As we get into fantasy baseball draft season, there are going to be a billion articles about potential sleepers for you to take advantage of in your drafts, but the definition of a sleeper is pretty broad.
Typically, it’s one of two things—guys going in the latter-half of drafts that could be top-tier players, and then guys who are going super late in drafts (or going undrafted) that could be useful fantasy players.
In this article, I’m going to focus on the latter type of sleepers. I did an article like this last year that featured some names that ended up being very useful fantasy players—guys like Mike Yastrzemski, Teoscar Hernandez, Anthony Santander, and Kyle Lewis.
So I decided I’d do the same thing this year! The players featured in this article all currently have an NFBC ADP outside of 250—essentially players that are going in the last couple rounds of your draft or going undrafted.
One quick caveat: It should be noted that I’m not suggesting these players are going to be studs or anything, or even that they will definitely be good fantasy assets. They’re dart throws—guys you could use one of your last picks on as a low-risk, high-upside player. If you used your last pick of the draft on Teoscar Hernandez last year, you ended up with a top-notch outfielder. The nice thing about these types of players is, if things don’t work out (and you should know within the first couple months of the season if things are working out), it’s not that big of a deal to drop them—you spent one of your last picks on them.
So here are some of the darts I’m throwing in drafts this year.
Jeimer Candelario, 1B/3B, DET (ADP: 249)
Okay okay, so I fudged a little bit on the first one, but it’s mostly because I just want to emphasize that I think Jeimer Candelario is a really interesting sleeper that’s going way late in drafts.
Last year, Candelario had a really nice little breakout, slashing .297/.369/.503 with a full season pace of 20+ home runs and roughly 80/80 in runs/RBI. That’s a really solid player.
But the question is, can you trust what he did last year? I did a deep dive into Candelario’s season back in January, but the short version of it is, some of it is luck, some of it is an actual change Candelario made to his approach. It’s enough to warrant paying attention to and, for his price, worth giving a shot.
Mitch Haniger, OF, SEA (ADP: 254)
After missing all of 2020, it remains to be seen what Haniger will look like (especially after a really rough 2019), but it was just three seasons ago that Haniger hit .285/.366/.493 with 26 home runs, 90 runs, 93 RBI, and eight stolen bases.
He’s 30 years old now and recovering from a major injury, so obviously there’s a level of risk here, but given his price, your risk in drafting him is relatively low. And if he turns in another season similar to 2018? That’ll pay off big time.
C.J. Cron, 1B, COL (ADP: 277)
I was all about C.J. Cron as a sleeper coming into last year, and then after 14 games his season prematurely ended with an injury that required knee surgery. Now, he’s with the Rockies, and if he gets a steady spot in the lineup (which I think he will), I’m even more about him, for basically the same reasons I was last year.
In 2019, Cron posted absurd Statcast numbers, with a 15% barrel rate (top 5% in baseball), a .272 xBA (compared to a .253 AVG), a .365 xwOBA (.326 wOBA), and a .544 xSLG (.548 SLG). In short, the guy hit the ball hard. And now Cron is going to be in Coors Field for half the year, hitting the ball super hard. What’s not to like?
I’ll leave you with this:
THE BAT X projections:
Luke Voit: .260/.347/.489, 33 HR, 85 R, 87 RBI; ADP: 60
Matt Olson: .230/.329/.457, 31 HR, 78 R, 85 RBI; ADP: 89
Anthony Rizzo: .263/.369/.447, 24 HR, 88 R, 90 RBI; ADP: 100
CJ Cron: .272/.339/.516, 30 HR, 72 R, 87 RBI; ADP: 281
— Ben Palmer (@benjpalmer) March 13, 2021
Dane Dunning, SP, TEX (ADP: 285)
Last year, I did a GIF breakdown of Dane Dunning’s debut, and I was pretty impressed. He’s got a nice repertoire, with a two-seamer with good movement, a really nice changeup, and a really nice curveball.
Ultimately, Dunning’s debut season was pretty okay, with a 3.97 ERA, 3.99 FIP, and a 24.6% strikeout rate—all perfectly respectable, if unimpressive, numbers.
