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2014 Draft Prep: Sleepers, 1.0

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Al Melchior's sleepers | Scott White's sleepers

I realize it's weird to see Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols as sleepers, but I really didn't have another category for them. They've already broken out, I don't view either as a bust candidate, and trying to shoehorn them into the "Auction Strategy" column wasn't working.

So here they land.

It's not really a stretch of the definition; Fantasy owners are sleeping on both of these Angels. In the mock drafts we've done, I've gotten Pujols in the fifth round and Hamilton in the seventh. Both should be going somewhere in the third or fourth (and both, I am projecting, will produce that kind of value in bounceback seasons).

The theme tying all of these players to one another is a general sense of underappreciation; some have been dismissed, some forgotten, and some have yet to enter the mainstream. After Hamilton and Pujols, you'll see the players get progressively deeper, culminating in Leury Garcia, a utilityman for the White Sox who could steal 30 bases this year in the right set (and, I believe, likeliest set) of circumstances. As always, there may be some updates to the list as things change over the course of the spring. But the 12 players here should be able to return plenty of value as bargain picks on Draft Day.

Note: The numbers in parentheses reflect average draft position on CBSSports.com, assuming a 12-team league.

Josh Hamilton, OF, Angels (Roto: Rd. 7, H2H: Rd. 9)

Hamilton hit a career-worst .250 last season, with 21 home runs, 32 doubles, and four steals over 131 games (the second-highest games played total of his career). The 32-year-old struggled through his first season with the Angels, carrying a .236 average into September. His final month was more of the vintage Hamilton variety -- a .323 average with two home runs, five doubles, and an .850 OPS. But the late effort was ultimately lost in the down season, and Hamilton was summarily dismissed as finished. I get all the arguments -- Hamilton went through a lot when he was out of baseball and his body is older than his 32 years, Hamilton can't hit in his large home stadium after enjoying tiny Rangers Ballpark all those years, and Hamilton always gets hurt, so he isn't worth the investment. Here are some counters:

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1. Hamilton is older than his 32 years. From 2003 to 2005, Hamilton wasn't going through a 162-game gruel. The three years off from the game could just as easily counter whatever damage he did off the field.So I consider this point moot.
2. Angel Stadium is a poor home venue for Hamilton. This might actually hold some water, as far as a downgrade from the cozy confines of Texas and Cincinnati (Bill James rates Angel Stadium an 89 out of 100 for left-handed bats, suggesting it is pitcher-friendly, although not to any kind of extreme). So while downgrading Hamilton from 34 home runs to 30 makes sense, suggesting he could go from 34 to 23 is a bit dramatic.
3. Hamilton always gets hurt . He's averaged 150 games played the last two seasons.

Hamilton had an excellent interview with MLB Network this winter, one that both Hamilton doubters and lovers should watch. In it, Hamilton admits that he's, "never lifted heavy, heavy weight before," and has been doing it this offseason, after coming into 2013 lighter than usual because of a natural-juice diet. Hamilton also said that he spent this offseason working with a functional movement coach, after some tape-watching late last season (right before his turnaround) led him to the discovery that, after a couple surgeries, he had compensated his mechanics and hadn't been driving his hips through the ball (Hamilton said the work with the coach is to get things, "turned back on.") In our two most recent mock drafts, Hamilton was taken in the seventh round of both the Head-to-Head and Rotisserie formats. His potential and track record suggest that he could return third- or fourth-round value this season, especially with Albert Pujols and Mike Trout hitting ahead of him.

Albert Pujols, 1B, Angels (Roto: Rd. 5, H2H: Rd. 5)

Pujols hit rock bottom in 2013, batting .258 with 17 home runs and a .330 OBP (all career worsts) over 99 games. This followed a disappointing 2012, when Pujols hit .285, with 30 home runs and a .343 OBP (at the time, these were his career worsts). But Pujols, 34, has valid excuses -- he was coming off knee surgery in 2013, probably rushing back with considerable rust (he was just getting on the treadmill when spring training broke last season) and played all of the season in serious pain, dealing with plantar fasciitis in his foot -- an injury that eventually shut his season down in July. Pujols enters 2014 with no injuries, and a full offseason of preparation behind him. He is a career .321 hitter with 492 career home runs. He should have a much better Hamilton in the lineup with him, and should be able to take full advantage of hitting behind Trout. In our last two mock drafts, Pujols went with the second-to-last pick in the fifth round of a Roto format (behind Ben Zobrist, Jayson Werth, and Alex Rios) and in the middle of the fifth round in a Head-to-Head format (after Zobrist, Martin Prado and Adrian Gonzalez). Pujols has limitless potential: .300-plus average and 35-plus home runs. He hit 50 doubles two years ago -- and keep in mind, he had his knee scoped after that season, suggesting he played through pain for most of 2012, as well. Get him in the fifth -- spoiler alert: I (mock) drafted him both times -- and Pujols could end up being one of the biggest bouncebacks in all of Fantasy this season.

