Everyone loves a sleeper, that guy you can draft in the mid to late rounds that exceeds all expectations performing above his average draft position. The players you take early can make or break your fantasy team, but it’s those sleeper players that can give you that extra boost and lead you to a championship (not to mention make you look damn smart to your opponents).
Below I’ve listed some of my favorite sleeper candidates for each position. Feel free to disagree and post your own sleepers in the comments section below.
Wilson Ramos (Nationals) – Injuries, time share and a low spot in the batting order have devalued Ramos to the point that he’s not considered a top 10 catcher. If given a full season of at bats he could make a run at the top 5. Ramos placed 4th last year with an average fly ball distance of 309.51 feet and finished with 16 home runs in 287 at bats. There’s some serious power hidden here and unlike a player like Evan Gattis he can hit for average as well. The injuries are behind him and the starting job is his, and given his bat I don’t see him batting 7th & 8th this season. Don’t waste a high pick on a catcher this year, wait until the middle to later rounds and reap all the rewards.
Brandon Belt (Giants) – I’ve made my position clear on Belt several times, I don’t like him nor do I trust him. That doesn’t mean that I can’t see the value in him or don’t see the potential, I just have a hard time swallowing that pill. Between the NCAA & College (close to 1,300 at bats) Belt hit .343 with 54 home runs (174 extra base hits) which is why everyone expected more than we’ve seen from him to date. Soon after the all-star break he changed a few things and for the final two months of the season he hit .346 with 7 home runs (27 extra base hits) and 28 RBIs. This could have just been an isolated incident or it could be a sign of things to come. Has Belt arrived? I don’t know the answer, but considering he’s going off the board in the 180 range in current mock drafts; it won’t cost you much to find out. I’m not a fan, but even I may take a shot at him if he’s around in round 14/15 just for the potential upside. Post hype sleeper material.
Anthony Rendon (Nationals) – He wasn’t impressive last year but his numbers weren’t bad considering how quickly he ascended through the minors. Rendon also had to learn a new position which surely hampered his efforts. You wouldn’t know it from his minor league numbers but there is 20+ home run power here along with double-digit speed evident of his numbers at Rice. He hit .371 in college and while nobody expects that at the major league level, he should put up a better average than the .265 he hit last year. He’s a risk to draft as your starting second baseman, but he’s a perfect bench guy to take as a backup if you have a questionable starter. If he can hit for a decent average, the power speed combo could rank him in the top 10 come September.
Pablo Sandoval (Giants) – To say the past two years have been a disappointment would be an understatement, and the weight and poor conditioning is a big reason for that. Sandoval is in a contract year so he ditched his Eric Cartman diet of cheesy poofs and reportedly lost 42 pounds. This isn’t the first time he’s done this as in 2011 he came into camp lean and mean attempting to prove that 2009 was not a fluke. This time though, there is big money on the line so expect Pablo to enter spring training hungry (and starving from the diet). He did hit .327 with an .888 OPS last year with runners on so there is a hitter in there, but a lean healthy Sandoval can hit that average all year-long. If round 10 rolls around and you don’t have a third baseman, he could pay back your investment 3 fold and make you look like a genius.
Brad Miller (Mariners) – Odds are you won’t see him ranked in the top 10 on many (if any) rankings, but he has the ability to end up there by the end of the season. His 2013 season was very similar to Rendon above. He doesn’t have Rendon’s power but does possess more speed and is capable of hitting for a high average. With a retooled Seattle offence, Miller has a chance to shine at the top of the order hitting in front of Seagar, Cano and Hart. Runs and stolen bases will be his main assets along with a with double-digit power, but his BA will be the deciding factor for his value. He was a career .300 hitter in the minors so if he can make improvements over last year you’re looking at a nice player with an ADP in the 180 range. While Rendon should be drafted as a backup, Miller is a safe bet to draft as your starter.
Honorable mention goes to Starlin Castro. He was absolutely horrible last year but there is talent here. If the Cubs allow him to go back to his old ways you could be looking at top 5 shortstop at the cost of a mid round pick, but you’ll have to wait until Spring Training to get a handle on this one.
Kole Calhoun (Angels) – With Bourjos traded to the Cardinals, Trout has slid over to make room for the power hitting lefty. Also on the move this winter was Mark Trumbo so odds are he won’t get buried at the bottom of the lineup. Calhoun lefty/righty splits aren’t that wide so there shouldn’t be any worry about him becoming a platoon player. In addition to the power which most people associate with Calhoun, he also has some wheels on him so double-digit stolen bases are a real possibility. 20 home runs and 10 steals put him right up there with Alex Gordon. The difference is Gordon will be drafted between rounds 7-8 going by his early ADP in mock drafts, and you should be able to get the same value with Calhoun much later. He’ll make a great third outfielder and you won’t have to pay through the nose.
