Aaron Gleeman

Draft Strategy

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NL-Only Hitting Sleepers

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Most fantasy baseball analysis tends to focus on mixed leagues, but it's clear from the e-mails that I've gotten over the past couple weeks that many of you are also very interested in AL-only and NL-only information. With that in mind, over the next few weeks this space will be devoted to breaking down my favorite sleepers, with one column each dedicated to NL-only hitters, NL-only pitchers, AL-only hitters, and AL-only pitchers.

Before getting to the good stuff, it's important to note that NL-only and AL-only leagues are much different than mixed leagues and require dipping far deeper into the player pool. Because of that the players who qualify as "sleepers" are much smaller names, although you'll see plenty of so-called sleeper lists in other places that fail to recognize the differences in value. I'm focusing on true sleepers, rather than high-upside guys who're near the top of cheat sheets already.

In other words, don't expect any big names. None of my league-specific sleepers are being taken among the first 250 picks in mixed-league drafts according to the MockDraftCentral.com Average Draft Position (ADP) information that can be accessed within the Rotoworld Online Draft Guide. In fact, many of them are typically going completely undrafted by mixed leaguers. With that rambling introduction out of the way, here are my NL-only hitting sleepers:

Note: To discuss this article or post your own sleepers, check out the Rotoworld forums.

Ronny Cedeno (SS, Chicago Cubs) – Cedeno blew his first big chance in Chicago and might not get another extended shot, but deserves one. With a putrid .626 OPS there's no denying that Cedeno has struggled in the majors, but he's still just 25 years old and hit .357 with 18 homers and 17 steals in 140 games at Triple-A over the past two seasons. Stealing at-bats from Ryan Theriot will be tough as long as Lou Piniella is around, but Cedeno is far better than he's shown.

Rajai Davis (OF, San Francisco Giants) – At best Davis figures to see time as a platoon starter against left-handed pitching early in the season, but could emerge with a bigger role if he plays well or the Giants part with veterans. Davis has very limited power, but is a .305 career hitter in nearly 2,700 minor-league plate appearances, batted .279 in 219 trips to the plate as a rookie last season, and has legitimate 50-steal speed if given regular playing time.

Ray Durham (2B, San Francisco Giants) – Rather than having to compete with Kevin Frandsen for the second-base job, Ray Durham will have the position to himself for at least a little while thanks to Omar Vizquel's knee injury. Durham's production fell off a cliff last season following a career-year in 2006 and at 36 years old he's far from a sure thing for a big comeback, but he had a decade of consistently solid hitting prior to the decline and makes for a nice middle-infield flier.

Scott Hairston (OF, San Diego Padres) – A career .322/.396/.571 hitter in the minors, Hairston has long been capable of putting up nice power numbers if some team would simply give him an everyday job. That may finally happen in San Diego, because manager Bud Black said this week that Hairston has a leg up on Chase Headley and Jody Gerut for the left-field gig. Petco Park hurts his upside considerably, but given 500 at-bats Hairston is a good bet for 20-plus homers.

Chris Iannetta (C, Colorado Rockies) – In the annual rush to draft The Next Big Thing it's easy to forget that even the best prospects often disappoint as rookies, at which point they can become excellent "year-after" values. Iannetta is a prime example, because struggling as a rookie has washed away every bit of hype that he once received, but hasn't killed his strong long-term upside. If he gets on track, Iannetta could still move past Yorvit Torrealba and make a big impact.

Jeff Keppinger (SS, Cincinnati Reds) – Despite hitting .340 at Double-A, .334 at Triple-A, and .309 in the majors, Keppinger is a 28-year-old with his fourth organization and has yet to secure a regular gig. That figures to continue, because Cincinnati's infield will be tough to crack, but the Reds have also been giving him reps as an outfielder. He'll likely need an injury or trade to get into the lineup every day, but Keppinger can be plenty produce with even 300 at-bats.

