It happens every year:
An established veteran suffers from injuries or a heralded youngster isn't up to the task at hand. An overlooked rookie or a career bench warmer gets some at-bats at the starter's expense and suddenly finds his groove.
A good game becomes two good games, and a few days later those games are labeled a bona fide hot streak. By the end of the week, he appears on fantasy rosters nationwide, and every baseball fan in the country knows the name "Ben Zobrist" or "Andrew Bailey."
There's no way to predict where the next big fantasy sleeper will come from.
But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.
Here's a look at 30 seemingly unimpressive players—one from each MLB team—who could turn your last-round draft pick into the reason you take home your fantasy league's trophy.
The pride and joy of the Yankees' farm system, Kennedy found a new home in Arizona after the Curtis Granderson blockbuster deal.
With fewer than 60 innings of MLB experience under his belt and a history of injuries, there's no guarantee that Kennedy will pitch well with the D-Backs, but the potential is there for a breakout.
One of the most dominant closers of our generation, Wagner has been all but forgotten by fantasy owners over his last couple injury-plagued seasons. But after putting up a 1.71 ERA and 14.9 K/9 ratio in 17 games last season and hitting triple-digits on the radar gun this spring, he appears ready to be a force on the mound once again.
With the Braves' closer job sewn up, look for a comeback from Wagner, who has accrued ERAs of 2.85 or lower in 14 out of 15 MLB seasons.
Initially viewed as a temporary injury replacement when he was called up last year, Reimold emerged as one of the Orioles' top hitters. He slammed 15 dingers despite being hampered by injuries and inconsistent playing time.
With a starting job in the middle of a potent young lineup, look for Reimold to be a solid source of cheap power.
On just about any other team, the talented Bowden would have little trouble securing a spot as a starter. Unfortunately, he's stuck with the Red Sox and is the odd man out in a crowded rotation even before the John Lackey signing.
Bowden will probably get his chance to prove himself sometime in 2010. With Daisuke Matsuzaka injured and Clay Buchholz struggling, he might not have long to wait.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen; a year ago, fantasy owners drafted Soto as an elite catcher, hoping he would build on his Rookie of the Year 2008 campaign.
In a way he did, improving his walk rate while cutting down on the strikeouts. But an 86-point drop in BABIP disguised his improved skill sets behind a facade of bad luck.
Unless Soto has been the target of a voodoo curse, expect a reversal of fortune and a return to stardom for the young backstop.
Once upon a time, Pierre was a reliable bet to challenge for a .300 average, triple-digit runs, and 50 steals a year.
Then the Dodgers traded for Manny Ramirez and Pierre was relegated to the bench, where he stole 70 bases and scored 101 runs in two years of part-time play.
Now that he has a starting job again, a return to his old levels of production seems to be in the cards.
Stubbs has 141 stolen bases in 465 career professional games. What more do I need to say?
With Willy Taveras finally out of the way, the Reds' center field job is his to lose.
Masterson might not end up being the prize of the Victor Martinez trade, but he's the piece the Red Sox were most reluctant to give up.
With great heat and a knack for missing bats (8.3 K/9 rate last year), Masterson could rise to the top of the Indians' rotation—and yours, too.
I've tried to focus my attention on deeper, lower-profile sleepers thus far, but the fact that the much-hyped Gonzalez is still available in the middle-to-late rounds of mixed league drafts makes him too much of a bargain to overlook
Power, speed, contact—CarGo is the complete package. He's going to be a perennial All-Star, starting now.
By the All-Star Break Ordonez had emerged as 2009's Andruw Jones: a great hitter who suddenly fell off a cliff. But a monster second half (.375/.438/.540) showed that he still has some gas left in the tank.
He's not a good bet to hit 30 homers anymore, let alone threaten 40. But he's a nice bounce back candidate, even if, at 36, he really is in his decline.
A five-tool athlete and consensus future stud, Maybin was a popular sleeper pick this time last year. But his followers seem to have deserted him after an underwhelming 54 games with the Marlins last year (.727 OPS).
He's no sure bet to be an impact player in 2010, but his blazing speed and power potential haven't magically disappeared.
In two short years, Towles has gone from an elite prospect to a miserable bust. While his increased strikeout rates and dampened power are genuine areas of concern, a large part of his struggles can be attributed to the misfortune of a nauseating .174 BABIP since 2008.
Towles may never be an elite backstop, but it's too soon to call him washed up.
Aviles was worth 4.4 WAR as a rookie in 2008, showing great contact (.325 BA) decent pop (.480 SLG) and a terrific glove (14.3 UZR). He's no guarantee to have a starting job in 2010 after an injury-shortened 2009, but he's likely to get a shot at redemption since his main competition is the worst player in baseball.
At a position as thin as shortstop, Aviles' is a name worth keeping in mind.
It's always nice when you can blame luck for an established player's bad season, but sometimes it really is just a regression in skill. Suffering from injuries and a slower fastball, Santana, who won 16 games with a 3.49 ERA two years ago, fell to 8-8 with a 5.03 ERA last year because he missed the plate more (3.03 BB/9 in 2009, compared to 1.93 in 2008) while missing fewer bats (6.89 K/9, compared to 8.79).
