We're in the final stages now. Time for one last update to the most official of my sleeper columns.
This one has the benefit of spring training insights, and yes, they make a difference. You have to be careful assessing anything you see this time of year, of course, but our first look at some upside-y types coming off a more typical offseason has been eye-opening.
Note that my Breakouts 3.0 is also out, and there may be even more exciting discount picks in that one. Basically, any sleeper that I could also qualify as a breakout wound up there because, well, I have to distinguish them somehow.
This isn't a one-stop shop, in other words, but it'll get you started.
Scott White's Busts 3.0 | Breakouts 3.0
I list his 2018 numbers above to remind you who Corey Kluber was the last time we saw him healthy for a full season. He won 20 games that year and finished third in AL Cy Young voting, his fourth top-five finish (including two wins) in five years. He has made a grand total of eight starts since then, and while the results weren't good, the sample size says it all. Seven of those starts came at the beginning of 2019, when numerous aces struggled to adapt to a slicker baseball, and the eighth was a scoreless inning for the Rangers last year. The 2019 injury was a fractured forearm, which isn't normally one that threatens to alter a pitcher's effectiveness, and the 2020 injury was a shoulder strain that probably wouldn't have been a season-ender if the season wasn't so short.
So what's holding us back? The fact he turns 35 this year? The slightly reduced velocity this spring? Oh, who cares? His game has always been about movement and location, and he's earning high marks for both this spring. It all seems so nitpicky for a pitcher with a long, long history of being exactly the sort everyone covets in this age of all or nothing. If the circumstances of the past two years allow him to slip past Round 12, don't look a gift horse in the mouth.
God bless manager Brian Snitker for playing it coy. He comes to camp saying, "Gee, I don't know who the closer will be. Maybe a committee!" And with that, everyone forgot how to put two and two together. It's the only reason Will Smith is going as late as he is. Snitker doesn't want a committee. No manager this side of Kevin Cash and Gabe Kapler wants a committee because it's a new ulcer every time it backfires. Officially, managers may prefer to remain non-committal with their bullpen roles, but most all of them eventually settle on a ninth-inning guy as long as he continues to get the job done. And for the Braves, that guy will obviously be Smith.
He was an All-Star closer two years ago, earned a closer contract last offseason and throws left-handed, which might normally work against a closer candidate, but three of the top four relievers in the Braves' bullpen are lefties. I'm not saying right-hander Chris Martin won't steal a save or two in April, while Snitker is still calibrating for the new year, but he'll eventually settle on Smith, who had a 2.76 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 13.2 K/9 in 2019. I'll happily take him as my No. 1 reliever in Fantasy.
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What's interesting about this Michael Pineda pick is it doesn't rely on him achieving a new standard or recapturing an old one. As long as he's the pitcher he's always been, putting together a 3.91 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 8.6 K/9 in 31 starts the past two years, it'll play up in today's landscape.
So why the lack of enthusiasm? I just think people are burned out on him, having for too long pursued a breakout that never came. A couple of suspensions, the most recent one for PEDs, may have also left a bad taste in their mouths. But Pineda is a consistent strike-thrower who averages nearly a strikeout per inning and is capable of working into the seventh. It's not studly, but it's handy enough in a landscape that's lacking in middle-class arms like his. And with the Twins' supporting cast, it'll likely result in a hearty win total as well.
Make no mistake, Jorge Polanco will be the Twins' starting second baseman this year. I've seen other commentators suggest Luis Arraez will keep that job, but from the day shortstop Andrelton Simmons agreed to a deal, folks on the Twins beat have been penciling in Polanco at second, pointing out that it improves the Twins defense twice over: at shortstop by replacing Polanco with Simmons and at second by replacing Arraez with Polanco.
"I talked to [Polanco] that night, and really, the way that discussion went was very, very straightforward," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "He said, 'I want to be the best second baseman I can be."
Plus, it's not even clear Arraez is capable of reaching the same heights as Polanco offensively. The guy was an All-Star in 2019, batting .295 with 22 homers, 40 doubles and an .841 OPS. Things didn't play out so well for him last year, but he recently revealed that his surgically repaired ankle wasn't quite up to speed yet. And even so, Polanco's 15.5 percent strikeout rate and 24.6 percent line-drive rate (both in line with career norms) point to him having a much higher batting average than he did. He's an obvious bounce-back candidate and I think a surefire contributor in that tricky category, making him one of my preferred middle infield targets late in Rotisserie leagues.
