One way to pass the time during Hot Stove season is to compile a sleepers list. It's not a bad use of time, because sooner or later, you need to identify the players who could be bargains late in your drafts. We can all get a little groggy by the latter rounds, so you need to do what you can to be prepared to make those picks count.
Below are my 12 favorite sleepers for standard mixed league drafts. As we creep closer to spring training and opening day, this list will surely change. Roles will become clearer, injuries may occur and players can come out from under the radar. For now, though, I am confident that these dozen players will be available at a point in the draft where they could deliver tremendous value.
The beauty of sleepers is that they're cheap. A year ago, I was targeting Michael Morse and Gavin Floyd as sleepers. Didn't work out so well. But they were reserve-round picks, so little was lost. I was also targeting A.J. Pollock and Dallas Keuchel. Those picks worked out considerably better.
Hopefully, this year's list will contain more Pollocks and fewer Morses, but either way, none of these players should require you to break the bank.
Those second-half rankings for Blake Swihart are a head-turner, aren't they? Swihart quietly productive second half placed him near the top of the catcher rankings in Fantasy value in both standard Rotisserie and Head-to-Head formats. After batting just .241 in the first half, Swihart hit .303 after the All-Star break, as he provided more power despite pulling the ball less often. He was helped out by a .391 BABIP that would be nearly impossible to repeat, but as long as he keeps hitting the other way, he could be a high-BABIP hitter for the long run.
What Swihart could lose in batting average as his BABIP regresses, he could gain with a lower strikeout rate. He struck out 77 times in 288 at-bats in 2015, but he was much better contact hitter as a prospect, and he will be just 24 on opening day.
Given the opportunity to play regularly, Swihart could hit in the .280s with double digit home runs. He won't be among the best power-hitting catchers, but other than Buster Posey, there may not be a catcher who can help you as much with batting average. As long as Swihart can fend off Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan for playing time, he could produce well enough to be a No. 1 catcher in standard mixed leagues. You almost certainly won't need to draft him as early as the other top hitters at the position.
In his first month as a major leaguer, Devon Travis obliterated baseballs on the way to a 1.018 OPS. It probably struck some Fantasy owners as too good to be true, while others may have simply marveled at this previoulsy unknown quantity. We never got the chance to see what Travis could do with a full-season, as he suffered a shoulder injury on the final day of April. He only played in 40 more games and was not the same.
Travis did bat .290 with 12 doubles from May forward, but he only hit two more home runs. Given that this is how Travis performed when hurt, and that he generated as much power as he did despite hitting to the opposite field at one of the highest levels in the majors, it's easy to see Travis' potential for huge production. Owners who doubt Travis' power skills because of his middling minor league numbers from 2014 (10 home runs in 396 at-bats at Double-A Erie) can be reassured by the bigger picture. Travis hit for more power the previous year in Class A and Advanced Class A, and his road splits with Erie (.320/.369/.533) were more in line with his 2013 stats.
Because of the time he missed last season plus possible widespread skepticism, Travis should be available late in standard mixed league drafts. I'll call it an upset if he does not finish among the top 10 second baseman by season's end.
Sometimes we can find sleepers through a random discovery. In scanning a list of last season's top producers to the opposite field (as measured by wOBA), I was taken aback by an apparent outlier. The top five, according to FanGraphs, were Bryce Harper, Ryan Braun, Joey Votto, Brandon Belt and Cory Spangenberg.
Though Spangenberg reliably sprays balls to all fields, he's about the last hitter I expected to see on this leaderboard. While he is no one's idea of a slugger, I had underestimated his achievements as a major leaguer. if you take away the first two months of 2015, he has hit for average with some doubles and triples power.
If you're looking for an example of the type of player Spangenberg could become, take a look at last season's version of Adam Eaton. In 2014, Eaton had doubles power to the opposite field but little pull power, but last year, he started hitting the ball a little farther. The left-handed-hitting Eaton produced 14 home runs, 10 of which went to right field.
There is no guarantee that Spangenberg will put up numbers like Eaton's last season, but it wouldn't take much to get him to Eaton's level. He could have a very similar stat line to Eaton's across the board, and those numbers would play even better in Fantasy at second base than in the outfield. That makes the third-year Padre a good target in the late rounds, especially in standard mixed Rotisserie leagues.