B.J. Upton (Braves) – Fantasy players favorite whipping boy crashed and burned last year, and judging by his current ADP in mock drafts and rankings by other sites; owners and experts aren’t ready to forgive him. People quickly forget he was a 20/30 player in 2011 & 2012 and that he went 18/42 in 2010. They dismiss the 84 runs and 73 RBIs he averaged over those 3 previous years. Sure he’s only a .250 hitter, but so was Mike Cameron and that didn’t stop any of us from loving him. Upton isn’t going to cost you a high pick like in previous years. Depending on the hype he receives before the season starts and the league you are in, you should be able to get him anywhere between rounds 11 & 15. That’s a bargain if he returns to form and a small price to pay for where you’ll draft him.
Khris Davis (Brewers) – Aoki is now in Kansas City and Braun agreed to move to right so all roads lead to Davis in left, so what can we expect? No one is going to question whether Davis has power. He hit 69 home runs over 1426 at bats in the minors and had 24 last year between AAA & the minors over 379 at bats. He only walked 7.2% last year but holds a 12.7 BB% in the minors so there is room to improve here. Davis struck out 22.2% of the time last year, but his strikeout rate was slightly lower in the minors at 20.5%. His .279 BA is slightly lower than his career .288 from the minors, but it’s not far off and should be sustainable. There were some skeptics that thought he might struggle against righties, but some of them have since changed their stance. A .275 BA with 22-25 home runs could be in the cards, but run and RBI totals are harder to determine and will depend on his spot in the lineup. As long as he bats between the 3rd and 6th spot he should generate numbers good enough to warrant a draft pick, and you should be able to get him towards the end of your draft. Considering guys like Austin Jackson and Leonys Martin are being taken between rounds 9-12 in early mock drafts, this is bargain basement special.
Will Middlebrooks (Red Sox) – Fantasy owners have soured on Middlebrooks and for good reason, but there are some positives here. He was demoted to the minors last year but upon his return he hit .300 the rest of the way. Granted he’s not going to hit .300 as he profiles as more of a .270 hitter, but it’s a good sign. His high strikeouts, low walks and poor plate discipline are a big reason for the low average, but he has enough power in his bat to compensate for that (17 home runs in 348 ABs). Boston looks like they’ll give him another shot at the corner, and he could be a nice risk after round 20 (since you’re throwing darts at the board at this point). Worst case is he’s no more valuable than Chris Johnson, best case he finishes outside the top 12 which makes for a perfect cheap CI player.
Kolten Wong (Cardinals) – With Freese shipped out-of-town and Carpenter moved to third, the second base job is Wong’s to lose. The Cardinals have been very successful with the development of their minor league players, and Wong will be just another feather in the cap of the St. Louis machine. Like Rendon, Wong hit for a great average in college but he had a little more time in the minors to help hone his craft. He doesn’t strike out that often and is capable of drawing walks. While he may not hit .300 like he did in college and the minors, and average in the .280 range is very realistic. While Wong does have enough power to reach double digits, he is more of a speed guy so you’re looking at someone who could go 10/20 on a regular basis. Runs may be limited in the beginning as he’ll probably start out in the bottom half of the lineup, but if he shows he can hit for average a move to one of the top spots in the second half is a definite possibility. He may not produce well enough to be a starting second baseman, but for a MI slot he’ll be one of the better choices.
Rick Porcello (Tigers) – Most people forget that Porcello pitched his first full season he was only 20 years old with only 125 innings of A+ ball on his resume. It’s been all on the job training for him and considering his numbers have improved each year; it could be the year he puts it all together. Porcello has had a groundball percentage over 50 since he arrived in the majors, and if you take out his rookie season he has a 5.7% walk rate. His K/9 saw a 2 point increase last year rising to 7.22 mostly due to a 13% increase in the use of his 78 MPH curveball and reduced number of sliders. The impeccable control combined with new-found trust in his secondary pitches could lead to a big step forward. He showed us flashes of what he’s capable of last year (like his 3 hit/11K 8 inning shutout verse Pittsburgh). Porcello could put up an ERA in the 3.75 range with 150 strikeouts, and that’s good enough for a back-end starter to round out your rotation. The best part is he should be available towards the end of your draft or maybe on the waiver wire depending on your league and roster size. He’s worth one of your final picks or a dollar on draft day.
