January 23, 2022

Acqua NYC

Fit And Go Forward

2022 Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep: Sleepers 1.0 for Scott White, featuring Luke Voit and Connor Joe

The term “sleeper,” broadly, can refer to any player likely to exceed expectations, in whatever way you’re inclined to measure said expectations. So basically, half the columns I write this time of year are some form of sleeper list. Only one is entitled Sleepers, though, and you’ve found it (or at least Version 1.0 of it).

Seeing as I have to distinguish this sleeper list from all of the others, I’ve tried to narrow my definition of “sleeper” to something more literal. People are genuinely sleeping on these players, as in drafting them in a way that doesn’t seem to account for their upside.

Draft Prep: Breakouts | Busts

That definition naturally makes for some lower-end targets — not exclusively, but primarily — so if you play in a shallower league, it’s possible some of these players will go undrafted entirely. If you’re more in the market for higher-end targets likely to exceed expectations, be on the lookout for some of my other sleeper-ish columns like Breakouts and ADP Review: Most Underrated.

I’ll begin this column, though, with a relatively high-end target who nonetheless isn’t being drafted in a way that accounts for his upside, given how high that upside is known to be.

FantasyPros ADP: 106.3

I list his 2019 stats above to remind you how good Verlander was when last we saw him (apart from a singular start in 2020). He was an ace unlike even exists anymore, really, having just collected his second Cy Young after placing second the year before.

So why oh why is he only the 33rd starting pitcher off the board now? Sure, he’s coming back from Tommy John surgery, and it would be different if the timetable was unclear. But he’s had nearly two full years to recover. His GM deemed him “completely healthy” as far back as November, and we’ve seen enough instances of this procedure to know that the chances of a complete recovery are high.

So is it because he’ll be 39? That’s getting up there, sure, but again, there were no signs of decline when last we saw him, his fastball still peaking at 98 mph. In fact, his age might work to his advantage by enabling him to push the limits with the innings, knowing he’s so close to the end anyway. Even with a more prudent approach coming off Tommy John, another Cy Young-caliber season is the expectation, as far as I’m concerned, which at his going rate makes him a must for all my teams.

FantasyPros ADP: 185.7

If you haven’t surveyed the scene at third base yet, you’re in for a scare. The past couple years have brutalized the position’s once enviable depth, rendering it far and away the weakest infield position. When there aren’t enough bankable options to go around, a glass-half-full approach for someone like Chapman makes sense. He’s still on the right side of 30, was considered a rising star as recently as 2019 (when he hit 36 home runs, driving in 91 runs and scoring 102) and has a perfectly reasonable explanation for his struggles since then. His hip was messed up, requiring labral repair surgery in September 2020.

Even though he was available for the start of last season, it’s the sort of procedure that can take a player more than just a few months to get back to full strength. Remember how we had written off Buster Posey prior to last season? Well, he had the same surgery late in 2018 and apparently just needed a little more time. Could it explain Chapman’s rising strikeout rate, from 21.9 percent in 2019 to 33.1 percent since? Maybe, maybe not. But it almost certainly explains why his average exit velocity went from the 98th percentile to the 59th percentile last year. A rebound would put him back in the 40-homer conversation, particularly if he’s traded out of Oakland as rumored.

FantasyPros ADP: 193.3

When a player comes through with a big moment on a national stage, as Soler did in claiming World Series MVP honors last October, it’s easy to overrate it in Fantasy, forgetting everything we know about sample size. But in Soler’s case, it wasn’t out of nowhere. Beginning in his final week with the Royals and continuing through his entire stint with the Braves, he hit .277 with 18 homers and a .936 OPS. That’s a 49-homer pace.

Really, it’s a wonder he was hitting .182 before then given that he was still generating elite exit velocities while demonstrating much-improved contact skills, his 23.6 percent strikeout rate looking more like something you’d see from Kris Bryant than some of the all-or-nothing sluggers Soler has modeled in the past.

And oh yeah, there’s also the small matter of him already having a 48-homer season on his resume, just three years ago. We overlook it because it’s such an outlier in a career ravaged by injuries and inconsistency, but the fact is it’s still within his skill set. And because his heroic turn hasn’t inflated his stock, with 55 outfielders going ahead of him still, I see only the upside.

