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Mark Steubinger’s Top Five OF Sleepers

Fantasy baseball's deepest position is full of fun late-round picks.

My definition and your definition of a fantasy sleeper are probably different. The term is used so often each offseason that at this point, you could argue that no one is a sleeper! Every player can be talked about in a way that highlights their best traits and ability to outperform expectations.

For the purposes of this article, however, the way I view a sleeper is simple: a sleeper is a player who I think has an opportunity to perform significantly better than their current draft position would indicate. My own personal cutoff is that they have to be going outside the top 100 overall picks, but I’d ideally like them to be going after pick 200.

All draft data here is coming from NFBC ADP and is from January 1 until the time of publication.

 

Akil Baddoo

ADP: 157th overall, 40th among outfielders

 

After a strong rookie season in 2021, Akil Baddoo will go down as one of the best Rule 5 draft selections in recent memory. Although he never had a professional plate appearance above High-A, Baddoo held his own last year, slashing .259/.330/.436 with 13 home runs and 18 stolen bases.

Seeing how well Baddoo performed against a level of competition far higher than he had ever seen gives me hope that entering his second full MLB season, he could get even better as he further acclimates to MLB pitching.

One area that Baddoo seems most likely to improve in is his plate discipline. In 2021, he had a 0.37 BB/K rate, but over his time in the minor leagues, he was hovering around a 0.6 BB/K rate or above. If he can improve in both his strikeout and walk rates, Baddoo will be primed to see improvement across the board, but especially in three all-important fantasy statistics: batting average, runs scored, and stolen bases.

Baddoo will likely continue to hit leadoff for the Tigers against righties, and he should have a better lineup behind him. The Tigers’ newest slugger, Javier Báez, should make the middle of Detroit’s batting order much more formidable, and he’ll likely be joined by top prospects Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene at some point during the year.

If he can take another step forward, I think Baddoo could finish 2022 with a .270 batting average, 20 home runs, 85 runs, 65 RBI, and 25 steals. As the 40th outfielder off the draft board, Baddoo would be a steal with that kind of output. Plus, if he can get even slightly better against left-handed pitching, Baddoo could see less of a platoon, meaning those counting stats would continue to tick up.

 

Michael Conforto

ADP: 193rd overall, 52nd among outfielders

 

One year ago, Michael Conforto was just one more consistent season away from a huge payday. Now, he’ll likely end up signing a short, “prove it” deal after the lockout ends.

Conforto’s 2021 is perplexing. After three seasons of looking like a very strong hitter, in his age-28 campaign Conforto’s stats plummeted. He hit just .232/.344/.384 with 14 home runs and 55 RBI.

Typically, down seasons like the one Conforto had can be explained by some kind of indicator, but his 2021 isn’t easy to piece together. Injuries weren’t to blame. He did miss a little over a month with a strained hamstring, but his stats weren’t good before the injury (99 wRC+) and actually were better after he returned from the IL (109 wRC+). His strikeout (21.7%) and walk (12.3%) rates weren’t the cause; they were actually both better than his career average rates. Conforto’s barrel rate (9.2%) and max exit velocity (111.3 mph) were both down slightly, but not enough to indicate he should’ve experienced a dramatic drop in power output. His lefty-righty splits don’t tell us much either. He had a .278 wOBA versus left-handed pitchers and a .341 wOBA against right-handers, not too far removed from his career split difference of a .306 and .369 wOBA, respectively.

All told, I find it hard to look at Conforto’s 2021 season and see anything besides an unexplainable drop in output. I mean, which of these looks like the outlier to you?

Without being able to identify a significant underlying cause to explain his declined output, I’m betting on Conforto to bounce back in 2022. There are even a few positive signs from last year. Conforto’s .276 BABIP was the lowest it’s been since 2016 and 24 points below his career average. He also underperformed his Statcast expected statistics based on his quality of contact. They don’t leap off the page, but his .253 xBA, .436 xSLG, and .350 xWOBA look a lot better than his actual results: a .232 batting average, .384 slugging percentage, and .322 wOBA.

Regardless of where Conforto signs, I’m excited to draft him at his current ADP.

