Don’t Sleep on These 12 Sleepers for 2017

In fantasy baseball, it is impossible to have all of your teams loaded with the top-tier talent necessary to win every season. Even keeper leagues have players at the top every year who struggle with injuries. You need depth, you need to find a diamond in the rough, and you need to take gambles in order to win. For that reason, you need to know some players who may fly under the radar. This is a list of 12 players who may be available a little later than you think in your baseball drafts who could ruin the lives of your fiercest competitors.

pollock
Pollock should return to All-Star status after missing most of 2016. Courtesy: CBS Sports

A.J. Pollock, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks

Pollock had all of 46 plate appearances in 2016 due to injuries. It isn’t so much that he is a legitimate sleeper as much as how low he may rank on several draft boards due to his extended absence. Remember, this is a guy who hit .315/.367/.498 with 39 doubles, 20 home runs, and 39 steals in 2015. He was the Yang to Paul Goldschmidt‘s Ying, worthy of an early selection last season. Don’t let him fall too far and reap the benefits if he falls into your lap.

Carlos Gomez, OF, Texas Rangers

Gomez struggled so mightily last season that the Houston Astros released him on August 18th. Two days later, Gomez signed with the Texas Rangers and promptly put up the type of line that Houston was looking for during his time there, erupting to a .284/.362/.543 line with eight home runs and 24 RBI in just 33 games – he had five home runs and 29 RBI in 85 games for Houston. He signed for one-year and $11.5 million to prove himself capable of All-Star production in his age-31 season. He is playing in the right place for another offensive outburst.

buxton
Buxton still has the tools that made you fall in love. Don’t run away now. Courtesy: ESPN

Byron Buxton, OF, Minnesota Twins

Buxton has really disappointed a lot of fans and prospect fanatics with a pretty abysmal start to his career. He has struck out 162 times (with just 29 walks) in 469 plate appearances, which has led to a putrid .220/.274/.398 triple-slash in his brief career. While others will look at those numbers and run, you shouldn’t let the prospect fatigue and struggles lead you astray. Look at Buxton’s September from 2016:

Months
G GS PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS TB BAbip
29 29 113 101 24 29 6 2 9 22 1 10 38 .287 .357 .653 1.011 66 .370
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/4/2017.

While the strikeouts are still worrisome, this supposed clone of a young Eric Davis showed power and the abilities that made people drool. He was given the job for the month of September and ran with it, which is downright scary with his speed tool and the BABIP right where most speedsters have theirs. Look for a breakout in 2017.

tomas
Tomas can’t take a walk, but you don’t need to with power. A healthy lineup around him could lead to more power. Courtesy: Peter Gammons

Yasmany Tomas, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks

Tomas was just a part of my story about overpaid Cuban free agents, so why would I have him on a sleeper list, you ask? Because Tomas has some tools that you can’t find everywhere, namely his power. He tore things up in the second half of 2016, posting a .913 OPS, which is impressive for a guy who walked in just 5.5% of his plate appearances. It meant that the 18 bombs in the second half – and 31 overall – could be overlooked due to how ridiculously horrific the Diamondbacks have handled him. With Jake Lamb locked in at third, it appears that Tomas is officially a slugging outfielder, and his numbers could continue to climb with the return of the previously mentioned Pollock to the Arizona lineup.

Hernan Perez, 2B/3B/OF, Milwaukee Brewers

Over his first 351 career plate appearances (2012-2015), Perez was pretty useless, posting a .235/.251/.307 line with 15 doubles, three triples, one homer, and six stolen bases. Then, at age 25, Perez got an opportunity in Milwaukee, and, boy, did he make the most of it. In the second half of the 2016 season, this previously unknown, organizational depth player went on to post a .281/.313/.449 triple-slash with nine home runs, 14 doubles, two triples, and 24, count ’em…24, stolen bases. He’d total 13 bombs and 34 steals on the season, playing third, second, and outfield. While no one knows whether he will put up similar numbers, Perez has some value, even if it is only in deep mixed leagues. That position flexibility is Zobrist-like, while the production isn’t too far off, either. He would be a nice addition in late rounds for depth purposes, though the addition of Travis Shaw at third could lead to Perez being a one-year wonder.

