When it comes to sleepers and busts, it's all about value.
The best sleepers are simply players who vastly outperform their draft-day value. Meanwhile, the busts are those players who play significantly below their draft-day value. In many cases, finding the right sleepers and avoiding the appropriate busts at the draft can go a long way toward winning a title.
The baseline for draft-day value in this case is our ESPN Fantasy rankings. We arrive at these rankings via a consensus of our writers and editors, but that doesn't mean we're all in agreement with the final rankings. Thus our analysts provided their own sleepers and busts, in relation to those rankings.
We've asked a number of our analysts to provide one sleeper and one bust for each of the following positions: catcher, first base, second base, shortstop, third base, outfield, starting pitcher and relief pitcher. Our analysts then go deeper into a few of their sleeper and bust picks with a little explanation (ordered by position and then by average draft position, highest to lowest). In most cases, we're discussing draft strategy/rankings for ESPN's standard leagues (10-team mixed league, 22-man active roster, including one starting catcher and one utility player, plus a three-man bench), but the analysis is mostly applicable in deeper leagues. Note that each expert sent his lists separate of the others (i.e., with no knowledge of who the other people selected).
Our panel of analysts: Matthew Berry (MB), Tristan H. Cockcroft (THC), Shawn Cwalinski (SC), Brian Gramling (BG), Dave Hunter (DH), Eric Karabell (EK), AJ Mass (AJM), James Quintong (JQ), Mike Sheets (MS) and Todd Zola (TZ).
Salvador Perez, C, Royals: Stop elbowing me! Hey, move over; I was in this spot first! Ow, you're stepping on my toes! Yes, kids, it's getting a little crowded here on the Sal Perez bandwagon, but for good reason. High average, solid power, great contact rate, the Royals will be solid this year Perez has a very legit shot to be a Joe Mauer-like producer this season, but 128 picks later. -- Matthew Berry
Jonathan Lucroy, C, Brewers: There's sure to be some hesitation in trusting Lucroy's modest 2012 gains because of the time he missed, but in his defense, his two-month absence was a total fluke. Hasn't everyone suffered the misfortune, at one time or another, of having his wife drop a suitcase on his hand? When healthy, Lucroy's stats revealed a contact rate bump of more than 8 percent, along with a significantly higher rate of hard contact (near-50 percent bump in well-hit average) and greater plate coverage. If you told me that, in a standard 10-team mixed league, I could forego every one of our top-10 catchers if promised Lucroy would be there in the 20th round, I'd say "Sign me up." And our ESPN live draft results suggest that's exactly what's happening with him. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft
John Jaso, C, A's: Jaso is definitely an asset in leagues that count on-base percentage, and he also has the skills to be a solid batting average contributor. It looks like he could get decent playing time (something that has been relatively lacking over the years), even though the A's have top prospect Derek Norris waiting in the wings. -- James Quintong
Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves: Freeman was hampered by a burning sensation in his eyes last season and reportedly could barely see at times. Yet he still managed to hit a career-high 23 home runs as he also fought through a finger injury that made holding the bat difficult and likely played a part in his hitting .212 in September. An offseason workout regimen has him in the best shape of his career, so don't take your eyes off him. -- AJ Mass[+] EnlargeJesse Johnson/US PresswireHis numbers declined from the previous season, but steady White Sox slugger Paul Konerko still hit .298 with 26 homers and 75 RBIs in 2012.
Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox: Really, Berry? A 37-year-old first baseman is your sleeper? Well, considering he's going in the 13th round, the answer is yes, really. Look, I get that he's old, and I get that his skills are declining. But there's a tendency to discount guys like him as uninteresting or boring, and there's still a lot of value here. As I mentioned in my 100 Facts column, of the first base-eligible players, only one has at least 25 home runs, 75 RBIs and a .298 average in each of the past three seasons. That would be Mr. Paul Konerko. You know he'll hit for a high average (which is rarer and rarer these days) and power. And while his upside is limited and he won't have a great runs total, he's money in the bank for basically a .300 average and 25-30 home runs. And when you see someone like Mark Teixeira going in the seventh round (six rounds ahead of Konerko), well, give me one more year of Konerko instead. -- Matthew Berry
Kendrys Morales, 1B, Mariners: It seems counter-intuitive to expect Morales to improve in Seattle, but I do expect him to be better this season. He's healthy right now, he's going to play every day, and Safeco Field's fences have been moved in. While we won't know the actual impact of the new fences until after he has played there a few seasons, the stadium that is the closest match to Safeco's new dimensions is U.S. Cellular Field, the home of the White Sox. I don't expect Morales to repeat what he did in 2009, but I do think he can hit 30 homers with a .280-plus batting average. Those are great numbers for a guy being taken in the 20th round. -- Shawn Cwalinski
Lance Berkman, 1B, Rangers: Berkman played in only 32 games last year due to knee issues and turned 37 in February, so I understand if you're skeptical. That skepticism, however, is why the Big Puma will be such a draft-day bargain. Remember, he's just one year removed from hitting .301 with 31 homers and 94 RBIs with the St. Louis Cardinals, and this season he'll play half his games in a hitters' park in Texas, where he'll bat third much of the time in one of baseball's best lineups. Health is still a concern, but serving as the Rangers' full-time DH should help him there. -- Mike Sheets
Brandon Belt, 1B, Giants: While Belt still will sit the occasional game so Buster Posey can relax over at first base, this is the year to get Belt in dynasty formats; his power potential is close to being realized. Belt already hits lefties well enough to deserve regular playing time, hitting five of his seven home runs in 2012 off them, and he had no issues with pitcher-friendly AT&T Park, hitting .315 there. This is a mature hitter with plate discipline who should see more playing time. Next year at this time, Belt will be ranked near fellow young first basemen such as Freddie Freeman and Anthony Rizzo. -- Eric Karabell
Daniel Murphy, 2B, Mets: He's a .292 career hitter just entering his prime at age 27, and he can be had in a fantasy draft on the cheap, especially following a recent injury setback (intercostal strain) that could scare off cautious owners. Murphy knows how to hit at Citi Field -- he's a career .308 hitter, with a .351 OBP, at his home field -- and he also batted .283 versus lefties last year, showing he can (and should) play every day. The Mets' lineup isn't exactly great, but there is upside with players such as Ike Davis and Lucas Duda, and Murphy should have no trouble scoring 80-plus runs if he rightfully bats second in the lineup. -- Brian Gramling
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Kyle Seager, 3B, Mariners: Seager showed surprising power last season, hitting 20 homers, with five at home and 15 on the road. It's reasonable to assume a drop in road homers, but this should be offset by a rise in homers at Safeco Field since Seager should benefit from the fences being moved in and lowered. Seager makes good contact and is capable of a higher batting average than his 2012 mark (.259). He stroked an above-average number of line drives yet had a batting average on balls in play that was lower than league average. Lastly, like many young lefty hitters, Seager struggles against southpaws, sporting a pedestrian .658 OPS. But his contact against lefties is still solid, so he has a good chance of increasing his production in that regard. -- Todd Zola
Trevor Plouffe, 3B, Twins: If you like Pedro Alvarez but don't want to pay Pedro Alvarez prices, then Plouffe is the third baseman for you. In fact, he had 24 homers in 422 at-bats last season compared to Alvarez's 30 homers in 586 at-bats. Alvarez drew more walks, but Plouffe had a 12 percent better contact rate. All in all, Plouffe is being drafted 76 spots lower than Alvarez in ESPN live drafts, and if that wasn't bad enough, he's also being taken after Jeff Keppinger and Alex "I might not play at all this season or ever again" Rodriguez. -- Shawn Cwalinski
Jed Lowrie, SS, A's: If the very first thing that comes to mind with Lowrie isn't either "injuries," "DL" or "Ouch, I strained my hamstring just thinking about him," then obviously you've never had the pleasure of owning him, or you're a fantasy rookie. But here's the truth: Lowrie's horrendous reputation in the health department actually does us a favor by scaring off enough folks that he'll sneak through at a deep discount at what is truly one of the weaker positions in fantasy. Between all the bumps, bruises and Acme safes that have fallen on him (stop chasing that Road Runner, Jed!), Lowrie has sported a walk rate better than 10 percent and fly ball rate greater than 50 percent in his career. He's a little Josh Reddick-/Brandon Moss-ish -- and I'd argue with the better discipline of the three -- and those two clubbed a combined 53 homers in 2012. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft[+] EnlargeJake Roth/USA TODAY SportsJosh Rutledge was the shortstop sleeper pick on five of our 10 analysts' lists.