But when I’m drafting this late, I’m looking for upside, and how do you see upside in a pitcher? You look at his repertoire. Last year, Dunning’s sinker was brilliant, with a .233 wOBA and .000 ISO against. He had some control problems with it, as it racked up a 14.8% walk rate, but overall it was very good at inducing weak contact. Then there’s his slider, which was a beautiful strikeout pitch with a 38.4% chase rate and a 21.8% SwStr rate. And even when hitters made contact, they had just a .243 wOBA against it. The changeup, while not as great of a swing-and-miss pitch, worked well enough, and he didn’t throw it enough for it to matter all that much. The real bugaboo for Dunning was his four-seamer, which got rocked to the tune of a .436 wOBA and .182 ISO. I’d love to see him essentially ditch that for more of his sinker/slider combo, and see a bit more of what his changeup can do.
Obviously Dunning isn’t fully put together yet as a pitcher. But he’s just 26 and is more than likely to have a steady rotation spot now that he’s with the Rangers. Given his potential, I’m more than happy to take a shot on him.
Justus Sheffield, SP, SEA (ADP: 288)
I definitely like the value of Justus Sheffield this year. Last year saw Sheffield ditch his fastball (which was very bad, with a .206 ISO against in 2019) in favor of a sinker that was significantly better at inducing weak contact (.056 ISO against). The pitch definitely still got hit, with a .345 wOBA against, so it wasn’t perfect, but man it was light years better than what his fastball was doing.
Complementing the sinker, Sheffield still has a solid strikeout pitch in his slider, which had a 33.9% chase rate, 13.2% SwStr rate, and 37% strikeout rate last year, as well as a .211 wOBA against. He’s also got a changeup that’s good at inducing weak contact, with a .270 wOBA against last year, though it wasn’t much of a swing-and-miss pitch.
The fact that none of his pitches had an ISO against worse than .095 is really encouraging. The strikeout numbers might not blow you away, but I could see a season similar to what he had last year, with a 3.58 ERA and 3.17 FIP, and for the price you’re paying, that’s not bad at all.
Griffin Canning, SP, LAA (ADP: 289)
Full transparency, I’ve been on the “Griffing Canning will be good one day I SWEAR TO YOU” train for a while now. I’ve tweeted about him quite a bit, and I still love him even though he hasn’t put it all together yet. But why do I love him, and why should you take a shot on him in drafts even though he’s yet to post a FIP below 4.30?
If you haven’t yet, you’re going to see a recurring theme among the pitchers listed in this article—they’re guys who have some great pitches but need just a couple adjustments to really take the next step forward. Canning is one of those guys.
Last year, Canning threw a slider that worked beautifully as a strikeout pitch, posting a 36.4% chase rate, 21.9% SwStr rate, and a 40.6% strikeout rate. And even when hitters did make contact, they did nothing with it, posting a .237 wOBA and .103 ISO against.
Take a look at it:
Pretty consistently over the two years he’s been in the majors, Canning’s slider has been great. Also pretty great? His changeup, which posted a solid 33.3% chase rate, 12.1% SwStr rate, and .243 wOBA against last year. In fact, here’s a fun nugget—aside from his fastball (more on that in a second), every single pitch that Canning threw in 2019 and 2020 had a SwStr rate over 12%. That’s really impressive and means he’s got some nice swing-and-miss stuff.
So what’s the problem? It’s his fastball. His four-seam fastball is his most-thrown pitch and it is hot trash. Last year, hitters had a .394 wOBA and .307 ISO (yes you read that right) against the pitch, which isn’t far off from its .356 wOBA and .263 ISO against in 2019. The pitch gets absolutely destroyed and it’s the pitch he throws the most, so no wonder the guy’s ERA has floated around 4.00 these past two years. If Canning is able to rework his fastball (or his new cutter he added last year, which produced similarly bad results) or if he starts pitching backwards a little bit and throwing his breaking/off-speed stuff more and his fastball less, I could see Canning being a really interesting pitcher.
