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By Jeff Saukaitis, TSN Contributor - Archive - Email
Fantasy baseball sleepers
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It doesn't take a fantasy baseball expert to predict that Albert Pujols will be a top hitter to target in drafts this season.

Likewise, anyone who follows the game knows that Roy Halladay should finish among this year's pitching leaders.

What often sets aside championship fantasy teams from those that finish in the middle of the pack is their owners' ability to identify and draft players who might sit a little under the radar but are primed for breakout campaigns. Many owners who used one of their final draft picks (or, in auctions, spent a few of their last dollars) on Michael Morse or Ivan Nova have 2011 fantasy titles to show for it.

Keeping that in mind, let's take a look at 10 potential "sleepers" for the 2011 season:

AMERICAN LEAGUE

BRENNAN BOESCH, OF, DETROIT TIGERS: A former third-round draft choice, Boesch has been OK, averaging 15 homers and 61 RBIs in his first two big-league seasons.

As a second-year player, Boesch made subtle improvements in 2011 by increasing his batting average by 27 points, his slugging percentage by 42 points and his OPS by 63 points. Perhaps he would have made a bigger jump forward had he not missed the last five weeks of the season with a thumb injury.

This could be Boesch's breakout year, however, based on the addition of free agent Prince Fielder to the Tigers' lineup. Boesch will likely hit second in front of Miguel Cabrera and Fielder, so he should get plenty of good pitches. His runs scored, which zoomed from 49 in 2010 to 75 in 2011, could easily leap to 100 this season.

Look at these 2011 numbers: In 186 at-bats while hitting in front of Cabrera, Boesch batted .328 with 11 homers and 32 RBIs. In his other 242 at-bats, he hit .248 with five homers and 22 RBIs. This year, even if Cabrera or Fielder is out of the lineup on a given day, chances are good that the one who does play will hit behind Boesch. All of which makes it good to be Brennan Boesch - and, by extension, his owner.

LONNIE CHISENHALL, 3B, CLEVELAND INDIANS: There are probably several reasons Chisenhall isn't getting a lot of love in fantasy drafts this year.

First, his final rookie stats from 2011 - a .255 average, seven homers, 22 RBIs and .699 OPS in 223 plate appearances - don't exactly jump off the page. Second, his 49 strikeouts against eight walks indicate that his pitch selection still requires plenty of refinement. Third, Jack Hannahan also is being given a shot at the Indians' Opening Day third base job, so Chisenhall's status is up in the air.

The encouraging sign was a strong September, when Chisenhall batted .279 with four homers and 14 RBIs in 86 at-bats. He was a first-round draft pick, so the talent is there. When you get past the first six or seven American League third basemen in your draft, Chisenhall might just be the best of the rest. With a late-round pick (or a few late dollars to spend in an auction), I'd rather aim for potential greatness than settle for proven mediocrity at a similar price.

COLBY RASMUS, OF, TORONTO BLUE JAYS: I admit it, I thought the Blue Jays made a steal last July when they dealt pitcher Edwin Jackson and three others to the St. Louis Cardinals for a four-player package that featured Rasmus as the centerpiece.

Oops, guess I was wrong. Jackson and the others helped St. Louis win the World Series. Rasmus, a former first-round pick who rubbed former Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa the wrong way, sunk to new depths in Toronto. In 133 at-bats with the Jays, Rasmus hit .173 with three homers and 13 RBIs.

Two things to keep in mind: This guy is still only 25 years old and he had a 23-home run season in 2010. With a chance to be an everyday center fielder from Opening Day, Rasmus could perhaps recapture the confidence that made him a top prospect while in the St. Louis farm system. No matter where he hits in the Blue Jays' power-packed lineup, he'll figure to have plenty of chances to produce runs.

ADDISON REED, P, CHICAGO WHITE SOX: If your draft is still a couple of weeks away, this guy might lose sleeper status by then. Reed's 23 and coming off a season in which, at four minor-league stops, he combined to pitch 78 1/3 innings with a 1.26 ERA, 111 strikeouts, just 14 walks and a 0.728 WHIP.

In two September appearances with the White Sox, he dazzled with 12 strikeouts and one walk in 7 1/3 innings.

New White Sox manager Robin Ventura has called Matt Thornton the early favorite to nab Chicago's closer role. The incumbent, Sergio Santos, was traded to the Blue Jays during the offseason. Ventura's statement has probably kept Reed's draft position and/or price down. Thornton, however, is 35, and when given the closer role last year, he blew four of seven save opportunities and lost the job.

Reed's closer candidacy is gaining momentum, which is why he might not be as much of a sleeper in a couple of weeks. Take this advice, though: Even if Thornton breaks camp with the job, the smart money would still be spent on Reed, who, barring injury, is the prohibitive favorite to lead the team in saves by the end of the year. In keeper leagues, he should be targeted even higher.

JONATHAN SANCHEZ, P, KANSAS CITY ROYALS: He walks too many hitters, runs deep counts and doesn't pitch past the sixth inning often enough to post a high win total. Now he's headed from a pitchers' park in the National League to the Kansas City Royals, where he will have to face deeper American League lineups that include designated hitters.

Doesn't sound like Sanchez is someone you'd want to round out your pitching staff, does it? Sometimes, though, you just have to take a chance in fantasy baseball. Coming off an injury-plagued, four-win season with the Giants, Sanchez may never be obtained this cheaply again.

