With the calendar flipping to March, baseball season is go. Say your favorite football player’s name out loud. Did you do it? Good. You are not allowed to mention his name or the name of any other football player, let alone the word “football,” for the next six months. This isn’t ESPN. This is the Hardball Times and we eat, drink and sleep baseball. It’s our time to shine.
First things first. Before you start doing draft day diligence, make sure to stretch. Just ask Adam Wainwright‘s trainer: don’t throw a curveball just yet. You don’t want to tear a draft muscle. What does this mean? It means before you start tallying your sleepers, figuring out who you are going to buy, who is over/underrated, etc., you need to hop on to Mock Draft Central, Yahoo, ESPN or whatever service you prefer and do a few mock drafts/auctions. Chances are your sleeper is a popular sleeper, and that you’ve overlooked a strong pick or two.
More importantly, by becoming familiar with the preseason market, you can understand which known commodities are getting overlooked (“de facto sleepers,” like Cole Hamels last year), and which young players and other “sleepers” are getting entirely too much hype to justify the rookie risk (e.g., Chris Davis, vintage 2009). I can promise you that none of those popular young players you like so much—Mike Stanton, Jason Heyward, or Jeremy Hellickson to name a few—are going to go cheap this season. The same can probably be said of last year’s group of guys who “the peripherals said they underperformed their potential!” like James Shields, Jay Bruce or even Carlos Pena.
Same goes with Jose Bautista, whom we fantasy and real-life baseball writers have been touting as some blend of “the real deal” and “Brady Anderson.” No, these guys are known, and they will cost at least the value of the risk. To find the real sleepers, you need to dig deeper. You need to find this year’s Colby Lewises, Gio Gonzalezes and Drew Stubbses.
Before we get to the analysis, you may want to review the results from The Hardball Times pre-preseason mock draft from late January. Everyone who participated in the draft, which featured fantasy writers from around the internet, spent an incredible amount of time participating in a post-draft write-up explaining why they picked who they did where and why (I say why twice, because there is a lot of good analysis in these articles). You can find the write-up analysis in eight parts: Rounds 1-3 || Rounds 4-6 || Rounds 7-9 || Rounds 10-12 || Rounds 13-16 || Rounds 17-19 || Rounds 20-22 || Rounds 23-25
The Waiver Wire series will kick into full gear in April, but Josh Shepardson and I felt it appropriate to do at least one preseason Waiver Wire article addressing some real sleepers and strong cheap buys. This article focuses exclusively on names outside the top 200 index, per Mock Draft Central’s most up-to-date average draft position (“ADP”) report (the report extensively covers all draft data from MDC from Feb. 10-24). These are the players most likely to turn a profit in 2011. If a player goes any sooner than pick No. 200, he’s not a true sleeper, even if he is relatively undervalued, no matter how small a record of success he has in the majors.
Below, you will find data relating to both MDC index (indexed draft ranking, or IDR) and the earliest position the player went over the sample period (EDP). You can find a comparison of MDC rankings to those of Yahoo and ESPN over at RotoAuthority (I compiled the data to the best of my ability, but there are a few missing rankings for ESPN players). The players’ 2010 stats and 2011 Oliver projections are also listed. If I missed a sleeper listed in my rankings comparison chart (again, see RotoAuthority for that information), feel free to sound off in the comments below! All data are current through March 16.
Freddie Freeman | Atlanta | 1B | 44 percent Yahoo ownership
MDC IDR: 283 | MDC EDP: 213
2010 Stats: .167/.167/.333
Oliver 2011: .272/.329/.438
Oliver has a reputation for being one of the best systems at projecting young players based on minor league data, but I think the system is a bit too bearish on Freddie Freeman’s immediate potential. Freeman’s 24-plate appearance cup of coffee in 2010 was quite dull, but but he absolutely raked in last season, hitting .320/.378/.522 over 517 PA. Freeman is not a super-powerful or super-walking first basemen of the early 2000s mold, but he is everything James Loney owners could have ever wished for and an entirely underrated corner infield option for mixed leagues and fringe first base option for stars-and-scrubs auctioneers.
