Top 20 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers

Everybody loves lists, and I’m honored to have the chance to present a few of mine at THT. Specifically, I am going to supply my favorite sleepers and busts for fantasy baseball in a couple of columns. These lists are geared towards mixed leagues. Feedback is welcome, but there’s no need to get angry if I dissed one of your guys. I’m sure I’ll have my fair share of hits and misses. I should add that “sleeper” is a wonderfully vague fantasy baseball cliche that really varies greatly by league. I tried to find the middle ground, but a few of these twenty might be obvious picks in some leagues or unnecessary in others.

1. Mark Teahen, third base. There are some clear risk factors suppressing Teahen’s price this year: recovery from shoulder surgery, the switch to right field, and just a small track record of success. Still, take a look at what he did after he was recalled from Omaha on June 3: .313/.384/.557 in 316 at-bats. A study at Baseball Prospectus indicated a complete change in his approach after working with his Triple-A hitting coach. Teahen is just one of many cheap, promising third basemen—spend your money at other positions. Teahen hits a lot of ground balls, but I still think he can hit 25 home runs and knock in 100 RBIs with double digit steals.

2. Rich Hill, starting pitcher. Hill is similar to Teahen in that I’m projecting full-season success based on a half-season sample. Hill was close to being stuck with the Quad-A tag, with the low point coming when no one had his back after he called A.J. Pierzynski “gutless.” Come on! What’s more gutless than getting punched in the face? Hill was sent back to Triple-A after that. After dominating in Iowa, the southpaw reeled off an impressive 12-start stint for the Cubs. In 80 innings, he posted a 2.92 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings, and 2.7 walks per nine innings. The concern is that Hill is a flyball pitcher whose home run rate could jump up to 1.3 per game. Take your chances there, because that big curveball could bring 200 strikeouts.

3. Shane Victorino, outfield. Victorino is going undrafted in many mixed leagues; you might be able to get him for a buck. The Flyin’ Hawaiin will bat second between some fine Phillies hitters. That means plenty of at-bats and chances to score runs. He has a strong 86% contact rate, making .300 a legit possibility. What’s more, the Phils hired baserunning instructor Davey Lopes to help him return to his thievin’ ways. And did I mention that he added 15 pounds of upper body strength in the offseason? Victorino could contribute in every category aside from RBIs.

4. Morgan Ensberg, third base. Another third baseman you can snag at the end of your draft. Ensberg suffered a nasty shoulder bruise in June that sapped his power but still posted a Bondsian walk rate. He’s slugging .676 in spring as of this writing, so spend a few bucks to see if the 30 home run, 100 RBI guy is still in there.

5. Edwin Encarnacion, third base. Somehow, Encarnacion has fallen by the wayside in the top young third baseman discussion. An .832 OPS from a 23 year-old is nothing to sneeze at, though. The Reds were careful with his sprained ankle in ’06, and that kept his counting stats down. 25 home run power plus 10 steal ability and a middle of the lineup spot equals an undervalued player.

6. Dave Bush, starting pitcher. Everyone expects Ben Sheets to carry the Brewers to the playoffs, but Bush’s importance should not be overlooked. A classic AL to NL case, Bush increased his strikeouts per nine innings from five to seven. His control is ridiculous, which keeps his WHIP under 1.20. Though he’s homer-prone, his peripherals scream “sub-4 ERA.”

7. Kelly Johnson, second base. Johnson isn’t getting much attention after missing all of 2006 due to elbow surgery. He’s never played second base in the bigs, but has been practicing there for the ’07 season. If he’s not eligible there now in your league he should be one week into the season. The Braves want him to lead off. You might not find steals or average here, but 15 home runs and 100 runs scored are within reach. Low risk, high reward.

8. Javier Vazquez, starting pitcher. At some point you have to stop trying to be clever and talking about Vazquez’s excellent peripherals, and acknowledge lousy ERAs for three years running. This can’t just be bad luck. Still, Kenny Williams believes in him, and 185 strikeouts are 185 strikeouts. He could win 13 games with a solid WHIP too, so maybe you should take that, cross your fingers, and hope he gets his ERA under 4 like he should. He’s still undervalued.