Despite his high walk rate, Sanchez has struck out better than a batter an inning throughout his career, and he essentially has a 2-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Maybe going to a new league will help, as hitters won't be as familiar with his arsenal. He has the "stuff" to be successful. He's also scheduled to become a free agent after the season, which could give him added incentive.

Don't count on him to be one of your top three starters, but a late gamble on Sanchez might pay dividends.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

ZACK COZART, SS, CINCINNATI REDS: Cozart made his major league debut last year, but his season was cut short after a promising debut. While attempting to make the tag on a runner at second base, Cozart hyper-extended his left, non-throwing elbow and eventually needed Tommy John surgery. He's back at spring training, expected to win the Reds' starting shortstop job.

Cozart projects to be adequate in every phase of the game but unexceptional in any. He has moderate power that should be aided by playing half his games at Great American Ballpark. He has decent speed, the ability to hit for a respectable average and a solid glove that should help him stay in the lineup.

Maybe Cozart's numbers will be something in the neighborhood of a .270 average, 12 homers, 50 RBIs and 12 steals. Hey, it's not Troy Tulowitzki production but, then again, for an end-game shortstop, it would be pretty acceptable.

LUCAS DUDA, OF, NEW YORK METS: The Mets are probably going to be a mess in 2012, but Duda, who was a surprise during the second half of last season, could end up being one of their most productive hitters and best fantasy bargains.

Duda struggled in the early portion of last year, and the power he had displayed in the minors didn't translate to the majors. The Mets stuck with him, though, and their patience was rewarded when he finished the season with a .292 average, 10 homers, 50 RBIs and .852 OPS in 301 at-bats.

Entering his age-26 season, Duda is likely just scratching the surface of his ability. With a solid chance to be the team's everyday right fielder while holding down a position near the middle of the batting order, Duda will have his chances to drive in runs. Fantasy teams could do much, much worse for a fourth or fifth outfielder.

One of the slowest outfielders in the majors, Duda will never be a stolen base threat. A batting line of .275 with 20 homers and 80 RBIs, however, seems well within reach.

BRYAN LAHAIR, OF/1B, CHICAGO CUBS: The 29-year-old LaHair has been limited to just 195 career major-league at-bats. A 39th-round draft choice of the Seattle Mariners in 2002, LaHair's career has been similar to that of "Bull Durham" character Crash Davis. In nine minor-league seasons, LaHair has belted 159 homers; he has 123 of them in six Triple-A seasons split between the Seattle Mariners and Cubs affiliates.

He's not a prospect, so LaHair won't suddenly develop into Sammy Sosa when he gets his first full-time gig in the majors this year. If he didn't have some holes in his swing, it wouldn't have taken him this long to get an opportunity. Still, he was the Pacific Coast League MVP last summer, hitting 38 homers in 456 at-bats. When he got a cup of coffee with the Cubs in September, he managed an .855 OPS in 59 at-bats.

LaHair probably figures to eventually surrender the first base position to prospect Anthony Rizzo, maybe at the start of next year - sooner, even, if he starts extremely slowly at Wrigley and Rizzo tears it up in Triple-A.

If you're only spending one of your final picks on LaHair, though, he could be a cheap source of power. A guy who homered once every 12 at-bats in Triple-A last year ought to find a way to hit something like 20 bombs in a full big- league season, shouldn't he? He should accidentally drive in a respectable number of runs, too, since he's ticketed to bat either fourth or fifth in the Cubs' lineup.

JOHN MAYBERRY, OF, PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES: A part-time player for the Phillies last season, Mayberry quietly turned in 267 productive at-bats. He hit .273 with 15 homers, 49 RBIs and eight steals.

This year, the Phillies elected to let left fielder Raul Ibanez walk in free agency, and they have indicated that prospect Domonic Brown, who took a step back last year, would likely begin the season in Triple-A. That seems to open up left field for Mayberry, although he might have to surrender some at-bats against right-handers to newcomer Laynce Nix.

It's hard to say how productive Mayberry will be if given a full-time role for the first time in his career. Clearly, he was better against southpaws last season (.953 OPS), but he wasn't dreadful against right-handers, either (.785 OPS).

It wouldn't take an enormous investment to gamble on bigger numbers from Mayberry. Even with a full-time job, he probably wouldn't double last year's production; think something more along the lines of .270, 23 homers, 78 RBIs and a sneaky 14 steals from the 6-foot-6 outfielder, who also could have first base eligibility in your league (18 games there in 2011). He'll likely be worth the cost.

SERGIO ROMO, P, SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS: The lesser known of the Giants' bearded brigade in the back end of the bullpen, Romo has quietly been one of the best relievers in the game during four major-league seasons. In 207 big-league appearances, the hard-throwing right-hander has a career ERA of 2.33, a career WHIP of 0.893 and 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings.

Unfortunately for fantasy owners, reliever production is mostly contingent on opportunity. The Giants' Brian Wilson has averaged 41 saves during the past four seasons, and, although Romo's ERA, WHIP and strikeout rates have been superior, there's really no reason for San Francisco to make a change in the closer role.

Romo's path to saves is blocked, but it's never a bad idea to draft high- quality relievers who are not currently in the closer role. There's little doubt that Romo is next in line for saves, and a balky elbow forced Wilson to sit out a month late last season. So the potential for some saves is there for Romo. Even if he doesn't get any, all of his other numbers should make him a low-risk asset.



Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sports writer since 1985.