Sleeper lists are a staple of each year’s draft prep, and so are the discussions and debates about what a sleeper is. It seems only fitting to get my feet wet here at Fantrax by writing my first column about my top sleepers for the coming season. While I’m at it, I will explain what I mean when I label a player as a “sleeper.”
There are bargains, late-round fliers and deep sleepers, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re all sleepers. However, I think the most generally understood definition is the middle one — players who are being ignored in 12-team mixed leagues but can have substantial value in those formats. I think players like Justin Bour, Todd Frazier and Michael Wacha are being undervalued in early drafts, but they are being drafted in 12-teamers, so they won’t be included here. Likewise, I’m foregoing the likes of Adam Frazier and Robert Stephenson, because they’re better suited for deeper formats, at least on draft day.
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My focus for this column will be the players I plan to target in the late and reserve rounds in standard formats. None is being drafted on Fantrax among the top 299 players overall. (Thanks, Jose Martinez, for keeping me from making it a nice, even top 300.) All have the potential to be an integral part of your team all season long.
I have included at least one player at each position. Average ADP and rank are for Fantrax leagues. Now let’s go around the horn!
Chris Iannetta, C, Rockies, 332.06 ADP, 23rd among C
This year’s cohort of catchers is so thin, there aren’t enough reliable producers to fill out a 12-team, one-catcher league. That’s why it’s surprising to me that Iannetta isn’t getting more trust among early drafters. On the one hand, he ranked just 18th in Roto value (CBS) among catchers last season, and his profile — decent power with limited batting average potential — is common among the current crop of backstops. However, Iannetta would likely have ranked much higher if Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo hadn’t been working overtime to get three catchers into the lineup somewhat regularly for most of the 2017 season. From August forward, Jeff Mathis and Chris Herrmann spent more time on the bench, and Iannetta just kept raking. Despite accumulating just 316 plate appearances, he homered 17 times, while posting a .354 OBP.
If Iannetta signed with, say, the Nationals or Mets, some skepticism of his power numbers would be understandable, but he’ll be playing home games at Coors Field. For that reason alone, he deserves more consideration in two-catcher leagues, and even a little bit in one-catcher formats.
Jose Martinez, 1B/OF, Cardinals, 299.67 ADP, 25th among 1B
Taking some caution with Martinez is appropriate, because there is not a clear place for him to play regularly in the Cardinals’ lineup. Matt Carpenter is the presumptive starter at first base, and there’s a long line to crack the starting outfield, which appears well-set with Marcell Ozuna, Tommy Pham and Dexter Fowler. Fortunately for Martinez, Carpenter can play second and third base, and Kolten Wong and Jedd Gyorko don’t seem impenetrable as roadblocks to the starting lineup. Martinez, for his part, showed patience, good contact skills and power in his first full year in the majors. When he came over to the Cardinals’ organization in 2016, he started to hit more flyballs, and last season, it paid off in the form of 14 home runs and a .210 Isolated Power (ISO) in 307 plate appearances.
Whether as an injury replacement or by playing his way into a regular role, Martinez ought to find a home in the Cardinals’ lineup. With regular play, he should be at least as productive as Corey Dickerson (but with more walks), who is being drafted more than 90 picks earlier.
Brad Miller, 2B, Rays, 424.87 ADP, 37th among 2B
Of all the sleepers on this list, Miller is being drafted the latest, yet he has as much appeal as anyone featured here. Second base is not especially deep this year. Players being drafted inside the top 300 include Starlin Castro, who lost the homer-friendly environs of Yankee Stadium, Yangervis Solarte, who may not even have a starting role, and Jason Kipnis, who is coming off a disappointing, injury-plagued season. If you’re going to take a late-round flier on a second baseman, why not take a chance with Miller? He, too, is coming off a down year, and he had core muscle surgery this offseason, but he offers the potential reward of 30 home runs and 10 steals. Even last season, he hit flies a robust 326 feet on average (per Baseball Savant). With better health and stronger pull tendencies (like he showed in 2016), Miller could be a 30-homer threat again.
Ryon McMahon, 3B, Rockies, 315.52 ADP, 26th among 3B
Barring a move before opening day, McMahon will get at least a share of the Rockies’ starts at first base. That may not sound like enough job security to merit a roster spot in a 12-team mixed league, but there is a possibility that McMahon could grab the starting role outright. Ian Desmond, his primary competitor, is also a candidate to win the left field job, and if McMahon can hit this spring like he did at Triple-A Albuquerque and Double-A Hartford last year, he could force the 32-year-old veteran to the outfield. Between those two stops, he put up a .355/.403/.583 slash line. Between McMahon’s line drive tendencies and his apparent disdain for popping up, he could help owners with batting average, and playing at Coors Field won’t hurt his power numbers.
The infield corners are plenty deep, but McMahon’s potential to contribute in all categories — he could even kick in a few steals — makes him an intriguing endgame option.
Ketel Marte, SS, Diamondbacks, 320.44 ADP, 24th among SS
Of all of the positions, shortstop is the one where I had to stretch a bit to find a late-round sleeper. The one value that stands out given the current ADPs is Marte. He clearly improved at the plate, but his progress was masked by a mediocre .260 batting average, .290 BABIP and .135 ISO. However, according to xStats.org, Marte hit more flyballs, hard drives and line drives, and he hit them all with greater exit velocities. He also dropped his strikeout rate from 18.0 to 14.5 percent and reduced his dribbler rate (grounders with negative launch angle) from 46.4 to 39.4 percent. According to xStats, Marte’s expected slash line was .3o5/.384/.452. If he were to approach those numbers and tack on 10 or more steals, Marte could perform like a second-tier shortstop, and he will likely be there for the taking in the late rounds.
