Fantasy Baseball: 25 Sleepers Primed to Break Down MLB's Doors in 2014
Experts and armchair analysts will tell you that fantasy baseball is all about value-based strategy. This value-based strategy will eliminate the need to overpay for certain players since you can play match-maker with your overall needs as your draft ensues.
However, godsend acquisitions late in the draft or via the waiver wire are usually what helps give one owner a competitive advantage over other owners in his or her league.
Someone who splurged on Chase Headley early on found themselves decimated at third base as the season dragged on. For the Headley owners, finding replacement level value later on at that position, with a player such as Kyle Seager, would have allowed them to take a more certain player at a value similar to Headley early on.
As good as Headley was in 2012, there were signs of discouragement heading into 2013. Drafting a pitcher like Cole Hamels in the same round, instead of Headley, would have made an owner more valuable. On the other hand, no one is purely psychic in their cognitive abilities to forecast fantasy performance.
That is where luck comes into play. As fantasy baseball players, we all understand that luck plays a large part of the game. From injuries to hot streaks, we have all celebrated or griped about luck.
Denzel Washington said, "Luck is when an opportunity comes along and you're prepared for it." That is the basis for this article. One has to get lucky to earn a competitive advantage in fantasy baseball. The more you prepare for the opportunity of gaining more efficient value via your draft, you are preparing yourself to reap the dividends of luck.
Not every player on this list will fulfill their intended purposes. I have no psychic ability that I am aware of. Proceed with caution and do not make an entire roster of the players soon to be mentioned. Pick your poison and realize expectations go hand-in-hand with value.
C Jonathan Lucroy: Milwaukee Brewers
Which catcher hit more home runs than Buster Posey, Joe Mauer and Yadier Molina? Which backstop drove in more runs than Carlos Santana, Matt Wieters and A.J. Pierzynski? If you guessed Jonathan Lucroy, you are correct.
Since 2011, Lucroy has averaged 14 HR per season. Last year, he topped out with 18 dingers and a position-leading 82 RBI (for full-time catchers, of course). In June he will turn 29, so to suggest this is the blossoming of a young prospect, we might be kidding ourselves.
On the other hand, Lucroy has the potential to maintain his stride from last season into 2014. While he did slow down the longer the season ensued, no one should really have expected otherwise. He has never shown a propensity to finish strong, but anyone suggesting his seven-HR June was a fluke is kidding themselves.
Watch your league mates jump all over the more prominent fantasy catchers while you cash in on the value they are leaving behind elsewhere. Swooping in and stealing Lucroy at a price far below his relative value will pay off in the end.
1B Mark Teixeira: New York Yankees
An afterthought for many, New York Yankees slugger Mark Teixeira is primed to bounce back in 2014 after an injury-riddled 2013. Expected to slide late in drafts, Teixeira will be a nice source of power for some lucky owner. While I am not advocating sitting on the first base position until you can nab Teixeira in the teens, I am considering him as a viable utility/flex starter considering where he will be drafted.
The days of Teixeira hitting 30 or more HRs are probably over. But in the sardine can we call Yankee Stadium, he has the potential to eclipse 20 HR and 85 RBI. Consider this: Only 10 first basemen accomplished that feat last year (Chris Davis, Paul Goldschmidt, Edwin Encarnacion, Mark Trumbo, Adam Dunn, Brandon Moss, Prince Fielder, Freddie Freeman, Mike Napoli and Adrian Gonzalez).
For the price tag attached to the Yankee, bargain-shopping will no doubt pay off. For those worried about his wrist tendon sheath surgery, don't fret. Jose Bautista underwent the same surgery and has been fine with his wrist since.
1B Matt Adams: St. Louis Cardinals
The enduring uncertainty surrounding Matt Adams' security in the St. Louis Cardinals lineup is likely to drive his stock lower. Sure, Carlos Beltran is no longer with the club, opening up right field for Allen Craig. Unfortunately for Adams, one of baseball's best prospects, Oscar Taveras, is twiddling his thumbs in the minors.
