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It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2021 or even drafting now. The hot stove league is just taking shape, but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2021 fantasy baseball season.
For the sixth year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. The first two installments of the series were batting average and WHIP sleepers. This week, we’ll be looking at possible home run sleepers. Over 10 weeks, I will be providing a list of sleepers for each 5x5 roto category (BA, HR, RBI, R, SB, W, ERA, WHIP, K, SV). Since the hot stove league still has a long way to go this offseason, for the next few weeks we will focus on players in categories that are less based on opportunity and more based on skill. Other roto categories that are more dependent on opportunity, supporting cast, and batting order spot (R, RBI, SB) or team and manager (W, SV) will be discussed in the latter half of the 10-week series.
Before reading any further, it’s important to note the definition of a sleeper. In this case, it’s a player who will exceed draft day ADP AND projections in a particular category. The players are broken down by mixed league sleepers and single league sleepers.
Mixed League Sleepers
Garrett Cooper, 1B, Marlins
Cooper’s name has been on mixed league fantasy rosters occasionally over the last two seasons. A late bloomer, Cooper didn’t reach the majors until age 26 in 2017 with the Yankees and didn’t find regular playing time until 2019 with Miami. Even then, his hold on playing time was shaky and disrupted by injury. He missed time in that season with hand and triceps injuries, and more recently was a part of the Marlins COVID-19 outbreak in 2020. Despite the obstacles, Cooper has been relatively consistent at the plate, hitting a combined .281-21-70 with 72 runs scored and a respectable .806 OPS in 554 plate appearances over the last two seasons.
Cooper was more of a batting average asset than a power hitter in the minors, hitting double-digit home runs in only one season prior to his MLB arrival, but his Statcast numbers show an interesting, developing trend of a player showing an increased launch angle while also cutting down on his strikeouts by three percent in 2020. As a result of the launch angle increase, Cooper went from being an extreme 52% groundball hitter in 2019 to a less extreme 46% last season. He also pulled the ball significantly more last year, up to 43% from 34% in 2019. All of these are positive signs for Cooper’s power, though it should be noted we’re judging from a small sample size of 34 games and 133 plate appearances during the 2020 regular season. Cooper likely needs the NL to adopt the DH permanently in 2021 to keep regular playing time, a risk that’s reflected in his current 362 ADP in NFBC leagues, but that’s a risk well worth taking for what looks like a talented hitter with potentially 25-30 home run upside.
Nate Lowe, 1B, Rangers
In recent seasons, few teams have been better at producing talent than the Tampa Bay Rays. Lowe looked like their potential first baseman of the future before he was traded to Texas last month in a deal that also included several minor leaguers. The move allows Lowe to take his talents to Arlington, joining a lineup with formidable power upside. For Lowe, the upside is clear, hitting 27 home runs in 555 plate appearances over three minor league levels in 2018 and 16 home runs in 406 plate appearances at Triple-A Durham in 2019. Since being promoted to Tampa in 2019, Lowe has 11 home runs in 245 plate appearances with the Rays.
Lowe’s flyball rate has been a relatively pedestrian 33% in the majors and unlike the Rangers former home, the new Globe Life Field graded below average for home runs in its first season. Despite those two relative negatives, the opportunity for Lowe looks very favorable as things stand now. Ronald Guzman has done nothing over the last three seasons to maintain regular at-bats at first base, and the team doesn’t have any other great alternatives. Lowe has certainly taken his lumps already, and he has a relatively respectable .770 OPS in his limited MLB time. After trading Lance Lynn and losing Mike Minor in free agency, the Rangers seem to be in a reload period and could give Lowe the patience he needs to develop into a potential 30 home run performer. Fantasy managers have to like that upside with a current ADP of 358.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pirates
Polanco is one of those players who has burned fantasy managers a time or two. A former elite prospect in the Pirates farm system, he’s yet to find stardom at the MLB level and has seen his fair share of time on the injured list. Most recently, a major shoulder injury was the culprit, an issue that ended his 2018 season early and also limited him to only 42 games in 2019. He came back last season to hit a pitiful .153-7-22 in 50 games after starting the year absent due to a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. The fantasy value now is at an all-time low for a 29-year-old outfielder who is, frankly, at a turning point in his MLB career. Even further complicating his status is a fractured right wrist suffered this offseason.
For all the reasons to avoid Polanco, his raw talent and power potential still provides intrigue. He’s been an extreme flyball hitter since 2018, with a cumulative flyball rate above 45% over that time and an impressive 36 home runs in 876 plate appearances. Over the last two seasons, we’ve seen Polanco’s strikeout rate skyrocket from 22% in 2018 to 29% in 2019 to 37% last season. That’s a clear red flag indicating something amiss either with his swing or approach, but Polanco was elite in the 95 batted balls he did have last season with a 93 mph exit velocity and 52% hard hit rate, according to Statcast. It’s more than a little concerning that Polanco never actually got on track last season and has seen his contact rate plummet, but the batted ball data also shows the raw talent and upside. For a two-time 20-plus home run hitter who still hasn’t even reached age 30, a 413 ADP represents a price that could produce huge profit and still won’t be overly painful if he does continue to flounder.