Oliver projects the 22-year old Freeman as capable of a .290-plus batting average with 20-plus home run capability in the next few seasons, but it seems odd that Freeman, who has little left to prove in Triple-A and will open the season as the Braves’ starting first baseman, would be projected to underwhelm in the immediate future. I know I said this about Justin Smoak last year, but I expect a 2008 Derrek Lee like campaign out of Freeman this year. I have Freeman pegged for a .285-plus batting average, about 20 home runs, and 80 or more runs/RBI if batting out of the middle of Atlanta’s lackluster offense.
Atlanta’s going to win with pitching and defense this year, but Freeman could still do some worthwhile damage batting around Heyward (the J-Hey kid) and Brian McCann. Think of him as the consolation prize for losing out on Ike Davis
Ike Davis | Mets | 1B | 69 percent Yahoo ownership
MDC IDR: 201 | MDC EDP: 166
2010 Stats: .277/.365/.477
Oliver 2011: .255/.329/.423
Speaking of Ike Davis, baseball’s latest bat in the not evil part of New York is brilliantly under-appreciated. Though he may not be as young as Freeman or possess the batting average upside (Davis is more of a mid-to-high .270s-type hitter), Davis projects to be a more powerful, more short-term polished hitter who is more certain to bat behind a deeper pool of hitting talent out of the sixth spot of the Mets’ meshugana lineup. I expect a .277 batting average with 24 or more home runs and 100 RBI potential. Bill James thinks he will perform likewise, albeit with a slightly higher batting average (.283).
Now, Citi Field is not a preferable place in fantasy for your hitters to call home, but it is no Petco Park or Busch Stadium. The Mets have lowered the home run walls’ height in the past year or so and David Wright was able to effectively rekindle his power stroke in 2010. Do not necessarily discount Mets talent for the park (that includes Jason Bay, whom I have pegged for a nice bounce back campaign). Davis, like Freeman, should make a strong late-game corner infield option and fringe starting fantasy first baseman.
Danny Espinosa | Nationals | 2B | 5 percent Yahoo ownership
MDC IDR: 376 | MDC EDP: 221
2010 Stats: .214/.27/.447.
Oliver 2011: .231/.294/.389
Don’t let Oliver’s rate stat projections fool you with respect to Espinosa. They do not tell the story of his tantalizing power/speed combination. Despite a high strikeout rate (his career strikeout rate between both the minors and majors is upwards of 22 percent) that will surely keep his batting average in Adam Dunn territory, Espinosa has accrued 46 career home runs and 56 career stolen bases in only 1,317 plate appearances between the major and minor leagues. Over the course of a 600-plate appearance season (approximately 150 games played), that prorates to a 21/25 season.
Oliver has Espinosa projected for a 17/15 campaign over 599 plate appearances. Second base is not necessarily a shallow position, especially considering I have Kelly Johnson, whom I like, ranked just outside the top 10, but Espinosa offers, if you can anchor his batting average, the kind of 20/20 production which is rare amongst big league players, let alone middle infielders. As a bonus, Espinosa may get some playing time throughout the season at shortstop (such as when Ian Desmond gets days off, , in which case Espinosa becomes that much more enticing. Mark my words, Espinosa will make a top 15 second basemen this year, with top 10 upside. In a world where batting average risks like Mark Reynolds and Carlos Pena get $10-15 bids, you should absolutely consider filling your middle infield position by taking a cheap flier on Espinosa.
Chase Headley | Padres | 3B | 19 percent Yahoo ownership
MDC IDR: 266 | MDC EDP: 191
2010 Stats: .264/.327/.375
Oliver 2011: .253/.324/.378
Headley is underrated. He’s not going to light the world on fire, with a batting average that is likely to sit between .260 and .275, but has 15/15 potential that makes him an effective late round $1-2 flier to fill out the corner infield. Heck, if a 12/12 shortstop like Mike Aviles is valuable, there is no reason to disregard Chase Headley.
