Every year, I come out with several lists of players who I think will exceed expectations -- "sleepers," broadly speaking. But they all go by different names. Some are breakouts. Some are underrateds. Some are post-hype sleepers. You get the idea.
So which are the sleepers who belong on the list simply entitled "sleepers?" It's always been a head-scratcher to me, and my solution has been to narrow the definition of a term that's become overly broad. People are genuinely sleeping on these players, as in drafting them in a way that doesn't seem to account for their upside.
The emphasis, then, tends to be on lower-end targets, including some that may not even be drafted in shallower leagues. If these names are a little too deep for you, rest assured some of my sleepers-by-another-name will be coming out soon. And if they're not deep enough, well, I'll also have a separate list of deep sleepers at some point.
But you've stopped reading by now, haven't you? OK, here's where you should start again.
Jorge Polanco, 2B, Twins
FantasyPros ADP: 163.3
Odd-year Polanco has tended to be the best Polanco, and indeed, the 29-year-old followed up a career-best 33-homer 2021 with ... whatever happened last year. But a deeper dive into the skill indicators suggests the production shouldn't have slipped by as much as it did. His percentile ranking for both average exit velocity and max exit velocity was virtually the same as in 2021, and he actually improved his barrel rate to a career-best 10.2 percent, which is often the best shorthand metric for whether a player had a productive season.
Of course, the league became a harder place to hit in general last year, and it's possible Polanco is another casualty of it. But he doesn't quite fit the profile. For one thing, he underperformed both his xBA and xSLG last year, numbers that took into account the changed hitter environment. He also excels at pulling the ball in the air, which is a good way to maximize power in a post-juiced ball league.
Maybe you're not actually worried about the home runs given what the prorated total would have been if he hadn't lost time to back and knee injuries, but part of what I like about Polanco is the many ways he could stand to improve. His consistently high line-drive rate in conjunction with a consistently low strikeout rate should give him a high batting average ceiling -- one he realized with a .295 mark in 2019 -- and his 70-to-75th percentile sprint speed makes him a prime candidate to take advantage of the new pickoff limitations this year. A 25-homer, 20-steal season doesn't seem out of reach, and at a position with so few studs, it's something to dream on.
Charlie Morton, SP, Braves
FantasyPros ADP: 163.3
The biggest reason for concern with Morton is his 39 years of age and the seeming improbability of a player that old reversing the tides of decline. But he still had 205 strikeouts last year, ninth-most in the majors, to go along with a swinging-strike rate that was almost identical to his dominant 2021. Normally, a pitcher's decline is reflected most in his stuff, but that's not where Morton fell short in 2022. Rather, in a year when home runs declined across the league, he served up a career-high 28, 10 more than ever before, and it's not hard to see why.
His ground-ball rate plummeted. For the first time in his career, he became a fly-ball pitcher, struggling to bury his curveball as he had all those years previously. But again, it wasn't a matter of stuff. He was still spinning it at a mesmerizing 3,000 rpm. Something must have been a little off in his delivery or with his location to get such discordant results -- something much more correctable than a loss of skill -- and I think it's telling that the Braves, an organization with few misses lately, decided to bring him back for another $20 million, the same amount the Dodgers gave Clayton Kershaw. I still see a potential top-15 pitcher here, but the concerns over his age have dropped Morton outside of the top 50 by ADP.
Chris Sale, SP, Red Sox
FantasyPros ADP: 169.0
At this time last year, Justin Verlander was the longtime ace who I thought was being unfairly dismissed coming off surgery, and well, he went on to win the AL Cy Young. But as much as I savored that discount, Sale is so far going 60 picks later in drafts. To be fair, it's been a long road back for the left-hander, whose last time pitching anywhere close to a full season was before anyone had heard of COVID-19 -- and even then, he wasn't that good. But that's also when the Red Sox discovered he needed Tommy John surgery, which earns him a pass for the uncharacteristic performance.
So what about since then? He returned for nine starts in 2021 and looked great, compiling a 3.16 ERA while struggling a bit with location, as is typical coming off Tommy John. The performance had so many of us geared up to draft him last season, but then a stress fracture in his ribcage sidelined him for the start of the year, and when he finally returned, he lasted only two starts before fracturing his wrist. Both injuries were freak occurrences that shouldn't raise questions about his long-term effectiveness, so I suspect the deflated cost is more a reflection of total burnout and not wanting to be played for a sucker again. Like Verlander last year, a strong spring could send Sale's cost soaring, so if you can get in before then, absolutely take advantage.
Jack Flaherty, SP, Cardinals
FantasyPros ADP: 220.3
Speaking of burnout, my initial take on Flaherty when putting together my rankings for 2023 was "jeez, enough already." The guy may have looked like an ace in his first two years in the league, but after three years of troubles, some health-related, some performance-related, he no longer deserves a pass. The pitching landscape has changed. The criteria for what makes a good one has broadened. The need for such wishcasting is behind us.
