Fantasy Baseball: Top 10 Hitting Sleepers Heading into the 2011 Season

Dan Hiergesell@DHiergesellFeatured ColumnistFebruary 8, 2011

Fantasy Baseball: Top 10 Hitting Sleepers Heading into the 2011 Season

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    TUCSON, AZ - FEBRUARY 28:  Dexter Fowler of the Colorado Rockies poses for a photo during Spring Training Media Photo Day at Hi Corbett Field on February 28, 2010 in Tucson, Arizona.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Every season in fantasy baseball players emerge as go-to, bang for your buck hitters. Whether you drafted them or let them slip through your fingers could be the difference between a winning season and a losing one.

    Heading into each year, good fantasy players and most of the time addicted owners know the guys to grab and which prospects have the ability to singlehandedly catapult their team to the next level.

    Whether it is Jason Heyward, Carlos Santana and Buster Posey last year, or guys like Gordan Beckham and Starlin Castro who were immediately built up to be roster saviors, players are well known in draft lobbies even before they pick up the whupping stick and step up to the plate for their first at-bat.

    However, if you can have an insider's edge into who to grab before somebody else does in fantasy leagues, who would you take?

    Here is a breakdown of the top 10 hitters to look for on draft day. These sleepers are either overlooked fantasy mainstays or potentially big-time hitters looking to rebound from a bad 2010 season.

10. Russell Martin

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 09:  Russell Martin #55 of the Los Angeles Dodgers plays against the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium on May 9, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Russell Martin is a New York Yankee.

    Even though that should be enough to spark your interest in grabbing him on draft day, there is even more evidence why Martin comes in at No. 10 on the list.

    First off, he's only going to be 28 years old when the season starts. Martin has already had two seasons as a catcher in which he has hit at least .280 with 13 home runs, 18 stolen bases and 87 runs. Not to mention he is one of the best defensive catchers in the league, even though that doesn't help get him points week in and week out in fantasy.

    Secondly, he's currently on a roster that employs Jorge Posada. Posada is one of the most consistent hitting catchers of all time, but he's going to be 40 years old come midseason. The Yankees will look to Martin to hold down the catcher's role for most of the year, so he'll be able to record around 450 AB.

    If you need any more evidence for why Martin is an extremely safe bet on draft day and one that you can get fairly cheap, just look at his potential while batting in one of the most potent offenses in all of baseball.  Martin has the ability to produce pretty gaudy numbers at the catcher position year in and year out.

    Look for Martin to fit in nicely with the Bronx Bombers and take a back seat on the bus that is New York. If healthy, there is no reason why he can't hit .275 with 15-20 HR, 70-90 RBI and 15-20 SB.

9. Pablo Sandoval

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    SAN FRANCISCO - OCTOBER 26:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the San Francisco Giants stands on the field during a workout session at AT&T Park on October 26, 2010 in San Francisco, California. The Texas Rangers will face off against the San Francisco Giants in Gam
    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    The Big Panda could provide a big payday for fantasy owners.

    Last year, after hitting .330 with 29 home runs in his rookie campaign, Sandoval ended the season as one of the most disappointing fantasy contributors in the league.

    He fell off considerably, dropping his average by nearly 70 points for a less than average .268 batting line.

    The problems that Sandoval faced in his sophomore year should level out instead of getting worse. His power and youth should be enough evidence to trust in him to rebound and post solid fantasy numbers.

    He's currently being ranked and being drafted behind fellow third basemen Mark Reynolds, Michael Young and Pedro Alvarez. Reynolds is a solid, great power-hitting corner man, but his 200-plus strikeouts year in and year out tend to keep fingers from clicking the draft option.

    Young would be the better bet because he's been one of the most consistent fantasy producers for the last decade, but after all the offseason hoopla surrounding trade talks involving Young and the Texas Rangers, drafting him is more than an iffy decision.

    Alvarez would possibly be the best option out of the four due to his raw power to hit 30-plus home runs and good plate discipline, but his lack of experience and the team he plays for make him an iffy option as well.

    Sandoval could re-emerge this year and regain his title as the "next big third baseman." Look for something along the lines of a .285/25/80 season with the potential for much more.

8. Jed Lowrie

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    SEATTLE - SEPTEMBER 13:  Jed Lowrie #12 of the Boston Red Sox bats against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on September 13, 2010 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Due to injuries over the past few seasons, anything we have to base predictions and potential on for Lowrie as a fantasy hitter comes in small packages.

    Lowrie was once one of the most talked about shortstop prospects in the league. His potential at the position might have even been an insurance policy for the Red Sox when they traded Hanley Ramirez to the Marlins for Josh Beckett.

