Nicaragua v USA

Buried in the West are many talented breakout candidates. Some of the more interesting in the league, many have been relegated to former prospect status, while others are just building a name for themselves.

Anaheim Angels of California

This team is a bit difficult to pinpoint as most of the players are already somewhat established. Though Joel Pineiro could fit in simply because he is, potentially, a one-year wonder, he’s still enough of a credible asset to disqualify himself as a sleeper. There are a couple, however, that deserve some serious notice.

3B Brandon Wood: Wood is probably best known for the annual merry-go-round he and the Angels play on – sending the prospect up, down, and around through the organization – never letting him stay in one place. Though he’s done precious little at the major league level to warrant a 25-man roster spot – or starting gig, no less – he’s been so good in the upper minors for so long that at some point you just have to let the guy get his hacks in.

He got that opportunity in 2008, but failed miserably – batting .200 with just five home runs and four walks against 43 strikeouts in 150 at-bats.

With some alarmingly gaping holes in his swing (69.0 contact percentage in ’09; 68.9 percent in ’08), Wood’s first item on the to-do list is to find a way to consistently hit major league pitching. The second one is to lay off pitches outside the zone. Though he was able to make some marked improvements in the latter in 2009 (25.3 O-Swing percentage in ’09 versus 38.8 in ’08), his career mark of 36.7 O-Swing percentage is about as bad as it gets. It’s likely that your neighborhood mailman could lay off more pitches than Wood.

On the plus side, the power hasn’t been effected too much by his lack of contact. His 16.7 percent HR/FB in ’09 point to good things to come. But, as always, he’ll have to figure out how the hell to actually make contact with major league pitching if he ever wants to turn in some useful results.

Though short, Wood’s list is intricate in its simplicity. Sink or swim – hit or miss. If he can make contact and lay off bad pitches, he’ll be valuable. If not, he’s the new posterboy for the Quad-A label.

RP Kevin Jepsen: Jepsen’s 2009 line is, in many ways, the blueprint for a pitcher’s success. With a strong groundball rate (57.1 percent) and good swing and miss stuff (73.1 contact percentage), Jepsen is the rare hurler who can induce grounders and miss bats. All the tools are there for success, he’ll just have to turn it up a notch this season.

For one, he’ll have to find the zone with a little more regularity. Though a 3.13 BB/9 rate is just fine for a reliever, his 48.8 zone percentage needs a bit of improvement. Further, he will need to bring a more aggressive approach to the two-strike count. With his ability to miss bats, Jepsen should have posted a K-rate well into the nine Ks per nine innings.

These adjustments shouldn’t be too hard. As a result, expect Jepsen to earn a late-inning role by the end of the season. With Fuentes returning as the incumbent closer and Fernando Rodney standing as the new toy in the ‘pen, Jepsen may have some roadblocks in his pursuit of innings. Still, he’s got the talent so don’t be surprised when he usurps the jobs of those higher on the depth chart than he.

Oakland Athletics

The A’s are a team that is, quite frankly, packed with sleepers. Particularly in the rotation, the mix of high-upside and young arms is very exciting. However, it begins and ends with one guy – Ben Sheets.

Ben Sheets: Since his explosive breakout in 2005 (237.0 IP, 264 K, 32 BB), Sheets has been one of the most dominant pitchers in the league. A once-in-a-generation combination of elite stuff and top-notch command, had the pitcher stayed healthy and played for a better team, he could have crossed the rare “more wins than walks” milestone back in 2006. Striking out 9.85 batters per nine while walking just 0.93 per nine that year, Sheets body broke down as well – and he hasn’t been the same since.

Though the command didn’t leave him in ’07 and ’08, his strikeout stuff did, though surprisingly, his velocity didn’t decline.

Back for 2010, it will be very interesting to see how Sheets responds. It’s doubtful that he’ll approach the player he once was. However, if he can bring back the excellent command he left off with, while adding on a few more Ks, Sheets will be more than worth it for Oakland.

The biggest question, at this point, is his health. However, with all the question marks surrounding him, there’s no saying what could happen here.