Edwin Rios, 3B, Dodgers
Since he was promoted in 2019, Rios has done nothing but hit for the Dodgers. Over 139 regular season plate appearances, he has a sizzling 12 home runs and an elite .972 OPS. And while the former sixth-round pick was rarely mentioned as a top prospect coming up through the Dodgers farm system, he was certainly productive. Rios had a .295/.348/.539 triple slash over five minor league seasons, and he most recently hit .270-31-91 with a .915 OPS in 104 games at Triple-A Oklahoma City in 2019. Rios was also a major factor for the Dodgers in the NLCS with two home runs in 12 plate appearances. Simply put, Rios has answered the call whenever the Dodgers have needed him.
At this point, there’s no telling how Rios’ playing time will look in 2021, but it’s clear that he deserves more of it. Former starting third baseman Justin Turner is a free agent, and the Dodgers also non-tendered Joc Pederson, which could create opportunity for Rios next season, especially if the NL employs the DH. Rios has demonstrated an ability as an extreme flyball hitter (44% at Triple-A in 2019 and 48% last season), and he also did a nice job cutting down on strikeouts in his second go-around last year, with a 22% strikeout rate in 2020. His current ADP around 337 shows a relatively cheap price reflective of a playing situation that’s unclear, but the 30 home run upside at the hot corner could be too good to pass on.
Single League Players
Austin Allen, C, Athletics
Allen was part of a two-player return that the A’s received following the 2019 season from San Diego for Jurickson Profar. Like he did with the Padres in 2019, he spent 2020 up and down between the MLB roster and the “minors” (alternate camp) without much of an opportunity to show what he could do. However, the minor league numbers show that Allen can do a lot offensively. The former fourth-round pick has a great offensive track record as a career .296/.354/.490 hitter who hit more than 20 home runs in three consecutive seasons and a blazing .333-21-67 in only 67 games at the very hitter-friendly Triple-A El Paso in 2019.
The book is clear on Allen, based on what he’s seen at the MLB level over 103 plate appearances. He’s seen a very low 46% fastballs. Somewhat limited defensively behind the plate, Allen will need to really hit soon to stick, but his situation does provide hope he could get his shot. Oakland starting catcher Sean Murphy is highly durable but also relatively fragile, having played more than 73 games only once in five professional seasons. As things stand now, Allen should have a chance to battle Jonah Heim for backup duties in the spring, and the reward for his power upside warrants watching in two-catcher AL-only leagues.
Travis Demeritte, OF, Tigers
2021 is a huge year for Demeritte. A former first-round pick back in 2013 with the Rangers, Demeritte is with his third MLB organization and entering his age 26 season. He barely got an opportunity in 2020 after battling a groin injury early in the season, and didn’t hit much during his MLB debut the previous year. The signs that Demeritte can actually hit stem from three minor league seasons with at least 20 home runs, including a .286-20-73 showing in 399 plate appearances at Triple-A Gwinnett in 2019 before getting traded to the Tigers in the Shane Greene deal.
What we’ve seen from Demeritte in the majors is a player who is relatively overmatched, but he could get a clean slate on a team that continues to rebuild and has new manager A.J. Hinch at the helm. The addition of veteran Robbie Grossman throws a wrench into the situation, but the opportunity for playing time looks achievable with competition like Christin Stewart, Daz Cameron, and Harold Castro in the outfield corners. Demeritte’s spring will be very important, but the minor league history makes him at least worth a spot on the AL-only radar.
Deivy Grullon, C, Reds
Grullon has had a relatively busy few months. He was claimed off waivers by Boston from the Phillies in early September. After appearing in one game with the Red Sox, he was waived again last month and claimed by Cincinnati. It’s good to be wanted, as they say, and Grullon’s last two minor league seasons show why there was interest. He hit .273-21-59 in 353 plate appearances at Double-A Reading in 2018 and .283-21-77 in 457 plate appearances at Triple-A Lehigh Valley in 2019. That’s clear pop for what’s listed as a 5-foot-11, 240 pound frame.
Cincinnati seems to be in cost-cutting mode after going aggressive last offseason. It’s unclear at this point how Grullon fits with the likes of Tucker Barnhart, Tyler Stephenson, and Kyle Farmer, or even if he will be with the Reds organization when spring training arrives, for that matter. Clearly, Grullon does have some power upside no matter where he winds up, and has a shot to eventually be fantasy-relevant if he finds a roster spot.
Jack Mayfield, SS/3B, Braves
You might remember Mayfield as an occasional replacement for the injured Carlos Correa with Houston in 2019, and he also got some time as an infield utilityman last season. He was claimed off waivers by the Braves in November despite some truly horrific MLB numbers over two seasons, hitting only .170/.198/.283 over 112 plate appearances. Mayfield is also entering his age 30 season already, so the window would seem to be closing on an opportunity for an MLB roster spot.
For all the struggles Mayfield has seen in the majors, his minor league track record still shows offensive potential. He hit at least 20 home runs twice, peaking with 26 home runs and a .916 OPS at Triple-A Round Rock in 2019. It’s certainly true he was older than most of the competition, but Mayfield’s swing is also conducive to power with an extreme launch angle, 46% flyball rate, and 44% pull rate in the majors. Whether he will actually hit MLB pitching remains to be seen, but the path to playing time isn’t that difficult to foresee if Austin Riley continues to struggle. Riley, best remembered for knocking the cover off the ball when he was first promoted in 2019, posted a .669 OPS in September of his rookie season and just .716 last year. Mayfield’s infield versatility also gives him other paths to playing time, though it’s assumed the Braves will add to their playoff-worthy roster this offseason.