In the fantasy baseball world, the word sleeper means something different to everyone. For some, the only player worthy of that sleeper title is someone you’re targeting very, very late in drafts. For others, anyone can be a sleeper. For me, I’m somewhere in the middle. My own personal definition of a fantasy sleeper is simple: a sleeper is a player being drafted outside the top 100 at the absolute earliest, but ideally going after pick 200, and whose value I think far exceeds his average draft position.
You can call them sleepers. You can call them under-valued players. Whatever your preferred moniker, below you’ll find my top five favorite first base “sleepers” for the 2022 season.
All draft data here is coming from NFBC ADP and is from January 1st until the time of publication.
ADP: 145th overall, 16th among first basemen
Joey Votto is by far being drafted the earliest of all my sleeper first baseman. I understand the hesitancy to draft Votto: He’s 38 and last year was his first really strong campaign since 2018. But there’s something about Votto that sets him apart from almost every other player currently playing, and that’s his ability to make adjustments. Votto is one of the best tinkerers at the plate of his generation—and perhaps one of the best of all time. That gives me confidence that his resurgence last year is legitimate, and should continue into the 2022 season.
In 2021, Votto’s 140 wRC+ was the 12th-best among all big league hitters and third-best among first basemen (he trailed only Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Matt Olson). To once again become one of the best hitters in the league, Votto traded some plate discipline skills for improved power output. His 23.8% strikeout rate was the highest of his career and his 14.4% walk rate was the lowest it’s been in over a decade. Those trade-offs ended up being well worth it, as he finished the season with a .266/.375/.563 batting line, 36 home runs, 99 RBI, and 73 runs scored.
After re-establishing himself as a force at the plate, Votto’s resurgence is being seemingly disbelieved by most fantasy managers. He’s currently the 16th first baseman off the board. When looking at some of the players going above him—Josh Bell, Ty France, Rhys Hoskins—I see plenty of names that I would certainly draft Votto ahead of in almost all scenarios. I think Votto’s 2021 season is legitimate, and he seems to once again be a solid four-category contributor. He even has room for his numbers to regress a bit and he’d still be being drafted much later than he deserves.
ADP: 227th overall, 23rd among first basemen
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
That’s not just the well-known opening line in A Tale of Two Cities, it’s also what fantasy managers were saying about rostering Bobby Dalbec in 2021. Just look at those half-season splits:
It truly was a tale of two seasons.
Literary references aside, fantasy managers are playing it safe with Dalbec entering the 2022 season. And the last memory baseball fans have of Dalbec may be driving down his draft stock: When things mattered most, Dalbec barely played in the postseason. In the team’s three playoff series, the Red Sox only gave Dalbec 12 plate appearances in total. That’s likely due to him struggling so mightily against high velocity. When facing pitches that were thrown 95 mph or faster, Dalbec posted a measly .199 wOBA. That places him 406th among the 437 players who saw at least 500 pitches last season.
Based solely on his usage in the postseason, Dalbec’s standing with the Red Sox was already on thin ice. Now combine that with the fact that top first base prospect Triston Casas seems ready to make his MLB debut during the early parts of the upcoming season and Dalbec may be on the outside looking in very quickly.
Dalbec surely knows his status as the starting first baseman in Boston is threatened, so I’m sure that getting better against high-velocity pitches is at the top of both his and the Red Sox’s offseason to-do lists. If he can do that, and replicate the strides he made at the plate in the season’s second half, Dalbec seems like a good value as the 25th first baseman being drafted.
I get the risk in taking Dalbec if you’re worried that he may lose his job if he doesn’t hit well right out of the gate, but at around pick 230 in a fantasy draft, the upside is tremendous. A 30+ home run, 90+ RBI, and 75+ runs scored season isn’t out of the question.
ADP: 228th overall, 24th among first basemen
Take a look at the top hitters in the second half of the 2021 season and you’ll see some familiar names: Bryce Harper, Juan Soto, Kyle Tucker, Paul Goldschmidt, Corey Seager, Joey Votto, and… Frank Schwindel?!?
That’s right. It’s not a typo. In the season’s second half, the Cubs’ rookie first baseman posted a .342/.389/.613 line with a .403 wOBA and his 163 wRC+ was good for seventh-best in the major leagues.
When you see that line next to a name like Schwindel’s you immediately think: regression! And yes, Schwindel will certainly regress a fair bit from his scorching hot Wrigleyville debut. His 2021 Statcast numbers paint a more bleak, yet still productive picture: a .264 xBA, .438 xSLG, and .320 xwOBA.
Regression will come, but I still think Schwindel can be a very productive fantasy first baseman. I mean, he’s not even being drafted among the top-20 at the position and he was one of the best hitters in the game down the stretch! To me, Schwindel seems like the prime example of a player who really just needed an extended opportunity to show what he had to offer against MLB pitching. In 1,403 career Triple-A plate appearances, Schwindel slashed .297/.334/.523 yet was hardly given much of a chance by any other organization. The Royals gave him 15 MLB plate appearances in 2019 and the Athletics gave him 20 MLB plate appearances in 2021. Sure, he performed poorly during those teeny-tiny cups of coffee, but you’d think his high-level output in Triple-A would have earned him a bit more of a chance.
After bouncing around four organizations and playing hundreds of games in the minor leagues, the Cubs think they’ve found something in Schwindel. He’ll certainly have every chance to prove them right in 2022, and as the 24th first baseman off the board in fantasy drafts, I’m happy to take that chance too.