Yangervis Solarte started to draw some attention from Fantasy owners when he went on a 17-game hitting streak shortly after the All-Star break, but he took his performance to another level a full month before. From June 25 forward, covering a span of 85 games, Solarte accrued enough Fantasy value to place him among the 12 most productive players who will be eligible at third base this season. He missed getting eligibility in standard leagues by one game, which hurts his value, but if he can maintain his level of production from late June forward, Solarte will still be worth drafting in standard mixed leagues.
How can he do this? Solarte will have to maintain the gains he made in his strikeout per plate appearance rate, which shrank to a microscopic 8.7 percent over his final 85 games. He will also have to come close to a 20-homer, 35-doubles pace, which he exceeded over that same stretch. Particularly as a lefty, the switch-hitting Solarte hit the ball with more authority than he did as a rookie, so his trend of increasing power could have some legs.
Asdrubal Cabrera started off his 2015 season the way many likely expected him to -- continuing the decline from his 2011 peak with the Indians. On June 18 and 19, he posted back-to-back multi-hit games for the first time of the season, and that kicked off a hot streak that lasted the rest of the year.
Over his final 80 games of 2015, which were punctured by a brief July DL stint, Cabrera ranked fifth among shortstops in Rotisserie value, seventh in Fantasy points, and first in Fantasy points per plate appearance. Cabrera's resurgence was fueled by more frequent contact and more power. Over the 312 plate appearances during his final 80 games, he struck out just 52 times while averaging 282 feet on flyballs (as opposed 262 feet in his first 63 games).
Cabrera will be five years removed from his career-best 25-homer season, but he will be just 30 years old on opening day. He's no longer a youngster, but he's not too old to establish a new power peak, especially given what he achieved over the latter half of last season. It's probably too much to assume that Cabrera will be near the top of the shortstop rankings as he was over his final 80 games, but he looks primed to crack the top 12. That makes him relevant in standard mixed leagues, where you should be able to pick him up late in drafts.
Much was made of Ian Desmond's struggles, especially early in the 2015 season, but a strong finish landed him just outside the top 10 among shortstops in Fantasy value. Over the course of the season, Desmond put up home splits that were nearly identical to those he has compiled over his career.
This is important in sizing up Desmond's 2016 value for two reasons. First of all, if the Nationals Park version of Ian Desmond was as good as ever, then maybe his road splits were fluky-bad. For some reason, Desmond was pulling the ball more on the road, and that deflated his batting average. This sounds like an aberration, or at least something that is correctable. Second, Desmond has typically been better at Nationals Park than on the road, so he may need time to adjust to a new home venue if signs with another team this offseason.
Leaving the Nation's Capital won't necessarily be a bad thing for Desmond, as he has had success at venues like Citi Field and Coors Field (of course). Where he lands could be important, but Desmond's 2015 home splits provide hope that he could return to his previous near-elite levels. With last season's numbers being subpar and given the excitement generated by young shortstops like Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Addison Russell, Desmond could be overlooked and underpriced. He could be a late-rounder who could produce like a shortstop taken in the first half of a standard mixed league draft.
Those who lived through Matt Kemp's ups and downs last season would probably have little trouble thinking of him as a streaky player, and maybe one who isn't worth the trouble. A closer look reveals that Kemp only had one truly concerning month -- his May that produced a putrid .437 OPS and .198 wOBA. Over the rest of the season, Kemp put up a .284/.331/.497 slash line, which was just a shade worse than his 2014 marks of .287/.346/.506.
In 2014, Kemp was the No. 13 OF in Rotisserie value and No. 20 OF in Fantasy points, so if we assume that he has plateaued, we could draft him as a No. 2 OF in standard mixed leagues. Yet there is reason to think that Kemp may have been cheated on his batting average. Last season, he hit .036 on flyballs in play, which is unusually low for someone who has never had a flyball BABIP below .100 in any of his full seasons. It's especially odd given that Kemp produced the highest hard contact rate of his career (41.4 percent, per FanGraphs).