Josh Rutledge, SS/2B, Rockies: Sometimes you need to take a leap of faith, and if Rutledge wins and keeps the Rockies' second-base job, he has a chance for a 20-homer, 20-steal season hitting out of the two-hole. With Chris Nelson as the favorite to win the third-base gig, Rutledge just needs to beat out DJ LeMahieu, Jonathan Herrera and Reid Brignac. I like his chances. -- Todd Zola
Adam Eaton, OF, Diamondbacks: As soon as the Justin Upton trade to Atlanta was consummated, which opened up a starting role for Eaton, fantasy owners immediately became interested in Eaton's stolen base upside. A year ago, he swiped 38 bases at Triple-A Reno and hit .381 over 488 at-bats, and he flashed enough power to help there, too. Eaton likely won't hit quite that well in the big leagues, but he does have a patient approach and the potential for double-digit homers (he had 58 extra-base hits at Reno). Eaton's skill set will translate to the majors, and he's a far better value than fellow speedsters Angel Pagan, Brett Gardner and Coco Crisp. -- Eric Karabell
Andy Dirks, OF, Tigers: The Tigers will have arguably the best hitting lineup in the game this season, and I like Dirks to benefit from the hitters around him as he nets 400-plus at-bats. Dirks likely will start the season on the "good side" of a platoon (batting lefty versus most righties), but he did show in 2012 that he could hit lefties reasonably well, so he has an excellent chance of landing the left-field job full-time in Detroit. Consider him a late-round dark horse for a 20-homer season. -- Dave Hunter
Jeff Samardzija, SP, Cubs: The Cubs' Opening Day starter is primed for a monster season after the Cubs wisely limited him to less than 175 innings in his first year as a starter. He still struck out 180 batters in the limited duty and got stronger in the second half of the season, posting a 2.58 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 9.8 K's/9 in his final 13 starts (after July 1). And check out his Wrigley Field numbers over the past two seasons: 9-5 record, 3.07 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 10.2 K's/9. Samardzija has a classic pitcher's frame at 6-foot-5, 225 pounds and has never been injured in his career. I feel this 28-year-old is going to post ace-quality numbers for the next several seasons. -- Brian Gramling
Rick Porcello, SP, Tigers: There are a few signs that lead me to believe Porcello is ready to finally live up to his prospect hype of a few seasons ago, one of which is his improved velocity. Porcello also has increased his K/9 rate and LOB% in recent seasons, which means he's learning how to get out of jams more consistently, which in turn helps lower his ERA. Not that Porcello will ever be a strikeout king, but investing in him as a late-round flyer is a chance I'd take. -- Dave Hunter
Alex Cobb, SP, Rays: With James Shields now in Kansas City, Cobb gets his shot at securing a rotation spot this spring. The young right-hander showed good control (2.6 BB/9) in his time with the Rays last year, and his 9.6 K/9 rate over 228 innings between Double- and Triple-A suggests there's more strikeout potential in him (7.0 K/9 for the Rays in 2012). While he posted a respectable 4.03 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 2012, he really started to shine over his final seven starts -- all of which came against offenses that ranked in the top half of baseball in runs scored -- going 5-2 with a 2.49 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP. The 25-year-old is going undrafted in most standard mixed leagues, so the profit potential here is substantial. -- Mike Sheets
Buster Posey, C, Giants: It's not that he isn't great. He is. He's a stud. He's all that and a bag of Girl Scout cookies. But I have to pick someone to be my busts, and frankly, I like all the catchers in the top five. So I picked Posey because of where you have to take him. In a two-catcher league or even a deep NL-only league, I don't mind paying a premium for him. But in an ESPN standard 10-team league, where you start just one catcher, him being a catcher isn't as big a benefit as it is in other leagues. I'd rather wait on catcher than use a second-round pick on someone who plays a risky position (in terms of injuries) and will no doubt have some batting-average regression. -- Matthew Berry
Mike Napoli, C, Red Sox: I thought we at ESPN Fantasy, with our No. 156 group rank of him, were excessively optimistic about Napoli, and then I saw his ADP in ESPN live drafts: 141.6?! Has no one noticed the richness of the catcher talent pool for 2013, particularly in 10-team mixed leagues? Napoli would need to approach 30 homers and 90 RBIs to be a top-five backstop this season, accounting for his batting average risk fueled by a rapidly increasing strikeout rate, and that's a huge leap to take considering the condition of his hips. He has avascular necrosis -- that's what Bo Jackson had back in the day -- in both joints, and I think the Red Sox sent us the clearest caution flag of all this winter when they shaved two years off his free-agent contract after learning of it. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft
Wilin Rosario, C, Rockies: Rosario has excellent power, no doubt. However, his contact rate is below average and he rarely takes a walk, which could lead to slumps, perhaps prolonged. Then consider the fact that Rosario allowed a whopping 21 passed balls in just 105 games behind the dish, and there is a strong possibility he loses playing time. If Rosario is not hitting home runs, he's not helping his team, because his defense is not going to keep him in the lineup. -- Todd Zola[+] EnlargePeter G. Aiken/USA TODAY Sports/US PresswireMark Trumbo's big first half culminated in a trip to the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game, but he hit just .227 and struck out in more than one-third of his at-bats after the break.