So why am I calling Flaherty a sleeper? Because it's clear everyone else feels the same way I did. Quite simply, nobody's buying it anymore, which is the textbook definition of a sleeper. A couple of Athletics outfielders (Seth Brown and Ramon Laureano) are being drafted on each side of Flaherty, and yet at 27, it's still plausible he bounces back to his early-career dominance.
The stuff is basically there. Sure, he hurried back from a shoulder injury in June and struggled with velocity, but after another shutdown period, he came back throwing about as hard as usual. His 2021 performance in between injuries was fine, and while his 2020 performance wasn't, that year was especially weird for the Cardinals, who bore the brunt of multiple COVID shutdowns. It's looking back through rose-tinted glasses, I realize, but at the cost, Flaherty is basically no risk, all reward.
Triston Casas, 1B, Red Sox
FantasyPros ADP: 229.7
Casas never hit more than 20 home runs in a minor-league season and never batted better than .281. It's those relatively modest numbers, not to mention him playing the deepest position in Fantasy, that I think have him flying under the radar right now. This is a significant prospect, one who drew comparisons to Freddie Freeman and Joey Votto coming up through the Red Sox system. He never spent much time at any stop, his playing time further diminished by injuries and a stint with the U.S. Olympic team, but he showed during his big-league trial late last year the sort of offensive force he could be.
By batting .197, you say? It's more about him reaching base at a .358 clip despite batting .197 and smacking three of his five home runs to the opposite field -- two decidedly Freeman-esque traits. I can't say whether Casas will compete for a batting title as a rookie, but I feel confident he will at some point -- and with enough power to measure up at first base. The Red Sox seem to be all-in as well, dumping Eric Hosmer this offseason to clear a path for Casas while making intimations about signing him to a long-term deal.
Trevor Rogers, SP, Marlins
FantasyPros ADP: 246.7
After successfully identifying Rogers as a bust last season, I'm ready to buy low now, having caught a glimpse of something that probably went unnoticed by most. I mean, the whole reason I could call him a bust last year is because he was so good as a rookie the year before, compiling a 2.64 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 10.6 K/9, so we know what the upside is. And in between a midseason IL stint for back spasms and a season-ending stint for a strained lat, I think he flashed it again.
In the three starts he managed to complete between the injuries, he had a 2.95 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 10.8 K/9, registering swinging strikes at a 13.1 percent rate compared to 10.7 percent in the 19 preceding starts. And remember, he was coming off injury. His final rehab start saw him strike out 12 over six no-hit innings. At the time, he said he had fixed his mechanics. Granted, I wish he had more than three starts to prove it, but if he had, then he wouldn't be a sleeper, would he?
Most see the full-season numbers and want no part of him anymore, a guy mentioned in the same breath as Shane McClanahan and Alek Manoah a year ago. But if Rogers did in fact figure something out when he says he did, he'll be well worth this cost.
Bryan De La Cruz, OF, Marlins
FantasyPros ADP: 254.0
The full-season numbers won't do De La Cruz justice. It's only what happened from Sept. 7 on that makes him so interesting. While that's a small sample, it's also a meaningful one, coming right after stint at Triple-A in which he refined his mechanics and even more his approach. He seemed to develop a better understanding of what pitchers were trying to do with him and wound up hitting .388 (33 for 85) with six home runs and 10 doubles over his final 25 games.
What's even more convincing is the data -- not just for those 25 games but the entire year. He crushed the ball, delivering an average exit velocity in the 82nd percentile. His xBA was .287 and his xSLG .498. Just for perspective, those same numbers for Rafael Devers were .282 and .497. It didn't exactly come out of nowhere either. De La Cruz hit .324 with an .880 OPS for the Astros' Triple-A affiliate before coming over in the Yimi Garcia trade two years ago. The 26-year-old won't have much help in the Marlins lineup and hasn't proven enough to have a long leash, but the skills are there and the price is right.
Jesse Winker, OF, Brewers
FantasyPros ADP: 260.3
Winker was Reds dealt him to the Mariners last March, and well, bust he did. But it was a little much, right? It's one thing to say, hypothetically, a guy will lose 33 percent of his home runs and struggle to stay in the lineup against left-handers. It's another to say his OPS will go from .949 to .688, as actually happened. And then when we come to find out after the season that he was playing through a knee injury that ultimately required surgery (he also had surgery on his neck, which sounded like a more recent problem), well, there may have been a clearer reason for his struggles than simply the dimensions of T-Mobile Park. An injury would better explain why his average exit velocity dropped by more than 3 mph, after all.