Despite Taveras likely beginning the year with Triple-A Memphis, Adams' uncertainty at first base remains, especially against left-handed pitching. Last season, Adams batted .231 versus lefties as opposed to .295 versus right-handed pitching.
With Adams, Craig, Peter Bourjos and Jon Jay, the Cardinals have three positions for four players. While the organization has kind of soured on Jay since the postseason, he will still see his at-bats.
Take advantage of the uncertainty surrounding Adams. He has the natural power to slug 30 HRs and drive in 90 RBI. Like Teixeira, Adams will be a valuable source of power beyond the first 10 rounds of your draft.
2B Jurickson Profar: Texas Rangers
Soon-to-be of legal drinking age in the United States, Profar has been on one incredible journey thus far. Considered the best MLB prospect in 2013, Profar failed to shine through in limited opportunities with the Texas Rangers last season. Many expected Mike Trout-like numbers but instead got Pedro Feliz-like stat lines.
This bitterness towards Profar is something to take advantage of. Texas traded blue chip second baseman Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder because they trust Profar as an everyday second baseman. While Profar's defensive propensity is ahead of his offense, it won't be long until Profar flashes some ability in the batter's box.
Realistic expectations for Profar are as follows: .275 AVG, .830 OPS, 15 HR, 75 R, 52 RBI and 25 SB.
These projections may stand out from those you see from Bill James or Baseball Prospectus. However, Profar was the most anticipated call-up since Trout and Bryce Harper for a reason. The odds of Profar becoming the next Mark Farris are highly unlikely.
Let folks take Daniel Murphy ahead of Profar. Don't second guess yourself, either. Profar's potential is real and with a full slate of at-bats awaiting him, it's time to cash in before his value really takes off.
2B Neil Waker: Pittsburgh Pirates
In some circles, fantasy geeks have soured on Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Neil Walker. Not a sleeper of the conventional sense, the ever-consistent Walker will still lurk in the shadows of Chase Utley, Ian Kinsler and Martin Prado come draft day. Why?
Since 2010, Walker's HR totals have increased each season. While a huge outlier resides in his 83-RBI mark of 2011, every other year his total RBI have been in a constant range. The strongest argument against Walker comes in the form of his batting average, though. From 2010 through 2012, his cumulative average was .283. Last season it dipped to .255.
Still, Walker's model consistency and the increasing prowess of the Pirates lineup makes him a formidable option at second base in your draft. He isn't likely to be one of the top six or seven second baseman drafted. To the contrary, he will likely finish with numbers better than half of those drafted ahead of him.
Expectations of him inching towards the 20 HR mark are not far-fetched. Let others take the bait on some of the aforementioned players and cast a cheap lure in order to net Walker. The value is there to give you a large return.
3B Brett Lawrie: Toronto Blue Jays
Raise your hand if your tired of seeing Brett Lawrie's name on sleeper lists. Admittedly, I raised my hand as well. Numbers don't lie, though. While Lawrie does have a hard time staying healthy due to his aggressive style of play, you won't have to worry about any freak injuries from the World Baseball Classic this season.
Much has been ballyhooed about a guy who has never hit more than 11 HR in any MLB season. Out of a possible 324 games the past two seasons, Lawrie has only appeared in 232. Therefore, one can't be knocked for being skeptical of this specific Blue Jay.
With an average draft position in the mid-to-late teens, Lawrie is incredibly valuable, especially as a backup fantasy third baseman. If there is any season where Lawrie can break out, it is 2014. With no expectations, he could emerge as a viable top five fantasy third baseman.
And just think, he is only 24 years old. Remember the hype and subsequent decline in the aura of Chris Davis? After a handful of downtrodden seasons, it reemerged when he belted more than 50 HR last year. I'm not saying Lawrie has that kind of power. What I'm suggesting is that its too early to throw the kid by the wayside. After all, he is just 24 years old.
