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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Soul Sleepers

It's spring. The season is a week away. Countless fantasy baseball drafts are taking place everyday. The preparation for those drafts takes many forms, but among the most exciting aspects of it is the prediction of "sleeper" candidates. Players who can be had in the middle or late rounds of the draft, but have the potential to outperform many of the players taken ahead of them. It's easy to highlight players who are coming off of injuries or who struggled last year, there are an abundance of them. Experts dig into their statbooks to find reasons why Jose Vidro will hit for more power in AL West or Ian Snell will win 15 games in Pittsburgh. Casual players usually rely more on their instincts. They pick up sleeper candidates because they play for their favorite team or because they once saw them hit a pair of homers in a Triple-A game. Experience shows that both methods have about the same chance of succeeding. Only a handful of the sleeper candidates talked about incessantly during spring training will have a sizable impact on the season. But that impact can be dramatic. Last year Justin Morneau (AL MVP), Francisco Liriano, and Michael Cuddyer took the Twins to the playoffs and fantasy teams to the top. Today, rather than telling you which sleepers I'm drafting, I'm going to take a look at the most soulful players on my sleeper radar. Players who, were they to succeed, would provide this season with outstanding storylines.

Josh Hamilton - OF - Cincinnati Reds

Anybody who knows anybody who's struggled with addiction, particularly that especially abominable variety brought about by crystal meth, can appreciate what an unbelievable fete it would be for Hamilton to recover from years on the tweak to become an productive professional athlete. Hamilton is a former bonus-baby #1 draft pick whose biggest claim to fame so far is being the subject of an HBO documentary about drug abuse. Despite the aggressive deterioration of the body (and passion for mediocre tattoos) which accompanies meth addiction, he still makes even the most hyper-homophobic sports commentators use phrases like "perfectly sculpted baseball body." He's batting .440 in 50 spring training ABs, playing great defense, and as a Rule 5 pick he must spend the entire season in the majors or be returned to his former team, so he seems destined to be the Reds fifth oufielder. Cincinnati's current starting outfield features Ken Griffey Jr. (43% of games since 2000 spent on DL), Ryan Freel (27% of games in last two seasons spent on DL), and the uber-healthy, but defensively-challenged Adam Dunn. With Dunn likely to share some time with Scott Hatteberg at 1B, it's fairly safe to say Hamilton should get 300-400 ABs and, depending on what he does with them, maybe considerably more. He will have to compete with another talented young Reds outfielder, Chris Denorfia, which could impede his opportunities. But in the age of performance-enhancing drugs, Josh Hamilton has the potential to bring good old-fashioned performance-impairing substances back into the limelight where they belong.

Russell Martin - C - Los Angeles Dodgers

He's the only African American starting catcher in the major leagues. His father is a Canadian street saxophonist. His middle name is Coltrane! What more can you possibly ask for? Oh, yeah, he's a pretty damn good player too. Last year, at age 23, he became only the third rookie catcher in MLB history to get to double digits in home runs and stolen bases. One of them, John Roseboro, perhaps most famous for being the object of a brutal beating by Juan Marichal, never did it again, but was a four-time all-star. The other, Benito Santiago, went on to be a five-time all-star and one of the best catchers of his era, offensively and defensively.

Sammy Sosa - DH - Texas Rangers

His .429 spring batting average, with 4 home runs and 13 RBIs, has put Sosa into the position to start the season as the Rangers everyday DH. Still, it's been three seasons since he put wood - corked or otherwise - on a breaking pitch, and the fastballs he's been pounding haven't exactly been of the John Lackey, Rich Harden, Felix Hernandez variety. But, were Slammin' Sammy, the man born to be a bobblehead, to rediscover the stroke that netted him six consecutive years of 40+ homers for the Cubs, he could really do some damage at Ameriquest Field, a ballpark that has made such luminaries as Rusty Greer, Lee Stevens, Herb Perry, and Gary Matthews Jr. into perennial 20-homer candidates. And, of course, if he joins fellow beefy-headed alleged 'roid-ragers Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield in climbing the all-time leaderboard, Bud Selig will have even more historic moments to avoid.

Kerry Wood & Mark Prior - P - Chicago Cubs

There is a tradition in Arizona every March. Bushy-tailed beat reporters gather around a dirt mound and wait for one of the Cubs highly talented homegrown pitchers to emerge from the dugout. The long and short of it is, when he sees his shadow, he promptly fall and dislocates his right shoulder and the Cubs are in for eight more months of winter. It's been winter in Chicago for three straight years and - guess what? - just announced this week, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior are going to start 2007 on the disabled list. Just for a few weeks though, Lou Pinella says, just to be safe. It's a familiar song and dance. Will Rich Hill be next? Or Jeff Szmrajx#@r*za, their $8,000,000 bonus-baby from Notre Dame? If I were a successful amateur pitcher, a guaranteed 100% surefire future all-star, one thing is for certain, no amount of Tribune money could get me to sign in Chicago. You might as well lay your arm down in the middle of Michigan Ave., year after year after year.

So what's the story here? Well, it's pretty simple. If Wood becomes a dominant back-of-the-bullpen arm, joining Dempster, Howry, Eyre, and Cotts, and Prior sands the rust off his golden arm and slides into the middle of the rotation, than the Cubs cannot help but be a contender. They have too much offense not to be. In the weakest division in the weaker league, they have the opportunity to perhaps put an end to the last century-old baseball jinx. If that doesn't happen - and, of course, it never does - they might still make the playoffs, but lets put it this way. The St. Louis Cardinals, last year's World Champs, when they put together their postseason roster, they took Aaron Miles (671 OPS, 2 HR), they took Randy Flores (5.62 ERA), they took Tyler Johson (4.95 ERA), and the took Jeff Weaver (8-14, 5.76 ERA), but they left off the Cubs current #4 starter, Jason Marquis. Why? Because he had a 6.02 ERA, nearly as many walks as strikeouts, and led the league in one crucial category: Home Runs Allowed. The only thing about him that's changed: now he gets to face Albert Pujols about a dozen times. I'll take Mark Prior at 80%, Lou. How 'bout you?

Barry Bonds - LF - San Francisco Giants

Despite everything, it is difficult to make a case for the greatest player in the history of the game as a "sleeper." But, in the various drafts I've participated in and read about, Bonds has not once been picked before the 10th round. Considering his second half tear a year ago and his 5 home runs in just 30 spring ABs, that's too low. Not to mention: He's Barry-Fucking-Bonds! If you're not rooting for him to break the record and win another MVP, you're a racist. You hate baseball and America. You know why he's going to hit 30 homers and draw 150 walks? Because he feels like it. I don't care how old he is. His agent, Jeff Moorad, predicted this offseason that Barry wasn't just going to pass Hank Aaron, he was going to hit 1000 homers. I buy it. Remember Michael Jordan. Remember Miles Davis. Remember Frederick Douglass. Barry's that class of pimp. Draft his sweet ass (in the middle rounds). You won't be sorry.

Sure, despite looking sprier this spring than he has since his second divorce, Barry might only play 75% of the Giants games. And they haven't exactly built a powerhouse lineup around him (He's batting between Rich Aurilia and Ray Durham!?!), but San Francisco has the potential to surprise. They've got a solid starting rotation. They've got no shortage of "veteran presence." They've got solid defence up the middle. And it's a wide open division. If the Giants are still in the playoff hunt in August...well, check out Barry's August and September splits from 2002, and last year for that matter. You all remember that home run he hit off Troy Percival in the first game of the World Series. P. I. M. P.

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