Whether Winker's struggles were primarily tied to his health or venue, both should be improved now that he's been traded to the Brewers. And if you look back on who he was prior to the season that never should have been, you'll find a career .288/.385/.504 slash line. The numbers are much worse against left-handers, sure, but the platoon risk shouldn't scare you away from Winker at his current rate. And while he's a career .297 hitter with a .930 OPS at Cincinnati, he's a career .344 hitter with a 1.032 OPS at his new home in Milwaukee.
FantasyPros ADP: 289.0
Alvarez has always been one of those prospects whose bat was ahead of his glove, which is normally music to every Fantasy player's ears ... except at catcher, where a minimum defensive threshold needs to be met to secure enough playing time. But the universal DH has changed things, and the Mets, in the interest of contention, are probably at a point where they're willing to break in the 21-year-old slowly behind the plate while still having a way to keep his bat in the lineup. They telegraphed this idea by calling up Alvarez for the final week of last season and have only leaned into it with their offseason maneuvering.
Specifically, they acquired left handed-hitting Omar Narvaez to be their starting catcher, making way for Alvarez to be a weakside platoon player behind the plate, and didn't bother to upgrade at DH, where Daniel Vogelbach remains the best alternative. Alvarez may not have this hybrid catcher/DH role from opening day, as some on the Mets beat have suggested, but it'll be soon enough to justify drafting him in two-catcher leagues, taking some early lumps to slot an impact bat into a spot where most every other team will have mush. And for what it's worth, Alvarez himself says he's 100 percent on the opening day roster.
Miguel Vargas, 1B, Dodgers
FantasyPros ADP: 299.3
One thing that could send Vargas' stock soaring is a little commitment on the Dodgers' part, but those of us who see which way the wind is blowing can use their secrecy to our advantage, specifically by stepping up to the plate for a potentially dynamic rookie. And exactly which way is the wind blowing? Well, note that the Dodgers basically sat out free agency, allowing Trea Turner, Cody Bellinger and Justin Turner to walk and bringing in J.D. Martinez, Jason Heyward and Miguel Rojas (via trade) to replace them. Also, Ken Rosenthal reported in December that the Dodgers are looking to go full youth movement this year, perhaps in anticipation of making a run at Shohei Ohtani next offseason.
Their stiff-arming of Vargas, who could seemingly do no wrong at Triple-A, was a long-running frustration last year, but it's hard to imagine them going full youth movement without him, whether it's at third base, left field, second base or, more likely, some combination. One thing everyone can agree on is that he's a hitting savant, never batting less than .304 over four minor-league seasons. Some question whether he'll develop more than 20-homer power, but with his natural hitting instincts and athletic 6-foot-3 frame, I'm not putting it past him. He's also fast enough to steal bases in a league that's angling for more of them, so we're talking about a potential five-category threat in a lineup that still won't be lacking in star power.
Wil Myers, 1B/OF, Reds
FantasyPros ADP: 364.3
On the one hand, it seems goofy to get mixed up with Myers again, a player whose one good year in the past five was the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, which some might be inclined to write off completely for the weirdness of it all. On the other hand, he just signed with the Reds, who call the most homer-friendly park home and have nothing to lose by playing him. Myers had eight home runs last year, but if he had played every game at Great American Ball Park, Statcast says he would have had 15.
Just look what happened to Brandon Drury when he made the reverse move from Cincinnati to San Diego in the middle of last year. He went from batting .274 with an .855 OPS for the Reds to .238 with a .724 OPS for the Padres, and if you looked at the home/away splits at the time of the trade, it was obvious what was going to happen. What's even more enticing about Myers, twice a 20-steal guy, is that he's still a fast runner, registering 73rd percentile sprint speed last year. If Great American Ball Park restores his power and the new pickoff limits restore his speed, he could be a league-winner at the end of Rotisserie drafts.
Oscar Colas, OF, White Sox
FantasyPros ADP: 413.0
Word is Colas has the inside track on a the starting right field job for the White Sox, though he'll have to earn it this spring. The 24-year-old isn't a conventional prospect, having played professionally in both Cuba and Japan, though not in either since 2019. His minor-league debut last year was his first legitimate competition in three years, and yet he went on to hit .314 with an .895 OPS, shaking off the rust to hit .334 with a .937 OPS over his final 89 games.
Fair to say the man has seen some things, and being as battle-tested as he is, I feel confident he'll rise to the occasion this spring. The White Sox lineup is notably lacking a lefty masher, and power is said to be Colas' best tool. Over-aggression could come back to bite him in the majors, but particularly in leagues that require five outfielders, there's simply no excuse not to take a shot on Colas, given the miserable state of the position. His ADP suggests you could wait until your very last pick to do so.