FantasyPros ADP: 197.3

Like Jorge Soler, Rosario has a full head of steam from the postseason, winning NLCS MVP, and like Soler, there’s reason to believe it wasn’t some outlier. The 30-year-old was in fact a bankable Fantasy asset from 2017 through 2020, batting .281 during that stretch while homering every 20.9 plate appearances, a rate similar to Javier Baez over the same span of time.

Granted, he doesn’t impact the ball with the same exit velocities as Baez, and because of that, it’s reasonable to wonder if his decline last year had something to do with the new baseball, but health may have also played a factor. He was as good as ever after returning from a strained abdominal in late August, batting .316 with 10 homers and a .975 OPS in 48 games from that point forward, postseason included.

His launch angle is suited for maximum damage, resulting in a ground ball only about one-third of the time, and his superlative contact skills help make up for the diminished carry of the new ball. Heck, they may prove to be even more valuable with the league becoming less dependent on the long ball. Most of all, though, like Soler, Rosario is being drafted as if the postseason never happened, going 57th among outfielders.

FantasyPros ADP: 221

Schwindel is one of those players who always made me wonder what if. He was a consistent spring training standout, first putting himself on my radar with an unforgettable 2018, and his minor-league numbers tell a similar story. He has hit .298 with an .852 OPS there since the start of 2017, striking out at a 14.9 percent clip.

He finally got that chance when the Cubs needed a warm body to fill in at first base after dealing Anthony Rizzo at the deadline, and to say Schwindel made the most of it would be an understatement. His full-season numbers actually include a 3-for-20 stint for the Athletics early on. Take it out, and he hit .342.

Of course, a 29-year-old rookie finally breaking through with his fourth big-league organization deserves a healthy dose of skepticism, but check out the ADP. When the cost is a late-round pick, there’s no reason to fixate on the downside, and it stands to reason that a right-handed hitting first baseman with a questionable power profile and limited on-base skills would slip through the cracks. Schwindel isn’t repeating last year’s stat line, no, but could be a slightly more powerful version of Yuli Gurriel? I think so.

FantasyPros ADP: 246.7

How much can a man tout Mitch Garver in one lifetime? It’s like he’s been tattooed on my soul and my only path to salvation is to convince everyone else he’s worth it. But I still haven’t gotten over the miracle that was his 2019, when he hit 31 homers and generated a .995 OPS to make him a Salvador Perez-level outlier at the position. Then came the 2020 disaster (on so many fronts). It was what it was. But then came last year, when he more or less picked up where he left off in 2019.

He really did, his .875 OPS trailing only Yasmani Grandal and Buster Posey at the position. That’s right: Garver’s OPS was better than even that of Perez. And if you’ll excuse the arbitrary endpoint (which may not even be so arbitrary given how disastrous last April was for offenses around the league), he had a .991 OPS from April 28 on. If only he hadn’t missed so much time with groin and back injuries, right?

OK, so not “if only.” Even when he returned for good, Garver was splitting at-bats almost 50/50 with the inferior Ryan Jeffers. But we always say talent eventually wins out, right? Playing-time concerns are the norm at catcher, so why not try for one of the few at the position with genuine impact potential?

FantasyPros ADP: 256.3

Granted, the outlook could change if the Yankees bring in another first baseman whenever the lockout is lifted, but as things stand now, Voit is in line to be their starting first baseman again after a torn meniscus and repeated flareups cost him his job last year.

Anthony Rizzo is back on the market and wasn’t an improvement anyway. In fact, improving upon Voit’s numbers, at least on those occasions when he wasn’t playing through some major ailment, may not be possible. Last year was of course derailed by the nagging knee, and then there was the sports hernia in the second half of 2019. But upon first joining the Yankees down the stretch in 2018, Voit hit .333 with a 1.095 OPS, and during the pandemic-shortened 2020, he led all the majors with 22 home runs.

Altogether, in parts of four seasons with the Yankees — even including those stretches when he was playing through pain or hardly at all — Voit has hit .271 with a .901 OPS, homering at a rate higher than Matt Olson. Considering the timing of it all, it’s silly to dismiss him as a lost cause at only 31. Health and opportunity — as long as he has those, he could return to being one of the most high-end performers at a position with precious few.

FantasyPros ADP: 257.5

Baseball being a game of rhythm and routine, we can’t really know what a player has to offer until he’s playing every day. Thomas, heretofore considered a fringe bench bat, got that chance after the Nationals traded away Kyle Schwarber last season, and opened our eyes to a new world of possibilities. He hit .270 with seven homers, four steals and an .853 OPS in 45 games with his new team, reaching base at a .364 clip, and had settled into the leadoff spot by season’s end.

