2014 Draft Prep: Sleepers, 1.0
We're pretty early in the process still.
It's mid-February. Only the most impatient of Fantasy leagues have scheduled their drafts already. Keepers are still being submitted. Rankings are still being finalized. Even real-life teams are still sorting things out.
Right now, the Fantasy player pool is sort of like the Wild West, where men are men and sleepers are sleepers.
It's all still so fresh and new that not everyone has the same ones yet. That won't last. It never does. Once a sleeper is declared a sleeper, he ceases to be a sleeper. It's the Catch-22 of Fantasy analysis.
But for now, we can dream. Come mid-March when I revisit this list, we'll have a better idea which of these players actually come at a discount.
A word of warning: Some sleepers also qualify as "breakouts," and they have their own separate column. Stop with this one, and you might miss some of my best and brightest.
Note: The numbers in parentheses reflect average draft position on CBSSports.com, assuming a 12-team league.
Billy Hamilton , OF, Reds (Roto: Rd. 5, H2H: Rd. 13)
Hamilton is the perfect example of a player whose sleeper hype may ultimately defeat itself. Already in Rotisserie leagues, it's looking that way. You'd be crazy to gamble on him in Round 5, with so much assured greatness still available at that point. So for now, let's assume outlier data is having its say there and that he'll more likely go where we've seen him go in some of our mock drafts -- eighth round, ninth round, something like that. Again, we're early in the process still. If it continues, I'll adjust.
In leagues where I know I can get him later, I've taken to reserving my third outfield spot for him, loading up at other positions in the meantime. His speed is already the stuff of legend. Scoring from third base on an infield fly ball, scoring from second on an infield grounder -- these are feats he actually accomplished in the minors in addition to his record-setting 155 stolen bases in 2012. And as is usually the case for that particular skill set, it translated perfectly to the majors last year. In 13 games, Hamilton stole 13 bases, one in each of his first five pinch-running opportunities and four in his first ever start. If he plays full-time as expected, 60 is probably the low point for him, with 70 or even 80 a distinct possibility.
Of course, if he's more Willy Taveras than Michael Bourn with the bat, as some believe his .256 batting average and .308 on-base percentage at Triple-A Louisville last year indicate, he'll be a Roto specialist and nothing more. But judging by his .311 batting average and .410 on-base percentage between high Class A and Double-A in 2012, I'm willing to wager on him being better than both.
I mean, the infield hits alone ... just imagine.
Jose Abreu , 1B, White Sox (Roto: Rd. 12, H2H: Rd. 12)
Most of what we know about Abreu is anecdotal. He's coming from Cuba, where competition is watered down and access is limited. The number of unresolved variables makes Abreu, like Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig before him, a virtual shot in the dark.
So how'd that work out for them?
To recap, here's what we do know about Abreu. He had better numbers than both Cespedes and Puig in Cuba, setting a record for home runs in a season. The more the White Sox see of him, the more convinced they are of his abilities, raving about his low-effort swing and ability to drive the ball the other. He's strong. He's disciplined. He has a job to all himself.
About the only knock on him so far isn't so easily measured: bat speed. If he's short on it, it could hinder him against some of the harder throwers in the game. But then again, a good enough hitter should be able to compensate to some degree. It doesn't seem like a complete deal-breaker, but again, nobody can assess him with any real certainty.
It's ultimately a question of relativity. Does the reward justify the risk? For a fifth-round pick, I'd say no. Why turn down a proven high-end player for a potential one? But in the 12th round, picking through flawed players like Austin Jackson and Brandon Phillips , why in the world wouldn't you take him?
You won't find a player with a clearer shot at early-round numbers at that stage of the draft. And if he doesn't deliver them, who cares? Nobody has ever lost a league in the 12th round.
But if Abreu delivers somewhere between Freddie Freeman and Edwin Encarnacion numbers, which seems within the realm of possibility, he may well win it for you.
Khris Davis , OF, Brewers (Roto: Rd. 11, H2H: Rd. 16)
Those who spent the last two months of 2013 lamenting Ryan Braun betrayal may have missed something special in his replacement. Davis returned from Triple-A Nashville to hit .294 with 11 home runs and a 1.004 OPS in his final 119 at-bats, spending most of that time as the starting left fielder.