The biggest risk in targeting Marte over some of the other late-round options offered here is that his progress will be erased by the introduction of the humidor at Chase Field. However, power is the least enticing part of his offerings, so I would expect that his value will take less of a hit than that of many other Diamondbacks hitters.
Dustin Fowler, OF, Athletics, 373.37 ADP, 89th among OF
The reports on Fowler this offseason have been highly encouraging. Not only has he recovered from the ruptured patella tendon that he suffered in his major league debut with the Yankees last June, but he is reportedly the frontrunner to be the A’s starting center fielder. Like McMahon, Fowler has put up some tantalizing minor league numbers. He probably won’t win any batting or OBP titles, but in the upper minors, he has displayed a combination of power and speed. In 70 games at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre prior to his callup, Fowler mashed 13 home runs and stole 13 bases while batting .293. The late rounds aren’t brimming with power/speed options, but Fowler is one to consider.
Derek Fisher, OF, Astros, 394.46 ADP, 92nd among OF
Speaking of readily available power/speed candidates, be sure to toss Fisher into your queue as your draft starts winding to a close. One of the best pieces of news in recent weeks was the report of Fisher getting a chance to win the Astros’ left field job this spring. Over the last three years, Fisher has hit for extra-base power and delivered steals at every level of the minors. His rise through the Astros’ affiliates culminated with his 2017 stint at Triple-A Fresno, where he slashed .318/.384/.583 while stealing 16 bases in 84 games. Fisher’s major league debut last season bore little resemblance to his minor league career, as he struck out at a 32.5 percent rate and batted .212. He certainly needs to make more frequent contact, but Fisher may have gotten a raw deal on his batting average, as his .346 xBABIP gives us a reason to discount his actual .299 BABIP.
Marco Estrada, SP, Blue Jays, 300.42, 84th among SP
Estrada made flyballs and spin rate fashionable in 2015 and 2016. By frequently locating up in the zone with extreme spin, the Blue Jays’ righty effectively limited runs and baserunners by getting gobs of popups and easy flyball outs. Estrada was among the leaders in average fastball spin rate once again last season, but his BABIP was a very ordinary .295. Something seemed amiss, not only with his BABIP, but with his 4.98 ERA and 1.38 WHIP, as he induced popups at a higher rate in 2017 than in 2016, and he allowed flyballs to travel even shorter distances on average. A .267 xBABIP hints at some possible bad luck that Estrada may have endured last season.
He also reportedly dealt with sleep issues related to stress. Estrada himself attributes his acute midseason struggles to the lack of sleep, and his late-season rebound (eight quality starts in his final 12 outings) can be viewed as a validation of his claims that he has put those difficulties behind him. Fantasy owners have reason to look to Estrada for roughly 180 innings with a low ERA and WHIP, which would easily make him a top 50 starting pitcher.
Dan Straily, SP, Marlins, 320.52 ADP, 93rd among SP
One could argue that, over the last two seasons, Straily has emerged as the NL version of Estrada, riding an extreme flyball rate into fantasy relevance. Through a stretch covering 326 innings, comprising his 2016 season with the Reds and his first 24 starts last year with the Marlins, Straily compiled a 3.75 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. It wasn’t quite on Estrada’s level but useful for fantasy owners nonetheless, especially when he was in pitcher-friendly venues. The comparison fell apart late in 2017, as Straily recorded an inflated 5.74 ERA over his last nine starts.
Every pitcher goes through rough stretches, and unfortunately, Straily’s came at a time that could sway our perception of him going into this spring’s drafts. His overall body of work from the last two years suggests this stretch was an outlier, though Straily’s performance in spring training does merit a closer look.
Owners are almost certainly down on Straily because of the Marlins’ offseason sell-off. Recall, though, that Straily went 14-8 for a 2016 Reds team that ranked 23rd in wOBA. He should get enough innings to have a shot at 10 or more wins, and he should provide some good ratios and a decent strikeout rate along the way.
Joe Musgrove SP/RP, Pirates, 389.11 ADP, 115th among SP
After a sensational second half of 2017 spent in the Astros’ bullpen, Musgrove will have an opportunity to prove himself as a starter once again. His new team, the Pirates, is letting him compete for a rotation spot, and we will get a chance to see if he can translate some of the progress he made as a reliever into a starting role. We can’t realistically expect Musgrove to repeat the 25.8 percent K-rate he had as a reliever, but perhaps he will carry over his more generous ground ball rate. In his 15 starts, he induced grounders at a 42.6 percent rate, and opponents feasted on him with a .220 ISO. As a reliever, his ground ball rate swelled to 51.9 percent, while the ISO he allowed shrank to .125. Musgrove should also be aided by pitcher-friendly PNC Park.
Musgrove has already shown exceptional control, and that in combination with an avoidance of extra-base hits, could enable him to go deep into games. While he has value as a late-rounder in Roto leagues, he has extra appeal for owners in Head-to-Head formats that have dedicated relief slots. Musgrove could provide plenty of quality innings as a relief-eligible pitcher, allowing you to sneak an extra start or two into your lineup every week.