Mark Trumbo, OF/1B, Angels: While it's easy to see the power Trumbo brings, pitchers had little trouble exploiting the holes in his swing over the final two months of 2012, when he hit .208 after Aug. 1 with 72 strikeouts. Trumbo's first two months, meanwhile, were fueled by an uncharacteristically high BABIP and good luck. It wouldn't be stunning to see him reach 30 home runs again, but he's a major batting average risk who could certainly lose playing time to the likes of Vernon Wells if he struggles again. -- Eric Karabell
Jason Kipnis: So which Kipnis will show up this year? Will it be the one who had 11 homers and 20 steals before the All-Star break in 2012, or the one who had a .650 OPS and just three homers after it? The answer could be somewhere in between, and while I like his overall potential as a power-speed combo guy, he is going a little too high for my taste, especially after that second-half drop-off. -- James Quintong
Aaron Hill, 2B, Diamondbacks: It's not that I don't like Hill -- I think he's a solid 25-homer candidate in 2013 -- but the inconsistency from season to season regarding his contact rate is bothersome. If you get shut out of a top-five second baseman this season and don't really need Hill's power, you're better off waiting for guys like Altuve, Utley or Espinosa in the later rounds than spending a seventh- or eighth-round pick on Hill. -- Dave Hunter
Will Middlebrooks, 3B, Red Sox: The numbers Middlebrooks put up last year were impressive, considering his limited number of at-bats, but don't expect his batting average to stay anywhere near the .288 he put up in 2012. There's a good chance for a sophomore regression considering the limited number of major league at-bats Middlebrooks has had in his young career. -- Dave Hunter
Elvis Andrus, SS, Rangers: With the departure of run-producing teammates Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli, Andrus will be hard-pressed to score another 85 runs from the No. 2 hole in the Rangers' batting order. His production really tailed off last season, with a paltry 34 runs and five steals (on just nine attempts) in 75 games after the All-Star break. Andrus batted just .233 during his team's late-season slide after Sept. 1. And he's already a major hindrance in the power department, posting a total of eight homers over his past three seasons, spanning more than 450 games and 1,800 at-bats. -- Brian Gramling
Jose Bautista, OF, Blue Jays: My concern with Bautista is that he could suffer from a downtick in home run production after suffering a serious wrist injury last season. It takes just one bad swing to end a fantasy season, and with Bautista attempting to send every pitch into orbit, I can't help feeling a little skittish here. -- AJ Mass
Josh Hamilton, OF, Angels: As an Angels fan, I hope I'm dead wrong here. But health is always a concern with Hamilton, moving from Rangers Ballpark to Angel Stadium doesn't do him any favors, and there's a concern that there will be a mental letdown now that he has signed the big contract. We always say not to pay for a career year. Just because the Angels did doesn't mean you have to. If he's there in the third round, awesome. But as a top-16 pick? There are safer bets out there. -- Matthew Berry
More on Hamilton: A little risk in the first two rounds is fine, but Hamilton has too many negatives for me. He still has never had more than 500 at-bats in consecutive seasons, and last season he had more than 500. He is leaving one of the best hitters' parks in baseball for a slight pitchers' park. His contact rate dropped 10 percent last season. I see little difference between Hamilton and Matt Holliday, who is being taken 27 picks later in drafts. -- Shawn Cwalinski
Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals: Controversy! To stave off at least a few angry emails from Harper fans, I'll stress that I'm not at all a "Harper hater." After all, he is No. 62 overall in my personal ranks, 21 spots better than he finished 2012. But facts are facts: That rank is nowhere near our consensus rank (No. 37) or his current ADP (32.7). Those numbers suggest you have to pick him in the third round in order to guarantee he's yours for 2013. That's paying ceiling value, and in my opinion, that's foolish for a 20-year-old with all of 144 games of big league experience. A comparison point: Jason Heyward had .269-27-82 stats with 21 steals and 93 runs in 2012, numbers Harper could match but probably won't exceed, and Heyward still finished just 37th on our Player Rater. Take that chance if you wish, but my advice is, get back to me in a year, when Harper is much more likely to be that burgeoning top-25 fantasy player. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft
Carl Crawford, OF, Dodgers: Crawford used to be a fantastic fantasy option, but injuries have wrecked his career, and there's little indication that big numbers or even a full season of games are pending in 2013. Crawford played in only 31 games last season, and like the season before, he didn't show the ability to get on base. Over the past two seasons covering 161 games, Crawford has drawn 26 walks and fanned 126 times. While his injured elbow, which still doesn't appear to be healed, surely affected his hitting, he wasn't stealing bases at a high rate, either. A move to the National League and Dodger Stadium isn't likely to make things better. Simply put, Crawford is not a fantasy starter anymore. -- Eric Karabell[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Alex BrandonWe have Stephen Strasburg projected to throw 193 innings in 2013, or 46 innings fewer than we have projected for Felix Hernandez.
