Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: Ranking the Top 20 for 2017
Like "underrated," "sleeper" is a loaded word in the world of fantasy sports.
It's a nebulous concept. Plus, once you apply it to a player, it becomes moot by definition.
Still, the key to success is finding lesser-known or undervalued gems. Any idiot can draft Mike Trout. Filling out your roster from there is the trick.
Here, then, are 20 potential sleepers for the 2017 season, broken down by position. Some are returning from injury, some have flown under the radar and some look like future superstars on the verge of liftoff.
Prep that mock draft board and proceed when ready.
Wilson Ramos (TBR)
It's a stretch to call a guy who hit 22 home runs with an .850 OPS from an offense-starved position a sleeper. Wilson Ramos, however, busted his ACL in September and won't be ready for the start of the 2017 campaign.
That means he'll slip in a lot of fantasy drafts. It adds undeniable risk, considering knee injuries and catchers don't mix. Hence the incentive-laden, two-year contract he signed with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Assuming the 29-year-old All-Star stays on schedule for an expected May return, though, he's worth grabbing and stashing.
Tom Murphy (COL)
In a 21-game audition with the Colorado Rockies last season, Tom Murphy hit five home runs and two doubles, good for a 1.006 OPS.
He doesn't appear in any top-prospect rankings and is likely to share time behind the dish with Tony Wolters. Still, a guy who cracked 72 homers in 367 minor league games and is about to call Coors Field home is impossible to dismiss.
2B/3B/SS Javier Baez (CHC)
Javier Baez landed on a lot of radars in the 2016 postseason with highlight-reel glove work and some big-time home runs for the world champion Chicago Cubs.
The 24-year-old remains a man without a position, however, likely to float around the infield and maybe even the outfield under manager Joe Maddon's mix-and-match machinations.
That may turn some fantasy owners off. Baez, though, will get his at-bats and could stick at second base if veteran Ben Zobrist suffers an injury or a decline.
Even if he stays in utility limbo, Baez's flexibility and stat-sheet-stuffing upside make him an attractive early-round gamble.
1B Greg Bird (NYY)
Mark Teixeira's retirement opens a hole at first base for the New York Yankees, and Greg Bird is the safe bet to fill it.
Bird debuted with the Yankees in 2015 and slashed .261/.343/.529 with 11 home runs in 46 games but missed all of last season after undergoing shoulder surgery.
The 24-year-old saw action in the 2016 Arizona Fall League and gave a positive update on his recovery in a video posted on the Yankees' official Facebook page in November. Considering his age and MLB output, albeit in a small sample, he's a potential steal.
1B/DH Kendrys Morales (TOR)
After a slow start in 2016 with the Kansas City Royals, Kendrys Morales picked it up, raising his OPS from .591 over the season's first two months to .888 over the final four.
Now, after signing on with the Toronto Blue Jays, the 33-year-old is moving to the hitter-happy AL East.
He'll log the bulk of his at-bats as a designated hitter but could get enough reps at first base to have some positional flexibility.
3B Mike Moustakas (KCR)
Speaking of comebacks, Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas was limited to 27 games in 2016 by a knee injury.
The 28-year-old Moustakas hit 22 home runs with an .817 OPS in 2015, however, and is entering a contract year.
"I'm feeling good," Moustakas said, per Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star. "Ready to play some baseball, man."
2B Joe Panik (SFG)
Joe Panik took a dive in 2016, posting a .239 average and inspiring his share of "panic!" puns after an All-Star 2015 season.
The San Francisco Giants second baseman continued his high-contact ways, though, striking out at an 8.9 percent clip. His .245 batting average on balls in play, meanwhile, suggested a share of bad luck.
Panik's got double-digit home run pop, is capable of hitting over .300 and won a Gold Glove last season. That's got "buy low" written all over it.
SS/OF Jose Peraza (CIN)
Like Baez, Jose Peraza pops up across the depth chart but doesn't own any one position.
That could change if the rebuilding Cincinnati Reds move shortstop Zack Cozart, second baseman Brandon Phillips or center fielder Billy Hamilton.
The 22-year-old Peraza logged big league innings at all of those spots, as well as in left field, in 2016. More importantly for fantasy purposes, he hit .324 in 72 games with 21 stolen bases.
CF Keon Broxton (MIL)
Keon Broxton flashed star potential for the Milwaukee Brewers in the second half of 2016, hitting .294 with a .937 OPS and 16 stolen bases after the All-Star break before a fractured wrist ended his season.
The 26-year-old struck out 88 times in 244 plate appearances and posted an eyebrow-raising .373 BABIP. But he'll get ample leeway on a Brewers team with no designs on contending.
RF Mitch Haniger (SEA)
In November, the Seattle Mariners acquired shortstop Jean Segura from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a deal that sent right-hander Taijuan Walker to the desert.
The trade also shipped Mitch Haniger to Seattle, and the 26-year-old is in line to be the Mariners' Opening Day right fielder.
"He's athletic, plays all three spots, throws very well and very accurately," general manager Jerry Dipoto said of Haniger, per MLB.com's Greg Johns. "He's an excellent defender, he's hungry, he's got great makeup."
