As I explained in my Breakouts 2.0 intro, there are not many differences between a sleeper and a breakout anymore. Perhaps the biggest difference for me is just the perceived ceiling. A breakout is a player that I think has more upside. Sleeper in Fantasy Baseball has become more synonymous with undervalued. I would say most people who play Fantasy Baseball are aware of the player pool at this point. Even if you don't know much about Michael Pineda or Nathan Eovaldi, you've heard of them.
What I wanted to focus on with these "sleepers" was hitting on players at different levels of the draft. There are undervalued players at each level of your draft. It might sound weird but yes, I believe there are sleepers in the first 100 picks. Can I interest you in Austin Meadows? The same could be said between picks 100-199, 200-299 and beyond 300 for those in deeper leagues. For whatever reason, I consider each of the players listed below undervalued based on FantasyPros average draft position. Don't be like the rest of your league mates! Pounce on these players in your draft when the moment presents itself.
Tier 1: ADP 1-99
Like Yoan Moncada, I'm giving Austin Meadows a pass for 2020. Meadows was diagnosed with COVID a week before the season started and didn't make his debut until August 4. Whatever the reason, he clearly wasn't himself last year as he went on to bat just .205 with a .667 OPS. Meadows then suffered an oblique strain in mid-September, which shelved him for the rest of the regular season. He wasn't any better in the postseason, going 7-for-51 with just two extra-base hits and 18 strikeouts across 16 games. Meadows was a far cry from the player we saw in 2019 and I'm willing to place most of that blame on COVID and/or the oblique injury.
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I'm buying the dip on a player who was being drafted as a top-40 pick a season ago. If you were skeptical of what he did in 2019 then Meadows isn't the player for you. I buy what he did in 2019, however, when he finished as a top-13 outfielder in both Roto and H2H points leagues. Meadows finished that season as a five-category contributor, batting .291 with 33 home runs, 83 runs, 89 RBI, and 12 steals in just 138 games. Even if you just give him 80% of that production in 2021, he pays off this price tag. And yes, I understand the Rays are annoying with platoons but that wasn't an issue for Meadows in 2019 when he posted an .837 OPS vs. lefties. He's definitely capable. The Rays just need to trust him. If you needed one last nudge to draft him, apparently he's worked hard on his conditioning this offseason.
Tier 2: ADP 100-199
Like Meadows, Chris Paddack isn't a "true sleeper" but somebody I think is undervalued this draft season. After posting a 3.33 ERA and a 0.98 WHIP across 140.2 innings as a rookie in 2019, Paddack was flat-out bad in 2020. There's no way around it. He finished the shortened campaign with a 4.73 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP. So, what went wrong for him? It was mostly his fastball.
BA vs. Fastball
SLG vs. Fastball
wOBA vs. Fastball
Paddack basically went from having two and a half pitches in 2019 to having just one (his changeup) in 2020. The difference in his fastball effectiveness was night and day between the two seasons, as highlighted above. The Padres are apparently aware of the issue and have brought it to Paddack's attention:
Chris Paddack was never one to dive into analytics. But he said the Padres showed him the numbers on his fastball spin/spin efficiency in 2019 vs. '20.— AJ Cassavell (@AJCassavell) February 21, 2021
"It blew my mind," he said. Now it's part of his vernacular. Fixing those numbers was an offseason priority.
According to this article from AJ Cassavell who covers the Padres for MLB.com, Paddack was getting two-seam run on his fastball last year, which caused the pitch to hit the heart of the plate more frequently. The reason his fastball was so effective in 2019 was because it had more spin, causing it to ride up in the zone. That's where you want to live with your four-seam fastball in this day-and-age where hitters are trying to launch everything. Anyway, this was a long way of saying I'm buying the bounce-back on Paddack's fastball. If that happens, we should get back to a mid-3s ERA with a strong WHIP and a strikeout per inning.
You can just insert any Houston Astros hitter here but I'll roll with Carlos Correa. I've actually never drafted Correa because I always thought his injury risk was not worth the reward. But here we are and Correa has an ADP of 122. I'm not sure what happened with the Astros last season but outside of Kyle Tucker and Michael Brantley, all of their hitters were bad in the regular season. Maybe they were all out of it mentally following the offseason cheating scandal but whatever it was, they turned it on in the postseason -- especially Correa.
In 13 playoff games last season, Correa hit .362 with six home runs, 17 RBI, and a 1.221 OPS. The six home runs were more than he hit in 58 regular season games. This was just a reminder of his upside. Correa has had a .926 OPS or better in two of the last four seasons. On top of everything, he's 26 years old and is entering a contract year. Yes, he's dealt with some injuries but sometimes guys just find a way to stay on the field when there's a contract on the line. Correa is this year's version of Corey Seager. If everything breaks right, there's a good chance we're talking about Correa as a top-40 pick next season.