Brett Lawrie, 3B, Blue Jays (Roto: Rd. 15, H2H: Rd. 17)

Lawrie is just 24 years old. He has yet to play more than 125 games over three major league seasons. He's topped out at 11 home runs (2011/12), 13 steals (2012), a .293 average (2011), and 26 doubles (2012). Based on what he did in the minors (.294 average, .850 OPS, 63 steals in 340 games), Fantasy owners were expecting more. But Lawrie has experienced a laundry list of injuries -- broken finger in 2011; abdomen, groin, and knee issues in 2012; and rib cage (suffered at the WBC) and high ankle strains that cost him 54 games last year. Throw in an experiment with Lawrie playing second base, and it makes sense when Blue Jays GM Alex Anthropolous refers to his 2013 as being an "interrupted" one. Put any young player in this situation -- injuries, position changes, rushing back from rehab -- and they'd likely stall out. Still, over his last 70 games in 2013, Lawrie hit .279 with 14 doubles and six home runs. He's moving in the right direction! And Lawrie's peripherals (BABIP, ISO, line drive percentage) all point to him normalizing in 2014. A healthy season in a very hitter-friendly park with the extra motivation of being labeled a disappointment could add up to Lawrie hitting .290 with 25 home runs and 15 steals. For where he's going in drafts so far (15th round-ish), that's excellent value.

John Axford, RP, Indians (Roto: Rd. 16, H2H: Rd. 21)

In 2010 and 2011, Axford had a combined 2.19 ERA and 1.16 WHIP over 131 2/3 innings pitched, striking out 162 batters and saving 70 games. In 2011, he led the National League in saves (46) and posted a 1.95 ERA. And then it all came crashing down. Axford became an inconsistent mess in 2012, with his ERA sitting at 5.22 in late June. He still managed 35 saves, but his final numbers (4.67 ERA and 1.44 WHIP) were way off. Last season, we saw more of the same, with Axford getting hammered to the tune of a 4.45 ERA and 1.56 WHIP, eventually ceding the closer job to Jim Henderson. He was traded to the Cardinals for a player to be named later in August ... and then, miraculously, became his old self. Axford had a 1.74 ERA over 10 1/3 innings with the Cardinals. He revealed after the season that the secret to his success with St. Louis was fairly simple -- they told him he was tipping pitches. And just like that, his two years' worth of strange numbers suddenly make sense. Axford's line drive percentage spiked violently, from 15.2 percent in 2011 to 24 percent (2012) and 24.2 percent (2013). His HR/FB rate made an even larger leap, from six percent in 2011 to 19.2 percent in 2012 and 17.2 percent in 2013. But his average fastball velocity hadn't changed (95.5 in 2011, 96.1 in 2012, 95.3 in 2013). It wasn't like he lost velocity and people were hammering his lobs, or that his pitches were missing the strike zone; hitters knew what was coming, and they were punishing him. So, heading into 2014, we have a pitcher who still throws 95-96 and whose tipping problem has, presumably, been fixed. He's been installed as the closer in Cleveland, and is being drafted far below his former (and future?) elite level.

Kendrys Morales, DH/1B, free agent (Roto: Rd. 15, H2H: Rd. 16)

Morales has a career .280 batting average, with three seasons of 22 or more home runs. And he's done all of this playing in pitcher-friendly home parks (six seasons in Angel Stadium and his most recent in Safeco Field). Morales also missed most of 2010 and all of 2011 with a freak ankle injury, suffered after a walk-off grand slam celebration and compounded by complications from the rehab. In 2009, Morales hit .306 with 34 home runs and 43 doubles. He hasn't been the same since, but the potential is still there. Morales actually had a higher HR/FB ratio in 2010 (21.6 percent) and 2012 (21 percent) than he did in that 2009 season (18.1 percent). He's just stopped hitting as many fly balls (it was 41.1 percent in 2009 and 32.5 percent last season), while sustaining a solid line drive rate and league-average BABIP. I'm well aware that there are outlier seasons with players, but I keep coming back to his 2009 season as something he could replicate under the right set of circumstances. Morales has the power, which has been proven in his sustained HR/FB rate. If he can start hitting more fly balls -- wherever he eventually lands -- a 30-homer season isn't out of the question. And even if he stays at that 25 home run level, Morales is dependable in batting average, with a ceiling of .300 (but a likely .280). You can wait until the 15th round for Morales in most formats; 30-homer potential with a very good average shouldn't be available that late, even if he's still without a team.

