Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: Ranking the Top 20 Last-Minute Names to Know
Fantasy baseball leagues can be lost in the early rounds, but the rightful champion will make his or her mark by stealing sleepers late in the draft.
The term "sleeper" draws different definitions depending on whom you ask. Some say Eric Hosmer and Gerrit Cole qualify since they could vault into the elite tier of players in 2014, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s deal with late-round bargains.
Not to toot my own horn, but last year’s sleeper list included Jean Segura, Matt Harvey, Alex Cobb, Greg Holland and Kenley Jansen. And not to discredit my hubris my presenting the full picture, but Ike Davis, Mike Fiers, Dan Uggla, Emilio Bonifacio and Josh Rutledge were also there.
So yeah, you win some and you lose some when hunting for breakout players on the cheap. Some guys in this year’s version will undoubtedly crash and burn, but you’re just scratching lottery tickets in the later rounds hoping to hit the jackpot.
For every Fiers that gets dumped on the waiver wire mid-April, there’s a Cobb who becomes a vital contributor at practically no cost. Just keep scratching until you find that steal.
Assembling sleeper lists are tricky. Some mid-round players are considered too obvious and above the sleeper label, but others may go undrafted in standard mixed leagues. For the most part, these 20 players are all guys to target late in a typical draft with the typical five-by-five categories, but a few may climb up the board.
Don’t reach too high for any of them, or else you risk stripping them of the value that makes them sleepers in the first place. Plenty of the highlighted choices can be snagged as bench players in shallow formats. To provide an idea on their market value, I'll include an aggregate average draft position (ADP) courtesy of FantasyPros, who averaged out ADPs from ESPN, CBS, Yahoo!, Mock Draft Central and NESN's National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC).
Since this list is unveiled shortly before the season begins, a few spring training stars have played their way into relevance. Store these names into your back pocket on draft day and you could finish the season a very happy camper.
At this point, virtually everyone likes these guys. If they fall near their average draft position in your draft, don't hesitate to pounce. Just beware that their value could spiral out of control if an eager owner jumps too high for any of them.
Danny Salazar, SP, Cleveland Indians (ADP: 152)
The 24-year-old dazzled in his MLB debut, notching a 3.12 ERA with 65 strikeouts and 15 walks through 52 innings. He features a deadly slider and changeup to complement a fiery fastball he throws in the mid-90s. If he carries over last year's production over a full season, he's a Cy Young candidate.
Sonny Gray, SP, Oakland Athletics (ADP: 161)
Despite matching wits with Justin Verlander over the offseason, Sonny Gray sometimes gets lost in he young pitching hype machine behind Salazar, Cole and Michael Wacha. Considering his 2.67 ERA, 2.70 fielding independent pitching mark (FIP), 52.9 ground-ball rate, 67 strikeouts and 20 walks through 64 innings last season, the Oakland hurler should not lag far behind.
Khris Davis, OF, Milwaukee Brewers (ADP: 205)
Like everyone on this slide, Khris Davis' small sample size could be filling us with unreasonable expectations. He registered a .596 slugging percentage through 153 plate appearances, which gives the other Chris Davis a run for his money. His 22.2 strikeout percentage is a concern, but he's a candidate to belt 25-30 long balls during a full year of playing time.
Kole Calhoun, OF, Los Angeles Angels (ADP: 194)
Kole Calhoun is the least exciting of this quadrant, but he's also the most likely to succeed in 2014. The 26-year-old hit .282/.347/.462 with eight home runs in 58 games last year, which has made him a prominent candidate to bat leadoff ahead of Mike Trout. Much like Matt Carpenter last season, Calhoun could provide a cheap source of runs, only he can add 15-20 homers and 10 steals to the mix.
20. Justin Ruggiano, OF, Chicago Cubs
2013 Stats: 128 GP, .222/.298/.396 (batting average/on-base %/slugging %), 18 HR, 49 R, 50 RBI, 15 SB (ADP: 438)
Justin Ruggiano is a complete afterthought in most leagues. I'd recommend reconsidering that.