Neil Walker | Pirates | 2B, 3B | 84 percent Yahoo ownership
MDC IDR: 251 | MDC EDP: 153
2010 Stats: .296/.349/.462
Oliver 2011: .257/.305/.424
Is this former top pick a late bloomer or extended flash-in-the-pan? Walker’s combined 18 home runs and 12 stolen bases between Triple-A and the major leagues last season (659 PA) was solid, especially for a middle-infield eligible player, as was his combined .303 batting average (.296 batting average in the majors). Underlying this all, however, is a .340 major league batting average on balls in play that is well above his expected .315 mark. If we adjust Walker’s 2010 triple slash line to reflect his expected BABIP, graciously assuming that all subtracted hits would have been singles, we get a .276/.331/.443 (.774 OPS) production line that is well below his actual .811 OPS last season. That’s above average for the major leagues, but below average for fantasy.
Even assuming that Walker is 15/10 capable (Oliver pegs him for a 13/7 campaign) over a full season of play, a .270s batting average is hardly inspiring for a middle infielder when you consider that Johnson, my No. 12 rated second basemen, is projected to outperform that in his sleep. Factor the Pirates’ relatively anemic offense into the equation, and you can understand why I was hesitant to barely rank Walker (No. 15) as a top 15 second basemen. Still, for NL-only leagues, Walker could make a solid late-round second base filler if you can allocate that money to upgrade elsewhere. I suppose you could do worse at middle infield as well. Let someone else pay for him (Yahoo has him ranked No. 149 overall); Walker’s an anti-sleeper.
Dexter Fowler | Colorado | OF | 43 percent Yahoo ownership
MDC IDR: 224 | MDC EDP: 178
2010 Stats: .260/.347/.410
Oliver 2011: .272/.353/.420
Free Dexter Fowler! Free Dexter Fowler! That’s the chant you heard repeatedly in 2009 and 2010, and in 2011, it seems that manager Jim Tracy is finally going to give in. Dexter Fowler is currently projected to bat leadoff for the Rockies on Opening Day (and the whole season, if all goes well), and his blend of strong on-base skills (career .351 OBP, 11.8 percent walk rate) and speed (career 7.2 speed score) should lead to a 30-stolen base, 100 runs scored campaign if he’s given a full season’s worth of playing time.
If a little BABIP-luck falls Fowler’s way as well, he could also post a solid batting average. Though Fowler strikes out about a quarter of the time, a bit high for a hitter with average power, he drives the ball very well, averaging a 21.1 percent line drive clip for his career. Speaking of power, 25-year-old Fowler’s career isolated power mark of .141, trending up every every season, could yield 10-15 home runs in 2011 as he enters his peak growth years (age 25-26) when you further consider that half of his games are played at Coors Field. Fowler has always been a trendy breakout pick who has never gotten the chance, but 2011 seems to be his year. Forget Eric Young Jr.’s tantalizing, but empty stolen base potential. It’s Fowler’s time to shine, baby!
Jhoulys Chacin | Colorado | SP, RP | 74 percent Yahoo ownership
MDC IDR: 235 | MDC EDP: 168
2010 Stats: 3.28 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 9.04 K/9, 2.26 K/BB
Oliver 2011: 3.98 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 1.95 K/BB
In terms of talent, Chacin is today what Ubaldo Jimenez was just a few year ago—a heavy groundball pitcher (46.6 percent last season) with high strikeout tendencies (career 11.0 percent swinging strike rate over 148.1 major league innings) and a propensity for liberally issuing hall passes to the players he’s teaching to revere his sick slider/curveball combo. Oliver’s 2011 projection for Chacin seems a bit strange, as its 2012 projection for him is a 3.62 ERA, a 1.26 WHIP and a 7.8 K/9 — a talent level Oliver projects to improve upon through 2016 (3.51 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 7.9 K/9).
Pair together Chacin’s strong swinging strike rate and resulting major league strikeouts (138 over 137.1 innings pitched) with the above information, and you have a breakout candidate. Others have taken notice, as evidenced by the 74 percent ownership rate, but Chacin is still going way too low given his tantalizing upside. I have Chacin ranked as the No. 32 overall pitcher for fantasy this season, but could see him ending up as a solid No. 2 starting pitcher by season’s end. Just to give you some idea of value, Madison Bumgarner, whom I rank as the No. 30 pitcher overall, is going almost 100 picks earlier (144 IDR, 113 EDP).
