2020 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: Late-round picks, bounceback candidates highlight top picks
Chris Towers unveils his favorite sleepers, including the traditional late-round picks as well as a few mid-round bounce-back candidates.
We all love talking about sleepers for Fantasy, but nobody really knows what the term actually means. Is it strictly late-round players? Is it players who are just generally undervalued by the Fantasy community — the players everyone is proverbially "sleeping" on? Is it something else entirely?
I posed the question to my colleagues from the CBS Fantasy team in our Slack channel, and I present a lightly edited transcript of the discussion that followed:
chris.towers: So, the age old question for @here: What is a "sleeper"? Can someone like Giancarlo Stanton, a 5th/6th round pick count?
heath.cummings: I have pretty much never chosen someone from the single-digit rounds, I don't think.
dave.richard: The connotation of a sleeper involves a late-round pick ... I tend to view sleepers as underrated value picks.
chris.towers: Ah, but Giancarlo Stanton is an underrated value pick! Unless you ask @scott.white.
dave.richard: I can see the argument for that, but couldn't he also be a bounce-back candidate?
ben.gretch: I think Stanton can be a sleeper, personally. Lower ADP than years past, you're arguing that's wrong, people are sleeping on him. It does seem in Fantasy the word has morphed to mean something specific i.e. later rounds, though.
dave.richard: It's easy to call him a sleeper and then explain that sleepers can come in almost any round. "What else could he possibly be?"
What else could he possibly be, indeed. I like to embrace the ambiguity of the word "sleeper," because it allows me the flexibility to write about a wider range of players, so that's exactly what I'm going to do. For my first official round of sleeper picks, I'm going to throw out three different categories of sleeper for you to consider:
- Bounce-back candidates — Established players coming off down seasons presenting good Draft Day values
- Draftable sleepers — Players who will go off the board in most leagues who you should make a point to target in the back half of your draft
- Deep sleepers — Players you can target with your last few picks
What do they all have in common? If they hit, each of these players has the potential to provide a significant return on your draft investment. Isn't that the best definition of "sleeper" possible?
Chris Towers' Sleepers 1.0
NYY N.Y. Yankees • #27 • Age: 30
Generally speaking, if the best argument against a player is, "He got hurt last year," there's a huge opportunity for a significant return on investment. In Stanton's case, of course, this isn't just a one-year thing — he's played 145 games just four times in nine major-league seasons. Still, he played at least 158 in consecutive seasons before a disastrous 2019, so it's not like there's any reason to think he can't play a full season, and we already know what he's capable of when healthy — 97 homers, 232 RBI, and 225 runs combined between 2018 and 2019. Even in 2019, Stanton still hit the ball incredibly hard when he was healthy enough to play, so there aren't any real signs of skills slippage yet. You've got a chance to buy a hitter in the fifth or sixth round with legitimate 55-homer upside in the best lineup in baseball. Don't overthink this.
Corey Kluber SP
TEX Texas • #28 • Age: 33
Yes, Kluber was bad in 2019, posting a 5.80 ERA with 15 walks and a 1.654 WHIP in 35.2 innings before a line drive off his elbow essentially ended his season. Was he really that much worse than in 2017, when he posted a 5.06 ERA with 13 walks and a 1.375 WHIP in 37.1 innings before going on the IL in his first May start? Kluber, of course, came back from that injury and put together the best season of his career, winning his second Cy Young. Maybe 2019 really was the beginning of the end — the injury never allowed us to find out one way or the other. However, with Kluber falling into the 90 range in ADP, the price is cheap enough to be worth taking a flier to find out.
Edwin Diaz RP
NYM N.Y. Mets • #39 • Age: 25
Okay, maybe we collectively overreacted after Diaz's dominant 2018 season, but let's not make the same mistake in response to his frustrating 2019. Diaz was a disaster in 2019, surrendering 15 homers in just 58 innings, but it was also just 58 innings. Justin Verlander had a 45-inning stretch last season where he allowed 14 homers, but it wasn't all we saw from him. Diaz reportedly had trouble gripping his slider, which led to many of his troubles, but he also still had elite swing-and-miss and strikeout rates, and Statcast data suggests he was the victim of at least some bad luck on batted balls. Don't expect 2018 from Diaz again, but he's an obvious value with a 10th round ADP even in a year when all reliever values are depressed.
NYY N.Y. Yankees • #19 • Age: 31
Both Tanaka and Diaz seemed to have pretty compelling reasons for their struggles — the seams on the baseball were lower, and they had trouble gripping their best pitches. In Tanaka's case, it was his splitter, which led to a dramatic drop in his strikeout rate as Tanaka struggled with the grip and ultimately tried new grips later on in the season to recapture the pitch's effectiveness. It never really came back, and the Fantasy community is treating Tanaka like it's gone and never coming back. That seems like a good opportunity to buy low in the hopes that an offseason of work can help him get back to the level he used to be at.
SF San Francisco • #28 • Age: 32
The days of Posey being a power hitter are long gone — he hasn't had an ISO over .150 since 2015, which is a pretty low bar even for a catcher. However, I don't think he's as bad as he looked in 2019, when he hit for an average nearly 30 points lower than he ever had before. Posey is now a full year removed from microfracture surgery on his hip, and at a cost of the No. 17 catcher off the board and No. 242 overall, I'm willing to bet Posey can get back to being the rare catcher who is actually helpful in batting average.
Luke Voit 1B
NYY N.Y. Yankees • #59 • Age: 29
Ultimately, Voit's 2019 will go down as something of a disappointment, but if you look back, he was better than you probably remember. A hernia injury suffered at the end of July derailed his season, but before that he was hitting .278/.392/.493 and was on pace for a 30-homer season with nearly 200 combined runs and RBI. Playing time is always a concern on a team like the Yankees, but Voit was essentially an everyday player before the injury, and the hope here is he'll hit well enough to keep that kind of role after undergoing offseason hernia surgery. If he does, he could provide similar production to Josh Bell at a 10-round discount.
