Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: Predicting the Top Players by Position for 2013
Even with the MLB in hibernation, it’s not too early to discuss fantasy baseball sleepers for 2013.
All the major league players are currently resting up for the upcoming season, but some guys will continue to go unnoticed as spring nears.
Everyone has different guidelines for what gives a player sleeper status. Last season, Andrew McCutchen could have been considered a sleeper for providing first-round value out of the third or fourth round.
Then there are the deep sleepers who went undrafted in some leagues (R.A. Dickey, Jose Altuve, Adam Laroche) before stepping up big time for fantasy owners.
Those on this list should find a home in most drafts next year, but you could strike big by stealing these guys in the mid-to-late rounds. Although these sleepers are mid-level talents who will get drafted, they can still be acquired at a fairly low cost considering their skill set.
Their draft stock could heat up by March, but for now, perception is low surrounding this all-sleeper team composed of underachievers and guys in line for more playing time next season.
Catcher: Alex Avila
Alex Avila surfaced from nowhere to become 2011’s hot free-agent catcher acquisition. Those who grabbed him early received a .295 average, 19 home runs and 82 RBI.
Those who trusted him to repeat that performance in 2012 were forced to scour the waiver wire for another catcher.
This time around, Avila’s averaged dipped to .243. Considering his high propensity to strike out (23.8 percent strikeout rate in 2011, 24.0 percent last year), a regression in that department should not completely shock anyone.
But the power? Avila’s staggering .506 slugging percentage from two years ago plummeted to .384 the following season.
Let’s hope Avila can muster a happy compromise toward the middle of these two seasons. A 15-homer season with an average in the .260s is reasonable, and that would establish Avila as a dependable No. 2 catcher, or a guy you can roll with in a standard one-catcher league during a hot streak.
First Base: Eric Hosmer
No need to check the published date. This is not a sleeper list for 2012 drafts.
Everyone adored first baseman Eric Hosmer last season, anticipating his ascension as the next Joey Votto. Hosmer drew massive attention to his arrival, notching 19 homers and 11 steals in 128 games as a rookie.
Given a full season to blossom into a fantasy superstar, the 23-year-old stumbled with an abysmal .232/.304/.359 line. All the drafters who felt sly grabbing Hosmer in the fifth or sixth round were instead left looking like fools for wasting such a valuable pick on a sophomore dud.
But let’s give the youngster another chance to make things right in 2013, especially now that he will cost much less. Hosmer felt the wrath of a .255 BABIP. While struggling to find any uncovered territory on the diamond, Hosmer at least improved his walk rate to 9.4 percent.
With a more reasonable average, Hosmer should see raised production across the board. Even if he does not deliver the breakout season everyone expected last season, he could still become a sneaky value if all his prior bandwagon attendees jumped off already.
Second Base: Rickie Weeks
I’ve never been a huge Rickie Weeks fan.
The risk associated with his inability to remain healthy always outweighed the rewards of a flawed, inconsistent hitter. With a career 23 percent strikeout rate, Weeks is likely to put a damper into a team’s batting average.
So yeah, I’m buying Weeks this season because I believe he will stay healthy and fix a somewhat-fluky poor batting average.
After years of excessive trips to the disabled list, Weeks manufactured two full seasons in the past three years. In that other year, he at least withstood three-fourths of the 162-game schedule.
Weeks produced a .230 average in 2012, which should not seem too surprising considering his constant strikeouts and career .248 mark. Then again, he posted a .285 BABIP last season while earning a .269 average in the prior two seasons.
He even upped his walk rate while swinging at less pitches outside the strike zone.
Most importantly, he tallied 21 home runs and 16 steals. If he can do that again with an average closer to .269, Weeks makes a fine starting second baseman.
Third Base: Eric Chavez
How about their third baseman who outperformed Rodriguez last season?
When the battered Rodriguez missed time on the disabled list and occasionally served as a designated hitter, Eric Chavez stepped in amicably. The 34-year-old turned the clock back to the early 2000s, producing an eye-catching .281/.348/.496 line in 113 games. The former All-Star crushed 16 home runs, but his tenure with the Bronx Bombers looked numbered before Rodriguez’ surgery announcement.
Few intriguing third basemen exist on the free-agent market besides Kevin Youkilis, and the Yankees probably don’t want to replace a highly-paid, old declining star with another highly-paid, old declining star.
Even if New York signs Chavez strictly to bat against righties, he could inflict enough damage locked into the long end of a platoon. Playing in Yankee Stadium with a loaded lineup is a winning formula for any hitter.
Chavez could be a great late-round, no-frills option who can quietly post gaudy numbers early in the season, and possibly even solidify a lineup spot once Rodriguez returns.
UPDATE: Chavez signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks (h/t MLB.com.) He will likely play a limited role behind starter Chris Johnson, dampening any sleeper status. Keep an eye on the third-base situation in New York.
Shortstop: Alcides Escobar
When the top four shortstops fall off the board early, don’t panic and overextend for Elvis Andrus when a similar talent is available much later.
Last season, Alcides Escobar hit .293 with five homers and 35 steals, all of which exceed Andrus’ numbers. And while the average might not be sustainable considering his .344 BABIP, there’s still enough reason to target Escobar next season.
