A Backup Plan When Targeting Draft Sleepers and Breakouts

“Sleepers” and “breakouts” are some of the most popular topics of discussion during the pre-draft fantasy baseball season.  These are the players with big upside ready to provide top value to your team relative to their ADP by significantly outperforming their statistics from last year and their current 2017 projections.  It’s only February, and already scores of articles have been published and posted with list after list of 2017 sleeper candidates to draft to gain an advantage over your competition from the start.  

In theory, it’s a great plan.  Finding a couple of sleepers on your roster who do indeed break out can be a very important factor to winning your league.  There is only one problem. Your competition has easy access to the same articles, lists, and research that you have!  It does not take a great deal of effort for your fellow league mates to develop a “sleeper/breakout” list that may look very similar to yours.

Although each publication’s list will vary, there are typically a few players who become industry favorites and land on a high percentage of these lists.   Ironically, these players are not sleepers at all, because even the most casual player in your league likely has these guys on his radar.

This universal love for a player can often result in runaway hype that can leave you scrambling in the draft room when that focal point of your master plan is snatched from your queue just before your next selection.  But if prepared, you can still get your high upside sleeper, even when you are denied your first choice.

Below are three starting pitchers who already have been widely touted as breakout sleepers for 2017.  If they are on your list, beware!  They are probably also being targeted by the majority of your competition.  If these players fall to you at the proper draft cost, go ahead and reap the potential benefits.  If you miss out, don’t worry.  A backup plan is all you need.

1. DANNY DUFFY – Royals (ADP: NFBC 105, Fantasy Pros ECR 99)

Duffy is being heralded by many as pitcher ready to take another step forward in 2017 after a successful campaign last year.  His 3.51 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 2016 definitely puts him on par with some others being drafted around him, such as Jose Quintana.  But where Quintana “is who he is” after four years of steady, yet flat production, Duffy is being hyped as someone who can progress further and bust into the near-elite tier of starting pitchers.  He may very well do just that, but it’s equally as likely that he doesn’t.  Duffy’s 5.50 ERA in 36 IP in September indicate that he may not be ready to effectively handle the 200 inning workload necessary to yield full season production beyond his current draft value.

If Danny Duffy falls to you near pick 100, go ahead, give it a shot.  But don’t reach for him, and don’t be upset when somebody else in your draft does. Instead, set your sight on…

JAMESON TAILLON – Pirates (ADP: 148, 137)

Taillon is a former 2nd overall pick in 2010 who missed two full seasons due to injury, so there is a bit of risk here. But if 2016 is any indication, he is ready to fulfill the destiny of his pedigree.  Some may look at his medical history and 104 big league innings last year and wonder if he can hold up for an entire season or be held to an innings limit, but Taillon spent April and May in AAA making 10 starts and throwing 61 ⅔ innings.  Add it up. In 2016, 165 total innings + under 3.30 ERA in August and September, showing no signs of fatigue + excellent command and control + pedigree = 180-190 high quality innings in 2017.  Jameson Taillon has every bit, if not more potential as Danny Duffy, but is being drafted four rounds later.

2. JAMES PAXTON – Mariners (ADP: 186, 168)

Paxton has been a breakout darling for a couple of seasons now.  Although a 3.79 ERA and 1.31 WHIP for 2016 do not inspire great confidence, his .347 BABIP against and 2.80 FIP have many believing that the skills are there, and with a little better luck he will outperform his draft value with a chance to be a top 25 pitcher if things break right.  His ceiling is a mid-3’s ERA, a WHIP just north of 1.20, and 8.5 K/9.  Decent, and a value for where he is being drafted, but not elite.

If a league mate likes Paxton more than you, that’s OK. Move right along to:

SEAN MANAEA – A’s (ADP: 173, 169)

This former 1st round supplemental pick is being drafted in the same area as James Paxton, but with a little less hype.  However, it just might be that Manaea has greater upside.  His 3.86 ERA in 2016 was very similar to Paxton’s on the surface, but there are a few indicators that Manaea is possibly due for a real breakout in 2017.  His solid 1.19 WHIP is in line with his minor league statistics, and even though he only had a 7.7 K/9, Manaea consistently posted K/9 numbers above 10 in the minors.  Growth in K rate at the MLB level could be coming this season.  In fact, Manaea posted a 8.5 K/9 in his last six starts and sported a nifty 2.67 ERA in the 2nd half of the year.  A rough debut in late April and May with an ERA close to 7.00 in his first six starts is clouding an otherwise strong rookie season.  If Sean Manaea picks up where he left off last year, he has top 20 upside.

3. ROBBIE RAY – Diamondbacks  (ADP: 216, 201)

Ray is widely considered a breakout candidate for his 28% K rate and the disparity between his 4.90 ERA and his 3.76 FIP, leading many to believe Ray was unlucky and positive regression is coming in 2017.  Not so fast.  Dig a little deeper and you will find a 9% walk rate leading to a 1.47 WHIP.  Those numbers are not out of character looking back at Ray’s history.  That is who Robbie Ray is – a strikeout pitcher with terrible control and command.  Mix in a home ballpark that should be renamed Coors Light (not because the quality of baseball is watered down, but because Chase Field is almost as hostile to pitchers as it is in Colorado) and Robbie Ray starts to look like a guy whose skill set and situation leave very little margin for error.  Whatever edge he gives you in K’s will be negated by the damage done to your team’s ERA and WHIP.

Let someone else in your league drool over Ray while you take a shot on…

BLAKE SNELL – Rays (ADP:233, 229)

Snell, like Ray, has control issues to go along with a high strikeout rate.  At the point in the draft where you would be taking Ray or Snell, there is little risk and much to gain in hitting on a breakout player.  Snell has three advantages over Ray.

  1. The pedigree of being a 1st round pick
  2. A much more favorable home pitching environment
  3. A better track record in limiting home runs which allows him better odds of escaping the damage brought on by the extra free passes as evidenced by his 3.54 ERA despite the high walk rate.  

If you are looking for upside, which you should be at this point in the draft, Blake Snell is the better gamble here.

Along with an ace or two at the top, Taillon, Manaea, and Snell are readily available and can help you round out a pitching staff that is deep, strong, and ready to break out.


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Marc Goldstein

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Marc is a life-long Cubs fan and baseball enthusiast who has been riding high from the instant Kris Bryant's throw popped into Anthony Rizzo's glove on November 2, 2016. He has been playing fantasy baseball since before the internet was a thing.