It’s weird to think that a year ago, Rafael Devers, Ketel Marte, Pete Alonso and Marcus Semien were guys that could have been considered sleepers heading into fantasy baseball drafts. The stats that they put up this season make it seem like they’ve been established stars for longer than just one year. But just like the guys mentioned in the list below, they were either young, unknown commodities or had not boasted draft-worthy stats in years prior.
In the case of the aforementioned stars, sleepers can very well win fantasy leagues.
Well, not exclusively. You can’t win a fantasy league with good sleepers if you don’t make the right picks earlier on. But while the success rate of those early round picks is as close as there is to a guarantee in fantasy (barring injury), sleeper picks are full of risk and can completely flop.
The good thing about them, despite their high potential to flop, is that you won’t have to mortgage your valuable draft picks on them. You’ll see that from the average draft positions, or ADPs, that are listed next to their names. Scoop up these guys in later rounds and reap the benefits.
All ADPs come from the National Fantasy Championship rankings. Stats obtained from Baseball Reference and Fangraphs.
C: James McCann, Chicago White Sox (ADP: 338)
The four-year, $73 million signing of Yasmani Grandal put a shadow over the very bright performance of McCann, who broke out in a big way following his move from Detroit to Chicago. The 2019 All-Star belted 18 home runs with a .273/.328/.460 line, placing him in the top 10 in all of the aforementioned stats among catchers.
In 2020, though, he’s poised to be a backup. As a result, he’s being drafted as the No. 24 catcher off the board, behind guys like Jason Castro (13 HR, .232/.332/.435 in 2019) and Danny Jansen (13 HR, .207/.279/.360). It makes sense, given the fact that they look to be their respective team’s starting backstops whereas McCann looks to be fixed behind Grandal.
However, such a commodity can’t be held without a role for too long, whether it’s with the White Sox or with another franchise. Vinnie Duber of NBC Sports Chicago wrote that McCann will still play a ‘pivotal role’, according to manager Rick Renteria. At the same time, Duber expresses uncertainty as to how long McCann could remain with the team.
That is the hope in calling him a sleeper candidate here. The Tampa Bay Rays, for example, are planning to run Mike Zunino out as the opening day catcher despite his miserable 2019 season (.162/.232/.312). An opportunity like that would boost McCann into a prime fantasy catcher and a bargain on draft day. He certainly shouldn’t be your number one option at backstop, but you won’t need to spend that sort of pick on him given his extremely late ADP.
1B: Luke Voit, New York Yankees (ADP: 189)
In 2018, albeit in a small sample size, Voit was hitting like the best first baseman in all of baseball. Sure, everyone has their hot streaks, but Voit’s production seemed to be more consistent than a streak. Over the month of September, he slugged 10 HR (tied for the league lead) and posted a 1.15 OPS (fourth in the league).
His hot hitting from the end of 2018 carried over into the beginning of 2019, too, as he started off with 17 HR and a .901 OPS after the first three months of the season. Only after a sports hernia derailed his season did his numbers take a significant tumble. It’s something that Voit himself has expressed regret over, claiming that he ‘wasn’t truthful’ in telling the training staff that he was truly hurting from it and that he may have rushed back from the injury (via Bradford William Davis of the New York Daily News).
A healthy Voit carries a whole lot of potential and the Yankees need his bat now more than ever. His upside is practically limitless, and the analytics support that. The past two seasons, Voit has the fourth-highest wRC+ -- an all-encompassing offensive stat -- among all eligible first basemen. It’s higher than Paul Goldschmidt’s, Freddie Freeman’s, Anthony Rizzo’s and other big names’ numbers. His K rate is really high and his defense isn’t great, but that doesn’t matter all that much for fantasy purposes. Top ten value is not too far of a reach for a guy being taken as the No. 18 first baseman.
2B: Kolten Wong, St. Louis Cardinals (ADP: 216)
Power, speed and hitting for average are all a part of Kolten Wong’s game as shown by his resume. He has three seasons of double digit home runs and steals in the past six years, which is not the easiest thing to come by at a position like second base. In fact, only seven second basemen have done that within that span: two of them are inactive in Ian Kinsler and Brandon Phillips, and the others are Brian Dozier, Rougned Odor, Jose Altuve and Jonathan Villar.
This puts Wong in pretty solid offensive company and shows that he’s an established presence. Though other guys like Whit Merrifield and Ozzie Albies are sure to achieve the above feat without much difficulty, they’re also being drafted much, much higher. The 2B company surrounding Wong on draft boards, like Brandon Lowe, Kevin Newman and Luis Arraez, is largely unproven, whereas you know what you’re going to get as floor value in Wong. His ceiling could continue to grow, as he has been eyeing new highs in certain aspects of his game.
So maybe it’s better to call him a safe draft day bargain rather than a sleeper, but regardless of the title, drafters are letting a proven and solid commodity slip below much riskier picks that don’t seem worth the payoff.
3B: J.D. Davis, New York Mets (ADP: 168)
Despite a small sample size, Davis posted impressive offensive numbers in his debut season with the Mets. There was a marked change in his analytical stats, including a dramatic decrease in his ground ball rate between his rookie season in 2017 and now (60.5% to 47%), which obviously resulted in a subsequent increase in both line drives, fly balls and medium/hard hit balls. His contact rate increased by nearly 10%, he had much fewer swinging strikes and as a result of both of those, his strikeout rate went down from 29.4% to 21.4%.