3B Kris Bryant: Chicago Cubs
The odds of seeing Chicago Cubs prospect Kris Bryant in 2014 are slim, but as a last-round pick, he is worth a flyer. With power reminiscent of Albert Pujols, Bryant could easily emerge as a fantasy contributor in August or September. Depending on how deep your league is, he is worth stashing.
At a premium position, Bryant will likely garnish a lot of hype this spring. He is 22 and fresh out of college. In the lower levels of the minors, Bryant mashed like no other. He even excelled in the Arizona Fall League.
If you play in an NL-only or rather deep league, take a flyer on Bryant. Let him sit at the end of your bench and forget about him until you hear he has been called up to play in Wrigley. If any prospect is worth it in 2014, it is this kid.
3B Will Middlebrooks: Boston Red Sox
What a roller coaster ride 2013 was for Boston Red Sox slugger Will Middlebrooks. After a strong 2012 which led to high expectations for 2013, Middlebrooks eventually found himself back on a bus, puttering around from minor league town to minor league town.
What happened? Simply put, Middlebrooks couldn't lay the wood. His average suffered immensely. While he hit two more HR than the year before, he simply couldn't be trusted as an everyday player in the lineup. A lack of patience at the plate and an increased strikeout rate butchered the prospect of Middlebrooks landing the starting gig at third.
A series of fortunate events may be paving the way for Middlebrooks to start everyday at the hot corner, though. Stephen Drew's free agency is allowing Xander Bogaerts start at shortstop. With Drew out of the picture, Middlebrooks is the lone guy for third base. Unfortunately, a return to Boston for Drew would diminish Middlebrooks' prospects.
3B Matt Davidson: Chicago White Sox
Traded from Arizona to the White Sox over the winter, the door is fully open for third baseman Matt Davidson to cash in on his potential. In 87 plate appearances last year, he managed 3 HR and 12 RBI. The small sample size doesn't really give us a true feeling of what he can potentially do.
From 2011 through 2013, Davidson averaged 20 HRs each season in the minor leagues. For someone on the hot corner, he possesses a hefty swing, but with that comes plenty of strikeouts.
The White Sox will be shuffling players around the diamond this spring to find the right niche. With what looks like a lack of positions for Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, Jose Abreu and Dayan Viciedo, one has to wonder where Davidson fits in. If Viciedo or Abreu make the move to third, Davidson is on the outside looking in. On the other hand, Davidson's talent and potential is far too great to leave in the minors. That's why Chicago traded for him.
Expecting 20 HR, 75 RBI and a batting average slightly higher than .250 is reasonable. Davidson adds to the undervalued depth at third base.
SS Andrelton Simmons: Atlanta Braves
Known more for his glove than his bat, Atlanta Braves shortstop is often overlooked in fantasy circles. Aside from his .248 AVG, Simmons did find himself near the top at his position in other aspects of the game.
For instance, did you know only Troy Tulowitzki, J.J. Hardy and Ian Desmond slugged more HRs than Simmons last year? Also, Simmons tallied 76 runs scored, only to be bested by Elvis Andrus, Jed Lowrie and Desmond. Simmons also had the lowest strikeout rate among all qualifying shortstops. His BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) of .247 wasn't very encouraging though.
Aside from his batting average, which could improve based on his minor league averages, Simmons provides a nice option at a premium position. His price tag comes in at less than retail. While counting on him as your go-to shortstop may be near-sighted, it wouldn't be unfathomable for him to finish as a top-10 shortstop in 2014.
OF George Springer: Houston Astros
The Houston Astros are well on their way towards returning to when they rostered Roy Oswalt and Carlos Beltran.
With a farm system loaded with talent, their top slugger with plus-power may be the first one to crack the majors in '14. George Springer, seen bunting above, is much more than speed. While he swings and misses a lot, his ability to put the baseball into orbit is seen as frightening through the eyes of opposing pitchers.