    However, repetitive wrist injuries have limited his opportunities in the MLB. Since he broke onto the scene back in 2008, Lowrie hasn't surpassed 300 at-bats in any season. But after returning to the Red Sox in late July last year, he proved he might be in for a huge season in 2011.

    Last year, in 170 at-bats, Lowrie belted nine home runs while knocking in 24 runs. His OPS was only second to Troy Tulowitzki among eligible shortstops in fantasy last year. Lowrie's hitting ability has never been questioned, and it was evident after looking and playing healthy in 2010.

    The only thing standing in Lowrie's way of becoming a weekly fantasy producer is Marco Scutaro. Currently the Red Sox' starting shortstop, Scutaro is a decent player and a decent fantasy option. However, he's 35 years old and already had his career year two season ago. 

    If the Sox want to give their lineup the ultimate change-up to add to the acquisitions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, they need to play Lowrie. With his ability to post a .300 average and knock in over 70 runs off extra-base hits, he needs to be thought of as a serious target on draft day.

7. Dexter Fowler

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    DENVER - APRIL 10:  Outfielder Dexter Fowler #24 of the Colorado Rockies takes an at bat against the San Diego Padres during MLB action at Coors Field on April 10, 2010 in Denver, Colorado. The Padres defeated the Rockies 5-4 in 14 innings.  (Photo by Dou
    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Fowler could be a huge bargain on draft day.

    He has the potential to be one of the best box score fillers in fantasy.

    The third-year Colorado Rockie has enough tools to be a serious sleeper on draft day and a potential No. 3 OF. Fowler possesses enough speed to steal over 30 bases and enough pop to hit over 10 home runs.

    In 2010, Fowler lead the MLB with 14 triples. He added 20 doubles and posted both impressive stat lines in only 439 at-bats. Nowadays, it's hard to find an all-around hitter late in drafts. Fowler is not only that, but he is also someone who can get even better at the age of 24.

    Heading into 2011, Fowler will be given full reign as a Rockies starter. He'll more than likely bat leadoff or second, which can only improve on his 73 runs from last year.

    Playing at Coors Field won't hurt either. If he can manage to put some of those triples over the wall, Fowler might be in line for a .275/15/70/30 season.

    Don't overlook "Gumby" on draft day.

6. Hunter Pence

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    HOUSTON - AUGUST 15:  Hunter Pence #9 of the Houston Astros steals second base in the third inning as second baseman Neil Walker #18 of the Pittsburgh Pirates waits for the throw at Minute Maid Park on August 15, 2010 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Lev
    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Pence is something more than a sleeper. He's a must have.

    The only reason why he doesn't rank as the No. 1 sleeper heading into this year is because if you have any sort of fantasy baseball pulse, you know who this guy is.

    After his third straight 25 home run season, Pence has gained significant recognition as a solid No. 3 OF. However, with his ability to steal 15-plus bases, hit .280 and knock in over 90 runs, Pence has made his case to be reconsidered as a No. 2.

    As of the most recent rankings and projections, Pence ranks behind the likes of Jayson Werth, Matt Kemp, Nelson Cruz and Jacoby Ellsbury. While he could outperform a few of these fantasy mainstays this season, Pence will more than likely soar under the radar and be available later in drafts.

    Pence is only 27 and has improved his hitting year in and year out. The only problem is the loss of Lance Berkman and the decline of Carlos Lee, two of the Houston Astros' most productive hitters that have surrounded him throughout his career.

    If Houston's young talents like Chris Johnson and Brett Wallace can produce in 2011, Pence could be in for a career year.

    Think of him as a potential 2010 Corey Hart.

5. Jay Bruce

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    PHILADELPHIA - OCTOBER 08:  Jay Bruce #32 of the Cincinnati Reds rounds the bases on a solo home run in Game 2 of the NLDS against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on October 8, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky
    Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    Jay Bruce's 2010 campaign has finally made those Larry Walker comparisons less far-fetched.

    Playing for one of the most potent offenses in all of baseball, Bruce has the surrounding talent to launch him into the next level of fantasy producers.

    Last year, Bruce improved his home runs, runs batted in and walks and batted nearly 60 points better for a respectable .281 average.

    The scary thing is that Bruce was supposed to be a perennial .300 hitter with above-average power when he came into the league. Instead, he's been a very solid power hitter and has lacked contact.

    However, by improving his average so much in one year, we might be able to suggest that Bruce is starting to figure out how to hit in the big leagues.

    While almost every owner in fantasy knows who he is and will draft him in the hopes of a breakout season, he is still being undervalued, which makes him a big-time sleeper heading into 2011.

    With the power shown over his first three seasons and the immediate channeling of his inner Ted Williams, Bruce might be in line for a .300/30/95 season. We all know that even a better stat line is not out of the question.

    Leap for Bruce.

