Fantasy Baseball: 10 Opening-Day Roster Surprises Who Are Potential Sleepers
For fantasy baseball owners, Opening Day means excitement, hope and, of course, more than a few surprises.
Due to injuries, trades, cuts and performance, a Major League Baseball team's expectations—and roster—can change quite a bit from the start of spring training in mid-February to the tail end of March when the very first games that count begin.
As spring training was winding down and the final few exhibition contests were playing out, the vast majority of owners already had completed their drafts. That doesn't mean, however, that they should simply stop keeping tabs on every little transaction as a way to get a jump on some players who unexpectedly earned spots on the 30 different 25-man rosters at the last minute.
That's where the surprises come in, players who weren't on many—or even any—owners' radars but then parlayed a big March into a spot on their (real-life) team's roster. Several such players could wind up having more than a minor impact on the 2014 fantasy landscape. The trick? Identifying them early and adding them to your roster—before your leaguemates do.
That said, many of the names to follow may not be of much help in shallow leagues (i.e., 10- or 12-team mixed) unless that sweet nexus of unforeseen opportunity and underrated talent intersects just so. But for owners in 14-plus-team formats or single-league play, well, this one's for you.
If you're as excited about the possibility of beating your fellow owners to the punch as you are that baseball is back, click through as we unveil a batch of Opening Day roster surprises who just might go from sleepers to keepers.
Dee Gordon, 2B/SS, Dodgers
Jenrry Mejia, SP, Mets (pictured)
Robbie Erlin, SP, Padres
Randall Delgado, SP, Diamondbacks
Jose Valverde, RP, Mets
Emilio Bonifacio, 2B/OF, Cubs
Tommy Milone, SP, Athletics
Danny Espinosa, 2B, Nationals
Tom Koehler, SP, Marlins
Stefen Romero, OF, Mariners
Kyle Gibson, SP, Twins
Spring Stats: 0 W, 2.20 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 7 K, 0 SV (16.1 IP)
Although Kyle Gibson already is 26 years old, he's a former first-round pick (2009) who lost a season to Tommy John surgery and was one of the top prospects in the Twins system this time last year.
The 6'6", 220-pound right-hander's introduction to the majors last season left a bad taste (6.53 ERA, 1.75 WHIP in 51 innings over 10 starts), but if he can use his height and heavy, low-90s fastball to get ground balls, Gibson could turn into a spot start-worthy SP to be used mostly when he's pitching at home in hurler-helping Target Field.
Gibson, though, will need to use his slider to get more than the occasional strikeout. Even during his quality March, he whiffed just 3.9 per nine, so that's something he still needs to prove if he wants to stick in the majors—and be a more useful option for owners.
Tanner Roark, SP, Nationals
Spring Stats: 1 W, 3.29 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 11 K, 0 SV (13.2 IP)
Unlike the many of the other names on this list, Tanner Roark is not—and never has been—anybody's idea of a top prospect. He was, though, rather successful in his initial go-round the big leagues.
Upon making his debut early last August, the 27-year-old proved he could get major leaguers out over several relief appearances, which earned him five starts in which he went 3-1 with a 1.74 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 21-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 31 innings. All in all, he sported a 1.51 ERA and 0.91 WHIP in 53.2 frames.
Roark entered camp in a battle with the next guy on this list for the No. 5 spot, but when Doug Fister hit the disabled list with a strained lat that could keep him out up to a month, per James Wagner of the Washington Post, it opened up an opportunity for the righty to once again show he can be a capable fantasy streamer.
Taylor Jordan, SP, Nationals
Spring Stats: 2 W, 3.92 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 20 K, 0 SV (20.2 IP)
Taylor Jordan debuted last last June after all of 54 innings above A-ball, and yet his rookie campaign was going well enough until a back injury shut him down a few weeks early. In fact, he was replaced in the rotation by none other than Roark.
Prior to that, the 25-year-old had posted a respectable 3.66 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in 51.2 frames over nine starts. He's always been a little hittable, including this spring, when he allowed 24 knocks in 20.2 innings, but his control helps Jordan limit the damage, as he walked just two in March and only 11 with the Nationals in 2013.
Chances are whichever one of Roark and Jordan turns in the best results until Fister is ready to come back will be the one who hangs onto a job.
Tanner Scheppers, SP/RP, Rangers
Spring Stats: 1 W, 3.07 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 14 K, 0 SV (14.2 IP)
This surprise has less to do with Tanner Scheppers landing a roster spot and more to do with what kind of roster spot he earned. That would be a starting pitcher—on Opening Day, no less.
After a dominant season in relief last year (1.88 ERA, 1.07 WHIP in 76.2 innings), the 27-year-old put himself in the mix for a rotation spot with a very strong spring. Meanwhile, injuries to just about every Rangers starter, including Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison, somehow left Scheppers as the arm to take the hill in the first game of the season.
In fairness to Scheppers, giving him the Opening Day nod for his first-ever start in the majors was a bit of a perplexing decision by Ron Washington and his staff, and certainly the Philadelphia Phillies turned it from perplexing to downright disastrous, including a grand slam by Jimmy Rollins.
Still, Scheppers is a former first-rounder who has the stuff—including a fastball that averaged 96 mph last year—to be an intriguing option for owners. Just let him prove it with a solid start or two before sending him out there.
