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April 1, 2005

Fantasy Focus

Spring Sleepers and Busts

by Erik Siegrist

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A couple of weeks ago, I listed a set of criteria to use if and when you want to make sense of spring training stats. With the Cactus and Grapefruit League schedules all but wrapped up (and lest you think Anah... Los Angel... the Angels' Cactus League crown is a sign of things to come, the Blue Jays took home the Grapefruit League title), it's time to put those principles to work.

Remember, though, that spring training numbers are mostly a whole lot of nothing. A few of these players are set to break out, or are hiding an injury; the rest just had an interesting couple of weeks. That uncertainty is why it's so much safer to take a late-round or $1 flyer on a player based on a hot spring, rather than spending $10 above his projected value because it looks like this is the year Andruw Jones is finally going to bust out for 50 home runs.

All stats cited are through Wednesday's games.

AL East

While Gabe Gross (.400/.481/1.000, eight home runs in 45 at-bats, 7/8 BB/K) is getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so--he's forced his way onto the big-league roster with his performance--I like Luis Matos (.386/.455/.561 in 57 at-bats, 6/9 BB/K) as a potential sleeper just a little bit more. Matos will be the Orioles starting center fielder, while Toronto will be using Gross in a platoon with Alexis Rios, and his opportunity to prove himself could be slim.

All may not be well with the Orioles offense, though. Larry Bigbie (.150/.145/.317 in 60 at-bats, 0/10 BB/K) looked lost at the plate this spring, and he isn't so established in the majors that a bad month couldn't bury him on the bench.

On the pitching front, Dewon Brazelton (11/11 BB/K in 17 IP) was touted as am early sleeper in some circles, but his spring performance quieted that talk. A better guy to stash on your reserve list is Rob Bell (3/17 BB/K in 21 2/3 IP), who was long ago stuck with the Quadruple-A label. If Miguel Batista struggles in the Blue Jays 'pen, both Justin Speier (1/8 BB/K in 6 1/3 IP) and Jason Frasor (1/8 BB/K in 7 IP) look ready to pounce on any loose save opportunities.

AL Central

The AL is a bit thin when it comes to middle infielders this season but a few youngsters--Jhonny Peralta (.388/.467/.592 in 49 AB, 9/6 BB/K) in Cleveland, Ruben Gotay (.366/.410/.704, six home runs in 71 AB, 6/11 BB/K) in Kansas City, and Jason Bartlett (.400/.479/.578 in 45 AB, 2/4 BB/K) in Minnesota--could start to rectify that this season. Gotay's high strikeout rate would seem to make him the riskiest of the three; if you have to go an extra dollar on one, I'd make it Peralta.

While Peralta may pan out, another Indians sleeper may not. Aaron Boone has put up a superficially good .358/.382/.547 line in 53 AB, but a 1/11 BB/K ratio hints that his swing might still have some rust on it.

Some young AL Central pitchers also look poised to step up. Chicago's Brandon McCarthy (3/14 BB/K in 19 IP) has already been sent down, but should get a promotion once..OK, "if"...Orlando Hernandez breaks down, and could do something with the opportunity. A better, and less heralded, sleeper is Twins' 2003 draft pick Scott Baker (1/11 BB/K in 15 IP), who might be a poor Joe Mays month away from being a factor in a pennant race.

Jeremy Bonderman (11/17 BB/K in 24 IP) is another trendy breakout pick, but his control might need a bit of work yet before he achieves what he's capable of. He's still a better pick than Jose Contreras (13/15 BB/K in 19 IP).

AL West

Maicer Izturis (.340/.453/.547 in 53 AB, 10/4 BB/K) showed the same skill set this spring that he displayed last year at Triple-A, and it may have earned him a bench job with the Angels. They're a deep club, but if Adam Kennedy has a setback and Chone Figgins is needed elsewhere on the diamond, Izturis could get some significant playing time. Oakland's Dan Johnson (.395/.469/.628 in 43 AB, 6/1 BB/K) wasn't so lucky--he'll start the year in Sacramento--but he doesn't seem to have anything left to learn in the minors. A midseason call-up, if there's a spot for him, could produce some big dividends.

If Johnson could play the outfield, he wouldn't be in this mess. Nick Swisher (.250/.360/.347 in 72 AB, 13/24 BB/K) had a spring that might have earned him a demotion if the A's had another option. No matter how progressive you are about valuing batter strikeouts, whiffing once every three at-bats against spring-training competition can't be a good sign.

Scot Shields (2/14 BB/K in 9 IP) gets overshadowed by almost every other pitcher on the Angels staff, but if he's given a significant role he could blossom into a fantasy superstar. The same would seem to go for one of Oakland's shiny new bullpen toys, Juan Cruz (4/16 BB/K in 12 IP).

Though he's not much of a sleeper in most leagues, no mention of Oakland's pitching staff would be complete without noting Rich Harden and his ridiculous 5/29 BB/K ratio in 21 spring innings. He, not Barry Zito (11/12 BB/K in 26 IP), should be the ace of this staff by season's end. The most surprising spring, though, might have been turned in by Chan Ho Park (3/18 K/BB in 24 1/3 IP). If you give him a roster spot, though, you're braver than I am.

