Tuesday, February 20, 2007

5 to Watch (and a few more)

Every season, there's a consensus list of "sleeper" players that end up on every website, magazine, and fantasy player's draft list. These are players that people expect to have great seasons, but haven't yet done it. Rather than tell you the same things you'll read everywhere else, I'd rather point out players that I wouldn't consider sleepers because, likely, they’ve failed to take advantage of the opportunities when they’ve had them. They are, however, in a position to make that next step, or at least return to where they were, this year.

  • Dan Johnson, 1B (Oak) - Last year was a disaster for Johnson, no doubt. His .234 batting average, 9 HRs and 37 RBI's certainly aren't exactly a selling point, but he had a very solid rookie season, and absolutely killed AAA pitching last year after his demotion (.314 BA, 7 HR, 44 RBIs in 100 less at bats). But here's where it gets interesting. According to a recent San Francisco Chronicle report, Johnson battled blurred vision last season as a result of some prescription medication he was taking. With that issue resolved, Johnson should be able to bounce back to his rookie year indicators and provide a nice cheap, hidden power source for some fantasy teams this year.

  • Chad Billingsley, SP (LAD) - This kid was supposed to be as good as Cole Hamels last year, if not better. Instead, he stumbled out of the gates in June, and in the fickle world of fantasy baseball, was quickly discarded by many as a bust. He had a good second half (7-2, 3.16 ERA), but still struggled with his control, walking too many and not striking out enough. He's in line for the back end of the Dodger rotation, but should he harness his command, he could quickly become a force in the pitcher-friendly fields of the NL West. Add in some tutelage from newly acquired Jason Schmidt, and this is one end-gamer I'll be adding to every team I can get him.

  • Jason Kubel, OF/DH (Min) - Jason Kubel was going to be a stud outfielder. He had great ability to get on base and his power was growing with experience. Then he blew his knee out in the Arizona Fall League, missed all of 2005, and spent 2006 on and off the DL with various knee problems. Like Dan Johnson, specialists were able to identify a torn meniscus in the off-season, and repaired it. That, coupled with his weight loss of 10 pounds, puts Kubel in better playing shape and ready to contend for the starting DH/OF spot for the Twins. Should he do so and stay healthy, Kubel might be able to get back on the path to superstardom.

  • Matt Garza, SP (Min) - By now it should be obvious the Minnesota Twins have an eye for pitching. Garza is the next top pitching prospect to try and step out of the shadow of Julio Santana. Unfortunately for Garza, he was thrust into the big leagues at a rather quick pace, mostly due to the injuries of Francisco Liriano. The result was a mess: a 3-6 record, 5.76 ERA, 38/23 K/BB Ratio and 1.7 WHIP all in 50 major league innings. Fortunately for fantasy owners, those stats will drive most people away from him. Those who look beyond those stats will find a minor league record of 14-4, a 1.99 ERA, 154/32 K/BB with a stellar .88 WHIP in a little over 135 innings in 2006. The issue may be lack of experience, and for that reason, I wouldn't be surprised to see Garza struggle in the first half, before finally figuring it out after the All-Star break. The talent is definitely there, it's just a matter of time and experience.

  • Kahlil Greene, SS (SD) - Greene might be a fashionable sleeper this preseason, but he'll likely only show up on those lists because of his age. He turns 27 this year, which puts him in the "sweet spot" for a career year, not to mention he signed a one year deal, which will make him a free agent next year, giving him more motivation. However, Greene's problems are many: he bats in the bottom of the order; he lacks the SBs for a middle infielder; his power has been mediocre; he hasn't been patient at the plate; and he's been nicked up many times. Last year, he seemed to be putting it all together until a torn ligament in his finger prevented him from playing the last two months of the season. Greene isn't even listed on ESPN's top 250 players, which means he'll likely go undrafted in regular mixed leagues. With more motivation to finally reach his potential, and a little luck on the health side, Greene could make an impact in 2007.

  • Willy Taveras, OF (Col) – He needs to get his on-base percentage up to remain in the leadoff spot, but should still be able to manage 35 stolen bases, with upside for more.

  • Chris Burke, OF (Hou) – Burke will be the full-time center fielder this year. I think part of his problem the last few years was playing too many positions. With only one to focus on this year, he could finally start living up to expectations. He’ll also qualify at 2B this year, always a plus in my book.

  • Mark Teahen, 3B (KC) – Alex Gordon is getting all the attention this year, with some pundits already predicting he’ll win the 3B battle. Teahen figured it out last year, and regardless of where he plays, he’ll still qualify at 3B, and likely put up 20-25 homers.

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