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Adam Eaton: Leadoff Man Extraordinaire

Can Adam Eaton finally translate his success in the minors into a productive season for his fantasy owners? Don't expect any miracles, but the Sox leadoff man still provides plenty of late-round value.

White Sox leadoff man and center fielder Adam Eaton has plenty to prove in 2014. For a number of reasons, the young outfielder is surrounded by question marks—his major league career is off to a slow start, he’ll play his first full season after suffering an elbow injury last season, and he’ll be tasked with providing a spark at the top of the White Sox lineup.

However, don’t be fooled by the .254 batting average Eaton has compiled in his 335 career at-bats. In the larger sample size of the minor leagues, the Sox outfielder has a .348 batting average in 1300 at-bats, including a dazzling .365 total in 523 Triple-A at-bats.

The consensus among the projection systems is that Eaton won’t get anywhere near those latter numbers in 2014, which is understandable given the slow start to his major league career. Oliver has the young outfielder hitting .266, Steamer puts him at .273 and ZiPS is the worst of the bunch, with a projection of .251.

While Eaton shouldn’t be expected to hit .350, those projected averages are still a bit baffling. For one, Eaton has suffered from an uncharacteristically low BABIP in his short time in the majors, at .294. That’s a far cry from his minor league totals, which included a .432 BABIP at Triple-A in 2012. In total, Eaton has eclipsed a .370 BABIP at five different stops in the minors, falling below .345 only once. That’s a darn big step above from .294, which means it makes sense for Eaton’s BABIP to level out in 2014.

Also working in Eaton’s favor is the impressive plate discipline he showed in the minors, where he posted an outstanding 1.17 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That’s something he failed to maintain in the majors last season, but as he adjusts to big league pitching, expect the discipline to improve.

Eaton is also tearing it up this spring. In 35 at-bats (41 PAs), the young outfielder is hitting .343 with a .982 OPS. He’s also hit an inside-the-park home run and walked four times. Do with that information what you will, but it can only be seen as a positive sign for Eaton going forward.

One of the curious aspects of Eaton’s game is his stolen base potential. In three full seasons in the minors, his stolen base totals were 34, 44 and 38, equating to around 50 in a full MLB season. However, that success hasn’t translated to the majors, where Eaton has stolen just seven bases in 12 attempts over the course of 88 games. Obviously, his trouble reaching base consistently has limited the steal opportunities, but that’s still a rather steep drop-off.

Going back to those projection systems, there seems to be a general agreement that Eaton will steal around 20 bases this season, though it’s fair to say that his upside is around 30 swipes. As the everyday leadoff hitter for the Sox, I’m leaning toward the latter total.

In short, Eaton is still a bit of a mystery player, someone for whom projection systems can only do so much. He’s shown good plate discipline (.382 OBP in 2012) and bad plate discipline (.314 in 2013). He’s shown speed in the past (106 steals in 345 minor league games) but lacked speed in the majors (seven steals in 88 games). He’s batted .254 in the majors, .348 in his minor league career.

Nevertheless, there are a few more reasons why I believe Eaton is worth a look in the later rounds this season. For one, his on-base percentage in the minor leagues is a ridiculous .450 for his career, a number that doesn’t drop off much at the higher levels (.441 in Triple-A).

Additionally, Eaton has the distinction of being a leadoff hitter, albeit for the offensively-challenged White Sox. (The Sox ranked 29th in the majors in runs scored in 2013.) Even so, with Alejandro De Aza, a solid hitter who’s one year removed from a .281 average, hitting behind him, it’s likely Eaton will score plenty of runs so long as he’s able to reach base consistently. Add Cuban slugger (and breakout candidate) Jose Abreu to the mix, and Eaton’s situation actually looks rather promising.

But perhaps most importantly, Eaton’s elbow injury last season really put him off the fantasy radar, meaning he’ll certainly come cheap—you’ll find him as the 51st drafted outfielder in NFBC leagues, on average, right between the likes of B.J. Upton and Chris Carter. His ADP of 213.54 means he’ll be around late in 12-team mixed leagues, and he’s also consistently ranked around 25th among AL-only outfielders, making him a viable pick in that format as well.

Eaton likely won’t provide anything better than a high single-digit homer total, and given his leadoff status and the black hole that constitutes the bottom of the Sox lineup, there won’t be many RBI opportunities either. But for an outfielder being drafted so late with the potential to be a top leadoff hitter in the league, there’s nothing to suggest you shouldn’t consider drafting Eaton. He might not necessarily be someone to target, but if you find yourself thin on outfielders later in the draft, Eaton is worth a look.