Mike Minor | Atlanta | SP | 12 percent Yahoo ownership
MDC IDR: 250 | MDC EDP: 209
2010 Stats: 5.98 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 9.52 K/9, 3.91 K/BB
Oliver 2011: 3.98 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 2.11 K/BB
Despite Minor’s 40-inning results in the majors last season (5.98 ERA, 1.57 WHIP), he struck out 23.2 percent of the batters he faced, while walking fewer than 6 percent. At 34.9 percent, Minor’s groundball rate is on par with such flyball percentage leaders such as Javier Vazquez, Scott Baker, Matt Garza, Phil Hughes and Daniel Hudson). That groundball rate is a bit low for my preference, but Minor does not pitch in Yankee Stadium, Chase Field, or even my beloved Wrigley and yet (most of) these pitchers get plenty of love on draft day, despite Minor possessing better strikeout stuff and having better command.
Minor’s FIP (3.77) and xFIP (3.86) were pretty similar last season and are better indicators of what he’s more likely capable of in 2011 compared to 2010. Minor’s 2010 Double-A MLE comes out to a 3.93 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. I own Minor in basically all of my leagues, shallow and deep alike, and Minor, having a solid spring, looks poised to edge Brandon Beechy (another pitcher I like) for the Braves’ fifth starter spot. Acquire accordingly.
Note: Beachy’s been elected the fifth starter in place of Mike Minor. Though an inferior pitcher in talent, Beachy should post equally strong numbers out of the Braves rotation, notching a mid-to-high 3′s ERA, a mid-to-high 1.2-something WHIP, and a K/9 around or just below 8.0. Make sure you are #GoingToTheBeach this summer or you’ll surely regret it.
Carlos Zambrano | Atlanta | SP, RP | 73 percent Yahoo ownership
MDC IDR: 261 | MDC EDP: 200
2010 Stats: 3.33 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 8.12 K/9, 1.70 K/BB
Oliver 2011: 4.04 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 1.85 K/BB
Say what you will about his temper, his love of Red Bull, and his unfliching hatred of Gatorade, bananas, his teammates, etc., but Big Z has never posted an ERA of even 4.00 in his entire career. Zambrano’s WHIPs have been ugly over the past two years (1.38 in 2009, 1.45 in 2010), but his WHIPs routinely ranged between 1.15 and 1.33 between 2003 and 2008 and could return to that form in 2011.
Why? For starters, Big Z’s strikeout rate has returned above the 8.0 mark over the past two seasons after dipping to 7.4 and 6.2 between 2007 and 2008. Furthermore, his FIP has tumbled down considerably in recent years (3.61 in 2009, 3.71 in 2010) after routinely sitting in the low-mid 4′s between 2006 and 2008. On the flip side, his xFIPs have not been particularly pretty since 2005, but Zambrano’s nonetheless outperformed his xFIP for his career. If you love Matt Cain and believe that certain pitchers can consistently outperform their peripherals, then Big Z is your sleeper. Little known fact: Carlos Zambrano was the best pitcher after Aug. 9 last year, closing the season with a 1.41 ERA, a 60:26 K/BB and 1.00 WHIP over his final 11 starts (70.1 innings pitched). If you can stomach the WHIP risk, consider saving a few dollars and grabbing Big Z late.
Tim Stauffer | Atlanta | SP, RP | 47 percent Yahoo ownership
MDC IDR: 318 | MDC EDP: 214
2010 Stats: 1.85 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 6.64 K/9, 2.54 K/BB
Oliver 2011: 3.58, 1.27 WHIP, 6.1 K/9, 1.97 K/BB
I have a friend who has a theory that you can win pitching by exclusively drafting NL West pitchers, particularly those who play for the Padres. I do not know how much I buy in to that theory, though there is some credence to it, but Tim Stauffer certainly fits the bill of an underrated arm whose home park and infield defense bolster strong groundball tendencies, solid walk rates, and poor strikeout stuff.