His .325 BABIP during that stretch is potentially sustainable, especially given that he impacts the ball much like a power hitter with his 91 mph average exit velocity and 45.7 percent hard-hit rate. He didn’t really put his 93rd percentile speed to use until the last couple weeks, and the hope is he’ll do it more this year with the Nationals likely having to manufacture their runs. It may be the most optimistic of outcomes, but it’s not so far-fetched to say a 20-20 season is in the realm of possibility here.

FantasyPros ADP: 324

Cobb signing with the Giants this offseason was like Jim and Pam getting together. You couldn’t dream up a better destination for a pitcher like him. The Giants, of course, have developed a reputation for redeeming once-highly regarded pitchers who flamed out elsewhere — most notably another split-finger guy, Kevin Gausman, but also Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood and, briefly, Drew Smyly. The big difference for Cobb is that he already took a big step back toward respectability last year, delivering a career-best 11.2 percent swinging-strike rate and, thanks to all the ground balls generated by his splitter, a 3.38 xFIP that would have ranked 10th, ahead of Sandy Alcantara and Max Fried, if he had the innings to qualify.

He might have been a sleeper no matter where he landed, but now, having joined up with a team with playoff aspirations, a big pitcher’s park and a track record for getting the absolute most out of forgotten pitching talents like him, it’s almost too obvious.

FantasyPros ADP: 330.7

Rebuilding clubs can be fertile ground for Fantasy Baseball sleepers, creating opportunities for players that got passed over where there were none. Such was the case for Patrick Wisdom and Frank Schwindel last year, but also the least heralded member of that Cubs trifecta, Rafael Ortega.

Once again, it’s easy to dismiss him as a 30-year-old discarded by six organizations already, but he recently came into power in the minors, homering 21 times in 111 games with the Braves organization in 2019 after previously being more of a contact-and-speed guy. He seemed to bring together the best of both worlds during his extended look as the Cubs’ center fielder in the second half last year and, particularly with the number of at-bats he figures to get as their leadoff man, looks to be another dirt-cheap 20/20 candidate.

His platoon splits may impede that goal, but I don’t envision him falling flat on his face with the way he puts the ball in play. Plus, he’s exactly the sort of player a team committed to losing needs to be playing, hoping to luck into another future asset or trade chip.

FantasyPros ADP: 332.5

It’s like a basic law of Fantasy Baseball that anyone in line for regular at-bats at Coors Field is a sleeper. It doesn’t always work out, but in Joe’s case, we have an inkling it might. He got a trial run last August when Raimel Tapia was hurt, and the Rockies liked him so much in the leadoff spot that they were prepared to try him in center field once Tapia returned. It never came to fruition because Joe suffered a season-ending hamstring injury right about that time, but the dream of him setting the table in the most optimal run-scoring environment hasn’t died yet.

Like Frank Schwindel, Joe is a minor-league journeyman whose production down there made us wonder what he could do with an honest big-league chance. Most notable is his .417 on-base percentage since the start of 2018, which is why the leadoff role makes so much sense, but he also slugged .536 during that time. His plate discipline is such that he isn’t likely to pull a Sam Hilliard and undercut his chances with a bunch of strikeouts. His 3.13 Head-to-Head points per game during his 43 games as a starter were in line with Mitch Haniger.

FantasyPros ADP: N/A

Nobody’s sleeping on Bobby Witt, the Royals’ mega prospect who’s expected to join the big club within the first few weeks, and Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman is drawing early draft attention as well. But Rodriguez, considered an even better prospect by some publications, hasn’t gotten a whiff by comparison. Granted, he’s 21 and still hasn’t reached Triple-A, unlike those other two, but while the Royals and Orioles are still mired in rebuilds, the Mariners are actually playing for something.

They narrowly missed the postseason last year. They’ve already made a big investment in reigning AL Cy Young Robbie Ray. They’re in it to win it in 2022. And Rodriguez is the sort of prospect who could bring that anticipation to a fever pitch — a potential generational talent who’s been hyped to the hills from age 17 and delivered at every stop so far. He just hit .362 in his first taste of Double-A, for goodness’ sake.

Those kinds of talents aren’t left to linger when something is legitimately on the line, and it wouldn’t be unprecedented to see Rodriguez force the issue this spring. I’m betting Witt doesn’t beat him to the majors by much.

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