9. Conor Jackson, first base. Jackson has a lot going for him, and several factors to make him a sleeper. His “hot prospect tag” has worn off, and a raw line of .291-15-79-75-1 isn’t impressive for a first baseman. This pleases me because it keeps his price down to a few bucks. I think .300-25-100 is within reach for Jackson this year, who will bat in the heart of the order. And with a strong contact rate and favorable home park, I could see a .320 average one of these years. His overall value could be similar to Nick Swisher’s.

10. Corey Hart, outfield. After being ready for years, Hart will finally get his shot at a full-time job with the Brewers. He also may hit in the heart of the order. A 25 home run/25 stolen base season would be an ambitious target, but it is within the realm of possibility. Tack on 90 RBIs and you have some nice balance on the cheap.

11. Freddy Garcia, starting pitcher. Granted, Citizens Bank is no pitchers’ park, but neither was U.S. Cellular. The move to the NL could mask his declining strikeout rate. Garcia’s control is already fantastic and he will log 220 innings with a great offense at his back. Plus, it’s his contract year. He could win 16 games with good ratios and 150 strikeouts if he can get over his spring injury woes.

12. Chris Young, outfield. Like Hart, Young is a 20 home run/20 stolen base candidate. Drafters are being careful with him because he’s a rookie, but he’s ready for the show and is a strong Rookie of the Year contender. And he plays at Chase Field. He’s not far off from 30 home run/30 stolen base seasons.

13. Al Reyes, relief pitcher. Reyes missed all of ’06 recovering from Tommy John surgery, so he’s certainly a gamble. The 36 year-old will try his hand in the AL East and could quickly rise to the top of the pile of Devil Rays relievers if his control doesn’t elude him. Consider Reyes a fine sleeper for AL-only saves.

14. Ian Snell, starting pitcher. Snell had some bad luck last year on some factors largely outside of his control: batting average on balls in play and home runs per flyball. On the other hand, good fortune played a role in his 14 wins. Look for an affordable 175 strikeouts, better ratios, and double digit wins.

15. Akinori Iwamura, third base. Iwamura has had a lousy spring, and may struggle in April as he adjusts to a new league and style of baseball. Still, he could hit .280 with 15 home runs and a surprising number of steals. He’s mentioned that he wants to steal 40 and win Rookie of the Year. Iwamura may just be a reserve pick in a mixed league, but he’s not getting much press. He’ll be especially valuable if he gains second base eligibility.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

16. Jonny Gomes, designated hitter. Gomes’ value is depressed because he only played eight games in the outfield in 2006. Hopefully he’ll get in 10 games as an outfielder within a month or two this year. He had an 11 home run April last year before succumbing to a shoulder injury. That’s been repaired, and he’s in good shape. The only thing that stands between Gomes and his first 30 home run season is Greg Norton. Well, Joe Maddon too, in a way.

17. Matt Garza, starting pitcher. Garza’s had a strong spring over six innings, but neck pain has limited his work. His ascent and performance in the high minors last year were remarkable, so take a flier in case he can post a sub-4 ERA despite his inexperience. Don’t get too worked up about whether he earns the fifth starter job out of camp; he’ll get it by May otherwise.

18. Terrmel Sledge, outfield. I’m seeing Sledge end up on a lot of fantasy benches, and rightfully so. He’s an intriguing little pick in that he may lead off for the Padres against right handers. Plus, it’s funny to call out his name at the draft table. He slugged .583 in Triple-A last year, so he could offer some pop and runs scored for a buck.

19. Alexi Casilla, second base. Casilla is very similar to the man he will replace, Luis Castillo. I’m referring to the old school Castillo, who was a lock for .300, 50 steals, and a decent run total. They’re both high contact speedy guys with no power. Casilla can play both middle infield positions though. The Twins could unload Castillo at midseason.

20. Octavio Dotel, relief pitcher. There’s something about closing for the Royals that just lacks fantasy appeal. But Dotel has the job and is opening eyes this spring with 10 strikeouts and one walk in six innings. He will have a long leash due to his $5 million salary and could score you 25 saves—and long shot—100 Ks. To me, he’s just as good as a Bob Wickman or Todd Jones pick. Draft the skills.

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