You know what you came here for.
You're looking to get an edge, to unearth that rock that turns out to be a diamond, and I have for you 12 names that could possibly fit the bill. Some of them are carried over from Sleepers 1.0, but most of them are brand spanking new.
A word of warning, though: This isn't my only list of value picks. I wouldn't even say it's my favorite. During the course of Draft Prep Season, I have to drop a lot of names into a lot of buckets, and some fit neater into some, such as Breakouts or Underrateds, than others.
So as you go about your draft prep, don't think of this particular column as a one-stop shop. Be on the lookout for Breakouts 2.0, which I think will be even more reflective of my draft habits, and recognize that if the Fantasy Baseball world is truly sleeping on a player, then he probably presents a fair amount of downside, too.
That's not at all true for this first example, though ...
It's ridiculous we're having this conversation again after Urshela so completely validated the leap he made in 2019. He sustained his gains in average exit velocity and hard-hit rate, showing that the power spike wasn't just a one-year blip, and actually improved on his already elite strikeout and line-drive rates. He hasn't left any room for you to question his batting average potential, in other words, his .315 xBA ranking alongside DJ LeMahieu's, and since he's proven twice over to have the capacity for 20-plus homers, he should be an easy starter at a position with few sure bets.
Among those who had fewer Head-to-Head points per game than him in 2020 (not saying he's better than all of them, but just saying): Alex Bregman, Nolan Arenado, Rafael Devers, Eugenio Suarez, Max Muncy, Matt Chapman, Kris Bryant and Yoan Moncada.
We saw some bloated strikeout rates from some unlikely sources during the pandemic-afflicted 2020 season, and I'm generally inclined to give a pass to that -- particularly for someone like Bell, who had never struck out even 20 percent of the time prior to last year. He's among those who said the reduced access to video due to health and safety protocols put him in a tailspin, and GM Mike Rizzo has already said the coaching staff has a plan in mind to shorten his swing.
A year ago, Bell had just hit 37 homers with a .936 OPS and was regarded as one of the studs at his position, so a 163 ADP seems awfully dismissive coming off a year in which most everyone deserves a pass.
The source of Mancini's disappearance in 2020 wasn't one we're used to seeing: colon cancer, which required him to step away for treatment and recovery. It's the sort of affliction that can alter a person's physiology, and we can only speculate at this point what sort of toll it took on Mancini. But we do know he's ready for spring training -- having reported early, in fact -- and he's already said he's feeling like himself again.
"By the time December rolled around, I was right where I always am and doing my normal offseason progression," he said.
An abundance of caution has him being drafted 186th on average, which seems like a no-risk investment in a guy who put up numbers to rival J.D. Martinez when last healthy.
Expected to be fully ready to go after a lengthy recovery from his second Tommy John surgery, Jameson Taillon's circumstances have improved considerably since we last saw him. It's not just that he swapped out a bottom-feeder supporting cast for one of the best in baseball. It's that he escaped the Pirates, whose backward pitching philosophies are known to have squandered the talents of Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow, among others.
Taillon looks like a similar case, being a former elite pitching prospect who was mostly reduced to pitching to contact in the majors. Like Cole and Glasnow, he made heavy use of a two-seamer even though four-seamers and breaking balls are where all the strikeouts are. The 29-year-old has already set about transforming himself, shortening his delivery for a higher spin rate on his fastball and a harder-breaking slider, which will hopefully put him on a better path.
We don't really know what the upside could be for Taillon, but we do know that similar talents were transformed by a simple change of scenery. And at starting pitcher, late-round upside is increasingly hard to find.
Just to remind you where things stood a year ago, Mitch Garver was looking like the hottest thing at the coldest position. He had just homered 31 times in 311 at-bats, leading all catchers not just in slugging percentage (.630), ISO (.357) and OPS (.995) but also Head-to-Head points per game, his 3.61 putting him way ahead of even J.T. Realmuto (3.06).
We're going to abandon all that for a miserable 72 at-bat stretch during a weird season with a hurried buildup and limited video access, all while he was nursing an intercostal strain? Seems short-sighted, doesn't it? The strikeout rate alone suggests that not all was right with him, jumping from 24.2 to 45.7 percent. The man didn't forget how to hold a bat, for goodness' sake.
Yes, he faces more competition from Ryan Jeffers now, and true, his 2019 breakthrough was itself unexpected. But as uninspiring as most catchers are, why not go for the home run at the next-to-nothing cost? If it doesn't work out, it's maybe the one position where you can still pivot to a player who'll be no less useful than what half the teams in the league are using.
I liked Davis too much last year to dump him over an uninspiring 56-game sample, especially since the Mets seem fully committed to making him their everyday third baseman this time around. Todd Frazier is out of the picture. His only real competition now is Jonathan Villar, who isn't a stalwart defensively. The playing time should be there.
And the skills? He took only a slight step back in terms of how hard he impacted the ball. The bigger issue was that he didn't elevate, but we know he can. Meanwhile, his line-drive, up-the-middle approach is still well-suited for batting average, despite the final line. With him becoming more patient at the plate, reaching base at a .371 clip, it's possible his best-case outcome is even better than the one that produced a .307 batting average and .895 OPS in 2019.
Touted for his 70-grade power bat in 2019, Austin Riley blew the doors off with nine home runs in his first 18 games before succumbing to a strikeout rate so bloated (36.8 percent) that it looked like it might come to define his career. So it's no small feat that he cut that rate down to 23.8 percent in 2020, which is closer to what you'd see from Mike Trout or Tim Anderson than Joey Gallo or Miguel Sano.
