Sleepers Outside the Top 300 (2021 Fantasy Baseball)
Fantasy managers obsess about the early rounds of their draft, and rightfully so. Although you can’t win your league in your first few rounds, you can, without question, lose it.
But few managers pay close enough attention to the end of their drafts. By that point, most love their starting lineup and are exhausted from the hours of concentrating on each pick and choosing just the right smack talk to get under their leaguemates’ skin. And yet, a fantasy manager’s last few picks may be the most consequential.
Although the quality of the available talent pool obviously isn’t quite as high, there are plenty of players being drafted outside the top 300 in average draft position who have the potential to make a major fantasy impact in 2021. Here are a few of my favorite sleepers going in that range:
Jeimer Candelario (3B – DET) – ADP: 315
Candelario isn’t going to wow you with his numbers, but he’ll bat in the middle of the Tigers’ order, has eligibility at first and third base, and improved his quality of contact greatly last year. Indeed, his 47.1% hard-hit rate, 90.2 miles per hour average exit velocity, and 10.3% barrel rate last year were all well above the major league average.
If you want to write off his .297/.369/.503 slash line last year as the product of a small sample size, you can. But I’m more apt to look at it as the natural development from a 26-year-old who has always had a 20-homer bat. A player’s spot in the batting order is highly correlated with his runs and RBI totals, and a player like Candelario, who should bat fourth this year, gets a natural bump, even in Detroit. He’s an ideal bench player with multi-position eligibility who can fill in whenever you’re dealing with an injury.
Alejandro Kirk (C – TOR) – ADP: 320
Kirk doesn’t have your classic build for a catcher, or a major league baseball player at all, in fact. He’s 5’9 and 265 pounds and looks like he could run through a wall if you needed him to. But there is zero doubt about his bat, and I stress zero. The young man can flat out hit.
He is a career .315 hitter in the minors with a .418 OBP and .918 OPS. In his nine-game cup of coffee last year in the majors, he slashed .375/.400/.583. Despite those nine games being the first he has played above High-A ball, he looked absolutely comfortable at the plate.
Kirk’s problem is, particularly with the Blue Jays’ acquisitions this offseason, there is scant room for him to play. He’s not a particularly strong defensive catcher, and there are two others on the roster – Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire – who are. And with Toronto’s signing of George Springer and Marcus Semien, the suddenly “open” designated hitter spot becomes a bit cloudier.
With the latest developments, Kirk is likely to begin the year in Triple-A. But his bat is so powerful that he’s unlikely to remain there for long. Life will find a way for Kirk, and if you wait on a catcher, he’s an ideal selection.
Although Dylan Floro is still considered in the mix for the Miami closer role, it’s pretty clear that either Bass or Garcia will be the primary stopper for Miami. As such, both make fine sleeper picks going well outside the top 300.
Over the last two seasons, Bass has notched 12 saves for the Blue Jays while putting up a 3.54 ERA and 0.99 WHIP over that span. His sinker-slider combination works extremely well, and although he doesn’t rack up high strikeout numbers, he induces ground balls with the best of them (62.3% ground ball rate last year).
García is a different pitcher than Bass, and his skill set may be more suited to the role. He struck out 31.7% of hitters last year and had just a 0.80 ERA. He’s also been outstanding at limiting baserunners, as he has just a 0.98 WHIP for his career.
One of these two is almost certainly going to be the primary closer for Miami and one of the cheapest sources of saves available. And because Don Mattingly will almost certainly name his closer before Opening Day, you’ll know whether you’ve capitalized on a late-round pick or whether you can move on immediately. Either is an ideal pick given his ADP.
Drew Smyly (SP – ATL) – ADP: 372
Smyly’s average draft position of 372 is really all about his health. He’s totaled a respectable 4.13 ERA (which is consistent with his FIP and xFIP), a 1.26 WHIP, and roughly a strikeout per inning in his career.
Last year, however, Smyly was a different pitcher over an admittedly small sample size of 26 1/3 innings with the Giants. Smyly totaled a 3.42 ERA, a 1.10 WHIP, and a 37.8% strikeout rate in 2020.