Like Correa, I have never drafted Gary Sanchez for a lot of the same reasons. Mostly, I just don't like to invest in a catcher too early in my drafts. On top of that, Sanchez has dealt with some injury issues of his own. Well, now the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. I'm not sure if too many people have been burned by Sanchez in the past but I'm not one of them. Therefore, I'm willing to invest at the lowest cost of his career at ADP 155.
Sanchez was dreadful in the shortened season, batting just .147 with 10 home runs and a .618 OPS. As volatile as his profile is, we've seen massive seasons from him. Heck, he's just one season removed from blasting 34 home runs in just 106 games back in 2019… as a catcher! That type of production at the position is unheard of. Surely his batting average will hurt you but you're talking about 40-home run upside from a position where more players hurt you than help you. He just needs to make more contact because when he does, it's really strong contact. In 2020, Sanchez ranked 89th percentile or better in average exit velocity, hard hit rate, and barrel rate. I realize the floor is very low with Sanchez. If he continues to strikeout at an obscene rate, we're talking about him being benched by the Yankees. His upside, however, is that he's the best catcher in Fantasy Baseball. You can really only say that about three, maybe four catchers.
Your first thought with Nick Solak might be "this guy just hit two home runs and now they're deadening the ball?" and that's a fair criticism but don't let that fool you. Solak's slugging percentage went from .491 across 33 games in 2019 to just .344 in 58 games last season. His HR/FB ratio plummeted all the way down to 3.4%! For somebody who just hit 27 home runs in the minors in 2019, I'm not buying that dip in power. While the Statcast metrics were not very impressive for Solak last season, one stood out: 111.7 MPH max exit velocity. That ranked 43rd of 142 qualified hitters. That'll work.
I mentioned what Solak did in the minors back in 2019 and I'm going to continue to hang my hat on that. Across 115 games in Triple-A, Solak batted .289 with 27 home runs, five steals, and an .894 OPS. There's definitely room for him to run as well. Solak swiped seven bags last season and ranked in the 91st percentile in sprint speed, according to Statcast. We also know that steals are often a stat that derives from intent. Well, since Chris Woodward was named manager of the Rangers in 2019, they rank first in baseball with 180 steals, 14 more than the next closest team. Solak probably profiles better as a Roto player but one that could hit 15 home runs with 15 steals. It's not out of the question for him to go 20-20, either.
Tier 3: ADP 200-299
It's been a weird career for Michael Pineda but one that has taken a strong turn since he signed with the Twins. He's made 31 starts for the team since the start of 2019, pitching to a 3.91 ERA with a 1.16 WHIP, striking out 165 across 172.2 innings. Of those 31 starts, Pineda allowed three earned runs or less in 26 of them. By definition, that's a quality pitcher! Here are Pineda's ranks among pitchers with at least 170 innings pitched over the past two seasons:
- 12.8% SwStr, T-17th with Clayton Kershaw
- 36.2% O-Swing, 8th
- 18.3% K-BB, 28th
The way things stand right now, Pineda has an ADP of 243.2, the 71st starting pitcher off the board. If we look at just Pineda's five starts from 2020, he had a 14.3% swinging strike rate. Had he qualified, that would have ranked 10th among starting pitchers. On top of all that, he gets to face the AL Central consistently, which, let's face it, isn't the best. If all breaks right for Pineda, we could be talking about him as a top-30 starting pitcher come season's end.
If you're somebody who has suffered from Pineda fatigue, you probably feel the same way about Nathan Eovaldi. It's taken quite a while but I think we're finally getting the best version of Eovaldi at 31 years old. He finished 2020 with a 3.72 ERA across nine starts but his 3.32 xFIP and his 3.45 SIERA says he actually pitched better than that. I realize this is slippery slope analysis but if you give him a mulligan for the eight runs he allowed in his lone start in Yankee Stadium, he would have had a 2.51 ERA.
Part of the reason I believe this is the best version of Eovaldi we've seen is that he legitimately has five different pitches he uses in his arsenal: a four-seam fastball, cutter, splitter, slider, and a curveball. His curveball and splitter were especially valuable, posting a 14.8% swinging strike rate or better on each pitch last season. As always with Eovaldi, he just has to stay on the field. He hasn't thrown more than 124.2 innings since back in 2015. There is considerable downside but it doesn't matter much when his ADP is 258.4. Like Pineda, I believe Eovaldi has top-30 upside among starting pitchers.
