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Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: Superstars Poised for Huge 2014 Rebounds

Andrew GouldFeatured ColumnistDecember 26, 2016

Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: Superstars Poised for Huge 2014 Rebounds

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    Matt Cain finished 2013 with a 4.00 ERA, well below his 3.35 career mark.
    Matt Cain finished 2013 with a 4.00 ERA, well below his 3.35 career mark.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    One underwhelming year is not enough to bury an MLB superstar in 2014 fantasy baseball drafts.

    These top performers fell short of expectations last year, but luckily for us, last year's numbers don't count this year. Many veterans have witnessed their fantasy utility permanently evaporate (hey, Tim Lincecum!), but some just ran into a pothole last season and suffered a flat tire.

    Now, here is where things get tricky; true superstars are not readily available as sleepers, so the two terms contradict each other.

    Prince Fielder should reignite his power with the Texas Rangers, and I'm confident in Ryan Braun turning the dial back to his fantasy superstar days. That's great, but you still must exert a first- or second-round pick to claim either of these former teammates.

    While the following players aren't sleepers in the traditional sense, they'll come at a relative bargain this season considering their past success. Formerly premier picks, all but one of them are frequently falling past the fifth round in typical mixed-league drafts.

    Each of the players on this list also all fall under the outfield or starting pitcher category, as those cavernous positions allow big names to get lost in the fold. Jose Reyes could revisit his days as a top shortstop if his body permits, but he's getting drafted among the top five at his position despite logging just 93 games last season.

    These players all underachieved relative to their draft price in 2013, but expect the reverse to hold true this time around.

     

     

    Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.

R.A. Dickey, SP, Toronto Blue Jays

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    R.A. Dickey recovered from a rough first half to finish strong in 2013.
    R.A. Dickey recovered from a rough first half to finish strong in 2013.J. Meric/Getty Images

    OK, so R.A. Dickey was a superstar for one year, after which many skeptical drafters still shied away from the National League Cy Young-winner. Now, R.A. Dickey will come at a much more reasonable price, which makes him an intriguing draft-day option.

    Dickey followed his breakout 2012 campaign with a disappointing 4.21 ERA last season. After collecting 230 strikeouts with the Mets the previous season, he finished 2013 with 177 punchouts through 224.1 innings with the Blue Jays.

    The 39-year-old is far from a certainty to succeed. In the past three years since adopting the knuckleball in 2010, his ground-ball rate has dipped each year, while he has yielded more fly balls. The home run was his mortal enemy last year, as he allowed 35 homers23 of which he surrendered in the Rogers Centre.

    So why give him another chance? Although he learned the knuckleball to hide his inability to fire a 95 mph heater, velocity still fuels his specialty pitch's efficacy. When baffling hitters in 2012, his knuckleball clocked in at an average speed of 77.2 mph; last season, it registered at 75.8. 

    But according to Brooks Baseball, he gained steam as the season progressed, increasing his pitch speed during each of the last three months. By September, the radar gun showed an average of 77 mph again. According the Gregor Chisholm of MLB.com, back and neck injuries may have been responsible for some of his early struggles last season as well as the knuckler's decrease in velocity.

    Those extra ticks on the knuckleball made a huge difference for the veteran hurler, who notched a 3.30 K/BB ratio over the final three months of 2013 after posting a meager 1.91 rate from April to June. He posted a 3.72 ERA and 1.17 WHIP during that stretch as well. 

    Unless the Toronto Blue Jays trade him to a pitcher's park before Opening Day, Dickey won't ever match his 2012 numbers. If the workhorse can limit his deep flies and keep his ERA respectable, however, he'll still deliver more than enough fantasy value in 2014.

Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Miami Marlins

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    Despite all his flaws, Giancarlo Stanton still wields a mighty alluring bat.
    Despite all his flaws, Giancarlo Stanton still wields a mighty alluring bat.Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images

    Now we're jumping several rounds and many more auction dollars ahead in the draft. You've enjoyed a deep slumber if Giancarlo Stanton qualifies as a classic sleeper, but he's a third-round pick who can easily provide first-round production.

    I was among those who ranked him in the first round last year after he registered an incredible .608 slugging percentage in 2012. To add some perspective, Miguel Cabrera slugged .606 while locking down the Triple Crown that year.

    Oops.

    Health concerns, a high strikeout rate and a terrible supporting cast drowned out his mouth-watering power in 2013. Despite brandishing an .845 OPS, he hit .249 with just 24 homers through 116 games.

