- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
If you were competing in fantasy baseball all the way back in 2007 -- or were simply a fan of the Florida Marlins -- then surely the spring training exploits of then-unknown outfielder Alejandro De Aza caught your attention. De Aza hit .354 over 48 at-bats, stole four bases and won himself the starting center field job to open the real season. De Aza played in meaningful games for about a week, hit safely in each game, hurt himself and was gone for four months. He didn't resurface for fantasy owners until August of last season, when he started earning regular playing time with the Chicago White Sox.
Here's when you might wonder, why does any of this matter? Hey, I get it. It's Alejandro De Aza. He's nothing special, right? Well, that could be true, but he looked kind of special while hitting .329 and boasting a .920 OPS over 171 plate appearances, with 12 stolen bases, for the White Sox last season -- basically all in a two-month period -- and he's apparently set as their leadoff hitter. De Aza does have skills; he has hit .300 or better in each of the past three seasons at Triple-A and steals the occasional base, and he gave us a small hint of what he could back in 2007.
Extrapolate De Aza's 2011 big league numbers over six months and they're valuable: roughly 12 home runs, 36 steals and 90 runs, plus that lofty batting average. Of course, he probably would have been overmatched eventually, but we don't know that for sure. I wouldn't call his upside great, but if you're in a deep league, as many of you are, just about anyone penciled in as a leadoff hitter warrants attention. In fact, it wouldn't be a shock if a 25-stolen base season is lurking here.
Last season the major league cumulative line for the No. 1 spot in the lineup was an underwhelming .267/.328/.398, with an average of 14 home runs. Only four teams enjoyed a cumulative OPS of better than .800 from the leadoff spot, led by the Boston Red Sox (Jacoby Ellsbury) and followed by the Milwaukee Brewers, Texas Rangers and New York Mets. Meanwhile, the teams that featured the worst OPS from the No. 1 spot were the Washington Nationals, Seattle Mariners and, yes, the White Sox. I'm not about to say De Aza will be the answer to new manager Robin Ventura's leadoff problems, but the 27-year-old does need to be selected in AL-only and deep-mixed drafts.
With that, let's continue with my recent theme of trying to help you deep leaguers while focusing on some forgotten leadoff hitters around the league. To be on this list, players cannot currently be going among the top 200 in ESPN average live drafts.
Dexter Fowler, OF, Colorado Rockies: I realize his batting average has been disappointing (he has a career .262 mark) and he has stolen a total of 25 bases over the past two seasons, but I really think Fowler is on the verge of breaking out. He gets on base because he walks and certainly could flirt with 30 stolen bases and 100 runs scored if he gets a bit better, stays healthy and the Rockies give him 500-plus at-bats. I don't see why he's being selected 66th among outfielders in ESPN leagues, behind Raul Ibanez, Jon Jay, Michael Brantley, J.D. Martinez and others. He's among my top 50 outfielders.
Yunel Escobar, SS, Toronto Blue Jays: Likewise, he's going a bit late for my taste. Really, Alex Gonzalez and his low batting average is a better choice at shortstop? Escobar delivered a solid 2011, hitting .290 with 11 home runs and 77 runs scored. He doesn't steal bases, but his numbers are relatively safe, and you could do worse at your middle-infield spot.
Andres Torres, OF, New York Mets: It wasn't a huge surprise that he was unable to follow up his somewhat astounding 2010 campaign (16 home runs, 84 runs, 26 steals, elite center field defense) with comparable numbers, but this 34-year-old journeyman gets a new start for a team that seems intent on wreaking havoc on the bases. I've seen Torres in a few spring games, and he looks good. While that's hardly an endorsement, people shouldn't overrate one bad season. I could see Torres hitting double-digit home runs and stealing at least 25 bases. The guy he was traded for, Angel Pagan, is going in the 18th round.
Other thoughts: I don't think Rafael Furcal, back with the St. Louis Cardinals, can stay healthy for 130 games, but he had eight home runs and nine steals in roughly half a 2011 campaign. Grab him off the free-agent wire when injuries strike. ... Denard Span should lead off for the Minnesota Twins; he stole a combined 49 bases in 2009 and 2010. Like Fowler, he has shown he can get on base and run, and if Joe Mauer/Justin Morneau can stay healthy, he'll score runs, too. ... New Chicago Cubs outfielder David DeJesus is one of the worst base stealers I've seen (51 for 97 in his career!), but he generally hits for average and can pop double-digit home runs. ... Remember how good Jose Tabata of the Pittsburgh Pirates was for about three weeks last April? He stole his eighth base by April 18! Alas, a hamstring injury destroyed much of his season after that. He's only 23. ... Do you feel lucky, Seattle Mariners? I can't definitively dismiss Chone Figgins, since he remains fast enough to steal the 40 bases he used to produce annually. Let's just say his spring training will be worth tracking.
Eric Karabell searches for hidden fantasy gems and finds a few leadoff hitters, including Alejandro De Aza and Dexter Fowler, who can help owners.