Sleepers win championships, and it's no secret why. Any time you can invest a middle-round pick in early-round production, you have a leg up on the competition.
But in these days of information overload, with opinions and analysis on every corner of the Internet, one problem I've found with sleepers is that they're often hyped to the point that they're no longer undervalued on Draft Day. And if that's the case, they're not really sleepers anymore.
For that reason, I call my sleepers by a different name: the Undervalued and Underrated.
To ensure that these players are, in fact, value picks, my list focuses on average draft position. As much as I may like Brett Lawrie or Jason Heyward, I can't in all honesty call them sleepers if they're getting drafted exactly where they're supposed to get drafted. That said, the goal is still to highlight the players I like. The ones listed here, therefore, may not be the most underrated, but they're the ones I'm most confident will outperform their draft averages, whether by two rounds or 10.
Note: The numbers in parentheses are the player's current average draft position on CBSSports.com, assuming a 12-team league.
Shin-Soo Choo, OF, Indians (Roto: Rd. 7, H2H: Rd. 9)
Not falling for that one again, right?
If you finally bought into Choo last year coming off his second straight .300-20-80-80-20 season, safe to say you weren't happy with the investment. Not only did he miss significant time with a broken thumb and a strained oblique, but when he was healthy, his percentages were at an all-time low.
But if you refuse to acknowledge the effect that his May 2 DUI arrest had on his numbers, you're simply not listening.
About a month after the arrest, following another lackluster performance against the Rangers on June 5, Choo had this to say:
"I know what the problem is: I try too hard, I think too much. I need to slow down my mind," he said. "I wanted to play good in the field, show better play and then try to make people forget."
Now, I know one way to interpret those comments is to say Choo was using his bad behavior as an excuse for his poor performance, perhaps even playing the victim card, but if you can look beyond the cynical radio-talk-show-host fodder, the numbers support what he's saying.
From May 3, the day after his arrest, to June 24, the day he broke his thumb, Choo was at his lowest of lows, hitting .241 with one home run and a .668 OPS in 162 at-bats. But during the 12-game period in between his return from the broken thumb and his season-ending oblique strain, he hit .348 with three homers and a 1.020 OPS in 46 at-bats. In other words, after he got his chance to "slow down his mind," he was back to normal.
It's a small sample size, sure, but to me, it tells the whole story. The guy felt bad after getting arrested, which is exactly what's supposed to happen. So he pressed, and any time a hitter presses, he stops doing what comes naturally at the plate. And his numbers suffer.
What else would explain what went wrong for Choo last year? He's still only 29, and it's not like he was a one-hit wonder in 2010. Because the numbers fit so perfectly into Choo's reasoning, it should be the prevailing one in Fantasy.
Hard to turn down a likely .300-20-80-80-20 man in the middle rounds.
Andre Ethier, OF, Dodgers (Roto: Rd. 10, H2H: Rd. 9)
Before you jump all over Ethier for hitting only 11 home runs last year, consider the mechanics that go into hitting just one.
A lot of twisting, a lot of bending, a lot of wrenching -- all in a split second. But it's worth it. Oh, it's worth it.
Now consider those same mechanics, only with loose skin wedged underneath one of the kneecaps.
That was Ethier's 2011 season.
Forget how it must have felt. I'm still just trying to picture it. And as I sit here poking at the side of my knee in a futile attempt to mimic the sensation, I get the impression the injury might have prevented him from generating his usual torque against a 95-mph fastball.
Anytime a major joint goes bad for a hitter -- be it a wrist, shoulder, hip or knee -- some other part of the body has to compensate. Whatever adjustment Ethier made to stay in the lineup -- which he did with relative success, hitting .292 for the year -- turned him into a slap hitter.
But after offseason surgery, back to normal now, right?
"It's just you going up there taking hacks and knowing you can take them and not feel twinges here and there, knowing your mechanics are sound, knowing that you've practiced and done the work," Ethier told the Los Angeles Times after hitting his first home run of the spring on March 6. "Not sitting there double-guessing yourself because some of the work you've done might not be the best quality because you're compensating for some things."