    All those obstacles to stardom still exist. He ended 27.8 percent of his at-bats last season with a strikeout, garnered just 62 RBI and again landed on the disabled list. Those were valid reasons to veto his first-round entitlement.

    But he still has power. In a full season, 35 home runs is a tame projection, 40 is reasonable and 45-50 is not out of reach. 

    He also showed enhanced plate discipline last season, posting a 14.7 percent walk rate that ranked fourth behind Joey Votto, Shin-Soo Choo and Mike Trout. He just needs to veer back to his .265 career batting average to limit his hindrance there, and then even his uninspiring teammates will have to drive him home on accident a few times.

    The "safety first" mantra applies to any fantasy baseball draft, but Stanton can justify the risk if you were to pair him with dependable bats from the opening two rounds.

Matt Cain, SP, San Francisco Giants

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    Cain should avenge a disastrous season with a superb 2014.
    Cain should avenge a disastrous season with a superb 2014.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    As a numbers geek, I want to maniacally laugh at Matt Cain paying the piper after defying sabermetrics year after year. Wasn't he due to fall back down to earth after constantly overcoming his carer 3.68 FIP?

    No, not really. After providing the San Francisco Giants and fantasy owners with ace production for four years, it's his down year in 2013 that should serve as the outlier.

    From 2009-12, Cain generated a 2.93 ERA and 1.10 WHIP while tallying 217-222 innings each year. His K/9 rate improved in each of those seasons as well, while his walk rate also strayed in the positive direction. 

    With a .264 career BABIP that has held steady, it's safe to say there's something to the veteran's madness, even if pitching in AT&T Park has aided his cause.

    Of course, all these encouraging sentiments are about to get rudely interrupted by last year's hiccup. Cain amassed a 4.00 ERA despite no discouraging trends in his velocity or command, which usually lurk in the background of an ace's collapse.

    He can blame April showers for his down year, as he surrendered 26 earned runs through his opening six starts. Furthermore, Brooks Baseball recorded his velocity at its lowest during the treacherous month.

    Yet he gave disgruntled owners a peace offering by guiding many head-to-head owners toward a title push with a 2.36 ERA after the All-Star break. After a short break due to an arm injury in the second half, he returned from the disabled list to post a 1.61 ERA in four September starts. 

    At age 29, Cain should return to his usual form in 2014, giving owners the dependable 200-plus innings and low ERA they have come to expect from the righty. This time, however, he's available as an affordable No. 2 starter.

Jason Heyward, OF, Atlanta Braves

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    Fantasy owners need Jason Heyward to run more in 2014.
    Fantasy owners need Jason Heyward to run more in 2014.Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    It's debatable whether Jason Heyward has yet to earn the superstar label, but he'll climb that mountain soon enough.

    Although his rookie season did not stand out in many traditional leagues, his .393 on-base percentage at age 20 turned several heads across the league. Following a disappointing sophomore campaign in 2011, he engineered a 20/20 season in 2012 that pleased many more fantasy owners. However, a 14-homer, two-steal effort in 2013 had owners frustrated once again.

    When a young player battles as much turmoil as Heyward, it's easy to forget that he's still a 24-year-old with a career .794 OPS. From a real-life perspective, his 6.4 fWAR from 2012 certainly cements him among the game's top talents. Now, we just need that to surface in our simplistic game.

    Amidst another lackluster, injury-plagued season in 2013, Heyward actually took a major step in the right direction at the plate. Strikeouts have hampered the outfielder throughout his young career, but he sliced his percentage to a career-low 16.6 last season, four full percentage points below his average.

    He achieved that feat by increasing his contact rate to 80 percent and chasing fewer bad offerings. His o-swing percentage, a measure of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone, dropped from 32.7 percent in 2012 to 28.3 percent in 2013.

    Those fancy numbers speak well for his average rising toward the .270-.280 range, which leaves his health and his aggressiveness on the basepaths as the only other major concerns in his game. 

    As far an injuries go, we can't say he's prone to getting hit by pitches that break his jaw or appendectomy surgeries, as such unfortunate and freak circumstances don't figure to carry over like an ailing wrist or ankle.

    He only stole two bases last year, which will greatly derail his path toward fantasy greatness. Since he's swiped 43 bags over four years, however, 10 steals is a responsible projection, but there's margin for error on both sides.