Michael Pineda, SP, Yankees (Roto: Rd. 21, H2H: Rd. 16)

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Pineda hasn't pitched in the majors since 2011, when he went 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA and 1.10 WHIP, striking out 173 batters in 171 innings. After shoulder surgery took away all of his 2012 and 2013 (at the major league level, at least), Pineda enters 2014 as a favorite to win a spot in the Yankees' rotation, where he can, hopefully, pick up where he left off in 2011. Last season, Pineda pitched 40 2/3 innings in the minors before eventually being shut down as a precaution, after experiencing shoulder soreness in August. He had a 3.32 ERA and 1.11 WHIP -- with 41 strikeouts -- over three levels. Had he made it to the Yankees for a few September starts, Pineda might still be in the back of our minds -- a name scribbled down in October to remember for 2014. But since he hasn't been in the majors since 2011, Pineda's slipped through the cracks in preseason drafts. In our two most recent mocks, Pineda went undrafted. His early ADP is below Gordon Beckham and just slightly ahead of Jeff Locke. But Pineda was hitting 95 mph on the radar gun last summer, and with a full offseason behind him, he could be primed, rested, and determined to prove he can still pitch at a near-elite level. Track his ADP closely; if he's getting positive reports out of spring training and looking good in games, his ADP will shoot up as people clear the cobwebs from their brains. But early drafters should highlight, underline, and put a star next to his name. Pineda makes for a stellar late pick to round out a Fantasy rotation.

Zack Cozart, SS, Reds (Roto: Rd. N/A, H2H: Rd. N/A)

Here's a fun stat: last season, Cozart had 63 RBI. His teammate, Joey Votto, had 73. This isn't meant to knock Votto, who also scored 101 runs and led the majors in walks. It's to point out that Cozart, who batted second 64 times last year, was afforded plenty of opportunity to drive in runs, thanks to Shin-Soo Choo's .423 OBP. For 2014, Cozart projects as (maybe) the No. 2 hitter again, but he'll be hitting behind Billy Hamilton, the speedster who has stolen an average of 111 bases the last three minor league seasons. And while Hamilton's career OBP in the minors (.350) doesn't come close to Choo's, his running skills and potential for disruption on the basepaths will get him in scoring position more often, which should allow Cozart better opportunity to drive Hamilton in. Additionally, Votto should be hitting behind Cozart, and there have been vague intimations that new manager Bryan Price may encourage him to be more "slugger" and less "walker" this season, which could only help score Cozart. There's room to go up in batting average, although I think we've seen the hitter Cozart will ultimately be (career .252 -- although his BABIP could normalize up). And despite stealing 30 bases in 2010 with the team's Triple-A affiliate (and 10 the year before, with nine in 77 games before his 2011 callup), Cozart has just four major league steals over 300 games. The skill is there (he was only caught four times in his 30-steal season), but the past three seasons would suggest it's no longer part of his game. There's some downside to this call -- Hamilton could be a bust, and Cozart could end up batting seventh (where he appeared 64 times in the second half of last season). But chances are Hamilton holds his own, Cozart bats second, and Fantasy players in mixed Roto and NL-only formats get a tremendous bargain out of the 28-year-old at a relatively weak position.

Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, SP, Phillies (Roto: Rd. 20, H2H: Rd. N/A)

Remember the frenzy Gonzalez caused last season? When the Cuban righty signed with the Phillies, and Fantasy owners scrambled to add him, dumping their remaining FAAB budgets on the 27-year-old? It seems, coming into 2014, that the Fantasy community as a whole has forgotten about him and all that potential he held. It hurt his Fantasy value a little that his deal with the Phillies went from a rumored six-year, $48 million deal to an eventual incentive-laden, three-year, $11 million one, with whispers of injury concerns. But, in his defense, Gonzalez hadn't pitched in about 18 months after serving a suspension for a failed defection attempt in 2012 and having bone chips removed from his elbow earlier that year. Assuming that Gonzalez is healthy and the Phillies were willing to offer him a significant contract with incentives and an option, a Fantasy owner taking a shot on him in an NL-only league could stumble into a tremendous bargain. Not that Gonzalez is anything close to Jose Fernandez or even Hyun-Jin Ryu, but I think we're going to see a trend toward taking that risk with the unknown quantity in Fantasy, as it has paid off far more often than not in recent years. Gonzalez may not dazzle, but he's being left undrafted in far too many mocks so far, especially for a pitcher with his amount of potential.

