2020 Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep: Sleepers 1.0 features several late-round targets with impact potential

I’ll just put it out there: These aren’t my highest-profile sleepers.

This being my “official” Sleepers column, it’s going to get the most clicks, but there have come to be so many different labels for identifying undervalued players (future columns to look forward to like Breakouts and ADP Review) that I have to be more precise about who goes where.

It’s no longer about stretching the definition of sleeper to get all my favorites in here. It’s about identifying which of the undervalued players most fits the description of sleeper, meaning someone whose potential the Fantasy-playing world is sleeping on.

They go late. They come with more risks than assurances. They may not be worth drafting at all, depending on the depth of your league.

But in those later stages, they’re the players I most gravitate toward because there’s a chance the impact could be considerable.

You look at his numbers from last year, and you wonder how it’s even possible Gio Urshela could appear on this list. It boils down to two issues: How legitimate was the performance, and will he get a chance to repeat it with Miguel Andujar back to full health?

Let’s make one thing clear right off the bat: As good as Andujar was at the plate in 2018, Urshela was better in 2019, showing an ability to impact the baseball unlike he did in previous stints with the Indians and Blue Jays. The spike in exit velocity, which he attributes to incorporating his lower body more in his swing, accentuated his existing strengths as a high-contact line-drive hitter with an all-fields approach. It’s the perfect recipe for a high batting average, and fittingly, Urshela’s xBA was among the top 25 in baseball, ahead of stalwarts like Freddie Freeman and Charlie Blackmon.

It’s true the playing time was sporadic with DJ LeMahieu bouncing around the infield, but LeMahieu will have a dedicated second base job this time around. So really, it comes down to how much Andujar will interfere, and while the bat may be one the Yankees are anxious to see again, he’s a disaster defensively. Frankly, first baseman Luke Voit and left fielder Mike Tauchman should be the ones looking over their shoulder, not Urshela, who could climb into the elite at third base with regular at-bats in a loaded lineup.

Mitch Keller’s 7.13 ERA in 11 big-league starts last year is sure to scare away some of the Fantasy players who were snakebitten by fringy starting pitchers last year, but he’s of course a pitcher of actual pedigree, having ranked among the top prospects for several years prior to his call-up. He turned a corner in his development last year, too, adding a slider that immediately became his best swing-and-miss pitch.

Swings and misses weren’t his problem during his first foray in the big leagues, and in fact, his 3.47 xFIP (which would have ranked 12th among qualifiers, between Yu Darvish and Luis Castillo) suggests he has the tools to overwhelm major-league hitters with a little fine-tuning. From Gerrit Cole to Jameson Taillon to Tyler Glasnow, the Pirates have a history of failing to develop their top pitching prospects, but with the changes to their front office this offseason, their outdated fastball-heavy, pitch-to-contact model is sure to be overhauled. And Keller is well equipped to be the first beneficiary.

Nick Solak, a former farmhand of both the Yankees and Rays, wasn’t regarded as much of a power hitter coming up through the minors. But there comes a point when reputation takes a back seat to results, and the fact is that between the majors and minors last year, he hit 32 homers. He puts the ball on the ground too often to sustain quite that pace, barring a swing change, but even just the possibility of 20 homers, with everything else he does right, gives him significant Fantasy appeal. If the Rangers had a dedicated spot for him heading into 2020, he’d surely be getting more buzz.

Still, the impact he made down the stretch last season, profiling as a possible leadoff man with plus on-base skills and 20-steal speed, has me convinced he’ll get close to full-time at-bats spelling Todd Frazier at third base, Rougned Odor at second, Danny Santana in center field and Shin-Soo Choo at DH. It wouldn’t be shocking if his numbers rival, or perhaps even exceed, those of Cavan Biggio, who’s going more than 100 picks earlier.

