So you want sleepers, do you?
Too bad. You've stumbled upon the breakouts instead.
It's a fine line, but applying the "breakouts" label allows me to highlight some of the more subtle distinctions between a player's going rate and how you should actually perceive him.
Plus, it gives me a chance to address more players.
The 12 highlighted here are on the verge of doing something they've never done before. For some, it's to be expected. For others, well, you might as well lump them in with the 12 sleepers highlighted elsewhere.
But even if these breakouts won't necessarily be the biggest bargains on Draft Day, chances are if you draft one of them, you'll get back your investment and then some.
And isn't that what it's all about? Labels schmabels, I say.
Note: The numbers in parentheses reflect average draft position on CBSSports.com, assuming a 12-team league.
Yu Darvish, SP, Rangers (Roto: Rd. 5, H2H: Rd. 4)
If not for those meddling walks (not to be confused with those meddling kids from the Scooby-Doo cartoons), Darvish would have met every last expectation heaped on him in his first year over from Japan. He won 16 games and averaged 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings, after all. His ERA and WHIP just happened to be kind of high.
Presumably, then, the elimination of those meddling walks would elevate him to a level of production known only to handful of pitchers in the game.
Well, guess what? He already did eliminate them, issuing 1.8 walks per nine innings over his final 10 starts.
That rate would have ranked 10th among qualifying pitchers. His season-long rate of 4.2 per nine ranked 83rd. If he closes that gap, he's quite possibly your AL Cy Young winner. That midseason shift, as dramatic as it was, is reason to believe he's destined to close it.
In terms of upside, he and Stephen Strasburg are on about the same plane, but Darvish is the one available several rounds later.
Jordan Zimmermann, SP, Nationals (Roto: Rd. 9, H2H: Rd. 7)
You know how the Nationals say they're going to turn Stephen Strasburg loose in his second full season back from Tommy John surgery? What they mean is they're going to treat him like they treated Zimmermann in his second full season back from Tommy John surgery last year -- not giving him a limit, per se, but routinely pulling him after only six innings, regardless of his pitch count, so that he, conveniently enough, finishes the year short of 200 innings.
OK, so Davey Johnson didn't whisper that in my ear or anything, but as careful as the Nationals were with Strasburg last year, it stands to reason that Zimmermann, the one a year further along the road to recovery, is the more likely of the two to fill the role of workhorse this season, perhaps even exceeding 210 or 220 innings. He's certainly efficient enough to take that next step, having posted the 11th-lowest walk rate among qualifying pitchers.
Statistically speaking, Zimmermann is in line to become sort of another Matt Cain. Apart from the innings, he's more or less there already.
Desmond Jennings, OF, Rays (Roto: Rd. 7, H2H: Rd. 10)
As was the theme among last year's sophomore class, Jennings was unable to build off his impressive rookie showing in 2011, at times looking overmatched as his OPS dropped by more than 100 points.
But taking a step back last year doesn't preclude him from taking two steps forward this year. His counting stats -- the ones that best represent his raw ability -- actually weren't that bad. Had he avoided the knee sprain that sidelined him for most of May, he likely would have put together a 15-homer, 35-steal campaign, so to have that breakout season, he just needs to show the same plate discipline he did in the minors, where he compiled a .381 on-base percentage and struck out no more than 78 times in any of his seven seasons. His 1-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio so far this spring is a step in the right direction.
Given his upside as a former top 10 prospect, according to Baseball America, and his 26 years of age, Jennings is the most likely of the middle-round outfielders to take the step forward that Jason Heyward and Adam Jones did last year. His skill set is a little different from those players', but you get the idea.
Jeff Samardzija, SP, Cubs (Roto: Rd. 10, H2H: Rd. 7)
You know how most pitchers lose something when they transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation? Samardzija didn't. In fact, the more innings the Cubs entrusted to him, the better he got.
Early on, his control came and went, creating such disparity between his good starts and bad starts that some Fantasy owners gave up on him entirely, but once he settled in, he dominated, compiling a 2.58 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings over his final 13 starts. And in true workhorse fashion, he pitched seven innings or more in nine of them, actually gaining steam at the point in the season when most converted relievers lose it. Had the Cubs not shut him down in early September, who knows how his numbers would have looked?
This year, there is no shutting him down, and there is no acclimating himself to the role either. If Samardzija picks up where he left off, he's another Max Scherzer, if not better.
