To win a fantasy baseball league, you need to pick out the best sleepers that can provide value in fantasy baseball drafts or fantasy baseball auctions. Which sleepers for stolen bases should be highlighted on your fantasy baseball cheat sheets this year?
Though Lillibridge was once a touted prospect, his poor on-base skills have caught up with him. His 23 strikeouts this spring are the most among all batters - a big reason infielder Chris Getz beat him out for the starting gig at second base. Over his last three minor league seasons, Lillibridge's walk rate has been declining, and his strikeout rate is alarming for someone with such little power. His average of 39 steals per year since 2005 is very attractive but of little value until he brings more to the plate. Lillibridge is set to start the season as a utility player - ignore him on draft day but remember his name if Getz falters.
Velez is a versatile, switch-hitting speedster competing for a utility job with outfielder Andres Torres. Last season, Velez received 275 big league at-bats and hit .262 with stolen 15 bases - although he was gunned down six times. At the plate, Velez walked only 4.8 percent of the time. Improvements at the dish could push Velez back into the debate the second base later in the season, but playing time will be an issue. Velez is worthy of a late-round flier in NL-only leagues.
Even with the release of outfielder Wily Mo Pena, the Nationals outfield is still jam-packed, clouding the immediate future for Maxwell, a top Washington prospect. At the plate, Maxwell has been able to draw walks and display moderate power (one homer for every 23.4 at-bats in the minors). In three minor league seasons, Maxwell has averaged 23 stolen bases per year. Last season he was cut short due to a broken wrist, but in 2007 Maxwell was the only minor league player to hit a combined 25 doubles and 25 home runs while swiping 25 bags. Until there is a shakeup in the Nats outfield, Maxwell can be passed on.
Casilla begins 2009 as the starter at second base due to his defensive play and his .281 average last season. As long as his batting average doesn't dip too low, the 24-year-old should get 400 or more at-bats, but the Twins have several backup infield options if he falters. Still, from 2005 to 2007, Casilla averaged 44.7 stolen bases per year, so his seven-stolen base output from last season looks like an aberration. The Dominican has gone 18 of 21 (85.7 percent) in stolen base attempts during his big-league career.
Burriss is competing with fellow youngsters Kevin Frandsen and Eugenio Velez for the Giants' second base position. In 274 at-bats with San Francisco last season, Burriss stole 13 bases in 18 attempts (72.2 percent). The Kent State alumnus is capable of 25 steals if he can muster 400 or so at-bats this year. The 24-year-old doesn't hit for power, but he posted a 0.96 batting eye ratio with the Giants in '08, which may help him see more playing time. Burriss is an ideal candidate for a reserve infield spot in deep mixed and NL-only formats.
The Nationals' starting second base job is for Hernandez to lose. He's a plus defender but carries a very light stick. For someone who doesn't hit for power, Hernandez strikes out a ton and appears unlikely to hit for average - a .261 clip over four Triple-A seasons. On the basepaths there, Hernandez averaged 16.5 stolen bases a year. The surrounding cast in DC may limit his upside, but the scrappy switch-hitter has a chance to put together respectable speed numbers if he starts to show his ability. Hernandez is worth a late-round flier for owners who require depth at middle infield.
Andrus is the front-runner to win the shortstop job. There is quite of bit of debate on whether the 20-year-old is ready to handle an everyday big league role, and the Rangers also brought in veteran Omar Vizquel as insurance. Last season with Double-A Frisco, Andrus had 53 stolen bases in 69 tries (76.8 percent). If he sticks the entire season, the Venezuelan is capable of making a significant late-round impact in the stolen base department. Remember that you probably won't see much offensive help elsewhere from him.
Lugo is healthy after an injury-plagued 2008 and will compete with youngster Jed Lowrie for the starting shortstop spot. The 33-year-old is owed $18 million over two more years so he'll receive every opportunity to stick around. In 307 at-bats in 2008, Lugo swiped 12 bases, 21 fewer steals than 2007. They may also play him to jack up his trade value. A 20-stolen base season is not out of the question; that's still the strong part of his fantasy game.
Bonifacio will have a tough time cracking a Marlins middle infield that features All-Stars Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla, but he has a slim shot at the third-base spot. If Bonifacio doesn't crack the club, he will likely begin 2009 in Triple-A. From 2004 to '07, the Dominican never stole fewer than 40 bases during a minor league season. Last season Bonifacio hit a wall as he was successful on just 21 of 31 attempts in the minors (67.7 percent) and six of 10 at the major league level. Best case scenario: Bonifacio makes an impact as a superutility player and steals 15 to 20 bases. Target him during the late rounds of NL-only leagues.
