With the beginning of each new season comes an increasing excitement and a fresh hope that all things are possible in the world of baseball. Memories of last year’s failures and triumphs fade away, and in their place the imagination of every baseball fan runs wild with dreams of new record setting performances and breakout young stars. Of course, with all the excitement also comes a surge in card prices as fans pick up their favorite players and their teams newest rookies. If you’ve been doing your homework, you’ve beat the rush and had time to stock up on young prospects and veteran players while also adding a few cards to sell later in the year. But if you just haven’t gotten around to it yet, don’t worry because there’s still time. Pitchers and catchers won’t report to Spring Training for another month, and Opening Day is still two and a half months away. In any event, it never hurts to have a few extra sleepers tucked away in your stash, so today I’ll give you 5 pitchers and 5 hitters to keep your eye on for the upcoming season that are a good mix of low prices and big talent. I won’t put them in any particular order, so pay no attention to the numbering, but if you see a name you like, don’t wait too long because prices will start rising very quickly.
1. Francisco Liriano — With all the talk about Johan Santana, it seems that most people have forgotten that Liriano even existed. After a monster year in 2006, Liriano had to undergo Tommy John surgery and was sidelined for the entire 2007 season. Traditionally, collectors tend to stay away from pitchers with big time injuries, but times are changing and so is medical technology. Plenty of big name pitchers have gone under the knife and been back to form in 18 months or less. That puts Liriano on course for a solid first half and a very good second half for 2008. If he looks good in Spring Training, expect prices to skyrocket.
2. Trevor Cahill – While Clayton Kershaw stole the show at A ball this year, there were several young pitchers that posted some very good numbers without much notice. Cahill averaged 10.1 strikeouts per 9 innings and had a groundball rate of 60%. To put that in perspective, Fausto Carmona averaged 5.8 strikeouts per 9 innings during his minor league career and had a groundball rate of 63.6%. Cahill is a very intelligent pitcher and will probably start showing up on prospect lists by July.
3. Jaime Garcia – This is a bit of a toss-up since Garcia’s health is still in question, but he’s got plenty of talent even if he has to sit out a few games. So far he has posted an 8.1 strikeout rate per 9 innings while walking only 2.8 with a groundball rate of 60.8%. He also pitches for the St. Louis Cardinals, who could use a good arm to solidify their rotation.
4. Brett Anderson – The Dan Haren trade between the Diamondbacks and the Athletics didn’t get much attention, but it was a very big transaction. Billy Beane has tried to play if off as just another deal, but he really cleaned up by getting Carlos Gonzalez, Aaron Cunningham and Brett Anderson for Haren. Anderson is the son of a college baseball coach and has immaculate control. He’s walked just 1.57 batters per 9 innings while striking out 9.37, and has a groundball rate of 57%. When Beane makes a trade, he knows exactly what he wants and always gets way more than he gives (except for the Tim Hudson for Charles Thomas trade). To add a little perspective, Haren had a minor league average 8.77 K/9 innnings with a BB/9 of 1.63 and a groundball rate of 46%.
5. Sean Gallagher — Just between you and me, Gallagher could be the biggest sleeper in the group. He hasn’t gotten much attention, but he’s a great young pitcher with a K/9 average of 9, a BB/9 of 3.5, and a groundball rate of 52%. That puts him ahead of other well known pitching prospects like Homer Bailey and Wade Davis, and on equal footing with guys like Yovani Gallardo. He could have a very good year as soon as he gets called up to pitch for the Cubs and you know Cubs fans will pay good money for his cards. Keep him on your radar because during a playoff run he could be very big.
1. Daric Barton – It might seem that I’m biased towards the Athletics by including 3 of their prospects on this list, but really they just have a lot of great young talent. Barton’s minor league numbers are very comparable to guys like Don Mattingly and Tony Gwynn, and if he adds some power to those stats he’ll draw some serious comparisons to guys like George Brett and even Albert Pujols. Barton has been listed on several top 25 lists that I’ve seen, but I actually think he could realistically be listed as a top 10 prospect. If you’re looking for a ROY candidate for 2008, Barton’s your man.
2. Billy Butler – I’ve already done an article on Butler, so I won’t get into too much detail here. Simply put, he’s one of the best young hitters in the game, but after Butler failed to meet fantastical expectations in 2007, his cards prices took a massive hit. There was no one else in 2007 that led his team in more categories at such a young age, and there are very few prospects with the talent that Butler has.
3. Felix Pie – Just like Butler, Pie’s card prices have seen a huge dip in price simply because he didn’t meet the unrealistic expectations of Cubs fan in 2007. But this year he should see frequent playing time since the Cubs unloaded Jacque Jones this off season, and he should feel much more comfortable at the big league level. Right now he’s not a big power guy, but he’s a very good contact hitter and should fit well in the Cubs line-up. He’s also had the advantage of learning from guys like Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez, and I expect that this year we’ll see a much different Felix Pie. He’s got the tools, he just needs a little time.
4. Rickie Weeks – While Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder have been getting all the attention, it seems that most collectors have forgotten about Rickie Weeks. He spent most of 2007 recovering from a wrist surgery that severely affected his swing, and consequently he had a very difficult season. Despite the setback, he still posted a very respectable on-base percentage, and in September he hit 9 homeruns to end the season. It’s unlikely that he’ll continue that pace throughout 2008, but I think the power surge was for real, and Weeks might just finally fulfill the high expectations that have followed him throughout his short career.
5. Hank Conger – He’s a switch hitting catcher with a swing that almost exactly mirrors that of David Wright, and oddly enough his minor league numbers so far almost exactly mirror those of David Wright. Of course that doesn’t mean Conger is a lock to hit 25+ homeruns in the majors any time soon, but he’s certainly worth watching. There aren’t many great catching prospects out there, and if Joe Mauer and Brian McCann prices are any indication, then there could be some very solid money in Conger’s cards.
This list is just 10 of the many guys you should be keeping your eye on as the 2008 season approaches. If you have any of your own sleepers, feel free to leave a comment. If you miss out on any of these players, don’t worry because there’s always more young prospects just around the corner.