Jonathan Schoop, 2B, Orioles
Spring Stats: .385 BA, 8 R, 2 HR, 8 RBI, 0 SB (44 PA)
Once the Brian Roberts era came to a brittle end, Jonathan Schoop (rhymes with Scope) became the likeliest candidate to be the Orioles' second baseman of the future. For the 22-year-old prospect, that future is starting a little sooner than expected.
A native of Curacao, Schoop had his own injury issues, missing a chunk of 2013 with a stress fracture in his lower back. Still, he managed to knock 14 homers and doubles apiece in 81 minor league games prior to making his MLB debut in September.
Although the big (6'2", 210 lbs), righty-swinging Schoop is Baltimore's top position player prospect, he may not be long for the 25-man—the return of Manny Machado could spell a return trip to Triple-A—so a hot start would be especially important if he hopes to stick. Otherwise, look for him to be back up soon enough.
Aaron Hicks, OF, Twins
Spring Stats: .327 BA, 5 R, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 2 SB (55 PA)
This is the second year in a row that Aaron Hicks' inclusion on the Twins' roster is a surprise. Last year, the 24-year-old prospect ripped it up in spring and was the Opening Day center fielder after skipping over Triple-A.
He's a surprise all over again this time around, primarily because his first shot at The Show didn't exactly go well: Installed as the leadoff hitter at the outset, Hicks batted all of .179 before being demoted and finished the year at .192 overall. Think Minnesota might've rushed and pushed him just a tad?
Thing is, Hicks did hit eight homers and swipe nine bags in just over 300 plate appearances, so there's potential here after he beat out Alex Presley and Darin Mastroianni. Plus, in the minors Hicks showed a knack for faltering at the next level up before ultimately figuring himself out. If that's the case in the majors, this switch hitter could be an intriguing post-hype sleeper as a reserve OF—with a chance to be more.
Mike Olt, 3B, Cubs
Spring Stats: .276 BA, 9 R, 5 HR, 12 RBI, 0 SB (63 PA)
Not long ago, Mike Olt was a consensus top-50 prospect in the sport. Then 2013 happened. The 25-year-old suffered through a miserable campaign last year, hitting just .201 with 132 strikeouts in 432 plate appearances.
It's fair to say, however, that a large part of Olt's struggles can be attributed to the effects of a scary beaning during winter ball in November 2012 that led to a concussion and vision problems, as Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune writes.
This spring, Olt showed flashes of his big-time power by mashing five out in 63 trips to the plate to help him earn his first Opening Day job. Alas, he also struck out 19 times, so there's still plenty of risk.
There are better prospects on his heels (i.e., Kris Bryant, Javier Baez), so Olt's window to prove he belongs is a small one, but if the righty swinger can team with incumbent third baseman Luis Valbuena, who hits from the left, to form a platoon, he might be productive enough to matter for owners searching for some pop.
Marcus Semien, 2B/3B, White Sox
Spring Stats: .333 BA, 10 R, 1 HR, 7 RBI, 0 SB (64 PA)
Marcus Semien emerged as a good young player in the high minors in 2013, and he has a chance to build on that progress in the majors in 2014.
The 23-year-old hit .284 with 19 homers and 24 steals across Double- and Triple-A, a performance that culminated with a well deserved September cameo in Chicago.
Semien had a dandy March, but he was a bit of a surprise to come north with the White Sox, considering fellow infield prospect Matt Davidson entered camp with a better shot to win a spot (at third base, which he didn't). Semien, though, took full advantage of the opportunity afforded him when Gordon Beckham went down, and he'll see plenty of time at the keystone.
Semien makes for quite the savvy add, simply because his skill set should allow him to contribute in all five traditional fantasy categories, and he should see action at more more than one infield position, which could make him a sneaky roster-fixer with some upside.
Chris Owings, SS, Diamondbacks
Spring Stats: .288 BA, 9 R, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 0 SB (57 PA)
Chris Owings emerged from a battle with incumbent Didi Gregorius to earn the Diamondbacks starting shortstop gig, as Steve Gilbert of MLB.com reports.
Owings' spring was more good than great, but it sure beat what Gregorius did (.522 OPS) and explains why the former got the nod while the latter was sent to Triple-A.
That's good news for fantasy owners, as Owings won MVP of the offense-heavy Pacific Coast League while hitting .330 in 2013 and has shown a good mix of pop and speed that could help him approach 12-15 homers and steals apiece.
Don't expect miracles, because Owings still has some plate discipline concerns to address (3.5 percent walk rate). From the shortstop position, though, that'll play as an off-day fill-in or injury replacement for your starter.
Grady Sizemore, OF, Red Sox
Spring Stats: .310 BA, 6 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 0 SB (45 PA)
Yep, a guy who hasn't stepped on a major league diamond due to all shapes and sizes of injuries since September 2011 has to be included.
Grady Sizemore, of course, was once a fantasy darling as a perennial 30-30 threat who could score and drive in runs while also hitting for an average that didn't hurt his owners.
When the Red Sox signed him for dirt cheap in late January, there was no expectation that the 31-year-old would be more than a flyer—let alone that he could beat out hot-shot prospect Jackie Bradley Jr., who was in line to replace Jacoby Ellsbury.
Well, a boffo spring from Sizemore and a brutal one from Bradley (.476 OPS) turned everything on its head and made the three-time All-Star one of the spring's best stories—and Boston's starting center fielder, as Quinn Roberts of MLB.com writes.
The chances that Sizemore will remain healthy for long are slim, but he'll get to hit in a great lineup and ballpark, so owners might as well jump on him while he's actually still on the field.
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