To create this painfully subjective list of Top 40 Fantasy Sleepers heading into the 2012 season, I used two simple baseline measures of eligibility:
1. Each player must have five or less years of major league service time, which explains why Homer Bailey, Carlos Lee, Ryan Raburn, Brandon League and Justin Morneau are nowhere to be found.
2. Using Mock Draft Central's current listing of Average Draft Position values, anyone ranked from Nos. 1-180 (essentially Rounds 1-15 in a 12-team draft) was disqualified from "sleeper" status...which explains why Austin Jackson, Yu Darvish, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Dustin Ackley and Jason Kipnis cannot be located as well.
After that came the actual definitions of what makes a sleeper more viable—expected production in the short term or best-case scenario of production in that same time frame? And what about certain assets who will be gone by Round 16, compared to those who tumble to Rounds 23-25? Is one more valuable than the other?
Ugh, who knew fantasy subjectivity could be so complex and political? Enjoy the show!
Third baseman Mike Moustakas (89 homers as a pro) is perhaps the best 24-and-under prospect from the Royals' deep and talented pipeline of potential stars.
To create this painfully subjective list of Top 40 Fantasy Sleepers heading into the 2012 season, I used two simple baseline measures of eligibility:
Skinny: With Travis Snider back at Triple-A (or on the brink of being traded), the left fielder Thames (.308 hitter in the minors) now gets a platoon-free shot at proving his worth in the bigs.
Thames may need some time to find his niche, but he also boasts 46 combined homers in his last two pro seasons...and has sneaky-good potential with all five categories.
Need a last-round pick who will be in the majors from Game 1 to 162? Thames may be the one.
Skinny: You've seen the video of Cespedes running, jumping and P90X-ing his way into the hearts of MLB scouts and general managers. But is he ready to play in the bigs?
The native Cuban homered in his first Cactus League game but has floundered on the whole, collecting only five hits, two runs and two RBI in that span. A Round 21 flier for GMs who crave upside late in the draft.
Skinny: We've encountered the first moving-parts, best-case-scenario ranking of our countdown: If the Mariners move Chone Figgins to center field, replacing the injured Franklin Gutierrez...and Seager (.350 BA, 1.000 OPS in Cactus action) outperforms the equally adroit Alex Liddi for the third-base job, then the sky's the limit for Seager.
At the very least, he's a prominent name on the June 1 call-up list.
Skinny: Setup relievers typically don't carry a lot of weight in fantasy baseball. But one look at Reed's minor-league numbers changes that perception: 1.41 ERA, 0.74 WHIP, 155-20 K-BB ratio, 12.9 K/9, 1.7 BB/9.
At 23, Reed already has the physical tools and track record of a dominant closer. He just needs the opportunity to present itself.
Skinny: We're taking a leap of faith on a three-category talent who hasn't officially won the Padres' vacancy at first base.
Heading into his age-25 season, Alonso is far from fully developed, but his contact rates, plate discipline and long-term power potential suggest he'll be a fantasy factor in Year 1. After all, he was San Diego's centerpiece in the Mat Latos blockbuster trade.
Skinny: Fantasy owners should take note of Matusz's spring rebound (18-2 K-BB ratio, 3.20 ERA), perhaps erasing the stench of last year's across-the-board meltdown.
Heading into his age-25 season, Matusz still has plenty of upside on a club that's desperate for a front-line starter. The best news of all: Matusz will cost nothing more than a last-round flier pick in 12-, 14- and 16-team drafts.
Targets: 12 wins, 163 strikeouts, 4.04 ERA.
Skinny: This slot could have gone to either Alex Presley or Tabata, two of the Pirates' four 25-and-under outfield gems (including Andrew McCutchen). But Tabata, who should be available come Round 22 in 12-team drafts, gets the early nod.
Targets: 12 HRs, 34 steals and .279 average.
Skinny: Carp, whose career trajectory resembles that of another two-syllable talent (Mike Morse), may finally be getting the requisite playing time to become a productive fantasy asset. Maybe he'll hit .300 someday—like Morse.
Targets: 18 HRs, 67 RBI and .282 average.
Skinny: It's a wonder that other bullpen-deficient clubs haven't traded for Romo, whose path to major-league stardom is currently blocked by Giants closer Brian Wilson.
In four MLB seasons, spanning 178 innings, Romo has 16 wins, a 2.33 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and Cliff Lee-esque K-BB ratio of 214-38. If Wilson's elbow barks again in 2012, Romo becomes a dominant fantasy contributor.
Skinny: Fantasy owners should keep an open mind when judging Sale's first-year conversion from reliever to starter.
Yes, there may be some brutal days on the docket—especially in April and May—but the kid has the potential to be lights-out in strikeouts, ERA and WHIP. In 12-team leagues, Sale is an ideal No. 6 starter.
Skinny: There's plenty to love about Duda, from his dual eligibility (1B/OF) to his four-category tools. He should also be an everyday fixture in the Mets' lineup—the unwitting perk of playing on a rebuilding club.
Targets: 16 HRs, 58 RBI, 59 runs and .284 batting.