I can go on and on and on about the improvement that he’s shown, but it’s better to just come to the summation that the 2014 third round draft pick officially lived up to his hype in 2019. Given an ADP that should be reserved for middle-of-the-pack offensive producers, Davis could be a huge steal here if he’s able to perform at a similar level. His wRC+ of 136 was fifth-best among all third basemen, ahead of Kris Bryant, Rafael Devers and Josh Donaldson.
How on earth can a guy who posted such tremendous numbers sit outside the top 20 third basemen in fantasy drafts on pure speculation that he may not be able to repeat his 2019 production? Draft him with the expectation that he may not only repeat, but surpass last year’s performance.
SS: J.P. Crawford, Seattle Mariners (ADP: 480)
One of the biggest risers as a result of a great spring training line so far, Crawford failed to live up to his draft hype after two years in Philadelphia and was eventually shipped out to the opposite coast. People say you should take spring training stats with a grain of salt, but his .409/.440/.591 line, giving him an OPS of 1.031, is just too good to ignore. It’s especially impressive once you look at his past spring training stats, including last year when he batted .240 with zero home runs and six strikeouts.
Clearly, he’s developed his hitting ability and his physical stature, and there should be even more of an increase this year. He has seen his hard hit percentage increase from 14.3% in his rookie year to 28.4% last season, though he needs to focus on hitting fewer grounders and elevating those hard-hit balls. He told MLB.com he’d been working diligently throughout the offseason.
“I put on 10 pounds,” Crawford said Tuesday after the club’s first full-squad workout. “Me and [conditioning coach James Clifton] have been going at it the whole offseason. He pushed me hard, but I needed it. I feel the difference on the field already. Balls are coming off my bat a lot harder now and throwing is a lot easier, too.”
With no immediate competition to fend off, a coach who has high praise and a team that should be looking to increase development in its young stars as opposed to rushing a win-now approach, Crawford seems to have a good situation around him in his fourth season. You can probably spend your last pick on him and wait to see if he proves to become a bargain.
OF: Nick Castellanos, Cincinnati Reds (ADP: 91)
This might not be a huge sleeper considering he’s a top 100 player and is within the top 30 at his position. But in my eyes, Castellanos could see his reputation go from a solid hitter to a no-doubter All-Star in 2020. Given how ridiculously consistent he’s been over the past few years, which includes 20+ home runs, 300+ total bases and a .800 OPS or higher in each season, his floor is pretty sturdy.
But his ceiling keeps getting higher, especially after the tear he went on last season after moving into the National League for the first time of his career. In 51 games as a Chicago Cub, Castellanos recorded a 1.002 OPS, making him one of just five outfielders to go over 1.000 for the final two months of the season. He had the lowest walk rate of those five guys, meaning he was getting on base in the ways that matter most for fantasy purposes… like with doubles, for instance, as he pounded 58 of them. Only one player in MLB history has hit more two-baggers in a single season since 1940, when Todd Helton hit 59 in 2000.
That might not be achievable again, but with a full year of playing time for a revamped and competitive Reds team, Castellanos can easily be a top 20, if not top 10, fantasy outfielder.
SP: Joe Musgrove, Pittsburgh Pirates (ADP: 206)
Musgrove was the recipient of some bad luck last year. His 4.44 ERA wasn’t great nor awful, but it could have been better. His FIP indicates as much, given that it was more than 60 percentage points lower than his ERA. In the first month of the season, he posted a phenomenal 1.54 ERA in 35 innings of work, but only came out with a 1-2 record given poor run support.
Because ERA and W-L are so important in fantasy baseball, Musgrove’s performance suffered throughout the season due to some things he just couldn’t control. Regression incoming!
The Pirates are now a more experienced team, and guys like Bryan Reynolds, Josh Bell and Adam Frazier look to lead an exciting lineup with tons of potential. That run support, even in a few more games, could make a world of difference for Musgrove’s fantasy stock. As the No. 80 pitcher off the board, you could do much worse than grabbing Musgrove as your third or fourth starter.
RP: Dellin Betances, New York Mets (ADP: 393)
Another guy on this list that you may not even have to draft to acquire, Betances has fallen from an elite tier of pitchers as injuries have worn him down and prevented him from taking the mound since 2018 (other than two-thirds of an inning last season).
He’s still in New York but he’s left his Yankees days behind him and moves into a bullpen situation that’s a little less set in stone. Edwin Diaz struggled mightily for the Mets last year, and while he’s definitely still the closer heading into the season, the thread by which he’s hanging on is getting thinner and thinner. The Mets are aiming to be real contenders this season, and faulty bullpen play that ruins those dreams make the situation especially volatile.
Betances had a solid showing in his second Grapefruit League appearance Wednesday, pitching a scoreless inning. Though he didn’t have any strikeouts, which will provide most of his value in a fantasy setting, there was a positive sign.
Fans should monitor his progress to see at what speed his fastball tops off by the time the regular season gets started. In fact, he may not even be ready to go at that point. But if there is positive momentum in his recovery, his stock will likely fly up the board and in a best case scenario, Diaz’s struggles continue and Betances takes over the closer role of a highly competitive team.