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Don't sleep on these NL sleepers
By Jeff Saukaitis, Contributing MLB Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It doesn't take a genius to pick sure things like Ryan Braun, Carlos Gonzalez and Matt Kemp in National League fantasy baseball drafts.
What frequently separates fantasy champions from also-rans is the ability to draft well in the later rounds.
Every season, there are "sleepers" who emerge to far outperform their projections. Identifying those players isn't so easy to do during spring training, but let's try to pick an all-sleeper lineup for the National League. (We'll do likewise for the American League next week.)
These guys will probably all be selected in the second half of NL-only drafts, and several of them won't even be drafted in some mixed leagues. Each of them still has the potential to pay big dividends to owners this season.
CATCHER - ROB BRANTLY, MIAMI: The Marlins are going to be terrible, but their players shouldn't be completely ignored on draft day. There are a few potential gems in the no-name (other than Giancarlo Stanton) lineup, and Brantly is one of them.
In an audition that lasted 100 at-bats late last season, the 23-year-old catcher hit .290 with three home runs. He has usually hit for average in the minor leagues, and that's somewhat of a rare quality in late-round catchers. His power will never be substantial, but he might be able to smack as many as 10 homers this season while not hurting your team's average.
FIRST BASE - BRANDON BELT, SAN FRANCISCO: Perhaps the 2011 comparisons to former Giants great Will Clark were too optimistic, but Belt seems ready to settle in as a solid player.
During the past two seasons, Belt has never really had the first base position to himself. In 2011, he yo-yoed between the Giants and Triple-A Fresno. In each of the last two years, he has split time between first base and the outfield (albeit only for four games in 2012).
Finally, Belt appears to have the first base position to himself. Since he no longer has to worry that his job will be riding on each at-bat, he will be able to relax and let his talent take over. Think along the lines of .280 with 15-18 homers, 75-80 RBIs and 10-15 steals as an everyday player.
SECOND BASE - JEDD GYORKO, SAN DIEGO: Gyorko has never played a major-league game, and his minor-league positions were third and first base. He needs first to win the second base job to merit strong draft consideration, but the Padres want him to prevail in spring training because he has nothing more to prove in the minors.
Defense doesn't matter to most fantasy owners, but it will matter to Padres manager Bud Black, so Gyorko will have to be adequate enough with the glove to remain in the lineup. If he does win the spot, Gyorko won't be the typical middle infielder. He has limited speed, but he hit 30 home runs and drove in 100 runs at two levels last season.
He's probably a cheaper option to Neil Walker in a fantasy draft, but he could deliver similar numbers. Just don't take him to fill your middle infield spot unless you have enough stolen bases from other sources.
SHORTSTOP - JOSH RUTLEDGE, COLORADO: Since Troy Tulowitzki is healthy,
Rutledge won't see much action at shortstop this year. That's where he qualifies, even though he will be the Rockies' second baseman.
The shortstop qualification is a plus, because he's arguably in the top seven or eight at the position in the NL. Then there's the Coors Field factor, which is another bonus.
Rutledge hit eight homers and stole seven bases in 277 at-bats last year. In a full season as a starter, 15 homers and 15 steals would probably be attainable.
THIRD BASE - MATT CARPENTER, ST. LOUIS: Carpenter played more than 20 games at first base, third base and the outfield last year, and now he's in the mix for major playing time at second base, too.
The versatility is a great quality for two reasons: He will give fantasy owners flexibility in their lineups, and he will earn more playing time with the Cardinals. If St. Louis has any injuries at first, second, third or the corner outfield, Carpenter could essentially become a regular.
Even without regular playing time, Carpenter should produce decent numbers. He drove in 46 runs in 296 at-bats last season.
OUTFIELD - JUAN PIERRE, MIAMI: Pierre isn't an exciting draft pick anymore. Now 35 years old, he's probably never going to steal 60-plus bases again. He's also never hit more than three home runs in a season.
Still, for the minimal investment it would likely require, Pierre would be a productive player to draft. In 394 at-bats with the Philadelphia Phillies last season, Pierre hit .307 with 37 steals. He's expected to lead off for the Marlins, so there's no reason to think the stolen base total will plummet. He's always been an asset to team batting averages.
If you draft Pierre, however, you'd better make sure you have plenty of RBIs from your other outfielders. He'll probably only be good for 30 or so.
OUTFIELD - CAMERON MAYBIN, SAN DIEGO: The one-time top prospect took a bit of a step back last season, hitting just .243 with eight home runs. He stole 26 bases, but that was a drop-off from the 40 he swiped in 2011.
Some of the luster has worn off, but keep in mind that Maybin is still just 25. Also keep in mind that he batted .283 in the second half of last season. Wrist and Achilles injuries limited him to 136 games (and probably sapped his power and speed, respectively).
The fences are moving in this year at Petco Park. Perhaps 15 homers and 40 steals would be attainable for the toolsy center fielder, and that would make him a major bargain.
OUTFIELD - WILL VENABLE, SAN DIEGO: OK, there are probably more Padres on this team than you'd like to have on your roster, but Venable, like Gyorko and Maybin, could deliver good bang for your buck.
After Venable belted 13 homers and stole 29 bases in just 392 at-bats in 2010, he was a popular pick to break out in 2011. It didn't really happen. Venable hit nine homers in both 2011 and '12, and stole 26 and 24 bases in those seasons, respectively.
Now at age 30, it's likely Venable simply is what he is going to be. The question is, is that so bad? He's averaged 10 homers and 26 steals during the past three years. With the Petco Park fences moving in, he might add a few long balls to that total this season.
STARTING PITCHER - MIKE MINOR, ATLANTA: On the surface, 11 wins and a 4.12 ERA look, well, average for a guy touted as a solid pitching prospect in an Atlanta organization known for producing them.
A look closer, though, shows that Minor began to break out last season. He pitched to a 2.21 ERA in the second half, holding hitters to a .193 batting average in his last 15 starts. For the season, his WHIP was a tidy 1.15, thanks to a microscopic 0.87 in the second half of the year.
Minor gives up too many homers (26 in 179 1/3 innings) and tends to run high pitch counts, but he's dramatically improving before our eyes. On a contending Atlanta team, the win total should grow, too.
RELIEF PITCHER - BOBBY PARNELL, N.Y. METS: If your draft is a few weeks away, Parnell might not remain a sleeper that long. Incumbent closer Frank Francisco was shut down at the starting of spring training because of elbow inflammation, and manager Terry Collins said he wanted Parnell to close in Francisco's absence.
Even when healthy, Francisco has not really been a stopper. He wasn't healthy last season, as an elbow injury contributed to his bloated 5.53 ERA and 1.61 WHIP.
The Mets added veteran relievers with closer experience this offseason, bringing aboard Brandon Lyon and LaTroy Hawkins. It's Parnell, however, who is the Mets' best closing option for both the present and future. Even if he doesn't get the gig, he'll still provide a solid ERA (2.49 in 2012), WHIP (1.24) and strikeout total (61 in 68 2/3 innings) as a setup man.
Jeff Saukaitis has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.
02/19 09:21:25 ET