Practically as soon as one season ends, the process of looking for value for next season begins. And now next season is almost here, so the time is upon us to put our money -- or at least our auction dollars and draft picks -- where our mouths are.
What follows are my 12 favorite pre-spring sleeper picks, the players whom I expect to deliver the greatest return on my investment of a bid or pick, based on my offseason research. As the spring progresses, some of these players may lose their sleeper appeal, while others who didn't make the cut this time might look like better values a few weeks from now. So this is just version 1.0, with the upgrade to come in the weeks ahead.
Not only will players' value relative to draft position change due to health issues or role changes that could arise, but also because of changes in perception. This list was made in reference to average draft position (ADP) in CBSSports.com leagues, but at this point only a limited number of leagues have drafted, so I'm also relying on the rankings of other industry experts as well as feedback received from our readers, viewers and listeners to get a sense of what the market's expectations are.
These dozen players, then, are the ones I expect to be drafting often, if not early. Of course, early is relative, so while I will have no reservations about spending an early-round pick on Alex Rios or Jose Altuve, I won't need to in order to enjoy the value of Brian Dozier or Steve Cishek. Being sleepers, though, all of them are players I can wait at least an extra round or two to fill a need that I would otherwise need to fill with my next pick.
Along with their current ADP, for each player, I'll explain why I think he is worth targeting at the expense of pursuing a more popular option.
John Jaso, C, Athletics (Roto: N/A, H2H: N/A)
Jaso's inclusion on this list has as much to do with events impacting his teammates as with what he has actually done on the field. When the A's signaled their intention to let Stephen Vogt and Derek Norris do most of the catching in a platoon, relegating Jaso to designated hitting duties, Jaso's Fantasy value improved. Coming off a concussion as well as a disappointing season in that he did not build on his double-digit homer total from 2012, Jaso is probably not registering on the minds of very many mixed league owners. Particularly in two-catcher leagues, he should, at least as a late- round option. Jaso should collect even more plate appearances than he did when he was part of the Mariners' catcher/DH mix in 2012. That season he was a top 20 Roto catcher, and with just a little more power than last year, he could be again in 2014.
Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros (Roto: Rd. 5, H2H: Rd. 12)
Altuve is still only 23, so there could be time for him to develop the double-digit home run power he showed in the minors. Even if he doesn't, the Astros' fourth-year second baseman can be counted on for enough steals and runs to be in the top five at his position in Roto leagues and the top 10 in Head-to-Head. Altuve's Head-to-Head value is boosted by his low strikeout rate, and that translates into a batting average that is unlikely to be no worse than .270 and could hover around .300 -- a potential boon for Roto owners. If everything comes together -- a .300 average, 10-15 home runs and 40-plus steals -- Altuve would have a breakout season that would elevate him into Jason Kipnis territory in terms of value. Without the breakout, Altuve is still a sleeper as he could be overlooked in favor of more established options like Brandon Phillips and Ben Zobrist.
Brian Dozier, 2B, Twins (Roto: Rd. 13, H2H: Rd. 17)
Dozier is a less proven and riskier second base alternative than Altuve, and as such, he shouldn't be targeted among the top 10 players at the position. Judging by the early draft results, many owners are letting 15 other second basemen get taken ahead of Dozier, but last season's power spike makes him someone to consider above the likes of Chase Utley and Jed Lowrie. Because Dozier profiled as more of a doubles hitter as a prospect, it may be hard to take his home run surge seriously, but he was an entirely different hitter last year. He was far more patient, averaging 4.17 pitches per plate appearance (versus 3.69 in 2012) and chasing fewer pitches outside the zone. Longer plate appearances correlate with home run power, so it seems like more than a coincidence that Dozier found some home run moxie. He seems like a lock for double-digit steals, so Roto owners in particular should look to Dozier as a mid-round fallback option.
Alex Rios, OF, Rangers (Roto: Rd. 2, H2H: 5)
Rios' miserable 2011 season is still fresh in a lot of our minds, so it's hard to imagine many owners saying, "Yeah, I think I'll draft Alex Rios as my No. 1 outfielder this year." It's not an optimal move, but if you miss out on the very limited number of reliable producers -- the ones without significant injury risk, major inconsistency or possible past benefits from PED use (i.e., Ryan Braun) -- Rios has one of the better recent track records. He has been among the top six outfielders in Fantasy in each of the last two years, and 2009 and 2011 have been the only real clunkers out of his last eight seasons. Rios has also been largely durable over that stretch. With the aggressive Ron Washington at the helm in Texas, Rios can continue the heightened steals pace he set late last season, and he has enough power and run production to keep him among the near-elite.
Jayson Werth, OF, Nationals (Roto: Rd. 4, H2H: Rd. 8)
With a hamstring injury shelving Werth for nearly all of May and some of June last year, it looked like he was about to lose another season due to health woes. Once he returned, though, he did so with a vengeance. Even factoring in a tepid month of April, Werth batted a career-high .318 and put himself on a pace for 30-plus homers and doubles with 100-plus runs and RBI, had he played a full season. Not only did he set that pace even after having a slow start, but his .292 batting average with runners in scoring position makes his run (84) and RBI (82) totals look sustainable. Werth's average will regress somewhat, since he probably won't approach a 31 percent line drive rate again, but he has become a better contact hitter over the last two years. With his wrist and hamstring issues behind him, owners could look forward to a full season of strong power and run production with double-digit steals to boot. He's a sneaky play as someone you can draft as a No. 2 or 3 outfielder but who may produce like a No. 1.