While Springer likely won't see any MLB service time until after July 1, he could impact fantasy teams in similar fashion to how Bryce Harper did when he got the call. A 20-20 prospect, Springer has nice wheels to go along with his ability to hit the long ball.
As a late-round draft pick—from Houston of all places—Springer will undoubtedly overcome his underpriced value.
OF Josh Reddick: Oakland Athletics
2012 and 2013 turned out to be a tale of two seasons for Oakland A's outfielder Josh Reddick. In just one year, he hit 20 less HRs and 29 less RBI. Sure, he had more than 230 less at-bats in 2013 but that didn't disguise the ugliness that came with Reddick's performance.
Reddick did improve in two areas though. He walked more and struck out less. On the surface, it looks like a nagging wrist injury, which landed Reddick on the disabled list, was the primary driver of his underachievement.
A return to 20-plus HR and 70-plus RBI should be in store, but don't expect him to hit better than .250.
OF Corey Dickerson: Colorado Rockies
The trade which sent Dexter Fowler to Houston opened up the door for the Colorado Rockies to lean on Corey Dickerson in center field. With the potential to hit above .300 while slugging double-digit HRs, Dickerson could have a much larger impact on fantasy squads than his current value indicates.
Due to being an unknown and lightly touted prospect, Dickerson is flying below the radar in fantasy circles. His strikeout rate may be a tad high for a potential leadoff hitter, but that shouldn't matter considering who will be lining up behind him.
With a row of power coming to the plate following Dickerson, he should be in a position to score plenty of runs and steal double-digit bases.
For a bench outfielder, you can't go wrong with Dickerson. His potential concludes that he could eventually land in your starting lineup as a viable third outfielder.
OF Kole Calhoun: Los Angeles Angels
One of the bigger unknowns will be how Kole Calhoun adapts to an everyday role with the Los Angeles Angels. At 26 years old, he has shown the ability to play wherever he has been needed. In limited time last year, he showed he could hit left-handed pitching. Along with Josh Hamilton and Raul Ibanez, Calhoun brings a nice left-handed bat into the lineup.
While nothing he does will knock you off your feet, he will provide a steady bat when needed for fantasy purposes. For comparison's sake, he could end up panning out like Nate McLouth. That's not bad when you consider how McLouth was a dependable option last season.
With J.B. Shuck breathing down his neck, expect Calhoun to have a fire lit under him. He will exceed expectations with at least 15 HR and 65 RBI should he see at least 500 at-bats.
OF Starling Marte: Pittsburgh Pirates
Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Starling Marte was fourth among all qualifying outfielders with 41 stolen bases in 2013. His 83 runs scored put him among the elite in crossing home plate, as well. With a .280 AVG, Marte looked impressive. What is more impressive is his .363 BABIP from last season. The only outfielders with higher BABIP were Michael Cuddyer, Mike Trout and Allen Craig.
Sure, for most leagues, stats like BABIP really don't matter. The thing is, BABIP exemplifies how good Marte actually is. While everyone would love to see him crush a dozen or more HRs and knock in 30 or more RBI, the reality is that he isn't one of those players. He is a leadoff hitter who gets on base, steals bases and scores runs.
You may not find a better third, fourth or fifth outfielder than Marte. He is likely to be drafted higher than the aforementioned outfielders on this list. But then again, he is likely to be selected after Nick Markakis and Desmond Jennings.
Do yourself a favor and pass on the like's of Markakis and Jennings. You'll get a better return on your investment in Marte.
RHP Yordano Ventura: Kansas City Royals
If any rookie arm has the potential to be a difference maker in 2014, it's the little known Yordano Ventura. Die-hard followers of minor league scouting know who he is, but many others do not. He appeared in three games late in 2013, but they were of little significance. If anything, he will be up to the majors no later than June. Quite possibly, he could break camp with the Royals as a member of the rotation.