Whatever momentum Yandy Diaz was gaining in Fantasy circles came to an abrupt halt when a stress fracture in his foot derailed what was shaping up to be a breakout season. But what we shouldn’t overlook is that the Rays’ gambit, which saw them trade away the higher-rated Jake Bauers for Diaz last offseason, paid off. A slight swing adjustment allowed the 28-year-old to get more out of his elite exit velocity, elevating just enough for some of those hard-hit balls to clear the fence. His home run-to-fly ball rate of 17.5 percent is actually on the more modest end for a player who impacts the ball like he does.

He’s still far from a fly-ball hitter, so you can’t expect him to rank among the home run leaders. But if he can just keep pace with the average home run hitter in today’s homer-happy environment, his bat-on-ball skills will set him apart. There’s upside beyond even what we saw last year, which ended with him in a 1-for-21 slump. I’m imagining something like Yuli Gurriel, but without the age risk.

Tom Murphy was no stranger to my sleepers list back when he was toiling in the Rockies farm system, his big swing seemingly making him a perfect fit for the thin-air environment of Coors Field. But it took a move to the Mariners for him to get his long-awaited opportunity in what will be his age-29 season. They’re fully committed, too, having shipped out 2019 breakthrough Omar Narvaez to free up the starting job for Murphy, who it turns out didn’t need a favorable venue to deliver on his enormous power potential.

Among catchers, only Mitch Garver, Will Smith and Gary Sanchez had a higher ISO than Murphy’s .262, and in terms of upside, Smith actually seems like a reasonable comp since neither makes enough contact to help in batting average. There is the small matter of Murphy doing most of his damage against lefties, hitting just .211 with a .653 OPS against righties, but even if he settles in as like a .230 hitter overall, the likelihood of 30-plus homers is enough to make him an advisable starter at a weak position.

Avisail Garcia was kind of a milder version of Yandy Diaz, as in a player the Rays targeted for his exit velocity believing they could get something more out of him with an improved launch angle. It improved only modestly, but the ground-ball rate was nonetheless the lowest of his career. And in this environment, where fly balls so often result in home runs, a reduction in ground balls is almost always a positive for a hitter’s profile.

Simply put, there’s nothing suspicious about the home run output as long as Garcia continues down this path, and now he gets to try his hand at Miller Park, a star-making venue that yielded such surprises as Domingo Santana, Travis Shaw and Jesus Aguilar in recent years while also transforming Christian Yelich into a perennial MVP candidate. Applying a simple park overlay to his 2019 spray chart suggests that as many as a dozen more of Garcia’s batted balls would have sailed out of Miller Park, so as long as Ryan Braun is comfortable with his transition to first base and allows Garcia to play virtually every day, a career season is likely in store.

There are a couple different ways for a pitcher to counter the home-run explosion happening across the game today. One is to miss bats altogether. The other is to keep the ball on the ground, at which Adrian Houser has proven to be an expert, ranking up there with Marcus Stroman in ground-ball rate last year. When a pitcher who stands out that much in that area is also a competent bat-misser, it’s a recipe for stardom, and fittingly, Houser’s 3.60 xFIP would have ranked 19th among qualifiers, ahead of Zack Greinke, Aaron Nola, Noah Syndergaard and Mike Soroka.

Of course, he’s not fully tested until he’s pitching deep into games and getting the innings to make him a qualifier himself, but when you consider he was transitioning from a bullpen role, it makes sense why he averaged only 76 pitches across his 18 starts last year. He’ll have a rotation spot from the get-go this time around, and the 3.28 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 9.8 K/9 he put together over his final 12 starts offers plenty of reason for optimism.

Sort of like Gio Urshela, I feel like the sleeper case for Mark Canha is as simple as “duuuh, look at the numbers.” Of the 12 players on this list, he’s the highest in my own personal rankings, and yet his composite ADP of 278 would suggest he’s not even getting drafted in three-outfielder leagues.

Skepticism always surrounds a mid-career breakout, and Canha specifically has the added blight of having been confined to a platoon role into his 30s. But it wasn’t until he escaped that platoon role that he took off, batting .295 with 16 homers and a .936 OPS from the point he stepped into a regular role on June 26 until the end of the season. And seeing as he ended the year with a .297 batting average and .966 OPS against righties, it may have been the wrong role for him all along.