His polarizing 2012 and 2013 could not vary further from each other. After hitting .313/.374/.535 two years ago, his slash line dipped drastically, costing the journeyman playing time and a spot on fantasy rosters.
Your might be thinking, "He had a .401 batting average on balls in play in 2012. Of course he fell back down to earth." You'd be correct, but the regression police punished him too harshly for his past fortune, saddling him with a .260 BABIP during a miserable campaign.
While strikeouts still plagued him, his whiff percentage actually declined from 26.3 percent in 2012 to 24.2 percent last year while his contact rate and swinging-strike percentage remained steady. Ruggiano should not have succeeded so well during his breakout campaign, but he also shouldn't be as bad as last season.
Despite his struggles, Ruggiano still delivered 18 homers and 15 steals. If he can carve out regular at-bats in the Chicago Cubs' outfield, find some middle ground and hit .250, you're looking at a useful contributor in deeper formats.
19. Mike Moustakas, 3B, Kansas City Royals
2013 Stats: 136 GP, .233/.287/.364, 12 HR, 42 R, 42 RBI, 2 SB (ADP: 251)
Fine, Mike Moustakas gets one more chance.
Before spring training, Moustakas was heading to the fantasy dumpster after once again falling flat on his face. The perennial breakout candidate took a few giant steps backward last season, during which he regressed from a disappointing 2012 campaign that saw him hit .242 with 20 homers.
But when a young player once regarded as a can't-miss prospect starts crushing the ball in exhibition play, it's hard not to take notice. Through 54 plate appearances, he has hit .467/.561/.867 with four homers and 17 RBI.
Giving credence to those lofty numbers is his improved plate discipline, highlighted by 10 walks and six strikeouts during his meteoric success. Before jumping for joy and projecting All-Star numbers, consider that he also raked last spring.
He has not validated scouts' high regard since debuting in 2011, but the third baseman is still 25, and teammate Alex Gordon didn't crack the code until his age-27 season. As a low-risk, high-reward pick to round out your squad, Moustakas is worth one more shot.
18. Kevin Gausman, SP, Baltimore Orioles
2013 Stats: 47.2 IP, 3-5, 5.66 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 49 K, 13 BB (ADP: 417)
Shifting gears from one post-hype sleeper to another, Kevin Gasuman's fantasy value would be better off if he stayed in the minors throughout 2013.
You're looking at those numbers above and giving the computer screen a weary glare. This dude is touting a guy with that stat line as a sleeper? Yes, yes I am.
Despite that hideous ERA, Gausman posted a smoother 3.99 FIP and 3.02 xFIP, which shows that his eight home runs allowed decimated his output. His 9.25 K/9 rate and 2.45 BB/9 rate look great, and that's coming from a premier prospect who tallied 82 strikeouts and 14 walks through 82 minor league innings.
The 23-year-old still has the stuff to flourish as a front-line starter, but his short-term fantasy value could spike if the Baltimore Orioles place him in the bullpen, where he thrived to close out the season. As a reliever, he earned a 2.00 FIP and 27 strikeouts through 23 innings, and the team still is searching for a closer to replace Jim Johnson.
17. Chris Owings, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks
2013 Stats (Triple-A): 125 GP, .330/.359/.482, 12 HR, 104 R, 81 RBI, 20 SB (ADP: 441)
The Arizona Diamondbacks have begun their season, yet manager Kirk Gibson has still not selected his starting shortstop.
He took a diplomatic approach to their opening two games in Australia, starting Chris Owings in one and Didi Gregorius during the other. Each went hitless, but Owings collected a single as a pinch-hitter during Gregorius' start.
It's a tough decision for Gibson, since Owings wields the stronger bat while Gregorius flashes supreme leather at shortstop. Of course, defense does not factor in to fantasy, so all eyes are on Owings, a 22-year-old could offer a 10-15 HR season with a decent average should he win the job. That'd make him a solid middle infielder.