Santana's woes would be a lot less troublesome if his peripherals had stayed intact, but at 27, there's no reason to think he won't find his groove again in 2010.
Padilla isn't going to be an ace, and there's certainly room for regression as he enters the decline of his career. But he's looked good enough this spring for Joe Torre to declare him the Opening Day starter over Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley.
How many other teams' No. 1 starters are still available in 98% of ESPN mixed leagues?
Expectations for Gamel were sky-high going into 2009, as fantasy owners anticipated that the big-batted slugger would make an immediate impact in his inevitable mid season call-up.
As it happened, Gamel struggled in his limited playing time and was surpassed on the Brewers' depth chart by Casey McGehee.
Gamel will have to fight off McGehee before he receives the chance he deserves, but there's a good chance Gamel will reclaim his destined role by season's end.
Injuries and plain-old poor pitching have bogged down Liriano's once-promising career, but there is reason to hope. He looked absolutely filthy in 37 innings of winter ball, posting a 0.49 ERA and 45/7 K/BB ratio.
With the Twins' fifth-starter job all but locked up, he could be poised for a big comeback.
Pelfrey has never been touted as the Mets' future ace, but he's been expected to be a reliable member of the supporting cast.
After a breakout 2008 campaign (13-11, 3.72 ERA), the 2009 season (10-12, 5.03) was something of a disappointment. Look for an improvement as he is only 26.
No one really knows what to expect from Hughes in 2010, largely because no one really knew what his role would be until Thursday, when he officially won a spot in the Yankees' rotation.
Bill James' projection of a 3.27 ERA might be a tad generous, but with a great supporting cast behind him, Hughes could provide great value as the Bombers' fifth starter.
There's no guarantee that the Athletics will give the newly acquired Fox a roster spot in 2010, let alone substantial playing time. But make no mistake—this kid can rake.
With his mighty bat, he could force his way into the Oakland lineup within a couple months.
Question: how many catchers are capable of walking more than they strike out (47 BB/39 SO last year) while showing solid power (.171 ISO)?
Answer: not many.
If his fortunes reverse (.262 career BABIP), he's got the tools to be a .300/15 hitter; worst-case scenario, he's still a respectable second-string catcher.
Once considered an elite prospect, Milledge has been a disappointment since cracking the big leagues in 2006, never posting a WAR over 0.7. But despite the feeling that he has been tantalizing us with his talent for decades, he enters the season at only 25—definitely not too old to learn some new tricks.
With consistent at-bats in the middle of the Pirates' lineup, he could finally realize his potential in 2010.
With Adrian Gonzalez hogging playing time at his' natural position (first base), it's not clear where or when Blanks will get to play in 2010. One thing's for sure, though: he can rake.
Don't draft him expecting 30 homers, but if he gets consistent at-bats and adjusts to MLB pitching reasonably quickly, he could be a prodigious source of power by mid-season.
A year ago, the Giants loved on the big-swinging Bowker and expected him to make a splash with the big-league club before the end of the season. Then he hit just .194 with two homers in 31 games with San Francisco. Oops.
Luckily, his Ruthian 1.047 OPS in 104 AAA games proved that he's not a bust yet. He could tap into his potential in 2010.
The controversy and scandals surrounding Bradley over the past year have been covered elsewhere and need not be repeated in this slide show (though feel free to click here for that). His struggles—both on and off the field—have made people forget that he is just one season removed from leading the AL in OPS (.999).
Despite what he might tell you, there's no guarantee that Bradley will rebound now that he's out of Chicago, but a return to his old form isn't out of the question.
After a rough stint with the Red Sox to start 2009, Penny hit his stride (4-1, 2.59) in six starts with the Giants.
Even after struggling the past couple seasons, there's no doubt Penny is talented; whatever is troubling him, it's worth a late-round pick that legendary Cardinals' pitching coach Dave Duncan can fix it.
A powerful Rays prospect with plenty of pop but no clearly defined place on the team—sound familiar? Rodriguez is the heir to Ben Zobrist's throne, in more ways than one.
There's no guarantee that lightning will strike twice, but history is known to repeat itself.
Remember Willie "Mays" Hayes from Major League—the fast guy who always reached base when he hit the ball on the ground? That's Borbon, except he's already learned to use his speed to his advantage, hitting grounders 54% of the time last season.
He's in line to get regular at-bats leading off for the Rangers in 2010, which should make him a elite source of runs and steals.
With a name so long it had to be curved on his jersey, Rzepczynski looked sharp in 11 starts last year, burning worms (51.2% ground ball rate) and missing bats (8.8 K/9) while posting a 3.67 ERA.
If he can cut down on the walks (4.4 BB/9), Rzepczynski will make batters fear him as much as the play-by-play announcer does.
Once upon a time, Desmond was the pride and joy of the Nats' farm system. But the arrival of Stephen Strasburg has diverted attention from the team's other young star, as few have seemed to notice that Desmond is on the brink of snatching the starting shortstop spot from incumbent Christian Guzman.
There's no telling what a player with zero big league experience will do in 2010, but the low-pressure atmosphere of a doomed-to-fail team is a great place for a rookie to refine his game.