Taijuan Walker (Mariners) – I’m sure everyone has heard of Walker by now, but his current ranking and ADP don’t reflect the type of production you can expect from him. He’s in the top 10 rankings of almost all fantasy publications. Walker’s K/9 through his minor league career is 9.68 and while he may not achieve this in his first year, a K/9 close to 8 is a reasonable expectation. His HR/9 is a .65 so he should be able to limit the long ball damage. He’ll be further assisted by his home park plus road games in Oakland and Los Angeles so his higher FB% won’t hinder him to much. Like many 21-year-old players walks and control are an issue. With a good defense behind him, low home run totals and a H/9 of 7.43, he may get away with a high walk total until he learns to harness his stuff. With a mentor like Felix Hernandez, a 95 MPH fastball and a great home park, he should contend for the ROY award. You could get a number 3/4 pitcher for your staff and should be available to you in rounds 15-20 depending on your league size and pre-season hype.
Jeremy Hellickson (Rays) – For two years fantasy owners looked at the pretty ERA and anticipated a breakout, but many ignored the fact that the ERA far exceeded his FIP & xFIP; something had to give and last year it did. We saw the ERA balloon over 5.0 and supporters abandoned him like rats on a ship. If you look a little closer you’ll see some positive signs that could make Hellickson a bargain pick up this year. His BB/9 went from a 3.43 in 2011 to a 2.59 last year so you’ve got two years of improving control to build on. While he hasn’t attained the level of success with strikeouts that he had in the minors, his K/9 has gone from 5.57 to 6.98 during that same two-year stretch. Then there is his FIP and xFIP which were both 1.5 higher than his ERA the previous 2 years, but last year they were both close to 4 and lower than what he had put up the years prior. He’s still the same highly touted player from 2010, it’s just taking him a little longer to put things all together. Considering his low strikeout totals from the past and last years disaster, Hellboy will be available after round 20. They say you take 2 steps forward and 1 step back, if that’s the case Hellickson is ready for a step forward.
Cory Luebke (Padres) – He had Tommy John surgery in May of 2012, but that was a long time ago in the world of fantasy that many people will have forgotten about him. In his brief major league career he’s compiled a 3.24 ERA, 1.1 WHIP and 9.29 K/9. Those are the kind of numbers you’d expect from a number 3 starter on your fake team, and it’s possible you could get those numbers from day one. Luebke experienced a setback last year so he’s had some extra time to heal and should be 100% come spring training. There has been talk that the Padres may start Luebke off in the bullpen, but don’t let that scare you off. He started in the bullpen in 2011 and had great success, and his ratios and strikeouts helped fantasy owners even when he wasn’t starting. Odds are Luebke won’t be drafted and could be available to you off waivers to start the season. If you end up with a less than desirable closer and want someone who can contribute out of the pen and be a top pitcher in the second half, this is the perfect player to invest in.
Jesse Crain (Astros) – Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Crain has spent the past 10 years in the bullpen for the Twins and White Sox, but short of a late/extra inning save chance he’s never been a closer. For the past 3 seasons has an average of 10.56 K/9, his ERA has gone down steadily in each of those years, and the .225 BBA in last year was the highest it’s been in the past 4 years. Crain’s biggest obstacle has been his walks, and while he put up a BB/9 of 2.70 last year he has a 3.48 BB/9 over his career. The high walks are due to an increased use of his slider, but the slider was necessary to increase the number of strikeouts. He is good at limiting hits (average 6.6 H/9 the past 3 years) which is needed with a FB% over 40. When you combine all these things you get a top 20 closer who can be taken a few rounds after someone like Steve Cishek. Don’t be afraid to select a closer from a bad team and don’t worry about waiting too long to select your second closer, Crain will be waiting for you.
David Robertson (Yankees) – Robertson has been promised first crack at Mariano Rivera’s job and odds are, he’ll only need one chance. There is no question to his stuff, the improved walk rate, high K/9 ratio, groundball percentage over 50% and a BAA close to .200 are all recipes for success. Robertson has averaged over 30 holds in each of the past three seasons and has been given a taste of the closers role on a few occasions. He may stumble a little in the first month but by the end of the season, Robertson has the stuff and ability to finish in the top 10 (or just outside that). His name won’t be a secret on draft day, but there is a lot of value in this late mid-round pick. Let your opponents spend big on brand name guys like Papelbon, Grilli and Romo; wait for Roberson to fall to you and you’ll get a better closer for your patience.