Anyone who drafted Austin Riley or Tyler O'Neill last year can attest to the idea that progression isn't linear.
Those two had been prized commodities previously in Fantasy, but not heading into last year. By that point, they had done so little to live up to the hype that they had become post-hype, a particular variety of sleeper that regains sleeper standing by failing to deliver on it previously.
The category mostly consists of former top prospects who have yet to make good, but not exclusively. Some of these players were notable Fantasy contributors in the past but deflated so quickly that they became relative afterthoughts.
The hesitance to draft many of them is reasonable, so I wouldn't say they're on equal footing with my Sleepers 2.0 or my Underrated by ADP. But they're worth singling out for their upside at a point in the draft when you can't afford to be so choosy. I'll begin with the 10 I target most under the heading "my personal favorites," followed by eight more under the heading "other forgotten talents."
My personal favorites
Brendan Rodgers isn't being completely overlooked after hitting .284 with 15 homers in about two-thirds of a season last year, but if he delivered those same numbers upon his initial call-up in 2019 -- a top prospect in a circus-like environment for hitters -- we'd be turning cartwheels, with the most foolish among us reaching for him in Round 5 or something. False starts and injuries have dampened our enthusiasm for him, but last year was actually his first extended look in the majors. The kicker for me is that he was at his best on the road, having yet to take advantage of all the wonders afforded to him by Coors Field.
Alex Kirilloff is actually getting a bit more respect than at this time last year, but it still isn't commensurate with his talent level, whether you gauge it by his prospect pedigree or his Statcast readings. The latter had him with a .291 xBA and .541 xSLG last year, significantly better than his actual .251 and .423 marks and comparable to what you'd see from, say, Rafael Devers. But that doesn't even tell the whole story. Kirilloff played the final 47 of his 59 games with a torn ligament in his wrist, eventually resigning to surgery in July. His Statcast readings before then were off the charts.
Apparently, everyone has given up on the idea Mitch Garver can stay healthy, as if he's uniquely brittle. Why do you think they're called the "tools of ignorance," folks? We have little reason to believe he's any more vulnerable than any other catcher, many of whom sit half the time anyway. What matters more is his production. Garver's .875 OPS last year was bettered only by Yasmani Grandal, and from April 28 on, it was .991. It was .995 in 2019, when he was being drafted top-five at the position. Clearly, the upside hasn't changed. Why not gamble on health at a position that's already so volatile?
It's hard to explain why Jarred Kelenic is going 90 picks ahead of Jo Adell. Neither has delivered much of anything in the majors yet. Sure, Kelenic was a consensus top-five prospect last year, but Adell was at one point top-three for both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. His hurried call-up in 2020, when he struck out 42 percent of the time while exhausting his rookie eligibility, left such a bad taste in people's mouths that few noticed how he cut that strikeout rate to 23 percent in an even larger sample of big-league plate appearances last year. He also homered 27 times in just 108 games between the majors and minors.
About this time last year, there was some debate as to which of Julio Urias, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin would make the biggest leap for the Dodgers. Urias went on to be the majors' only 20-game winner. May dominated for five starts before blowing out his elbow. Gonsolin battled shoulder issues, serving more as an opener than a true starter when healthy, and the presumption seems to be that his opportunity has passed. But you could make the case the Dodgers need him more than ever with Max Scherzer gone and Trevor Bauer likely unavailable. There's still some competition with the late signing of Tyler Anderson, but if it's a question of skill, Gonsolin has a career 2.85 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 10.5 K/9, not to mention a wicked slider/splitter combo.
The Marlins have developed a reputation for cultivating pitching, which is why it was so encouraging to see them acquire Jesus Luzardo, a one-time elite prospect whose stock was in free fall. His numbers weren't any different with them than with the Athletics -- he still had an ERA over 6 and a WHIP over 1.6 -- but their recent track record gives me more hope in them diagnosing and correcting him. They already had him throwing his secondaries more, his curveball and changeup both showing big swing-and-miss potential, and his fastball is peaking at 99 mph this spring.
As baseball was ramping up again in 2020 following the COVID-19 lockdown, there was such a push to get Joey Bart in the majors that many were calling for him to replace an injured Brandon Belt at first base. Now, he's poised to step in for another franchise icon, Buster Posey, at his natural position, and ... crickets. It's largely because Bart disappointed with the look he got in 2020 (at catcher, not first base), but judging by his number of minor-league at-bats to that point, he was underdeveloped. His unconventional path as a former No. 2 pick raises questions about his ceiling, but the power is enough for him to stand out at a position as miserable as catcher.
Fantasy Baseballers are always a little too eager for the next thing. Last year, Alejandro Kirk was the next thing for the Blue Jays behind the plate, but between injuries and the continued presence of Danny Jansen, he never carved out a regular role for himself. So now it's on to the next thing, Gabriel Moreno, an even higher-end catcher prospect who has nonetheless played only 35 games above A-ball. Maybe we shouldn't be so quick to move on from Kirk, who, in the at-bats he did get, combined Bryce Harper-level exit velocities with a Yuli Gurriel-like 11.6 percent strikeout rate. The upside is more tantalizing than ever, and he's closer to getting regular at-bats (DH, maybe?) than Moreno is.
Vidal Brujan's Fantasy stock may have peaked with his seven home runs in his first 16 games at Triple-A Durham last year, which gave the appearance of launching him into the upper echelon of prospects. Between his five home runs the rest of the way and 2-for-26 showing at the major-league level, he quickly became persona non grata, as reflected by his current ADP. He's a true 80-grade speedster, though -- that part of his skill set has never been in question -- and as desperate as we all are for stolen bases, maybe he doesn't need much power. His playing time is very much in doubt, particularly with the Rays, but if he finds his way into even semi-regular at-bats, he could put a big dent in that one category.