LAA L.A. Angels • #28 • Age: 28
Heaney is a pretty weird pitcher, one who primarily pitches up in the zone with his sinker, and it led to him getting hit quite hard last season. That could lead him to be the kind of pitcher who perpetually underperforms his peripherals, as his SIERA suggests he should have been more like a 3.87 ERA pitcher than what he was. However, if he can get a bit better luck with home runs in 2020, there's potential for a Lucas Giolito-esque breakout.
OAK Oakland • #12 • Age: 25
The A's showed a lot of faith in Murphy late last season, as he started 13 of the team's final 19 games during the middle of a playoff chase. That alone represents a strong vote of confidence, without even getting into the fact that he has hit .266 with 22 homers, 95 RBI and 103 runs in 155 games between Double-A and Triple-A in his career. Injuries have dogged Murphy throughout his career, and you can't just write that off since catchers always take a beating, but if he can stay healthy, there's every reason to believe he can be a top-five catcher as soon as 2020.
STL St. Louis • #65 • Age: 28
Gallegos' slider was one of the best pitches in baseball in 2019, and it fueled his breakout. You might have missed it because he primarily worked in a setup role, but with Carlos Martinez returning to the rotation and Jordan Hicks still recovering from Tommy John surgery, Gallegos could emerge fairly early on this spring as the Cardinals closer, and he has the look of an elite option if he does — he struck out 35.7% of opposing batters between Double-A and Triple-A, with a 1.94 ERA after being moved to a relief role full time.
Luis Urias 2B
MIL Milwaukee • #2 • Age: 22
By the time March rolls around, Urias is probably going to be relegated to the "Deep Sleepers" section because of the wrist injury he is recovering from, but that's just fine — I'll keep drafting him as late as he goes. Urias has looked overmatched in his time in the majors, hitting just .221/.318/.331 in 302 plate appearances, so many have already written off this former top prospect. However, he won't even turn 23 until June of this year, and Urias has continued to crush the ball at Triple-A, where he has a .305/.403/.511 career line in 196 games. Maybe he'll never figure it out at the major-league level, but I'll continue to bet on a young player with a track record and pedigree that suggest he should be able to provide average with some pop and speed from a middle infield spot, especially if he doesn't cost anything on Draft Day.
TB Tampa Bay • #49 • Age: 24
Coming off his age-23 season, McKay looks a lot like Aaron Nola did at the same point in his career. Nola was coming off a disappointing 2016, where he showed a surprising amount of strikeout prowess, but got hit too hard and ended up with a 4.78 ERA — that sounds a lot like McKay coming into 2020. It's not clear if he'll have a rotation spot waiting for him to begin the season, so it makes sense why he's going outside the top-300, but there's still top-36 Fantasy pitcher potential here at a steep discount.
Ryan Braun LF
MIL Milwaukee • #8 • Age: 36
This one is probably more for those of you in pure Rotisserie leagues or leagues with daily lineup locks, because Braun just gets too much time off to rely on in weekly head-to-head leagues. However, all Braun does every year is produce when nobody really expects him to: He has averaged 20 homers, 11 steals, and a .270 average over the last three seasons, and his 2019 was actually his best of the three. There isn't a significant difference between what Braun did in 2019 and what Andrew Benintendi did, as Fantasy Pros' Bobby Sylvester pointed out on Twitter, but there's about a 200 pick difference between them. Braun's upside is limited by playing time, but he's still a very productive player.
MIA Miami • #22 • Age: 24
Catch him on the right day, and Sandy Alcantara looks absolutely unhittable — and in the second half of 2019, it was the right day for Alcantara more often than not. He had a 2.78 ERA from the start of August on, with seven quality starts in his final 11. There were still more walks and fewer strikeouts than you'd like to see from him, but in both instances, he showed legitimate improvement. Alcantara does a great job of limiting damage on contact — career .270 BABIP — and his stuff is viscerally overpowering. If he can tweak his approach to induce more swinging strikes, Alcantara has the potential to emerge as a legitimate bat misser and Fantasy asset.
Steven Matz SP
NYM N.Y. Mets • #32 • Age: 28
After writing the Heaney bit earlier in this piece, I took to Twitter to ask a rhetorical question: "Is there a pitcher in MLB today who uses a two-seamer up in the zone as much as Andrew Heaney does?" Surprisingly, I got a real response, from Pitcher List's Alex Fast, and one that made me perk up: Heaney and Matz led the league by a pretty healthy margin in sinkers thrown up in the zone. I had already chosen Matz for this piece before seeing that, and seeing the similarities between Matz and Heaney there definitely made me take notice. Matz has been a pretty big disappointment in his MLB career, but he has been at his best when he has incorporated his slider and lengthened his arsenal, and that's what he did in 2019, throwing his fastball less than 50% of the time from June on, with his slider rising to about 15% usage to give him four distinct pitches. Matz didn't see immediate results from that change, but he was great in the second half of the season, sporting a 3.52 ERA and 1.197 WHIP after the All-Star break. There's your upside.
SEA Seattle • #18 • Age: 28
This one's all about betting on pedigree. We saw Kikuchi going in the top-150 in many leagues last spring, but Kikuchi's first major-league season was pretty much a disaster. But there were some positive signs, especially with his changeup and slider, two pitches that showed swing-and-miss potential and did a good job of limiting damage on contact. I'd like to see Kikuchi use that changeup more to neutralize right-handed batters, while the slider can remain a weapon against both. Don't write him off after one bad season.
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