Fantasy Baseball: 10 Sleepers to Pick Up Before Upcoming Breakouts
They say it's better late than never, but early is even better than late.
Fantasy baseball managers don't want to jump the gun on a guy who subsequently wastes a roster spot. A trade or injury could free up playing time later, but what about now? That hot-shot prospect who looked like a juicy steak on draft day now tastes like a stale potato chip toiling away on the bench.
Rather than hastily grabbing the hot hand, owners understandably want that streaky player to prove his long-term worth with sustained success. While patience can prevent a disastrous claim, it also often makes managers late to the punch.
If you want that middle reliever poised to snipe the ninth-inning job, grab him before he's officially tabbed the closer. Unless you're conveniently sitting at your computer at the time of said announcement, somebody else will snatch him before it's too late.
Some of these unheralded players have just earned some extra work. Others are still proving their merit in the minor leagues or in a lesser major league role that hampers their fantasy value. Either way, now is the time to pounce before it's too late.
They also say the early bird gets the worm. Perhaps "worm" is code for fantasy championships.
Note: All advanced statistics courtesy on FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.
Tommy La Stella, 2B, Atlanta Braves
If the Braves accept the demise of Dan Uggla, they have his polar opposite in Tommy La Stella waiting for a shot at the show. He offers little power and limited speed, making him more of a middle-infield option in deep leagues, but he's a superb contact hitter who is currently hitting .339 in Triple-A.
The 25-year-old also displays terrific plate discipline, producing nine walks and nine strikeouts through 64 plate appearances. Should the Braves ever give him a chance and realize that B.J. Upton has no business batting No. 2, La Stella could score runs in bunches hitting ahead of Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton.
Joc Pederson, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers' talented young outfielder needs not one, but two of Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier to go down in order to get a crack at a big league gig. It's certainly a bumpy path to the majors, but it's one worth watching, considering Joc Pederson's .417/.523/.736 slash line, five homers and six steals in Triple-A.
Andrew Heaney, SP, Miami Marlins
Andrew Heaney is tearing through Double-A competition, recording a 1.48 ERA with 25 strikeouts and three walks in 24.1 innings pitched. As evidenced by Jose Fernandez's rapid ascension from Single-A to the majors last season, the Marlins are not shy with giving their young talent a chance to sink or swim.
Adam Ottavino, RP, Colorado Rockies
Although LaTroy Hawkins was awarded the closing duties in Colorado, most drafters had no interest in the soft-tossing veteran, instead assuming flamethrower Rex Brothers would seize the throne.
We had the right idea, but I’m starting to think we invested our loyalty in the wrong guy. Adam Ottavino is the Rockies’ middle reliever to watch.
He has brandished nine scoreless innings this season, walking zero batters while tallying 13 strikeouts. So yeah, he’s looked really good so far.
A stroll through his FanGraphs’ page will spawn readers to repeatedly say, “I know this is a tiny sample size, but wow.” Of course he won't maintain 10.0 line-drive percentage, but great Caesar’s ghost that’s impressive. Obviously he won’t conclude the season with a 0.24 FIP, but gosh darn it, that number is pretty while it lasts.
Meanwhile, Brothers holds a 5.58 FIP despite his 2.08 ERA. The southpaw continues to throw all over the place, walking seven batters through 8.2 innings. With a 4.88 career BB/9 ratio, his lack of command has existed all along, but we’ve ignored it due to his juicy strikeout rates.
Hawkins has done nothing to put him on the hot seat just yet, but he’s a 41-year-old with a career 5.99 K/9 rate. Unless the Rockies exceed expectations, he’ll make a prime trade candidate near the deadline.
If Ottavino continues to pitch this well, he makes a valuable source of innings in standard leagues without any saves. Of course, we’d prefer to also get some saves for our troubles.
Corey Dickerson, OF, Colorado Rockies
Let's stay in Colorado, where Corey Dickerson now gets the chance some thought he'd earn on Opening Day.
Charlie Blackmon has been this year's best free-agent add so far, but he first had to battle Dickerson for a starting job in the Rockies' outfield. Either one boasted potential playing half of his games in Coors Field, but only one could receive the at-bats.
Now that Michael Cuddyer has landed on the disabled list with a strained left hamstring, there's room for both men to flourish.
Dickerson is doing his best to ensure the starting spot in Cuddyer's absence. On Monday, the 24-year-old went 3-for-4 with a home run and a stolen base. Through 28 plate appearances, he's batting .375/.444/.688 in an admittedly bite-sized sampling.
In 69 games last year, he boasted a .263/.316/.459 slash line with five homers and two steals. He has routinely flaunted double-digit homer and steal talent down in Colorado's farm system, which gives him appeal in NL-only leagues and five-outfield mixed formats.
Who knows? Maybe he can catch fire and match Blackmon for a few sensational weeks.
Dallas Keuchel, SP, Houston Astros
I'm slightly cheating on this one, as Dallas Keuchel is already doing his thing in the Houston Astros' rotation this season. Yet he's still going largely unnoticed despite noticeably impressive results.
