Fantasy owners need to dig further and further down the rankings to find true sleepers in today’s landscape. How deep? No player put forth in our AL sleepers column, presented herein, or in our NL sleepers column has a FantasyPros consensus ranking higher than 145. That translates to the first pick of the 13th round in a 12-team league.
These players aren’t the ones who are going to turn into surprise stars and win your league; those are the breakouts. These players, however, are undervalued and will turn a profit for their fantasy owners and double as easy selections to make late in drafts and for cheap in auctions.
McCullers was one of my top breakout picks last season. You think I’m quitting him because of some silly elbow issues? No way. All aboard the McCullers Express for 2017.
Any pitcher who already has documented arm problems is an even greater risk for injury, and the position already carries a pretty high baseline risk. Still, we have plenty of evidence that indicates the younger a player is, the better he can come back from injury. McCullers is entering his age-23 season, so if we can, let’s check the injury concerns at the door and instead focus on what he was the last time we saw him fully healthy.
McCullers threw 125 2/3 innings as a 21-year-old rookie two seasons ago, totaling a 3.22 ERA, 3.26 FIP, 1.19 WHIP and 129 strikeouts. Even through the fits and starts of last season, he totaled a 3.22 ERA, 3.00 FIP and 106 strikeouts in 81 innings. He has the stuff to be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, but justifiable injury concerns have pushed him outside the top 150 in FantasyPros consensus rankings. Given the potential payoff at the price, McCullers is going to be a fixture of my teams.
The revisionist historians are writing off Mazara’s rookie year as a disappointment, largely thanks to his downturn in the second half. That ignores the fact that there was a whole lot more good than bad from a 21-year-old who had all of 101 plate appearances at Triple A before getting promoted to the majors. Mazara started his career on a strong trajectory, slashing .266/.320/.419 with 20 homers, 13 doubles and 64 RBIs. The fantasy community should expect a player with his pedigree, minor league track record and rookie-season performance to take a step forward this season. What exactly that step looks like is up for debate, but .275/.340/.440 with another 20 homers and a floor of 70 in RBIs and runs scored is right in his wheelhouse. That’s a steal at a FantasyPros consensus ranking of 185.
Shoemaker resurrected his career in about the middle of June, pitching to a 2.97 ERA, 3.03 FIP and 1.13 WHIP with 84 strikeouts against 17 non-intentional walks in 100 innings. He found a way to use his splitter, four-seamer and sinker together effectively, mixing in the occasional slider for tilt, but it was the splitter that made Shoemaker into a different pitcher last year. The 2016 season almost certainly represents his ceiling, he doesn’t have strikeout-per-inning ability, and, because of his repertoire, he’s going to get knocked around on his off-days. At a consensus ranking of 200, though, he doesn’t need to be perfect. Shoemaker is more than the staff-filler suggested by his draft-day price.
The sands of the fantasy baseball landscape shift every season, but here's one rule I’m always going to follow: “If there’s a starting pitcher in his mid-to-late-20s with a career strikeout-per-nine rate of 8.7 who’s coming off the board around pick No. 200, I’m going to take him.” This season, that applies to Smyly. The new Seattle lefty has yet to reach his potential, but we know that he is going to miss bats: He has 552 strikeouts in 570 1/3 career innings and has never had a strikeout-per-nine rate lower than 7.8. The whiffs are going to be there in abundance, and Smyly is, on average, a 17th-round pick in 12-team leagues. That should be enough for his sleeper case.
But we’re not done just yet. Smyly is an extreme fly-ball pitcher, with a career fly-ball rate of 44.5%. As such, he has typically had trouble with the long ball. But now, he gets to call one of the league’s most homer-depressing parks, Safeco Field, home. What’s more, he has never played with an outfield defense like the one he will have at his back this season. The Smyly breakout we believed was a possibility in 2015 and '16 is coming this year.
Max Kepler, OF, Twins
With nothing to lose last year, the Twins threw Kepler into the fire after just 128 plate appearances at Triple A. All things considered, his rookie season was a success, as he slashed .235/.309/.424 with 17 homers and 20 doubles in 447 plate appearances. He also walked in 9.4% of his plate appearances and struck out in 20.8% of them, both of which were above average for anyone last year, let alone a 23-year-old rookie. There’s good reason, too, to believe Kepler was the victim of some bad luck: He had a .261 BABIP despite a 33% hard-hit rate and 1.3 ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio. Kepler could repeat last year’s batted-ball profile without making any improvements and still likely hit .270/.335/.435. Add in the fact that he’s probably not done growing as a player, and he becomes an easy buy at his consensus ranking of 247. He’s a good bet for 20 homers, 10 steals, 70 runs and 70 RBIs this season.
All of the excitement in White Sox spring training is focused on the big-time prospects they acquired this off-season, including Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito and Michael Kopech. Don’t let that make you lose sight of the one youngster they drafted who’s already moving the needle for them in the majors.
Anderson enjoyed a strong rookie season in 2016, slashing .283/.306/.432 with nine homers, 22 doubles, six triples and 10 steals in 431 plate appearances. The one obvious hole in his game-his inability to draw a walk, paired with a high strikeout rate-could undermine him the way it did a former Chicago shortstop who never quite realized his potential in the city: Starlin Castro. But until Anderson proves himself incapable of improving that part of his game, we’re going to give him the benefit of the doubt, especially at his consensus ranking of 229. Entering his age-23 season, he’s going to hit atop the White Sox' lineup, and he’ll have plenty of leash from new manager Rick Renteria. Anderson is one of the best endgame options at his position.
Jorge Soler, OF, Royals
Thanks to injuries, his own tepid performance and one of the deepest rosters in baseball, Soler never fully caught on in Chicago. The Cubs sent him to Kansas City for Wade Davis in the off-season, and he will begin his career anew as the Royals' rightfielder, giving him the chance he never had on the North Side (although he's likely going to start the season on the disabled list due to a strained oblique).
It doesn’t take long to see Soler’s obvious potential. At 6’4” and 215 pounds, Soler is an imposing figure with immense power who cuts a figure like that of Giancarlo Stanton, and at 25 years old, he still has plenty of time to harness his potential. To do that, he’ll have to cut down on the strikeouts, the prime culprit in keeping him from becoming a successful everyday player. The great news for fantasy owners is he’s priced as a throwaway pick at the end of drafts, making him a pure zero-risk, high-reward play.
The 24-year-old Castellanos has progressed every year in his career and, despite his age, now has three full seasons under his belt. He slashed .285/.331/.496 with 18 homers and 58 RBIs last season, and even if that somehow represents his ceiling, he’s a bargain as a low-end starter at third or corner infield at his consensus ranking of 216. Given his age and progression thus far, why should we expect that he won’t find another level this year? Castellanos may never reach the heights projected for him when he was seen as a top-25 prospect in all of baseball, there could still be another half-step of production ahead.
Devon Travis, 2B, Blue Jays
Travis has played 163 games and racked up 671 plate appearances across two seasons, which basically translates to one full season. He has slashed .301/.342/.454 with 19 homers, 85 RBIs and 92 runs in his short career. He is entering his age-26 season and is expected to lead off for a potent Blue Jays lineup, which remains strong despite losing Edwin Encarnacion to the Indians.
Can someone please tell me what I’m missing? Why is Travis the No. 188 overall player, and No. 18 second baseman, by FantasyPros' consensus ranking? What has he done to this point of his career that would suggest he won’t rate easily among the starting second basemen in a 12-team fantasy league? The answer, as far as I can tell, is nothing. Travis is criminally underrated this season. Do what you can to ensure the rest of your league doesn't know this before your draft or auction.