If there's an AL West pitcher to avoid, it would probably be Japanese import Keiichi Yabu (7/4 BB/K in 12 IP), who didn't show much. Then again, a lot of Japanese players take a bit of time to adjust--Shingo Takatsu didn't set the world on fire last spring either.

NL East

No NL East hitter had a surprisingly good showing this spring, although Washington's Brendan Harris (.333/.474/.400 in 30 AB, 8/6 BB/K) might have if he'd gotten more of a chance. J.J. Davis (.419/.455/.806 in 31 AB, 2/12 BB/K) did his best Wily Mo Pena impression, though, and it paid off with a spot on the 25-man roster. How soon it translates into actual major-league production remains to be seen.

Kazuo Matsui's bad spring (.208/.232/.208 in 53 AB, 2/13 BB/K) can maybe be explained by his bad back (although that doesn't make him a more reliable fantasy pick), but Victor Diaz (.273/.305/.418 in 55 AB, 3/15 BB/K) didn't give much indication that he'll be ready for the majors if a Cliff Floyd injury opens up a spot for him.

As befits the pitching division, the East has plenty of potential pitching sleepers. Given what he's shown in the majors to date, Horacio Ramirez (3/17 BB/K in 21 IP) had an amazingly good spring for the Braves, and candidates to be Leo Mazzone's latest bullpen discovery include Buddy Hernandez (0/7 BB/K in 9 2/3 IP) and Matt Childers (1/7 BB/K in 8 1/3 IP). The Nationals' John Patterson (1/13 BB/K in 11 IP) could make it tough for the team to move him back to the bullpen if and when Tony Armas gets healthy.

Guys who make risky pick-ups include Victor Zambrano (13/11 BB/K in 13 IP) and Al Leiter (13/15 in 16 IP), but you probably already knew that. The Phillies' young guns, Gavin Floyd (11/16 BB/K in 20 IP) and Brett Myers (11/14 BB/K in 22 1/3 IP), look like they need some more seasoning too, so don't expect too much from them this year.

NL Central

The Astros' Chris Burke (.354/.429/.583 in 48 AB, 5/8 BB/K) may not be on the Opening Day roster, but it's hard to say exactly why--he's done everything he can to earn a spot. Lyle Overbay (.391/.467/.547 in 64 AB, 10/14 BB/K) did what he could to prove last year's second half was the aberration, not the first half.

On the flip side, Wily Mo Pena (.258/.292/.323 in 62 AB, 2/22 BB/K) did what he could to prove his entire 2004 was a fluke. The Pirates' Ryan Doumit (.375/.444/1.083, five home runs in 24 AB, 0/7 BB/K) hit for some impressive power; just don't look for him to be making an impact in the majors this year with that strike zone control.

Few unheralded pitchers in the NL Central distinguished themselves this spring, but the Astros' Ezequiel Astacio (2/12 BB/K in 11 1/3 IP) may have earned the fifth starter spot in Houston. Given the uncertainty in the Brewers bullpen, you may want to keep an eye on Matt Wise (1/9 BB/K in 12 2/3 IP) to see if he can move up in the pecking order.

Occasionally a pitcher will have such a disastrous spring that it casts doubts on his health, much less his performance in the upcoming season. This year's winner of the Giant Flashing Neon Warning Sign award is th Cardinals' Jason Marquis (10/8 BB/K, eight HR allowed in 19 2/3 IP). While he's past what's normally considered the Injury Nexus for pitchers, given his spotty health history and workload increase last year I'll be a bit surprised if he makes it to 100 innings. Brandon Backe (15/18 BB/K in 24 2/3 IP) also didn't do much to prove his solid run last year was for real.

NL West

The Giants' Jason Ellison (.308/.390/.442 in 52 AB, 7/5 BB/K) is another young player who earned an unexpected big-league spot. Given the decrepit starting outfield ahead of him, he might pile up more playing time than you think he will. Luis Terrero (.302/.400/.628 in 43 at-bats, 6/6 BB/K) also looked sharp for Arizona, and has a similar path--waiting for older players to get hurt--to a starting job.

Betting on potential closers is always a gamble, but Brandon Lyon (0/13 BB/K in 12 IP) has to be the safest such gamble out there, given his brief closing history, killer spring and quasi-incumbent Greg Aquino's health. Scott Linebrink (1/13 BB/K in 7 2/3 IP) picked up right where he left off last season, and may be supplanting Akinori Otsuka as the Padres closer-in-waiting.

Among the more dangerous picks, Arizona's Koyie Hill (.311/.319/.489 in 45 AB, 1/8 BB/K) will probably open the year as the starting catcher, which could make him a solid HACKING MASS selection, but a risky guy to have as a regular in your roto lineup. The Rockies' Matt Holliday (.316/.316/.596 in 57 AB, 0/13 BB/K) could struggle in his second look at the majors. Finally, it almost feels like piling on at this point given how unpopular he's been in drafts and auctions in 2005, but Russ Ortiz (10/7 BB/K in 17 IP) is having a notably poor spring for Arizona. He may be a "proven' winner," but so far he's having difficulty just proving he can get outs.

--

Erik Siegrist is a beat writer for RotoWire, covering the Marlins, Nationals and White Sox.

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