From a winter of quiet moves arise baseball's most intriguing sleepers
Russell Branyan's stats projected him to hit 44 HRs in 2008
Khalil Greene averages a HR every 27 plate appearances on road
Carl Pavano poised for comeback two years after arm surgery
There have been plenty of marquee names on the move this winter. But let's face it, guys like Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and Francisco Rodriguez haven't seen their fantasy stock move one way or the other. But here are seven sleepers who are on the rise thanks to the hot stove shakeups.
Russell Branyan, 3B, Mariners: We know what Branyan isn't: He's not a guy who hits lefties, not a guy who makes contact, and is unlikely to be America's Next Top Model. Luckily, the Mariners seem to know this too. Seattle brought him in as a guy to play first base against righties. And the power rewards could be huge. Consider that over the past three seasons (spanning 534 plate appearances vs. RHP, realistically one full season if he stays healthy), Branyan hit 36 home runs. Of course, that came with a .234 average vs. RHP in that span. But last year, Branyan managed to hit .280 against righties, with 12 HRs in just 137 PAs. Over 500 plate appearances, that projects to 44 homers (yes, yes, small sample size, but still ...). There's plenty of risk with Branyan, a 33-year-old who doesn't make contact. But how often do you find an end-game pick who could legitimately deliver 40-plus homers?
Coco Crisp, OF, Royals: Obviously, a guy named "Coco Crisp" is not going to fly under the radar (much like former Montreal Expos utility man Claude Frankenberry or journeyman lefty Ira Müeslix). But Crisp will finally get a shot to be a full-time leadoff hitter now that he's been shipped to Kansas City. Royals leadoff hitters combined for 97 runs and 77 RBIs last season. Crisp doesn't figure to get on base as often (he's .331 career) and has never played more than 145 games in a season. But that would still put him on schedule for about 80-to-85 runs and 60-to-65 RBIs. You'll be lucky to get 10 HRs out of him, but if Crisp hits around his career average of .280 and gets the 30 steals he should get as a fulltime player, he'll be a great draft day value.
Khalil Greene, SS, Cardinals: I'm no scientician, but I believe that spending your days trying to hit in a cavernous pitcher's haven like Petco Park can be hazardous to your health. Consider Greene, a 28-year-old shortstop who posted a .228 batting average and .374 slugging percentage over 326 nightmarish games in Petco. But the picture has been much different elsewhere. In 333 career non-Petco appearances, Greene has a .266 average and .476 SLG, as well as a home run every 27 plate appearances. Injuries are still a concern, as Greene has made at least one DL trip in four of his five full seasons. But even of a 145-game projection, those road numbers project to something in the neighborhood of .266 with 22 homers, not to mention the 80 runs and 80 RBIs he could get hitting in a superior Cardinals lineup.
Aaron Heilman, RP, Mariners: To hear it from Mets fans, Heilman is a washed-up never-was junkballer who spends his free time eating babies. The fact is, bad pitchers don't record 8.1 strikeouts and 3.3 walks per nine innings over a four-year span. And washed-up pitchers aren't 30 years old with 357 innings under their belts over the past four seasons. But it's not just the fact that Heilman is likely to bounce back from last year's disappointing season that makes him a sleeper, it's the fact that he'll do it in a more prominent role. Heilman is one of Seattle's four best arms, so it only makes sense that he'll either be starting or closing in 2009. Either way, he'll have significantly more value than he had as a set-up man for the Mets. He has to get back to pitching to contact; Heilman is at his best when he's inducing ground balls rather than working deep into the count chasing a strikeout. But it would be a shock if '09 wasn't the best fantasy season of his career.
Matt Joyce, OF, Rays: You'd think the Tigers wouldn't be in a position to be giving away young talent. But here we are. The Rays swiped Joyce from Detroit (in exchange for Edwin Jackson), and there's every reason to think Joyce will be taking Gabe Gross' job (in light of the fact that Joyce is five years younger and already, you know, better at baseball than Gross). There's a good chance that Joyce only faces righties, and that's fine. During his breakout '08 season, Joyce OPSed .976 vs. RHP for Triple-A Toledo, then .842 in 247 plate appearances with Detroit. Between the two levels, he hit 24 home runs in 421 plate appearances vs. RHP as a 23-year-old. As a platoon player for a season, that's legit 30-to-35 home run potential this season. His strikeout rate might be a bit high for him to hit for average (108 Ks in those 421 PAs), but the homers and potential RBI opportunities make him a potential late-round steal.
Matt Lindstrom, RP, Marlins: Lindstrom has seemingly been Florida's "closer of the future" since Charlie Hough and Pat Rapp anchored this staff. Now, with Kevin Gregg shipped to Wrigley, Lindstrom gets his shot. The 29-year-old, hard-throwing righty was far from dominant last year, but as we've learned over the years, closing games is one of the easiest jobs in baseball. Two years ago, Joe Borowski locked down 45 saves in Cleveland despite a fastball that could be outrun by Chuck Carr (fine, last reference to the 1993 Marlins, though I feel like there's a Walt Weiss void here). Lindstrom isn't homer-prone (3 HR allowed in 124.1 MLB innings and a solid 1.47 GB-to-FB ratio) and has decent control (47 walks in 124.1), making his meltdown risk low. Injuries are the only thing that should keep him from 40 saves.
Carl Pavano, SP, Indians: I feel obligated to write this seeing as a good friend of mine/fellow fantasy geek was giddy as a school girl over the Pavano signing. And true, there's a lot to like here if Pavano stays healthy (a big if, I know). The last two years were a wash because of elbow troubles. But go back to the old rule of thumb: A pitcher isn't 100 percent recovered from Tommy John surgery until his second full season back. This year will be his second full season back. Pavano is only 33, so his arm should have something left. And the last time he was remotely healthy, in '05, Pavano posted solid K-to-BB (3.11) and groundball-to-flyball (1.61) ratios, better indicators than his high ERA (4.77), courtesy of a flukishly high HR-per-flyball percentage (15.6 percent, as opposed to the A.L. average of 10.1 percent that season). And you'd have to think that escaping the negativity of his Yankee tenure will give him a psychological boost. Considering the run support the Indians could provide, Povano could be in for a big comeback season.