I’m not suggesting he’ll be an ace, but as late as he’s going in drafts, I think he’s worth a shot to see if he can finally get it together.
Yusei Kikuchi, SP, SEA (ADP: 298)
I think Yusei Kikuchi might be one of the most underrated pitchers in drafts right now. Yes, he had a 5.17 ERA last year, and if that’s literally the only thing you look at, I guess I get this ADP, but 2020 was so much more than that for Kikuchi. Obviously the forever caveat with 2020 was a small sample size and I think that small sample size is what hurt Kikuchi, because he was better than his ERA suggests. That 5.17 ERA came with a 3.30 FIP and a 3.51 xERA, suggesting he was the victim of some serious bad luck. Plus, he saw his strikeout rate increase significantly, from 16.1% in 2019 to 24.2% last year. Part of that was thanks to his slider, which posted a 44.9% chase rate and 16.5% SwStr rate.
Speaking of Kikuchi’s repertoire, here’s another fun fact—of the four pitches Kikuchi threw last year, not a single one had a wOBA against worse than .314. Yes, he had some command issues with his slider that led to a .200 ISO against, but aside from that, his whole repertoire was excellent. So yeah, I fully expect Kikuchi to be significantly better this year. His strikeout numbers might not be incredible, but clearly he’s making some adjustments and they seem to be working. Hopefully they stick in 2021.
Tarik Skubal, SP, DET (ADP: 300)
Tarik Skubal has excellent raw stuff, with a lightning rod of a high-spin fastball that topped out around 99 MPH and a nice changeup that works well as a swing-and-miss pitch. But Skubal struggled last year, posting a 5.63 ERA and a 5.75 FIP in 32 innings pitched, and the main reason why was his command.
Looking at his repertoire, aside from his curveball (his least-thrown pitch), every pitch he threw had a batting average against of .250 or lower, which is great. The problem? His fastball and changeup, his two most-thrown pitches, had ISOs against of .297 and .308, respectively. That speaks to some serious command issues, which makes sense when you see he had an 8.3% meatball rate (pitches thrown middle-middle) last year, above the league average of 7.2%.
Still, Skubal was a rookie, and we know the biggest advancements players in just about every sport make is from their rookie to their second years in the game. Given his raw stuff and cheap price, I’m willing to take a swing at Skubal in the hopes that he lands a secure rotation spot (which as of now, seems like it could definitely happen).
Robbie Ray, SP, TOR (ADP: 305)
Last year was a weird one for Robbie Ray. He made some changes to his pitching approach that, on paper, sound like a great idea. He tweaked his mechanics, shortening his arm action:
Robbie Ray 2020 vs. 2019.
Arm Action. pic.twitter.com/KOugMidSt1
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 26, 2020
And then he toyed with his fastball, adding 1.5 MPH to it on average (the fifth-biggest fastball velocity gain among starters last year) and upped its spin rate from 2,257 RPM to 2,420 RPM. On paper, that all sounds fantastic, but it turned into an abysmal year for Ray, with a 6.62 ERA and a 6.50 FIP. And that new fastball? It got annihilated, with a .460 wOBA and .375 ISO against. My guess is that Ray wasn’t fully set in his new mechanics, mostly because he couldn’t control his pitches if his life depended on it. That’s been a problem for Ray consistently throughout his career (he’s had a walk rate north of 10% every year since 2017), but last year was especially bad, with a career-worst 36.2% zone rate.
So why take a chance? Because 1. Ray has a secure rotation spot, 2. he’s going to get you strikeouts no matter what, and 3. he might get this stuff figured out.
Obviously No. 3 is a massive “might,” but clearly Ray is someone who is trying to improve his game, and I really appreciate that in a pitcher. Maybe he can continue adjusting and figure this stuff out. And if not, you’ll know relatively quickly and you can dump him.
Tejay Antone, SP/RP, CIN (ADP: 333)
If you ever want to fall in love with Tejay Antone real quick, take a look at his Statcast profile.
