Sleepers Outside of the Top-200 (2020 Fantasy Baseball)
When drafting, the goal is almost always to find players who will collectively outperform their current value. Simply put, if everyone on the roster contributes more than expected, the entire team will rise accordingly.
Of course, it’s easier said than done. But it’s not because of the expectations — either reached or missed. It’s because of the misunderstanding of value.
We can have value in the first round, although it’s less likely and more difficult to find. We certainly know we can have value in the middle rounds, as many argue that it’s the portion of the draft where leagues are won and lost, but there is no denying that the later rounds are critical solely because of value.
If we draft a player 350th overall, it’s extremely likely that, if the said player were a complete bust, our team would not suffer too dramatically. But if the same player turns into a top-100 asset by season’s end, we will have covered countless inevitable holes in our roster that appeared from other players’ failures.
This is the central theme of all “deep sleeper” strategies. The risk is so low with players in this range that they are essentially replaceable as soon as the season begins. With that, we can target ten players — and one bonus name, for good measure — based on their upside, whether extreme or needing only the smallest of improvements in order to trend in the right direction. Players’ average draft positions (ADPs) are from FantasyPros’ handy ADP indexing tool.
Sandy Alcantara (SP – MIA): 248.7 ADP
At only 24 years old, Sandy Alcantara has already had quite the roller coaster of a career. He had been a top prospect for the Cardinals before holding the same honor with the Marlins, but, despite already making Major League appearances in 2017 and 2018, finally had a full season’s worth of starts in 2019. The results were, in a word, inconclusive. His strikeout rate was low, as it was the tenth-worst among all pitchers with at least 150 innings, and his walk rate was high, as it came in at the sixth-worst with the same parameters, and both his FIP and xFIP were higher than his ERA. The numbers read more “bad” than “inconclusive.” Why, then, should we make the argument in his favor? Probably because Alcantara is only 24 years old, has a spot in the rotation, and just pitched 197.1 innings in 2019. The volume is there with room to grow for each of Alcantara’s contributing factors. Any improvement in just one — e.g., lowering his walk rate, or the Marlins winning a few more games — will return outstanding value on the cheap investment.
Brendan McKay (SP – TB): 259.7 ADP
I’ll admit that the two-way nature of Brendan McKay gave me pause about his development, but the explosive steps he took has now erased all concerns — and the label of “two-way player.” McKay is a pitcher, and a good one. Especially on a per-inning basis, which is where we are most likely going to reap the rewards. McKay has averaged double-digit strikeouts-per-nine-innings at every level except the twenty innings of Short-Season ball, where he averaged 9.45. The strikeouts aren’t going anywhere. And, if we compare his 5.14 ERA to his 4.03 FIP and 4.38 xFIP, it’s reasonable to expect a positive correction in 2020. The only limiting factor will be his innings, although he did throw 122.1 over three levels in 2019 and could see a more full-time workload. More realistically, pencil McKay in for a half-season — roughly 100 innings and 16 starts — and be pleasantly pleased if he gives you more.
Miguel Andujar (3B/UT – NYY): 261.8 ADP
Miguel Andujar has two things going against him heading into the 2020 season. The first is his health. In addition to missing nearly the entire 2019 season, Andujar is simply a risk of a slow return to form. It isn’t always immediate, and we are taking a chance if we blindly pretend that Andujar won’t miss a beat. The second negative is the New York Yankees’ dedication to Gio Urshela. Urshela deserved every bit of praise he received by season’s end, and his stellar defense compared to Andujar’s liability makes the third base position an open-and-closed case, so Urshela’s excellent season leaves Andujar without a position. As a result, the Yankees are already tinkering with Andujar finding another spot in the field — which, to us fantasy owners, actually increases his value. The good news for Andujar is that his calling card has always been his bat. If he does trend back toward his impressive rookie campaign, then he’ll clear both hurdles and deliver a massive return on a small investment.
Mitch Keller (SP – PIT): 276 ADP
It may sound crazy, but we could not have asked for a better Major League debut from Mitch Keller. Why? Because his 7.13 ERA is so obscene that it will scare off potential fantasy owners. In fact, it already has, hence his appearance on this list. But, if we peel back one layer past the ERA, we would see that he still had stellar numbers in three key categories: FIP, xFIP, and strikeout rate. If we couple all that with his former status as a top pitching prospect, there is no reason why Keller wouldn’t emerge as one of the league’s best mid-tier pitchers likely to fall just short of playing a full season. In fact, he’s probably the player whose ADP is going to rise fastest as the season approaches, and more people realize how much of a gem he could be.
Austin Riley (3B, OF – ATL): 278.7 ADP
Let’s acknowledge one obvious result of Austin Riley’s 2019 season: he was always going to regress. It’s an important realization and one that cannot be taken lightly. Put it in a box, keep it next to you as you continue reading, and be prepared to return to it later. In May, upon Riley’s call-up to the Atlanta Braves, he hit a robust .356. Most notably, he slugged seven home runs and drove in 20 runs. Take a glance at the box we set aside earlier and then to your calculator. Let’s do some quick math. From that 15-game sample size, if we project it over 150 games — so, we’re technically rounding down — this would leave Riley with 70 home runs and 200 runs batted in. Seventy and two hundred. Now, open that box. What’s it say inside? That’s right, “Austin Riley was always going to regress.” Riley is getting penalized for regressing too violently — the .132 batting average in September is obviously a problem — but it costs almost nothing to take a flier on a player who has succeeded at the Major League level. There’s little harm and everything to gain.
