Aaron Gleeman

Draft Strategy

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AL-Only Sleepers

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

One of the many nice things about writing a column for Rotoworld is that the people who read the column will inevitably e-mail with suggestions for future column topics. In addition to providing me with some good ideas for subjects to cover, the suggestions also show what type of information fantasy players are hungry for at any given time. Aside from list-style rankings, which are always the No. 1 thing everyone wants more of, the most-requested topic is usually "sleepers."

Along with that, in recent weeks I've gotten a ton of requests for columns dealing specifically with AL-only and NL-only leagues, rather than the mixed-league formats that typically dominate the fantasy landscape. So, for the next two weeks I figured it'd be a good idea to combine those two requests. Today I'll cover my favorite AL-only sleepers and next week I'll tackle my favorite NL-only sleepers. Before I get to the good stuff though, a couple quick notes.

First, it's important to remember that AL- and NL-only leagues are much different than mixed leagues in terms of the talent available, which obviously leads to lesser players being drafted. Because of that I've made sure that the players listed below are legitimate sleepers, as opposed to high-upside guys who everyone has ranked near the top of their cheat sheets anyway (which is the type of player I've seen listed as supposed AL- and NL-only "sleepers" elsewhere).

The must-have Rotoworld Online Draft Guide has a ridiculous amount of analysis and customizable rankings to prepare you for whatever type of league you're drafting in, including a lengthy article from me profiling my favorite mixed-league sleepers. I'm confident that a lot of the guys on that list will have big seasons. With that said, while identifying Josh Barfield, Nick Markakis, or Octavio Dotel as high-upside sleepers in mixed leagues is valuable, it doesn't do much good in AL-only leagues where those guys are still early-round picks.

In other words, don't expect any big names below, because these are true AL-only sleepers …

Jason Bartlett (SS, Minnesota Twins) – The Twins kept Bartlett at Triple-A while they messed around with Juan Castro last season, but he started 99 straight games after finally being called up. There's no veteran backup middle infielder on the Minnesota roster, meaning Bartlett should once again see few days off. He doesn't have much power, but a good batting average is likely and Bartlett has the speed to swipe 15-20 bases.

Matt Garza (SP, Minnesota Twins) – Minnesota has done everything it can to avoid handing rotation spots to young pitchers, but Garza still figures to emerge from spring training as a starter. He looked mediocre after a late-season promotion last year, but was likely worn down after blitzing through three levels of the minors in his first full pro season. Garza projects as a No. 2 starter long term and should rack up plenty of strikeouts in the meantime.

Joey Gathright (OF, Kansas City Royals) – Gathright has quickly fallen out of favor due to his weak bat, but should get work as a pinch-runner, late-inning defensive replacement, and occasional starter. That's more than enough action to make him an AL-only asset purely based on speed, because Gathright figures to steal about one base for every 10 at-bats he receives.

Jason Kubel (OF, Minnesota Twins) – Knee injuries have essentially wiped away Kubel's last two seasons, but he's reportedly looked great early in camp and has a clear path to everyday at-bats in the Twins' lineup. Kubel's stock has dipped significantly from the days when he was one of the better prospects in baseball, but he's still just 25 years old and has .285-20-75 potential.

Gerald Laird (C, Texas Rangers) – Rod Barajas' departure leaves the door wide open for Laird to get 100-plus starts behind the plate. He has more hitting potential than most catchers and the Rangers' offense-friendly lineup and home ballpark should help boost his totals. Along with 10-15 homers and a solid batting average, he's a rare catcher capable of a half-dozen steals.

Esteban Loaiza (SP, Oakland A's) – I liked Loaiza as a sleeper last year too, which looked silly when he got off to a brutal start while showing decreased velocity. However, Loaiza recovered to go 8-4 with a 4.01 ERA and 72-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 16 second-half starts, and I like his chances for a cheap 12-15 win season.

