As highlighted in Breakouts 1.0, the difference between a sleeper and a breakout is subjective. It can mean different things to different people. There's no right answer. For me, sleepers in Fantasy are more so undervalued players. They're good bets to outperform their average draft position but maybe sleepers don't have as much upside as breakouts. The truth is you should be drafting a bunch of sleeper and breakout candidates in the middle-late rounds of your draft.
Something else I've noticed in recent years is how sharp the Fantasy Baseball industry has become. For the most part, anybody who does their research will be able to identify these players. As a result, there's hardly such thing as a true sleeper anymore. Nonetheless, let's assume you're not doing your own research and you just came here for a list of names to draft. That's totally fine! We do the research so you don't have to.
Like breakouts, sleepers come in all different shapes and sizes. They can be found throughout different points in your draft and have many different traits. As a result, I tried the group the names below in the most relevant ways I saw fit.
Before I get into my favorite sleepers to this point, I want it on record that also like Miguel Vargas, Wil Myers and Jesse Winker this season. Scott White beat me to those names if you want to read about them here.
UNDERVALUED TOP-200 TARGETS
It feels like forever ago but Taylor Ward was one of the best hitters in baseball to start the 2022 season. Through May 20, he was slashing .370/.481/.713 with nine home runs and a gaudy 17% barrel rate. Why is the date May 20 so significant? It's the day he crashed into the outfield wall while making a catch, which caused a stinger in his neck/shoulder area. He missed a few games and then went on the Injured List with a hamstring injury in June. Those two injuries basically derailed Ward's season.
- Through May 20- .370/.481/.713, nine home runs, 18% BB rate, 20% K rate, 17% barrel rate
- May 21- August 31- .219/.293/.336, eight home runs, 9% BB rate, 24% K rate, 9.4% barrel rate
Of course, Ward was always going to regress from his blistering start. Perhaps you think the injuries are an excuse and he was just playing out of his mind. The thing is he finished extremely hot as well. Over Ward's final 31 games, he got back on track, batting .345/.397/.575 with six home runs and a 13.7% barrel rate. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Given what we saw at times last season and a strong minor-league track record, I think Ward is capable of hitting .270+ with 25-30 home runs and great counting stats in an improved Angels lineup.
Rowdy Tellez just put together a career year, albeit one stained by an awful .219 batting average. What we enjoyed was the big-time power. Tellez was one of just 10 hitters to launch 35 or more home runs last season. Well, Tellez fans, I have good news for you. We should expect the batting average to bounce back with the defensive shift restrictions implemented this upcoming season. According to the tweet below, Tellez lost 15 hits to full shifts last season. If you give him those 15 hits, he would have finished with a .248 batting average.
Pretty crazy Friday night watching MLB Network. Corey Seager 🚀 pic.twitter.com/0BdCK9nycM— Frank Stampfl (@Roto_Frank) January 28, 2023
Funny enough, Tellez's expected batting average was .252, according to Statcast. The math all seems to add up. Tellez is unique in that he's always made a lot of contact for a lumbering fellow. Last season he finally hit more fly balls, posting a career-high 45.5% fly ball rate and a career-high 15.3 launch angle. His 12.9% barrel rate ranked fourth among qualified first basemen in 2022. He'll lose some playing time against left-handed pitching but I'd expect another 30+ home runs and an improved batting average this season.
I've always been intrigued by Jon Gray's skillset and that's not going to change now. On the surface, Gray was fine in his first season with the Rangers, posting a 3.96 ERA, 1.13 WHIP with 134 strikeouts over 127.1 innings. The underlying numbers paint an even better picture. He posted a career-high 34.8% chase rate while his 11.6% swinging strike rate and 96 MPH average fastball velocity were both his best since 2019. His average fastball actually jumped 1.1 MPH compared to 2021.
Gray is mostly a two-pitch pitcher but his fastball yielded better results now that he's out of Colorado and his slider is elite. He threw the slider 36% of the time last season, posting a .163 batting average against and a 20.6% swinging strike rate. This is purely anecdotal but I also love when another ace joins a pitching staff. Gray is not Jacob deGrom but they do both use their fastball and slider quite a bit. I'd imagine Gray could learn a thing or two from the best pitcher this generation has to offer. Gray is usually good for at least one IL stint per season but when he's on the mound, he can offer top-40 starting pitcher upside.
UPDATED 3/13 — Undoubtedly, it was a disappointing rookie season for Riley Greene but let's put it in perspective. He fractured his foot on April 2, which delayed his season debut until June 18. That in itself is a lot to overcome for a 21-year-old. On top of that, nobody performed well for the Tigers last season. That doesn't excuse Greene but it didn't help, either. I expect the former top prospect to bounce back in 2023 and the dimension changes in Comerica Park should certainly help. Not only are the center-field and right-field walls moving in but the height is being lowered as well.