There was a Shane Spencer quality to his emergence that leaves some Fantasy owners skeptical. Here he was, at age 25 and with no pedigree to speak of, making a mockery of the best the game has to offer. It seemed too much like a fairy tale to be true.
But Davis' minor-league numbers tell a different story. He could always hit, batting .350 with 15 home runs and a 1.055 OPS in half a season of at-bats between three levels in 2012, but injuries and defensive limitations kept him off the prospect radar. Instead of Spencer, the closer comparison might be Allen Craig , whose impressive minor-league track record translated perfectly to the majors, much to everyone's wonderment.
The Brewers are certainly buying into the idea, not only trading Nori Aoki this offseason, but also moving Braun, their franchise player, from left field to right to accommodate Davis. Their enthusiasm should have you hopeful of a best-case scenario, especially if his lack of track record allows him to slide to the late rounds.
Marco Estrada , SP, Brewers (Roto: Rd. 16, H2H: Rd. 14)
Haven't we done this before with Estrada? Just last year, in this very space? What happened to "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me?"
Quite simply, I don't think he fooled me.
Maybe in the early stages of 2013, when that initial sleeper pick looked like a miss. On June 3, he had a 5.32 ERA and 1.36 WHIP and was rightfully on the waiver wire in most leagues. But something must have been off then, something he couldn't address until he went on the DL with a strained hamstring soon afterward. When he returned two months later, he was as effective as ever, posting a 2.15 ERA, 0.75 WHIP and 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings in nine starts.
He has mastered the art of bat-missing, piling up strikeouts while averaging less than 90 mph on his fastball, which keeps him in the strike zone as much as any pitcher in baseball. His 5.09 K/BB ratio during that nine-start stretch would have ranked fifth among all starting pitchers over the full season.
And it's not like it just started. Over his last 29 starts now, he has a 3.36 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings. And that's including that rough patch to begin 2013. Remove it from the equation and, well, look out, Cliff Lee .
Maybe Estrada is one of those streaky pitchers who will never sustain his best over a full season. In terms of pure ability, he certainly leaves something to be desired. But for a 14th-round pick, you have nothing to lose and so much to gain with him.
Honestly, what are Matt Garza and A.J. Griffin going to do that he doesn't?
Brian Dozier , 2B, Twins (Roto: Rd. 13, H2H: Rd. 17)
Dozier is one of those jack-of-all-trades-type hitters who Fantasy owners tend to overlook because they don't excel at any one thing. No, he won't help with everything, but the sum is greater than the parts. Think Ben Zobrist , Martin Prado , Shane Victorino , etc. These guys have won me championships over the years by repeatedly slipping through the cracks.
And now, another second baseman joins the fray, giving a historically shallow position surprising depth. In fact, Dozier is a big reason why, unless I'm the one to draft Robinson Cano in the first round, I tend to wait at second base, knowing I can nab him or a high-upside type like Jurickson Profar or Anthony Rendon closer to the end.
I just don't see what he did over the final three months of the season (which doesn't even include the power binge in mid-June that first introduced him to Fantasy owners) that's so unsustainable. It's not like he had some otherworldly batting average or disproportionate RBI total. During that time, he hit .255 with 11 homers, eight steals and a .762 OPS, which isn't impressive on its own, but when you factor in all the doubles, he averaged 2.97 Fantasy points per game from July 1 on, which would have ranked sixth among second basemen for the season, behind Cano, Dustin Pedroia , Matt Carpenter , Jason Kipnis and Ian Kinsler .
Dozier slugged .491 in his last year in the minors, so again, nothing particularly odd here for a player in the early stages of his prime. I'll bet on him doing it again, particularly for the price.
George Springer , OF, Astros (Roto: Rd. 11, H2H: Rd. 19)
Remember how last year, Wil Myers was the prospect Fantasy owners were targeting in the middle-to-late rounds in anticipation of his arrival a little ways down the road? This year, that prospect is Springer, who nearly put together a 40-40 campaign in 492 at-bats split almost evenly between Double- and Triple-A last year.
Of course, for Myers, the wait was longer than most people expected, extending into mid-June. For Springer, opening day is a distinct possibility. But don't take my word for it.
"I think we're close," general manager Jeff Luhnow told MLB.com in late January. "We'll learn a lot more in the spring, but I do expect, based on what he did last year, he'll spend a majority of the season with the Houston Astros."
