When looking for potential breakouts at the outfield position, it’s wise to focus on players that can provide value in both the power and speed numbers while possessing upside in either runs or RBI. For our group of sleepers, I’ve identified three youngsters that could very well hit double-digit home runs and top 30 steals. Two of them could be leading off for their respective teams, and the other, while expected to be his team’s No. 9 hitter, will get the benefit of hitting in front of possibly the best top four in baseball.
Adam Eaton, OF, ARI
Casual fans of baseball were left wondering this offseason why the Diamondbacks were so quick to let Justin Upton go. Eaton may show us the answer this season. A plus defender with a great batting eye, Eaton has posted consistently high BABIP in the minor league level while walking 10 percent of the time or more in most years and minimizing his strikeouts. In his breakout Triple-A season in 2012, Eaton rolled to a .381/.456/.539 line with seven home runs and 38 stolen bases in 562 plate appearances, walking 9.4 percent of the time and striking out only 12.1 percent of the time. His BABIP was a simply unrepeatable .432, but the center fielder showed he has as much upside as anyone atop a major-league lineup.
But the 24-year-old won’t be leading off for just any lineup. He’ll be hitting in front of a nice collection of quality hitters that includes Aaron Hill, Martin Prado, Paul Goldschmidt, Miguel Montero, Cody Ross and Jason Kubel. However the Diamondbacks configure their lineup, Eaton has the potential to lead the league in runs if he spends the full season leading off. His best-case scenario involves an average comfortably above .300, a home-run total in the double digits, a triple-figure run total and 40-plus stolen bases. His long-term potential could include a Jacoby-Ellsbury-circa 2011-type season. That’s upside worth gambling on in the middle rounds of a draft.
Peter Bourjos, OF, LAA
Bourjos may seem like a curious selection for a sleeper article after hitting .220/.291/.315 with three homers and three stolen bases in 195 plate appearances in 2012. While he struggled at the age of 25, he was pretty darn good as a 24-year-old rookie in 2011, hitting .271/.327/.438 with 12 home runs and 22 steals in 552 plate appearances. This was prefaced by an even better season in 2010, where Bourjos destroyed Triple-A (.314/.364/.500 with 13 HRs and 27 SBs in 445 PAs) before picking up six homers and 10 steals at the major-league level, albeit affixed to a .204 average. While Bourjos’s swing-and-miss tendencies are a concern, a player that posted a 19-HR, 37-SB season just two years ago can’t be dismissed.
Encouragingly, Bourjos upped his walked rate last year amidst a mostly disappointing season. After walking 3.1 percent of the time in his 2010 MLB audtion and 5.8 percent of the time during his 2011 breakout, the Angels oufielder walked 7.7 percent of the time in 2012. While Bourjos suffered from a low BABIP last year, his speed suggests that he has the ability to post above-average BABIPs on a regular basis and hit closer to .270 more regularly than .220. If he hits ninth as expected, Bourjos is going to see plenty of hittable pitches in front of Mike Trout and the top of the Angels lineup. A .275 average, 12-15 HRs and 30 SBs seems doable if he progresses while having the benefit of playing regularly.
Aaron Hicks, OF, MIN
The Twins traded two players this offseason that are going to start in center field for their new teams. Needing a new player to patrol center, they are expected to turn to Darin Mastroianni, who would be a fantasy sleeper himself were he to lead off for the entire season, as he has 50-steal potential. However, Aaron Hicks is the guy to watch in Minnesota. He’s consistently shown a solid profile in the minors, but we saw him take it to another level in 2012, when he hit .285/.382/.459 with 13 home runs, 32 steals and 100 runs in 563 plate appearances at the Double-A level.
A first-round pick in 2008, Hicks is only heading into his age-23 season, and he should be given a chance to win the center field job at the major-league level this spring. A full-season of at-bats atop the Twins lineup could look similar to his 2012 Double-A season at its best. He’ll most likely start the season at Triple-A though, but a hot start from him and a slow start from whomever is the Twins’ center fielder and lead-off man seems entirely possible. He’s a great pickup in AL-only leagues and someone to monitor this spring in mixed leagues.
R.J. White is the head editor at the Cafe and contributes to CBSSports.com's MLB Rumors blog. He has previously written for FanHouse, Razzball and FanDuel. Catch up with him in the forums under the name daullaz. Follow him on Twitter; don't follow him in real life.
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