So the question remains: How will this alarming trend affect the fantasy world in 2008?
Green is gold
Here's the thing. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who's getting the green light is going to be a monster in the stolen base category this year. Just look at Eric Byrnes and Shane Victorino in 2007. Before the season, if I had told you that both were potential 35-plus stolen base guys, you would've laughed in my face. Well, my friends, Byrnes finished with a whopping 50 swipes while Victorino posted an equally impressive 37. Incredible. Their respective green lights, along with the increase in success rates, combined to give us two players who completely destroyed their pre-draft expectations. We're still quite a way from Opening Day, but be ready to give a serious upgrade to any speedster who's looking like he's getting the go-ahead from his manager.
Place a premium on power/speed
If you read Matthew Berry's Draft Day Manifesto, you'll notice that he's taking a different approach to stolen bases this year. Instead of going after an elite (not to mention expensive) speedster like Jose Reyes or Carl Crawford, he's going to try to stack his lineup with power/speed combination players and go into the season with a more balanced lineup. I like that approach, always have, but I won't be completely avoiding the elites if the value is right. Heck, if I can get Reyes after the fifth pick, or Crawford in the second round, I'm doing it. Without hesitation.
Still, the increasing population of players who can provide both power and speed (see table) creates a major shift in the fantasy landscape. No longer do we need to rely solely on those speed-only types to fill our need for stolen bases. Now we can to do it with a more balanced roster. You may not need to sacrifice much in the power department in order to secure a lead in stolen bases.
Now, that doesn't mean that we completely devalue the "speed-only" types, but it does mean that we shouldn't give them the same respect we've been giving them the previous five seasons. I still like Reyes and Crawford, Reyes because he's completely dominant in steals and Crawford because he'll add RBIs to the equation. Players like Chone Figgins and Juan Pierre, however, should be downgraded ever so slightly.
Many of you already know the power/speed threats out there, but let's take a really quick look at some of the obvious names before we get into some sleepers later: Hanley Ramirez, Jimmy Rollins, David Wright, Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips, Chris Young, B.J. Upton, Curtis Granderson, Eric Byrnes, Alfonso Soriano, Rickie Weeks, Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, Corey Hart, Ian Kinsler, Torii Hunter, Nick Markakis, Alex Rios, Randy Winn, Ryan Braun, Delmon Young, Matt Kemp and Hunter Pence.
When I look for speedy sleepers I'm looking for two types of players: those gaining an opportunity for increased at-bats in 2008, and those who drastically underachieved in 2007. Of course, when looking for stolen bases, we'll keep a particular eye on youngsters, because speed is still a young man's game, no matter which way you slice it. And just so we're clear, I can't call anyone who stole 25-plus bases last year a sleeper. Face it, the secret is out. So while players like Ryan Theriot, Jerry Owens and Reggie Willits may be sleeper-worthy, they won't be found on this list.
Michael Bourn, OF, Astros: Stole 18 of 19 bases in 2007 despite seeing just 119 at-bats for the Phillies. Now a potential full-time starter in Houston, Bourn has 40-plus stolen base potential. This is, after all, a guy who stole 163 bases in four minor league seasons. That's 40 swipes a year, and he did it at an 85 percent success rate.
Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, Red Sox: He's been tabbed a sleeper by so many that he's no longer a sleeper, but I think he lives up to expectations this season.
Torii Hunter, OF, Angels: Although he's listed above as a known power/speed threat, Hunter could have his best stolen base season yet. Barring an injury, he is a near lock for a 20/20 season with his new squad. The Twins were a running team, but Mike Scioscia is perhaps the most run-friendly manager in the league and that should add at least five swipes to his résumé in 2008.
Carlos Gomez, OF, Twins: A well-known prospect due to his inclusion in the Johan Santana deal, Gomez should get a chance to start for Ron Gardenhire's Twins. Gardenhire likes to run, and Gomez may be the fastest player in the majors. Not a bad combination if he can win a starting job in spring training.