ESPN's Jim Bowden (subscription required) reported buzz around the league pointing to the rookie snatching the job. It's still possible the loser will get shipped off to the New York Mets or Detroit Tigers, who each could use an upgrade at short. As long as Owings gets a chance, he should be treated as a borderline top-20 player at the offensively barren position.
16. Joakim Soria, RP, Texas Rangers
2013 Stats: 23.2 IP, 3.80 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 28 K, 14 BB, 0 SV (ADP: 283)
Joakim Soria is a name fantasy managers should know, but they now must reacquaint themselves with the once dominant reliever.
Back in the olden days of 2007-2010, closers didn't get much better than Soria, who brandished an ERA below 2.50 in each of those four seasons while maintaining excellent strikeout-to-walk rates. Over his career, the righty has amassed 9.80 strikeouts and 2.68 walks per nine innings.
His 2013 numbers don't tell us much, as he was dusting off the cobwebs from missing all of 2012 recovering from Tommy John surgery. He looked rusty in his return, but he's back to vintage form this spring, allowing one run over eight innings with six strikeouts and no walks.
Most importantly, he was named the Texas Rangers' closer, which immediately makes him fantasy relevant. If he can approach his past production, Soria is a top-10 closer, but one who is getting drafted alongside LaTroy Hawkins.
15. Michael Pineda, SP, New York Yankees
2013 Stats (Minors): 40.2 IP, 2-1, 3.32 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 41 K, 14 BB (ADP: 262)
Two years later, Michael Pineda is finally poised to make good on the New York Yankees' decision to acquire the burgeoning young ace.
The Bronx Bombers acquired the promising pitcher after he posted a 3.42 FIP, 9.11 K/9 rate and 2.89 BB/9 rate during his rookie season with the Seattle Mariners. Considering Jesus Montero has procured minus-0.8 wins above replacement since the trade, New York can still emerge as the deal's benefactor.
Pineda looks superb this spring, throwing 15 innings with two earned runs allowed, 16 strikeouts and one walk. Catcher Francisco Cervelli noted the vast improvement of his pitches from spring training two years ago, when Pineda showed up out of shape before undergoing right labrum surgery. Per MLB.com's Bryan Hoch:
"The speed was different. At that time, it looked like he had something [wrong]," Cervelli said. "The slider wasn't like it was today. There was more spin and you could see it when it came off of his hand. Right now, it's a late one and that's good."
The 25-year-old has done more than enough to lock down New York's final rotation spot, which makes him an alluring late-round target with ace upside.
14. Oswaldo Arcia, OF, Minnesota Twins
2013 Stats: 97 GP, .251/.304/.430, 14 HR, 34 R, 43 RBI, 1 SB (ADP: 325)
Oswaldo Arcia is an unpolished hitter playing for a subdued offense, which understandably dampens his draft stock. But his ADP is nonexistent in ESPN and Yahoo drafts, turning him into a great power wager to close out your draft.
While the lefty slugger struck out 117 times in 378 plate appearances, he also notched a .179 isolated power rate (ISO) that trumps Prince Fielder's mark by one point. According to Baseball Heat Maps, Arcia also churned out an average batted ball distance of 302.5 feet, which ranked 14th among all MLB hitters.
There's a definite pattern among these offensive sleeper choices: Cheap power is worth a feeler with your closing picks. The Minnesota Twins transported the streaky Arcia back and forth from the minors to majors last season, but they have no reason not to let one of their most promising hitters sink or swim in 2014.
13. Yan Gomes, C, Cleveland Indians
2013 Stats: 88 GP, .294/.345/.481, 11 HR, 45 R, 38 RBI, 2 SB (ADP: 232)
Despised for its dreaded scarcity, catcher is surprisingly deep this season.
Don't feel pressured to overextend for Buster Posey, Joe Mauer or Yadier Molina in leagues with one starting catcher slot. There are plenty of quality bats for everyone to enjoy, including the Cleveland Indians' Yan Gomes.
The team's second-best fantasy catcher behind Carlos Santana, Gomes will receive more playing time behind the plate, protecting Santana's strong bat while utilizing Gomes' stronger glove. But his bat will please fantasy owners if he can sniff his .826 OPS and flirt with 20 long balls.