Skinny: Chapman (90 Ks in 63.1 innings, 12.8 K/9 ratio in 2010-11) might have been the easy choice if the Reds needed an emergency closer last season. But with the club committed to converting Chapman into a starting pitcher, going back to the bullpen may not seem like the most palatable option.
Despite an unlimited closer's ceiling and a fastball that routinely tops 100 mph, Chapman can be had at Rounds 24-25 in 12-team drafts.
Skinny: By all accounts, Nicasio is recovering well from last year's C1 vertebrae neck fracture, the result of a scary line drive in live action.
In Cactus play, Nicasio leads the club with a 15-2 K-BB ratio and boasts a solid 3.06 ERA. If physically and mentally healthy, Nicasio has the potential to be Colorado's No. 2 starter by season's end. A great Round 25 value.
Skinny: Cozart's brief audition with the parent club last year (.324 batting) was impressive, of course. But Cozart earned this ranking based on three other factors:
1. The scarcity of the shortstop position.
2. His 17-HR, 30-steal, 91-run campaign with Triple-A Louisville in 2010.
3. His torrid spring, which includes team highs in hits, doubles, triples, batting average (.452) and OPS (1.192).
This kid can be a legit four-category factor in the majors.
Skinny: A productive spring (three HRs, eight RBI, 10 runs) and clear shot at succeeding Prince Fielder at first base safely puts Gamel in this countdown.
In fact, this ranking may look conservatively foolish by mid-May, as Gamel has 25-homer, .285-batting potential in his first full MLB season.
Skinny: The Phillies' 2012 version of the Big Four may be better than last year's, thanks to the development of Worley (11 wins, 3.01 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 119-46 K-BB ratio in 2011).
In the real world, Worley's a rock-solid No. 4 starter; in fantasyland, he's ideal at the No. 5 spot (Rounds 19-20). The only drawback: Worley won't dazzle owners with strikeouts.
Skinny: This lofty ranking is contingent upon Holland winning the closer role from Jonathan Broxton in the wake of Joakim Soria's season-ending elbow injury. But let's be honest: If the Holland-Broxton conflict is based on numbers alone, we'll side with the younger Holland.
His 2011 numbers: five wins, 1.80 ERA, 74 Ks in 60 innings, 0.93 WHIP.
His 2012 Cactus League numbers: 12-1 K-BB ratio, 3.38 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, three saves.
Skinny: The Rockies' potential ace could be a real find in wins, ERA and strikeouts, but the K-BB ratio is simply too high to warrant top-40 consideration among starting pitchers.
At a Round 17-18 price, though, fantasy owners are encouraged to gamble on Chacin's age-24 campaign.
Skinny: Fantasy owners likely won't hesitate to take a Round 20 flier on one of the most touted hitting prospects of the last 30 years. With a little seasoning, Harper has the tools to be a rock star in all five categories.
The question is, will Harper permanently punch his major league ticket around June 1?
Skinny: Strange, but true: Fantasy owners can acquire Minor and his lifetime 382-114 K-BB ratio somewhere between Rounds 22 and 24. Those are the curious perks of Minor not having an untouchable spot in the Atlanta rotation just yet.
Of course, that situation could change any day, any hour...so drafters must act quickly.
Skinny: There's a reason why the Mariners took the Texas Rangers' offer in the Cliff Lee trade of 2010, nixing the Yankees' proposal. Smoak is a potential four-category factor but likely needs time to develop his power and plate discipline.
In Cactus action, Smoak has excellent marks in batting (.393) and OPS (.986).
Skinny: Possessing five-tool potential has only taken Rasmus so far in three major league seasons (53 HRs, .322 OBP). But 2012 could, and should, be a breakthrough campaign for the 25-year-old center fielder, playing his first full season with Toronto. Fingers crossed that Rasmus can avoid the extreme highs and lows of the past.
Targets: 22 HRs, 70 RBI, 84 runs, nine steals, .274 average.
Skinny: You won't find a more established pitching asset in Round 17. Masterson is the potential ace of a rotation that boasts veterans Ubaldo Jimenez, Derek Lowe, Josh Tomlin and the enigmatic Kevin Slowey.
Targets: 12 wins, 172 Ks, 3.68 ERA, 1.29 WHIP.
Skinny: Time will tell if Motte (2.92 ERA, 187-60 K-BB ratio in four MLB seasons) evolves into the Cardinals' long-term closer and a fantasy force in saves.
But right now, he has the full confidence of new manager Mike Matheny, which justifies this ranking. Motte is a Round 16-17 pick and likely the 18th closer off the draft board.
Skinny: Since athletes are not robots, it's impossible to project how Ramos will respond to a harrowing offseason that had nothing to do with baseball.
In 30 spring at-bats, the 24-year-old backstop has just three RBI and six hits, with zero runs. But when healthy and focused, he remains a threat for 25-27 homers.
Skinny: Altuve (27 HRs/138 RBI in his last two pro seasons) packs quite a punch for a 5'7", 170-pound second baseman, and the power angle isn't even the soon-to-be 22-year-old's greatest fantasy strength.
Can Altuve rack up 30-35 steals in Year 2 of his development? Can he flirt with 50 runs, 50 steals and a .285 batting average? If so, you won't find a better value in Rounds 22-23.
