2011 Fantasy Baseball Preview: Top Ten Sleepers

Jeffrey BrownAnalyst IJanuary 26, 2011

2011 Fantasy Baseball Preview: Top Ten Sleepers

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    Red Sox infielder Jed Lowrie is one of mt Top 10 Sleepers for 2011
    Red Sox infielder Jed Lowrie is one of mt Top 10 Sleepers for 2011Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Different editors/writers have differing definitions of the term, “sleeper”. The concept has been watered down in the current fantasy baseball lexicon, probably because there are writers who can’t be bothered to do the analysis required to uncover real "sleepers". In my opinion, rookies have no place on a sleeper list. They aren’t sleepers. They are prospects who are hoping to have a major league career. Thus, there aren’t any rookies on my list. (If you feel you have to have a rookie on your sleeper list, start with Craig Kimbrel and/or Jordan Walden).

    I also don’t consider guys like Drew Stubbs (Cin, OF) to be a sleeper. He had nearly 600 plate appearances, hit 22 HR and registered 30 SB last year. On what planet is a 20/20 guy a "sleeper"? Yet, I have read several lists on which he has been labeled a sleeper for 2011. If you are playing fantasy baseball and you don’t know about what he has done, give up fantasy baseball, try fantasy legislators. Stubbs is not a sleeper! Ditto Brandon Morrow (Tor, RHP), who led all of the major leagues with a 13.01 K/9 in 2010, yet somehow still shows up on numerous sleeper lists heading into 2011.

    I believe the guys on my list fit the classic definition of a “sleeper”. They are big league players who have not put up the kind of numbers that were expected of them. In most instances, their names are familiar to you, but you might look beyond them either because of poor performance, a lack of opportunity, or injury. For those reasons, they are guys who might otherwise fly under the radar at your 2011 auction/draft, thus, they are a “sleeper." Don’t get caught napping on them in March.

    Here are my top ten fantasy baseball sleepers for 2011.

1. Julio Borbon, TEX

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    SEATTLE - SEPTEMBER 19:  Julio Borbon #29 of the Texas Rangers bats against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on September 19, 2010 in Seattle, Washington. The Mariners won 2-1. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    His 2009 performance (.312, 19 SB in 157) gave rise to some inflated expectations, but like many young ballplayers before him, he was unable to live up to the hype in his sophomore season. While he managed to post pretty decent numbers in 2010 (.276, 15 SB in 438 AB), he was not the dominating stolen base threat that ’09 suggested he might be. Therefore, I think he will fly under the radar in 2011. Be patient.

    His stolen base totals will be hampered because he isn’t a patient hitter. He posted a BB-rate of 8.4 percent in 2009, but that dropped to 4.1 pecent last year (the major league average was 8.7 percent over those two years). His minor league walk-rate was just under six percent, so his 2009 rate was an outlier and likely won’t be repeated (at least not with any consistency).

    So Borbon will have to hit his way on to create opportunities to accumulate SBs. He should be able to do that with some consistency, as he has shown an elite contact rate (88 percent) in his brief major league career. He hit .276 last year, owing mostly to a deflated BABIP (.313).

    It says here you can expect at least a league-average BA and 30+ steals from him in 2011, and in the years to come.

2. Chris Capuano, NYM

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    MILWAUKEE - SEPTEMBER 28: Starting pitcher Chris Capuano #39 of the Milwaukee Brewers delivers the ball against the San Diego Padres on September 28, 2007 at Miller Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The left-hander returned to the major leagues last season after two years of inactivity brought on by an elbow injury, Tommy John surgery and subsequent rehabilitation. He returned to action on June 3rd with a start in Florida, and then made another start and 15 relief appearances before finally joining the rotation for good on August 28th. 

    He went 2-2, 2.91 ERA, in six September starts, going at least five innings in five of those games and allowing no more than three runs in any of them.

    Capuano posted the best ERA of his career (3.95) while making four starts in Miller Park, a stadium that played at the major league norm for runs scored while surrendering the sixth-highest home run rate of any major league park.

    This year, he will move to Citi Field, a ballpark that surrendered runs at a rate that was 11 percent lower than the major league norm and home runs at a rate that was 28 percent lower (the fourth-lowest HR-rate among all major league parks). (Miller Park’s LH/RH swing factor is 118/103… Citi Field’s factor is 90/94)

    NL-only owners should watch him in spring training. If he does well, think long and hard about grabbing him at the end of your auction/draft.

