There's a clear reason why I will never pay a premium price for Michael Bourn.
In fact, my colleague Jason Collette examined where the production at each rotisserie category comes from in an article at Baseball Prospectus a few weeks ago and the overwhelming supply of stolen bases on the waiver wire has pushed me even further away from owning Bourn, Brett Gardner, or even Peter Bourjos.
As for steals while addressing a premium position in the form of Elvis Andrus? I've toyed with that roster foundation in a couple of early mocks, but I'm not convinced that's a strong approach. The abundance of cheap speed available throughout drafts either in undervalued players coming back from injury-plagued seasons, or in the form of one-tool players getting an opportunity because of the lack of organizational depth make it easy to acquire steals in a variety of ways.
No matter your willingness to pay extra for the “proven" or "safe" speedsters, you can't entirely ignore the category on draft day.
With that mind, let's take a look at some targets throughout the player pool who may provide more stolen bases than expected if an uptick in playing time results from improved health or a clearer path to regular at-bats develops.
Note: ExpertADP data is from drafts held at Mock Draft Central, and players listed as N/A do not currently have an ADP below 600 and are regularly undrafted.
Hanley Ramirez, MIA, SS/3B - (ExpertADP - 14.1) - At first glance, those considering Ramirez for a late-first or early-second round pick might think that speed is slipping away from his skill set. His PA/SB put him on pace for 33 swipes last season, which would have been right in line with his previous three-year average if he had remained healthy. The bags won't be there forever as he continues to grow (seriously, the guy is physically expanding), but this should serve as a reminder that the skill has not deteriorated as he enters his age-28 season.
Desmond Jennings, TAM, OF - (ExpertADP - 58.3) - Jennings' impressive debut has driven up the price for those who want to own a share in 2012 and while the 10 homers he hit over 287 plate appearances last season were definitely a surprise, the steals came at a nice clip as well (one per 14.4 plate appearances). Of the players in the top-20 in that department (PA/SB), only Matt Kemp (10.7%) walked in a larger percentage of his at-bats than Jennings (10.2%). Given his expected lineup placement, his numbers could look much like Brett Gardner's with more help in the power department in the form of 15-20 homers in 2012.
Shin-Soo Choo, CLE, OF - (ExpertADP - 73.9) - Choo was arrested for a DUI in early May and suffered a broken thumb in late June that kept him out of the lineup until mid-August. If that weren't enough, a "sore left trunk," slowed him the rest of the way and he finished the season with a .259/.344/.390 line after carrying an OPS north of .880 in each of the previous two seasons. Despite his struggles at the plate, Choo went 12-for-17 on the basepaths and continued to show 20-steal potential, and now that he's further removed from that thumb injury, there's reason to believe he'll regain the lost power in his age-29 season. The skill set still points to a .290-20-20 player and the price tag has been very low in early drafts because of his disappointing 2011 numbers.
Jemile Weeks, OAK, 2B - (ExpertADP - 133.1) - Weeks' five percent walk rate doesn't fit Jonah Hill's the A's typical OBP-driven philosophy, but his minor league track record suggests that some improvement could be on the horizon. In fact, Weeks was walking at a 14 percent clip in the PCL last season over 45 games before the A's brought him for good to serve as their regular second baseman and leadoff man. If his success rate improves (22-for-33 last season with Oakland) and the OBP inches upward as expected, 35-40 steals could be a part of the return in 2012.
Dee Gordon, SS, LA - (ExpertADP - 159.9) - Gordon can eliminate any desire you might have to grab Elvis Andrus with a top-40 pick. He narrowly missed the 250-plate appearance threshold that this list of players was extracted from, but Gordon stole a base once per every 9.7 big league plate appearances last season, second only to Houston's Jason Bourgeois of the players mentioned in this piece. As the 7:27 BB:K suggests, plate discipline is an issue and his low walk rates in the minors suggest that he may never provide a high OBP without carrying a high BABIP. Fortunately, Gordon has a skill set that portends a good average on balls in play and his 88 percent contact rate as a rookie is encouraging. Andrus has a better eye at the plate, will hit for a modicum of power, and gets to hit in a better lineup with a very hitter-friendly home park, but a 50-steal sophomore campaign isn't out of the question for Gordon and that would be 13 bags better than Andrus' best total (37 in 2011).
Angel Pagan, SF, OF - (ExpertADP - 254.4) - Perhaps the "your problem for my problem," swap between the Giants and Mets will work out for both sides. Over the last two seasons, Pagan went 69-for-85 on the basepaths in New York, and he should be able to steal another 35-40 this season provided that he's healthy. Even if the Giants decide to sit him against left-handed starters (career .253/.304/.396 against them), Pagan has quietly delivered a .289/.343/.428 line against righties in his career and could emerge as the leadoff man for manager Bruce Bochy.
