The baseball season begins Apr. 3, and chances are if you’re having a baseball pool, you are knee-deep in preparation for your draft. Getting the Pujols’ and A-Rod’s are obvious goals, but the real pool winners are the ones who can find the next Brad Lidge in the later rounds.
Of course, depending on what type of pool you’re in, finding a quality sleeper may be more guesswork than research. In a mixed-league, chances are no real sleepers will be drafted. Of course if you showed up to your draft unprepared last year and took a flyer on Juan Uribe because you thought he was still a Rockie, you were actually lucky. Unbeknownst to everyone, including Ken Williams, Uribe had his best season ever last year. Mixed-leagues are not very challenging, especially if you have less than a dozen teams. Just take players who figure to get quality at-bats, or have a guaranteed rotation spot.
Things do get cloudier in an AL or NL-only league. Often the best sleepers are born out of injuries. Ryan Freel and Wily Mo Pena benefited from Griffey and Kearns going down in Cincinnati and put up great fantasy numbers. Here are a few situations where I see some bench guys waiting in the wings:
Jerry Hairston Jr. (OF) ChC: The “other guy” in the Sosa deal, Dusty Baker should find a way to put him at the top of the order. The Cubs need a leadoff hitter, and Hairston Jr. has put up double-digits in steals the last four seasons. He also had a .378 OBP in 287 AB’s last season. When Hollandsworth invariably gets hurt, Hairston Jr. can start in left. Otherwise, he can play 2B since Todd Walker is more of a platoon guy, and right when Burnitz’s 130 SO’s become too much.
Jhonny Peralta (SS) Cle: The man who made Omar Vizquel expendable. He had an impressive .877 OPS in AAA Buffalo last season, and was named MVP. Cleveland already has a stacked lineup of young hitters, and Peralta may not get a high place in the order, but just being there will be enough for this potential ROY. GM Mark Shapiro signed Jose Hernandez and Alex Cora in the offseason, so make sure Peralta secures the job in the spring before pouncing.
Hee Seop Choi (1B) LoD: GM Paul DePodesta has put all his eggs in one basket. He stripped the organization of its depth, and Choi will be uncontested this spring at first base. The man will whiff, but displayed some impressive power at pitcher-friendly Pro Player Stadium for the Marlins before the midseason trade. He struggled at Chavez, but could hit 25 homers batting behind Kent.
Xavier Nady (OF) SD: Nady would be starting on most teams right now, but the acquisition of David Roberts means another season of wasting his talents on the bench. The silver lining is Ryan Klesko’s wonky shoulder, which required an MRI last week. Brian Giles is a free agent at the end of the season and may be dealt if contract talks go nowhere. Phil Nevin is also a DL-trip waiting to happen, so if Nady can get at least 300 AB’s, his sick .629 SLG in AAA last year may get a chance at Petco.
Juan Rivera (OF) LoA: Nats GM Jim Bowden has many reasons to kick himself, but trading two of his best young players for the inconsistent Jose Guillen will no doubt come back to haunt him. Rivera’s 2004 stats look underwhelming at first, but his OPS in August was 1.019 and .933 in September. Expect him to take the DH spot from Casey Kotchman and to sub for the ailing Garrett Anderson.
Christian Guzman (SS) Wsh: Remember Carlos Guillen? Exiled from Seattle at age 28, he went from .276-7-63 in 2003 to .318-20-97 with the Tigers in ’04. Guzman, listed at age 27, had similar numbers in his final season with Minnesota (.274-8-46) and may be due for a spike as he enters his prime.
Choo Freeman (OF) Col: Anyone who hits at Coors Field is worth drafting, and Choo’s strong spring should give him the fourth OF spot. Considering Preston Wilson’s health, 350 AB’s is not out of reach.
John Buck (C) KC: Two years ago, Buck was a top-tier catching prospect. On the worst team in baseball, the starting job, and a decent spot in the lineup, are his.
Russell Branyan (3B) Mil: Don’t laugh. Its hard to believe he’s only 29, but this one-time blue chipper can still mash. He averaged a homer every 14 AB in ’04.