Tsuyoshi Wada, SP, Cubs (Roto: Rd. N/A, H2H: Rd. N/A)

The "Dr. K" nickname is awesome, but a little misleading -- Wada earned the moniker in college, and it stuck with him, despite an underwhelming 8.3 K/9 over nine seasons in Japan (along with a 3.13 ERA and 1.15 WHIP). Still, when the Orioles signed Wada to a two-year, $8.15 million contract in 2011, it was met with a decent amount of fanfare. For comparison's sake, a month later, the Orioles signed Wei-Yin Chen to a three-year, $11.3 million deal, with a lower annual value than Wada. Almost immediately after his signing, Wada experienced pain in his elbow, and it was determined in May 2012 that he would need Tommy John surgery. He returned a year later and pitched 19 minor league games for the Orioles, with a 4.03 ERA and 1.43 WHIP, striking out 80 batters in 102 2/3 innings. Wada's option was then declined by the Orioles (he never threw a major league pitch for them), and he was picked up by the Cubs this winter. So where's the sleeper appeal? Over his final 12 games last season, Wada had a 2.76 ERA and 1.29 WHIP. Over his final seven starts, he had a 1.70 ERA. Wada, getting further away from his surgery, seemed to be getting back to the pitcher the Orioles had signed back in 2011. The Cubs, meanwhile, have room in the rotation for Wada. Maybe not immediately, but if they're going to be rebuilding again in 2014, then trades, injury, and an open competition for the fifth spot will almost certainly open up room for Wada. This is NL-only territory, but Wada is a sneaky reserve round/$1 gamble late in auctions.

Robbie Ross, RP, Rangers (Roto: Rd. N/A, H2H: Rd. N/A)

Ross' status as a sleeper depends on that fifth spot in the Rangers rotation. Ross was told to stretch out this offseason in the winter leagues, after producing a 2.62 ERA and 1.26 WHIP over 123 relief appearances the last two years. Ross was a starter for all but one minor league appearance, and put together a 2.88 ERA and 1.17 WHIP over three seasons. The 24-year-old has yet to start a major league game, but this could end up being a Kris Medlen-type conversion project. In H2H formats, Ross will carry RP eligibility while starting. And he's got a much lower profile than Medlen -- Ross has quietly been excellent in middle relief for the Rangers. He doesn't strike out a lot of batters (expect his 7.4 career K/9 to dip slightly as a starter) and his average fastball velocity over his two-year career has been 92 mph. But he is crafty, has great control, and has a legitimate shot at winning the fifth spot in the rotation. Ross might eventually find his way into deeper mixed H2H leagues as a SPARP (starting pitcher with relief pitcher eligibility) who can produce more points than your typical closer, but he remains an AL-only gambit for the early drafters. The key for Ross is holding off the competition, which now includes latecomer Tommy Hanson. If he can win a role, Ross will have Fantasy value.

Jesus Guzman, OF, Astros (Roto: N/A; H2H: N/A)

Guzman has never gotten more than 288 at-bats in a season, and he set that career high in 2013, when he hit .226 with nine home runs over 126 games. But Guzman was given the gift of a timely trade this winter, going from San Diego to Houston, offering the 29-year-old the dual boost of getting a hitter-friendly park in which to play, with a lineup that can be easily cracked. Guzman played five different positions last year (first base, left field, right field, third base, and second base). The Astros just released Brett Wallace, last year's starter at first, and have possible openings in left, right, and at DH, as well. While Chris Carter, Jon Singleton, and George Springer are likely to work their way into regular playing time, that scenario still leaves room for Guzman at a corner outfield spot or DH. And while he hasn't shown much at the major league level (in 2011, Guzman hit .312 with five home runs and an .847 OPS in 247 at-bats), he hasn't really been given a chance at full-time at-bats. At the very least, his minor league stats suggest some potential. Guzman had four seasons of 16 or more home runs from 2007 to 2010. In that same span, his batting average never dipped below .301 in any season. He has a career .305 average in the minors, with an .853 OPS (the OPS never dipped below .885 in that 2007-2010 span). And he threw in a few steals, as well. There's talent buried here, and a new park with the opportunity to play every day could put it on display. An AL-only owner could do worse than a reserve gamble on Guzman.

Leury Garcia, 2B, White Sox (Roto: N/A, H2H: N/A)

Garcia had a forgettable 2013 debut with the Rangers and White Sox (he was the player to be named later in the trade for Alex Rios), hitting .198 with 34 strikeouts in 101 at-bats. But Garcia did steal seven bases, which would translate to over 40 if he got a full season's worth of at-bats. He also showed versatility in the field, seeing action at second base, shortstop, center field, and third base. None of this caught my eye. It wasn't until I checked the final stats for the Dominican League -- and saw Garcia stole 12 bases in 33 games -- that my interest was piqued. Garcia isn't going to hit more than .260 (which is the ceiling of his potential), but he has seasons of 51, 31, and 30 steals in the minors (with no more than 450 at-bats) and projects to be a super-utility player for the White Sox in 2014. With 300 at-bats, we could see 25-30 steals. For a dollar (or even reserve pick) in AL-only formats, it should more than return the investment, especially once he starts picking up multi-position eligibility.

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