Regardless, Ventura is worthy of a flyer late in your draft. His skill set and how he projects is what is likely keeping the Royals from bringing Ervin Santana back into the fold (as well as money).
A strikeout rate of more than one K per inning is likely. An arsenal equipped with a plus-fastball and developing curve will haunt batters in the American League. Don't count on him being effective fantasy-wise in April and May. You will surely cash in as the summer approaches, though.
RHP Taijuan Walker: Seattle Mariners
After making a splash in free agency, the Seattle Mariners have hopes of competing for a World Series berth out of the American League. If they deliver on their intent, it will be because of right-handed pitcher Taijuan Walker.
Trouble is looming for the AL West. Walker is cut from the same cloth as Felix Hernandez. His ability to punch out hitters, based on his throwing repertoire, is what will make him intriguing moving forward. The only question about Walker, much like Ventura, is when the M's will have him on the active roster.
Walker has pretty much accomplished everything he can at the minor league level. Therefore, it wouldn't be surprising if he left spring training with the big league club.
RHP Andrew Cashner: San Diego Padres
After fluttering around the minor leagues for half a decade, righty Andrew Cashner is finally finding his groove as a starting pitcher with the San Diego Padres. With the eventual return of his slider, Cashner could take the next step towards being one of the better pitchers in the National League.
The transition from bullpen to rotation caused a drop in his velocity and strikeout rate. However, his innings pitched jumped by 129 IP in one season. He's beginning to look like the ace of the Padres staff, too.
The Padres will be a better team in 2014. They aren't expected to be good enough to crack the playoffs, but expectations for Cashner should hover around 15 wins, 195 IP and 140 strikeouts.
RHP R.A. Dickey: Toronto Blue Jays
It's difficult to conceive of a situation where a 39-year-old former Cy Young Award winner could be a sleeper in fantasy baseball. Then again, nobody was more disappointing as a pitcher than Dickey was in 2013.
While he did finish with 14 wins, the improvement which came as the season ensued were too little, too late. His home run-to-fly ball rate ballooned to its highest mark since 2006. Dickey's strikeout totals dropped by more than 50, too.
Consider 2013 to be more flukish than anything. As a knuckleballer, we don't have to worry about the 39-year-old's arm as much as we do other pitchers. Expectations have begun to subside, as well.
A bounce back year before reverting back to regression should be expected as Dickey comes close to 16 wins and 200 strikeouts.
LHP Jesse Biddle: Philadelphia Phillies
With issues regarding his control at hand, many aren't expecting the top Philadelphia Phillies pitching prospect until next year at best. I tend to disagree. Biddle dealt with plantar fasciitis and saw his numbers trend in the wrong direction.
At 22 years old, Biddle still has time to grow. With what appears to be a bad Phillies team in front of him, the organization might not be hard-pressed to pursue a promotion for Biddle. Then again, the latest we should realistically expect to see him with the club is September.
Similar to Kris Bryant, a Biddle selection in your draft should be reserved to NL-only or deeper leagues.
RHP Dan Haren: Los Angeles Dodgers
Those who are bargain-hunting late in the draft should find new Los Angeles Dodger righty Dan Haren very appetizing. Haren is marked as being injury-prone and losing his zeal over the last couple of seasons. While it is true that Haren is no longer a lock for at least 200 IP as he was from 2005 through 2011, one thing is certain: He can still tally the strikeouts.
Haren's strikeout rate is nearly nine percent. This means that he still almost strikes out at least one hitter per inning. Such a remarkable feat is enticing from a fantasy perspective because Haren is 33 years old and overlooked, even among the Dodgers rotation.
With the Dodgers looking primed to win close to 100 games, Haren will be a key benefactor, but don't count on him for an entire season. His value resides later in the draft where you will get a much larger return than the initial investment.