Though blocked at the MLB level by shortstop J.J. Hardy and second baseman Rickie Weeks, Escobar warrants mentioning. He swiped 34 bags in '08 as part of the loaded Double-A Huntsville squad, and the 22-year-old's glove trumps those of the current Brewers middies. Despite offensive improvements, he still struggles with his batting eye. Still, he would offer depth at both middle infield spots. His speed, versatility and range undoubtedly are his best springboards for 2009. Keep an eye on him post draft in mixed formats, and be prepared to move on him if Hardy or Weeks struggle.
The Pads' Rule 5 pick led all farmhands with 73 swipes last year at Single-A Asheville. The raw 22-year-old needs to see Double-A pitching, but a .284-6-38 campaign last year shows a hint of promise. Are the Pads really that stable up the middle with Luis Rodriguez, David Eckstein and Edgar Gonzalez? This could finally be Matt Antonelli's chance, too, but Cabrera's speed would expand San Diego's offense. Don't commit to him in any draft, but be the first to grab him if he sniffs the bigs.
Coghlan is set to begin the season in Triple-A New Orleans and has played primarily at second base. Coghlan does have experience at third base, but a lack of arm strength limits his potential at the hot corner, even though the Marlins currently lack a clear-cut starter there. Coghlan has limited power but can hit for average, although not always consistently. He only stole five bases in the minors during 2006 but has averaged 29 stolen bases per year over the last two seasons. The Marlins will probably continue their aggressive baserunning mentality, so Coghlan should be monitored as a potential call-up but not drafted.
Playing for the pennant-minded Chicago Cubs last season, Pie was limited to 83 at-bats as his old club never exhibited much patience with him. Pie is 11-for-12 in stolen base attempts at the big league level, but he struggled to maintain a respectable success rate in the minor leagues (62.1 percent). Barring a disaster or stiff competition from infielder/outfielder Ty Wigginton, Pie is capable of swiping 15 to 20 bags. The Dominican should only be considered in AL-only and deep mixed formats.
Owens will probably receive the short stick in the battle for the Sox's center field job. He'll likely share platoon duty with Dewayne Wise with Brian Anderson being the righty end of the setup. Still, with 35 stolen bases in 117 big league games, Owens is a potential high-impact steals specialist with more playing time. From 2004 to 2008, Owens averaged 32.2 stolen bases per season in the minors but was successful on only 70.9 percent of his tries. Owens could be targeted in the late rounds of AL-only leagues and would be a cheap find on waiver wires.
Anderson will keep the seat warm in center field until top prospect Jordan Schafer is ready. Anderson was 10-for-11 in attempts last season with Atlanta in just 136 at-bats; he also hit .315 at Triple-A Richmond and .294 in Atlanta. During his last five minor league seasons, the 26-year-old never stole fewer than 40 bases in a season. The former Astros farm hand could have an impact similar to what Scott Podsednik did during his fantasy prime with 40 or more steals. Anderson should be considered in the last rounds of deep mixed drafts and NL-only leagues.
Gardner optimized 127 big-league at-bats with 13 steals last season. Imagine what an increased role would bring - he's competing with the slightly more diverse Melky Cabrera for the center-field gig. Even hitting ninth would help in this lineup. Will his .290 career farm clip show up? Don't make Gardner a mixed target yet, but the raw baserunning tools are there for AL-only and the post-draft pool.
Morgan is the front-runner to start in left field. Morgan has been a superb base stealer in the minors as he was successful on 44 of 52 attempts (84.6 percent) at Triple-A Indianapolis last year. The 28-year-old has struggled to translate his steals success at the major league level; he's 16-for-24 in stolen base attempts with the Buccos. The Pirates are aiming to be more aggressive on the basepaths this year. In a platoon role, Morgan is capable of 15 steals and possibly 30 or more thefts if he approaches 450 at-bats. Morgan is a good fit as a fifth outfielder in NL-only leagues.
Perez (wrist) was competing for the Rays' right field job but will miss several months with a fractured wrist. His best shot at playing time was in the beginning of the season, as stud outfielder B.J. Upton (shoulder) probably was going to miss the first week of the season. Still, he's a watch list candidate when he comes back.Last season Perez enjoyed an outstanding season stealing bases as he was 43-for-55 (78.1 percent) at Triple-A Durham, and a perfect 5-for-5 with Tampa Bay.
Manager Dusty Baker's primary utility option could open the season in left field. Last season Hairston played every position on the diamond with the exception of first base, catcher and pitcher. In 261 at-bats last season, Hairston stole 15 bases in 18 attempts (83.3 percent) and recorded a respectable .871 OPS. The 33-year-old has a history of health woes and has surpassed 300 at-bats only once since 2003. Fantasy owners should not count on more than mid-double digits given his track record. Hairston is worthy of consideration in deep mixed, and he's a prime grab in the middle rounds of NL-only due to his versatility. There isn't much upside to him, though.