While Greene only hit five home runs, Statcast tells us he deserved nine based on his batted balls. Speaking of Statcast, Greene did some interesting things last season. His 45.2% hard-hit rate ranked 77th percentile while his 112.1 max exit velocity ranked 82nd percentile. Research shows that max exit velocity is correlated with raw power. From a plate-discipline perspective, Greene's 28.7% strikeout rate was high but his chase rate and swinging strike rate were both better than league average. I'd expect some positive regression with the strikeouts, which will help the batting average. If Greene gets back on track like I think he will, you should expect a little bit of everything as your fourth or fifth outfielder.
Since writing about Greene back in January, he's performed quite well in spring training. In 10 games he's gone 8-28 (.286) with two homers and one stolen base. Scott White also recently wrote about how Greene's swing looks 'perfect' and that he's not hitting as many ground balls. Things look promising for the young Tigers outfielder!
Much like Greene, CJ Abrams was a 21-year-old top prospect who also had a rough rookie season. Let's also put this in perspective. As much as I loved the Padres being aggressive with Abrams at the time, he probably shouldn't have been on their Opening Day roster. Abrams played 42 games at Double-A in 2021. Those were the only games he ever played above High-A ball. That's right. The Padres put him on their Opening Day roster straight from Double-A. While Michael Harris made that look easy for the Braves last season, it doesn't happen that often.
Abrams did eventually do some nice things with the Nationals after being acquired in the Juan Soto blockbuster. For starters, he made a lot of contact, striking out just 16.6% of the time. That would lend itself to the advanced hit tool scouts believed he possesses. Over his final 28 games, Abrams hit .314 with five steals. That's a 26-steal pace over 150 games. I'm not sure we get much power at all but if he really gets going, we could see 30+ steals with the new rules. For now, Abrams is worth targeting as an upside middle infielder who could play his way into shallow-league value.
Anytime a pitcher throws a no-hitter, it should cause excitement for Fantasy. That's what made evaluating Reid Detmers so odd last season. Just after throwing his no-no, Detmers had just a 5.8 K/9 with a 7.9% swinging strike rate. While it was a great accomplishment, we really couldn't recommend him for Fantasy. He would struggle over his next six starts and eventually get sent back to the minors in June.
He used his time down there to re-work his slider and it paid off. Detmers made one start at Triple-A and registered 14 strikeouts. He returned in July and he was basically a new pitcher. Over his final 13 starts, Detmers pitched to a 3.04 ERA with 78 strikeouts over 71 innings and a gaudy 13.1% swinging strike rate. He reshaped his slider and basically doubled its usage from earlier in the season. There were some hiccups down the stretch but the potential is clearly there. Detmers is a former top prospect who now has a strong slider to go along with his calling card, the curveball. Two-start weeks will be hard to come by in the Angels rotation but if Detmers continues his progression, he's a steal at his current cost.
From one pitcher with a ton of pedigree to another, Edward Cabrera is loaded with talent. Whether it was going into Coors Field and allowing just one hit over six scoreless innings or throwing five no-hit innings at the Cubs, Cabrera gave us a taste of the upside. His repertoire is ridiculous, offering a fastball that routinely pushes 100 MPH and three secondary pitches each with a whiff rate over 30%. So, what's the catch? Control.
He posted 4.1 BB/9 and walked three or more in eight of his 14 starts. It's always been an issue dating back to his days in the minors. I seem to recall another Marlins starter who struggled mightily with walks. Prior to 2021, Sandy Alcantara owned a 3.99 BB/9. Now I'm not saying Cabrera will become Alcantara. I'm trying to show it's possible for a young pitcher to improve his control. Cabrera's stuff is filthy. The Marlins just really need to work on getting him to throw strikes. I'm convinced his stuff is so good that even if he throws it for strikes, the opposition won't be able to hit it. Cabrera offers a ton of upside, but until we have confirmed the control has improved, he also comes with a lot of downside. The upside is worth the risk late in drafts.
AN OLDIE & A NEWBIE
UPDATED 3/13 — If you listen to Fantasy Baseball Today, then you know how shallow the third base position is. I'm here to offer you a fallback to the fallback plan. If you miss out on everything else, Justin Turner is the name for you. He's starting to show signs of aging but plate discipline is not one of them. For the sixth season in a row, Turner produced a walk rate of over 9% and a strikeout rate of under 17%. If you play in a league that rewards plate discipline, like a H2H points format, Turner could still be a viable starting option.
Unfortunately, Turner will likely see a dip in counting stats as he goes from the high-octane Dodgers lineup to a depleted Red Sox lineup. It's hard to imagine but Turner could actually see a boost in batting average with the Green Monster in left field. He struggled for a lot of the 2022 season but did excel once returning from the Injured List in August. Over his final 42 games, Turner hit .318 with five homers, 14 doubles, and an .887 OPS. If you miss out on those elite third basemen, it might make sense to just wait it out for Turner late in your drafts.
