Firstly, disregard the creepy title—I am not watching you literally. Hell, I’m not even referring to you. It’s my original rendering of the tired “Love/Hate” titling. And for what it’s worth, I’m only in the business of loving in this column.
Secondly, let me explain myself a bit here. I, like every fantasy analyst in the world, have a list of players I like to breakout, outperform expectations, steal a job, jump a tier, etc. I am conscious that once you see plenty of “Sleeper” and “Love” lists, you’ll either knowingly or unknowingly catch on to names that appear regularly. A Bryan LaHair, let’s say. So, at risk of throwing 10 or so names at you that you’ve already heard, targeted, and perhaps drafted, I will divulge my favorite players, some sleepier than even I would like.
But, let’s see if I can’t spin it a little differently. I’ll give three reasons for each players—whether they be a managerial change, a home ballpark alteration, a minor league breakout or what not, I’ll stick to three for each—in hopes that it sticks in your head a little better than a whole lot of stats thrown at you. Which isn’t to say I won’t throw stats at you. And these guys widely vary in their draft-ability; maybe they’ll fit in certain formats, or maybe they’re a one-size-fits-all.
So, you ready? My eyes are on…
Frank Francisco because he’s a cheap closer who switched leagues and secretly has a top-notch strikeout rate.
Yes, Frankie has never topped a quarter-century in the saves category, and yes, he’s as injury prone as anyone, but his strikeout rate – his personal low in three years – was among the top 40 in the league for qualified relievers. He bested Sean Marshall, Daniel Bard, Mike Adams, Joakim Soria, Drew Storen, Brian Wilson, Mariano Rivera, and Jose Valverde, for illustration’s sake, and while his home-run rate gives me a bit of pause, a switch to the NL could offset the new fences in Citi Field. He’s currently the 35th reliever off the board per Mock Draft Central, meaning Mark Melancon and noted set-up man Francisco Rodriguez are being taken ahead of a much worthier Francisco. Oh, the disgust!
Mike Moustakas because he broke out in September like his top-prospect status dictated he would, and because third base is shallow.
Let me pose a question. What’s a realistic expectation for Kevin Youkilis? 22 homers and 86 runs batted in, coupled with a .278 batting average? Now tell me what you think Mike Moustakas can do. How about 18 homers and 81 runs batted in with a .264 batting average, the Oliver projection. Factor in the injury risks—which is to say Youk’s injury risks—and the average draft positions—Youk’s is 85 and Moustakas’ is 218—and you have yourself a steal. Moose broke out to a fine tune in September and has real power upside (high line-drive rate, mid-range fly-ball percentage) without high strikeout tendencies, leading me to believe his batting average upside is higher even. I’d be thrilled to draft him in the 200s.
Marco Scutaro because he moved to a hitter’s heaven and has a full-time gig at a top-heavy position.
Say you miss on Troy Tulowitzki in the first round. Say you then miss on Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes in the second round. By the time the fourth round rolls through, Elvis Andrus and Starlin Castro are off the board. If your faith isn’t in Asdrubal Cabrera, then why not wait ‘till the last round to snag Marco Scutaro for a buck? Scutaro has double-digit steal and homer upside, especially in the high-flying Coors Field, and can challenge for .300 like he did last year. I’d highly advise him even in mixed leagues.
Mat Gamel because he’s finally getting his chance to shine after another monster showing at Triple-A and because he qualifies at a scarce position in some leagues.
Mat Gamel is now a first baseman, but carries third base eligibility in ESPN leagues still. Mat Gamel has 25 home run power. Mat Gamel finally has a starting gig. Read more about him here, and do yourself a favor and spend one of your last dollars on him.
Cory Luebke because he has elite ratio stats and the friendliest of home parks yet is still masquerading as a fourth starter in many drafts.
Luebke broke out big time last year; striking out nearly 10 per nine innings, while putting up elite triple-slash numbers and equally elite WHIP numbers. So why isn’t he a top 20 pitcher? The Padres are inept on offense, as you may well know. Luebke’s strikeout rate is a bit suspect, as it far outpaced his minor league totals, so a dip will likely be in order. And perhaps there’s a little bit of bias because he wasn’t a prospect with much pedigree and didn’t impress in his first major league cup of tea. Sleeping on Luebke would be a mistake—and though he is among the first 40 pitchers taken… barely—he could serve as a number two pitcher on a perfectly fine pitching staff. After all, his fastball was fifth in value among pitchers with 100+ innings, and his slider was a plus pitch as well.
Bryan LaHair because he can be had for a buck despite his minor-league home run rampage that led to a starting gig in 2012.
LaHair nearly hit 40 homers in Triple-A last year, and the 29-year-old journeyman thusly enters 2012 with the starting first base gig on the Cubs. Though I see Anthony Rizzo as legitimate competition midseason for playing time, the fact of the matter is that LaHair will have several months, in my estimation, to prove his worth on the major league club. He was 55 percent better than league average in Triple-A, and has shown a good eye at the dish throughout his minor-league journey. 20 home runs is a legitimate expectation, and considering the lack of risk associated with a late-round pick on LaHair, he seems like a perfect lottery ticket.
Shawn Tolleson because he registered a sub-zero FIP in A ball and is on the cusp of the majors, armed with elite strikeout potential in the late innings.
Sean who? Hear me out: I can imagine at least one scenario in which Kenley Jansen is injured as per usual, while Javy Guerra chokes like his minor-league numbers suggest he one day should/will, and the Dodgers are left with no clear-cut ninth inning option. Enter Shawn Tolleson in my hypothetical, he whose strikeout-per-nine has been between 11.1 and 19.8 in what is a storied minor league career. He might start the year at Triple-A or in the Dodgers bullpen, but either way, he could end up with a large role by season’s end, and perhaps could vulture a couple of saves in a dreamy scenario. Deep NL-Only owners take note, and keeper leaguers do the same. He could be a sneaky value pick in at least one category.
Nolan Arenado because he will occupy a scarce position in a fun home park after a likely major league promotion by midsummer and notable minor league track record of mashing.
A power hitting third base prospect—of top 10 status, no less—playing half his games at Coors Field. How’s that for a hook? Arenado has yet to play at Double-A yet is considered a near-lock for a summer call-up, which is a testament both to Colorado’s lack of depth at the hot corner as well as the kid’s raw talent. His Major League Equivalency projections, courtesy of The Hardball Times’ Oliver forecasts, have Arenado down for 19 homers and 74 runs batted in in 469 at-bats, and he has yet to play an at-bat in the high minors. Talent is on his side, management is on his side, and his form of competition is Casey Blake, who is old and injury-prone. Look for Arenado sometime around June or July unless the strugglin’ is mighty in Double-A, which is an unlikely scenario in my estimation.
Henderson Alvarez because he’ll cost a mere dollar, despite his pinpoint control and impressive cup of coffee in the majors last year.
A 5.0 K/BB is impressive, but such a ratio that features a 5.65 K/9 is all the more impressive. Alvarez surrendered a mere eight walks in his 63 innings last year, while mixing a 93 mile per hour fastball, a slider nearly 10 miles per hour slower, and a sneaky good changeup. The projection systems don’t like Alvarez because he has little minor league dominance—rather, he has his trademark top notch K/BB ratio. His swinging strike percentage is due for a jump, though, and his home run rate is due for a drop, so a 3.50 ERA is a realistic projection. Match that with his 1.13 WHIP last year and you have a mid-range starter, snagged for a single Washington.