Now, as prospects go, Springer is something slightly less than can't-miss. He has struck out about every third at-bat so far as a professional, which could come back to bite him at the highest level. But he makes such hard contact that a Matt Kemp scenario -- a respectable batting average despite a low contact rate -- seems likely.
Ultimately, the Astros could go the route of other rebuilding clubs and wait until mid-summer -- when Super 2 is no longer a concern -- to promote Springer, but he's already 24 and has dominated at every stop. By all accounts, he's ready. In Round 11, the risk may not quite justify the reward, but two or three rounds later, he's the kind of pick that wins championships.
Chris Archer , SP, Rays (Roto: Rd. 19, H2H: 14)
Archer is just the latest example of why analytics may not be the best way to assess prospects. His minor-league numbers made him out to be a free-wheeling flame-thrower with no grasp of the strike zone, but after his first month or so in the big leagues last year, there wasn't even a hint of control issues. Just the opposite, in fact. His 1.7 walks per nine innings over his final 16 starts would have ranked ninth among starting pitchers over the full season.
He compiled a 2.84 ERA and 1.01 WHIP during that stretch but averaged just 6.9 strikeouts per nine innings. So now, the reason Fantasy owners may avoid him on Draft Day is because he didn't pile up strikeouts the way he did in the minors. My, how the tides have turned.
But which is better, really? This way, he's pitching deep into games, giving him a better chance at wins in addition to the low ERA and WHIP. Of course, pitchers who average seven strikeouts per nine innings are so common these days that perhaps Archer doesn't deserve more than a late-round pick, but I wouldn't rule out the best of both worlds for him, given his stuff. If he had the innings to qualify, his average fastball velocity would have ranked third among all starting pitchers, behind only Matt Harvey and Stephen Strasburg .
As he continues to learn hitter tendencies and hone his secondary pitches, I'm thinking the strikeouts will come.
Jose Quintana , SP, White Sox (Roto: Rd. 20, H2H: Rd. 13)
Anyone with even a peripheral understanding of baseball statistics can see Quintana is a quality pitcher. He reached 200 innings for the first time last year, has surprisingly good control for a young left-handed pitcher and won't bury you in ERA, WHIP or strikeouts. He has no major faults of any kind, really, so no one would balk at him as a late-round, fill-out-your-pitching-staff kind of guy.
So why include him in a sleepers column? I'm not so sure he's not something more.
Why are we so quick to assume a 25-year-old with less than two full years of experience has already peaked? He's just now entering his prime. True, he wasn't much of a prospect coming up through the minors, so maybe we just can't fathom him overachieving more than he already has. But he was a legitimate bat-misser in his six minor-league seasons, recording 10.0 strikeouts per nine innings while giving up just 6.6 hits per nine. Most likely, he doesn't have the stuff for those kinds of numbers in the majors, but he took a step in that direction over his final 17 starts last year, compiling a 3.11 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings.
With an innings-eater mentality and underrated strikeout ability, Quintana may not be an ace in waiting, but he's more than he gets credit for. When your draft reaches the point where all the higher-profile starting pitcher sleepers are gone, such as the next two on this list, he's a priority pick.
Brandon Beachy , SP, Braves (Roto: Rd. 21, H2H: Rd. 14)
Think back to May 2012, before anyone had heard of Yasiel Puig or a royal baby. It wasn't so long ago, really. Back then, a 27-year-old right-hander was following up an impressive rookie campaign with what was shaping up to be a Cy Young-caliber season. Through 13 starts, he had a 2.00 ERA and 0.96 WHIP and was extending himself beyond six innings for the first time in his career.
Now, more than a year-and-a-half removed from Tommy John surgery, he might as well be Jaime Garcia in the hearts and minds of Fantasy owners: damaged goods with some fleeting memories of promise. They don't want to take the bait, especially after his first attempt to return last season ended in a second surgery.
It's a completely different situation, though. Beachy had some debris in his elbow that needed to be cleaned out, creating tightness that had previously gone unexplained. He says he feels great now, and the procedure has proven to be so reliable over the years that you have no reason for pessimism with him. An 18-month timetable is more typical anyway.