Normal for Ethier is, of course, the 24.7 home runs he averaged from 2008 to 2010. Normal made him an early-round pick as recently as last year. Knowing how likely normal is for him now that he's back to full health, wouldn't you rather have him than Chris Young or Ichiro Suzuki in the ninth or 10th round?
If you don't see the potential for Ethier to bounce back, you need a good kick in the knee.
Jesus Montero, C, Mariners (Roto: Rd. 9, H2H: Rd. 11)
The top catcher in Fantasy is Carlos Santana. If you know that much, you're doing something right.
But do you know why he's so far ahead of everyone else? It's not because of his power hitting or even his stellar walk rate, though both contribute to the disparity. No, the main reason he's head and shoulders above his peers is because he plays so much more than they do. He has the luxury of starting at first base whenever he needs a break from behind the plate. Most every other catcher would simply go to the bench.
So if that's what sets Santana apart, shouldn't Fantasy owners be on the lookout for other catcher-eligible players in position for legitimate everyday duty?
If you look hard enough, you'll find another whose bat is too valuable to shelve once every five days. His name is Jesus Montero, and he figures to be the primary DH in the heart of the Mariners lineup this year.
Now, I know at-bats aren't everything. A player still has to produce with them, and considering Montero has only 61 in his big-league career, who can say for sure that he will? But consider what you already know about the rookie. You know the scouts have been talking about him since before Justin Bieber was a household name, and you know they considered him a better prospect than both Santana and Buster Posey when he was coming up through the minors.
And here's a hint: It wasn't for his defense.
You know of his four homers last year, three went the opposite way -- two of them way, way back in the seats at Yankee Stadium -- and you know that, to get him, the Mariners had to part with rookie sensation Michael Pineda, who might have been one of the top 25 commodities in all of baseball given his five more years of team control.
With those assurances, don't you think you can trust Montero as an elite contributor right away? It's not like he needs to be flawless, after all. Santana hit only .239 last year and turned out OK in Fantasy.
Provided he stays healthy, Montero will be at least a top-five catcher at season's end -- or even better, if I had to guess.
Emilio Bonifacio, 3B/SS/OF, Marlins (Roto: Rd. 9, H2H: Rd. 11)
Sometimes I feel all alone on Bonifacio Island.
Entering the offseason, he struck me as an elite base-stealer with unmatched versatility and a diverse enough skill set to profile as a high-end option in both Rotisserie and Head-to-Head leagues. I figured he'd be one of the biggest breakout candidates of the new season -- a player who, much like Brett Lawrie and Eric Hosmer, was worth the reach a round or two early.
So what am I missing? The fact that he seemingly came out of nowhere after two years of more or less pitiful production with the Marlins? No, I recognize it completely. But I also recognize what changed for him last year and why I think it's sustainable.
The key date was June 20. That's when interim manager Jack McKeon took over the Marlins, and one of his first orders of business was to get the most out of Bonifacio's speed. The utility player always had it; he just didn't know how to use it. Though other managers had surely tried, McKeon was the first to convince Bonifacio that his job was to slap his way on base and run wild when he gets there. The change was immediate. Over his final 82 games -- or about half the season -- Bonifacio hit .320 with 35 steals.
That means, what, 50 steals over a full season? Maybe even 60? Sure, Bonifacio is still a bit of a free-swinger for a leadoff type, which might prevent him from hitting .300 over a full season, but given his eligibility at shortstop and third base as well as the outfield, he's basically an enhanced version of Michael Bourn.
And yet Bourn is going a good four rounds earlier, at least in Rotisserie leagues.
So again, why? I can understand the hesitance to draft Bonifacio when Yoenis Cespedes was still on the open market, threatening to bump the incumbent back to a super utility role. But with Cespedes in Oakland now, Bonifacio is really the Marlins' only choice in center field. In fact, new manager Ozzie Guillen recently said Bonifacio would have started regardless of whether the Marlins had signed Cespedes. True or not, it's a vote of confidence that Fantasy owners should take to heart.