Billy Hamilton, OF, Reds (Roto: Rd. 5, H2H: Rd. 13)
I'm generally not a fan of one-dimensional players, but it's worthwhile to make the occasional exception in Roto leagues, if that player can help you move up substantially in a category. This is what Hamilton can do. He didn't hit particularly well last season in Triple-A, batting .256 with a .308 on-base percentage, yet he still managed to steal 75 bases in 123 games. As the Reds' projected leadoff hitter, he should get plenty of plate appearances and stolen base opportunities, and his speed could allow him to improve his batting average by way of frequent infield hits. Of course, there is the risk that he doesn't hit well enough to keep the leadoff role or maybe even his job, but Hamilton's 70-plus steals potential is literally a game-changer, making him worth drafting among the top 20 outfielders in Roto leagues.
Will Venable, OF, Padres (Roto: Rd. 17, H2H: Rd. N/A)
Venable emerged as a surprise entry in the 20-20 club last season, which elevated him to membership among the top 30 outfielders in Roto value. So far he's not being drafted anywhere near that level, yet there is reason to think last season won't be an outlier on Venable's career stat sheet. His home run power in away games actually decreased slightly last year, but he exploded for 15 homers at PETCO Park (as compared to two in the prior year). After the right field fences were brought in prior to last season, the Padres' home stadium became much more amenable for Venable -- and other lefties -- to mash balls out of the park. There's also room for Venable to improve his run production, as he is all but certain to increase his .204 batting average with men in scoring position from 2013. If he makes it much past the top 30 outfielders chosen in Roto leagues, you shouldn't wait too much longer to snag him.
Julio Teheran, SP, Braves (Roto: Rd. 9, H2H: Rd. 5)
With so many young ex-prospects filling up the starting pitcher pool, Teheran could get lost in the shuffle, especially since the novelty of him being a major leaguer has worn off after 211 2/3 innings. Like Gerrit Cole, Michael Wacha and Sonny Gray, Teheran has the goods to provide more than a strikeout per inning. He may not have quite as much strikeout prowess as Tony Cingrani or Danny Salazar, but like both, he's a flyball pitcher poised to produce a low BABIP, and like Salazar, he will likely issue walks at a lower rate than his phenom brethren. Inning for inning, Salazar and Cingrani are probably the best of this group, but Teheran should surpass them by pitching at least 30 more innings than either of them. So to summarize, Teheran is a low-ERA strikeout pitcher uniquely primed to offer a low WHIP and high innings count. That's why I'd be happy to have him as my No. 2 starter in a standard mixed league, though you may be able to still get him after 25 or 30 starting pitchers are off the board.
Corey Kluber, SP, Indians (Roto: Rd. 14, H2H: Rd. 12)
Something of a late bloomer, Kluber didn't benefit from prospect hype, and his reputation still lags behind his performance, but he is essentially Teheran Lite. Kluber possesses great control and he's a better-than-average strikeout pitcher. Not only might he be underappreciated due to his lack of prospect cred, but Kluber likely left Fantasy owners underwhelmed by a 3.85 ERA and 1.26 WHIP last year. A 26 percent line drive rate inflated both marks, but regression in that metric should lead to improvements in both ERA and WHIP. Kluber has the makings of a top 30 starting pitcher, but he could easily fall outside the top 40 in draft order.
Tim Lincecum, SP, Giants (Roto: Rd. 19, H2H: Rd. 13)
Lincecum's stock has plummeted over the past two seasons, but while expectations may not have rebounded since the latter half of last season, he started inching his way back towards his Cy Young form. He's not there yet; Lincecum is still allowing too many home runs and throwing too many pitches out of the zone. However, he did allow far fewer walks in the second half last season, and he never really lost his touch with missing bats. Lincecum may never recapture the elite status he enjoyed in 2008 and 2009, but signs of improved control are reason enough to keep him on your radar, and not just as a late-round flier.
Scott Kazmir, SP, Athletics (Roto: Rd. 22, H2H: Rd. 19)
Kazmir was outstanding from mid-June forward last season with the Indians, compiling a 3.06 ERA and 1.15 WHIP with 107 strikeouts in 103 innings, but owners could still be reluctant to trust the lefty. After all, it was his first good season in five years, and his career may be most notable for the time he has missed with injuries. If Kazmir's final 18 starts could be dismissed as a fluke, it would make sense to focus more on the risk than the reward, but there were some impressive supporting stats backing up that low ERA and WHIP. The once-wild Kazmir threw 67 percent of his pitches for strikes and got swings-and-misses on 11 percent of all pitches. Because it's asking for a high degree of faith to draft the A's lefty on these 18 starts alone, I'm not recommending he should be drafted alongside early-rounders like Madison Bumgarner, who put up similar stats to those of Kazmir's from his extended hot streak, but he is worth taking among the top 50 starters.
Steve Cishek, RP, Marlins (Roto: Rd. 11, H2H: Rd. 17)
With only 36 save chances, Cishek did not distinguish himself among Fantasy closers last season, but with improved control and continued strong ground ball tendencies (and a home park that further squelches homers), he did what he could to help owners. Cishek appears to be a safe bet to post another low 2.00s ERA with a WHIP not too far above 1.00, and the Marlins' offense may be just improved enough to give their closer more save opportunities. In fact, they could be in enough close games that he gets a lot of save opportunities. Cishek likely won't be drafted among the top 15 closers in many leagues, but he could easily deliver better production than more popular closers, such as Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour and Jim Johnson.