Haniger hit 25 home runs with a .999 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A last season, suggesting he's got pop to match his leather.
RF Yasiel Puig (LAD)
Yasiel Puig isn't a sleeper in the unknown sense. Even casual fans are aware of his bumpy MLB narrative.
Many, however, may have dismissed the Cuban masher after he was sent to the minors in 2016 to get his game and head straight.
Puig returned to post a .900 OPS in September and October and make the Los Angeles Dodgers' postseason roster. He turned 26 in December and has all the tools to be a special player.
Whether the Dodgers plan on keeping him or flipping him at the trade deadline, he'll be given an honest chance to claim the everyday right field job and slot into the middle of L.A.'s lineup.
LHP Ty Blach (SFG)
The fifth spot in the Giants starting five belongs to Matt Cain until further notice.
Cain is owed $21 million in 2017, after all, though he's coming off another injury-riddled season in which he posted a 5.64 ERA.
Rookie Ty Blach, meanwhile, went 1-0 with a 1.06 ERA in 17 regular-season innings and impressed in his lone postseason appearance. The young lefty isn't a strikeout artist, but he's the next man up for San Francisco if Cain falters.
LHP Brandon Finnegan (CIN)
The 17th overall pick in the 2014 amateur draft and a key piece of the deal that sent Johnny Cueto from the Cincinnati Reds to the Kansas City Royals, Brandon Finnegan showed flashes in 2016.
In his final seven starts of the season for the Reds, Finnegan posted a 1.93 ERA with 11.33 strikeouts per nine innings.
The young southpaw, who turns 24 in April, still needs to work on his command. He's got the makings of an emerging stud, though, on a club that will keep trotting him out there.
LHP James Paxton (SEA)
At first glance, James Paxton's 2016 splits aren't too dramatic.
The Mariners lefty shaved his ERA from 3.91 in the first half to 3.72 in the second half, hanging out all the while in the realm of unspectacular respectability.
More dramatically, Paxton's strikeout-to-walk ratio went from 3.21 before the All-Star break to 7.2 after. He harnessed his stuff and appeared to take the next developmental step.
"This is my season to take off," the 28-year-old said, per John McGrath of the News Tribune. "I'm ready to be who I can be, and what I think I can be."
LHP Robbie Ray (ARI)
Close your eyes and picture a guy who struck out 218 hitters in 174.1 innings. There's no way he's a sleeper, right?
Well, yeah, in the case of the Arizona Diamondbacks' Robbie Ray, who also posted a 4.90 ERA.
The good news for Ray is that his 3.76 FIP indicates a dollop of misfortune. Ray needs to lower his walk total, but his bat-missing stuff and promising peripherals suggest a criminally overlooked arm.
RHP Alex Reyes (STL)
In 46 big league innings last season spread over 12 appearances and five starts, the St. Louis Cardinals' Alex Reyes posted a 1.57 ERA with 52 strikeouts. His fastball tickles triple digits, and his curveball is a poetry in motion.
The 22-year-old is technically behind Lance Lynn, Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake and Michael Wacha on the Cards' rotation chart, but he could force his way into the mix with a dominant spring.
If so, add him to your fantasy roster and prepare for huge things.
RHP Garrett Richards (LAA)
Instead of Tommy John surgery, Garrett Richards opted for stem-cell therapy to deal with his ailing elbow last season.
Now, the 28-year-old right-hander is angling for a return to the ace-level form he showed in 2014 and 2015.
"The ball felt like it was coming out of my hand as good as it ever has," Richards said after an instructional league showcase in October, per Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register. "It was cutting and sinking. I was throwing my slider for strikes and balls, same as my curveball. If I can go do that, there's no worry in my mind."
RHP Kyle Barraclough (MIA)
In addition to boasting the most delectable surname in MLB until the league welcomes Hunter Maplebarre, Kyle Barraclough was a bat-missing machine in 2016.
The 26-year-old righty averaged an incredible 14 whiffs per nine innings for the Miami Marlins while posting a 2.85 ERA.
A.J. Ramos is the closer in South Beach with veteran Brad Ziegler on hand to pick up any spare saves. In the strikeout department, however, they don't get much sweeter than Barraclough.
RHP Carter Capps (SDP)
Brandon Maurer is the San Diego Padres closer for now, but after posting a 4.52 ERA in 2016, he's vulnerable.
Enter hard-throwing Carter Capps, who is working his way back from elbow issues but "has been mentioned by Padres manager Andy Green in the same breath as [Maurer] as a candidate to close games this year," per Jeff Sanders of the San Diego Union-Tribune.
RHP Nate Jones (CWS)
If the White Sox trade closer David Robertson as part of their ongoing sell-a-thon, Nate Jones' fantasy value will soar.
As is, the 31-year-old right-hander is worth a long look. He posted a 2.29 ERA with 80 strikeouts and 15 walks in 70.2 innings last season.
"I see Nate being able to do a ninth inning if we need to," then-manager Robin Ventura said in August, per CSN Chicago's Dan Hayes. "He has that kind of stuff..."