You shouldn't need me to explain what a sleeper is, but when distinguishing it from a breakout, as we're wont to do this time of year, subtleties in interpretation can make for disparate criteria.
So I'll keep the definition as broad as possible: A sleeper is a player who deserves more love than he's getting. There's some overlap with "breakout" there, of course, but the criteria for a breakout is theoretically narrower.
I draw this distinction mostly to remind you that this isn't a complete and exhaustive list of all the players we like and that others exist under different labels. It isn't even our complete and exhaustive list of sleepers but merely a first foray into that preseason staple. In the weeks and months ahead, Frank Stampfl, Chris Towers and I will eventually break out our own separate lists, complete with more names, but in the here and now, we've combined our powers to give you sort of a sneak peak into what we're thinking.
Scott White, Frank Stampfl and Chris Towers talk through their favorite sleepers, breakouts and busts for 2021 on the Fantasy Baseball Today podcast embedded below. Make sure you subscribe at Apple, Spotify or anywhere else you get your podcasts for more of our comprehensive draft prep coverage:
Here are five sleepers from each of us, summed up in our own words:
Gio Urshela 3B
NYY N.Y. Yankees • #29 • Age: 29
It's ridiculous we're having this conversation again after Urshela so completely validated the leap he made in 2019. He sustained the 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.
Josh Bell 1B
WAS Washington • #55 • Age: 28
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, he had just hit 37 homers with a .936 OPS and was regarded as one of the studs at his position, so a 172 ADP seems awfully dismissive coming off a year in which most everyone deserves a pass.
Trey Mancini RF
BAL Baltimore • #16 • Age: 28
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 expecting to be ready for spring training, and he's already said he's feeling like himself again. 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.
LAA L.A. Angels • #47 • Age: 24
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 to 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, playing it off 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.
Deivi Garcia SP
NYY N.Y. Yankees • #83 • Age: 21
Perhaps one reason Garcia isn't getting much attention in drafts despite a largely successful late-season debut is because his profile changed so much from when we last saw him in the minors. But it changed for the better. A move to the other side of the rubber put him on a more direct path to the plate, turning his biggest weakness (control) into his greatest strength. Yeah, he didn't have the big strikeout rate he had at Double-A, but the truth is he never had a good enough put-away pitch to live up to that rate anyway. His transformation into an efficient strike-thrower will take him farther, and if he's consistently going six and seven innings like he did in September, he'll be in a position to win a bunch of games with an A-plus lineup and bullpen backing him.
HOU Houston • #1 • Age: 26
This isn't your typical late-round sleeper considering Carlos Correa is still being drafted inside the top 130 picks. Based on his talent, however, this price tag is way too low. I've already referred to Correa as this year's Corey Seager multiple times on Fantasy Baseball Today. While Correa has been inconsistent in his career, he still posted a .926 OPS or better in two of the past four seasons. He reminded us of his talent in the postseason as well, hitting six home runs while batting .362 across 13 games. Entering his contract year at age 26, buy Correa now at the lowest ADP of his career.
NYY N.Y. Yankees • Age: 29
It's true, Jameson Taillon has now had two Tommy John surgeries in his career while also battling a bout with testicular cancer. Taillon's most recent TJ surgery came in August of 2019, which means he will be 18 months removed by the time spring training starts up. If you recall, Taillon's ADP was inside the top 70 picks entering the 2019 season. That was largely due to a new slider he started incorporating in May of 2018. Over his final 22 starts in 2018, Taillon pitched to a 2.71 ERA (3.45 xFIP) with a 1.14 WHIP. He has a lot to overcome but is a perfect gamble as a late-round flier.
BOS Boston • #17 • Age: 31
I'm sure many have Nathan Eovaldi fatigue at this point, but I can't throw in the towel just yet. His 9.7 K/9 and 1.3 BB/9 were both career-bests in 2020 supported by a 34.5% O-Swing and a 13% swinging strike rate. His 22.6% K-BB rate would have ranked top 12 among starting pitchers had he qualified, ahead of names like Luis Castillo, Zack Greinke, and Dylan Bundy. Eovaldi finished the season with a 3.72, which included a start where he allowed eight earned runs against the Yankees in Yankee stadium. If you take that start away, Eovaldi had a 2.51 ERA. Buy for one more year.
Nick Senzel CF
CIN Cincinnati • #15 • Age: 25
Like we've said for many players in the past, Nick Senzel just needs to stay on the field. He's dealt with vertigo, had shoulder surgery in 2019 and then had a bout of COVID in 2020. While he's batted just .245 across his first 127 major league games, he's hit 14 home runs with 16 steals during that time. If he can ever manage to stay on the field for 140 or even 150 games, we could see a 20-20 season from him. His ADP has been dropping as depth charts currently have him on the outside looking in, something that can be easily remedied if there's a DH in the National League.
MIN Minnesota • #76 • Age: 23
The Minnesota Twins still have time to make moves, but as of today, they have not re-signed Nelson Cruz or Eddie Rosario (whom they non-tendered). Like Senzel, I'm following the prospect pedigree here with Alex Kirilloff. Kirilloff made his debut in the postseason of all places, going 1-for-4 with a single. The former first round pick has batted .317 with 36 home runs across 279 minor league games. There's a decent chance he's a batting average contributor with 18-20 home runs and a handful of steals if he sees everyday at-bats this season.
WAS Washington • #37 • Age: 32
You'll get plenty of young, exciting sleepers from the other two guys, so I'll be focusing on the players I think are most undervalued by industry consensus, and that starts with Strasburg. Strasburg was viewed as a top six starter this time a year ago and now he sits at 27th in NFC ADP right now, with a 73.9 ADP overall. His return from carpal tunnel surgery is a concern, but if Strasburg's right, he's an ace at a steep discount -- and I'll be taking full advantage of it.
TB Tampa Bay • #17 • Age: 25
"Don't overreact to 2020" is going to be a mantra of mine, especially for those players who dealt with COVID-19, as Meadows did. He's been platoon-proof when right and brings legitimate five-category appeal. I'm willing to give him a mulligan for 2020.
NYY N.Y. Yankees • #27 • Age: 31
Wanna know who led the majors in batted balls over 115 mph? The same guy who, from 2015 through 2019, had more than twice as many as the No. 2 guy. There's been no sign of decline from Stanton, despite his many injuries, so when he's on the field, you should feel confident he'll be a top 25 or so hitter. His current ADP -- 121.7 -- just doesn't account for the upside.
SEA Seattle • #7 • Age: 29
Gonzales is exactly the kind of pitcher Fantasy players are conditioned to underrate -- you're never gonna get big strikeout numbers from him, and he won't get many .GIFs made from his pitches. He's just the West Coast version of Kyle Hendricks, perpetually undervalued as a rock-solid end-of-rotation piece. Not every hit has to be a home run.
Joey Votto 1B
CIN Cincinnati • #19 • Age: 37
Speaking of home runs, Votto seemed to make a conscious decision midway through the 2020 season to start hitting more. He traded contact for power and slugged six of them in the final month. At his age, Votto is going to have to make some sacrifices, but he showed he still has something left in the tank, and .260 average with 25 homers and strong run production numbers is still a viable outcome.