Winter League Sleepers

(the first in a series of updates on surprise players for 2000)

There is a running debate over whether winter and fall league statistics are a reliable predictor of future performance.  If you drafted Erubial Durazo, Jeff Zimmerman or Jose Vidro last year, I'm guessing you think they are.  If, however, you thought George Arias was gonna be your answer at 3rd base, then I suspect you found other diversions this winter.

Over the past several years, many players have turned good winters into good major league "debuts".  Most of these players have had some major league experience, but  had not been given a shot at playing full-time, or were rushed to the bigs and weren't able to handle the level of play.  Among those who fit this description last year were Vidro, Roger Cedeno, Eric Owens, Ron Villone and Steve Karsay.  The year before, Jose Hernandez and Omar Daal both got little attention before enjoying brilliant winters, then followed-up with breakthrough seasons.

On the flip side, a terrible winter didn't prevent Preston Wilson from finishing second in the rookie of the year voting last year.  And George Arias produced impressive numbers in Mexico, but could not translate that success to the majors.

So, while winter success is no guarantee that a player will have a great year, he has about the same degree of likelyhood of continued success as one who had a good spring training.  Which is to say, he has a better chance than someone who had a crummy winter.

Regardless, isolating good performances is always useful when trying to narrow the field of candidates from possible sleepers to likely sleepers.

The real question is how does one identify these players?

Ron Shandler has done more to establish a correlation between control ratios and continued success in the majors than just about anyone.  Control ratios, simply put, measure the degree of control a player has over the the only two things he has control over: walks and strikeouts.

For a hitter, good strikeout to walk ratios, often called eye ratios, demonstrate the ability to get good pitches to hit.  As Ted Williams learned from Rogers Hornsby, that is the secret to good hitting.  A player with a good eye is more likely to maintain consistently high levels in batting average, as well as develop any power skill that he may possess, than one who doesn't.  Eye ratio is measured by dividing the number of walks a player draws by the number of strikeouts.  Any result over 1.000 is considered outstanding and anything below 0.250 is considered poor.

There is a similar correlation with pitchers.  If a pitcher doesn't give up many free passes and gets guys out by himself via strikeouts, he's probably not gonna get in many jams.  If he does, he'll be able to bail himself out, rather than having to depend on his defense.  I look for pitchers who strike a lot of hitters out (more than 7 Ks per game), while not allowing many walks (K/BB ratio of at least 2.00, preferably 3.00+).

In addition to using control ratios, I look for players with potential opportunities to demonstrate their skills - those who are vying for a vacated spot or ones who face weak incumbents.

Here're my sleeper candidates for this year:

PLAYER              POS    TEAM      AB     BA     SLG     OBA      EYE     WLG
Bradley, Milton     OF      Mon     108    .352   .556    .426    1.167     Arz
McNally, Sean       1/3     Fla     119    .361   .580    .462    0.526     Arz
Cancel, Robinson     C      Mil      66    .303   .455    .361    0.714     Arz
Ortiz, David        1B      Min     125    .320   .512    .405    0.909     Dom
Furcal, Rafael      SS      Atl     153    .281   .366    .421    1.895     Dom
Burkhart, Morgan    1B      Bos     232    .315   .591    .461    0.966     Mex
Crespo, Felipe      OF       SF     173    .295   .538    .402    0.969     PR

PITCHER             POS     TEAM     ERA    IP    K/BB     K/9     WHIP     WLG
Roberts, Grant      RHSP     NYM    2.43   29.2   5.00   10.62    1.112     Arz
Kim, Sun            RHSP     Bos    2.27   31.2   4.43    8.81    0.821     Arz
Bell, Rob           RHSP     Cin    4.76   34.0   4.25    9.00    1.118     Arz
Fultz, Aaron        LHSP      SF    2.55   49.1   5.86    7.48    0.892     Dom
Rivera, Luis        RHSP     Atl    2.83   60.1   2.18   12.68    1.326     Mex
Harris, Reggie (DL) RHRP     Mil    1.52   29.2   3.29   13.96    0.876     Mex

Bradley - a fiery competitor with a good eye and developing power, Bradley has a flair for the dramatic: his grand slam in the final game to win the Eastern League championships last year is the most well-known example to date.  The Expos might move Rondell White to left field or out of town to make room for him.