And everything under the hood supported those results. His barrel rate against and wOBA allowed were among the best in baseball. And his fastball velocity averaged 93.8 miles per hour, more than two miles per hour faster than what he has averaged in his career. Moreover, he leaned far more into his curveball, throwing it 36% of the time, and it was an elite pitch (22.4% swinging strike rate against it).
In short, you can dismiss Smyly’s 2020 numbers as the product of a small sample size, but there were tangible changes he made that suggests his results were real. And the Braves bought into it enough to offer him an $11 million deal, which should give fantasy managers confidence.
So, to reiterate: Smyly’s ADP of 372 is really all about his health. There’s not all that much else to be concerned about.
Griffin Canning (SP – LAA) – ADP: 382
Canning is simply an excellent pitcher who has the raw stuff to succeed in the majors. He had a 3.41 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings in his minor league career.
His numbers in the big leagues to this point aren’t quite as pristine. He’s gone 7-9 with a 4.36 ERA, a 1.28 WHIP, and a 9.3 K/9 rate in two seasons.
But there are reasons to think Canning’s stock is on the rise. Specifically, his splits from last season:
- First 6 starts: 4.88 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 9.9% SwStr%, 7.5 K/9, 5.76 FIP
- Final 5 starts: 3.14 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 14.5% SwStr%, 10.4 K/9, 2.99 FIP
Notably, Canning’s slider was much better in his final five starts and considering he had received a platelet-rich plasma injection in his elbow in March. There’s every reason to think his slow start with the pitch was due merely to his recovering health and perhaps his hesitation to let loose.
Like Smyly, Canning’s health is a huge issue. But, so long as he’s healthy, he’s likely to produce, making him a fine selection at pick 382.
Mitch Keller (SP – PIT) – ADP: 387
I largely throw out Keller’s numbers in the majors so far because, well, they’re ridiculous. He was the unluckiest pitcher in the game in 2019, when he had a 7.13 ERA and a 1.83 WHIP despite having a FIP of 3.19, an xFIP of 3.47, and a strikeout rate of 12.19 per nine innings with a walk rate of three per nine innings.
And he was the luckiest pitcher in the game in 2020, when he had a 2.91 ERA and 1.25 WHIP despite a 6.75 FIP, a 6.57 xFIP.,a strikeout rate of 6.65 per nine innings and a walk rate of 7.48 per nine innings.
Instead, I look at his minor league career, in which he put up a 3.12 ERA, a 1.16 WHIP, a 9.4 K/9 rate, and a 2.8 BB/9 rate. And I look at his excellent raw stuff, which includes a mid-90s fastball, an above-average slider and curveball, and excellent control.
He’s not going to win many games with the Pirates, but there’s also no reason for them to ever think of removing him from the rotation if he struggles, given that they’re not likely to be in contention. He should be useful against some soft NL Central offenses if he can just have normal luck for a change.
Willie Calhoun (OF – TEX) – ADP: 395
On a recent FantasyPros Baseball Podcast episode, Joe Pisapia discussed how Calhoun was one of his favorite late-round picks. And I agreed wholeheartedly.
Calhoun has had a weird career. He’s been a heralded prospect for what feels like forever but could never stick with the Rangers. The team often subtly criticized his weight and fielding. Rather than let that define his career, Calhoun dedicated himself to improving his defense and becoming fitter. He had a breakout 2019 season (.269/.323/.524 with 21 home runs), despite battling a hamstring injury.
But his 2020 season was derailed after he was hit in the face with a pitch in spring training and fractured his jaw. Although he recovered enough to play during the season, he did little (.190/.231/.260), and Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News detailed how certain off-the-field concerns impacted Calhoun’s play last year.
But Calhoun is back, ready to contribute and pick up where he left off in 2019. There’s a bit of a roster crunch in Texas; it’s true. David Dahl, Joey Gallo, and Leody Taveras are slated for the outfield, while Khris Davis will take at-bats at DH. But if Calhoun hits in spring training, he will find his way into the lineup. And his minor league track record and 2019 performance suggest he will. At nearly pick 400, he’s an absolute bargain.
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