Dylan Bundy (SP – LAA): 301 ADP
It’s no secret that the Los Angeles Angels have needed pitching for quite some time. The first step the Angels took in addressing said need was to acquire Dylan Bundy from the Baltimore Orioles. On the surface, Bundy’s move from the perennial 100-loss Orioles to the more respectable Angels gives him an immediate upgrade in the win category. But he should also contribute elsewhere. Bundy averages a strikeout per inning, and his ability to stay on the mound has led to at least 160 innings and 28 starts in each of the last three years. He also suffered from a high rate of home runs per fly ball in back-to-back seasons, but he did so while preserving a decent ground ball rate. Baltimore ranked last in the league in defensive runs saved, so the move to Los Angeles can help in more than just wins. In “deep sleeper” territory, Bundy might not shine, but he is certainly poised to outperform his comparable draft-mates.
Reynaldo Lopez (SP – CWS): 304.3 ADP
Reynaldo Lopez is not going to be a ‘sleeper’ for much longer. Before Opening Day, we can expect the hype to build as more people realize just how perfect Lopez is set up to thrive in 2020, compared to the uphill battle that was 2019. That’s all because of the addition of catcher Yasmani Grandal to the Chicago White Sox. Grandal’s offensive numbers generally tell his story, but the often overlooked element of his game is his incredible ability to “steal strikes” from borderline pitches — he’s third-best, according to Baseball Savant. But the upside for Lopez is even stronger when we highlight that last year’s catcher, James McCann, ranked dead last in the same category. Chicago’s other catcher, Wellington Castillo, ranked seventh-worst. The presence of Grandal alone is enough to project a season in which Lopez outperforms his extremely low ADP, with the added bonus that many fantasy owners have already given up hope for a turnaround.
Sam Hilliard (OF – COL): 316.7 ADP
Whenever Colorado’s Coors Field is part of the discussion, we always see a battle of perception versus reality. Pitchers are downgraded, hitters are upgraded, and said modifiers are assigned both during and after games played in Colorado. But another side effect of the hitter-haven is that some batters get overlooked because of the raised expectations. Enter Sam Hilliard. Hilliard had been a decent prospect for the Colorado Rockies, but he sat firmly behind the top choices of Brendan Rodgers and Garrett Hampson, as well as the young-and-projectable David Dahl and Ryan McMahon. Injuries and ineffectiveness to those ahead of Hilliard gave the outfielder a chance in 2019, and he didn’t disappoint. Seven home runs, four doubles, two stolen bases, and a .273 batting average over 27 games was enough of a debut that Hilliard is now slotted as one of the team’s starting outfielders. Even if he doesn’t scale up his numbers over a full 162 games, the playing time is now there for a hitter who will get the benefit of Coors Field.
Robinson Cano (2B – NYM): 318.5 ADP
As we see on a constant basis, it’s not easy for baseball players to stay healthy. Robinson Cano had been the exception. For a full decade, he missed a total of 26 games. If we include the eleventh season, then he played at least 150 games every year. The longevity finally caught up to Cano, as he could not play more than 107 games in either. It was inevitable. But, we can now look at Cano as someone who can increase his performance, even if only for one season. If we couple the positive regression toward his mean numbers — at least, games played — with the position scarcity of second base, Cano provides tremendous value in the later rounds.
Willians Astudillo (C, 1B, 2B – MIN): 372 ADP
In the heat of the moment, it’s usually best to have a “short memory.” But, in fantasy baseball, there is often value in thinking long-term — and looking back to where a player was in the public eye. Take Willians Astudillo, for example. Whether in the form of GIFs or witty write-ups, Astudillo’s highlights are always on display. This helped build the hype around the catcher-eligible fantasy asset going into 2019. And then he failed us. Simply put, the disappointment he caused fantasy owners will push Astudillo down the ADP list, but it is currently at a point where we can buy with little risk. Astudillo won’t give you much outside of batting average — and even that is tied to his playing time, which is no guarantee — but his greatest asset remains eligibility at catcher, where he won’t cripple most fantasy lineups. That is unless on-base percentage is in-play, in which case Astudillo takes a further hit.
Wander Franco (SS – TB): 486.3 ADP
This list wouldn’t be complete without giving one specific bonus name, although it’s admittedly more out of obligation than validity. Wander Franco has all the makings of the next great hitter, and every report points to him contributing immediately. “Immediately,” however, does not mean “now.” The Tampa Bay Rays are one of the most forward-thinking franchises in the sport, and they obsess over every piece of value they can get. For that reason, it is inconceivable to think that Wander Franco will be with a Major League team at any point this year. This is why he isn’t part of the main list. He simply cannot be expected to accrue fantasy points in 2020. But because of his otherworldly talent, it’s too dangerous to ignore the possibility of “maybe.” Someone will almost certainly take a chance with Franco in most leagues. If it’s you, just know that the odds are not in your favor.