Shortstop is not exactly crawling with value, so a player with a discernible skill is nothing to sneeze at. Escobar swiped 35 bags in 40 attempts, earning a continuous green light.
Taking a walk is not quite Escobar’s thing, but at least he does not strike out in 24.5 percent of his plate appearances like fellow shortstop speedster Everth Cabrera.
Also, you’re going to want stock in the Kansas City Royals before they explode. With Hosmer, Billy Butler, Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon, Wil Myers and Mike Moustaskas all growing up together, look out. Kansas City could quickly sport a deadly offense that will create ample run-scoring opportunities for Escobar.
Left Field: David Murphy
Just give David Murphy a chance to play every day, and fantasy gamers and the Texas Rangers will both be pleased with the results.
Presented with a career-high 521 plate appearances, Murphy amassed a phenomenal .304/.380/.479 slashing line. He held his own against lefties, hitting .347 with a .405 on-base percentage, and displayed outstanding defense in the outfield. So why does Texas not start him every day?
Despite his limited role, the 31-year-old has accumulated three consecutive seasons with double digits in homers and steals. With Mike Napoli on the way out and Josh Hamilton possibly soon to follow, they will now especially need Murphy’s bat in the lineup more than speedster Craig Gentry.
At the very least, Murphy could receive a more prominent position in the batting order when he plays, boosting his counting numbers enough to make him startable in many leagues despite a potential platoon.
Center Field: Lorenzo Cain
Okay, just one more Royal. I swear.
Not even mentioned before in the bevy of Kansas City’s young offensive core, Lorenzo Cain was a popular sleeper last season who showed star potential during limited playing time.
In just 61 games, Cain slammed seven homers and notched 10 steals. The speed has always been Cain’s prime asset, but he did earn 16 homers in Triple-A during 2011, so don’t write off the power as a future outlier.
If not for a 23 percent strikeout rate, Cain would enter drafts as a highly-desired commodity. There’s always the possibility he goes the rout of Hosmer and Brett Lawrie and fails to replicate an impressive, yet short sample size, but Cain won’t require a premium pick.
So even if he hits in the .260s again, Cain’s 15/30 potential is more than enough to renew his sleeper status for the upcoming season.
Right Field: Michael Cuddyer
Losing second base eligibility places a massive blow to Michael Cuddyer’s fantasy credibility. Don’t, however, let him fall down to irrelevance on your cheat sheet.
Cuddyer gained substantial notice as a trendy sleeper at second base. Selecting a power-heavy slugger fresh off signing with the Colorado Rockies seemed like a slam dunk made even sweeter by the fact that Cuddyer logged 17 games at second in 2011.
Unfortunately, Cuddyer disappointed his new fans, hitting .260 with 16 home runs. Those numbers don’t help much at second base, so they’re especially futile from an outfielder.
The good news: Cuddyer still plays half of his games in Coors Field. If not for a right oblique injury that cost him significant action, he would have likely topped 20 homers. He also picks his spots to steal a few bases.
If he stays healthy, Cuddyer could post a 20/10 campaign with upside for even more power. As an outfielder most drafters will likely forget about, he’s a great bargain in the later rounds.
Starting Pitcher: Jeff Samardzija
Jeff Samardzija pitched like an ace last year. Now let’s see if anybody else notices.
Samardzija’s 9.27 K/9 ratio ranked fourth among all starting pitchers. Despite all the whiffs, he still posted a 2.89 walk rate, which led to a 3.55 FIP and 3.38 xFIP.
Many drafters might not pick up on it because his basic stats don’t jump off the page as vibrantly. Since he pitched for the Chicago Cubs, he only picked up nine wins. Since he posted a .296 BABIP, his 3.81 ERA does not reflect how well the first-year starter performed.
And since the team shut him down after Sept. 8, Samardzija fell short of reaching the 200-strikeout plateau.
I certainly can’t promise an increase in wins, but the numbers suggest that an improved ERA is in store, which at least helps Samardzija’s cause to earn some victories behind a bungling team.
Samardzija will likely fall much later than pitchers with similar ability, but don’t wait too long before grabbing him as a middle-of-the-rotation starter.
Closer: Bobby Parnell
Somebody has to close games for the New York Mets. No, not Frank Francisco. You blew your chance.
After the closer carousel ran throughout a tumultuous season, young fireballer Bobby Parnell finished the season with the job in his hands. Right now, there’s little reason to believe he won’t begin the 2013 season in the ninth inning.
The promising, yet often shaky, reliever finally showed why the club has attempted to groom him for this role since trading Francisco Rodriguez. Parnell recorded a 2.49 ERA and 1.24 WHIP to lead a beleaguered group of relievers in Queens.
The 28-year-old sacrificed some of his heat to become a more efficient pitcher. No longer lighting up the radar gar at triple digits, Parnell’s average fastball velocity dipped from 97.2 miles per hour to 95.8 (via FanGraphs). While the drop in velocity caused his K/9 ratio to fall from 9.71 to 8.00, he also decreased his BB/9 rate from 4.10 to 2.62.
Don’t expect him to become Craig Kimbrel, but Parnell, who ESPN left out of their top 40 relief pitchers altogether, has an inside track on save chances and could produce solidly enough to thrive as your squad’s third closer.