Dan Johnson (1B, Oakland A's) – Mark Kotsay's back surgery gives Johnson a chance to reclaim his place in Oakland's long-term plans and I expect him to take advantage. With Shannon Stewart and Nick Swisher flanking Milton Bradley in the A's new-look outfield, Johnson should get plenty of at-bats at first base. He's one season removed from hitting .275/.355/.451 as a rookie and batted .314/.426/.523 during a demotion to Triple-A last year.

Akinori Otsuka (RP, Texas Rangers) – At worst, Otsuka is a high-leverage setup man with a good ERA and WHIP who should be involved in plenty of decisions while racking up lots of strikeouts. At best, he takes over for a still-risky Eric Gagne in the ninth inning at some point and does a fine job as the Rangers' substitute closer for the second straight year. Either way, he'll be undervalued.

Carl Pavano (SP, New York Yankees) – This one is sure to make Yankees fans laugh, but at this point Pavano's stock will never be lower. His own teammates are ripping him, the New York media mocks him when he manages to get through a game without a new injury, and expectations are non-existent. Meanwhile, Pavano appears likely to claim a place in the rotation and, given the Yankees' powerful lineup scoring him runs, could coast to double-digit wins.

Jay Payton (OF, Baltimore Orioles) – Manager Sam Perlozzo said earlier this week that he expects Payton to get the bulk of the playing time in left field, which comes as a surprise and should finally keep Payton from going to the media with his annual complaint about being a role player. Given 500 at-bats he should be able to put up double-digit homers and 5-10 steals with a decent batting average.

Al Reyes (RP, Tampa Bay Devil Rays) – If healthy, Reyes is the best reliever on Tampa Bay's roster. Of course, "if healthy" is a big leap to make given that he's 36 years old and missed all of last season after posting a 2.15 ERA with St. Louis in 2005. However, toss in manager Joe Maddon saying this week that Seth McClung doesn't have a strong grip on the closer job and it's easy to imagine Reyes working his way into saves before long.

Ryan Shealy (1B, Kansas City Royals) – Shealy is a career .319/.408/.591 hitter in 460 minor-league games, has hit .294-9-57 in 92 big-league contests, and finally has an everyday job as the Royals' first baseman after years of being stuck behind Todd Helton in Colorado. What's not to like? A .280-25-90 season is within reach and the risk involved is limited.

B.J. Upton (3B, Tampa Bay Devil Rays) – One of my favorite sleepers, even in mixed leagues, Upton has already impressed Maddon with his versatility this spring and should get a chance to act as the Devil Rays' super-utility man to begin the season. If he gets off to a good start it shouldn't be overly difficult to take at-bats from Jorge Cantu at second base and you won't find a better bargain among potential 30-steal guys.

Rondell White (OF, Minnesota Twins) – The Twins' lack of outfield depth means White will get a mulligan, returning as either the starting left fielder or designated hitter depending on how well Kubel's knees hold up. White quietly put together a .321/.354/.538 second half once his shoulder healed up, and he's massively undervalued because every numbers-based projection you'll see on him fails to account for the source of his turnaround.

Last but not least, here are a dozen "deep sleepers" who may not be on their teams' Opening Day rosters or will make the team in a lesser role, but would be perfect to stash away on reserve lists and benches until they're ready to contribute prominently at some point during the season:

Erick Aybar (SS, Los Angeles Angels)
Jason Botts (OF, Texas Rangers)
Alexi Casilla (2B/SS, Minnesota Twins)
Shin-Soo Choo (OF, Cleveland Indians)
Nelson Cruz (OF, Texas Rangers)
Ryan Garko (1B, Cleveland Indians)
Zack Greinke (SP, Kansas City Royals)
Brendan Harris (2B/SS, Tampa Bay Devil Rays)
Casey Kotchman (1B, Los Angeles Angels)
Adam Lind (OF, Toronto Blue Jays)
Glen Perkins (SP, Minnesota Twins)
Reggie Willits (OF, Los Angeles Angels)

Aaron Gleeman is Rotoworld's senior baseball editor and contributes to NBCSports.com's Hardball Talk blog. Also find him at AaronGleeman.com and on Twitter.
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