My original explanation for Dominic Smith last year was that he doesn't impact the ball hard enough to thrive in a post-juiced ball league, but we recently learned that he was playing with a torn labrum in his shoulder, which may be a more plausible explanation for his struggles. Let's not forget he was one of the biggest breakouts of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, batting .316 with a .993 OPS, and he was considered an even better prospect than Pete Alonso coming up through the minors. The two will be able to switch off at first base again now that the DH is back in the NL, but keep in mind Robinson Cano and J.D. Davis are also fighting for playing time.
Other forgotten talents
After a promising 2020 debut, Triston McKenzie made everybody a little crazy last year. His biggest backers -- i.e., those who actually drafted him -- were treated to a 6.38 ERA in 11 appearances out of the gate, with nearly a walk per inning. McKenzie regained everybody's trust with a 2.96 ERA in his first 11 appearances back from the minors, issuing 1.5 BB/9, only to bomb in his final three starts, allowing 14 earned runs in 10 1/3 innings. We're at the fool-me-twice stage of his trajectory, and nobody wants to bring shame upon himself. But if any organization can harness that talent, it's Cleveland.
It was one thing for the White Sox to rush Andrew Vaughn to the majors after only 55 minor-league games, but they never gave him a chance for success, changing up his position at the last minute and regularly moving him in and out of the lineup. His actual slash line (.235/.309/.396) was awful, but the underlying data speaks of his considerable potential. His combination of average exit velocity (91.1 mph) and strikeout rate (21.5 percent) resembled Pete Alonso's, and it's Vaughn's bat that made him the third overall pick in 2019. My biggest concern for him is that the left handed-hitting Gavin Sheets may have more of a foothold, but Vaughn's performance will dictate things to an extent.
Nate Lowe was one of those "if only" guys that the Rays always seem to have on hand. He actually got his opportunity last year, albeit with a different organization. The results left something to be desired, especially at a power-laden position like first base. He hit only 18 homers with a .771 OPS, ending the year slower than he began it. The problem isn't how hard he hits the ball, though, which explains most power shortfalls in a post-juiced ball world. His average exit velocity was in the 77th percentile, but it was accompanied by an extreme ground-ball rate. He wouldn't be the first such hitter to overcome a suboptimal launch angle and maximize his natural power.
It was only two years ago that Gavin Lux was a consensus top-five prospect coming off a stellar minor-league season and competent enough big-league debut. But the Dodgers seemed to know something the prospect hounds didn't, keeping him down for most of the pandemic-shortened 2020 and giving him only part-time at-bats last year. The performance didn't leave anyone wanting for more, which is why we've collectively yawned and moved on. But Lux is still only 24, and between Corey Seager's departure, Max Muncy's injury and the new DH spot, the Dodgers could certainly carve out a role for him. Maybe he'll never hit lefties well enough to make a considerable Fantasy impact, but it's too early to say for sure.
Much of what I said for Nate Lowe also applies to Alec Bohm, who hits the ball hard enough to put it over the fence with his 89th percentile average exit velocity but who hasn't learned to elevate yet. He has now played 159 games in the majors and homered just 11 times, which isn't getting it done at any position but particularly not a corner spot. Still, with his penchant for hard contact and driving the ball to the opposite field, there's obvious potential for improvement. I'd like his chances more if his plate discipline was as advertised ... or if he was younger than 25.
As recently as last year, Chris Paddack was thought to be one of the emerging aces in Fantasy and drafted as a top-30 starting pitcher. He's become radioactive after a miserable season in which he battled a sprained elbow and put together a 5.07 ERA. The underlying skills haven't actually changed much, though, and he still has an excellent changeup. I suspect the arsenal isn't deep or varied enough, which is why he's gotten hit hard the past two seasons, but his 3.87 xFIP last year was actually lower than during his stellar 2019 rookie year. He is, however, in a competition with Nick Martinez for the fifth rotation spot.
Jarren Duran was one of the most buzzed-about players last spring, having learned to leverage his swing for power after already establishing himself as a speedster in the minors. For the first two months at Triple-A, it went exactly as planned. He homered 15 times and stole 10 bases, his OPS pushing 1.000. Things went so poorly from there, though, including during his 33 games in the majors, that it seems like just a wild dream now. His 2021 was a whirlwind, and the confusion over it is understandable. There doesn't appear to be a spot in the lineup for him right now, but it wouldn't take much for one to open up. He has talked about wanting to create havoc on the base paths again after losing his way last year.
There's a reason Mitch Keller, who was once a top-20 prospect, is now an afterthought in drafts. In 39 career starts, he has a 6.02 ERA and 1.73 WHIP. But he has attracted attention this offseason for his work with Tread Athletics, a pitching development company. This tweet and accompanying video says it all:
Remote athlete and Pirates' RHP @mkeller11 started working with Tread in late October.— Tread Athletics (@TreadHQ) January 28, 2022
✅Peak bullpen velo before this winter: 95 mph.
✅2021 average FB velo: 94 mph
✅Peak MLB velo ever: 98.3 mph
Here he is throwing absolute missiles at Tread HQ, topping 100+ mph.🔥 pic.twitter.com/bmKKN7JRbc
He took those velocity gains -- an extra 2-3 mph on his fastball, basically -- into his first spring start, which is reason enough for renewed interest. Keep in mind, though, that he already had trouble throwing strikes with the velocity he had, and it was more his secondaries holding him back than his fastball. There are more hurdles to clear than simply throwing harder -- which, again, wasn't necessarily a hurdle to begin with. Still, more velocity possibly raises Keller's ceiling to a level that justifies a roster spot.