Let's keep the injury-riddled train rolling. Next stop, Seattle! Mitch Haniger has not played a professional baseball game since June 6, 2019. This actually all started with a foul, which hit off his groin, causing a ruptured testicle. Always wear a cup, kids. He would go on two have two core surgeries, which resulted as a product of the initial injury. He seems to be doing well now, which can maybe be attributed to unique core exercise training, which includes gator wrestling a 300-pound sandbag. See for yourself:
Assuming he's healthy and comes anywhere close to the player he was back in 2018, we have a potential steal on our hands. Haniger was a near five-category stud that season, finishing with a .285 batting average, 26 home runs, 90 runs, 93 RBI, and eight steals. That was good enough to finish 33rd overall in Roto and tied for the 13th best outfielder in H2H points leagues. It's unrealistic to expect that type of production but nearly anything he gives you at ADP 258.8 is a bonus. Keep in mind that the Mariners lineup is up-and-coming with top prospect Jarred Kelenic and I'm all in.
We've waited a while for Justus Sheffield to break through but he did just that in 2020, finishing with a 3.58 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP. The strikeouts took a step back but Sheffield made big improvements with his control, which has always been the biggest issue for him. He dropped his BB/9 from 4.5 in 2019 down to a much more manageable 3.3 last season. The swings-and-misses took a hit but I actually came away encouraged when I dove a little deeper.
Sheffield completely ditched his four-seam fastball in 2020, opting for a sinker he used 47% of the time. Usually, sinkers aren't the best nowadays but Sheffield needed a fastball he could command and gets out with. His sinker generated ground balls 53% of the time last season. Sheffield also possesses two plus secondary pitches with his slider and changeup. The results were mostly positive except the whiff rate dropped precipitously for both pitches. If Sheffield can get either or both back to the swing-and-miss pitch we saw in 2019, the strikeouts should return. We've waited a while for Sheffield but he does have prospect pedigree and is turning just 25 years old in May. I'm buying the improvements and the pitch-mix change from last year and believe more strikeouts are on the horizon.
Who loves prospects? EVERYBODY loves prospects. Chances are you've heard the name Alex Kirilloff at some point. He's one of the top prospects for the Twins and a former first-round pick from 2016. Well, oddly enough he made his debut in the postseason last year, going 1-for-4 with a single. Although he will start the season at the Twins' alternate training site, we could still see Kirilloff in the early part of the season.
With Kirilloff, you're getting a plus hit tool and above-average power. Across 279 career minor-league games, Kirilloff is batting .317 with 36 home runs and an .863 OPS. My guess is he'll be useful regardless of format, too. The batting average is always welcome in Roto leagues and he doesn't strikeout much, which helps in points leagues. Across 1,204 minor-league plate appearances, Kirilloff has just a 16% strikeout rate. With Eddie Rosario out of the picture with the Twins, I would expect Kirilloff sooner rather than later.
Tier 4: ADP 300+
If you're looking for this year's Corbin Burnes, I think either of these final two pitchers could fit that bill. Let's start with Adbert Alzolay, who has a paltry 4.54 ERA across his first 33.2 major league innings. While only 21.1 of those innings came last season, Alzolay completely revamped his pitch mix. For starters, he lowered his four-seam fastball usage from 57% in 2019 to just 30% in 2020 while adding a new sinker and using his slider much more. The slider is really damn good, too, as it generated a 19% swinging strike rate.
Alzolay was on full display over his final two starts where he allowed just two earned runs over nine innings, striking out 15. The next step in Alzolay's progression will be fixing the walks. Across those 33.2 MLB innings, Alzolay has issued 22 free passes. That's not going to get it done. The good news is he was much better with his control in the minors so perhaps that's a sign of things to come. Speaking of the minors, Alzolay has a pretty strong track record there. Across 491 innings in the minors, Alzolay owns a 3.63 ERA with a 1.16 WHIP. He's currently in a position battle for the Cubs fifth starter job but if he can't beat out Trevor Williams, maybe he's not as good as I thought. Alzolay's worth a flier as one of the last picks in your drafts!
Who? Maybe you don't remember his 35.1 innings with the Reds last season but they were pretty impressive. Antone bounced between the bullpen and rotation in 2020 but wound up with a 2.80 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP, and 45 strikeouts. It was the underlying skills that really caught my eye, though. Antone did a good job generating whiffs and inducing ground balls, evidenced by his 13% swinging strike rate and 48.7% ground ball rate. Oh, and he's clearly part of the "Spincinnati" revolution, as you can see by his Statcast data:
Maybe it's nothing. Perhaps it was just small sample size fodder from a journeyman making his major league debut. Or maybe Antone is the next big thing. It's not crazy to imagine considering the Reds' recent track record when it comes to developing the likes Luis Castillo and Tyler Mahle while getting Sonny Gray and Trevor Bauer back on track. Like Alzolay, Antone currently finds himself in a position battle for the Reds' fifth starter job. The crazy part is if he loses a rotation spot, he could end up as the team's closer! I wouldn't rule anything out based on his underlying skills. Take a flier on him with one of your last picks or stash him on your watch list early in the season.
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.