Skinny: Norris made substantial gains in ERA (3.77), WHIP (1.33) and K-BB ratio (176-70) last season, necessary improvements for a top-20 asset. But there are still some questions about Norris, particularly his fantasy ceiling.
Thinking conservatively, this Astro may yield 185 strikeouts, a 3.98 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP in 2012. A savvy Round 22 purchase.
Skinny: A .342 hitter in the minors, Martinez has the skill set to be a four-category factor in his second MLB season. This leap-of-faith ranking will look even better in May. (And so concludes our look at some of Houston's best sleepers.)
Skinny: Unlike most sleepers here, Span is in his prime as a top-notch fielder and sneaky-good source for runs and steals. In 2009-10, Span tallied 182 runs and 49 steals; surely the 28-year-old speedster can nail the midpoint of those numbers in 2012, right?
Targets: Seven HRs, 61 RBI, 89 runs, 25 steals and .283 average.
Skinny: This bold ranking comes on the assumption that Perez can stay healthy for a full season. It also presumes that he'll recapture his 2010 form (1.71 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 61 strikeouts in 63 innings)...even if he falls short of repeating last year's 36 saves.
Fantasy owners should embrace Perez's Round 17 value on draft day.
Skinny: Denard Span might have more 5x5 potential than his Twins teammate, but Revere, heading into his age-24 season, is already a virtual lock for 40 steals and .295 batting. If his on-base percentage can hover around .350, Revere may flirt with 85 runs too.
Skinny: Fister will likely maintain or improve upon last year's numbers in wins (11), strikeouts (146) and WHIP (1.06), but replicating the 2.83 ERA might be a long shot. Of course, anything below 3.40 would still secure Fister's standing among the top 35 pitchers.
Targets: 13 wins, 162 strikeouts, 3.38 ERA, 1.04 WHIP.
Skinny: Earlier in the spring, I tried to minimize Davis' batting average (.302) and OPS (.925) from his injury-ravaged 2011 season, lamenting the small sample size. But I've come to realize the 25-year-old first baseman has the physical tools and plate discipline to be a great asset at his position.
Targets: 20 HRs, 74 RBI, .288 average.
Skinny: If any previously unknown closer has the capacity to make a Drew Storen-esque leap in fantasy production for 2012, it's Guerra. He's a safe bet for 35 saves—and as a bonus, he'll come roughly 40-50 picks after Chris Perez and Jason Motte on draft day.
Skinny: The day will come when Boesch converts those flashes of five-category potential into a full season of fantasy goodness. His size, speed, athleticism and natural-uppercut swing are just too ideal to fail in the long run.
Targets: 19 HRs, 74 RBI, 89 runs, 11 steals, .284 batting.
Skinny: OK, so maybe Sanchez isn't the poster boy for "upside" in this countdown. But factoring in his draft value (195th overall) and the constant need for corner-infield power, fantasy owners would gladly endure a repeat of his nearly identical stats of the last two seasons: 19 HRs, 82 RBI, 72 runs, four steals and .269 average.
One more plus: Sanchez's walks jumped from 57 to 74 last year, which bodes well for more OBP and OPS upticks.
Skinny: If the memories of Mark Reynolds and Eric Byrnes fruitlessly trying to replicate their career-best seasons with Arizona weren't still fresh, perhaps the 31-year-old Roberts (19 HRs, 65 RBI, 18 steals, 86 runs in 2011) would have garnered a higher ranking. But to get the ultimate fantasy respect, he'll simply have to repeat the feat. Sounds easy enough, huh?
Skinny: A fantasy afterthought just two weeks ago, Cain has arguably had the greatest spring of any player in baseball (two steals, four HRs, seven RBI, 13 runs, .477 batting, .932 slugging, 1.453 OPS).
As a result, Cain now has a golden chance to bring four-category glory to fantasy owners everywhere...for the still-way-too-low investment of a Round 23 pick.
Skinny: If Trout hadn't been slowed by debilitating illness during spring training, he'd be the No. 1 sleeper in this countdown. As a result, his fantasy owners (Round 25) likely won't get to cash in on this Angel's immense promise until June or July.
How great can Trout be? In three years or less, he'll be a candidate for 25 homers and 50 steals.
Skinny: Forget last year's pedestrian stats (nine HRs, 18 RBI, 21 runs, .225 BA). Forget that Giants skipper Bruce Bochy has yet to commit Belt to a starting spot (1B/OF) before Opening Day.
On the whole, this Texas tornado has the tools and superb minor-league track record (.343 BA, .457 OBP, 1.052 OPS) to be a four-category dynamo in his second season.
Targets: 23 HRs, 76 RBI, 70 runs, .318 batting.
Skinny: I'm setting myself up for a big fall here if Moustakas never pans out as a superstar. But that's the risk one must take when trying to decipher the next Ryan Braun or Joey Votto or Brett Lawrie out of the minor-league masses.
From a talent, hype and production standpoint, Moustakas fits the bill of a four-category stud and annual top-20 selection. As for this year, rejoice in the last time he'll resemble anything close to a Round 17 pick.