What's the difference between a breakout player and a sleeper? That's like saying what's the difference between a hamster and a gerbil? Great Britain and the United Kingdom?
Every season, we give you our list of possible breakout and sleeper candidates, but it's important to distinguish between the two -- because they are different.
The way we categorize it is that a breakout is a player that goes from good to great, and a sleeper is one that goes from average to good.
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For instance, last season, Ryan Howard, Joe Mauer and Vernon Wells went from the middle rounds of most Fantasy drafts to the top three rounds this season. That would classify them as breakouts from a year ago. On the other hand, Seattle reliever J.J. Putz, Pittsburgh third baseman Freddy Sanchez and San Diego starter Chris Young all came through with excellent years despite entering the season as average, or even below-average, players. They are perfect examples of sleepers.
In this piece I'm going to address a few names that I feel have breakout potential in the 2007 season. The following are some players that should be selected in the middle rounds of your mixed league drafts (good players) that have the potential to end up being in the upper echelon at their position for next year's drafts (breakouts). My colleague, Eric Mack, is taking a more detailed look at some sleepers in other articles, so look out for those as well.
Rocco Baldelli, OF, TB: Many of you are so used to hearing Baldelli's name that you'd think he was 34 years old and on the back end of his career. But, in fact, he's only 25 years old with four years of major-league experience. Obviously, he lost out on a complete season in 2005 with knee and elbow surgery, but this is the exact type of player you want to bank on in the middle rounds. He has fine-tuned his hitting and has proven that he can lay off of bad pitches, keep his strikeouts down and hit for average. He still has speed and his September power display was impressive: .309-9-19. Only three other hitters had more homers in that span. He's expected to start the season as the Devil Rays' leadoff hitter, so expect his meager steal totals to climb again.
Prince Fielder, 1B, MIL: Prince hit like a king in his first full season with the Brewers. One of his biggest question marks was his defense, but after making 12 errors in 101 games in 2005, Fielder came through with just 11 errors in 152 games last year. With a full year of experience under his belt and an offense in Milwaukee that should be healthier and improved, Cecil's boy could see a Justin Morneau-like season, minus the .321 batting average.
Nick Swisher, 1B/OF, OAK: Swisher still strikes out way too much -- especially against right-handed pitchers -- but in different stretches last season, he showed he can dominate. For the months of April, May and September, he averaged .301, eight homers and 20 RBI. But the months in the middle (June, July and August), he averaged .211-4-12. If he can improve on his cold stretches, he could come through with a .280-40-110-110 season for Oakland.
For years you've been hearing about how thin second base is in Fantasy play. Well, we finally have some good news for you: Help is on the way! Four of this season's breakout candidates come from that position. We expect the pool to get even deeper over the next few years.
Robinson Cano, 2B, NYY: How does someone hit .342 one season, but become a breakout candidate in the next? Cano played in 10 fewer games than his rookie season mostly because of a strained hamstring that limited him from the end of June on. Yet, he nearly won the AL batting title and improved on almost all of his numbers across the board. A full season from him last year likely would have resulted in 55 doubles, 20 HR, 104 RBI and 82 runs -- not bad in any Fantasy format.
Howie Kendrick, 1B/2B, LAA: There was a question early on as to where Kendrick would play, since Adam Kennedy and Orlando Cabrera held the middle infield spots in Anaheim. But after getting at-bats at first and second base last year, the Angels are willing to gamble on the sophomore as their starter at second, allowing Kennedy to sign with the Cardinals. Baseball America pegged Kendrick as the best hitter in the minors last offseason and they also see him winning multiple batting titles in the majors at some point. Head-to-Head owners will be happy to know that he can become a 20-HR hitter that won't strike out much.
Rickie Weeks, 2B, MIL: Weeks followed up his decent rookie campaign with a nice sophomore season, cut short by wrist surgery in August. He should be healthy by spring training. He can hit for average, with decent pop, and expect the Brewers to capitalize on his speed on the basepaths this year. He should easily steal 30-plus bases this season as Milwaukee's leadoff hitter. With Fielder and Bill Hall ready to knock him in, Weeks could become one of the better table-setters in the NL.
Breaking out on the mound
Dave Bush, SP, MIL: Bush is actually entering his fourth season in the majors and just his second in the NL. He pitched extremely well at times last year, with a superb 1.138 WHIP. Head-to-Head owners loved him because of his three complete games (fifth in the NL) and two shutouts (third in the majors), earning a ton of bonus points. Again, the Brewers should be better this season and Bush will have a better bullpen to work with, now that they have a reliable closer in Francisco Cordero.
Felix Hernandez, SP, SEA: Last year, we did what we could to keep you from drafting King Felix too early. He was coming off a ridiculous rookie season and expectations were just too great for the 20-year-old. Hernandez came to camp a little hefty and wore down as the season progressed. He's in great shape right now and, as a third-year starter that might go undervalued in some drafts, he's an excellent breakout candidate who could win 15 games with 200-plus strikeouts.
Scott Kazmir, SP, TB: Kazmir didn't pitch enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, but he still registered more strikeouts (163) than all but 29 other pitchers. Had he pitched enough innings, the 3.67 runs of support provided him by his offense would have ranked him very close to the bottom. Furthermore, the Devil Rays' bullpen was the worst in the league, blowing 92 different leads to lead the majors. Kazmir was shut down late in the year to save his shoulder, but he threw in late January and said he feels stronger than he has ever felt at this time of the year. Bank on a huge season by the tough 23-year-old lefty.
Joel Zumaya, RP, DET: Go ahead and add Scot Shields' name to this list as a stud setup man who would turn into a stud closer if an injury befalls the man ahead of him. Zumaya is a former rookie starting pitcher turned reliever, much like Jonathan Papelbon last year with Boston. He racked up the strikeouts despite pitching only one or two innings at a time. He struck out three or more batters on 15 different occasions last year, while hitting the radar gun at 100 m.p.h. more than any other pitcher.
Have a question for the Fantasy Baseball writers? How about a comment or a suggestion? Feel free to email us at DMFantasyBaseball@cbs.com. Please add "Attn: Breakouts" so we know which column you are referring to. We might not be able to answer all questions due to a large volume, but we’ll do our best.