Why would the Athletics send him back there when his per-game production for the final 50 percent of the season was basically on par with Kris Bryant? Michael Conforto makes for a more reasonable comparison, taking into account the power and on-base skills.

A sleeper of mine two years ago after he compiled a .329 batting average, 32 home runs and .958 OPS across two levels and looked like a favorite for a starting job, Austin Hays has known mostly misfortune and disappointment since then. He in fact didn’t win a starting job in the spring of 2018 because of a strained lat, and attempts to play through both it and a stress fracture in his ankle proved foolhardy. Last season was more of the same — a sprained thumb followed by a bad hammy — so if you look at his minor-league numbers the past two years, you’ll come away thinking he’s nothing special.

But during the stretches when he was at full health and facing higher-quality competition, he thrived. Combine his numbers from last spring and last September, when he got another big-league look, and he hit .324 (34 for 105) with nine homers and nine doubles. He doesn’t walk much, but he makes consistent contact and drives the ball the other way, giving him the capacity to hit for average and power. And once again, the job is his for the taking this spring.

By now, Dylan Bundy’s top prospect standing is ancient history, and years of dashed hopes have relegated him to Fantasy afterthought. But while the results haven’t been there, much of what made him so highly regarded in the first place still is, namely a slider/cutter hybrid that’s one of the most spectacular swing-and-miss pitches in the game. It’s the reason he ranked 15th in swinging-strike rate last year, sandwiched between Charlie Morton and Clayton Kershaw on a list that reads like a who’s who of Cy Young candidates.

So what’s held him back? Well, he could do a better job of converting all those whiffs to strikeouts, but keeping the ball in the yard is his biggest issue. And that’s where the change-of-scenery argument comes into play. Not only is Angel Stadium on the opposite end of the spectrum from Camden Yards, but three of the five parks in his new division favor pitchers. Plus, it’s fair to speculate that the Orioles haven’t exactly helped him along, given their poor track record of developing pitchers. An introduction to a new way of thinking could be the key to unlocking his potential.

Mike Yastrzemski took significant steps toward breaking away from his grandfather’s legacy and making a name for himself in the second half last year, batting .287 with 16 homers and a .915 OPS. And while the BABIP was a little high, the quality-of-contact metrics suggest the production was more or less legit. He wasn’t always asked to play against left-handers last year, but when he did, he was at his best, batting .329 with a .943 OPS. It stands to reason, then, that his playing time will increase, and the front office has basically stated as much in the aftermath of Kevin Pillar’s departure.

When you consider he hit .238 with a .759 OPS at home compared to .300 with a .929 OPS on the road, the decision to move in the fences in right-center so that Oracle Park isn’t so soul-crushing to left-handed power hitters may do more to help Yastrzemski than anyone else. Altogether, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him break through with numbers verging on the ones Max Kepler put up with the Twins last year.

What would a sleepers list be without a Rockies hitter? The magic of Coors Field makes for the rosiest outlooks for anyone with an inkling of offensive potential, and Sam Hilliard certainly fits the bill. He already showed it while serving as the better half of an outfield platoon down the stretch, his seven home runs in 77 at bats giving him 42 between the majors and the minors.

There are obstacles, of course. The strikeouts are a problem and were even worse prior to his call-up, but the BABIP-inflating effects can help counteract it. It’s also not clear where he’s going to play, especially with Garrett Hampson’s late-season performance also demanding a bigger piece of the pie. But as the Rockies begin to phase out aging options like Daniel Murphy and Ian Desmond, Hilliard stands to be one of the biggest beneficiaries. And when you consider he also has speed to spare, swiping 24 bags between the majors and minors last year, there isn’t much downside to making the 26-year-old your fifth outfielder in a Rotisserie league.

So which sleepers should you snatch in your draft? And which undervalued first baseman can help you win a championship? Visit SportsLine now to get rankings for every single position, all from the model that called Kenta Maeda’s huge breakout last season, and find out.

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