McNally - a little old to be considered a prospect, he demolished AA last year and continued his rampage in the Arizona Fall League.  He was traded to Florida this winter, where he has a decent shot of beating out Derrek Lee or Brant Brown at first base.

Cancel - a good defensive catcher with a terrific arm, hits for high average but not much power.  Now that Nilsson is gone to Japan, he looks like the best candidate for the starting nod.

Ortiz - good power and good eye.  Seems like he's been a prospect forever, but he's still only 24.  Not much standing in his way at 1st base/DH in Minnesota, except maybe Tom Kelley.

Furcal - think of him as a younger, faster version of Florida's Luis Castillo.  It'll probably take a year or two for him to achieve his peak levels in batting average - probably a .300+ hitter - but he should get a decent number of steals if he can convince the Braves that Walt Weiss's time has passed.

Burkhart - like McNally, too old to be considered a prospect, but this guy has never gotten much of a chance to show what he could do except in the Independent Leagues.  However, like Durazo last year, everywhere he's played, he's hit a ton.  If Daubach performs like he did in August and September last year, Burkhart could get his opportunity.

Crespo - once considered the heir apparent to Roberto Alomar in Toronto, Crespo got a new team (SF) and a new position (OF) last year and has taken to it like a fish to water.  He's a year younger than the more heralded Calvin Murray and possess a much better knowledge of the strikezone.  My guess is that if there are any changes in the outfield in SF - either Burks gets injured or Benard flops - Crespo is the likely beneficiary.

Roberts - facing a crowded starting situation, he's not likely to get his chance in NY.  But the Mets have too many lefties in the bullpen, and he is a good candidate to be packaged somewhere with one of them for some outfield help.  If that happens, he should be a pretty solid rookie - this guy knows how to pitch.

Kim - known more for his contract (it guaranteed that he'd pitch at Fenway) than his performance before now, Kim dominated the Arizona League.  Boston needs starters behind the Martinez brothers, so Kim will get his chance to pitch at Fenway.

Bell - rumored to be going to Seattle in the Griffey deal, he ended up staying put.  The Reds will need him to fill out their rotation where they have a history of injuries and inconsistency.  In a year or two, he should be their best pitcher.

Fultz - always had good velocity, and seems to have put things together in AAA and in the Domincan this winter.  Several of the Giants young starters were overworked last year (Russ Ortiz had the second most 120+ pitch games in the NL) and there are still questions about Joe Nathan.

Rivera - With the likely departure of John Rocker, there is plenty talk of a McGlinchy-like rise from A-ball to the majors for Rivera, possibly to either a set-up or closing role.  His impressive showing in Mexico, especially his strikeouts, did nothing to dispel the rumors.

Harris - will be sidelined for much of this year with arm troubles, but I thought his perfornance in Mexico was impressive enough to mention.  When he gets healthy, Wickman will not provide much competition for the Brewers' closing role.

There were plenty of other good performances this winter that I didn't mention for various reasons, such as the players were blocked at the major league level (Baltimore's Calvin Pickering), didn't get a lot of playing time (Cincinnati's Ted Rose) and/or everyone already knew about them thereby disqualifying them as "sleepers" (Pat Burrell in Philly, Brad Penny in Florida).

Anyway, all these players merit keeping a close watch on through spring training and the early part of the season.  Each is a good candidate to be a productive player if opportunity knocks, provided their manager recognizes their talent.  But that's another column entirely.

Stats for selected hitters
Stats for selected pitchers