"Sleeper" is such an abused word in fantasy baseball.
It's tossed around all too casually and applied in situations entirely undeserving. Casual owners probably believe it's a word that describes every one of their picks beyond, say, the 20th round. But does Nick Swisher -- currently the No. 204 player in terms of ADP -- really qualify for "sleeper" status? After all, he has consistently hit between 22 and 29 home runs in every one of the past seven seasons; for perspective, no other player in baseball has hit between 20 and 30 in every one of those years.
No, my definition of "sleeper" remains true to its roots: It's a player from whom you should expect effectively nothing, a player who is almost entirely unnoticed at the time of your draft who emerges as a useful fantasy asset.
Last season, this was a classification in which the following players fit: Josh Donaldson (finished 37th overall on the Player Rater), Julio Teheran (94th), Mark Melancon (140th), Rick Porcello (262nd) and Evan Gattis (286th, but 15th among catchers). They would have, in almost every instance, cost you no more than $5 in a singular (AL- or NL-only) league yet turned in a profit at least as large as that -- and in the case of Donaldson and Teheran, easily triple that.
At the same time, let's point out that also in that group were Jake Arrieta, Kyle Blanks, Brennan Boesch, Lucas Harrell and Jemile Weeks. These are not all going to be successful selections, and I would guess that in any given season similar lists to these would result in, at best, half the players earning at least half what you paid for them. That is the point of these proverbial lottery-ticket selections; they're high-risk, high-reward.
Now, I recognize that a sub-$5 player in an AL- or NL-only league probably wouldn't register on the radar of even a 12-team mixed league. If you play in a shallow format, this list serves more as a watch/early-season pickups list; I recommend Tristan's Twenty as a source of more attractive draft-day selections for your purposes.
But let's see if we can meet that minimum: half of the players below earning at least $10 in singular-league value. If that happens, their owners will probably win their respective leagues -- so long as their "leading men" also perform at or near expectations.
I admit it: I'm a sucker for Sizemore. Simply put, the dude has pop, can steal a base and knows the strike zone. He is one of only nine players to have managed at least 100 home runs, 100 stolen bases and a 10 percent walk rate the past 10 seasons combined, and his .204 isolated power ranks fifth among that group. Plus, watch Sizemore play this spring and you'll see a player not afraid to play aggressive baseball, giving him hope of once again contributing some steals (but, granted, a concern as far as games played are concerned). If the Red Sox declare him their starting center fielder in the next few days -- certainly possible considering Jackie Bradley Jr. has batted an uninspiring .188 -- he would be well worth a stash even in mixed leagues, so long as you're prepared to deal with a high likelihood of an in-season absence.
Javier Baez, SS, Chicago Cubs
Though the Cubs cut him during the weekend, Baez was the talk of their camp this March. The No. 9 overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft, Keith Law's No. 7 prospect overall entering 2014 and a 37-homer, 20-steal performer between high Class A and Double-A ball last season, Baez batted .310 (13-for-42) with five home runs in 42 Cactus League plate appearances. He will likely begin the season in Triple-A, where he'll work on polishing his defense and plate discipline, but doesn't this sound a little like Yasiel Puig's story a year ago? Puig, a fellow free swinger with a high ceiling, reached Los Angeles by June and never looked back; Baez could conceivably do the same. He is one of the few prospects currently in the minors who warrants a stash in mixed leagues with more than five bench spots or NL-only leagues of any kind.
What if contact lenses really did improve his hitting prospects? Iannetta finished the 2013 campaign on a high note, batting .271/.370/.514 with five home runs in his final 24 games, and he is off to an encouraging start this spring, most importantly with his 18.9 percent walk and 81.5 percent contact rates, both much improved upon his career 14.2 and 72.7 percent numbers. Remember, he's a player whose strike-zone judgment is key to his success, so any such hints make him a far more attractive No. 2 catcher in deeper mixed leagues or as a possible starter in a 12-team AL-only.
