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Which bats are primed to break out?
02/25/2008 12:00 AM ET
There are three kinds of sports fans.

There are serious fans who just want to "win at all costs."

There are casual fans who spend more time gossiping about work, love interests or the weather than they do watching the actual games.

And then there's a minority I like to call "underdog fans." In a nutshell, underdog fans value feel-good stories above all else. They take no joy in watching winning teams become big, bad dynasties, because that always means the little teams are getting steamrolled.

The same holds true in fantasy baseball. Some managers play for blood, some play for fun and others play for beauty. That's right, beauty.

Every league has that one character who drafts generic breakout players about five rounds too early. Inevitably, all this does is create a frustrating situation where everyone is chasing potential studs five rounds too early. And before you know it, underdogs are not underdogs anymore. They're "overdogs."

There's nothing wrong with targeting hitters you believe in. Just don't go into draft day thinking, "I must get Delmon Young," or,"I can't picture my team without Curtis Granderson." Those aren't winning strategies. They're attachments that will lead you astray.

In trying to put together the ultimate offense, it's important to identify not just one or two, but several potential breakout candidates. That way, you'll have a wide array of hitters to choose from when the underdog fan starts doing his bidding.

So let's take a look at this year's preseason all-breakout team, position by position:

Catcher

Geovany Soto, Cubs: Could Soto be the 2008 version of Russell Martin? Possibly. Any time a catcher demolishes Triple-A pitching the way he did last season (.353 AVG, 26 HR), you have to take notice. And he didn't miss a beat over 47 September at-bats with the Cubs, posting a .426 average and a .745 slugging percentage. Practically a forgotten prospect this time last year, he goes into 2008 with a full-time gig and plenty of RBI potential batting behind Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Kosuke Fukudome.

Honorable mention: J.R. Towles, Astros; Mike Napoli, Angels

First Base

Conor Jackson, Diamondbacks: The trendy sleeper pick here is James Loney, who raised eyebrows last season by leading rookies with a .331 average. The problem is that Loney is facing high expectations. In one winter mock draft, I saw him go as early as the sixth round -- a spot usually designated for hitters who pop 30 homers, not Todd Helton clones. After two seasons of promising but hardly dominating production, Jackson won't find nearly as much love. Still, keep in mind this is a guy whose career .332 Minor League average was far superior to Loney's .296 mark. It wouldn't be surprising if Co-Jack put his outstanding strike-zone judgment to better use and finished among the National League's top contributors in batting average and on-base percentage.

Honorable mention: Joey Votto, Reds; Casey Kotchman, Angels

Second Base

Rickie Weeks, Brewers: You can usually find emerging middle infielders at shortstop, but that's not the case this year. Most talented shortstops have already emerged, from Troy Tulowitzki to Jose Reyes to Hanley Ramirez. To find true emerging middle infielders, turn your attention to second base. Nobody stands out more at the keystone than Weeks, whom I mentioned as a player to forgive a few weeks back. Now that he's finally healthy, a 25-25 campaign is fully within reach, especially with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder batting behind him.

Honorable mention: Howie Kendrick, Angels; Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians

Shortstop

Stephen Drew, D-backs: Again, the list of breakout shortstops is shorter than in years past. The one most likely to take the biggest leap forward is Drew, who's coming off a classic sophomore slump. His performance down the stretch (15 RBIs in September, .387 AVG and .677 SLG in the postseason) offers hope that he can put last year behind him. Remember, everyone was fawning over Drew at this time last year. Look for him to get back on track and possibly reach 15 homers and 15 swipes.

Honorable mention: Erick Aybar, Angels

Third Base

Evan Longoria, Rays: Let's get all those Eva Longoria jokes out of the way now, because when the Rays third baseman is wrapping up his Rookie of the Year bid in August, the last thing anyone will want to hear are "Desperate Housewives" gags. The real story might end up focusing on the similarities between Longoria and Braun, who put up huge numbers in a little more than four months with the Brewers last year. Longoria has that same game-changing stroke and is coming off an impressive Minor League campaign in which he delivered 26 homers and 95 RBIs across two levels. Even if the 22-year-old starts the season at Triple-A Durham, it won't be long before he's putting up those kinds of numbers for the Rays.

Honorable mention: Alex Gordon, Royals; Kevin Kouzmanoff, Padres

Outfield

Matt Kemp, Dodgers: There's no question Kemp can play, but will he get the opportunity? With four capable starting outfielders on the Dodgers roster, everyday at-bats are far from guaranteed for the 23-year-old. Finding a taker for Juan Pierre -- who has no business starting in left field every day -- or Andre Ethier would solve the problem right away. Until then, let's hope new manager Joe Torre recognizes the kind of All-Star-caliber talent he has in Kemp.

Jason Kubel, Twins: It's been a long road back for Kubel, who spent the entire 2005 season nursing an ACL tear. At 25, he's more than two years removed from that procedure and has gradually regained the strength he showed as one of Minnesota's top hitting prospects. After stumbling out of the gate last season, Kubel found his groove with a .341 average and 18 extra-base hits over the final two months. Left-handers still give him fits, but that's a fairly common problem youngsters face. Consider another sweet-swinging lefty, Brad Hawpe, whose southpaw struggles didn't stop him from batting .291 with 29 homers and 116 ribbies in '07. Can Kubel do the same? The stage is set for a big breakthrough.

Austin Kearns, Nationals: Since Jeremy Hermida already received coverage as a player to forgive, his outfield spot will go to another deserving candidate in Kearns. The Nationals right fielder batted .301 with a .454 slugging percentage on the road last season, and the team's move to a smaller ballpark will certainly help him improve his overall numbers. Furthermore, he heads into Opening Day at the magical age of 27. Having lost much of the luster he gained while coming up with Cincinnati, Kearns is precisely the kind of post-hype player people dismiss all too often on draft day.

Honorable mention: Hermida, Marlins; Michael Bourn, Astros; Justin Upton, D-backs; Lastings Milledge, Nationals

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


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