We've all read about Jay Bruce, Geovany Soto, Evan Longoria, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Phil Hughes. I try to give you some background on players (not necessarily rookies) who seem to be getting overlooked in drafts and in the preseason coverage. Most of these guys are good bets even for 10-team 5 X 5 mixed leagues, but some of them should probably be reserved for those deep keeper league afficianados, of which there are plenty.
Matt Kemp (RF/Dodgers), Chris Young (CF/Diamondbacks), Jeremy Hermida (RF/Marlins), Jeff Francouer (RF/Braves), Jered Weaver (SP/Angels), & Ian Snell (SP/Pirates)
I know these guys aren't exactly "sleepers" in the traditional sense. Kemp, Francouer, and Young are going in the first ten rounds in most drafts, with Hermida, Weaver, and Snell following five or so rounds later. But, remember, many of us won leagues last year on the backs of guys like Prince Fielder, Nick Markakis, Alex Rios, Russell Martin, and Dan Haren. None of them were "unknown" commodities either, but they all fell into the middle rounds, then provided early-round numbers. Now they're all considered Top 50 commodities. All six of these players are 25 or younger, so even though they've logged as many as three full seasons, they've still got plenty of time to mature. In keeper leagues, several of these guys may be left on the board. I'm telling you this much: they won't be there next year. Get while the gettin's good. I think Kemp is your best bet for a Prince Fielder-style breakout year (of course, such things don't happen every season).
Colby Rasmus (CF/Cardinals), Manny Parra (SP/Brewers), & Steven Pearce (OF/Pirates)
Did you know that half of the Rookie of the Year winners from this decade started the season in the minor leagues, including guys like Ryan Howard, Ryan Braun, and Dontrelle Willis? Before you spend a mid-round pick on early favorites like Evan Longoria (3B/Rays) and Joba Chamberlain (P/Yankees), consider waiting and snagging one of these fellows at the end of the draft. They have both already been optioned to AAA, but they'll both find their way into a starting role sometime this season. With a little luck (trades, slumps, injuries...Yippee!) it could be sooner rather than later and they both have the potential to start hitting the moment the put on the uniform. Pearce hit 31 HR and had a 1016 OPS between three minor league levels in 2007 and finished the season by hitting .294 during a brief trial in Pittsburgh. The Pirates are converting him to the outfield because Adam LaRoche is entrenched at first base. Pearce is athletic enough to be decent in left, but he is going to need a month or so of seasoning. Once he's ready, I don't think Xavier "Always on the Block" Nady will be too big an obstacle. Rasmus is only 20, but seems to be mature beyond his years. He's disciplined (380 OBP, 80% SB%) and extraordinarily powerful (29 HR at AA in 128 G). The Cardinals have decided to start the season with Rick Ankiel, Chris Duncan, Brian Barton, and Ryan Ludwick in their outfield rotation (perhaps so that they don't start the arbitration clock too early on Rasmus), but this isn't exactly a veteran corps. Rasmus could probably outplay any of them tomorrow. Parra has a chance to stay with the Brewers thanks largely to the injury suffered by Yovani Gallardo and his 0.64 ERA with 15 K in 14 IP this spring. He should probably be regarded as highly as guys like Phil Hughes, Homer Bailey, and Clayton Kershaw, but he doesn't get the press. Even if you've already had your draft, he's probably still on the waiver wire. Again, this is one of those get while the gettin's good situations.
Melky Cabrera (CF/Yankees), Coco Crisp (CF/Red Sox), Jon Lester (SP/Red Sox), & Jason Giambi (1B/Yankees)
It's harder to find sleepers on the "Baseball Tonight" teams. Joba Chamberlain, Jacoby Ellsbury, Phil Hughes, Clay Buchholz, and Ian Kennedy (They're all rookies, remember!) are getting drafted way too early in most leagues because of their notoriety. These are the guys that are falling through the cracks. In ESPN fantasy leagues, four of the five rookies listed above (all but Kennedy) are going ahead of all four of the guys I'm recommending. Melky is only 23, but he's logged 1000 MLB at-bats and during a 64-game stretch last season he batted .335 with 38 RBI and an 859 OPS. Now he's being handed a everyday job in one of the most potent lineups in history. Don't you think he's got a better chance of making a contribution to your fantasy team than Ellsbury, who is older, but hasn't adjusted to the big leagues yet and hasn't any more impressive minor league stats than Cabrera? Moreover, don't you think a guy who suffered from injuries last season, but hit 30+ HR in seven of the previous eight years might be worth more than a late-round flier? Sure, Giambi is 37, but given 500 AB, he can still produce like a premier slugger. Finally, I include Coco Crisp because he's likely to find a new home sometime early this season (Chicago? San Diego? Cleveland?) and he'll have something to prove if he does. He stole 28 bases in 34 attempts last year, so he's an inexpensive source of speed and before moving to Boston he seemed to be developing some power (15+ HR in '04 and '05). He's only 28, so don't give up on him quite yet.
Yadier Molina (C/St. Louis) & Chris Snyder (C/St. Louis)
Especially for deep leagues that require two catchers, these are some guys to keep your eye on. Yadi has been pegged as a defensive specialist, ala his mentor, Mike Matheny, but he's only 24 and his brother, Bengie, didn't start developing his power stroke until his late twenties. This is Yadi's fifth season in the major leagues and he's already a gold glove caliber defender, so he's going to get his plate appearances. During August last season, after he recovered from his injury, he batted .341 with 4 HR and 15 RBI. One month does not a hitter make...but Molina is worth considering in your deeper leagues. Snyder is entering that magical 27-year-old season and last year he had twice as many homers as any other season in his career. He'll battle another very deep sleeper, Miguel Montero, for playing time in Arizona, but, again, if you have to draft a second catcher, you're better off with him than a worn-down veteran like Jason Kendall, Paul Lo Duca, or Brian Schneider.
Elijah Dukes (LF/Nationals)
I've been a fan of Dukes for a couple years now. Maybe I am just a sucker for brothers who are down on their luck and have something to prove, but nobody can deny Dukes talent. He may be a loose canon off the field, but he is disciplined at the plate (nearly as many walks as strikeouts in '06 and '07). And although he was below the Mendoza line during his brief stint with Tampa Bay last year, he hit 10 dinger in less than 200 AB, which gives you insight into his raw power. With Wily Mo Pena (another sleeper slugger) on the DL to start the season, it looks like Dukes will get an opportunity to show the Nationals what he can do.
Tony Pena (RP/Diamondbacks) & Matt Lindstrom (RP/Marlins)
If you're like me, than you are always on the look out for ways to scavenge saves. Pena and Lindstrom are both hard-throwing young relievers who dominated in set-up roles and are working in front of closers (Brandon Lyon & Kevin Gregg) who don't exactly have a Masterlock on their positions. Pena and Lindstrom are necessarily more talented than Scot Shields, Brian Fuentes, or Manny Delcarmen, who are great relief choices for leagues that value Holds, but they are more likely to get a shot a saves sometime this year.