- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
A few years ago, I was in Las Vegas, as I am on this fine Friday, and I found myself drafting an NL-only fantasy baseball team with others in the industry. Early on I went for the hitters, as I always do, but for some reason I wasn't getting any speed to go with the power. Albert Pujols, Carlos Lee and Andruw Jones did their jobs and even ran some, but my team was lacking in stolen bases. I knew it.
So midway through the draft, I took a few chances with open outfield slots, reaching on what fantasy owners refer to as cheap speed. Hey, in 2004 Endy Chavez stole 32 bases for the Montreal Expos, and Pittsburgh's Tike Redman stole 18. I knew these weren't great baseball players, but they had jobs, they had speed, I drafted them based strictly on need and figured I'd get about 50 steals. Hey, they had done it in 2004!
Well, things didn't quite work out. Neither kept their jobs, of course, nor are starters today, and in the year I needed them to run a lot they combined for all of six stolen bases in 233 games. My team had essentially punted stolen bases, and it didn't win. Never again, I swore.
By the way, I am far, far from home today for the Las Vegas Fantasy First Pitch Party at the ESPN Zone in the New York, New York Hotel and Casino. It starts at 7 p.m. local time, so if you're in the area, check it out as myself, Matthew Berry and Stephania Bell share the fantasy baseball knowledge. Attendance, refreshments and the advice are all free. And it's Vegas. What could possibly go wrong?
OK, I just had my Berry moment of cross-promotion, now it's back to the blog. Chavez and Redman are why I always aim to get at least one multi-dimensional hitter in the early rounds of every draft or auction, a David Wright or Brandon Phillips type who I can count on for more than token speed, so that I can wait until the very end of the draft for the Endy Chavezes of the world. There is a place in the fantasy baseball universe for guys like Chavez, though. Not the current Chavez, really, no matter how much the Mets are forced to play him in the wake of the latest Moises Alou injury, but his type of one-trick pony who can do one thing well for fantasy owners. Wait, is Alou hurt? How can that be? He's so durable!
All of us are looking for that cheap speed, and below are players on my list I would target late. Playing time is hardly assured for these gentlemen, and to make this list the players can't be what we would call terrific on-base percentage mavens. They're not. In general they don't have power, don't get on base at a great rate and thus aren't assured to play. Juan Pierre doesn't belong on this list, because he's already proven himself and frankly, I think Joe Torre is going to play him regularly and bat him second. Fantasy owners need to realize what I'm saying here. It's not that I would give Pierre another 600 at-bats if I was managing the Dodgers, but I think Torre will. Andre Ethier would get on base at a better rate, hit for power and flash a better arm. Heck, there's a garden hose on my front lawn that might be as strong as Pierre's throwing arm.
None of this is relevant if Pierre is the one who plays, and steals 50 bases. Again, not my choice, but will I draft those steals? You know it. So will stolen base addict AJ Mass from our staff. Who wouldn't?
Anyway, here are some under-the-radar outfielders I like for cheap steals. Or they might not play at all. That's the entire point.
Corey Patterson, OF, Reds: The focus of an interesting office discussion between myself and editor Nate Ravitz on Wednesday, let's make it clear neither of us believes Patterson is a great player. What I think is that Patterson wasn't brought to Cincinnati to sit on the bench. It's been clear for months that new manager Dusty Baker wanted to acquire a center fielder to lead off, which is why ageless Kenny Lofton was close to ending up in Cincy. He wouldn't sign a minor league deal, but Patterson would. My, how the mighty have fallen! OK, so Patterson was never that mighty, but he did have a 24-homer, 32-steal season for Baker in 2004, and two years ago he swiped 45 bases in Baltimore. Patterson's career .298 on-base percentage stinks, but the guy's got wheels.
I like Reds top prospect Jay Bruce just like Ravitz does, but I don't think Bruce is going to play unless/when Ken Griffey Jr. gets hurt. Ravitz assumes, maybe wisely, that the better player will emerge with playing time. I guess I'm skeptical, having seen this situation so many times not work out for the fantasy owner. Bruce is not a natural center fielder, nor a typical leadoff hitter. Baker knows this. It's not that he dislikes this young player, he just wants to use him right. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if Patterson is leading off on opening day and he steals 30 bases this season. And by the way, he's got enough power to hit 15 home runs. Remember, Felipe Lopez really enjoyed his one power season in the Cincy ballpark, so can Patterson. He's only 28, after all. One doesn't have to be a great baseball player to put up great fantasy statistics.
Ryan Freel, OF, Reds: Of course, the fact Patterson was signed doesn't bode well for Freel, who was supposedly competing for the center field job with Norris Hopper. Freel will make the Reds and be a fourth outfielder, so I don't expect more than 30 steals, but the more he plays, the more he will run.
Jerry Owens, OF, White Sox: A former Expos farmhand who was traded to the White Sox three years ago for Alex Escobar, Owens doesn't have power, but he did hit for average in the minors and take some walks. And he can really run. A month ago he told reporters he's a candidate for 65 stolen bases this season, and based on his numbers in the past and as a rookie last season, I think it's possible. He just needs to play. For now he needs to run past Carlos Quentin, and again, there's little question who should play. Manager Ozzie Guillen, however, seems focused on using Owens as a leadoff hitter, since he has that traditional leadoff hitter speed. I think Owens finds a way to swipe 40 bases this season. He might not score runs, or feature on on-base percentage in the Juan Pierre range, but then again, this is fantasy baseball, so does it matter?
Joey Gathright, OF, Royals: Yeah, we have been down this road before. I can't say with certainty why Gathright has been caught stealing 14 times in 33 attempts while with Kansas City, but so far this spring he's been unstoppable. Gathright had a three-steal game a few days ago, and claims his running was stunted by manager Buddy Bell in 2007. There's really no obvious place for him to play, but if Gathright gets on base, which he did show signs of doing a year ago, and he runs more, I think he'll play. It's too early to give up on anyone who can steal 50 bases. For now the Royals could play Billy Butler at designated hitter and move Mark Teahen from left field to first base to make room for Gathright. David DeJesus is set in center field and Jose Guillen is the right fielder. Who else really needs to play? Ross Gload? Ryan Shealy? If Gathright steals 10 bases this spring, I think he can earn a starting job.
OK, briefly, here are some other players flying under the radar. In Washington, Felipe Lopez needs to prove himself to earn playing time at second base over Ronnie Belliard, but who thinks Cristian Guzman will stay healthy at shortstop? Lopez can steal 30 bases. In Colorado, Willy Taveras is the center fielder, but he doesn't have a great track record of durability either. Cory Sullivan and Scott Podsednik are lurking. In San Francisco, there's a really bad baseball team, and for now Rajai Davis is not a starting outfielder. Dave Roberts, Aaron Rowand and Randy Winn are. I could still see Davis swiping 25 bases. Finally, I doubt many people realize how many bases Reggie Willits stole in 2007. Playing time is hardly assured for him, and he doesn't fit this profile because he is a very good on-base percentage option. That's the point. I think he finds his way to 300 at-bats, and at least 20 steals.