Just how good could Beachy be? In 2012, he became just the 13 pitcher in major-league history to average more than 10 strikeouts and fewer than three walks per nine innings (minimum 140 innings), and he did it as a rookie.
Chris Tillman , SP, Orioles (Roto: Rd. 23, H2H: Rd. 14)
Tillman developed a reputation as a good-luck pitcher in 2013, ranking 19th at his position in Head-to-Head points leagues even though his 3.71 ERA and 1.22 WHIP portray him as significantly less. Most Fantasy owners attribute it to his 16 victories and don't put much stock in a repeat performance, allowing him to slide to the late rounds or perhaps even go undrafted in Rotisserie leagues. And going by his overall numbers, I'm right there with them.
But while it's true Tillman's 2013 began with good fortune, he grew into the pitcher his win-loss record made him out to be. In the second half -- a span of 14 starts -- he averaged 8.6 strikeouts and 2.6 walks per nine innings -- a good ratio by anyone's standards. For comparison's sake, Homer Bailey averaged 8.6 and 2.3. The result was a 3.42 ERA and 1.07 WHIP during that stretch. And again, that's in nearly half a season.
Maybe if some flavor-of-the-week Carlos Villanueva type put up those numbers in that span, you could dismiss it, not wanting to pursue a mirage. But for Tillman -- a former top prospect rushed to the big leagues at age 21, still throwing as hard as ever and just now entering his prime at age 25, it may well be the start of something special.
And now may well be your last chance to get him at a discount.
Oswaldo Arcia , OF, Twins (Roto: Rd. 22, H2H: Rd. N/A)
Of all the sleepers on this list, Arcia may be the truest interpretation in that nothing about his performance to date should have Fantasy owners excited. He spent most of 2013 in the majors but didn't have the plate discipline to matter in Head-to-Head leagues or the power to matter in Rotisserie. He was just another guy on the waiver wire.
But he wasn't an outright disaster. He held his own, which is all you can expect from a 22-year-old playing at the highest level for the first time. Rookies like Mike Trout and Yasiel Puig have spoiled us, making us think they should all be world-beaters right way, when really the Arcia path of taking a few lumps before eventually growing into the role is the more common one.
And if his minor-league track record is any indication, he has some room to grow. Over six seasons, he compiled a .314 batting average and .915 OPS. No California League or Pacific Coast League to inflate his numbers. That's all talent, baby.
With Ryan Doumit out of the picture, Arcia should have a job all to himself in 2014 and is a year closer to his prime. I'd like for his plate discipline to be better, but in Rotisserie leagues, I'm already rolling the dice on him as my fifth outfielder. It's a Brett Lawrie -like leap of faith, only half a draft later and without all the missteps along the way.
Brad Peacock , SP, Astros (Roto: N/A, H2H: N/A)
Even accounting for Jarred Cosart completely unsustainable 1.95 ERA (seriously, check out his strikeout and walk rates, just not while you're eating), the Astros pitcher most deserving of a second look is Peacock, he of the 5.18 ERA and 1.38 WHIP last year.
So here it is.
His season began in dreadful fashion with an 8.07 ERA, 1.76 WHIP and completely deserved demotion (or several, actually) to Triple-A Oklahoma City of the heavy-hitting Pacific Coast League, where baseballs fly and pitchers die. Pitching for the Athletics' Triple-A affiliate at the time, Peacock himself had a 6.01 ERA and 1.58 WHIP there in 2012. How could he ever earn his way back with numbers like that?
He couldn't. So instead, he compiled a 2.73 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and -- get this -- 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings in 14 appearances, including 13 starts. It wasn't too unlike the 2.39 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 10.9 strikeouts per nine he compiled in the Nationals system in 2011, when he first emerged on the prospect scene to become a key piece in the Gio Gonzalez deal. Better yet, the numbers translated when he returned to the majors in August, resulting in a 3.64 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 8.9 strikeouts per nine in nine starts.
So what changed for him? He added a slider. Sometimes that's all it takes for a pitcher known to have the ability.
Right now, Peacock is going undrafted in mixed leagues, and you don't need to buck the trend. But a quick start should have you racing to the waiver wire.
Also in the discussion: Brad Miller , SS, Mariners; Justin Masterson , SP, Indians; Ubaldo Jimenez , SP, Free Agent; Kole Calhoun , OF, Angels; Michael Pineda , SP, Yankees