ADP: 241st overall, 26th among first basemen
Nathaniel Lowe‘s first season in Texas went about as well as fans could have hoped. After appearing sparingly in a platoon role in Tampa Bay the previous two seasons, Lowe garnered a full season’s worth of playing for the first time in his career. In 157 games, Lowe hit .264/.357/.415 with 18 home runs, 72 RBI, 75 runs, and 8 stolen bases.
Entering his second season with a starting role, I think it’s only natural to think that Lowe could take a step forward as he becomes even more comfortable being an MLB regular. On top of that, his team’s lineup just got a whole lot more potent with the additions of Corey Seager and Marcus Semien. Lowe will likely hit behind what may be the best up-the-middle duo in baseball, so it’s only natural to expect a boost to his RBI totals this year.
Lowe will turn 27 in July, and as he enters his prime one of his biggest opportunities for growth at the plate is in making his swing decisions. That may be surprising to hear because if you know much about Lowe, you know that he has an elite eye at the plate. His 12.5% walk rate was the 16th best among all qualified hitters in 2021. Despite that valuable skill set, Lowe was hampered by his swing choices last year, garnering a -17 swinging run value in pitches in the “Shadow” area of the strike zone and a -7 run value for swings in the “Chase” area of the strike zone.
Here’s a look at his Savant swing/take profile:
If Lowe can improve in that area, it’s easy to see how he could grossly outperform his current ADP, especially in OBP leagues.
ADP: 267th overall, 28th among first basemen
One year ago, Luke Voit was surging up fantasy baseball draft boards. He was coming off an incredible pandemic-shortened 2020 season in which he hit .277/.328/437 with a league-leading 22 home runs, and his 52 RBI were good for the fourth-most in baseball. Now, one year removed from that incredible power display, Voit is an afterthought as the 28th first baseman coming off draft boards and offers perhaps the most upside of any player being drafted as late as he is.
There are two main reasons that Voit’s stock has fallen so drastically. The first is the continuation of a career-long injury problem. Voit hit the IL four separate times in the 2021 season: three times for a nagging knee injury and once for an oblique strain. Being on and off the field so much really affected the Yankees’ slugger, and he just never seemed to be able to get going. In 241 plate appearances, Voit hit just .239/.328/.437. From 2020 to 2021, Voit’s OPS fell .184 points, the 11th worst drop among players with at least 200 plate appearances.
The second reason that Voit’s being drafted so late are the rumors that the Yankees are looking to bring in first base help—from being tied to Freddie Freeman in free agency to interest in trading for Matt Olson, the Yankees are reportedly considering all options. Of course, if the Yankees do acquire a first baseman, then Voit’s value will rightly fall even further, but these aren’t the Yankees of old. George Steinbrenner is no longer around to throw handfuls of cash at every possible great player available, so I don’t think signing Freeman is likely. The Bronx Bombers already have the third-highest payroll in the game, and I don’t see a way they open their bottomless money bags this winter when they’re surely interested in holding back cash to extend Aaron Judge before he hits free agency next year. On the trade front, the Yankees reportedly wouldn’t include top shortstop prospects Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza in a trade for Olson before the lockout, so that trade materializing also seems unlikely. Voit being the Yankees’ Opening Day first baseman is becoming more and more probable.
If Voit does open the season as the starting first baseman in the Bronx, his current ADP is going to look hilariously low. While the injury risk is real, Voit’s power potential is unmatched this late in the draft. If he plays in even just 130 games next year—baking in at least one IL stint—a 40+ home run season isn’t out of the question. I’ll take that at pick 267 every single time.
Brad Miller – ADP: 589th overall, 49th among first basemen
After forgettable seasons in 2017 and 2018, it appeared that Brad Miller‘s time as a useful MLB piece may be coming to an end, but a strong showing in 2019 has led to three consecutive strong seasons from the 32-year-old utility man.
Over the past three years, Miller has made the most of his opportunities to play, slashing .236/.331/.480 with 40 home runs, 99 RBI, and 100 runs scored in 718 plate appearances. I give those full numbers to show you what Miller could actually do if he started every day for a full season: 30 home runs and 75+ runs and RBI would be a possibility.
Now, Miller likely won’t start every day in 2022. He’s currently a free agent, and when he does latch on with a team post-lockout, I don’t think it’ll be with the intention of giving him 600+ plate appearances. Regardless, even if Miller only has 350 plate appearances, he should do a good job helping your fantasy team in the counting stat department.
Another benefit to Miller: he’ll have multi-positional eligibility. He’ll have both first base and outfield eligibility in all leagues to start the season but may also have second base and third base as well depending on your league’s rules. If he doesn’t start the season with them, he could gain them quickly.
Edwin Ríos – ADP: 603rd overall, 51st among first basemen
Going outside of the top-600 players, Edwin Ríos offers power potential that few others can match, but his obstructed path to playing time is holding him back.
After a promising 2020 in which he hit .250/.301/.645 in limited action, Ríos entered the 2021 season in better shape and ready to fight his way into the Dodgers’ lineup more regularly. Those dreams were quickly quashed by a torn labrum that required season-ending surgery in early May.
Heading into 2022, Ríos still offers that same exciting upside he had last year—his 13.6% barrel rate and .831 xSLG from 2020 are hard to ignore this late in drafts—but with Max Muncy and Matt Beaty ahead of him in the depth chart, he may struggle to find an MLB opportunity.
The question marks surrounding Muncy’s health status and likely addition of the National League DH give me hope that Ríos could see more playing time than is currently expected. If he sees 300 or more plate appearances this season, Ríos could be a huge boon to a fantasy team’s home run and RBI totals.
Photos by Cliff Welch & Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@artbyMikeP on Twitter & IG)
Edwin Rios. That’s hot.