These AL sleepers could pay big dividends

10:09 AM, Feb 26, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Last year at this time, players like Chris Sale and Yoenis Cespedes were thought of as "sleepers" in American League fantasy baseball drafts.

Owners who drafted them now view those one-time sleepers as big-time keepers. Let's take a crack at picking an AL fantasy starting lineup made up solely of players who can possibly be obtained near the back end of drafts:

CATCHER - JASON CASTRO, HOUSTON: Once thought to be a top catching prospect, Castro's development at the major-league level has been slowed by a torn ACL that wiped out his entire 2011 campaign. In just 257 at-bats last year, he hit .257 with six home runs and 29 RBIs.

If Castro can stay on the field and play a full season as a regular, something like 12 homers and 60 RBIs would be a possibility, to go along with a respectable batting average. A left-handed hitter, Castro will have to improve his performance against southpaws (.113 batting average in those situations in 2012) to avoid a platoon.

He's not going to suddenly become Victor Martinez, but Castro has decent upside and would be a good target in the final rounds of a draft or a good $1 pickup in an auction.

FIRST BASE - JUSTIN SMOAK, SEATTLE: The key piece in the 2010 trade that sent pitcher Cliff Lee to the Texas Rangers, Smoak has not delivered on his promise. Entering his age-26 season, Smoak has career numbers of 47 homers, 154 RBIs and a .223 average in 1,258 at-bats.

Smoak has a career OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of just .683, including a dismal .654 mark last season. Looking for a bright spot? After returning from a brief stint in the minors last year, he closed out the season with a .288 average and .850 OPS the rest of the way.

The acquisition of Kendrys Morales, who is expected to open the year as designated hitter, could give Smoak a short leash with the starting first base job. If you miss out on big sluggers in your draft, though, Smoak could be a worthwhile gamble because you never know when the light switch might turn on for him.

SECOND BASE - JEFF KEPPINGER, CHICAGO WHITE SOX: This is a player who frequently gets overlooked, in part because he has never hit double-digit home runs in a single season. Also, he's been a journeyman, with the White Sox being his seventh major-league team in a career that began in 2004.

Slated to be Chicago's everyday third baseman, Keppinger is rebounding from a broken leg he suffered in November. He won't likely deliver the kind of pop you'd normally want from a third baseman, but he hit .325 in 385 at-bats for Tampa Bay last season, and he has a career .288 average.

No, Keppinger won't hit for power and he won't run very much (12 steals in 701 career games), but he won't hurt your team, either. He'd make an excellent late-round target because his versatility will be a godsend. He'll qualify at first, second or third base in most leagues, which will give you great roster flexibility when injuries inevitably affect your team.

SHORTSTOP - HIROYUKI NAKAJIMA, OAKLAND: It's always difficult to assess how a player's game will translate when he leaves the Japanese League to come to the majors, but Nakajima has been a solid and remarkably consistent all-around player in Japan.

He has a combined .312 average and .867 OPS and has won a pair of Gold Gloves during the past five years. Last season, he batted .311 with 13 homers, 74 RBIs and seven steals. His average and ability to produce runs could make him make him a sneaky top-10 shortstop in AL-only leagues, and he could even merit middle infield consideration in a mixed league.

THIRD BASE - LONNIE CHISENHALL, CLEVELAND: The Indians last season had split third base duties between Chisenhall and Jack Hannahan until the former fractured his forearm in June. Chisenhall sat out from late June to mid- September, so he was limited to 142 at-bats.

Now 24, Chisenhall has the third base job to himself, with Hannahan having signed as a free agent with Cincinnati this offseason. A first-round draft pick in 2008, Chisenhall has high upside. He could hit 20 homers and knock in a decent number of runs in what looks like an improved Indians offense.

OUTFIELD - EMILIO BONIFACIO, TORONTO: Acquired in a blockbuster trade with the Miami Marlins, Bonifacio entered the spring in a battle with free-agent signing Maicer Izturis for the starting second base job. If Bonifacio wins and is the starter for a full season, 40-50 stolen bases would be a possibility, if not a probability.