Flaherty is a more powerful hitter than people give him credit; he hit 10 home runs in just 85 games last season, he has hit two in 16 spring games to date, and he had .186 isolated power during his minor league career. His left-handed swing is well crafted to Camden Yards, a good park for power, and he has a wide-open path to regular at-bats at second base with Brian Roberts now in the Bronx. Flaherty should begin the season as the every-day third baseman while Manny Machado mends then shift over to second base if he performs well initially, but consider that a good thing. After all, having him at third and Jonathan Schoop at second base effectively extends their spring training battle into the regular season, so Flaherty will be plenty motivated to perform.
The freshly crowned Rays fifth starter, Odorizzi had an up-and-down spring, his 1.58 WHIP (driven by a 10.7 percent walk rate) as good evidence of that as any. Still, consider the context: He was developing a new pitch, a splitter-changeup, working closely with 2013 standout Alex Cobb, who throws a similar offering that he calls "The Thing." It should have been expected that Odorizzi's numbers would suffer as he adapted to the change. Having watched a few of his outings this spring, I can attest that he threw it effectively at times, but his command overall wavered. He therefore warrants a mulligan for the high WHIP, especially if you consider how important that pitch is to Cobb's arsenal; splitters tend to generate ground ball rates north of 50 percent, and his also gets a healthy share of swings and misses. If Odorizzi, a fly baller with a 31.0 percent ground ball rate in the majors, can boost that rate even as high as 40 to 45 percent, he might hang on to the job and be quite the sleeper.
A.J. Ramos, RP, Miami Marlins
This has been a spring of closer-in-waiting chatter surrounding familiar names like Rex Brothers and Cody Allen, but why isn't Ramos garnering such love? He has three legitimate pitches -- a low-to-mid-90s fastball, slider and changeup -- all of which generate swings and misses and don't result in a wide lefty-righty split, he posted a K rate better than one per inning, and he proved himself a workhorse last season, appearing in 68 games totaling 80 innings. What's more, he begins the 2014 campaign as the primary setup man to Steve Cishek, a closer earning $3.8 million in arbitration; as we know with the Marlins, they are always willing to trade players earning seven figures, especially during their noncompetitive seasons (which this again should be). I think Ramos is one of the five most likely setup men to emerge as closers midyear, but he'll cost you effectively nothing, having lasted until the reserve rounds of the weekend's Tout Wars NL-only (12 teams) auction.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
I plunked a $5 bid on Polanco in the weekend's Tout Wars auction and would openly admit that I probably shouldn't have done it. But with my outfield, I wanted to get a player who has Starling Marte-in-2013 fantasy potential -- and that's referring to his 2014 -- and one whom I project to reach the majors during the season's first half. Polanco did, after all, enjoy a productive winter-ball season, leading the Dominican Winter League in OPS (.922), and he continued his good-contact, speedy ways during his 10 spring games. Even if he struggles to adapt as a hitter initially, he is plenty capable of stealing 40 bases (granted a full season's time, that is).
Tommy La Stella, 2B, Atlanta Braves
That La Stella has hung around in Braves camp for as long as he has speaks volumes about his candidacy at second base, if not on Opening Day than at some point in the 2014 season. He might not be a high-upside prospect, but he has one of the keenest batting eyes of any, having posted 11.1 percent walk and 89.6 percent contact rates during his minor league career, resulting in a .327 batting average and .412 on-base percentage. Besides the fact that Dan Uggla, the Braves' projected starting second baseman, also draws walks, these players couldn't be much more different; La Stella is a batting-average/on-base performer with the ability to steal a few bases while Uggla is a power hitter. La Stella is also left-handed, which could grant him an advantage on a team projected to start five right-handed hitters at their other seven field positions. Smart NL-only owners who settle for Uggla will handcuff him to La Stella in the late rounds. Those in mixed leagues will want to keep tabs on La Stella's performance in the minors, as he would be a low-risk, middle-infield pickup option once promoted.