The Marlins consider Bonifacio a valuable part of their everyday lineup, which is all the reason you need to consider him a valuable part of yours.
Brandon Morrow, SP, Blue Jays (Roto: Rd. 13, H2H: Rd. 12)
Last year, Morrow went earlier than this. Last year, he was hyped as a breakout candidate after a mostly successful first season as a full-time starting pitcher. Last year, he went on to produce a 4.72 ERA, causing the majority of Fantasy owners to distrust him now.
But while he was disappointing to those who reached for him, he was also taking the next step forward in his development. How can that be? It all goes back to the numbers that say the most about a pitcher's raw ability: strikeouts and walks.
Morrow issued 3.5 walks per nine innings last year, continuing a steady downward trend by producing a career low for the second consecutive season. And yet he still averaged an AL-leading 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings. He more or less eliminated what most would consider to be his biggest weakness without losing what set him apart in the first place.
So why the high ERA? Hey, fluky things happen. I understand Morrow's BABIP was actually lower than normal, but bad luck isn't always reflected in the peripherals. If he had a couple of bad starts in which he didn't properly locate his pitches, as was the case on both June 11 and Sept. 7, yeah, it would blow up his ERA. But you can tell just by looking at his 1.29 WHIP last year that 4.72 isn't where his ERA belongs.
So what if Morrow disappointed you last season? The fault is as much yours as his. How much can you honestly expect a starting pitcher to improve coming off a 145-inning season? The 27-year-old took the next step up the ladder with a 180-inning season last year, making the 200 mark an achievable goal this year.
If he reaches it while maintaining his same encouraging peripherals, he'll potentially be a top-25 option in Fantasy. Currently, he's going outside the top 40.
Ike Davis, 1B, Mets (Roto: Rd. 12, H2H: Rd. 13)
Full disclosure: Davis made the cut for this list before anyone knew he was dealing with valley fever.
The reasons why are obvious. Before suffering a season-ending ankle injury last May, he was clearly having the breakout season everyone projected for him, hitting .302 with seven homers, a .383 on-base percentage and a .925 OPS in only 129 at-bats. And that was before the fences came in at Citi Field.
Now that his ankle is (presumably) healthy, he's once again a prime candidate to close the gap on the elite first basemen. The likelihood of him picking up where he left off is high enough that he shouldn't be sliding so far at a position lacking in mid-level talent.
But again, he's dealing with valley fever now -- a condition that longtime Fantasy owners will remember ruined Conor Jackson as a viable option back in 2009. Jackson wasn't exactly All-Star caliber before then, but he was a legitimate starter in Fantasy. He hasn't been since.
It's a concern, no doubt, but the more I read about the condition, the more I begin to think Jackson's case was more the exception than the rule.
Valley fever, which is a fungal infection in the lungs, is fairly common among those who live in desert regions such as Arizona, where Davis makes his offseason home. Many who suffer from it have no outward symptoms. Some never even find out they have it. So far, Davis seems to fit into that category. He hasn't experienced any difficulty breathing or noticeable changes in energy level. He says he's feeling fine.
Jackson described his case of valley fever as "mono on steroids." Doesn't sound like he was feeling fine.
That's not to say Jackson was in any way exaggerating his condition, but clearly valley fever affects different people to different extents. Given how common it seems to be, if it was really a death sentence for ballplayers, I get the feeling we'd hear about it more than once every three years.
The bottom line is Davis still seems like a value pick to me. His average draft position is more than enough to mitigate the risk, and considering your best alternatives at first base at that point are Justin Morneau and Kendrys Morales, why would you let a little fever scare you away?
