One way fantasy leaguers will supplement shortcomings on draft day is to stay in tune with the minor leagues to see who is coming up next. Relying upon that strategy to help your ratios, saves, or even home runs is quite risky but stolen bases is a whole other area. Steals only require one to get on base and if the player has the wheels, the manager will put them in motion. For example, the Astros promoted Jason Bourgeois midseason and he swiped 12 bases in just 136 plate appearances. The Braves brought Gregor Blanco back up in late May and he stole 11 bases in 269 plate appearances, the Red Sox even put Ryan Kalish in motion enough for him to steal 10 bases in 179 plate appearances, and the Royals let speedy Jarrod Dyson steal nine bases in only 65 plate appearances.
That group proves that steals can come from anywhere out of the minor leagues whether you are a solid major league prospect like Kalish or whether you are an organizational role player like Blanco, Bourgeois, or Dyson. Here are 10 names to follow this season as you look for stolen-base help in 2011 as well as some names to watch for 2012.
Lorenzo Cain (KC): He lost his rookie eligibility by 17 at-bats last season, but Cain bears watching. He stole 26 bases between Double- and Triple-A for the Brewers last season and even swiped seven bags in 147 at bats under Ken Macha's conservative running approach. Enter the Royals and Ned Yost, who has talked about the sluggish Billy Butler running a lot more in 2011. If Yost is willing to put Butler in motion, Cain has the potential to be a stolen-base monster this season if he can show more of the double-digit walk rate and high OBP's that he did in the minors last season. His .348 OBP in the majors last season would be a great place to start but that was mostly fueled by a .370 BABIP that will be tough to repeat with increased exposure to major league pitching. Our projections show him with 18 steals in 367 at-bats I think he has the potential to double that total with enough opportunities and his manager's aggressive style on the basepaths.
Desmond Jennings (TB): Your first reaction is, duh! I put him here because people are expecting him to have a job sooner than later in Tampa Bay, and if that is where you are, you need to hope for a Johnny Damon injury or a disastrous start to the 2011 season. The only way Jennings sees significant playing time in 2011 is if either Damon or Manny Ramirez are injured or both are traded away before the trade deadline if the Rays have fallen out of contention. Jennings absolutely has the skills to be a major force in this fantasy category for the next several years, but he has a tremendous roadblock in his path to playing time right now. It is ironic that an organization that is often painted with a cheap label is using more expensive skilled veterans in place of their best position prospect.
Brett Lawrie (TOR): He has 49 steals over the past two seasons including 30 last season in Double-A Huntsville. However, he has also been caught 26 times giving him a poor 65% success rate on the basepaths. If you are a fan of Bill James' speed score, Lawrie had a 8.2 measure (on a 10 scale last season) fueled by 52 doubles and triples last season. The Jays have to make a decision on Aaron Hill's remaining contract options by the end of the month and what they do there will determine how quickly the native Canadian Lawrie is able to come up and join the 25-man roster. Until then keep an eye on how he does in Triple-A Las Vegas at the young age of 21. He should start by cutting down on his 21% strikeout rate and improving his 0.40 BB/K if he has thoughts of hitting at the top of the lineup once he reaches the big leagues.
Fernando Perez (CHC): He has but 94 at-bats at the big league level and is just five for seven in his stolen-base attempts. However, he has a few things going for him in 2011 the fact he is out of minor league options and his 223 stolen bases across seven minor league seasons. Perez has stolen at least 24 bases in six of those seven seasons and is now fully recovered from a wrist injury that wiped out nearly all of his 2009 season and clearly affected him in 2010 so much that he gave up hitting left-handed after being a switch-hitter for his entire career. He has to fight with Tyler Colvin for the spare-at bats in the Cubs' outfield that contains two overpaid cornermen, but Perez should see enough pinch-running opportunities to be worthy of a reserve pick in NL-only leagues in case something happens with the names in front of him.
Engel Beltre (TX): Beltre's odds of seeing any roster time in 2011 are extremely slim but he bears watching for those of you in keeper leagues. He had a 7.5 speed score last season and stole 18 bases and hit into only one double play all season. In fact, he has hit into 13 double plays in his career that spans nearly 1,800 plate appearance while Billy Butler hit into 32 double plays in 2010 alone. Beltre is already in Double-A and just turned 21 so he has been one of the younger players in each league he has played in so far and he shows that kind of impatience at the plate as his career OBP is just .315 and he has five more steals in his career than he does walks. If he could learn some more patience at the plate in returning to Double-A, he could be dangerous on the bases.
Brett Jackson (CHC): We've already talked about the crowded outfield situation in Chicago but Perez is not going to block Jackson once he shows he is ready. The former first-round pick had an 8.3 speed score last season and was 30-for-41 on the bases and has gone 43-for-56 in his two professional seasons. In 829 at bats, Jackson has grounded into just three double plays which is yet another testament to his speed on the bases. He comes with speed, and he comes with a 13% walk rate and a high OBP last year, but he also strikes out a lot as he had a 26% strikeout rate last season which is exactly what he had in 2009. The good news is that he has maintained the rest of his skills but those contact issues might hinder how quickly the Cubs pull him up from the minors this season.
Jemile Weeks (OAK): Like his older brother, health has been a problem for him. Weeks has yet to play more than 80 games in a minor league season so his 16 stolen bases from last season do not look that impressive at first pass. Additionally, his injury issues have been mainly related to the lower half of his body which has further hurt his ability to steal bases. However, he did have a 7.5 speed score last year along with a strong walk rate and a strong contact rate. Mark Ellis is a free agent after this season which opens up a spot for Weeks if he can stay on the field and prove his durability. If he can get 450-plus plate appearances in a single season, 25-plus steals is not out of the question.
Jeremy Moore (LAA): In 2009, Moore was just 18 for 32 on the basepaths and struck out 151 times in 491 at bats and the Angels did not even bother to put him on the 40-man roster. That changed in 2010 when he put up a .303/.358/.463 slash line in Double-A Arkansas while stealing 24 bases and making a bit more contact. The 8 percent walk rate is a nice sign, but he still must reduce his 27% strikeout rate as he makes the jump to Triple-A in 2011. The athleticism really makes him a reserve outfielder in this system as he is mainly a center fielder and that position will not be opening up any time soon as long as Mike Trout has a pulse.
Joe Benson (MIN): Most people are going to take note of Benson's 27 home runs between High-A and Double-A last season while overlooking his eight triples and 19 steals last season. Benson's speed score was 7.6 last season and the former top college football prospect showed off his athleticism last season in his breakout season. The 30% strikeout rate is a major red flag for him as it comes on the heels of a full season in High-A in which he struck out 28% of the time. He is headed to Triple-A in 2011 on a track that could put him in a starting role in 2012 in Minnesota but that puts him just a phone call away from the majors should the injury bug strike the Twin Cities again.
Ben Revere (MIN): This is the one guy in the system that could beat Benson in a 40-yard dash. Revere has top line speed and has stolen 156 bases across four season in the minor leagues and only a broken jaw and late season promotion to Minnesota prohibited him from stealing 40-plus bases for a third consecutive season as he has climbed up the organizational ladder. Power will never be part of his game as he has just 78 extra-base hits in 1,513 plate appearances so his game will have to model that of Yankees' outfielder Brett Gardner and the fact he has nearly a one to one walk to strikeout rate and a career .389 OBP is a good start. He will be in Triple-A in 2011 and should see time to showcase his speed at the major league level sometime in the second half of the season.