 

Lane Thomas

ADP: 250th overall, 68th among outfielders

 

Perhaps my favorite sleeper pick heading into 2022 is Lane Thomas, and he earned a spot on my 10 Bold Predictions piece just a few weeks ago. After struggling to find playing time in a crowded St. Louis outfield, a trade deadline deal gave Thomas a new home in the nation’s capital and he immediately looked like a new player. After debuting in Washington on August 15th, Thomas closed the season on an absolute tear, hitting .270/.364/.489 with seven home runs and four steals — his .365 wOBA over that stretch was the 20th best among all outfielders.

It’s hard to understand just how much better Thomas was as a National, so take a look at this chart:

The date that Thomas’ rolling wOBA crosses the league average mark is August 22nd, just a week after being recalled to Washington’s MLB squad.

Thomas’ sizzling start to his Nationals career has firmly planted himself at the top of Washington’s lineup, in front of baseball’s best hitter. The rest of the Nationals’ batting order may not strike fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers, but when he’s hitting in front of Juan Soto and Josh Bell, Thomas should offer incredible upside at his current going rate in fantasy drafts.

At just 26-years-old, Thomas is entering his prime physical years. He already showed improved strikeout, hard hit, and barrel rates after arriving on the east coast, and I think further improvement isn’t out of the question. A full season from Thomas brings 20 home run and 20 steal upside, and that’s something that’s hard to find this late in drafts.

 

Max Kepler

ADP: 281st overall, 75th among outfielders

 

What does a player get when he more than doubles his barrel rate from one year to the next? More power and better results at the plate, right? Well, not if you’re Max Kepler.

Despite raising his barrel rate to a career-best 10.8% in 2021, Kepler had one of the worst seasons of his career. His triple-slash line of .211/.306/.413 was uninspiring, and both his batting average and on-base percentage were the lowest he’s ever posted in a full season.

As you might expect, a better barrel rate doesn’t often come with decreased offensive output. Kepler was in a unique club. Of all players that had at least 150 plate appearances in the shortened 2020 season and 300 plate appearances in 2021, Kepler had the ninth-largest increase to his barrel rate. Of that same group, if we look at the 20 players who raised their barrel rate the most from 2020 to 2021, only three of them posted worse wOBAs despite their barrel rate increases — Kepler, Ronald Acuña Jr., and Gleyber Torres.

Largest Barrel Rate Increases from 2020 to 2021

As you may imagine, by all accounts, Kepler should have had a much better 2021 season. He underperformed all of his Statcast expected statistics; his batting average was 44 points below his expected batting average, his slugging percentage was 39 points below his expected slugging percentage, and his wOBA was 38 points below his xwOBA.

Pretty much all projection systems are calling for a bounce-back season from Kepler, averaging out to about a .230+ batting average, 23+ home runs,65+ RBI, and 70+ runs. If Kepler can sustain his barrel rate gains from last year, I think he’ll solidly outperform those projections.

 

Darin Ruf

ADP: 462nd overall, 111th among outfielders

 

Since returning to professional baseball in the United States after three seasons in the KBO, Darin Ruf looks like a new hitter.

Of all players with at least 400 plate appearances over the past two seasons, Ruf’s 143 wRC+ is the 14th highest.

Perhaps no player gained more fantasy value than Ruf with the news of MLB’s adoption of the universal DH. Ruf should be penciled into the Giants’ lineup every single day now, and he should also be at the top of the line to take over first base duties if Brandon Belt needs a day off or suffers an injury.

Ruf should be in line for nearly every day playing time, and at his current NFBC ADP, he’s an absolute steal. He’s going after players without guaranteed starting roles — Joc Pederson, Josh Lowe, Jarren Duran, Brandon Marsh, Andrew McCutchen, etc. You don’t need to pay up for Ruf, but if you want to make sure you draft him, I’d be happy to take him about 150 picks ahead of where he’s currently going. Once MLB owners stop locking out the players and the season starts taking shape, I think Ruf’s draft stock will skyrocket.

If you’re drafting this early in the year, take advantage of Ruf’s inexplicably low ADP. He’s one of my favorite late-round picks heading into the 2022 season.

 

Honorable Mentions

 

Ian Happ — ADP: 192nd overall, 51st among outfielders

After hitting just .176/.284/.321 from Opening Day through August 15th, Ian Happ turned things around in a huge way. From August 16th on, Happ did a much better job of keeping the ball off the ground, hitting .333/.407/.680 with 13 home runs and 8 stolen bases. Happ has burned fantasy managers before when he seemed poised for a breakout season, but entering his sixth year in the league and his age-27 season, 2022 may finally be the year Happ has a strong campaign start to finish. With 30+ home run power and 10+ stolen base speed, Happ could be a league-winning pick at his current ADP.