If Gomes carries over his 2013 production while enjoying more playing time, you have a potent starting catcher on your hands. If not, wait for another hot hand to emerge during the season.
12. Alex Wood, SP, Atlanta Braves
2013 Stats: 77.2 IP, 3-3 3.13 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 77 K, 27 BB (ADP: 233)
Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy each needing Tommy John surgery again is terrible news for the Atlanta Braves, and even fans of their NL East rivals should feel downtrodden to see the careers of two terrific pitchers placed in jeopardy.
Most people probably aren’t in the mood for a silver lining, but the unfortunate injuries open up a rotation spot for Alex Wood, who has the makings of a great late-round steal.
In his rookie season, the lefty posted a 2.65 FIP, 8.92 K/9 ratio and 49.1 percent ground-ball rate through 77.2 innings. While he generated some of that success in the bullpen, he still earned a 3.05 FIP in 11 starts.
Uncertain playing time hampered his initial draft stock, but Wood deserves a considerable boost as a lock to take the mound for Atlanta.
11. Will Middlebrooks, 3B, Boston Red Sox
2013 Stats: 94 GP, .227/.271/.425, 17 HR, 41 R, 49 RBI, 3 SB (ADP: 182)
Fresh off corralling 15 home runs and a .509 slugging percentage during his rookie season, Will Middlbebrooks is a trendy breakout candidate to hit 30 home runs amid a talented Boston Red Sox roster.
Wait, that's from last year. Middlebrooks' free-swinging ways haunted him as he hit .227 during his sophomore campaign. Despite his letdown season, the third baseman should not get the cold shoulder in 2014 drafts.
After returning from his minor league demotion, he hit .276/.329/.476 with eight home runs in 157 plate appearances. While he made little leeway in terms of curtailing his bloated strikeout total, he reminded everyone that he is a vital fantasy contributor at his best.
If Middlebrooks can manage a .260 average to stay in Boston's lineup, he'll add around 25 homers and a hefty helping of counting numbers.
10. Brian Dozier, 2B, Minnesota Twins
2013 Stats: 147 GP, .244/.312/.414, 18 HR, 72 R, 66 RBI, 14 SB (ADP: 195)
Only four second basemen generated at least a dozen home runs and steals apiece last season. The short list includes Jason Kipnis, Ian Kinsler, Daniel Murphy and Brian Dozier.
Dozier's 18 homers tied him for fourth at the position with Chase Utley and Brandon Phillips, who posted lower on-base and slugging percentages than the unheralded Minnesota Twins' infielder. For Dozier to become a mixed-league option, he needs to spike that batting average, a reasonable request considering his 20.8 percent line-drive rate and 84.6 percent contact rate.
So why the low average? Dozier has a nasty pop-up problem, carrying a 14.4 percent infield fly rate that ranked 17th among qualified batters. Considering this is just his second full season, he could still correct that flaw.
The Twins have a bad habit of rushing inexperienced talent to the majors. Look at Aaron Hicks, who hit .192 in the majors after leaping straight from Double-A to the big leagues due to an impressive spring. Dozier only accumulated 200 Triple-A appearances, during which he hit .232/.286/.337, before testing his luck against the big boys.
Although he'll turn 27 during the season, the late bloomer is still learning on the job. His power and speed combination makes him an enticing middle infielder with potential to finish as a top-10 second baseman.
9. Tyson Ross, SP, San Diego Padres
2013 Stats: 125 IP, 3-5, 3.17 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 119 K, 44 BB (ADP: 261)
It's easy to condone waiting for pitching when a guy like Tyson Ross is waiting past the 20th round.
Any time a starter sticks in the San Diego Padres' rotation, it behooves fantasy owners to take notice. Worst-case scenario, Ross is a superb matchup play when pitching at Petco Park, where he earned a 2.03 ERA and 0.96 WHIP last season.
His solid numbers don't even do justice to how well he performed as a starter. Entrenched in the rotation, Ross garnered a 3.06 ERA, 2.92 FIP, 97 strikeouts and 33 walks through 94 innings. That'd easily make him a top-25 starter over a full season.