Domingo German had an uphill battle for reclaiming his rotation spot after an 18-month absence for a domestic abuse incident. The Yankees were playing with fire by bringing him back, and it sounded like they weren't even convinced he'd be ready to contribute after struggling in the Dominican winter league this offseason. But he has dominated in spring training, striking out 13 while allowing just six baserunners in nine shutout innings, making the Yankees' decision a rather easy one. Promising rookie Deivi Garcia, German's main competition for the fifth starter role, could only benefit from more minor-league development.
And it's worth reminding everyone German was making a name for himself prior to his suspension, winning 18 games with a 4.03 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 9.6 K/9 in 2019. Both his curveball and changeup are capable of getting whiffs, as these spring training highlights show, and even his fastball is a better swing-and-miss pitch than most. It's possible he improves on those 2019 numbers, and you know with the Yankees, he'll be in a position to win some games.
Ty France hit .399 with 27 homers and a 1.247 OPS at Triple-A El Paso in 2019 -- yes, you read that correctly -- and since then, we've mostly been waiting to see when he'd get a regular role. He was a tough fit defensively in San Diego, but the availability of the DH spot has the Mariners committed to getting his bat in the lineup this year. And he's making sure they mean it this spring, entering Thursday batting .423 (11 for 26) with four homers while striking out just three times. He has a believer in manager Scott Servais, who compares France's hitting ability to that of former teammate Mark Grace.
"He has a lot of adjustability in his swing, he can handle multiple pitches no matter where they're at in the strike zone, and that's what allows him to be consistent," Servais said. "It's because his bat stays on plane for a long time and he's able to handle different velocities."
France obviously won't be a .399 hitter in the majors -- the ball was juiced that year in what was already a hitter-friendly environment -- but just in a part-time role last year, we saw his batting average play up. Even just a slight infusion of power could see him rocket up the second base rankings, and he has scorched some balls this spring.
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 139 ADP seems awfully dismissive coming off a year in which most everyone deserves a pass. He has so far homered twice and doubled three times in 24 at-bats this spring.
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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 playing regularly in spring training and is set to start at first base this year. The power hasn't shown up yet, but the sample is too small for it to mean anything.
Mancini's ADP has risen about 30 spots since Sleepers 2.0, but the current cost still makes it a low-risk investment for a guy who put up numbers to rival J.D. Martinez when last healthy.
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.
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 -- the results have been favorable so far this spring, with 14 strikeouts in 8 1/3 one-run innings -- 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.
"There were some things I couldn't do last year because of the intercostal," Garver said in February. "We kind of picked that apart early in the offseason, that maybe I wasn't able to do certain moves I needed to because I was subconsciously guarding it or it was hurting or it was not in the right spot."
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.
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.
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.
By now, it isn't a secret anymore: The White Sox want Andrew Vaughn as their starting DH. They may also be looking to him as a left fielder now that Eloy Jimenez is down for the count. Whether the 22-year-old officially breaks camp with the team is still largely an economic question, but he has looked the part in spring training
If it's not technically opening day, it'll be two weeks later, after the White Sox have banked another year of control, and that level of certainty makes him a potential game-changer in Fantasy. It's rare that you see a true first baseman drafted as high as third overall, as he was two years ago, and it speaks the world of his bat. He projects to hit for average and power with plus plate discipline -- a true middle-of-the-order profile, in other words -- and yet with an ADP of 229, the enthusiasm is clearly lacking.
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.
I liked Davis too much last year to dump him this year over an uninspiring 56-game sample, especially since the Mets seem 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? Davis 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.
The Twins, who have every intention 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. Yes, his cold start to spring training cost him a job on the opening day roster, but it's clear the Twins have big plans for him. As soon as he gets hot, look for him to come up.
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.
Reason for removal: It's true that Drew Smyly's 14.4 K/9 led all pitchers with at least five starts last year and that it corresponded with a big jump in velocity. But even if we can take that number at face value, the restrictions that helped bring it about were and still figure to be so limiting that he's a long shot to make a significant Fantasy contribution. Only one of his five starts exceeded five innings. He hasn't had a season with even 115 innings since 2016. How many chances will he have for a quality start, really?
I still think his best-case scenario is better than what most pitchers in his range can offer, but he's probably a better fit for my deep sleepers column.
So which Fantasy baseball sleepers should you snatch in your draft? And which undervalued first baseman can help you win a championship? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy baseball rankings for every single position, all from the model that called Will Smith's huge breakout last season, and find out.