 

Ramón Laureano — ADP: 227th overall, 60th among outfielders

Although Ramón Laureano still has 27 more games he’ll have to sit out to complete his punishment from an 80-game performance-enhancing drug suspension that was handed down last August, he could still be a great selection in fantasy drafts. In 2019, when he played in just 123 games, Laureano totaled 24 home runs and 13 stolen bases, and seeing him repeat those kinds of numbers in 2022 wouldn’t be surprising. In fact, he may even have more stolen base upside. If the A’s do end up trading Matt Olson and Matt Chapman, the team may give Laureano the green light on the basepaths more often as they look to manufacture runs with a less potent offense. If you’re in a league where you can stomach rostering an unusable player for the first month of the year, Laureano could provide good value. However, if the lockout does end up shortening MLB’s regular-season schedule, Laureano’s value will sink as he’ll be available to help fantasy teams for a smaller percentage of the year.

 

Clint Frazier — ADP: 429th overall, 104th among outfielders

After five rocky seasons playing in New York, Clint Frazier finally has a new home on the North Side of Chicago. Just getting away from the Yankees where Frazier seemed unhappy is a big win, and he now serves as an exciting post-hype sleeper as he enters his first season with the Cubs. Frazier flashed some of his top-prospect potential at times in New York, hitting .267/.347/.497 with 20 home runs, 64 RBI, 55 runs scored, and 4 stolen bases over 406 plate appearances from 2019-20. Frazier struggled mightily at the plate in 2021, leading to him being non-tendered and landing with the Cubs. The former top prospect enters a crowded outfield situation in Wrigleyville, with Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, Rafael Ortega, Michael Hermosillo, and Harold Ramirez all rostered in addition to Frazier, but if he hits anywhere near as well as he did during that 2019-20 stretch, he should be penciled in the lineup every day at an outfield corner or as the team’s primary DH.

 

Nick Senzel — ADP: 471st overall, 113th among outfielders

Another post-hype sleeper going late in fantasy drafts is Nick Senzel. He was one of baseball’s top prospects before debuting in 2019, but his time at the MLB level has unfortunately been filled with injuries. Senzel’s rookie campaign is the only season we’ve seen him stay healthy for an extended time, and he hit .256 with 12 home runs and 14 stolen bases. In the little we’ve seen of him since, the overall numbers have gone down, but he has shown improved plate discipline. His 12.9% strikeout rate and 9.7% walk rate last year were both career bests, albeit in only 124 plate appearances. Senzel’s 2021 season ended when he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in May. Knee injuries are always concerning, but particularly so for Senzel because one of the strengths of his game is his speed on the basepaths and in centerfield. If he can overcome the knee injury, Senzel has breakout potential in 2022. A strong season from Senzel could be something like 15 home runs and 15 stolen bases with upside for even more.

 

Anthony Alford — ADP: 544th overall, 127th among outfielders

Anthony Alford is an elite-level athlete, with strength and speed to match almost any in baseball. Although he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2012, Alford barely appeared in the minor leagues until 2015, as he continued his career playing college football for Southern Mississippi and then the University of Mississippi. His late baseball development combined with injuries limited him to just 104 MLB plate appearances for the Blue Jays over a four-year period before being claimed off waivers by the Pirates. Alford’s 2021 season got off to a slow start ending in a demotion to Triple-A where he mashed, posting a 1.013 OPS. After Alford was recalled to the Pirates on August 7th, he hit a starling .266/.328/.477 with five home runs and four stolen bases to close out the season. With the Pirates roster perpetually in rough shape, if Alford can even be an average player he should see plenty of playing time. Alford offers enticing power and speed upside incredibly late in fantasy drafts.

 

Photos by Joe Robbins & Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@artbyMikeP on Twitter & IG)

Mark Steubinger

Mark loves everything talking and writing about baseball - from fantasy leagues to the legitimate defensive prowess of Kyle Schwarber as a left fielder. Mark has a degree in Sports Communication from Bradley University and works in radio production. He lives in central Illinois where his TV is permanently tuned to Chicago Cubs games.

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