He also managed a 2.89 FIP away from San Diego, showing his utility is not restricted to home outings. The main fear is that he never displayed numbers like this through the minors, but there was nothing fluky about his 2013 success.
8. Jonathan Villar, SS, Houston Astros
2013 Stats: 58 GP, .243/.321/.319, 1 HR, 26 R, 8 RBI, 18 SB (ADP: 200)
OK, some readers need a break from all that power. They already did their due diligence to grab several star sluggers, so now they need cheap speed. Jonathan Villar has you covered.
After accruing 31 steals in Triple-A, the shortstop swiped 18 bags in just 58 games for the Houston Astros. Now he gets the starting gig on Opening Day, which means 40-plus steals is a real possibility.
He also exuded some power in the minors, collecting 33 home runs combined over the past three seasons. Much like Jean Segura last season, he could bring that pop to the majors during his first full season, making him a 10-40 candidate. While he walks more than the Milwaukee Brewers' shortstop, his 29.5 percent strikeout rate limits his average potential.
By the way, Houston Astros fans clicking through this list are going to like what they see. Villar is the first, but not the last player from the 111-loss team to frequent the top 10 sleepers.
7. Adam Eaton, OF, Chicago White Sox
2013 Stats: 66 GP, .252/.314/.360, 3 HR, 40 R, 22 RBI, 5 SB (ADP: 214)
Last year, Adam Eaton might have been situated in the "Too Obvious?" section. Everyone under the sun became enamored with his plate discipline and speed that made him a Rookie of the Year favorite.
Then an elbow injury shackled him away from the spotlight, and his uninspiring return did not help his fantasy value going into 2014. Now that the shine has faded, savvy drafters can secure the 25-year-old at a discount.
He'll get his shot to bat leadoff for the Chicago White Sox, which means enough runs to satisfy owners considering his clearance price tag. With 46 steals spread throughout the minors and majors in 2012, he should at least swipe 20 bags if given the green light, which is likely since the White Sox ranked eighth in stolen base attempts last season.
Since he hit .348 throughout the minors, an average tick is also likely during a prolonged stint. Eaton can essentially do what everyone expected from him last year.
6. Yordano Ventura, SP, Kansas City Royals
2013 Stats (Minors): 134.2 IP, 8-6, 3.14 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 155 K, 53 BB (ADP: 242)
Let's see if I can reserve a few seats on the Yordano Ventura fan bus. The 22-year-old has transitioned from fighting for a rotation spot to being nicknamed Ace Ventura in the span of a few weeks.
He gained some attention last year while hitting triple digits on the radar gun, but the velocity did not amount to much in three major league starts. Nevertheless, he laid down a foundation for future consideration, and the future has arrived after a magnificent spring.
Through 20.1 innings, the flamethrower has allowed four runs while tallying 18 strikeouts to just four walks. Consistently locating the strike zone would vault him to star status after his 3.54 BB/9 rate created some questions about his command.
A few strong spring straining outings do not make him a Cy Young candidate, but Ventura's performance shows just how good he can be if he puts everything together. The strikeout upside is too high to pass up late in the draft.
5. Jason Castro, C, Houston Astros
2013 Stats: 491 PA, .276/.350/.485, 18 HR, 63 R, 56 RBI, 2 SB (ADP: 192)
See what I meant about more Astros coming up?
The "cheap starting catcher" nod was originally slated to go to Wilson Ramos before realizing that he is valued more highly than Houston's Jason Castro, my preference among those two backstops.
Among qualified catchers, only Joe Mauer and Yadier Molina registered a higher OPS than Castro's .835 during his rookie season. He needed a mere 120 games to belt 18 homers while showing tremendous plate discipline with a 10.2 percent walk rate.
His 26.5 strikeout percentage and .351 BABIP call for a batting average correction course, but his 25.2 line-drive rate should keep his average afloat at a respectable level. Besides, getting a high-upside catcher who can hit 20-plus homers in the 16th round is a coup even if he hits .260.