Good god that’s a lot of red. Antone has quite the repertoire, including a sinker that comes in around 96 MPH and tops out around 99 and a slider, his most-thrown pitch, that posted a nice 18.6% SwStr rate and 32.7% chase rate last year.
While Antone had some command issues with his slider (.220 ISO against), he was generally pretty good at limiting hard contact.
So why should you bother with Antone? Just in case he ends up in one of two spots—a rotation spot or a closer role. As of now, the latter seems significantly more likely than the former, since the closer role is up for grabs, but Antone has plenty of competition. Amir Garrett is the favorite to land the role but there’s also Lucas Sims and Sean Doolittle to compete with. But then again, he might start. With news that Sonny Gray will be out for the first week of the season with a back injury, we might see Antone get a start or two, especially since he’s been starting in spring training and looking pretty good. If he impresses in some regular season starts, who knows?
Unlike some of the guys on this list who have a safe opportunity but need to work on their stuff, Antone is a guy who has great stuff and needs an opportunity. Just in case he gets one, I think he’s worth a flier.
Dylan Cease, SP, CHW (ADP: 334)
I get it if you’re hesitant to put Dylan Cease on your team because you’ve been burned by him before. Believe me, I was burned by him a few times too. But now his price is absurdly low, like undrafted low, and the 25-year-old has the tools to be a really good pitcher.
The big draw to Cease is obviously his fastball. It’s a pretty sweet pitch, averaging about 98 MPH, topping out at 100.5, and spinning at a rate in the 95th percentile of the majors.
That thing is like a lightning bolt. Unfortunately, it was a lightning bolt Cease had absolutely no control over, posting a 15.7% walk rate with the pitch and a .235 ISO.
His slider worked well though, posting a solid 14.3% SwStr rate, but honestly, given how wild he was, hitters just weren’t going to chase after pitches. Neither his slider nor changeup garnered a chase rate better than 22.4%, which is pretty pitiful but at the same, not super surprising. If Cease has no control, why on earth would you chase after anything?
So why even bother drafting Cease? Because it seems like he’s making some adjustments. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Cease is working with the White Sox’s new pitching coach, Ethan Katz, on closing up his delivery with a core velocity belt (the same thing Lucas Giolito did). Apparently it’s been helping, at least as far as Yasmani Grandal is concerned, because according to him, if Cease keeps working and gets to where it seems like he’s going, “this guy could be a Cy Young finalist—he could possibly be a Cy Young winner. He’s got the tools to do it.”
That kind of potential is worth a late-round flier. That kind of potential is basically the definition of a late-round flier.
Spencer Turnbull, SP, DET (ADP: 335)
My main thing with Turnbull was always this—he’s got a great fastball, a really good slider, a decent curveball, and a sinker that gets absolutely destroyed. So it seems simple, right? Dump the sinker. Well, instead of that, last year saw Turnbull tweak his repertoire a bit, adding at least 100 RPM to every pitch he threw (except his changeup, his least-thrown pitch). The spin added to his fastball have him a fastball spin rate in the 88th percentile of MLB. He also started locating his sinker and four-seam fastball up in the zone a lot more while continuing to locate his breaking stuff down in the zone.
All in all, these changes translated to a season in which Turnbull posted a 3.97 ERA and 3.49 FIP with a 21.1% strikeout rate. Not incredible numbers, but also not terrible numbers. If you look at his SIERA (5.00) and xERA (5.48), you see a much scarier story, mostly due to the fact he gave up a 43.8% hard-hit rate but only a 4.5% HR/FB rate.
So why am I interested in Turnbull as a sleeper? For a couple reasons. First, we saw that he can be pretty good last year, he had a really strong stretch while things were clicking. But the main reason is the same reasoning behind a lot of these other sleeper pitchers. I really like it when I see a guy who’s a pitcher rather than a thrower. Someone who is tweaking their mechanics, their repertoire, and constantly working on their game rather than someone who just goes up there and throws gas hoping things will be different.
