The following listing of the Top 20 Post-Draft, Waiver-Wire Pickups only requires a quick introduction:
Factoring in my eight real drafts to date, 50-plus mocks before that and Mock Draft Central's current Average Draft Position values, I was able to sketch an accurate composite of the 20 best talents to go largely ignored in standard 12-team, 25-round drafts.
So, if you don't see your favorite sleeper in this countdown, like Lorenzo Cain, Aroldis Chapman, Brandon Belt, Mike Moustakas or Ike Davis, take solace in the fact they were selected, on average, long before the 301st overall pick.
Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard could be one of fantasy's most viable closers, if called upon to replace Drew Storen this season.
The following listing of the Top 20 Post-Draft, Waiver-Wire Pickups only requires a quick introduction:
Skinny: The move from cozy Great American Ball Park to Petco Park should be a real boon for Volquez's fantasy profile, not unlike Aaron Harang in 2011. If he can replicate his Cactus League numbers (3.48 ERA, 1.11 WHIP), Volquez would be a solid No. 5 or No. 6 starter in mixed leagues.
Of course, this ranking doesn't come without some controversy. Excluding his out-of-nowhere success in 2008 (17 wins, 3.21 ERA, 206 Ks), Volquez has been a virtual washout with the Rangers and Reds in the other six seasons.
Skinny: Fantasy owners should take note of Matusz's spring rebound (22-3 K-BB ratio, 3.65 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: Matusz will cost nothing close to a Round-25 flier pick in 10-, 12- and 14-team leagues. In fact, he'll probably be there when 16-teamers are wrapping up.
Targets: 12 wins, 163 strikeouts, 4.04 ERA.
Skinny: Rookie starting pitchers seldom live up to the hype...especially those who call Coors Field home. But Pomeranz, Colorado's anchor piece of last summer's Ubaldo Jimenez blockbuster trade with Cleveland, has the potential to be a special asset in Year 1.
Pomeranz's Cactus League numbers: 3-0, 11-4 K-BB ratio in 17 innings, 0.53 ERA and 0.88 WHIP. Obviously, anything close to that small sample size would be amazing for the Rockies. It would also be just cause to accelerate Pomeranz through these rankings.
Skinny: The 26-year-old Presley may never smack 20 homers or collect 85 RBI in the majors, but he has the goods to be an immediate three-category factor, particularly with steals. For comparison's sake, Presley (22 steals, .333 BA in 87 Triple-A games last year) could emerge as the National League version of Minnesota's Denard Span.
The pressure may be on Presley to blossom in his first full season with the parent club, knowing that heralded prospect Starling Marte is moving up the Pittsburgh pipeline...and that incumbents Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata likely won't be leaving the Pirates outfield anytime soon.
Skinny: I have no idea if Reddick can remain the No. 6 hitter in the Oakland lineup or hold off Collin Cowgill, Seth Smith or eventually Michael Choice for the entire season at right field. But for the next two months, Reddick will likely be given every opportunity to succeed (or fail) with a rebuilding club that's swimming with outfield prospects.
If Reddick had a better track record for steals in his time with the Red Sox organization (before the Andrew Bailey trade), perhaps he'd be higher in the countdown.
Targets: 15 HRs, 57 RBI, 63 runs, eight steals, .273 average.
Skinny: I haven't encountered one real 12-team draft that included Collmenter, which baffles me to no end. Is there something wrong with his size (6'2"), age (26), minor league numbers (3.50 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 472-176 K-BB ratio in 515 innings) or stats from last year's extended stay with the Diamondbacks (10 wins, 3.38 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 100 Ks in 154.1 innings)?
Rhetorical questions aside, the Michigan native has always possessed the measurables to succeed in the majors, and now he'll have the full opportunity to get it done this summer, serving as Arizona's No. 3 starter.
Targets: 12 wins, 3.53 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 139 strikeouts.
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 led the Rockies with a 21-5 K-BB ratio and boasted a solid 3.09 ERA. If physically and mentally healthy, Nicasio has the potential to be Colorado's No. 2 starter by season's end. An ideal Round-23 value...even though he likely won't be drafted in 12-team leagues.
Skinny: Niemann, who recently beat out Wade Davis for the coveted fifth slot in the Tampa Bay rotation, isn't a great resource for strikeouts, but his track record and room for growth in wins, ERA and WHIP should be appealing to AL-only owners.
Niemann will have to be on point all season, though. The Rays have too many quality arms to support middling numbers from the No. 5 guy.
Targets: 13 wins, 4.03 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 142 strikeouts.
Skinny: A sneaky-good asset in ERA and wins when fully healthy, Niese needs to make some drastic changes in WHIP to secure a better ranking in this countdown. Four straight seasons of 1.40-plus is the calling card of the fantasy irrelevant.
However, Niese is only 25 and may be the safest fantasy play of any Mets starting pitcher.
Targets: 12 wins, 4.35 ERA, 156 strikeouts.
Skinny: By Opening Day, we'll have a greater understanding of Bailey's major league fate, but right now it's all guesswork. While no one doubts that Bailey (nine wins, 1.28 WHIP, 106-33 K-BB ratio with Cincy last year) has a world of talent, the Reds are out of options with the one-time purported savior. Either he makes the club...or goes on waivers.
The good news: I have admired Bailey's fantasy ceiling since his Single-A season with Dayton (10.9 K/9 in 2005), so even if he gets dropped by Cincinnati before April 4, another MLB club will surely take a flier on a 25-year-old flamethrower with a healthy upside. In other words, this ranking covers the whole gamut of possibilities, regardless of Bailey's uniform color on April 8.