    Even if he doesn't steal 20 bags again, a 25/10 campaign would put him back into drafters' good graces.

Cole Hamels, SP, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Contrary to popular belief, Cole Hamels really wasn't that bad last season.
    Contrary to popular belief, Cole Hamels really wasn't that bad last season.Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

    Could veteran pitchers coming off a down year and entering the season with injury concerns become the new market inefficiency?

    If Cole Hamels truly struggled in 2013, then his current shoulder tendinitis issues, as noted by Dayn Perry of CBS Sports, would have put the final nail in the 30-year-old's coffin—or you know, made him a baseball player I'd prefer not to select on my fictional team.

    But his struggles last season were all cosmetic. His 3.26 FIP was lower than his 3.30 mark from 2012, when he recorded a 3.05 ERA. His velocity remained steady, his walk rate (2.05 BB/9) stood sightly below his career 2.22 BB/9 rate, and his lessened 8.26 K/9 ratio is not bad enough to blare the sirens.

    His 3.60 ERA suffered through a few ugly outings, but the overall fountain of data suggests that number should deflate closer to his 3.38 career mean. We'd then have no qualms over his 1.16 WHIP and 202 strikeouts from last season, either.

    It all boils down to his eight winsthe dastardly culprit to his disappointing campaign. Anyone with a working knowledge of baseball hopefully knows by now that a pitcher's win tally is total hogwash.

    Two years ago, Cliff Lee won six games despite doing Cliff Lee things, such recording a 7.39 K/BB ratio. He continued to do Cliff Lee things at a slightly better rate last year and won 14 games. 

    Hamels won 17 games, while Lee couldn't buy a win in 2012, so there's no correlation between a pitcher's wins and the supporting lineup. It's just pure, crazy variance that will lead misguided souls to believe Hamels is worse than Joe Saunders, the owner of 11 wins and a 5.26 ERA. 

    As for his shoulder, I've got some good news: while he'll miss Opening Day, he is on target to debut shortly after the first game. According to CSNPhilly.com's Jim Salisbury, Hamels might miss just his first start or two after tossing a pain-free bullpen session:

    If all continues to go well, Hamels could be ready for regular-season games in the second week of April. Being ready for Opening Day remains out of the question because the Phillies are exercising caution with the Hamels.

    “He could probably do it because of the way he’s throwing now, but let’s not push it,” pitching coach Bob McClure said.

    Barring any setbacks, this injury will actually help turn Hamels into a better draft-day value. I'd gladly take Hamels in the seventh round and wait a week or two before inserting him into the starting lineup.

Josh Hamilton, OF, Los Angels Angels

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    Josh Hamilton could deliver a bounce-back season if his calf injury is not serious.
    Josh Hamilton could deliver a bounce-back season if his calf injury is not serious.Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

    His recent injury puts a gate in front of Josh Hamilton's path to redemption, but drafters should not stick him down the rankings just yet.

    After injuring his left calf during a baserunning drill, Hamilton is expected to miss a couple of weeks, dipping into a large chunk of spring training. Ultimately, it's his status for early April that concerns us the most.

    According to the Los Angeles Times' Bill Shaikin, "Hamilton said he would be reevaluated in a few days but said he was not concerned about his readiness for Opening Day." That's ambiguous enough to avoid panicking while still expressing some skepticism.

    Keep a weary eye on his progress, and early drafters are forgiven for displaying more caution without a definite timetable for his return. But if Hamilton's optimism is more than wishful thinking, thrifty managers have yet another chance to pounce on a big bargain.

    Before injuring his calf, ample reasons existed to gamble on the polarizing slugger. Despite his strikeout woes, he's a career .295 hitter who should improve upon his career-worst .250 mark from 2013.

    This is a dude who hit .359/.411/.633 in 2010 and .285/.354/.577 with 43 home runs in 2012. One takeaway is that he lives for even-numbered years, but the better one is that he's a monster when he finds his stride. Try finding another hitter with that upside in the eighth or ninth round.

    The recent injury, however, makes it messy. Like Hamels, missing a week or two doesn't quite signal the end of civilization if Hamilton can promptly return to health. There's not yet enough information to predict his status, but he's the type of high-risk/high-reward pick that can make a fantasy season if the outcome lands on the bright side.

     

     

    Here's the part where I ask you to follow me on Twitter: @AndrewGould4.

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