Since many fantasy managers have never bothered themselves with learning Houston's rotation, Keuchel is currently owned in two percent of Yahoo! leagues. If gamers were just showed his stats without being told he's a no-name Astro with uninspiring minor league numbers, they'd take a chance on him.
Let's kill some space—umm, I mean make a strong point with a blind taste test of three pitchers.
Player A: 32 IP, 4.22 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 32 K, 12 BB, 3.89 FIP
Player B: 24 IP, 3.38 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 24 K, 6 BB, 3.54 FIP
Player C: 24.2 IP, 4.74 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 20 K, 10 BB, 5.39 FIP
Using context clues, this game would would be a major dud on my part if Keuchel was Player C. No, that dubious honor goes to Jered Weaver, who drafters still stubbornly spent a late-round pick on because of his past accolades. As his velocity continues to dissipate, he's no longer a pitcher I trust in a shallow mixed league, yet you won't find him on any waiver wires.
Players A and B are both earning a strikeout per inning, but Player A is punchout-fiend Francisco Liriano. By process of elimination, B is little old Keuchel, who is fueling hitters with a fastball that rarely climbs much over 90 miles per hour.
A year after registering a respectable 7.20 K/9 rate, he's earning those enhanced whiffs with an 11.7 swinging-strikeout percentage. He won't continue to punch out a batter per frame, but a 7.5-8 K/9 rate is feasible.
Keuchel is well worth a look in deeper formats, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him finish 2014 as a mixed-league relevant starter. He should at least warrant streaming consideration at this rate.
Ike Davis, 1B, Pittsburgh Pirates
Run away, Ike Davis. You're finally free from the New York Mets.
New York pawned off the once prized building block to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Zachary Thornton, a 25-year-old relief pitcher in Triple-A, and a player to be named later who is reportedly a significant piece. It's not the outcome anyone expected after he posted a 3.1 fWAR during his 2010 rookie campaign and crushed 32 homers two years later
Now that he's away from the pressure-filled Big Apple, look for Davis to restore his rocky career.
The lefty slugger wore out his welcome last year by hitting .165/.255/.250 before ultimately forcing the club to demote him. After his return, however, a new player surfaced. This one performed like Joey Votto, filing a .449 on-base percentage before an untimely injury cut his comeback short.
So far, a similar model has appeared in April. Davis has earned a .354 on-base percentage with a 14.6 walk percentage. Even more encouraging, his 16.7 percent strikeout rate would represent a career low, well down from his 26.8 percent punchout clip last season.
Davis is a big-impact power bat who is taking strides to avoid another meltdown. Take a page from Pittsburgh's playbook and buy low before he morphs back into a popular commodity.
Lucas Duda, 1B, New York Mets
On the other side of the fence, Lucas Duda also benefits from the Davis trade, getting first base all to himself in Citi Field (at least against righties).
Despite collecting a .352 on-base percentage and 15 homers through 100 games last year, Duda could not burst into a strong fantasy play due to his .223 batting average. With a 26.6 strikeout percentage, he'll never make a move for .300.
But if he can just hit .250, Duda provides enough power to deserve a seat at the table. He's never scorched more than 15 long balls in a season, but he has also never received 500 or more plate appearances.
For the Mets' sake, they no longer have to gut through his horrendous defense in the outfield. He won't win a Gold Glove hidden at first base, but he also won't hurt them nearly as much there. That will allow them to properly utilize his big bat.
Nobody tell this to New York, but Davis is the better option among the two. The bright side for Duda is a .270, 25-homer season, and that's probably too optimistic.
But given regular plate appearances for a full season, Duda can deliver a cheap source of 20 homers. Given Curtis Granderson's struggles, it also makes sense to bat their left-handed first baseman fourth behind David Wright, setting the tone for plenty of RBI chances.
Marcus Stroman, SP, Toronto Blue Jays
If Marcus Stroman didn't make his case during spring training, he's making it now in Triple-A. The 22-year-old has a 2.18 ERA through four starts, amassing 26 strikeouts and six walks during 20.2 innings.
The 5'9" righty similarly slaughtered Double-A hitters last season, accumulating a 3.30 ERA and 4.78 K/BB ratio.
He doesn't have a rotation slot at the moment, but it's easy to see one becoming available. Do you really trust Dustin McGowan and Brandon Morrow to stay healthy throughout the season? How about before this paragraph ends?
McGowan, who has made seven major league starts since 2008, has tallied a 4.85 ERA with an unappetizing eight strikeouts and six walks through 13 innings. Even if he stays healthy, Stroman can still beat him outright for the position.
Pitching in the American League East dampens his short-term fantasy appeal, especially with half his stars coming inside the unforgiving Rogers Centre. Yet every time he's promoted, Stroman piles up strikeouts in his new locale.
If that trend continues when he receives a major league promotion later in 2014, he'll quickly place himself on the fantasy radar.