3. Jed Lowrie, BOS

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    SEATTLE - SEPTEMBER 13:  Jed Lowrie #12 of the Boston Red Sox bats against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on September 13, 2010 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    It’s hard to find a true sleeper on a team like the Red Sox or Yankees because of the exposure players on those teams typically receive and the hype surrounding the respective franchises, but I think “Jedi” is a sleeper for 2011.

    He has spent much of his brief big-league career on the disabled list, but the Red Sox l-o-v-e him. He will play frequently during the 2011 season.

    Initially he’ll be a super-utility guy while incumbent SS Marco Scutaro begins the year as the starter, but I believe Lowrie will finish the year there. He missed the first half of the 2010 season, but hit nine HR in part-time duty (171 AB) after being activated from the DL in July.

    If you have a vacant MI position late in your auction/draft, you could do a lot worse.

4. Justin Masterson, CLE

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    ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 07:  Justin Masterson #63 of the Cleveland Indians pitches against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the first inning at Angel Stadium on September 7, 2010 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Disclaimer: I am very friendly with Justin and therefore may not be the most objective analyst when it comes to his performance, but I am convinced he is going to have a breakout campaign in one of these years.

    His 2010 numbers were somewhat ugly (6-13, 4.70 ERA, 1.50 WHIP), but his peripherals suggest those numbers were more a product of bad luck and questionable defense than anything else.

    His BAA was league-average (.261), his OPS-against (.725) was 18 points under league-average (.743), his GB/FB (1.47) was nearly twice the league-average (0.79) and his BABIP (.309) was 10 points higher than league-average (.299). Folks, there is some potential there!

    His FIP was 3.93—more than three-quarters of a run lower than his ERA (that placed him eighth in all of baseball in differential). When you consider that the Indians scored a half-run per game less than league average in his starts, it is not difficult to imagine that he could have been 13-6, 3.93, in 2010.

    Once again, you could do a lot worse if you need a starter late in your auction/draft.

5. Cameron Maybin, SD

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    CHICAGO - MAY 2:  Cameron Maybin #24 of the Florida Marlins bats against the Chicago Cubs during the game on May 2, 2009 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Is Maybin one of those guys who is a Four-A player, too good for the minor leagues but not good enough to be an everyday major leaguer? He has struggled with his contact rate at the big league level (just 70 percent compared to a Triple-A rate of 81 percent), so you have to wonder whether he just hit a plateau against tougher pitching.

    The key thing to remember about Maybin is that he is just 24-years old.

    Expectations for him were unrealistically high and performance lagged, and as a result organizations became frustrated and moved him to the next ballclub. Don’t make the same mistake—the tools are still there!

    He is a speedster on the bases and will someday get on base enough to be able to maximize his stolen base potential. He has struggled with strikeouts, in large part because he has tried to do too much (he has a career strikeout percentage of 28.2 percent).

    The betting here is that Petco Park will be good for him—that he’ll stop trying to do too much and learn to just put the ball in play. Once the ball is in play, he can use his speed to beat out grounders, stretch singles into doubles, steal some bases and score runs.

6. Rick Porcello, DET

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    NEW YORK - AUGUST 19:  Rick Porcello #48 of the Detroit Tigers delivers a pitch against the New York Yankees on August 19, 2010 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    He had a nice season as a rookie in 2009, but came crashing down to Earth in the first half of last year, posting some gawd-awful numbers while crushing the championship aspirations of many of his fantasy owners (4-7, 6.14 ERA and 1.692 WHIP).

    But a mid-season demotion seemed to grab his attention and things were far different in the second half.

    But as with others on this list, I expect many fantasy owners will look at Porcello’s overall numbers (10-12, 4.92, 1.39) and opt for other pitchers in this year’s auctions and drafts. Their loss is your gain.

    Porcello is just 22 years old and his second half performance shows he has outstanding growth potential (6-5, 4.00, 1.159). While he doesn’t strike out as many batters as you might like, his K:BB ratio was excellent after his recall (3.19). He is a ground-ball pitcher (GO/AO of 1.63) who will spend half of his games toiling in a pitcher’s park.

    There is tremendous upside here!

7. Ryan Raburn, DET

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    CHICAGO - JUNE 10: Ryan Raburn #25 of the Detriot Tigers takes a swing against the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field on June 10, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The White Sox defeated the Tigers 3-0.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    He is not especially well-known outside of Detroit, but that is about to change.

    In terms of his fantasy production in 2010, Raburn's performance was diminished by the fact the Tigers couldn’t decide where they should play him—at second base or in the outfield. For that reason, he had only 117 AB in the first half and his numbers seemingly lagged due to his sporadic opportunity. He was given consistent ABs after the all-star break and hit .315 with 13 HR.

