Nick Senzel, Josh Naylor lead 2021 sleepers

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NBC Sports EDGE Staff
·7 min read
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Fantasy baseball draft season is well underway! Spring training's first pitch is Sunday and that means managers will get firsthand looks at all the top talent. Managers will also get to scout prospects and under-the-radar players who could potentially make real noise in fantasy circles this season. Every manager loves to be that manager who saw the breakout coming before the rest of his opponents. That's why we're here to help give you that edge as we inch closer to Opening Day.

Our 2021 MLB Draft Guide is loaded with an arsenal of content -- from positional rankings, ADP reports and season-long projections, to mock drafts, projected lineups and draft cheat sheets. We are as proud as we've ever been of what we've put together and eager to share it with you in the coming weeks. No matter the format or size of your league, we are confident we can deliver the tools you need to help you secure that championship hardware.

We recently looked at Overall Rankings for mixed-league, 5x5 formats. This week, we highlight a number of sleepers that should be on managers' radars ahead of the 2021 season.

Check it out:

Cavan Biggio, 2B/3B/OF, Toronto Blue Jays
By Christopher Crawford

Biggio has more than held his own in his two seasons with an OPS of .798 in 159 games. His talent suggests there's more to come. Biggio, 26 in April, was one of the most selective hitters in baseball in 2020, ranking in the 92nd percentile in walk percentage over the truncated campaign. Once on base, he's a threat to steal, and he has yet to be caught stealing while swiping 20 bases the last two years. He's still tapping into his power, but it develops each year, and his swing path and strength suggests that a 25-homer season is within reach. He's never going to hit for a huge average in part because he's willing to work counts and hit with two strikes, but his power/speed combination should make up for it. He's a must-get in OBP leagues, but even in a traditional format, there's a lot to like about Biggio's 2021 potential.

Nick Senzel, OF, Reds
By Matthew Pouliot

The hype machine that was out of control when Senzel was on the cusp of the majors two years ago has ground to a halt, just in time for the infielder-turned-outfielder’s coming out party in 2021. Senzel didn’t get much of a chance to play during a turbulent 2020 season, but when he was on the field, he reduced his strikeout rate and hit more flies, putting him in position to take advantage of his homer-friendly ballpark in Cincinnati. He remains one of the game’s fastest players, and the potential is there for him to put together a 20 HR-20 SB season. He might have to battle for at-bats at first, but he seems like a far better bet than Shogo Akiyama and Aristides Aquino from here. For someone who could be around at the end of mixed-league drafts, he offers a ton of upside.

Editor’s Note: Get an edge on draft day with our premium Draft Guide that is packed with rankings, projections, tiers, ADP reports, mock drafts, expert columns and much more. And don't forget to use promo code WELCOME10 to get 10% off. Click here to learn more!

Josh Naylor, OF, Cleveland
By Seth Trachtman

Despite his status as a former first-round pick, Naylor has often been overlooked behind better prospects. Still, he has hit consistently in the minors and shown an excellent approach at the plate, hitting .288/.351/.439 for his minor league career and a much more impressive .314/.389/.547 at Triple-A. Naylor’s eye has long been one of his strengths, with a 12% strikeout rate in 2018 and 2019 as a minor leaguer between Double- and Triple-A. It took Naylor some time to repeat his strong contact rate, but we saw it between San Diego and Cleveland last season over 104 plate appearances. While Naylor hit only .247-1-6, he had an impressive 11.5% strikeout rate that could soon lead to better things in the batting average department. In fact, his Statcast data showed a .278 XBA, an indication that we should expect improvement soon. He’s on the cusp of a major opportunity for a low budget squad, and could be a sneaky Eric Hosmer-like .280-20-90 hitter in the middle of the Cleveland batting order.

Yusei Kikuchi, SP, Seattle Mariners
By George Bissell

On the heels of a lackluster stateside debut, Kikuchi focused on simplifying his mechanics and adding a cutter to his repertoire last offseason. He logged time at Driveline Baseball developing a shorter arm path, which synchronized his delivery and catalyzed a massive velocity spike. His mechanical overhaul made an immediate impact as Kikuchi averaged 95 mph on his four-seam fastball during the truncated 2020 campaign, up from 92.8 mph in 2019. And his brand-new cutter averaged 92 mph compared to an 86 mph slider the previous year. Kikuchi’s increased velocity fueled upticks in strikeout rate, swinging-strike rate and ground ball rate, while also solving his omnipresent home run issue. Despite those positive developments, Kikuchi struggled to consistently throw strikes, resulting in a bloated 5.17 ERA across 47 innings (nine starts) last year. His abysmal surface stats may not reflect it, but Kikuchi took a colossal step forward last season. Lackluster control amplifies the risk that he’ll continue to underwhelm from a run prevention standpoint, but all of the signs are there for a potential full-season breakout.

Rowdy Tellez, 1B, Toronto Blue Jays
By Ryan Boyer

Tellez was low-key great in 2020. That wasn’t the case in the first 10 games of the season, when he put up a lowly .501 OPS. But in his final 25 contests? Tellez posted a robust .346/.395/.667 batting line while slugging seven home runs. But wait, there’s more. Tellez also had a 90.7 mph exit velocity which ranked in the 79th percentile and a .353 xwOBA which ranked in the 80th percentile. Still not convinced? Okay, fine. How about the fact that the first baseman cut his strikeout rate nearly in half, going from a 28.4% rate in 2019 all the way down to a 15.7% rate in 2020? Tellez always made a lot of contact in the minors, so perhaps his improvement in that area is at least somewhat sustainable. The Blue Jays' offseason additions won't give him much margin for error, but Tellez should see regular starts versus right-handers. He's an emerging bat in a good young offense, and he’s practically free in fantasy leagues.

Jared Walsh 1B, Los Angeles Angels
By D.J. Short

Walsh wasn’t on the fantasy radar after posting a .605 OPS with a 35/6 K/BB ratio in a small sample during his first exposure to MLB pitching in 2019, but that all changed last September. The 27-year-old hit .337 with nine homers, 26 RBI and a 1.113 OPS over 22 games. He homered in four straight games during that time. It’s easy to get lost in the randomness of a small sample, but a change in his swing mechanics helped Walsh to a massive improvement in his contact rate. He struck out just 15 times in 108 plate appearances after striking out 35 times in 87 plate appearances in 2019. Walsh also utilized more of an all-fields approach without losing much in terms of barrel percentage. With a tangible explanation for his breakthrough, he could surge in fantasy leagues if provided the chance at regular at-bats.

To see our full list of sleepers, as well as rankings at every position, in addition to season-long projections, ADP reports, mock drafts and much more you can purchase our EDGE+ Roto here for as low as $3.99 per month, which includes access to NHL, NBA and NFL tools as well. And if you're into DFS and betting, be sure check out our EDGE+ Pro package that includes our DFS Tools, our EDGE+ Bet package with just our Betting Tools, both as low as $7.99 per month or get it all with EDGE+ Max for as low as $11.99 per month.