4. Jose Tabata

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    CINCINNATI - SEPTEMBER 11: Jose Tabata #31 of the Pittsburg Pirates swings at a pitch during the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on September 11, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Even with one of the best seasons among rookies in 2010, Jose Tabata is relatively an unknown name.

    Batting in one of the worst lineups in the league and playing in one of the most pitcher-heavy divisions in MLB, the Pittsburgh Pirate managed to hit .299 with 61 runs and 19 stolen bases in his first major league season.

    Tabata should pan out as a 20-30 stolen base type of guy, with enough power to hit around 10 home runs. However, it's his average and ability to get on base that make him a great steal on draft day.

    With full seasons from fellow Pirates Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker, along with consistent play from Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones, Tabata could be in for one heck of a season.

    Let the potential .300/10/60/90/25 hitter slip into your No. 3 OF spot on draft day while other teams reach for Aubrey Huff and Jason Bay.

3. Neil Walker

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    CINCINNATI - SEPTEMBER 12:  Neil Walker #18 of the Pittsburgh Pirates is pictured during the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ballpark on September 12, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    I sort of feel ashamed that two Pittsburgh Pirates made the top five sleepers on draft day, but Neil Walker is worth it.

    Like fellow teammate Jose Tabata, Walker had one of the most impressive season debuts among any rookie in 2010.

    Needing only 426 at-bats, Walker batted .296 with 12 home runs and 66 RBI. As a rookie second baseman, playing for a lowly Pirates team, Walker gained instant respect and recognition after 2010.

    Heading into this season Pittsburgh has its young talents ready to play and ready to last 162 games. Walker will stake his claim early in the season as one of the most productive second basemen in the league.

    Walker ranks behind Chone Figgins, Aaron Hill and Brian Roberts at the second base position heading into the 2011 fantasy season. However, each of these players has been either injury prone or highly inconsistent over the last few seasons.

    Drafting Walker will be fairly easy, but missing out on his services will be even easier. Fantasy owners will surely look to take a leap of faith over the previously mentioned second basemen to take the potential breakout hitter of the year.

    With a healthy lineup around him, Walker could be in line for a .300/20/90 fantasy year. Those are Dustin Pedroia numbers.

2. Drew Stubbs

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    SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 24:  Drew Stubbs #6 of Cincinnati Reds hits a solo home run against the San Diego Padres during the second inning of their MLB game on September 24, 2010 at PETCO Park in San Diego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Imag
    Donald Miralle/Getty Images

    Two Reds in the top five?

    Precisely. Just goes to show how good the Reds are going to be for the next five years, and OF Drew Stubbs is going to play a major role.

    Stubbs, a college standout at Texas, finally got his chance last year to play a full season in the majors. In 514 at-bats, Stubbs batted a less than mediocre .255 but belted 22 home runs while swiping 30 bases.

    It's that combination of power and speed that makes Stubbs a huge sleeper on draft day and a potential 30/30 guy for the next few years.

    Surrounded by Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and Scott Rolen, Stubbs has an unlimited cast of support to help make a bigger fantasy splash in 2011.

    Even if the power slips a little bit in his third MLB season, Stubbs should be able to increase his average and steal more bases.

    Let other owners take Ben Zobrist and Brett Gardner in the middle rounds, while Stubbs waits his turn to be drafted as a potential No. 2 OF.

1. Mike Napoli

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    ANAHEIM, CA - AUGUST 10:  Mike Napoli #44 of the Los Angeles Angels strikesout against the Kansas City Royals during the second inning at Angel Stadium on August 10, 2010 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
    Harry How/Getty Images

    Is there anything more perfect than a power hitter moving to Texas' ballpark in Arlington?

    There is. It's a power-hitting catcher moving to Texas' ballpark in Arlington.

    Mike Napoli, who was traded from the Los Angeles Angels to the Blue Jays and then to the Texas Rangers in the offseason, has finally found a place he can call home.

    In 2010, after a season-ending injury to first baseman Kendry Morales, Napoli was counted on to fill in and get the at-bats he deserved. He posted a career-low .238 average but hit 26 home runs in 453 at-bats.

    Napoli's power has never been questioned, but the average is a little alarming. Usually somewhere around the .270 mark, Napoli could be the type of hitter to sport a declining average as the at-bats increase.

    However, he moves to one of the most hitter-friendly parks in all of baseball. Even better, Napoli will be the Rangers' starting first baseman but will still be eligible at catcher. So you'll get top-notch catcher power along with the at-bats of a first baseman.

    Could you ask for anything else?

    No, but you'll get it. With names like Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler, Napoli will have the dynamic supporting cast he's never had.

    Look for something along the lines of a .260/30/85 stat line. As an eligible catcher, Napoli should be one of the biggest sleepers on draft day.