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Discovering the hidden breakout performers

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Right about now, many of you are staring at your NCAA Tournament bracket – the one decorated with more red marks than your typical high school trig exam – and you're wondering if maybe, just maybe, you should have seen all this coming.

Did you miss something during Stanford's run to the top of the rankings? Was there something you overlooked when sizing up Nevada's chances? How could you have sold the defending national champions short?

Save yourself the torture and, while you're at it, throw that bracket away. I know Yahoo!'s scenario generator says you're still alive, but do you really think Xavier will upset Nevada in the finals to win it all?

Here's the thing: The numbers can tell us what is likely to happen – but only in broad strokes. They may tell us that a 10-seed is likely to reach the Sweet 16, but which one is still a mystery. The same applies to the inevitable first-round upset for a No. 12 seed. I picked Pacific to win their opener, but I couldn't tell you why.

The same frustrating randomness applies to fantasy baseball drafts. Will there be another Esteban Loaiza this year? Probably. Who will it be? Umm, ask me again in July. I'm giving it a shot this week, but 2004's breakout player may well sneak up on us like Justin Timberlake's left hand on Super Bowl Sunday.

This is closeout week for the Sleeper Superstore. Two weeks ago I featured some rookies to watch. Last week's special was players on the rebound. This week I'm blowing out players with breakout potential. These guys may have been on the radar for a while, but this is the year they will emerge from late-round obscurity to make a difference in your fantasy league.

C - Ramon Castro, Florida Marlins
Some people never forget a face. I never forget a fantasy roster. Well, except for my catchers, that is. Last year I drafted an AL-only team in an experts league and suffered through a season following the progress of Miguel Olivo and some other guy I couldn't name even if you offered me a first-round pick and tickets behind the plate for opening day. Olivo hit .237. I shudder to think how bad what's-his-name was.

Past the big three of Posada, Piazza and Rodriguez, good help may be hard to find again this year. The last time Ramon Castro found steady work, he hit .336 with 27 homers and 90 RBI for Triple-A Calgary in 2001. Last year in a reserve role, he hit five homers in 53 at bats. This spring he went deep four times in his first 26 tries. Nine home runs in 79 plate appearances? Now those are numbers I can remember.

1B - Craig Wilson, Pittsburgh Pirates
OK, so I'm not ready to let the catcher position go quite yet. Have I ever drafted a good catcher? I had Mike Lieberthal the year his knee blew out. Jason Kendall and Javy Lopez have always under produced for me. Mike Piazza is a lock for an injury-plagued year when I gamble on him. Then there was the fella I can't remember on my AL-only team. Note of caution: I drafted Paul LoDuca this year. Adjust your rankings accordingly.

Craig Wilson is a great late-round selection for a number of reasons. First, he's eligible at multiple positions, including catcher. Second, he can hit. After the break last year he had 14 homers and 32 RBI in 58 games. Finally, he should be an everyday player for the first time in his career.

If there was any doubt that Pittsburgh needed to find a place for this guy in the lineup, Wilson put it to rest by leading the team in homers (4), RBI (13) and batting average (.394) through 18 spring games.

2B - Brian Roberts, Baltimore Orioles
What do you get when you place a guy who has never made an opening-day roster atop a powder keg of a lineup? We'll soon find out in Baltimore. Or we may not. This much we know: Roberts will start the season at second base for the O's. A year ago this would be ho-hum news. Not so in 2004 now that Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro, Javy Lopez and Jay Gibbons have gathered to form an explosive middle of the lineup.

There's more to Roberts' value than his place in the lineup. He stole 23 bases in 29 tries a year ago. He had a .401 on-base percentage in 44 games at Triple-A Ottawa before the Orioles called him up. There is also reason for concern. The position battle between Roberts and Jerry Hairston was supposed to be settled this spring. Hairston's injury left that situation unsettled, so Roberts will be pressured to perform in the early going. Best-case, look for a David Eckstein in 2002-type breakout year.

3B - Joe Crede, Chicago White Sox
Reach the 20th round of your local fantasy baseball draft and you'll come across a logjam of potential breakout players at the hot corner. Crede earns mention here through a process of elimination. Casey Blake (age 30) and Brandon Larson (27) are slightly past prime breakout age. Sean Burroughs has never hit for power as a pro and Eric Munson has never hit for average at any level.

That leaves us with Crede. At 25, he's the right age to start putting it all together – and he has all the tools. He's hit for both power and average at every level of the White Sox organization. Like Paul Konerko, he was a disappointment last year, which is why you'll find him available in the second wave of third basemen. He hit over .300 with 11 homers after the break, and a solid spring indicates that trend will continue.

SS - Alex Cintron, Arizona Diamondbacks
In his first four seasons in professional baseball, Alex Cintron hit 10 homers. In just 117 games at the major-league level with the Diamondbacks in 2003, he went deep 13 times. Long compared physically to the likes of Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra, Cintron may have finally found a power stroke to complement his 200-pound frame. If the development continues, fantasy owners can expect Angel Berroa-type power numbers. Arizona has him slotted to hit fifth behind Richie Sexson. That placement brings 85 RBIs into reach for this switch hitter who batted .331 after the break in 2003. You'll likely find him available six rounds after Berroa leaves the board. Don't expect more than five stolen bases here and you won't be disappointed.

OF - Marlon Byrd, Philadelphia Phillies
Selected in the 18th round of your average Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Baseball PLUS draft, Marlon Byrd may well be the steal of the season. There is a lot to like here. He hit .313 after the break in 2003. He stole six bases in seven tries in September alone. He displayed 30/30 potential in the minor leagues, falling just two homers shy of the mark in 2001. Baseball America ranked him ahead of Brett Myers as Philadelphia's top prospect in 2002.

And, like Brian Roberts, he's projected to sit atop a very potent lineup. If healthy, he's a lock to score 100 runs in 2004. Only 13 National League players reached that plateau a year ago. Philadelphia won't run a ton, but 25 stolen bases is a very realistic target here. If you look at the guys drafted around him, 100 runs, 25 steals, 15 homers and a .303 average would be a very satisfying return here.

P - Jake Peavy, San Diego Padres
If this is the year that San Diego turns things around, Jake Peavy will be at the center of the resurgence. Things finally began to click for the 22-year-old in the final two months of 2003. He closed by allowing 48 hits in 65.2 innings while striking out 58 batters. This was on the heels of a miserable July during which he posted an 8.86 ERA in four starts.

Peavy's stuff has been turning heads for years. He was only 19 when Baseball America ranked him as the second-best prospect in the San Diego organization. In parts of two big-league seasons, Peavy's career record is 18-18. Over those two years, San Diego has posted a .401 winning percentage. The Padres are projected to be much improved, which should push Peavy into 15-17 win territory.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some paper to recycle. Thanks a lot, Mississippi State.

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