Another year, another sleeper list. If you’re like me, you devour these rankings like no other fantasy baseball info. I’m naming my guys, the ones who will inevitably be scattered about my rosters on four or five different fantasy teams. These are the players I consider underrated and underpriced. The utility of each pick will vary based on the competitiveness of your league, of course.
1. Josh Willingham: He’s probably not going to slip through the cracks in an NL-only league. As the Marlins’ primary catcher, Willingham could smack 20 home runs if he gets 450 at-bats. There’s a small chance he spends some time in left field as well. He’s not the Marlins’ most powerful prospect (Mike Jacobs) or their most patient (Jeremy Hermida). But a .324/.455/.676 line in Triple-A Albuquerque tells me he’s Major League ready. (Although it is a hitters’ park). The only wild card is his batting average—can he hit .270 or better in the bigs?
2. Scott Baker: Francisco Liriano turns heads and draws Johan Santana comparisons. But it’s Baker who resembles Mike Mussina and Doug Drabek. It’s Baker who posted a 3.35 ERA in 53 innings last year, and who is the clear frontrunner for the fifth starter job in Minnesota. He’s capable of a sub-3.60 ERA, a WHIP near 1.20, and double digit wins. His strikeouts won’t amaze you, but he could easily outpitch heavily hyped guys like Jeremy Bonderman and Daniel Cabrera. His ceiling is a little lower than those two, so he’s more of a win-now type sleeper.
3. Kenji Johjima: Johjima is the first Japanese catcher to try his hand at the Majors. I think Bavasi made a spectacular signing for the Mariners. Translations of his Japanese stats show he’s capable of hitting .290 with more than 15 home runs. We won’t know for sure until he actually plays the games. Johjima should be durable and productive—leverage the unknown and grab him for a few bucks. Could easily be a top five catcher in 2006.
4. Jose Valverde: A health risk to be sure, but many top closers are. I don’t think Valverde’s abilities are fully respected – he can post a sub-3 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and over 30 saves. I’d certainly take him over Armando Benitez. Another point in his favor is that the Diamondbacks have few comparable pitchers who could replace him. They’ll need Miguel Batista in the rotation.
5. Mark Ellis: Was 2005 his ceiling as a hitter? I vote no. He never hit below .279 in any full month, and really stepped it up after the All Star break. Hitting 10 home runs in August and September alone leads me to believe Ellis may have 20 home run potential. He only had 434 at-bats last year, so more playing time should boost his counting stats if he stays healthy. His ceiling is a top five second baseman.
6. Doug Davis: Many bidders will recognize Davis’s 200 strikeout potential. He’s been durable recently, making 69 starts over the past two seasons. His control will need to be refined to keep his WHIP below 1.30. The reason Davis is underrated in some circles is that he’s gone 23-23 over the past two seasons. It’s easy to imagine his luck turning and resulting in a 15-16 win season with a 3.60 ERA and 210 strikeouts. Could be a top 20 starter in 2006.
7. Jason Schmidt: Schmidt is a risky play, but I think he’ll bounce back in a big way. His strikeout rate, while reduced, is still healthy. With a return to full health, Schmidt should bring his walks back down to an acceptable level. I see another ace season for Schmidt in his contract year. He should be a $22 pitcher and may come at a discount.
8. Matt Holliday: I’m not sure whether Holliday is approaching the Bonderman Paradox. He’s everyone’s favorite sleeper, and now he may be required to hit .310-30-100 with 15 steals for you to turn a profit. Regardless, he’s still the cleanup hitter for the Rockies and could post a $24 season. He could edge out Andruw Jones, Hideki Matsui, and Lance Berkman. Don’t get carried away bidding, but acknowledge Holliday’s potential to break out.
9. Willy Taveras: His playing time in question, Taveras is a gamble that could pay off. If Bagwell bows out, Taveras can maintain his full-timer status and rack up over 600 at-bats. In his second time around the league, he’s capable of stealing 60 bags. That’s pretty much all he’s good for, but he should come cheaper than Scott Podsednik.
10. Ben Sheets: A strained back muscle and last year’s serious dizzy spells will be enough to keep many owners away from Sheets. I don’t blame them. But the situation may make him a bargain, and Sheets may well pitch more than 200 dominant innings this season. Picking him is high risk/high reward, which is the kind of move that wins championships.
11. Chad Tracy: Was 2005 an outlier or a new level of performance? With four powerful months out of six, I’d lean toward the latter. He’s a safe bet to hit .300 and should qualify at third base after a week this season. He’ll be bumped to third in the order, which will result in more RBI opportunities and runs scored. Has the potential to be a top 10 third baseman this season.
12. Jon Lieber: Lieber and his ilk don’t get proper respect in most fantasy leagues. Liebs can give you a lot of innings, a very good WHIP, and 15 wins. His ERA is just as likely to be 3.80 as it is to be 4.20. He can be an $11 value that gets drafted way behind less reliable, flashier pitchers.
13. Jonny Gomes: Just by virtue of playing time, Gomes should be on target for 30 home run. He mashed 21 of them in 377 at-bats last year as a rookie. He’s more likely to hit .260 than .280, but Gomes can still be a $16 outfielder. He’ll probably steal double digit bases and be drafted after Aubrey Huff.
15. J.D. Drew: Drew has had a good spring after having his shoulder surgirically cleaned up last September. You can’t really lump last year’s broken wrist in with his other maladies. Drew can easily come back with 450-500 very valuable at-bats. He’s one of the game’s best hitters when he’s on the field. He could hit .300 with more than 25 home runs even in a shortened season. I’d definitely take a flier on him for anything less than $10, and if he does hit the disabled list you can work the waiver wire.
16. Magglio Ordonez: Another injury rebound value pick. Mags worked hard this offseason and claims to be at 100% after 2005′s hernia surgery. If true, Ordonez could hit .310 with 25 home run and 100 RBIs in ’06. His supporting cast is a little stronger, and he should be worth at least $14 this year.
17. Ryan Madson: The Phils could use him in the pen as insurance for Tom Gordon, but they really need him in the rotation. 12 solid spring innings should lead into a respectable ’06. A 3.70 ERA/1.20 WHIP may be in the cards, and he’ll pick up strikeouts too.
18. Ian Kinsler: With the Rangers’ starting second base job all but locked up, Kinsler becomes a valuable fantasy player. He may be able to hit 20 home runs and knock in 70 RBIs, while contending for AL Rookie of the Year. A sub-.260 batting average could keep him out of the top 15 second basemen, but he’s worth a look for a buck or two.
19. Scot Shields: We all know the value of Shields’s vulture wins and the helpful 90 innings. The reason he’s a value pick is that a lot of fantasy players underestimate K-Rod’s chances of injury. Rodriguez is a major risk this year, and Shields could step in and save 20 games.
20. Justin Verlander: The young stud is not exactly a secret, but people may not realize the damage he can inflict as a rookie. I have him posting a sub-3.50 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and 125 strikeouts in 165 innings. Seems to have the inside track for the fifth starter job despite a fairly rocky spring.