A Few Choice NL Sleepers

Domonic Brown is simply too young and too talented to give up on just yet. (Photo by Len Redkoles/Getty Images)

I don't think I'm the only one around who takes great pride if a player I had pegged as a preseason sleeper pans out and becomes a contributor. It's especially gratifying if I grab said player off of the waiver wire in my fantasy league, and he justifies my faith by breaking out in ways that I only imagined in my wildest dreams.

A personal example. Back in 2007, the Braves had just watched Marcus Giles jet to the Padres, leaving them with a gaping hole at second base. There was no clear replacement, but reports that offseason centered around a little-known outfielder named Kelly Johnson coming in to take Giles's place. Johnson had missed the entire 2006 season with injury and had spent his sole major league season playing left field. He hadn't really played the infield since his minor league days. Despite all this, he had the inside track on the starting job.

Curiously, no one in my league seemed to notice or care. I loved Johnson's plate patience and above average pop (for a second baseman), so I decided to lie in the weeds and hope everybody forgot about him as we did our draft (this was a very deep league). Sure enough, he slipped through the cracks to the waiver wire and I pounced, snatching him as soon as the draft was over and then reaping the benefits as he became a very good starting second baseman for the next two seasons.

Naturally, as these things go, I became very possessive of Johnson. I picked him up out of nowhere, so he was "my guy", and I regarded him as some sort of discovery that I should hold on to. Sadly, these misguided kindred spirit feelings can lead a manager to ridiculous overvaluations of their players, and Johnson stuck on my team for way too long.

That's just one example of a super-sleeper who turned to gold, and my joy when it happened. After the jump, here are five of my favorite deep sleeper candidates going into 2012.

Zack Cozart

Sometimes players see a drastic rise in their value just because they are suddenly slated to get regular playing time, not because they are really all that good. Cozart is kind of like that. After Paul Janish spat up the Reds' starting shortstop job last year with his awful hitting, Cozart actually stepped in to take over...only to immediately hurt himself and require season-ending Tommy John surgery. Now he's back where he left off, ready to tread in the vaunted footsteps of Reds greats such as Dave Concepcion and Barry Larkin.

Or not. Many are bearish on Cozart's ability to hit in the majors, but I'm a fan. He showed moderate power and good speed in the minor leagues, and hit well in an extremely limited sample size in the majors last summer. The stolen base potential will help fantasy managers (he stole 30 bases at AAA in 2010), but I'm excited about the home run potential. Cozart will spend much of his time hitting in the Great American Ballpark, which tends to turn "moderate" power into "lotsa" power (see Stubbs, Drew). Such is fantasy, where park factor shenanigans can give a player substantially more value than he has in the real world.

Anthony Rizzo

Rizzo was absolutely horrid in his major league debut last year, but history is littered with left-handed sluggers who were chewed up and spit out by Petco Park. Plus, he was just 21, so give the guy a break. If you're squinting for silver linings, Rizzo did post an adequate walk rate last year, at least showing the same good batting eye that he had previously in the minors.

Traded to the Cubs and the much friendlier hitting environs of Wrigley Field, Rizzo could wrest the starting first base job away from 29-year-old Quad-A favorite Bryan LaHair if he produces enough in AAA to start the season. Rizzo's high minor league batting averages are likely a bandbox-influenced aberration (hellooooo, Tucson!), but with his potential for power and walks, he could do a nice impersonation of Carlos Pena in the not so far future.

Domonic Brown

Fans have soured on Brown faster than movie nerds on M. Night Shyamlan, but despite his definite struggles thus far, Brown hasn't produced anything nearly as unwatchable and disastrous as Lady In the Water or Last Airbender. Brown took over right field last year after Jayson Werth departed to the Nationals, but did little to establish himself, and eventually his poor play forced the Phils to make a midseason trade for Hunter Pence. Brown is a former uberprospect who has shown little of the power/speed game he while starring in the minors.

Giving up him would be foolish, however. For starters, he's still just 24, and talent like his doesn't simply disappear. Like Rizzo above, he also displayed a decent eye at the plate and drew an above average rate of walks. Even though he didn't do much of anything in 2011, there's no reason he should be losing playing time to a guy like Laynce Nix. There's major breakout potential here if the Phillies give him another shot, this time in left field.

Juan Francisco

Monitor the Cincinnati third base situation closely this season. 37-year-old Scott Rolen is always one shower misstep away from landing on the DL again, and should that happen, Francisco could swoop in and provide some power production at the price of a waiver claim. How much power does Francisco have, you might ask? Check this out. If Francisco were to fall into a full season's worth of at-bats, he'd likely hit 25-30 home runs.

The only problem is that he isn't a good hitter. He might hit 30 home runs, but that would likely double his walk total. Seriously. He posted a career .317 minor league OBP and in a little more than a season's worth of plate appearances (742) in AAA, he drew a total of 30 walks. I don't know what that translates to exactly in the majors, but whatever it is, it's horrid. Still, if (when?) Rolen breaks down again, Francisco could easily step in and pound his way to a Mark Trumbo-esque year before NL pitchers figure him out.

Jordan Schafer

Schafer hit a home run in his major league debut, on Opening Day 2009. Four days later, he launched another home run. He hasn't been any good ever since. Schafer is another star prospect who has had his career derailed by injury, ineffectiveness, and continuing stink from his 2008 HGH suspension. The Braves finally gave up on him last year, sending him to Houston in the Michael Bourn trade.

Call it a soft spot I have for former hitting prospects, but I'm not yet ready to give up on Schafer. He'll start life anew as Houston's starting center fielder and could benefit from the "change of environment" thing. At the very least, he could be a sleeper contributor in the steals category (he stole 22 last year). If the power resurfaces, he could be a good bargain outfielder on an Astro roster full of maybes.

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