Here's a quick look at a few other players currently undervalued on Draft Day:
Eric Hosmer, 1B, Royals (Roto: Rd. 6, H2H: Rd. 7): Granted, first base is a deep position, which is why some would argue Hosmer has no business going off the board earlier than the sixth round. But given the strides he made during his rookie season, he might already be elite. You knew he'd hit for average right away, but the power breakthrough is what really closes the gap. Once he got acclimated, he hit 14 homers in his final 317 at-bats, including nine with a .357 batting average and .965 OPS over his final 34 games. Talk about ending on a high note. Hosmer's performance last year reminds me of Joey Votto's in 2008, so if he takes the expected next step forward, he'll catch up to the Prince Fielders and Mark Teixeiras of the world by season's end.
Billy Butler, DH, Royals (Roto: Rd. 10, H2H: Rd. 9): Butler only qualifies at DH, which is probably the main reason he falls so far in drafts. But let's put his numbers into perspective. He hits just about .300 every year, boasting a career mark of .297, which makes him amazingly predictable in one of the hardest Rotisserie categories to predict. And it's not like he's any slouch in home runs and RBI -- not in this pitching-heavy era. As for his value in Head-to-Head leagues, his surplus of doubles and lack of strikeouts made him the 35th-best hitter last year as opposed to the 60th-best, where he's getting drafted. Best of all, he puts up those numbers every single year. I can't stress that enough. And considering he's only 25, he's far more likely to get better than worse from here.
Anibal Sanchez, SP, Marlins (Roto: Rd. 11, H2H: Rd. 9): Sanchez took an important step forward in his development last year: He became a strikeout-per-inning guy. And yet his breakthrough was overshadowed by a second-half slump that elevated his ERA and left him with only eight victories. But how much of it was really his fault? The rise in ERA was short-lived -- he posted a 2.03 mark in September -- and the lack of victories was mostly due to a lack of run support. If you paid any attention to free agency this winter, you know he has the supporting cast he needs to shine now. If he crosses the 200-inning threshold this season, he'll be a top 20 Fantasy starting pitcher available outside the top 35.
Dustin Ackley, 2B, Mariners (Roto: Rd. 12, H2H: Rd. 11): Ackley's final line is underwhelming, but keep in mind he was a .290 hitter for his first three months in the majors. He never got a chance to bounce back from his only real slump. Given his track record and pedigree, a high batting average is the expectation for him going forward -- and with a high walk rate to boot. Though his six homers hardly stand out, he also had 16 doubles and seven triples in 90 games, which would translate to 52 extra-base hits in 162 games -- or three more than 36-homer man Dan Uggla had all of last year. What Ackley lacks in eye-popping totals he makes up for with level numbers across the board. For Rotisserie owners, he's another Howard Kendrick. For Head-to-Head owners, his walks and triples make him much, much more.
Joakim Soria, RP, Royals (Roto: Rd. 12, H2H: Rd. 13): If assessed solely on his 4.03 ERA of a year ago, then yeah, Soria isn't one of the 10 best closers in Fantasy. But shouldn't his 2.01 ERA over his first four seasons count for something? Shoot, shouldn't his 2.58 ERA over his final 37 appearances last year? That's right: For all but a two-month stretch early in 2011, Soria was the same pitcher as always and forever. Whatever plagued him last April and May -- mechanics, most likely -- he was clearly able to overcome. And don't even start with the but-he-plays-for-the-Royals argument. If he could get 40 saves for them back when David DeJesus was their best hitter, he can do it now.
Logan Morrison, OF, Marlins (Roto: Rd. 16, H2H: Rd. 16:) Judging by Morrison's numbers last year, he's an all-or-nothing slugger. But he had just about everything else going for him when he first came up to the majors in 2010. Hey, the reason the Marlins demoted him last August was because they never imagined him hitting in the .240s, and based on his minor-league track record, they shouldn't have. Apart from the high batting averages, Morrison also produced a .390 on-base percentage as a rookie in 2010 and a .381 mark over his minor-league career. Imagine if he pulls together all of his different talents at once. He'd be a Lance Berkman-type player. Morrison walked 15 times in 100 at-bats when he returned from the minors late last year, so the patient approach remains. And yet his going rate assumes last year is as good as it gets.
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