Mike Olt, 1B, Chicago Cubs
Fantasy owners might not be apt to trust a onetime top prospect who couldn't even earn a big league promotion in 2013, instead struggling to the tune of .197/.302/.368 triple-slash rates with a 30.0 percent strikeout rate, but in Olt's case, there's a reason to cast the entire year's numbers aside. Like Iannetta, Olt was dealing with vision problems. Olt has said this spring that those are now behind him, and his spring performance supports it, as he has hit five home runs in 44 at-bats. Fantasy owners might look at the Cubs' third-base picture, see Luis Valbuena as their short-term solution and Kris Bryant, a prospect with a far higher ceiling, as their long-term solution and figure that Valbuena will merely keep the position warm until Bryant is ready, whether at midseason, in September or in 2015. But Olt could figure in; he's probably their best option right now, and he could buy them a year of seasoning Bryant in the minors.
With news of Chris Herrmann's demotion, Pinto is officially the Twins' backup catcher, which is big news. If he's truly their future behind the plate -- remember that Joe Mauer has been shifted to first base -- how much sense does it make for him to absorb the typical 150-PA season associated with a backup? Frankly, I can't see why Pinto would make the team if he didn't have a legitimate chance at 50 percent of the playing time, if not more, and it's not like Kurt Suzuki is a significant obstacle to his capturing the starter's job (rendering Suzuki that 150-PA caddy). Pinto probably shouldn't be expected to bat .342, as he did during his 21-game, late-season stint in 2013, but his bat is more advanced than his glove at this stage and there's no reason he couldn't manage .280-20 homer numbers if he's granted starter's at-bats.
The danger here is reading too much into Hutchison's spring stats, specifically the Roto-driven departments. The important ones to extract are these: He has whiffed 44 percent of the hitters he has faced (26 percent rate in the minors pre-August 2012 Tommy John surgery) and walked just 3 percent (6 percent during the same minors time frame), the latter hinting at his having recaptured his pre-surgery command, and his fastball has been clocked as high as 94-95 mph, which is actually a tick higher than the 93 mph at which he typically topped out before his operation. The Hutchison of spring 2014 looks a lot like the polished command pitcher of his prospect days, and he has done everything required to make the Blue Jays' rotation. In the American League East, he might require more matchups evaluation than an average pitcher, but he's well worth a final-round AL-only pick.
Tyler Skaggs, SP, Los Angeles Angels
Skaggs' prospect stock dropped in the past calendar year, as he was frequently criticized for diminished velocity, even in the minors, throughout 2013. But, back with his original drafting team this spring, he has returned to the pitching stride he used during his high school and early-Angels days, and with it his fastball has climbed back to its old 94 mph range. Like Odorizzi, Skaggs' spring numbers are disconcerting -- a 6.14 ERA and 1.77 WHIP in four starts -- but he has used his time merely experimenting; the Los Angeles Times recently noted that he has focused on fastball command one outing, curveball and changeup in another. He is expected to make the rotation, though his Monday start might dictate that, and with the adjustments he has made, he is well worth a late-round stash in AL-only formats. After all, he was Keith Law's No. 78 prospect overall three years ago.
The Nationals' recent decision to move Ross Detwiler to the bullpen was a huge plus for Jordan. It whittled their fifth-starter battle down to him and Tanner Roark. Roark might emerge with the role initially on the strength of his 2013 performance, but Jordan is the one with the higher fantasy ceiling. Three of his final six big league starts (he made nine total) were quality starts, and just as he did in the minors, he flashed great control, his walk rate a mere 5.0 percent. What's more, Jordan is at it again this spring: He has 18 K's compared to only one walk out of the 65 batters he has faced.
Sure, this sounds like an easy one because he already has a home run on his 2014 stat sheet (hitting it in the opener in Australia). But Van Slyke belongs here for another reason: He is a hitter worthy of far greater than fifth-outfielder status; he was a .295/.371/.487 career hitter in the minors, underscoring his mix of patience and pop. The only reason he's not garnering more NL-only attention is that he's stuck behind four potential major league-starting outfielders, but at the same time, let's not forget that Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier have endured their share of injuries while Puig is hardly a lock to repeat his 2013 performance. If some at-bats get cleared for an extended period in the L.A. outfield, Van Slyke would warrant a pickup in most every format, and in NL-only leagues, he might be able to sneak in 250 plate appearances or so to round out your roster.