We're taking a division-by-division look at eight underrated candidates, or sleepers, for fantasy glory in 2012—some rookies, some veterans...but all 26-and-under talents. The AL East takes center stage, a division that's not necessarily combing the streets for inexperienced hitters or starting pitchers.
Except maybe the Orioles.
SP Daniel Bard, Red Sox
Skinny: Let's begin with a disclaimer. It was not my intention to create uncomfortably high expectations for Bard during his yet-to-be-completed transition to starting pitcher. After all, even lights-out relievers need time to assimilate to new roles and build up the necessary arm strength.
That said, no one could have envisioned Bard's mighty struggles in spring ball (8.22 ERA/1.69 WHIP), creating some doubt with Red Sox Nation as to whether Bard can handle starter pressures.
But with a Matt Cain-esque career ERA of 2.88 in the majors, and 213 strikeouts in 197 innings, I see little value in pulling the plug early on a project that's awash in long-term potential.
Best-Case Scenario: Bard, my No. 56 starting pitcher in mixed leagues, likely won't slide past Round 19 or 20; that's decent value for a poor man's Stephen Strasburg, in terms of stealth ERA, WHIP, strikeouts and K/9 capacity. An ideal No. 5 or 6 starter in 12-team leagues.
SP Matt Moore, Rays
Skinny: Moore surrendered his status as a "classic sleeper" last year when he dominated the Rangers in Game 1 of the American League Division Series in just his second career MLB start. That flash of greatness was merely a snapshot of his invincible campaign in the minors—12 wins, 210/46 K-BB ratio, 1.92 ERA and 0.95 WHIP.
Bottom line: With nearly 500 minor-league innings under his belt, the 22-year-old Moore is ready and willing to play a highly productive role with MLB's deepest rotation (Shields/Price/Hellickson/Davis/Niemann), with an outside chance of leading the prodigious pack by season's end.
Best-Case Scenario: The day will come when Moore is a redoubtable top-10 pick among pitchers. For 2012, let's hope for 185 strikeouts, 12 wins, 1.15 WHIP and sub-3.50 ERA.
1B Chris Davis, Orioles
Skinny: I view Davis in the same light as Alex Gordon from 2006, Homer Bailey from 2007, or Nelson Cruz in 2008: He's too physically gifted not to be a formidable, if not dynamic player in the majors, even if his first and second call-ups were far from memorable.
With Baltimore grooming no obvious successors in the minors (Nicky Delmonico?), Davis could become the Orioles' first baseman for the next 3 to 4 years. But any dreams of long-term viability begin with short-term baby steps in April, May and June for Davis, a career .318 hitter/.971 OPS stalwart in the minors.
Best-Case Scenario: With 500 at-bats, Davis has the potential for 27 homers and 70 RBIs, solid numbers for a late-round asset in mixed leagues.
SP Ivan Nova, Yankees
Skinny: The 2012 campaign should be an interesting one for the 25-year-old Nova. Were last year's 16 victories a byproduct of tremendous run support from his Yankee teammates? And if so, how does one rationalize the sublime 3.70 ERA?
And what about the low ratios in K/9 or high rates with BB/9? It's very hard to chart Nova's future path in the bigs—not unlike pitcher Phil Hughes after his 18-win, 4.19-ERA season in 2010.
Best-Case Scenario: Nova shakes off the images of a brutal spring (11 earned runs in 12.2 innings) and bests Hughes, Andy Pettitte, Freddy Garcia, Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances for a full-time spot in the Yankees' rotation.
Riding that momentum, Nova becomes an inexpensive source for 12-plus wins...at least to the owners who can tolerate high WHIP and low strikeouts. Nova, like many assets in this countdown, can be had for a Round 24 or 25 price.
2B-SS-3B Sean Rodriguez, Rays
Skinny: OK, so maybe the Rodriguez-Scott Kazmir trade from 2009 hasn't yet been a total blowout in the Rays' favor (even though Kazmir may be done with baseball); and maybe Rodriguez will never live up to the promise of 25 homers/25 steals—numbers from his super-prospect days with the Angels.
But all things considered, S-Rod is still an annual 15-15 threat with three-position eligibility. That's a healthy existence for a productive player from two scarce positions (SS/3B).
Best-Case Scenario: With potential stars Hak-Ju Lee and Tim Beckham (wretched spring notwithstanding) knocking on the Rays' big-league door at shortstop, this could be a defining season for Rodriguez, an entrenched draft pick in Rounds 20/21 for 12-team leagues.
Targets: 14 HRs, 19 steals and 60 runs.
SP Henderson Alvarez, Blue Jays
Skinny: Remember when Kyle Drabek was the Blue Jays' most coveted pitching asset last year, and a consensus choice for a spot in the Toronto rotation? Well, the burden of great expectations has been shifted to the 22-year-old Alvarez, and his stellar 294/78 K-BB ratio in five minor-league seasons.
The Jays have taken their sweet time with Hendo's development, steadily adding to his innings count and situational responsibilities each season; and the payoff may come with Alvarez throwing 150-plus innings for the parent club, with no minor-league demotions.
Best-Case Scenario: The Blue Jays have a slew of pitchers with sub-1.00 WHIPs in Grapefruit action, with Alvarez seemingly holding his own in the dual battle to make the Opening Day roster and solidify a No. 4 spot in the rotation. Alvarez, a late-round flier in mixed- and AL-only leagues, has a realistic capacity for nine wins, 145 strikeouts and 1.24 WHIP.
OF Travis Snider, Blue Jays
Skinny: A funny thing happened on the way to Snider being ticketed for big-league greatness at age 20—four years ago. Instead of becoming an overnight success with the Toronto faithful, and getting all the perks and adulation that accompany young superstars, the sweet-swinging lefty has had to endure brief stints with the parent club and longer minor-league stops in Dunedin, Syracuse and Las Vegas, with the intent of eventually putting things together and making a permanent run at the Blue Jays' active roster.
Well, thanks to a springtime batting average of .313 and 1.153 OPS (one steal, four homers, seven runs, 10 hits, 13 RBIs), Snider has a realistic chance of usurping rookie Eric Thames for the vacant left-field opening. And if that doesn't happen, perhaps Snider has done enough to warrant a trade to a franchise that desperately needs a corner outfielder.
Best-Case Scenario: Unless Snider can wrestle steady at-bats from Thames and Rajaj Davis, there's probably no room for fantasy growth in the Blue Jays' crowded outfield. A trade might help unleash Snider's 20-HR, 85-RBI potential. At this point, he's nothing more than a last-round pick with upside.
SP Brian Matusz, Orioles
Skinny: Matusz's 2011 season (1-9 record, 10.69 ERA, 2.11 WHIP) was eminently forgettable, so much that Orioles fans might have labeled this one-time prodigy as a lost cause heading into the spring.
But it's not like Matusz had forgotten how to dominate hitters like he did in college, or at every level of the minors, he just had to survive a year when nothing went right, all the time. Fast forward to Grapefruit action and Matusz's dramatic rebound (2.70 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 13/0 K-BB ratio in 10 innings), numbers befitting of an age-25 dynamo with nasty stuff who still has time to make the Baltimore rotation.
Best-Case Scenario: There are certain benefits to imploding one season, and then quietly finding redemption the next: Whatever fantasy cred Matusz had before the 2011 drafts has evaporated. He could throw flawless, three-strikeout innings in four more spring outings, and still be a last-round pick in mixed- and AL-only drafts. Fantasy owners should take advantage of that short-term purgatory.
Jay Clemons can be reached on Twitter, day or night, at @ATL_JayClemons.