Stephen Strasburg, SP, Nationals: This is not a prediction that Strasburg is going to have a bad season, only that he will fall short of the extremely lofty expectations some have for him (I've seen him ranked as a No. 1 starting pitcher). Even with an increase in 2013, Strasburg is still going to toss 20-30 fewer innings than Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw. This will reduce his strikeouts and the impact of his ratios. While it's true that Strasburg's strikeout rate is higher than the others, helping to counter the innings deficit, there is talk of Strasburg using his sinker more in an effort to be more efficient with his pitches. This should help get him deeper into games but likely will, in turn, lower his strikeouts. He's going to be good, no argument. It's just that he doesn't belong with the elite until he matches them in innings. -- Todd Zola
Jered Weaver, SP, Angels: Weaver's K/9 rate fall from 9.35 in 2010 to 7.56 in 2011 and then 6.77 in 2012. Combine that with a corresponding increase in line drives being hit off the Angels pitcher and we might be looking at a case in which good fortune may suddenly be in short supply for the starter. I'm not suggesting he'll finish the year with a losing record, but he could well end up closer to 14 wins than 20. -- AJ Mass
Zack Greinke, SP, Dodgers: I want to like Greinke, and all the "numbers" suggest that I should; his K/9, HR/9 and GB/FB rates all indicate he should be elite. But that's the problem: The sum of the parts is usually greater than the whole with Greinke. I call it "Nolasco-itis." For whatever reason, Greinke just doesn't produce the fantasy numbers his peripheral numbers suggest he should. It's not like I expect him to be bad, I just don't think he'll be a top-10 starter. -- Shawn Cwalinski
CC Sabathia, SP, Yankees: With all the mileage Sabathia has put on his arm over the years, I wonder when he's going to have that real breakdown or major injury that knocks him out for a long stretch of time. The multiple DL stints he had last year don't make me feel confident about him for this season. And with the Yankees' lineup being a bit less potent this year than in recent years, he might not be as much of a lock for 15-18 wins as he used to be. -- James Quintong
Josh Johnson, SP, Blue Jays: Johnson started 30 games last year for the first time since 2009, but that's pretty much where the positives end. While his overall stat line looked decent, his velocity continued to decline (his average fastball was 94.9 mph in 2010 and 92.8 mph last year), his strikeout rate continued to plummet (9.1 K/9 in 2010, 7.8 K/9 last year), his walk rate continued to escalate (2.4 BB/9 in 2010, 3.1 BB/9 last year), and he struggled when pitching away from pitcher-friendly Marlins Park (4.94 ERA, 1.44 WHIP). The right-hander finished just 67th among starting pitchers on the ESPN Player Rater and flashed almost none of the elite upside that once made him an intriguing fantasy option. Now Johnson moves to a hitter-friendly environment in Toronto, and to the AL East? I think I'll pass. -- Mike Sheets
Joel Hanrahan, RP, Red Sox: Hanrahan's 76 saves over the past two seasons are the fifth-most in baseball, but that doesn't mean the former Pirate is a safe fantasy option for this season. Despite 36 saves and a 2.72 ERA in 2012, Hanrahan's walk rate ballooned to 5.3 (including 6.3 BB/9 after the All-Star break), and his 45.1 fly ball percentage was a career high. That's a dangerous combination for a guy being drafted as a top-10 closer. And it could really be detrimental in Fenway Park, which ranked in the top 10 in home runs last year, according to ESPN Park Factors (PNC Park, by comparison, ranked 27th). While Andrew Bailey might not be the picture of health, he does give the Red Sox a viable alternative in the ninth inning should Hanrahan's control issues undo him this season. -- Mike Sheets
John Axford, RP, Brewers: Axford was a mess last season, posting a league-worst nine blown saves and walking 39 batters in 69 1/3 innings. His ERA more than doubled from 2011, and his WHIP ballooned from 1.14 to 1.44. Axford also served up seven homers in 39 innings at Miller Park, leading to a 5.31 ERA there. Fantasy owners tend to overrate strikeouts from closers, but his projected 90 strikeouts is only 20 more than average of the top 33 relievers in the ESPN.com rankings. It's not worth chasing those 20 K's to suffer the ERA and WHIP damage that Axford will cause a fantasy staff. -- Brian Gramling
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