In his big league debut last year, Dickerson, cousin of legendary NFL running back Eric Dickerson, hit six home runs and swiped five bases over 31 games. A speedster in his own right, Dickerson averaged 25.2 stolen bases per year in his last five minor league seasons. He has a shot to at least platoon in left field. At the plate, Dickerson has the ability to draw walks but strikes out often — although that has not stopped manager Dusty Baker from using him to hit leadoff. Dickerson is a late-round, NL-only selection, but if his power continues to emerge he could become a surprise 20-20 threat.
Thomas (elbow) is a line-drive hitter who makes solid contact and can burn up the basepaths. In four seasons of the Tigers farm system, Thomas averaged 25 stolen bases a year. Last season, an injury to outfielder Curtis Granderson opened the door for Thomas to debut on Opening Day. This season, Thomas is coming off Tommy John surgery; he has not taken the field in Spring Training but has hit DH. Thomas has struggled to hit for average over a full season, but his high-energy style may earn him some playing time. However, he can be passed over for now.
Acquired via trade from the Philadelphia Phillies, the former first-round selection is a super-athletic outfielder. Golson reached as high as Double-A before being called up for six games in September. In his last four years of the minors, Golson averaged 27 stolen bases per season, but getting on base has been the problem. At the dish, Golson rarely walks and strikes out way too much - 30.5 percent in 2008. Improvements in those areas would do wonders for Golson's effectiveness, but he should be avoided on draft day given the Rangers' crowded outfield.
Stubbs has been sent to minor league camp, but with the Reds outfield in flux, his chance to see time in the bigs is just as good as any. Over three minor league seasons, Stubbs has averaged 25 stolen bases per campaign. Stubbs has struggled with striking out, which has kept him from hitting for a consistent batting average. Stubbs is a five-tool prospect but has not delivered on the power yet. Stubbs can be ignored on draft day, but the Reds outfield should be observed.
Over the past two seasons, Davis has been shipped to three different clubs while adding miles on the basepaths. In three years of big league experience, Davis has nearly half as many stolen bases (52) as hits (107). In 101 games with the A's, known for being conservative runners, Davis still swiped 25 bases. His playing time is uncertain, but Davis has started off well, hitting .364 in 33 Spring Training at-bats. Davis is a late-round selection for AL-only managers in need of speed and should be on your mixed free-agent queue for when he earns playing time.
Borbon is best skilled for center field, which would allow outfielder Josh Hamilton to shift to either corner, where he is better suited. Borbon was a speed demon in the in the minors last season, stealing 53 bases. At the plate, Borbon has been able to hit for good average but little power. He has limited his strikeouts but rarely walks, a skill he would certainly need to hit leadoff in the majors. Unlikely to make the club, Borbon has struggled in Spring Training - three hits in 17 at-bats. Borbon can be skipped on draft day.
Reports say Crowe is battling for the final roster spot. Although he has done little at the plate this spring, he has six stolen bases - tied for fourth most. In four minor league seasons, Crowe has been a speedster, averaging 25.5 stolen bases per year. However, his batting average, .279 lifetime, has been erratic. He is naturally suited for center field; however the presence of outfielder Grady Sizemore rules that out. Crowe could play in the corners, but a serious lack of power limits his potential there. On draft day, fly on by Crowe. AL-only managers should keep a casual eye pinned on him.
Wise is a true journeyman who has bounced between the minors and the majors. He has not shown much speed until last season, stealing 24 bases between Triple-A Charlotte and the majors. This spring, manager Ozzie Guillen has put Wise against outfielder Jerry Owens; the winner will platoon with outfielder Brian Anderson but start in center field and bat leadoff against right-handed pitchers. For the moment, Wise has the edge, hitting 74 points higher at the plate in camp. Assuming Wise wins out, he's a worth a late-round selection in AL-only formats.
With Alexei Ramirez moving to shortstop, Getz will start at second base. After hitting just five home runs the previous two seasons, Getz hit .302 with 11 homers at Triple-A Charlotte in 2008. On the basepaths, Getz has averaged 13.75 stolen bases per year in four minor league seasons. Although he is a left-handed hitter, Getz has handled lefties very well (.319 clip against them last year) and should not lose much, if any, playing time as a result. Worth a flier in AL-only leagues, Getz gains more value should be hit first or second in the lineup.
Reyes was called up last season to fill in after an injury to second baseman Luis Castillo. Reyes will start in the minor leagues, but even if there was an injury in the middle infield veteran utility man Alex Cora stands in the way. In six minor league seasons, Reyes is a .284 hitter with minimal power with a below-average walk-to-strikeout ratio, but the speed is there - an average of 21.5 stolen bases per season. Reyes has no fantasy value until playing time is guaranteed.
About Chris Hadorn
Chris Hadorn has covered minor league and amateur prospects for more than a decade. He writes for San Diego's North County Times and has been a KFFL fantasy baseball contributor since 2006.
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