    His hit percentage for the year was high (34 percent), but his BABIP was only slightly above league-average, so it doesn’t necessarily seem his .280 batting average was fueled by luck (his xBA was .269). He doesn’t walk a lot (6.6 percent for 2010) and strikes out a bit too much (22.4 percent), but his other peripherals are solid.

    As the Tigers head to spring training, Raburn is their starting left fielder, which means you can expect 500 ABs, a decent BA, and 20+ HR for your investment.

8. James Shields, TB

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    NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 21:  James Shields #33 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches against the New York Yankees on September 21, 2010 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
    Andrew Burton/Getty Images

    Many of the comments made about Masterson, earlier, are also applicable to Shields, except that you’re not likely to get him in the 22nd round of your draft or as a $1 flier at the end of your auction–although you could.

    He was 13-15, with a 5.18 ERA and 1.46 WHIP in 2010. Pretty ugly numbers for a guy who just two years earlier went 14-8 with a 3.56 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP for the American League champions. While his BB/9 increased slightly (to 2.3) his K/9 jumped significantly (to 8.3), allowing him to maintain an impressive K/BB of 3.67 (good for the tenth-best mark in baseball).

    Like Masterson, Shields was also the victim of some bad luck last year, as evidenced by his .344 BABIP. And like Masterson, the differential between ERA and FIP (4.24) was one of the highest in the game (0.94, third in MLB).

9. Justin Smoak, SEA

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    SEATTLE - SEPTEMBER 19:  Justin Smoak #17 of the Seattle Mariners bats against the Texas Rangers at Safeco Field on September 19, 2010 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    In 2002, Hank Blalock arrived in Texas accompanied by an abundance of hype. He proceeded to fall flat on his face (.211, 3 HR, 17 RBI in 147 AB) and was cut in lots of fantasy leagues the following winter. He was cut in both of my leagues. I purchased him in each league for cheap dollars in March, 2003, and proceeded to ride him to several fantasy championships over the succeeding years.

    Fast forward to 2010.

    Justin Smoak arrived in Texas accompanied by an abundance of hype and fell flat on his face (.218, 13 HR, 48 RBI). His fantasy prospects were further dimmed when he was traded from a good hitter’s park to an excellent pitcher’s park (Safeco Field) in the Cliff Lee deal. There is a strong possibility he is currently available via trade in your league, or that he will be cut in the next few weeks. Don’t abandon your belief. He may develop into something special.

    He is only 24 years old. He was over-matched in his rookie campaign, but remains a solid long-term investment. He struck out far too often (22.9 percent against the MLB average of 18.5 percent), but showed better in the minor leagues. His walk percentage demonstrates that he maintained a strong batting eye (11.6 percent against the MLB average of 8.5 percent).

    His ground ball rate (0.60) is low compared to the MLB average (0.80) and his HR/FB rate (.101) was high compared to the average (.073), thus you can expect the home run production to be solid. His xBA was .266—not great, but better than what he managed last year.

    While Safeco will serve to diminish his numbers, a .260 BA with 20+ home runs is a reasonable expectation down the road.

10. Travis Wood, CIN

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    PHILADELPHIA - OCTOBER 06:  Travis Wood #30 of the Cincinnati Reds delivers in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on October 6, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
    Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    Wood arrived in Cincinnati last year with considerable hype after a stellar ’09 campaign in Double-A, and while his numbers were solid they weren’t really spectacular. As a result, he will arrive in spring training fighting for the fifth starter role with Mike Leake.

    This fact may scare some owners away and leave him to you to snag late. Grab him!

    There are reasons to like Mike, but his .292 BAA indicates he needs more time in the minor leagues, thus the smart money is on Wood. I know, how can I say his numbers weren’t really spectacular when he posted a 1.081 WHIP? Well, the paltry sum of five wins and the 3.51 ERA have a lot to do with it. That is precisely why he is a sleeper—because most fantasy owners will look at those numbers and not focus on the peripherals.

    He is left-handed and would be a welcome addition to an otherwise right-handed rotation. He was a fixture in the Reds rotation after July 1st and allowed three earned runs or less in 15-of-17 starts after joining the rotation. The BAA was a measly .222, his strikeout rate (20.5 percent) was above league average and his walk rate (6.2 percent) was below league average.

    So, is there a downside?

    He is a fly ball pitcher who plays half of his games in Great America Ballpark. His GO/AO was exactly half of the MLB average. That fact, combined with a lower-than-expected HR/FB ratio (5.1 percent), could be somewhat troubling. Although, that said, home runs were never much of a trouble for him in the minor leagues.

    Watch this trend in spring training.