New Cleveland Indians outfielder Michael Bourn is talented and valuable and probably helps old ladies cross the street, but to me he doesn't make for a great keeper or top-50 draft pick. My reasoning is simple: Early-round hitters must provide power, regardless of position, and ideally a fruitful combination of power and speed, and it's tough to justify Bourn types in Round 5. Fantasy owners can wait to find the requisite stolen bases needed to compete in the category.
Well, it's time to point out who some of those options are, starting with the National League, which for the first time in his career, Bourn is no longer a part of. As colleague Keith Lipscomb noted in his smart article on numerous base stealers switching leagues, the pool of NL options is not as great as the AL. But it's not dry, either. You just have to look harder.
One of my favorite standard-format, late-round selections will be Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Adam Eaton. I competed in the LABR NL-only auction Sunday night and intended to outbid others to acquire Eaton, but apparently the other industry experts in the room (12 teams, 5x5) considered him more than just a sleeper because he went for a whopping $18. I think Eaton can earn that, really, after putting on a show at Triple-A Reno and holding his own the final month with the big club, and I asked him about the transition after Sunday's 5-3 loss to the San Francisco Giants at Scottsdale Stadium.
"Yeah, there's a big difference between the minors and big leagues mentally," said Eaton, who hit .381 over 488 at-bats at Reno, and .259 in 85 at-bats for the Diamondbacks. "I've been able to adapt to the ballparks, and I've seen pitchers like [Matt] Cain and [Clayton] Kershaw, so you get used to your surroundings quick."
Eaton, a left-handed hitter with modest pop that belies his 5-foot-8, 185-pound frame, brings a smart, patient approach to the plate, and it should translate to the majors. He drew 72 walks across two minor league levels in 2011, another 59 last season, and with the Diamondbacks he took 14 free passes against 15 strikeouts. He certainly wasn't overwhelmed at the plate, getting seven extra-base hits in his 21 starts, and he stands in fine against lefty pitchers. While the odd Cody Ross signing seemed to doom Eaton to more minor league time, the Justin Upton trade resurrected his value.
As for the stolen bases, that's a skill that needs practice at the highest level as well. After being successful on 38 of 48 attempts at Reno, Eaton was caught stealing on three of five attempts in the majors. I asked Eaton about that, knowing it's really a meaningless sample size that tells us nothing, but to see if he thought it mattered.
"It was an adjustment period for stealing bases, but I'll get used to it," said Eaton, who on Sunday singled and hit a sacrifice fly in four plate appearances, and also made a tremendous diving catch in the outfield. "Just stay with the game plan. In spring training it's hard to see. Whether I can steal 30 or 40 bases, that's more for you to say!"
Perhaps it is, and I don't mind saying it: This is a guy who can steal 30 or 40 bases. Of course, I wasn't able to acquire him Sunday night, but I did spend one measly dollar on his potential backup, the ridiculously fast Tony Campana. Don't expect Eaton to fail, though. I have him pegged for 32 steals, along with a .290 batting average, 8 home runs and 86 runs scored. I don't see much risk, either. He's ready to emerge, though it's a bit surprising that 56 outfielders are being selected ahead of him in ESPN average live drafts. As noted in our staff sleepers/busts article, quite a few of us are in Eaton's corner.
By the time March ends, Eaton might not be much of a sleeper anymore, perhaps breaking into our top 200 (I'd take him in Round 17 or 18, at worst). Here are others in the NL who also fit the sleeper steals designation, and let's exclude obvious choices such as Ben Revere, Juan Pierre, Dee Gordon and Everth Cabrera, who stole plenty of bases in 2012, and Billy Hamilton, who has received plenty of attention. None of these players below are projected by ESPN Fantasy for 25 steals, but a few are certainly capable.
Tony Campana, OF, Diamondbacks: He doesn't have a clear path to playing time, but Campana stole 30 bases in 2012 in only 174 at-bats. Over two seasons, he's 54-for-59 on steals in 317 at-bats. If he makes the team, he'll run, even in a reserve role. Imagine if he got 300 at-bats! He's easily worth a dollar (or more) in NL-only formats.
Cliff Pennington, 2B/SS, Diamondbacks: After stealing 29 bases in 2010, he has 29 combined over the past two seasons. Still, he's the starting shortstop until Didi Gregorius gets healthy, and perhaps beyond.
Logan Schafer, OF, Milwaukee Brewers: The team's fourth outfielder stole 16 bases at Triple-A Nashville, and hit nine triples, and he could steal time from Carlos Gomez in center field. The unrelated Jordan Schafer, by the way, swiped 27 bases for the Houston Astros (not a Triple-A team, officially) and is back on the Braves, where he could do it again.
More: Outfield prospects Brett Jackson of the Chicago Cubs and Gary Brown of the Giants certainly can run. Jackson has holes in his swing but should play, while Brown is probably better suited for 2014. ... The Philadelphia Phillies plucked a Rule 5 outfield prospect named Ender Inciarte from Arizona, though it's hard to see how he makes the team. He stole 46 bags last season in the low minors, and while they play different positions, he reminds me of Everth Cabrera in his build and approach. ... Chone Figgins is on the Marlins now. Nah, I just can't go there. ... Pittsburgh still has Alex Presley and Jose Tabata, neither locks to make the team. Presley was 9-for-16 in steals for the Bucs; Tabata was 8-for-20. Sounds like the Pirates need Davey Lopes to coach first base. ... Eric Young Jr. and Charlie Blackmon are better base stealers, but playing time will be tough in Colorado. ... Finally, Jedd Gyorko looks like San Diego's new second baseman, but Logan Forsythe plays better defense and could steal 15 bases. The Padres also have utility guy Alexi Amarista, who ran in the minors, though he also was unsuccessful quite a bit.
Tomorrow: the American League stolen base sleepers!