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Fantasy Baseball Breakouts and Sleepers

I'm not sure if anyone else is really into fantasy baseball, but I'm mildly obsessed. I cancelled my MLB.TV subscription last year, but before that, I used to watch games in class rather than listen to lectures. Anyways, I thought I'd share a few notes from my preparation thus far. I've done my initial research and feel pretty comfortable with this year overall. I don't think it makes a lot of sense to do extremely detailed individual projections, however, since it seems like this year the variance in opinion is crazy. Try asking another player what they feel about guys like Andrew McCutchen or Curtis Granderson, and you'll get people willing to draft them at Pick 40 and guys who wouldn't touch them until 100 or later.

Here are some names that popped out at me, guys I want on all my teams this year:

Geovany Soto (Chicago Cubs) - A sexy pick in 2009, he has been completely abandoned in 2010 drafts following a down year. But his underlying numbers changed very little in '09 compared to his star turn in '08. His K% and BB% were stable (24.5/11.0 in 2008, 23.3/12.9 in 2009). His GB:FB ratio stayed in line as well (41.4% flyballs in 2008, 41.3% in 2009). All of it adds up to some bad luck and -- as he himself has admitted in interviews -- a sense of complacency. That sense of entitlement is gone this year, and I see Soto returning himself to top 100 or even top 60 value: .280/20 HR/75 RBI as a catcher.

Gordon Beckham (Chicago White Sox) - He has the pedigree (No. 8 overall pick in the 2008 draft), the discipline (0.63:1 K:BB ratio in '09), and the youth (he'll be 23 for most of the season) to be a huge breakout player in 2010. Bill James is a believer, projecting a .288/21 HR/96 RBI/93 R/10 SB season out of the youngster. That's a bit high, I think (it would have Beckham selected in the fifth round next year at the latest), but I could definitely see a .280/20/80/80 year out of the youngster. And the best part of all? He's shifting over to second base this season, which means a scarce position just got the year's biggest sleeper.

Alcides Escobar (Milwaukee Brewers) - Sticking with the middle infield for the moment, I'll also talk up the Brewers' rookie shortstop. They thought so much of him that they traded J.J. Hardy, himself an above-average major league hitter, away to make room for the 23-year old. Escobar's AAA stat line was .298/4 HR/34 RBI/76 R/42 SB, and he has great contact rates in his minor-league career, striking out only 15% of the time. He compares very favorably to Elvis Andrus, whose last minor-league season was .295/4/65/82/54 in AA ball. Last year, Andrus made a big impact for Texas, and people are taking him around 100-110. That's not a bad price for Andrus, but that means that Escobar's low price tag (he's being snagged after Pick 200) is spectacular.

Carlos Gonzalez (Colorado Rockies) - First of all, let's make one thing clear: you want anyone with an iotum of hitting talent who gets to play at Coors Field. Remember Matt Holliday's breakout year in 2006? He went from a .307/19 HR/14 SB year (in 479 AB) to starting full-time and exploding to a .326/34 HR/10 SB season. Well, stop me if this sounds familiar, but Gonzalez played part-time last year and offered very serviceable numbers: .284/13 HR/16 SB in only 278 ABs. Now he's inheriting a full-time job, and I think .280/20/20 is the minimum you get out of my favorite outfield breakout candidate. Here's the crazy part: Gonzalez is being taken after pick 100 in most drafts today, while Andrew McCutchen plays (a) for a worse team (b) in a worse hitting park and is being gobbled up around 60-65. And why are people so excited about McCutchen? His .286/12 HR/22 SB line in 433 ABs last year.

Max Scherzer (Detroit Tigers) - Let's play a comparison game between two pitchers, Max Scherzer and mystery man X. Here are their stat lines from their first full year in the majors:

Scherzer (2009) - 170.1 IP, 166 H, 20 HR, 63 BB, 174 K and 9 wins with a 4.12 ERA

X - 146.1 IP, 122 H, 12 HR, 65 BB, 150 K and 7 wins with a 4.00 ERA

Want to see what X's second year in the league looked like? How about 227 IP, 182 H, 11 HR, 84 BB, 265 K, with 18 wins, a 2.62 ERA, and a Cy Young award. In case you haven't realized by now, that's Tim Lincecum. I'm not claiming Scherzer makes the same leap; the vast majority of young pitchers don't follow the same meteoric path Lincecum has blazed, and Scherzer has a few more disadvantages, including his move to the American League.

But let's be clear about some things. (1) Very few pitchers strike out more than a batter per inning. (2) Very few pitchers have the command to boast K:BB rates of 2.76:1, as Scherzer did last year. The list of pitchers who combine the two characteristics are basically the league's superstars. Watch Scherzer work, and you get the feeling he could do the same -- he throws a very hard fastball between 92-97 mph, and his wicked mid-80's slider is a great swing-and-miss pitch. So if you're looking to buy a late-round youngster who could be drafted in the Top 100 next year, I don't see a better bet out there than Max Scherzer.

That's all I have for today. I'll post my picks for busts or overvalued players later this week.