Ben Revere, MIN, OF - (ExpertADP - 326.0) - Throughout his time in the minors, Revere was the recipient of Juan Pierre comps. Defensively, he's better than Pierre (that is, he at least has an arm), while the Twins' offseason moves have put him in position to get everyday at-bats as the team's starting left fielder. Further, he could move over and play center field if Denard Span has any lingering concussion issues. Just 24, Revere walked in only five percent of his plate appearances last season, but some improvement could be on the horizon there as he usually checked in between seven and eight percent in the minors. Fortunately, he's a very good contact hitter and that skill held up during his big league debut last season (91 percent contact rate), making him a great bet for 40-plus steals over the course of a full campaign.
Rajai Davis, TOR, OF - (ExpertADP - 457.0) - Only Jason Bourgeois ran more than Davis on a per plate appearance basis last season, but despite the Jays' willingness to give many of their players a steady green light, there are some red flags here. Davis' OBP sank to a career-low .273 last season and his contact rate tumbled from 85 to 80 percent in 2011. The Jays have plenty of competition for him on their roster, as Eric Thames and Travis Snider could ultimately finish spring training ahead of him on the depth chart in left field, while Colby Rasmus should handle the bulk of the time in center. His best chance to be an asset in the stolen-base department will require a trade or injuries to deplete the depth ahead of him.
Jason Bourgeois, HOU, OF - (ExpertADP - N/A) - The ultimate one-trick pony, Bourgeois' base-stealing prowess defines elite. He went 31-of-37 on the basepaths over 93 games with the Astros last season, grabbing a steal every 8.1 plate appearances. He didn't walk much, but his previous minor league numbers suggest that his four percent mark last season may actually improve a tick. Further, he puts a ton of balls in play and boasts a 90 percent contact rate. Even if he's not an everyday player, the rebuilding Astros should be able to give him 450-500 plate appearances in a three-man rotation with Jordan Schafer and Brian Bogusevic for the center and right field spots.
Jordan Schafer, HOU, OF - (Expert ADP - N/A) - Once upon a time, Schafer was considered a top-50 prospect by Baseball America. He was suspended 50 games in April of 2008 after testing positive for HGH. He slumped upon returning to action at Double-A but turned things around and finished that season with an .849 OPS and put himself in the conversation for the Braves' starting center field spot. From there, he suffered a sprained A/C joint in his left shoulder while trying to make a catch in spring training and managed to overtake Josh Anderson (seriously) for the aforementioned starting job with the Braves. His season started off on a sour note, as he battled a wrist injury and hit .204 while striking out 63 times in 167 at-bats before getting demoted to Triple-A. From there, the injury seemed to get worse and he eventually had surgery to remove a bone spur in late August of 2009. The same injury continued to bother him in 2010, and he was eventually demoted to Double-A after hitting .201/.255/.254 with Triple-A Gwinnett in the first half of the season. He avoided additional surgery that offseason, and declared himself fully healthy in February of 2011. Last season, he managed to overtake Nate McLouth for the starting job in center field, but was slowed by a sinus fracture and chip fracture in his finger before getting shipped to Houston as part of the Michael Bourn deal in July. As his arrest for marijuana possession in October suggests (he's avoiding further penalty by entering a drug intervention program), there are plenty of issues here, but when you consider all of the development time lost to injury (essentially two years worth of at-bats over the last four seasons), there may still be an interesting player beneath the wreckage. Schafer went 22-for-26 on the basepaths last season and has the inside track to the starting job in center field for Houston entering spring training.
Will Venable, SD, OF - (ExpertADP - N/A) - As it stands now, Venable is on track to platoon in right field with Chris Denorfia for the Padres. Carlos Quentin is hardly a case study in durability, so extra at-bats could be made available in left field at some point should injuries befall the former White Sox outfielder. As a platoon guy, Venable offers a career .258/.327/.442 line against right-handed pitching - more power than most of the players capable of providing cheap steals. It's also worth noting that his 75 percent contact rate was his best full-season result at the big league level. The high success rate and being on the good side of a platoon suggest that Venable could eclipse 30 steals in 2012 while providing a bit of power to boot.
Franklin Gutierrez, SEA, OF - (ExpertADP - N/A) - Stomach issues limited Gutierrez to 92 games last season, and while a .224/.261/.273 line has prompted many owners to write him off, it's worth noting that he posted the best contact rate (83 percent) of his big league career last season. Further, Gutierrez still had success as a basestealer, going 13-for-15 when given the green light in 2011. With his excellent defense in center field, he should enter spring training as the Mariners' frontrunner for the starting job. While his career .308 OBP suggests that he'll be in the bottom-third of the Seattle lineup, he's capable of stealing 25-plus bags over a full complement of at-bats and the aforementioned defensive skills should help Seattle manager Eric Wedge to overlook his deficiencies at the plate.
Andres Torres, NYM, OF - (ExpertADP - N/A) - Consider any sort of rebound he provides in the home run department to be a bonus. In deeper leagues where cheap speed can be valuable, Torres should still be able to deliver at a 25-steal clip again. The emphasis has to be "cheap" given that he'll likely strike out in a quarter of his at-bats and as a result, will almost certainly be a batting average liability. The playing time looks to be safe right now as the Mets really don't have any other options banging down the door to take over the starting job if he struggles - at least until Kirk Nieuwenhuis returns from his shoulder injury and proves that his .908 OPS at Buffalo last season wasn't a complete fluke.
