April 14, 2010

Every year, particularly in rotisserie leagues, many fantasy owners feel compelled to mortgage their drafts on baseball's speed demons, players that make significant contributions to a team's overall stolen base total. Speed is a valuable commodity, and stolen bases are an inseparable part of the fantasy game. However, overpaying for stolen bases can place a fantasy team directly in harm's way, making them vulnerable to a game that is increasingly reliant on power.

Stolen bases are far less common than home runs; 41 percent less common, to be exact. Of the 2,970 total stolen bases in the majors in 2009, more than 15 percent were concentrated among the top 10 contributors. Further, only 17 players had 30 or more steals in 2009, clearly illustrating that there are very few difference-makers burning up the fantasy base paths -- a fact which forced many a fantasy owner to invest heavily (and early) in speed.

Here again, the reality of fantasy baseball often differs greatly from perception. A number of baseball's stolen base threats were overlooked commodities during 2010 fantasy drafts, and some continue to go largely unnoticed more than a week into the season. To a certain degree, draft day pulled back the covers on which speedsters were bargain buys, and which were overpriced. In addition, the early part of the season has already helped to reveal a bit more.

We'll list the underappreciated base thieves as being For Better; overrated or overpriced swipers will be put under the For Worse banner.

Rajai Davis, OF, Oakland Athletics. Primarily a bench player to begin 2009, Davis broke out in a big way over the season's second half. After the All Star break, Davis hit a robust .325 with 30 of his eventual 41 stolen bases. Despite finishing the 2009 season as one of only seven players to top 40 steals, Davis wasn't drafted as a fantasy starter, going 44th among outfielders (161.16 overall). Many were undoubtedly suspicious of his batting average, but a career .305 average in the minor leagues suggests he may simply be a late bloomer. While he's hitting "only" .278 through the first week of 2010, his five steals are tied for the major league lead.

Brett Gardner, OF, New York Yankees. In spite of a brutal April (.220 AVG), and losing time due to a fractured thumb, Gardner showed a great deal of promise in 2009, finishing with 26 steals in just 108 games played. With more playing time, many speculated that Gardner could provide fantasy owners with a significant number of steals in 2010. The offseason departure of Johnny Damon left a vacancy in left -- one that will be filled at by the speedy Gardner. As the Yankees primary starting left fielder, Gardner's started the 2010 season with a .296 batting average and three steals.

Scott Podsednik, OF, Kansas City Royals. Many years ago, 2004 to be exact, Podsednik stole 70 bases. He continued his success in 2005, when his 59 steals helped propel the White Sox to a World Series crown. Thereafter, things took a turn for the worse. Podsednik played just 155 total games between 2007 and 2008 (with two teams), he was in danger of washing out of baseball. After the White Sox gave him another go-round, where he hit .304 with 30 steals, Podsednik signed with the Royals before the 2010 season. A .444 average and a league-best five steals through seven games should give fantasy owners at least two reasons to ponder this potential waiver-wire wonder.

Carl Crawford, OF, Tampa Bay Rays. Of the three players to top 60 steals in 2009, Crawford was the only one to reach double-digits in home runs, finishing the season with 15. He's swiped at least 46 bases in six of the last seven years, carving out a niche as an elite base stealer and fantasy darling. Somewhat problematic, however, was that Crawford stole only 16 bases after the All Star break in '09, a notable decline for those hoping to acquire his services in 2010. His average draft position (third among outfielders, 14.67 overall) suggests he'll need to equal or surpass his 2009 production to offer a return on the investment. With any statistical decline at all in his contract year, Crawford is poised to disappoint.

Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, Boston Red Sox. Ellsbury led the American League in steals each of the last two years, and led all of baseball in 2009 with a robust total of 70. His .415 SLG indicates that Ellsbury's fantasy value is tied almost exclusively to his stolen bases, a fact shouldn't be an issue if he continues stealing 70 bases a year. Considering that the last player to register back-to-back 70-plus steal seasons was Marquis Grissom (1991-1992) the odds are not on Ellsbury's side. A decline by 20 percent would place his SB total at 56, a number that would still excite fantasy owners, but not the ones that drafted him with at the going rate (20.20 ADP).

Shane Victorino, OF, Philadelphia Phillies. Victorino is generally viewed as a leading speed threat, a fact that contributed to his 68.81 average draft position in 2010. In reality, this is a player who managed just 25 stolen bases in 2009 -- his lowest total in three years, and the fewest of any player on this list. His combination of runs scored (102) and extra base hits (62) make him valuable in a number of other ways, but frustration looms for those fantasy owners hoping for Victorino to anchor their team in stolen bases.

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