Jonathan Singleton, 1B, Houston Astros
What's a man got to do to get a promotion around here?
Jonathan Singleton has already smacked eight home runs in Triple-A, more than he contributed in 73 games with the Oklahoma City RedHawks. Last season's struggles, however, will force the 22-year-old lefty to sustain his early 2014 success before moving to Houston.
We're happy that Singleton is off to a good start. He does not have the Triple-A track record that [George] Springer has yet. We feel he needs to develop that track record. We're always going to be in a position where our fans want our top prospects to come up here sooner than we think they're ready to come up here.
Fair enough, but Singleton will eventually force their hand if he keeps hitting anywhere near his current .325/.418/.740 slash line.
Just look what happened with Springer, his teammate who earned a promotion earlier than expected. Those who didn't stash him before his call-up missed the chance to earn the power-speed dynamo. Although Singleton's fantasy upside is nowhere near that of his former and future teammate, he won't be waiting on the waiver wire for long if Houston brings him up.
As long as he keeps raking, his ETA is probably the early June timetable expected for Springer. Adding him now in a standard mixed league with four or five bench spots isn't necessary, but deeper players with a wide bench at their disposal should consider it.
Cody Allen, RP, Cleveland Indians
Cody Allen will take over the Cleveland Indians’ closing duties by June. That was my prediction before the season began, and I’m sticking to it.
Sure, John Axford has done well enough on the surface. He has converted seven of eight save opportunities with a 3.12 ERA and nine strikeouts through 8.2 innings, numbers that hardly put the veteran’s ninth-inning handle in jeopardy.
But the 31-year-old is playing with fire, walking seven batters through 10 appearances. His lack of command hasn’t come back to bite him, but it will once his .182 BABIP returns closer to his .306 career mark.
Allen, meanwhile, has yet to allow a run through the same amount of frames weaved as Axford. While he hasn’t been a control artist through the early weeks with four walks, he has collected 13 strikeouts to overcome a .400 BABIP.
This is nothing new for Allen, who notched a 2.43 ERA and 11.26 K/9 ratio in a setup role last season. He’s far superior to Axford, and a couple of blow-up outings from the erratic closer will cause Cleveland to realize that.
Trevor Bauer, SP, Cleveland Indians
Everyone deserves a second chance. This would technically be Trevor Bauer’s third opportunity to become more than a cautionary tale, but it’s still foolish to write him off.
He did his best Rick Ankiel impression through eight MLB starts even split between 2012 and 2013, issuing 29 walks through 33.1 innings. Everyone (including myself) who laughed at the Arizona Diamondbacks giving up on him for Didi Gregorius had to eat their words and accept the haunting realization that a team whose personnel decisions revolve around grit actually may have gotten one right.
Or maybe not. Bauer is not going gently into the night; the 23-year-old is instead repairing his stalled career early in 2004. In one spot start for Cleveland, he allowed one earned run through six innings. He struck out eight batters and limited his walks to two while throwing his fastball at an average speed of 95.3 miles per hour, above last year’s 93.5 average (according to Brooks Baseball).
Bauer told The Columbus Dispatch's Jim Massie that he feels back to normal this season.
“My stuff is back to where I’m used to having it,” he said. “My fastball velocity is back to where I’m used to having it. So it should be a good year.”
Despite the strong start, he was jettisoned to Triple-A, where he has registered a 1.00 ERA through 18 innings, walking just three batters to 20 strikeouts.
He just needs a rotation spot to allow him a path back to the majors. Well, what do you know, Carlos Carrasco is sporting a 7.31 ERA and 1.69 WHIP through three starts. And as much as it pains me to speak negatively of Danny Salazar, he’s not looking much better with a 7.85 ERA.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pittsburgh Pirates are going to have a hard time keeping Gregory Polanco in the minors.
The highly regarded prospect is batting .406/.446/.609 early in Triple-A, adding two homers and two steals. While he doesn't draw many walks, he also makes contact on a frequent basis.
It'd be one thing if Pittsburgh had nowhere to put him, but there's a huge hole in right field calling his name. Current starter Jose Tabata is slugging .261 through 19 games. Travis Snider has hit three homers, but he's a career .242/.303/.398 hitter and a poor defender.
Polanco presents an instant upgrade over Tabata and Snider, and the Pirates are a year removed from earning their first playoff appearance since 1992. As they look to show they're not a fluke, one would think they'd feel an urgency to put the best possible product on the field.
From a fantasy perspective, Polanco is immediately a name to grab in all leagues. In a hypothetical scenario in which general manager Neil Huntington read this piece and said "This kid is right, I'm calling up Polanco," he could deliver a 10/20 campaign with a solid batting average.
In his prime, he could belt 15-20 long balls and swipe 30-plus bags. He's not far off from current Pittsburgh outfielder Starling Marte, and he's less of a free swinger.
Expect Polanco to patrol Pittsburgh's outfield by the All-Star break, most likely receiving the call in May or early June.
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