It's inexplicable as to why Kemp's bat goes AWOL from time to time, but the overwhelming majority of his recent body of work has been solid. You can confidently draft Kemp as your second outfielder, and he just might give you production that is similar to that of your No. 1 OF.
If anyone could be a post-hype sleeper in 2016, it's Joc Pederson. Even owners who knew not to expect Pederson to hit for average in his rookie season may be sour on him heading into 2016. In the second half of 2015, not only did he bat .178, but he hit only six home runs and four doubles. Pederson was no more strikeout-prone after the break than before it, but his second-half soft contact rate barely trailed that of major league leader Jean Segura.
Maybe we will never know why Pederson ceased to hit with authority, but we do know he did a fine job of getting on base and hitting for power for three straight months to begin the season. His lack of an extended major league track record of success makes Pederson a risky pick, but his upside remains tantalizing. It should come at a discount after his miserable second half. I plan on targeting him as a top 40 outfielder.
Kole Calhoun broke out as a power source in 2015, but not many owners may have noticed. From the Fourth of July forward, the fourth-year outfielder blasted 19 home runs, but over the final 57 games of that three-month stretch, Calhoun hit just .213. A bevy of strikeouts was partially to blame, though those were mostly clustered in the waning weeks of the season.
Over the last three months, Calhoun was an equal opportunity masher, hitting nearly all types of pitches for home runs with greater frequency. In the past, most of Calhoun's power came off of fastballs, but according to PitchFX data on BrooksBaseball.net, Calhoun was crushing curveballs and changeups as well. While there are no guarantees that Calhoun will resume a 35-40 homer pace this season, the fact that he was on one for three months makes him a sleeper candidate.
Khris Davis introduced himself to the Fantasy world late in 2013 with a power-laden 31-game run that he had failed to reproduce in the subsequent season and a half. Few expected that Davis would go on to be a perennial 40-homer player, so when he went on an even bigger power binge late last season, it was a bigger surprise than when he had settled into a modest level of production.
Davis' 20-homer performance over his final 54 games prorates to a 60-homer pace for a full season. Again, no one expects him to go Barry Bonds on us for a full season, but suddenly a 35-homer season doesn't seem like an unreasonable expectation, especially now that he has had two extreme extended power displays over the course of two and half seasons.
This is not to say that Davis' hitting style has no downside. He can be pull- and strikeout-prone, making him an all-or-nothing hitter with a low batting average and few doubles or triples. That renders Davis a late-rounder at best for owners in standard mixed points leagues, but conservatively, he is a top 50 Rotisserie outfielder with the potential to outproduce that draft position.
Kyle Hendricks was clearly a better pitcher last season than he was the year before, but because his ERA rose by nearly a run and a half, his improvement could go unrecognized on Draft Day. To be sure, Hendricks was due for some regression when he allowed just four home runs in 80 1/3 innings in his rookie year, but he was apparently unlucky by stranding just 68 percent of his baserunners.
In 2015, Hendricks went from being a subpar strikeout pitcher (5.3 K/9) to being a good one (8.4 K/9), and he continued to be a good control pitcher with strong ground ball tendencies. He didn't get better at inducing swings and misses, but Hendricks became one of the best pitchers in the majors at getting called strikes. With a higher rate of stranded runners, Hendricks should be about as valuable as Jose Quintana or Collin McHugh, returning the value of a top 50 starting pitcher.
In his first two full seasons in the majors, Matt Moore didn't quite live up to the hype of being a top prospect, and after a Tommy John surgery-induced 15-month layoff, his profile was significantly lower by the time he returned last July. While other pitchers, like Jose Fernandez and Patrick Corbin, made successful midseason returns from the procedure, Moore floundered so badly that he was demoted to Triple-A Durham after six starts.
During that initial stretch with the Rays, Moore was highly hittable with suspect control, but he turned his season around quickly upon his demotion. By the time Moore was back in the majors in September, he had increased his fastball velocity and was throwing strikes and getting swings and misses. If Moore can continue to pitch with control, he could be better far better than he was prior to having surgery. He is yet another player who should sink to the later rounds in standard mixed leagues, yet has the upside of a must-start player.