Daric Barton: We seem to say this every season, but this year is a pivotal one for Barton. Though he made substantial progress at the plate last season, the one thing that always seemed to haunt him – his power output – really put a damper on his year.

Showing off that elite batting eye for a second year in a row – 13.5 O-Swing percentage – Barton also threw in excellent contact skills, making contact with 87.5 percent of swings he made. At this point, even if he doesn’t develop much more power, he’ll still be a Helton-lite of sorts, which is still a valuable player.

However, seasons like last year, where he was barely on pace to hit 10 home runs, will never cut it at his position. Though power isn’t always necessary when the rest of the package is so good, this first baseman needs to go yard sometimes to hope to have a career.

Scouts always questioned his ultimate power potential, but no one expected anything this poor. If he can hit between 15-20 bombs per year, he’ll be an excellent first baseman. If not, he’ll find time on the pine – either than or he’ll only be able to play for Kansas City.

Still, you would think that a 6-0, 200 lb first baseman would have a better home run rate that 4.5 percent of his fly balls, wouldn’t you?

Texas Rangers

SP Derek Holland: This one’s quite easy. Holland has some of the best stuff on this young staff and has the chance this year for a big breakout. He struggled a bit last year, but a lefty who throws 92-93 and has the stuff to miss bats only needs a little bit of time before he figures it all out.

His 82.0 contact percentage left a little bit to be desired, though his 6.96 K/9 and 3.06 BB/9 were more than acceptable from a rookie starter. He’ll need to cut down on the home runs, but that shouldn’t be much of a roadblock unless he’s not cruising throws into the sweet spot. Sabermetric theory says it’s all a matter of luck on the home runs, so feel free to expect a big rebound. Holland should have an excellent season, just hope for some more Ks.

SS Elvis Andrus: Perhaps the best young fielder in the game, Andrus just needs to develop a little more with the stick and he’ll be up there with the best shortstops in the game.

That being said, he’s still got a ways to go with the bat. However, for a kid who turns just 22 in late August, he’s got an excellent approach at the plate and, most importantly, can make solid contact (87.3 contact percentage). Andrus doesn’t need to hit home runs to be an asset – and he knows this. He seems content just slapping the ball on the ground and using his exceptional speed to beat out the play. However, he can still develop some power in his bat and did show a little pull power last season.

If he can add that dimension to his game, he’ll make it to that next level. The major hurdles are taken care of – he doesn’t strike out, he’s got good pitch recognition skills, and makes solid contact. Everything’s there for a repeat of his 3.0 WAR season – with potential for much more.

Seattle Mariners

This team’s a little hard to pick specific sleepers from. The team is solid all around, with no huge studs or holes. Michael Saunders would have been a natural pick, but he doesn’t look like he’ll start the season in the bigs. Besides that, there isn’t a whole lot to work with. Adam Moore could be good, but he might not start either. Greg Halman is the posterchild for the boom-bust prospect, possessing exceptional tools but striking out far too often.

SP Erik Bedard: By virtue of injury and disappointment in 2009, Erik Bedard can officially be named a sleeper candidate for the Seattle Mariners.

One of the primary reasons that the Orioles have a chance at relevancy in the next couple years, Bedard really hasn’t held up his end of the bargain for Seattle. Having thrown a total of 164.0 innings in the last two seasons, he’s been injury-prone even by Bedard’s low standards.

Still, the raw stuff hasn’t left him, as evidenced by his 9.76 K/9 last season, as well as his steady fastball velocity at 91-92 mph. Though his contact rate needs to drop below 80 percent for him to reclaim his former production levels, the most important task for Bedard is to stay healthy. If he can manage to throw over 160 innings this season, it can be considered an upset. If he is able to, he’ll be a substantial value at the #3 starter slot, as he’ll pitch with the production of a solid #2 or “fringe” #1.

From the standpoint of a baseball fan, here’s hoping he can stay healthy. Bedard is just far too talented to have his career wasted on the trainer’s bench.