Unfortunately, Justin Turner was hit in the face with a pitch last week and required 16 stitches. The good news is that he's already resumed baseball activity and could return to Grapefruit League games later this week. I still like Turner as a sleeper but he could miss a few games to start the season. Maybe pair Turner with Alec Bohm or Josh Jung if you wait at third base in your drafts.
Simply put, Ezequiel Tovar is going too late for an everyday Rockies player, especially one touted as a top prospect. Tovar missed time in the minors last season but when he did play, he was awesome. In 71 games between Double-A and Triple-A, Tovar hit .319 with 14 homers, 17 steals and a .927 OPS. He even made it to the majors for nine games at the end of the season as a 21-year-old.
As we know, you don't need to be a perfect hitter to succeed in Coors Field. Over the past three years, Colorado ranks at the top of Statcast's park factor metric. That helps provide a higher floor for a hitter this young. As mentioned above, however, Tovar is already viewed as a gifted hitter. He boasts a .283 career batting average in the minors and never posted a strikeout rate higher than 21.7% at any level. Also, given how lackluster the Rockies' lineup is, Tovar could work his way toward the top. I like Tovar as a middle infielder in a Roto league or a bench stash in a shallower format.
It's been an interesting career path for Ross Stripling. He broke out earlier in this career, representing the Dodgers in the 2018 All-Star game. Stripling would perform well in 2019 before completely falling off during the shortened season and 2021. It took a while but Stripling finally put it back together last season with the Blue Jays. He posted a career-best 3.01 ERA and 1.02 WHIP, thanks to the best control of his career. His 1.34 BB/9 were third-best among starting pitchers with at least 130 innings pitched.
How did he do it? The changeup. Stripling has always had a strong changeup. He just did what most successful pitchers do. Throw your best pitch more. He used the changeup a career-high 27% of the time last season, nearly double how often he used it in 2021. The pitch had just a .203 batting average against with a 20.9% swinging strike rate. On top of his career renaissance, Stripling now gets to move from the Rogers Centre in Toronto to Oracle Park in San Francisco. Not only is it a great park to pitch in but a great organization to pitch for. Stripling might not have the highest upside but if he continues with this changeup, he'll be a rock-solid pitcher whose way undervalued right now.
UPDATED 3/13 — What if I told you to draft Tyler Anderson and Andrew Heaney this time last offseason? You would have laughed at me. What if I'm telling you to draft Noah Syndergaard now? This is basically my "leap of faith" sleeper suggestion. I truly don't have many numbers to support why you should draft Syndergaard. He was fine in his return from Tommy John surgery, posting a 3.94 ERA with a 1.25 WHIP. However, his strikeout rate was awful and his fastball velocity was four MPH less than it was pre-injury.
There's just something magical about the Los Angeles Dodgers. Anderson and Heaney each got paid this offseason following successful 2022 seasons with the team. Tony Gonsolin just had a career year. The Dodgers know how to get the most out of their pitchers. It also helps Syndergaard's case that he's been working with Driveline Baseball and Tread Athletics this offseason to refine his mechanics and improve his velocity. I'm not saying he'll return to being 'Thor' but if any team can get him back on track, it will be the Dodgers. Syndergaard's current ADP is so late that it doesn't even hurt to find out.
We have new information since I wrote this back in January. Syndergaard has pitched in three games this spring and, while he's performed well, that velocity has not improved. Apparently he's topping out at 94 MPH, which sounds a lot like last year. I still think I'm going to give the Dodgers the benefit of the doubt here. He's allowed just four hits in 9.1 innings this spring, citing a new-found confidence and conviction with his pitches. The strikeout upside could be limited but perhaps the Dodgers could repeat what they did with Tyler Anderson one year ago.
Are we really doing the Aaron Civale thing again? Yes. Yes, we are. The 4.92 ERA was ugly but that came with a 3.87 FIP, 3.55 SIERA and a 3.80 xERA. Civale also produced a career-best strikeout rate while maintaining his stellar control. How? He made a pitch-mix change. As far as I can remember, Civale was always a 'Jack of all trades, master of none' type of pitcher. In 2021, he threw six different pitches over 10% of the time. He simplified the pitch mix in 2022, throwing the cutter, curve and sinker each over 21% of the time.
The curveball has long been a great whiff pitch for Civale and now he's leaning into it. He threw the curve a career-high 27.5% of the time and it posted a .124 batting average against to go along with a 19.7% swinging strike rate. Civale actually had great results over his final six starts, leaning into his cutter and curve even more during that stretch. I get it if you've been burned too many times and just can't go back to the well. This is more of a deep-league play but one I have confidence in based on these pitch-mix changes.