Alexi Casilla, 2B, Twins: Like Gomez, Casilla will have to earn a starting gig in spring training, but if he wins the job he could offer serious speed potential for those in AL-only formats. Casilla struggled last season, hitting just .222 in 189 at-bats, but was still able to steal 11 bases in 12 attempts. Just imagine what he could do if he could get on base with any sort of consistency.
Alex Gordon, 3B, Royals: After last year's debacle, he'll be undervalued this season for sure, and this is a classic case of the year-after-the-hype breakout player. A 20/20 season or better is not out of the question if you can stomach the batting average.
Franklin Gutierrez, OF, Indians: He may struggle against right-handers, but he dominates lefties like it's his job and smacked nine home runs with six steals after the All-Star break last season. Not a bad guy to have at the end of your bench, considering his power/speed potential.
Rajai Davis, OF, Giants: The Giants' outfield isn't the most durable unit in the world, and Davis proved last year that he has the ability to put up some huge steal numbers if given the opportunity. When (not if) one of the starters goes down, Davis will be one of the league's top speedsters.
Erick Aybar, 2B/SS, Angels: When in doubt, go with an Angel. Seriously. Maicer Izturis presents a minor problem, but Aybar could be the starting shortstop halfway through the season. Aybar has racked up an average of 35 stolen bases per season in the minors and will have no problem swiping bags for Scioscia if he gets the opportunity.
Jason Bartlett, SS, Rays: Two words. Joe Maddon.
Colby Rasmus, OF, Cardinals: Like our own Jason Grey, I'm a believer in young Colby. He'll shoot up the cheat sheets if he wins a starting gig in spring training, but he could be the next big thing in terms of power/speed threats.
Russell Martin, C, Dodgers: Don't get me wrong, Martin is going to be a fine option this season, I'm just not putting too much stock into his 21 stolen bases last year. For his career, he's a below-average thief with a 69 percent success rate, and let's not discount the fact that he's a catcher. Remember, Martin slowed considerably in the second half last season (5-of-11 in stolen base attempts) and the Dodgers may want to save the young man's knees for future seasons. I'm not expecting any more than 15 swipes, which is still solid for a catcher but is a far cry from last year's output.
Eric Byrnes, OF, Diamondbacks: It's not his speed I'm worried about, nor is it his power. After smacking 21 dingers and swiping 50 bags in 2007, Byrnes is obviously a great power/speed option in fantasy leagues. I like to follow the "never pay for a career year" philosophy, especially when that career year also happens to be a contract year. Will Byrnes be able to repeat his 2007 performance? Most likely not, especially considering that his on-base percentage (.353) will likely drop down to his career norm at .329, thus limiting his stolen base attempts this season.
Kazuo Matsui, 2B, Astros: I'm sure Matsui is on plenty of "bust" lists heading into the season, but I'm also sure that a lot of folks will take a look at his 32 steals last year and pick him up as a flier at the end of the draft. Aside from the injury concerns, Matsui hit just .249 with a .304 on-base percentage on the road last season. The shift away from Coors field will affect both his overall numbers and his stolen base output.
Gary Sheffield, DH, Tigers: This is just a friendly reminder that Sheffield is 39 years of age. Remember that before you go projecting anything more than 10-15 swipes for the power/speed threat.
Dave Roberts, OF, Giants: Sure, he's a cheap speed option, but his age and injury concerns are two factors that don't mesh well for a player who is valuable only for his speed in fantasy leagues. There are plenty of other cheap speed options to consider late in your draft, particularly Roberts' main competition, Rajai Davis.
Ryan Freel, OF, Reds: Much like Roberts, Freel used to be a great cheap speed option at the end of fantasy drafts. But now on the wrong side of 30, with plenty of injury concerns and a young stud prospect on the way (Jay Bruce), Freel won't be making my fantasy squads this season. Sure, he still has 30-plus steal potential, but I'd much rather gamble on a younger guy like Carlos Gomez or even Lastings Milledge at the end of my drafts.
Brian McKitish is a fantasy baseball and basketball analyst for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Littlemac@TalentedMrRoto.com.