Who would you rather have late—Haren or Josh Beckett?
RHP A.J. Griffin: Oakland Athletics
No issues emanated from A.J. Griffin topping 200 IP for the first time in his career last season. If anything, he blew the doors off of any expectations. After a 14-10 season where his ERA stood at 3.83, many expect Griffin to only improve as he continues into this coming season.
While some adjustment must be in store since Griffin's Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) rested at 4.55, there is a possibility that Griffin's strikeout rate could improve to eight-plus Ks per nine IP. Without any plus-pitches, Griffin will likely struggle in getting many more whiffs than he currently does.
Those in your league will swear up and down that Griffin is overrated. It's true that nothing about Griffin's pitching is really "sexy" but let's not forget that he has a solid approach via command and control. On top of that, he pitches half of his games in the pitcher friendly confines in Oakland.
RHP Jacob Turner: Miami Marlins
Once considered the top prospect in the Detroit Tigers farm system, Jacob Turner was traded to Miami in 2012. This deal came after issues abounded concerning the righty. Well, in 2013, Turner eviscerated many issues with a 3.74 ERA in 118 IP.
True, Turner doesn't have a great strikeout rate. For every nine innings pitched, he strikes out a little more than five batters. For comparison's sake, Turner's strikeout rate of 5.87 puts him in between Jorge de la Rosa and Eric Stults. An improvement in strikeouts isn't likely to come any time soon for Turner. With a reliance on his control and a velocity on his fastball hovering around 92, expect to take some lumps with Turner.
In the pitcher's ballpark in Miami, Turner will see more luck come his way than other pitchers. As a late-round flyer, he will be more valuable than Kyle Kendrick, Ross Detwiler or Wandy Rodriguez. For all intensive purposes, his youth doesn't really matter here. Long-term, he projects as a middle reliever. Just take advantage of him as a starter with little value while you still can. The Marlins have much better arms that will be ready in a couple of years, pushing Turner to the bullpen.
RHP Danny Salazar: Cleveland Indians
Danny Salazar showed so much promise in such little time last season that the Cleveland Indians relied on him in their one-game AL Wild Card matchup. While the results were not as promising as they looked in the first few innings of the game, Salazar laid the keystone for an increase in expectations moving forward.
With crazy heat emitting from his arm, Salazar tallied 65 strikeouts in 52 IP last season, his first in the majors. Such a strikeout rate falls in line with his most recent farm system numbers. With another year being removed from Tommy John surgery, Salazar looks more and more like a special talent.
The thing that separates Salazar from the other sleeper pitchers on this list is his ability to get swings and misses. Reminiscent of a power arm out of the bullpen, Salazar is still building on his two-pitch repertoire. With his slider improving, he could land himself as a top-30 fantasy pitcher in 2014. With that in mind, have no qualms about selecting him in the 60-70 range of starting pitchers. He will provide much more return than that investment.
RHP Neftali Feliz: Texas Rangers
No potential closer could see a greater leap in projection than Neftali Feliz in 2014. From 2010 through 2011, Feliz tallied 72 saves for the Texas Rangers. In 2012, Texas signed Joe Nathan to close and moved Feliz to the rotation. Feliz would go on to injure his elbow and require Tommy John surgery that season. He would return to appear in six games last season.
With vigilant velocity, Feliz could return to the apex of fantasy baseball at his position. So much of Feliz's ability to close out games relies on his ability to blow the baseball past the hitter. While his velocity has showed signs of slowing down, it is nothing too drastic yet. With another year away from Tommy John surgery, one could expect a slight uptick in his velocity for 2014.
Health is what will keep Feliz down. So long as he is healthy, he is expected to be the closer for the Rangers. If he can remain healthy, he has the potential to tally 40 saves in his first year closing since 2011. I would recommend passing on Grant Balfour, Jonathan Papelbon and Jim Johnson in favor of Feliz, who you can get cheaper and later.