The reason more people don't know about it is that the overall production was still lacking. Riley did greatly underperform his expected stats, but the .262 batting average and .471 slugging percentage that Statcast pegged him for are still less than mind-blowing. It was a big step in the right direction, though, for a player who some evaluators believe has 40 homer-type power. That he didn't quite put it all together last year means you have another chance to grab him for nothing.
The Twins, who have every contention of competing in 2021, had a proven and productive left fielder in Eddie Rosario and could have guaranteed he'd be back if they had simply tendered him a contract. But they chose not to knowing they had Alex Kirilloff waiting in the wings. That's a vote of confidence for the 23-year-old, as was the team's decision to debut him in the postseason, where he went 1 for 4.
You might question the source of their confidence if you simply looked at Kirilloff's most recent minor-league numbers, but those were skewed by a wrist injury. The year before, he hit .348 with 20 homers, 44 doubles and a .970 OPS. Back to full health, he earned rave reviews at the alternate training site, enough for Baseball America to assign him a 70-grade hit tool and a 60-grade power tool. That's superstar potential, the sort of grades you might have seen for a young Freddie Freeman as he was working his way up.
It's so rare to see a prospect so talented being so underhyped in Fantasy. No telling the way Kirilloff's rookie season goes, of course, but clearly, the Twins are thinking big already.
It's true: A guy projected to hit in the upper third of the deepest lineup in the AL is barely being drafted in mixed leagues. Maybe it's understandable if you take Aaron Hicks' 2020 numbers at face value, but the guy was making his way back from Tommy John surgery. He looked tentative at the start but then picked up the pace late, batting .266 (17 for 64) with three homers, three steals and a .904 OPS in his final 19 games.
What's always been most attractive about him is how often he gets on base, reaching at a .379 clip last year despite the low batting average and a .420 clip during that improved stretch at the end. It's a skill that will make for ample run-scoring opportunities with all those mashers coming up behind him, and it's not like he's a zero for home runs and stolen bases. In his last healthy season, 2018, he had 27 of the former and 11 of the latter, which are of course numbers you'd take from a fifth outfielder in a Rotisserie league.
More impressive is what they translated to in points leagues, with all those walks. Hicks' 3.29 points-per-game that year was about what Kyle Tucker delivered this past year.
As of yet, the White Sox still haven't bothered to fill their DH opening, which is notable since their top prospect plays the same position as their aging superstar, Jose Abreu. It takes me back to this tweet from James Fegan of The Athletic back in October:
Rick Hahn said it’s fair to think of Andrew Vaughn in the same way they thought of Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal at the end of last season, or Eloy Jiménez after 2018. They expect him to contribute to 1B/DH in the majors for the bulk of 2021— James Fegan (@JRFegan) October 12, 2020
It would seem they've positioned themselves to make it happen, and more recently, Chris Getz, the assistant general manager responsible for player development, had this to say: "I would imagine that [with] the amount of success he's had and probably will have in spring training, that he'll be in position to be that DH or be on the major-league club."
Uh, that's a potential game-changer in Fantasy, right? The guy who was drafted third overall two years ago, almost exclusively for bat, and projects to hit for average and power with plus plate discipline -- a true middle-of-the-order profile, in other words -- is at least in the running for a job this spring, if not the outright favorite? And it's not plastered on billboards everywhere?
It kind of reminds me how Pete Alonso's push for a job two years ago was met with a collective yawn until the last minute, and we all know how that one turned out. Put yourself in a position to capitalize this time.
You may know Shane Bieber led all qualifying pitchers with 14.2 K/9 last year. But you may not know that among pitchers with at least five starts, Drew Smyly had him beat with 14.4. Yes, it was an eye-opening performance from a long-forgotten talent and enough to earn him an $11 million contract. You can see where it came from, too. After years of recovering from injuries, including Tommy John surgery in 2017, he saw a big jump in velocity, his fastball picking up more than 2 mph, which combined with his curveball to give him a swinging-strike rate on the level of Yu Darvish.
Of course, it's barely been tested. Smyly wasn't completely healthy in 2020 either, missing about a month with a strained finger, which means he ended up throwing all of 26 1/3 innings, with only two of his starts lasting five innings or more. Who's to say his stuff will hold up when he's pushed more like a starter? Who's to say how long he'll be able to take the ball every fifth day?
But when a player changes his skill set and gets results that spectacular, it's worth taking seriously. Nothing will improve your Fantasy standing more than hitting big with a late-round pick, and a guy who flashes league-leading strikeout potential is precisely that kind of lottery ticket.
Canning got some sleeper hype early last year, too, thanks mostly to the whiff rate on his slider, but then came the elbow trouble in spring training, seemingly a precursor to Tommy John surgery, that scared everybody away. Even though he was able to make it back for what turned out to be the start of the season, those concerns were validated when the slider just ... wasn't there. He still threw it, but without the same effectiveness, and the rest of his arsenal wasn't good enough to compensate.
Maybe he just needed time to regain trust in his elbow, though, because late in the year, he started snapping off that slider again, pairing it with an improved curveball for maximum effect. His swinging-strike rate jumped from 9.9 in his first six starts to 14.5 in his final five, and with it, his K/9 jumped from 7.5 to 10.4.