Even if he doesn't win the starting gig, Bonifacio figures to be a super sub, since he also can play all three outfield positions, as well as shortstop and third base. He was 30-for-33 in stolen base attempts for Miami last year, doing all that running while playing a mere 64 games.

Technically, Bonifacio could be considered No. 2 on the Blue Jays' depth chart at six positions. Although playing time at second base seems the most likely, it's also easy to imagine the Jays souring on incumbent center fielder Colby Rasmus, who has been long on potential and short on results.

OUTFIELD - JUSTIN MAXWELL, HOUSTON: Since the Astros are newcomers to the AL - and since they're likely to lose at least 100 games - many of their players will be overlooked on draft day. Few are likely to be as wrongly overlooked as Maxwell.

Once a top Washington Nationals prospect, Maxwell was a late bloomer because of a long injury history. Last season, though, he quietly broke out with 18 homers and 53 RBIs in just 315 at-bats. Now, the downside: He batted just .229.

A career .217 hitter in 534 big-league at-bats, Maxwell isn't going to suddenly become Tony Gwynn. In fact, he's most likely going to hurt your team's average.

In the last rounds of an AL-only draft, however, you won't find too many players with the 20-25 home run potential that Maxwell possesses.

OUTFIELD - DARIN MASTROIANNI, MINNESOTA: Opportunity is perhaps the biggest factor in major-league production and it looks like Mastroianni is going to be given his chance to shine this season. At 27, he has compiled just 165 major- league at-bats.

With great speed and almost no power to speak of, Mastroianni had been behind two superior players with a similar skill set - Denard Span and Ben Revere. This offseason, Span was traded to Washington and Revere was dealt to Philadelphia.

Mastroianni, who stole 21 bases while being limited to 163 at-bats last season, could end up being the Twins' starting center fielder and leadoff hitter. He may prove to only be a true fantasy asset in the stolen base category, but he could potentially put up a big-time total there.

DESIGNATED HITTER - LUKE SCOTT, TAMPA BAY: Every spring training, you always hear those "He's in the best shape of his life" stories, and they can generally be taken with a grain of salt. Still, here's a guess that Scott's optimism about finally being 100 percent after 2011 shoulder surgery will result in a return toward past form.

From 2008-10, Scott averaged 25 home runs and 71 RBIs. With Baltimore in 2011, Scott had his season cut short by the aforementioned shoulder injury, and he hit just .220 in 209 at-bats. With Tampa Bay last season, he hit.229 with 14 homers and 55 RBIs.

Scott isn't going to ever be a 30-homer, 100-RBI guy, but a late-round DH who delivers something like the 25 homers and 71 RBIs he averaged during his pre- shoulder surgery days would be a good late-round bargain.

STARTING PITCHER - BLAKE BEAVAN, SEATTLE: Another player the Mariners obtained in the Lee trade to Texas, Beavan turned the corner in the second half of last season. His full-season stats were not exceptional (an 11-11 record and 4.43 earned run average), but he went 8-5 with a 3.40 ERA and 1.16 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) after the All-Star break.

You'd rather see a higher strikeout rate (a mere 67 in 152 1/3 innings), but Beavan doesn't walk anyone, either. He issued just 24 bases on balls last year. He also pitches half his games in an extreme pitchers' park, so there's plenty of promise here, particularly if strikeouts aren't a category in your league.

RELIEF PITCHER - ERNESTO FRIERI, L.A. ANGELS: Can a guy who had 23 saves for a contending team last season be drafted as a late-round sleeper? Perhaps Frieri can.

Although Frieri posted a solid 2.32 ERA and microscopic 0.99 WHIP last season, the Angels signed free agent Ryan Madson to take over as the closer. Frieri came into spring training expecting to be the eighth-inning guy.

Madson missed the entire 2012 season after Tommy John surgery, and he stopped throwing for two weeks earlier this month because of soreness in the elbow.

He's back throwing again, but he may not be ready for the start of the regular season. Should Madson miss any time, Frieri could take the job back and run with it.

Jeff Saukaitis has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.

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