Wilin Rosario, C, Rockies (Roto: Rd. 7, H2H: Rd. 12)
Rosario led all catchers with 28 home runs last year. Pretty cool, right? You know what's even cooler? He did it in only 396 at-bats.
And no, that's not some sneaky way of saying he walks a lot. He doesn't, but that's beside the point. The point is he didn't play all that much last year, and yet he hit 28 home runs, most among all catchers.
Take a minute to process it.
Now that he's established himself as a major-leaguer and earned the trust of the coaching staff, Rosario figures to play more this year, and half of the games he plays will be in the most hitter-friendly venue in baseball, where he compiled a .297 batting average and .957 OPS to go along with two-thirds of those home runs last year. And seeing as he just turned 24, he hasn't even entered his prime.
If you're not scared yet, you're taking FDR's first inaugural address way too literally. The kind of power numbers I'm envisioning for Rosario would make Brian McCann, a six-time All-Star, look like a weakling. Hyperbole? OK, maybe. But 35 home runs at the catcher position are worth more than Rosario's going rate.
Jesus Montero, C, Mariners (Roto: Rd. 10, H2H: Rd. 13)
It just didn't happen for Montero last year. Even with those opposite-field blasts he hit during a late-season trial in 2011 and the requisite hype he got as a former Yankees farmhand, he just didn't make the impact most thought he would as a rookie.
Granted, playing half his games at Safeco Field didn't help. The dimensions of that park have silenced higher profile bats than his. And yet his splits -- the .297 batting average on the road compared to the .227 mark at home -- seem to be what finally motivated the Mariners to do something about it.
They moved in the fences this offseason, with the biggest shift, a whole 17 feet, coming in left-center -- an area some might call Montero territory. If that isn't reason enough to predict a breakout, Montero is also in line to begin 2013 as the Mariners' primary catcher. In 213 at-bats as a catcher last year, he hit .310 with an .841 OPS. In 301 at-bats as a DH, he hit .226 with a .574.
Between the adjusted park dimensions, the more defined role, and the natural progression expected of a former top prospect still short of his 25th birthday, my guess is Montero takes a step forward this year.
Mike Minor, SP, Braves (Roto: Rd. 14, H2H: Rd. 10):
The national media had only so much bandwidth for starting pitchers breaking out in Atlanta in the second half last year, and so, reasonably enough, they directed their attention to Kris Medlen.
But during the same period Medlen posted a 0.97 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and 9.0 strikeouts per nine innings as a starter, Minor posted a 2.31 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 6.4 strikeouts per nine innings. And it began earlier than that. Over his final 15 starts, beginning July 5, he had a 2.21 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 7.0 strikeouts per nine innings.
In other words, he's already broken out. He was just so dreadful before it happened that his final numbers don't do it justice, causing Fantasy owners to overlook his high-end potential in the middle rounds.
He always had that potential. Given his excellent control and propensity for missing bats, relative to his stuff, it's not like his breakthrough was any big surprise. His explanation for it -- that whenever he'd get into trouble, he'd fixate on his lack of perfection instead of just working to limit the damage -- may not be the kind of numbers-centric argument Fantasy owners crave, but it makes sense.
Damage comes to every major-league pitcher. The key, as Minor learned, is not to let it snowball.
Sergio Romo, RP, Giants (Roto: Rd. 11, H2H: Rd. 13)
Romo has never spent a full season as a closer, and to hear the Giants tell it, he wouldn't be any good at it.
OK, so they don't go that far, but as recently as this offseason, manager Bruce Bochy said he wanted others to contribute in the role.
What he and the rest of the organization seem to overlook is that for the month and a half Romo handled the role at the end of last season, the right-hander had nine saves and a 1.04 ERA. In the playoffs, he allowed just one run on four hits in 10 2/3 innings. And oh yeah, he was also standing on the mound when the Giants captured their second World Series title in three years. Full season or not, he's gone through the ringer as a closer.
And who wouldn't want him as one? Over the last three seasons -- that's three, not one -- he has a 1.85 ERA, 0.85 WHIP and 11.1 strikeouts. Joe Nathan, arguably the preeminent Fantasy closer from 2004 to 2009 (apologies to Mariano Rivera), had only one season with better numbers than that.
And again, Romo has done it over a three-year period.
Now that Bochy has resigned to Romo getting the majority of the save opportunities, he's a stud in waiting.