Skinny: Here's why I'll never give up on Hochevar's prospects—at least for another four seasons. Since joining the pro ranks in 2006, the former No. 1 overall pick has a lifetime K-BB ratio of 627-275 (846 innings). Given his size (6'5"), age (28), multi-pitch repertoire and No. 2 status in the Kansas City rotation, Hochevar simply has too many things in his favor to be a fantasy afterthought much longer.
Call me crazy, but Hochevar will show improvement in all four categories this season. Targets: 12 wins, 4.07 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 166 strikeouts.
Skinny: For last week's countdown of Fantasy's Top 15 Starting Rotations, the Blue Jays' No. 8 ranking drew the most ire from the masses. It was the expected response from a crowd that has little appreciation for Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow and the soon-to-be-unleashed Alvarez.
That's OK, for it won't be long before Alvarez takes a significant step forward in the fantasy realm and flirts with 13 wins, 3.98 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 163 strikeouts. The sky's the limit for this right-handed version of Romero.
Skinny: There's a reason why the Mariners took the 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 League action, Smoak has posted stellar marks in batting (.393) and OPS (.986)—excellent progress heading into his age-25 season.
For the regular season, Smoak will be in the ballpark of 19 HRs, 68 RBI, 49 runs and .268 batting average.
Skinny: Lucroy may have enjoyed the greatest spring of any catcher in the last 30 years. His batterymate, pitcher Zack Greinke (1-0, 0.93 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 28-2 K-BB ratio), claimed the unofficial Cactus League Cy Young; Lucroy signed a lucrative contract extension; and as a cherry for the sundae, the backstop led the Brewers in hits (22), batting average (.489) and OPS (1.245).
This March success has done nothing for Lucroy's pre-draft standing, though. According to Mock Draft Central, Lucroy has an Average Draft Position value of 349, lagging behind Kurt Suzuki, Russell Martin, Ryan Doumit and Devin Mesoraco.
On the bright side, Lucroy has no chance of slipping past Round 25 with yours truly.
Skinny: Cozart's brief audition with the parent club last year (.324 batting) was impressive, of course, but he'll need to assume a bigger role with the Reds offense in 2012. A torrid spring—including team highs in hits, doubles, triples and batting average (minimum 25 at-bats)—did wonders for his confidence, while justifying this countdown's ambitious ranking.
It also helps that Cozart, a legit four-category factor in the majors, handles one of baseball's scarcest positions. Prediction: By season's end, there won't be 17 better fantasy shortstops than this Cincinnati kid.
Skinny: For Escobar, there is no shame in being a slightly older, less developed version of Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus. After all, Andrus is a top-four asset at his position and has more major league experience than his counterpart.
Comparison aside, it's a great time to be an Escobar investor after the draft. The 25-year-old speedster should be a candidate for 35 steals and 90-plus runs the next five seasons. As for the hitting stroke, Grade-A talents with a .293 average over 2,500 minor-league at-bats don't quickly devolve into .240 guys in the majors.
Similar to Andrus, Escobar should be a three-category stud sooner than later.
Skinny: This may be a classic case of Brantley getting lost in the draft shuffle after missing a decent chunk of spring training with a hamstring injury, not unlike teammate Grady Sizemore (back).
Annoying injury aside, there's little else to explain why this soon-to-be 25-year-old talent wasn't selected in mixed-league drafts. Annual threats for 30 steals, 80 runs and .290 batting average should garner automatic consideration in 12-team leagues—especially with savvy owners who can never have enough bankable outfielders.
Skinny: I've only been studying Thames for two full years, but his minor-league track record (annual candidate for 26 HRs, 100 RBI, 95 runs, .315 BA) and solid MLB audition last year suggest he'll be a fantasy dynamo very soon.
The Blue Jays must have the same intuition about the 25-year-old California native. Why else would they send Travis Snider back to Triple-A ball without giving much consideration to a left-field platoon for April?
I'm setting the bar high here...but Thames (12 RBI, .927 OPS in spring ball) has the long-range capabilities of a left-handed Nelson Cruz.
Skinny: Trout's debilitating illness at the beginning of Angels camp had a bad news/good news effect. On the dour end, the 20-year-old Trout (11 HRs, 33 steals, .326 BA in 91 Double-A games last year) didn't get a viable chance to win an outfield position in the bigs; it also bumped him from the No. 1 spot on sleeper lists.
The good news: For owners who can patiently wait until late May or early June, they'll reap the benefits of baseball's No. 1 prospect (ahead of Bryce Harper). Trout's potential for the next 10 years is so immense (think Ryan Braun lite) that he might only need June, July, August and September to be a 20-20 candidate.
Skinny: Let's address Clippard's case for No. 1 as if he were being discussed by Jonah Hill's character in the Oscar-nominated movie Moneyball:
Clippard is one of baseball's best assets in K/9 ratio (10.0-plus from 2009-11) and strikeouts per inning (104 in 88.1 innings in 2011). Clippard sustained bursts of all-world potential last season (1.83 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, National League All-Star). Clippard has arguably been the best setup man in real-world and fantasy baseball the last two seasons.
Even if Nationals closer Drew Storen (sore elbow in spring training) stays healthy all season, Clippard still has Round 18/19 value in 12-team drafts.
Bottom line: Clippard can be had for pennies on the draft dollar yet has the capacity to be a top-10 reliever by season's end.