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March 28, 2000

AL East Notebook

Breakout Candidates

by Joe Sheehan

With a nod to the thousands of fantasy players who will be attending auctions or drafts this weekend, here's a short list of longshot breakout candidates--"sleepers," if you must--from the AL East.

Calvin Maduro, Orioles -- Maduro was an Oriole prospect in the mid-1990s before being traded to the Phillies in 1996. He floundered in Philadelphia, possibly as a result of overwork in the Oriole system, before returning to Rochester in 1999 and having his best season since the trade.

The injury to Scott Erickson opened up a spot for Maduro, who has pitched effectively this spring and should start the year as the O's #5 starter. With neither Sidney Ponson nor Jason Johnson pitching well, Maduro can stake a claim for himself beyond April with a good month. He is still just 25, looks healthy and has shown good command in Florida. I think he'll be the best Aruban in the Oriole rotation this year.

Jorge Posada, Yankees -- Posada may be a little old and a little famous for inclusion on this list, but I think he has every chance to be the second catcher on American League All-Star team. With Joe Girardi in Chicago, there are no questions about who the Yankee starter is, and given the state of the backups (Tom Pagnozzi? Jim Leyritz?), Posada could be in for a big workload.

This winter, Posada spent some time in winter ball working on hitting from the left side, a weakness in his game for two years. He's 28 this year, and catchers have been known to his their offensive peak a bit later than most players. His hot spring--seven extra-base hits and 11 walks--is just another reason to think he's ready to explode. As a switch-hitting catcher with plate discipline and power, he'll be tremendously valuable if he does.

Esteban Yan, Devil Rays -- Don't be fooled by Yan's so-so spring numbers: he has pitched very well aside from one horrific start last week. Yan looks like he is completely recovered from shoulder problems and ready to return to--and improve on--the form he showed in 1998.

What remains to be seen is his role with Tampa Bay. He's been starting throughout the spring, but the Devil Rays have a number of candidates for the #5 spot, while Yan has been a reliever for most of his major-league career. His role could depend on the health of Wilson Alvarez, currently battling shoulder problems of his own. Regardless of how Yan is used--and I think he's a safer bet in the bullpen, myself--look for him to be one of the better pitchers on the Devil Ray staff.

Bryce Florie and John Wasdin, Red Sox -- Picking which Red Sox are going to be sleepers isn't easy, as it's hard for players to gain a roster toehold amidst Dan Duquette's roster shuffling. On the other hand, the Sox usually have one or two players come out of nowhere to have strong seasons, people like Rich Garces and Brian Daubach.

I can't decide which of these two guys is going to get the better opportunity to shine. Wasdin is miscast as a middle reliever, an extreme flyball pitcher with good-to-excellent control. The Red Sox aren't going to put him in the rotation, so he'll have to hope for a trade or a rash of injuries to assume his best role. As a middle reliever, he could be a good roto pickup, a candidate to vulture some wins and put up a good ratio.

Florie is the less-talented of the two pitchers, but the better bet for success in 2000. He is a similar, if inferior, pitcher to Derek Lowe, and stands to inherit Lowe's innings. Florie throws hard and gets groundballs, but has never had a consistent role nor displayed enough control to be very effective. Joe Kerrigan can help with the second problem, but it remains to be seen if Jimy Williams helps solve the first. Florie is a candidate for the back of the Boston rotation, and even if he starts the year in the bullpen, will probably make some spot starts along the way.

Left alone in relief, I like Florie's chance to be a big surprise. If the Sox continue to jerk him around, it's a tossup as to whether he or Wasdin will be the better breakout candidate. Both pitchers have the ability to explode on the league, though, and I recommend both.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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