4. Steve Cishek, RP, Miami Marlins
2013 Stats: 69.2 IP, 2.33 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 74 K, 22 BB, 34 SV (ADP: 147)
Looking back at last year’s sleepers gave a great reminder of why drafters are discouraged from paying a premium for saves. Kenley Jansen, Greg Holland and Glen Perkins all went at a fraction of their actual worth in 2013 drafts, so owners should like their chances of finding more hidden talent in the player pool.
Steve Cishek is this year’s version of Perkins, an underrated closer on a bad team going for less than he’s worth. You can take him outside the top 15 closers and get rewarded with a top-10 option. He has posted an ERA below 2.70 with over a strikeout per inning in each of his past three seasons. During that stretch he has also registered a ground-ball rate over 50 percent.
As far as not getting enough save opportunities on the Miami Marlins, he converted 34 of 36 save chances last year. That’s not a terrific amount, but it’ll do just fine from the 18th closer off the board.
3. Chris Carter, 1B/OF, Houston Astros
2013 Stats: 148 GP, .223/.320/.451, 29 HR, 64 R, 82 RBI, 2 SB (ADP: 196)
Do you like power? Hey, I like power, too!
Chris Carter is the cheapest 30-homer candidate you’ll find. If he can somehow muster a .240-.250 average, you’ll looking at a great mixed-league starter.
There is one big bugaboo blocking the masher from stardom: strikeouts. He makes Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds look like contact fiends with a 36.2 percent strikeout rate, so his .223 average isn’t far out of his realm of normalcy.
We’re all just lost souls wandering this vast universe in search of the next Chris Davis. Considering Carter’s high line-drive rate and similar swinging-strike percentage, he has an outside chance of filling that void.
2. Rick Porcello, SP, Detroit Tigers
2013 Stats: 177 IP, 13-8, 4.32 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 142 K, 42 BB (ADP: 277)
You're telling me that I can get a 25-year-old pitcher, who was tabbed a future ace upon his major league arrival, with a 3.53 FIP, 55.3 percent ground-ball rate and expanding strikeout total in the 22nd round of a 12-team draft? Sure, show me where to sign up.
Strikeouts have always been Rick Porcello's worst enemy, but his K/9 rate skyrocketed to a respectable 7.22 last season. He has engineered more strikeouts in each of the past three years, a trend that could continue as he pitches into his peak.
A healthy Jose Iglesias would have done wonders vacuuming up ground balls in Detroit's infield, but at least Miguel Cabrera is no longer manning third base, where he posted the lowest ultimate zone rating among all infielders. Some extra defensive competence will do wonders for Porcello, who sported the league's third-best ground-ball rate behind Justin Masterson and A.J. Burnett.
Better defense will lessen the gap between his ERA and FIP while saving some hits to lessen his WHIP. I didn't plan on that sentence rhyming, but just roll with it and grab Porcello in hopes of his surface numbers finally reflecting the success depicted by his Sabermetric stats.
1. Corey Kluber, SP, Cleveland Indians
2013 Stats: 147.1 IP, 11-5, 3.85 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 136 K, 33 BB (ADP: 227)
Corey Kluber's 3.85 ERA is high, but everything else hints at a wonderful season from the under-the-radar hurler.
His 3.30 FIP suggests that he could make an All-Star case with some better supporting defense. If he could drop his home run/fly-ball rate closer to the 10 percent league average, he could shave half a run off his ERA.
Returning from a finger injury during a September pennant race sullied his numbers. Before allowing 15 runs in September, Kluber held a 3.54 ERA and 1.20 WHIP, which would have placed him in much higher regard among drafters.
Among pitchers who tossed at least 120 innings, Kluber's 4.12 K/BB ratio ranked 11th. Dan Haren is the only member of the top 10 who recorded an ERA above 3.33. Only a dozen starters amassed more than 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings while keeping their walk rate below 2.50.
Such an elite mix of command and punchouts generally foreshadows success. If Kluber pitches the same way in 2014, he'll delight those who expend a minimal investment on him.