Ike Davis, 1B, Mets (Roto: Rd. 11, H2H: Rd. 14)
At this time last year, Davis had just been diagnosed with Valley Fever. He said he felt fine -- and maybe he did -- but the diagnosis came when he was already working his way back from a severely sprained ankle that sidelined him for the final 4 1/2 months of 2011.
Even if you don't buy into the idea that a fungal infection known for sapping its host's strength and more or less ruining Conor Jackson as a player four years ago may have had some small impact on Davis' performance, you have to recognize that his first 56 games of 2012, when he hit .158 with five home runs and a .507 OPS, shouldn't be taken at face value, especially when compared to his final 100 games, when he hit .265 with 27 home runs and a .913 OPS.
Pretty much tells the whole story right there, doesn't it?
Davis has since come around on the Valley Fever, telling the New York Post, "I didn't know what was in store for me." Well, at least we know what's in store now that he's past it. If nothing else, you can count on him for big power numbers, and he has room to improve his walk rate and performance against lefties in his age-26 season.
Alex Cobb, SP, Rays (Roto: Rd. 22, H2H: Rd. 17)
When Joe Maddon announced early this spring that Cobb, not Jeff Niemann, was a lock for the fourth spot in the starting rotation, it came as a surprise to those who noted Cobb was the only Rays pitcher with at least five starts who had an ERA over 4.00 last year.
But sometimes what goes into an ERA says more than the ERA itself.
What went into Cobb's ERA were two starts -- June 25 and Aug. 18 -- in which he surrendered eight earned runs. Might a more mature Cobb have been able to limit the damage before it got to eight runs? Quite possibly. Might Maddon have, under a different set of circumstances, pulled Cobb before it got to eight runs? Very likely. Might a lucky bounce here or there have prevented it from ever getting to eight runs? Most definitely.
Those starts -- particularly the June 25 one, when he went eight innings -- were so out of line with what you can reasonably expect from Cobb that expecting them to happen again is, well, unreasonable. In his other 21 starts, he had a 3.22 ERA, only once allowing more than four earned runs and never allowing more than three (apart from the outlier start) after July 6.
I'm siding with Maddon on this one. Cobb is my favorite late-round starting pitcher.
Brandon Belt, 1B, Giants (Roto: Rd. 23, H2H: Rd. 23)
Belt made strides as a sophomore last season, but he still hit only seven home runs, which won't get it done at the deepest position in Fantasy.
But a closer look at the numbers reveals he might be on the verge of a power breakthrough in his age-25 season. What he lacked in home runs he made up for in doubles and triples, collecting enough of both to finish with a .505 slugging percentage at home.
And home for the Giants is a place that normally stifles power numbers, particularly for left-handed hitters.
Consider also that Belt picked up steam over the final two months of last season, when he hit .329 with an .884 OPS. Again, it was mostly doubles and triples, but doubles and triples often lead to homers, particularly for players in their mid-20s and particularly for players with Belt's minor-league profile. Credit the heavy-hitting Cactus League if you must, but Belt's power surge this spring only bolsters the argument.
As a 20-homer guy, his contact rate, batting eye and potential for 15-plus steals will make him a worthy starter in all leagues. Even calling him a poor man's Joey Votto, hopeful as it sounds, isn't so far-fetched.
Domonic Brown, OF, Phillies (Roto: Rd. 27, H2H: Rd. 26)
Since Baseball America named him the fourth-best prospect prior to the 2011 season, Brown has done nothing but disappoint the Fantasy owners who bought into him, bouncing between the majors and the minors as the Phillies continually reinvented his swing.
But this year is already different. This year, he's launching balls into the parking lot in Clearwater, Fla. (read: not the Cactus League), suggesting the latest round of tweaks to his batting stance -- which involve straightening his hands to allow his wrists to cock and generate more bat speed -- finally did the trick.
Rarely does a spring performance do so much to improve a player's Fantasy value, but then, rarely does a spring performance suggest so much about a player's development. Brown's best opportunity yet to win a starting job comes when he's just entering his prime at age 25 and when he finally seems to have worked out the kinks in his swing.
New assistant hitting coach Wally Joyner, who's responsible for the latest tweak, compares the leverage Brown is creating to that of Ryan Howard, only without all the strikeouts. Hey, he always had the ability. For the price of a late-round pick, you can dare to dream.
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