Sleepers: Hitters (2020 Fantasy Baseball)
In most of my articles, I write about how important it is to be aggressive in the draft. Generally speaking, it’s the best time to gain an edge over the rest of your league-mates due to the level playing field.
The key, however, is that “aggressive” now means something entirely different than it did a few months ago. Then, being aggressive could have led to drafting and stashing a prospect to be used in the later portion of the season. Now, there is only the later portion of the season. Which means there is no stashing.
This is the lens through which we will view most of our new plans for fantasy baseball in 2020. Urgency will be at an all-time high and we will prioritize immediate returns over longterm ones, even if the immediate ones fizzle out quicker than we would like.
Targeting sleepers is no longer about what-could-be and is solely about what will happen next. With only 60 games to determine a fantasy baseball season and playoffs, we want exposure to as many of a team’s 60 games as possible. Quantity over quality. Being aggressive, therefore, is about buying into those who should see an uptick in volume and playing time.
Byron Buxton (CF – MIN): ADP 178
Much of this list will focus on players who were already in a great position as a sleeper and have either seen their stocks improve or stabilize. Byron Buxton fits neither mold. He doesn’t gain a boost from the National League designated hitter, nor is his job any more secure than it was in March. Instead, Buxton becomes a sleeper now because we know a 162-game season was almost impossible for him to complete. But, 60 games? He can do that. We’ve seen him do that. Of course, there’s the never-ending risk that he will disappoint us or miss half the season with an injury, but the effects of a cold streak or missing time have been lessened. Instead, we can target his tremendous upside and the invaluable speed he provides. Said speed is even more important as leagues transition from head-to-head to rotisserie formats.
Christian Walker (1B – ARI): ADP 195
Christian Walker was never a risk to lose his job, but the new rules for the 2020 season help solidify it even more. Adding the designated hitter to the National League means that there is one fewer opportunity to remove Walker from the lineup — his 2019 defensive WAR was so negative that it almost wiped out his offensive gains. Walker also has some room to grow as a fantasy asset. He only drove in 86 runs batting in the middle of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ lineup in 2019, and said lineup has only improved in the offseason. Walker now has multiple avenues to deliver.
Alex Verdugo (OF – BOS): ADP 213
If you follow prospects closely, then you know Alex Verdugo has had quite the roller coaster ride prior to the unprecedented 2020 season. Through it all, the one piece of the scouting report that has not wavered is the expectation that he will hit for a high average. We finally saw this at the Major League level when he batted an impressive .294 over 106 games in 2019. His role was never completely solidified, however, and this is why he is now particularly interesting. Being traded from the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Boston Red Sox should do wonders for Verdugo’s playing time and production and, while we can’t expect Mookie Betts-like numbers, we can look for Verdugo to play a similar role. The price to acquire Verdugo remains low, but it’s quite possible that he starts hitting right away — his most recent injury appears to be behind him — and his stock rises dramatically.
Sam Hilliard (OF – COL): ADP 377
Sam Hilliard marks the first of the players I had been heavily targeting in March and find even more valuable now. The shorter season might have put him at risk to lose his job more quickly had he struggled, but he has since gained two new paths for more playing time. Ian Desmond opting out of the 2020 season gives Hilliard one fewer hurdle to receiving regular at-bats, while the addition of the designated hitter to the National League opens up another spot in the starting lineup. Volume will be key for any hitter in 2020, and Hilliard should now see an increase in this key category for the abbreviated season.
Austin Riley (3B/LF – ATL): ADP 327
Like Hilliard, Austin Riley is another former 2020 sleeper whose stock has only risen due to the shortened season. The difference, however, is that Riley has already shown us what he could do in an abbreviated amount of time, and it was nothing short of spectacular. In the first 30 games of his career, Riley hit 11 home runs, drove in 32 runs, and batted .298. That would be half of this year’s Major League Baseball season, as well as a major portion of a head-to-head fantasy baseball regular season. Riley lacks the one element noted in this article’s introduction — a guarantee of playing time — but he makes up for it with another key factor we want in our 2020 targets: the ability to have a hot streak that can carry a fantasy team.