Turnbull is definitely a pitcher; he knows there are issues with his repertoire and he’s working on them. He’s got some of the pieces: a great swing-and-miss pitch in his slider (39.1% chase rate, 19.5% SwStr rate last year) and a high-spin fastball that induces weak contact (.322 wOBA and .114 ISO against last year). The curveball was used a lot less and was a lot less effective last year, which isn’t super encouraging, but still, the pieces are there. If a couple more things snap into place (maybe with the assistance of a new pitching coach in Chris Fetter?) you could have a pretty good fantasy asset on your hands for the price of basically the last pick in your draft.
Franchy Cordero, OF, BOS (ADP: 369)
I’ve loved Franchy Cordero for some time now and I’m psyched that he’s going to be with the Red Sox in a very hitter-friendly AL East. Our own Ben Pernick wrote a great piece on why Cordero is an awesome sleeper, but here’s the short version: When he’s been out there, he’s shown he can hit the ball hard.
He’s a beauty of a Statcast profile, and his .211 batting average and .343 SLG look a lot better when you see they came with a .343 xBA (second-highest in MLB) and a .631 xSLG (eighth-highest in MLB), not to mention the .426 xwOBA and .459 xwOBAcon he had.
The problem is and has been opportunity, mostly because of injury. He missed just about all of 2019 with an elbow injury and then a quad injury, and missed a handful of games last year with a hamate bone injury. As of this writing, Cordero is on the COVID-19 reserve list for the Red Sox. It’s not clear if that means he has COVID-19 or if he was in contact with someone who tested positive. If it comes out he had COVID-19, then things might be a little different, depending on how bad a case he had. We all saw how bad COVID wrecked Yoan Moncada last year.
Absent that, if he’s able to be back and playing in the outfield in Boston, I’m psyched about the potential, and that makes him well worth a late-round flier.
Spencer Howard, SP, PHI (ADP: 373)
Spencer Howard is the top prospect in the Phillies’ organization, and if you want to know why, just look at this pitch.
That’s Howard’s slider, and it’s a beauty of a pitch. Last year, the pitch posted a fantastic 39.5% chase rate and 22.1% SwStr rate. It’s the kind of wipeout strikeout pitch you’d expect an ace to have. While it worked wonderfully as a strikeout pitch, Howard also had a bit of trouble commanding it, as hitters had a .391 ISO against it.
Still, Howard has some great stuff. Alongside the slider, he’s got a nice fastball that averages 95 MPH with good spin that is good at inducing weak contact. He does need to work on his changeup though, but Howard didn’t have a whole lot of work last year as the Phillies limited his workload some. This year, he could easily end up with a spot in the rotation, especially if the Matt Moore experiment doesn’t work out (or if Vince Velasquez is less than spectacular, which has certainly happened).
If he gets that spot, I’m very excited about his potential.
Garrett Richards, SP, BOS (ADP: 376)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before—there’s this pitcher who has some nice pitches but his sinker is absolute trash and is dragging him down. That’s like, half the pitchers in this article, including Garrett Richards.
Throughout an injury-marred career in which Richards has flashed potential over and over, Richards has generally had a really solid four-seam fastball, a brilliant slider, and a horrible sinker. Last year, that was the case again—Richards’ slider posted an excellent 38.3% chsae rate and 20.8% SwStr rate alongside a .266 wOBA against and his fastball posted a great .294 wOBA and .100 ISO against. But his sinker? That posted a .568 wOBA and .250 ISO against. Again, terrible.
Of all the pitchers here, Richards might be the riskiest—not in terms of price (because he’s essentially going undrafted) but in terms of things that can go wrong. We all know the injury history—between 2016 and 2019, Richards never had more than 76.1 innings pitched. We also don’t know if that trash sinker will ever go away, though Richards has said he’s toying with his windup, so maybe the sinker doesn’t even need to go away. Either way, the potential has been there for Richards for a while. He’s got a killer strikeout pitch, he’s got a solid fastball. His curveball wasn’t great last year but it has been a solid third pitch in the past, so it’s realistic to think it could be again.