Eduardo Nunez, NYY, SS - (ExpertADP - N/A) - If the Yankees are done revamping their roster, Nunez could benefit in a big way from the Jesus Montero deal. Unfortunately, there are rumblings that a veteran DH will be added to the mix and that would almost certainly prevent Nunez from seeing a significant uptick in playing time. In a world where Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter were given more time in the DH role, Nunez could see three-plus starts per week on the left side of the infield. Given A-Rod's durability issues, Nunez is still an intriguing AL-only target regardless of what other moves are coming from general manager Brian Cashman. Last season, Nunez quietly stole 22 bases over a mere 338 plate appearances. The lineup around him and modicum of power (five homers in 2011) make him more than an afterthought in the other 5 x 5 categories as well. A repeat of last season may be the safer expectation, but if nothing else this is notice that he's a bit better than most people think.
Mike Aviles, BOS, 2B/3B - (ExpertADP - N/A) - (does not currently qualify at SS) - At this time, the Red Sox are heading into the season with Aviles and Nick Punto as the shortstops on their roster, although all-glove prospect Jose Iglesias may not be far from contending for the job if offense is a non-priority from the position. Aviles would be something of a liability defensively, but he puts the ball in play consistently (86 percent career contact rate) and was 14-of-18 on the basepaths last season in fewer than 300 at-bats. Given the potential for eligibility at three infield positions within the first couple of weeks of the regular season, you could certainly do worse than his combo of speed, contact and an opportunity to score a ton of runs as part of the Red Sox's lineup.
Alexi Casilla, MIN, SS/2B - (ExpertADP - N/A) - It seems like this conversation has taken place for nearly five seasons now, but Casilla may have finally put it all together last season. Granted, .260/.322/.368 doesn't exactly get the masses excited. Casilla stole a base once in every 24.3 plate appearances last season, and if he manages to keep the starting job and yield only a game or two per week to utility man Tsuyoshi Nishioka, 500-550 plate appearances aren't out of the question. Should that rate of thievery continue, Casilla could jump into the 20-25 stolen-base range, which carries of plenty of value given his eligibility at shortstop after playing 42 games there last season.
Roger Bernadina, WAS, OF - (ExpertADP - N/A) - There are plenty of moving parts in the Washington lineup entering spring training, so based on the health of Adam LaRoche (and where Mike Morse plays as a result) and when Bryce Harper knocks down the door for a big league promotion (Opening Day, June 1, July 15, etc.), the Nats could be looking for help in center field. Bernadina is 33-for-38 on the basepaths over the last two seasons. He was victimized by a .197 BABIP during the second half of the season, so don't be completely scared off by the .175/.241/.313 line he showed during that span. He'll face some competition for his roster spot from...
Xavier Paul, WAS, OF - (ExpertADP - N/A) - Paul is on the outside looking in at a 25-man roster spot right now, but disregard his inflated PCL numbers and look back to his time at Double-A Jacksonville in 2007. His .291/.366/.429 line as a 22-year-old at that level suggests his numbers are not entirely the result of hitter-friendly environments on the west coast. If he manages to overtake Roger Bernadina for the fourth outfielder spot, there should be 20-25 cheap steals here provided that he keeps the role longer than a few weeks.
Carlos Gomez, MIL, OF - (ExpertADP - N/A) - In a word, hyper. Gomez brings a lot of energy to the Brewers' center field platoon, but now 26 it's entirely clear that he's not pushing his OBP north of .300 in an everyday role. With Nyjer Morgan on track to collect most of the starts against right-handers, Gomez will have a difficult time surpassing the 20-steal mark in Milwaukee this season. He's a fifth outfielder for those in NL-only leagues, but one capable of returning more than $1 or $2 he'll cost in the end game if he's able to hit 8-10 homers and steals 15-plus bags again in his part-time role.
Sam Fuld, TAM, OF - (ExpertADP - N/A) - Consider this an honorable mention. Fuld was exposed as an everyday player last season, and considering that he's already 30, his chances of seeing more than a part-time role as long as he's in Tampa Bay are extremely slim. The plate discipline wasn't terrible (84 percent contact rate, nine percent walk rate), but there's no power to speak of and he'll need a change of scenery to increase the playing time in a way that offers more than 15-20 steal potential.
Tony Gwynn Jr., LAD, OF - (ExpertADP - N/A) - It's becoming clear that Gwynn's .350 OBP with the Padres in 2009 is an outlier, as his career .319 mark exceeds that .304 and .308 he's delivered over the last two seasons. Sit him against lefties, and you get a career .248/.326/.329 player with the one-tool skill set that regularly puts him on lists like this one. Gwynn went 22-for-28 on the basepaths last season over 340 plate appearances - but he's a fourth outfielder at best barring an injury to Juan Rivera, Matt Kemp or Andre Ethier, and he'd likely have to contend with Jerry Sands for time in the corners unless Sands usurps James Loney at first base.