Over the last few weeks, we have looked at players who will crush baseballs into the cheap seats. This week, we’ll change gears and look at guys who impact the game with their legs. Like power, steals have also been trending in the wrong direction for fantasy owners. The consequences have been out-and-out bidding wars for the services of one-category players like Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton, both of whom went for close to $30 in the NL-Only expert auction I participated in last week. And they were probably worth it; they were two of only four players who tallied more than 40 pilfers in 2014 (Jacoby Ellsbury was just one shy). Let’s look at the league-wide stolen base numbers since 1995.
In 2011 and 2012, we saw a brief uptick in production across the league, but the linear trendline suggests that, overall, stolen bases have been on the downswing, especially since their peak in the Steroid Era—fitting how the graph looks like a bicep. Thankfully, there are a number of speedsters on their way, and more than a few of them should make their debuts during the upcoming season.
(Above: Buxton flying down the line during a Midwest League game in 2013)
1. Byron Buxton, OF, Twins (Age: 21)
Speed Grade: 80
SB Per 150 Games: 53
Amazingly, this is the first time I’ve mentioned the best prospect in baseball in an article. The reason for that is, by omission, I wanted to make clear to not expect him to be in the majors in 2015. The best you can ask for is a single cappuccino in September. Regardless, Buxton has the highest upside of any prospect in baseball. During his tenure in the Midwest League in 2013, area scouts compared him to a kid who played there a few years prior, Mike Trout. Buxton’s tools are above average across the board, but speed is the highlight (Branch Rickey is salivating from the grave). The wheels are of the grade-80 variety, and he has a shot to eventually post seasons with 20 home runs and 40-50 stolen bases. But you probably already knew that. He and system-mate Miguel Sano were assigned to Double-A Chatanooga last week, which means one thing: if you live in Tennessee, there’s a sight to see at the border.
2. Jose Peraza, 2B, Braves (Age: 21)
Speed Grade: 80
SB Per 150 Games: 78
There’s no doubting Peraza’s speed. Not only is he fast, but he also has excellent instincts on the basepaths The Braves top prospect, however, was recently reassinged to minor league camp after an awful spring training where he went 1-for-16 with four strikeouts. He was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnet where he’ll need to show he can hit for a high average against better competition (he slashed .339/.364/.441 with 60 stolen bases between High-A Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi). If he finds his groove at Gwinnett, he could be up in relatively short order, although Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez has shown a liking towards second-base favorite Jace Peterson. Still, he’s a must own in formats that count steals, as he’s got a shot to lead the majors in the category at some point.
3. Micah Johnson, 2B, White Sox (Age: 24)
Speed Grade: 70
SB Per 150 Games: 61
Johnson has stiff-armed his competition at second base this spring. Through Sunday, he’s 14-for-30 with a home run and two stolen bases. Barring an injury, he’ll be the White Sox's opening day second baseman. This is excellent news for fantasy owners, as Johnson’s fantasy upside far exceeds that of his competition: Emilio Bonifacio, Carlos Sanchez and Gordon Beckham. As I noted last month, when I profiled Johnson as a top rookie, the biggest concern is whether or not he can stay on the field long enough to (a) keep his job and (b) swipe enough bags to be fantasy relevant. He dealt with an assortment of leg injuries in 2014. He won’t approach the 84 stolen bases that put him on the radar in 2013, but 40 is within the realm of possibility.
4. Dalton Pompey, OF, Blue Jays (Age: 22)
SB Per 150 Games: 53
Pompey wasn’t a lock to make Toronto’s opening day roster until Michael Saunders tripped on a sprinkler head, shagging fly balls, and tore the meniscus in his right knee. The initial prognosis had him out until the All-Star Break, but Saunders elected to have part of the meniscus removed rather than repaired, which takes much longer to heal. That means Pompey, who hadn’t played above A-ball before 2014, is more or less locked in as the Opening Day starter in center field for the Blue Jays. He’s done well this spring, logging 12 hits in 37 at-bats with three steals, which will hopefully allow him a longer leash once Michael Saunders re-enters the fold in early-mid April. He’ll likely hit towards the end of the Jays’ lineup to begin, but has a chance to move up once the inevitable Jose Reyes DL-stint rears its ugly face.
5. Manuel Margot, OF, Red Sox (Age: 20)
Speed grade: 65
SB Per 150 Games: 60
Margot was one of the most exciting players to (loudly) make his presence known in 2014. He punished the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues (known colloquially as “the Sally”) to the tune of .293/.356/.462 with 12 home runs and 42 stolen bases, as a 19-year-old. He’s not a polished base stealer and needs to learn to read pitchers better to continue stealing bases at the upper levels, but the raw talent is that of a superstar. Margot doesn't get cheated at the plate, and there's a reasonable chance he develops above-average to plus power, which makes him a great player to target in most dynasty leagues. He’s likely to begin the season at High-A Salem, but has a chance to reach the upper minors with a strong performance.
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