Put everything together and who knows? Maybe Richards could be a useful fantasy asset this year. And similar to what I’ve said on some of the other pitchers on this list, you’ll know relatively quickly if things are working or not for Richards. And if not, you dump him.
Evan Longoria, 3B, SFG (ADP: 418)
Oh yea, and there’s this:
Only 11 hitters held a better than MLB avg Z-Contact%, O-Swing% & a Barrel rate above 10%:
These are skilled hitters.
— Matt Williams (@MattWi77iams) December 17, 2020
Yea. There’s a lot suggesting Longoria should’ve had a better line than .254/.297/.425 with a .308 wOBA, not the least of which are his expected stats from Statcast, which include a .280 xBA, a .521 xSLG, and a .362 xwOBA.
Look, could this be a product of a fluky, weird 2020? Sure. But it’s hard to deny the fact that Longoria posted the second-best barrel rate (11.5%) and best hard-hit rate (45.2%) of his career last year. I mean, that happened. And we have to do something with that information. For my part, I’m taking a shot on him at the end of drafts, just in case that kind of a Statcast profile pops up again. I’d be a bit more bullish if the NL had a DH, but even still, I’d imagine Longoria gets some playing time (though he might be splitting time with Tommy La Stella, it remains to be seen).
But if he gets some playing time and whatever happened last year sticks, I’m kind of all about it? I think?
Trevor Rogers, SP, MIA (ADP: 430)
Another top prospect, Trevor Rogers posted a less-than-ideal season last year with a 6.11 ERA over 28 innings. But even in a season of small sample size, that’s an especially small sample size, and diving a bit more into Rogers’s numbers reveals last season wasn’t as bad as you might think. Last year, Rogers also posted a 3.86 SIERA, 3.53 xERA, and a 30% strikeout rate, all numbers that are really nice, and Rogers flashed some pretty impressive pitches. His changeup, for example, posted a 56.1% chase rate, which would have been the second most-chased pitch in all of baseball had it qualified. It also came with a 23.6% SwStr rate, a .176 wOBA against, and a .063 ISO against.
The problem came from his other two pitches—his fastball and his slider. The slider worked decently as a strikeout pitch, with a 36.9% chase rate and 13.2% SwStr rate, but Rogers had trouble commanding both the slider and fastball, as they got hit pretty often, posting .280 and .286 ISOs against, respectively.
Still, Rogers flashed some impressive stuff and got a bit unlucky last year. Given the raw stuff and likely a secure spot in the rotation, I’m more than willing to take a flier on him.
Dean Kremer, SP, BAL (ADP: 505)
As an Orioles fan, I’m personally heavily invested in Dean Kremer in part because I desperately want the Orioles to be good (please god is that so much to ask) and because it helps justify the Manny Machado trade, in which Kremer came over from the Dodgers (along with a handful of other players).
Kremer made his major league debut last year, ultimately starting in four games, and produced a 4.82 ERA that, notably, came with a 2.76 FIP (though also a 4.98 SIERA, likely because he didn’t give up a single home run and, obviously, that’s going to regress). I like the stuff he’s got. Kremer comes with a nice, high-spin fastball that sits around 93 MPH and can get up to 97. It’s solid at inducing weak contact, with just a .326 wOBA against last year, and even gets a few swings and misses, with a 9.6% SwStr rate.
He’s also got this curveball that I love watching:
As pretty as the pitch is, it wasn’t really much of a strikeout pitch last year, inducing a pitiful 14.5% chase rate and a mediocre 9.6% SwStr rate. But again, small sample size and a rookie season, I have faith.
He had some command issues with his slider, but generally speaking, Kremer’s got a really solid repertoire and he should absolutely have a spot in the Orioles’ rotation given that rotation is consisting of basically nothing but prospects, John Means, and the ghost of Felix Hernandez.
Given a full season, I like Kremer’s chances of turning in a solid campaign, and he’s going undrafted in the majority of leagues, so I’m happy to take a flier on him.
Photos by Quinn Harris, Leslie Plaza Johnson and John Cordes/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Jacob Roy (@jmrgraphics3 on IG)