11 May 2004

Who is the best sleeper of 2004 thus far?

The baseball statistical leader boards, in April and May, are often filled with the names of relative unknowns. Who would have guessed that Ron Belliard, with a career .272 batting average, would be leading the AL with a .383 clip, or that Jake Westbrook would one of the best ERAs in the AL? Heck, Roger Clemens almost qualifies as a sleeper himself, as the retired-for-about-20-minutes pitcher has six wins, a 2.11 ERA and more strikeouts than Pedro Martinez.

Ah, but with a few exceptions, many of these names will not be there at the end of the season. Belliard, Westbrook, R.A. Dickey, Francisco Cordero, Tom Glavine and a host of others are getting it done with smoke and mirrors. Their presence among the league leaders is due mostly to luck, capitalizing on their good fortune either in terms of batted balls not falling in for hits (Al Leiter has 13 walks and only 22 strikeouts despite his NL-best 1.53 ERA) or run support (Shawn Estes has a 7.34 ERA, despite his 4 wins).

Clemens and Bonds and most of the usual suspects will still likely be among the names we’re discussing in September, as will some newer names, but the real sleepers are the ones who come out of nowhere and produce for most of the season. Lew Ford, currently hitting .344 as the Twins’ primary DH, may be one of those, as he hit ~.300 with good plate discipline at every level of the minor leagues.

But the best sleeper may still be sleeping. Twins 1B prospect Justin Morneau is hitting .361/.407/.664 at AAA Rochester right now, with 9 homers, ten doubles and 26 RBI in 29 games. He’s the real deal, too, as Baseball Prospectus 2004 said, “Morneau’s not just going to be a good hitter. He’s going to be positively great. How great? Healthy, prime Fred McGriff great.”

So stick around. When the Twins realize that the empty .300 average and overrated defense of Doug Mientkiewicz aren’t worth his $3 million salary, Justin the Sleeping Giant will wake.

The best is yet to come.

Now go see what the others at Baseball Outsider think about sleepers...

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