Baseball at the intersection of Sleeper and Rookie

Matt Romig

Generally, I am a man of my word.

When it comes to making good on threats, however, I am several lengthy hitting streaks short of the Mendoza line. Anyone who has had the displeasure of reading my league message board ramblings over the years can attest to this fact.

This understood, it should come as no surprise that just eight months after threatening to retire the word "sleeper" from my column for good, I am instead pulling a complete about-face. Simply put: I've sold out.

That's right, for the next three weeks I'll be caving into consumer demand and turning this space into a Sleeper Superstore. We'll start this week with rookies, take a look at rebound players next week and conclude with breakout sleepers as we near opening day. I don't feel good about this at all.

One word of caution before we get to the players: Don't fall in love with your sleepers. This is particularly true with rookies. The worst mistake you can make is wanting to make one of those "show what you know" picks so badly that you overpay by three or four rounds.

Be patient with these guys. Use them to fill holes in your lineup in the later rounds. Don't project them as your top guys entering the draft. You may be pleasantly surprised down the road.

Now let's hit the diamond.

C: Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins
Key Stat: Hit .338 with a combined 172 hits at two minor league stops in 2003.
Buyer Beware: He's only 20. How good can he be right away?

Can we still call this guy a sleeper? Just about every expert out there has already weighed in on his potential, and Baseball America named him the top prospect in all of baseball. The cat is not only out of the bag here; he's sharpening his claws on your new sofa. All you need to know about this guy is that he can flat-out hit.

In my experts draft, he was taken in the 20th round – one round after Robby Hammock and two rounds behind Victor Martinez. I think that's about right. He'll hit right around .300, but his power numbers should lag behind those of his more mature counterparts. For a true sleeper, keep your eye on Anaheim's camp and the progress of Jeff Mathis. He tore up the minors last year and could play his way into a roster spot.

1B: Justin Morneau, Minnesota Twins
Key Stat: 26 combined homers in 2003 (Double-A, Triple-A, Minnesota).
Buyer Beware: Doug Mientkiewicz owns a Gold Glove and the starting job at first base in Minnesota.

Baseball America ranks this sweet-swinging lefty as the 16th-best prospect in all of baseball. Having excelled at every level in the Twins organization, he enters spring training with only one obstacle in his way – the webbing in Doug Mientkiewicz's glove. Morneau struggled to find at bats during two call-ups last year and it looks like a similar battle is ahead in 2004.

Only one Twins player topped 20 homers or 100 RBIs in 2003. Morneau has that type of potential, and his power should only increase as he matures. He'll turn 23 less than two months after opening day. Keep an eye on him this spring. If he continues to hit (he homered Friday), he could be this year's Mark Teixeira.

2B: Aaron Miles, Colorado Rockies
Key Stat: Hit .304 with a club-record 166 hits at Triple-A Charlotte in 2003.
Buyer Beware: Coors Field doesn't make a star out of everyone (see Jose Ortiz).

When the 20th round comes up and you have a chance to draft a guy who might sit atop the Colorado lineup, you have to give it some serious thought. Miles puts the ball in play – he struck out once every 11.3 at bats in the minors – which could lead to big totals in doubles, triples and runs scored for the switch-hitter.

Don't look for much out of Miles in the stolen base department, but 15-20 homers and 80-90 runs are not out of reach if he nails down a starting job. If you're drafting deeper into spring, keep an eye on this battle. It's possible that non-roster invitee Damian Jackson might earn this spot.

3B: Garrett Atkins, Colorado Rockies
Key Stat: Career .303 hitter in four minor league seasons.
Buyer Beware: Committed 26 errors between Triple-A and Colorado in 2003

If Topps ever prints a Garrett Atkins trading card with a game-used glove insert, they might just leave a hole in the cardboard. Just about every scouting report you read on this converted first baseman reads the same: All bat, no glove. Might he be a new man this year? Let's hope so, but spring training began predictably with an E5 in his debut.

Let's face it, third base is thin on rookie talent this year. Top prospects are not too far off in Atlanta (Andy Marte), Anaheim (Dallas McPherson) and New York (David Wright), but don't look for anyone to make a splash this year. Atkins gets the nod because he can hit and because Vinny Castilla isn't getting any younger.

SS: Khalil Greene, San Diego Padres
Key Stat: 10 homers, 47 RBIs in just over half a season at Triple-A Portland.
Buyer Beware: With only two years of minor league ball behind him, he may be headed back for more seasoning.

Let's forget about Bobby Crosby and Kazuo Matsui for the moment. Both are done-deal starters and have been hyped out of sleeper consideration. Crosby was a 17th-round pick in my experts draft and Matsui went in the rarified air of the fifth round.

Mark this down as the first overreaction to spring training results of my 2004 campaign: Greene homered off Joel Pineiro on Saturday to kick off his challenge for San Diego's starting shortstop job. Greene has displayed surprising power at every level. If he can win a regular spot in the improved Padres lineup, Angel Berroa-type power numbers are not out of reach.

OF: Jason Bay, Pittsburgh Pirates
Key Stat: 20 homers, 23 steals in 91 games at Triple-A Portland in 2003.
Buyer Beware: Struck out 25 times in 64 at-bats with Pittsburgh in September.

Here's an interesting stat: Bay hit .461 when putting the ball in play for the Pirates last September. Included was a three-hit, two-homer, eight-RBI breakout game against the Cubs. Not included, of course, are the 25 strikeouts in 22 games referenced above. Even when you include those futile at bats, Bay hit a respectable .281 for the month.

Drafting rookies always is a risk, but I like Bay's situation. He's got the combination of speed and power that fantasy owners love. He's got a starting position locked up. And his organization is committed to youth. In other words: No pressure. Don't scour the spring training box scores for his name just yet – Bay is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. On draft day, look him up around the 18th round and you just might have this year's Rocco Baldelli.

SP: Edwin Jackson, Los Angeles Dodgers
Key Stat: 157 strikeouts in 148 Double-A innings in 2003.
Buyer Beware: Walked eight in his final start with Dodgers in 2003.

Jackson made a Dontrelle Willis-like jump from Double-A to the Dodgers and was sharp in three starts to close the season. This guy was in high school in 2001, and he's already ranked by Baseball America as the top pitching prospect in all of baseball. That's some pretty impressive progress.

Control was his only problem when he tested the big-league waters last September, but eight of his 11 walks came in one start against San Francisco. Oh, and he won that game with six shutout innings. Jackson was a 23rd-round pick in last month's experts draft. Keep an eye on his spring training numbers. You'll probably have to call his name 3-4 rounds earlier if he's sharp.

RP: Ryan Wagner, Cincinnati Reds
Key Stat: Held opponents to .173 average in 16 games with Reds in 2003.
Buyer Beware:As a setup man, is he any more valuable than Kyle Farnsworth or Francisco Rodriguez?

Poor Danny Graves. He hasn't even blown a spring save yet, and already the buzzards are circling. If you poll the experts, it is a foregone conclusion that Graves' return to the bullpen will be a failure. Waiting in the wings is rookie fireballer Ryan Wagner, who was drafted in the 17th round of the Krause Publications experts draft. At least Graves was given the respect of a 14th-round nod.

There is no question that Wagner has the stuff of a closer. In about 20 innings of work with the Reds, Wagner struck out 25 batters and posted a 1.66 ERA. Still, you are dealing with a guy who is only 21. The fact that the Reds didn't open the closer job to a battle is an indication that they're not ready to hurry this kid. Look for an Octavio Dotel-like season out of Wagner if Graves gets it done.

That's it for the rookie watch. Next week we'll catch up with some players looking to rebound from tough 2003 campaigns.