Andy LaRoche (3B, Los Angeles Dodgers) – LaRoche is my pick for baseball's most underrated prospect and would represent an upgrade over Nomar Garciaparra if manager Joe Torre is willing to bench the veteran. A poor man's Ryan Zimmerman who has little left to prove in the minors after hitting .315/.399/.572 in 128 games at Triple-A, LaRoche possesses 25-homer power, good plate discipline, and excellent strike-zone control along with a solid glove at third base.

Cameron Maybin (OF, Florida Marlins) – Along with southpaw Andrew Miller, Maybin headlined the package that the Marlins received for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. At 21 years old and with fewer than 100 at-bats above Single-A, Maybin would benefit from additional time in the minors, but the Marlins may let him sink or swim as their starting center fielder. He's likely to go through some major growing pains at the plate, but has 20-steal speed and power potential.

Miguel Montero (C, Arizona Diamondbacks) – Similar to Iannetta in Colorado, Montero flopped as a rookie and is now being ignored completely despite correctly being hyped as a good prospect just 12 months ago, making the 24-year-old an ideal year-after target. He'll fight Chris Snyder for at-bats early on, but should claim at least a split of the playing time by midseason and remains capable of hitting .275 with very good power for a low-wattage position.

Steven Pearce (OF, Pittsburgh Pirates) – One of the most underrated pure hitting prospects, Pearce hit .333 with 31 homers, 40 doubles, and 113 RBIs while striking out just 70 times in 134 minor-league games last season and then held his own in a September look with the Pirates. He'll wait his turn behind Xavier Nady in right field after moving to the outfield because of Adam LaRoche's presence at first base, but he's MLB-ready and should crack the lineup soon enough.

Dave Roberts (OF, San Francisco) – Aaron Rowand's arrival in San Francisco pushes Roberts out of center field, but the Giants look likely to start him in left field against right-handed pitchers (with Davis possibly coming in against southpaws). Roberts has almost zero power and at 36 years old he may no longer be able to post strong batting averages, but he hasn't lost much on the bases and will be one of the cheapest 30-steal threats available.

J.R. Towles (C, Houston Astros) – Towles hasn't gotten as much hype as fellow rookie backstop Geovany Soto in Chicago, but looks likely to supplant Brad Ausmus as Houston's starter behind the plate and has plenty of upside offensively. Towles is a career .301/.389/.471 hitter in the minors and batted .375/.432/.575 in a 14-game stint with the Astros in September. He doesn't have huge power, but should be good for 10-15 homers along with a solid batting average.

Joey Votto (1B, Cincinnati Reds) – Overshadowed by Jay Bruce and locked into a playing-time battle with Scott Hatteberg, Votto is a top prospect who tends to get lost in the shuffle despite tearing up the minors and batting .321/.360/.548 in 24 games with the Reds last year. Manager Dusty Baker has shockingly indicated that he may choose Votto over the veteran Hatteberg, in which case he'd become a good bet to hit .275 with 20 homers and double-digit steals.

Finally, here are 15 more "deep sleepers" who're worth stashing away in NL-only leagues even if they aren't likely to make an impact early in the season:

Tony Abreu (2B, Los Angeles Dodgers)
Brian Barton (OF, St. Louis Cardinals)
Joe Dillon (3B, Milwaukee Brewers)
Elijah Dukes (OF, Washington Nationals)
Jody Gerut (OF, San Diego Padres)
Ruben Gotay (2B, New York Mets)
Chin-Lung Hu (SS, Los Angeles Dodgers)
Brandon Jones (OF, Atlanta Braves)
Fred Lewis (OF, San Francisco Giants)
Justin Maxwell (OF, Washington Nationals)
Dallas McPherson (3B, Florida Marlins)
Nyjer Morgan (OF, Pittsburgh Pirates)
Eric Patterson (OF, Chicago Cubs)
Nate Schierholtz (OF, San Francisco Giants)
Delwyn Young (OF, Los Angeles Dodgers)

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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