Stauffer is far from an ace, but he’s the NL’s answer to Dallas Braden. With an offense that was already anemic before they traded Adrian Gonzalez, the Padres did little to hgelp it in the offseason. Hence, wins, like strikeouts, may be a bit of an issue for Stauffer. However, as a spot starter or ratio stabilizer, Stauffer could provide much value for owners in 2011, especially if you pair him with quality relief arms who can offset the strikeout rate concern with innings-pitched caps like Luke Gregerson and Hong-Chih Kuo.
Other entirely underrated starters that just missed out on the “outside the top 200 list” include Ted Lilly (192 IDR, 132 EDP, will he ever get the elite WHIP props he deserves?), Jordan Zimmerman (199 IDR, 171 EDP, the post-surgery velocity checks out, the K’s are there, the walk rate is solid, and it’s been 18-plus months since he underwent Tommy John surgery), and Jorge de la Rosa (188 IDR, 166 EDP, if the walks stay in check, his blend of heavy K’s and worm-burners will play well even in Coors Field—think De La Rosa’s pre-injury numbers in 2010 or second half of 2009). Also keep an eye on Travis Wood (282 IDR, 231 EDP, set to open the year as the Reds’ fifth starter, but health has never been a staple of the Reds’ rotation since Dusty Baker took over) and Mike Leake (309 IDR, 318 EDP (no, that’s not a typo; ADPs just cluster in the high 200s), Leake is set to finally take a ride through the Reds’ minor league system after 138.1 solid innings of major league experience last season).
In addition to the above starters, here are some undervalued relievers who could get you solid ratios and a chance at some saves. Quality relievers are an underrated asset in fantasy:
- Craig Kimbrel (232 IDR, 160 EDP): Granted, he pitched 20.2 innings last season, but his 17.4 K/9 mark eclipsed Carlos Marmol‘s ridiculous 16.0 mark last season. Ignore the spring training kinks; this guy’s elite, even if splitting ninth inning duties with Jonny Venters.
- Luke Gregerson (446 IDR, 334 EDP): Even projected for a mere five wins and three saves, Gregerson rates as an $8-10 pitcher thanks to his superior ERA, K/9, and WHIP projections. His 3.04 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, and elite 9.5 K/9 Oliver projections are slightly better than the projections for Rafael Soriano and second to only Mike Adams (2.88 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 9.1 K/9) and Hong-Chih Kuo (2.71 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 9.8 K/9) among non-closer relievers. Of these four pitchers, Gregerson is the most likely to sneak by for $1 due to his low probability of accruing saves.
- Hong-Chih Kuo (338 IDR, 234 EDP): Speaking of Kuo, if you’ve got $2-3 lying around during the end of the draft, want strong ratios and feel good buying the short stock for Jonathan Broxton, Kuo is your man. When healthy, Kuo is basically Joakim Soria without the saves.
- Ryan Madson (444 IDR, 373 EDP): With Brad Lidge‘s health questionable, Madson—not Jose Contreras, despite Charlie Manual’s ambiguous statements—is the arm to speculate on. As a bonus, Madson is a quality reliever who will help stabilize some of your questionable late-round starting pitcher gambles (e.g., Brandon Morrow, whose walk rate I expect to implode this year. Side rant: Morrow’s BB/9 fell despite throwing fewer first-pitch strikes in the second half of the season).
- Matt Capps (273 IDR, 208 EDP): If healthy and capable, Joe Nathan will be the Twins closer for 2011. However, Ron Gardenhire has made it clear that he is not going to just hand Nathan the job on Opening Day. This means Capps could poach a bellyful of saves during April, and while Nathan has been saying his arm feels fine, his velocity is reportedly down a tick or two and he imploded against the Phillies this week. I’m not going to say Capps is sure to close at the beginning of the season, but for $1, you could do a whole lot worse than a projected 3.77 ERA and 1.23 WHIP.
- Also keep an eye on Leo Nunez (295 IDR, 185 EDP) and Brandon Lyon (264 IDR, 203 EDP). Both, particularly Nunez and his newly minted slider, should provide great late-round closer value in all formats.