Brendan Rodgers (2B/SS – COL): ADP 465
Like his aforementioned teammate, Brendan Rodgers is the direct beneficiary of the new designated hitter rule as well as the absence of Ian Desmond. Rodgers likely won’t see the DH spot directly, but a crowded Colorado Rockies infield now has a release valve that will open up space for Rodgers. The former top prospect is one of the only unproven players I am targeting for this shortened season, but mainly because we can see immediate returns on our investment, and his stock can soar if he produces early. Most importantly, Rodgers has battled injuries and was already slated to miss the first portion of the season. Delaying baseball until late-July allows Rodgers to heal and fly under-the-radar. We won’t forget about him and his potential.
Robinson Cano (2B – NYM): ADP 279
If we want playing time, then Robinson Cano is our man. Over his 15 year career, Cano has missed a total of 245 games. Granted, more than half of them occurred within the last two seasons, but therein lies the hidden value with Cano. He’s clearly into the stage of his career where it’s likely that he misses games, but he won’t be exposed to a full schedule. Instead, we’ll get regular contributions from a player who can also benefit from the new designated hitter in the National League. Cano provides stability at a position that generally lacks power — even in partial seasons, Cano has never failed to reach double-digit home runs — and won’t lose his job if he struggles for a week or two.
Ryan McMahon (1B/2B/3B – COL): ADP 198
I know, it’s getting ridiculous. A third member of the Colorado Rockies on a list of ten players. Seems incessant? It is. It’s also validated. The same bonuses apply to Ryan McMahon that pushed Hilliard and Rodgers onto the list of sleepers, but McMahon has a longer track record Major League experience. We also continue to get a nice discount on McMahon because of his previous efforts as a sleeper. He was generally a disappointment in 2019 after a breakout was hyped — I was guilty of buying in heavily, as well — but fantasy baseball owners are quick to discard those who have burned them. McMahon, over the entirety of the season, fits this description, but he thrived in a two-month span of July and August, hitting 12 home runs and batting .276. The total amount of games during that time? 48.
Ryan Braun (LF – MIL): ADP 256
When discussing sleepers, so much of the focus is on the young player. The breakouts and bench options who finally have an opportunity for increased volume. This perception pushes veterans out of the sleeper spotlight, but this is exactly why they are undervalued. They are forgotten, even if playing time isn’t a concern. For Ryan Braun, playing time was a concern. His defensive position was not guaranteed, and he has averaged 130.5 games-per-season in the six years since turning 30. That average drops to 124.3 if look at only the last three years. In that same short span, Braun still managed 59 home runs and a .270 batting average, so the skillset hasn’t diminished completely. There is, perhaps, no National League player who stands to benefit from the designated hitter more than Braun, and the boost he will gain — coupled with his low ADP — makes him an ideal sleeper.
Dansby Swanson (SS – ATL): ADP 252
I’m noticing an uptrend in Dansby Swanson’s stock as the offseason creeps into the early portion of summer. The reality is that Swanson is one of the few sleeper candidates who doesn’t gain from the delay of the 2020 season or the new designated hitter rule. He simply is an ideal sleeper for this season because he is on the verge of a breakout. A significant drop in soft hit percentage in 2019 has been my main focal point while driving Swanson’s bandwagon, and we can be grateful that his ADP has remained reasonably low despite it creeping higher over time.
Beyond our fantasy baseball content, be sure to check out our award-winning slate of Fantasy Baseball Tools as you prepare for your draft this season. From our free mock Draft Simulator – which allows you to mock draft against realistic opponents – to our Cheat Sheet Creator – that allows you to combine rankings from 100+ experts into one cheat sheet – we’ve got you covered this fantasy baseball draft season.