cotton
Did you know who he was before September? Be honest…Keep an eye on him, but don’t go crazy. Courtesy:sacbee.com

Jharel Cotton, RHP, Oakland Athletics

Cotton was a 20th round pick by the Dodgers in 2012, acquired by the A’s in the Rich Hill and Josh Reddick deal last season. He had long had solid numbers in the minors, striking out 10 per 9 IP over the course of 490+ minor league innings. Upon reaching the majors for the first time in September, Cotton posted video game numbers over five starts with a 2.15 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, 23:4 K:BB, and 6 H/9. It is anyone’s guess as to whether the 5’11” right-hander will continue to miss bats at that rate, but you don’t want to be the one who watches someone else benefit from the gamble. He’s penciled in as Oakland’s No. 4 starter, so continue to monitor him this spring.

James Paxton, LHP, Seattle Mariners

If only this guy could stay healthy…which is exactly why he is a sleeper. After making only 20 starts in 2016, Paxton is the type of guy that Brett Anderson would like to be and every other pitcher avoids becoming; however, his final 11 starts were pretty impressive, injury-free, and worthy of fantasy acknowledgment. He posted a 71:9 K:BB over 67.2 innings, a 3.19 ERA and 1.05 WHIP, and a .235 BAA. Seattle made a lot of deals this winter to become contenders, and Paxton could be a “guy” who improves enough or continues to pitch like he did last season, to help make that happen.

Daniel Norris, LHP, Detroit Tigers

Norris had an interesting year, spending a lot of time rebuilding stamina after beating cancer between the 2015 and 2016 season. Upon sticking in the Tigers rotation (from August 9th onward), the young left-hander posted a 3.04 ERA and 55 punchouts in 56.1 innings. While the 1.37 WHIP and 19 walks in the same 56.1 innings is worrisome, Norris has shown the ability to make it work. He will turn just 24 in April and he has to beat Matt Boyd and Mike Pelfrey to earn the No. 5 spot, but, if he wins it, he has the stuff and the teachers (Justin Verlander and Jordan Zimmermann) to learn on the job.

Robbie Ray, LHP, Arizona Diamondbacks

Run in terror if you’d like, but don’t forget to look at the 11.3 K:9 that Ray posted in 2016. That led to a whopping 218 strikeouts in 174.1 innings. Sure, the 4.90 ERA is gross. Sure, the 1.47 WHIP is disgusting. There is something here. You don’t miss that many bats without having great stuff. This will be Ray’s age-25 season and he will take another step forward because he won’t be posting a .355 BABIP in 2017 and he won’t be losing 15 games again if he throws it by so many opposing hitters in 2017. Keep in mind, Ray’s FIP was 3.76 in 2016. Jose Peraza, 2B/OF, Cincinnati Reds

peraza
There could be a lot of this happening in Cincinnati. Courtesy: Getty Images

Jose Peraza, 2B/OF, Cincinnati Reds

Everyone is going to be on the Peraza bandwagon, with valid reasons. When the Reds traded Brandon Phillips (and millions of dollars that “small-market” teams don’t have) to the Atlanta Braves, it made fantasy baseball fans celebrate. Peraza posted a .324/.352/.411 triple-slash and 21 stolen bases in just 72 games and 256 plate appearances. With Peraza and Billy Hamilton around, the Reds could look a lot like the St. Louis Cardinals of the 1980’s, when Vince Coleman and Willie McGee ran wild on the league. They just have to get on base for that to happen, and Peraza has been more of a hit-tool and speed talent than an on-base machine.

Joe Panik, 2B, San Francisco Giants

After getting hit in the head on June 18, Panik battled some concussion symptoms, having played through them by passing concussion protocol through MLB. After the beaning, Panik hit just .215/.305/.346. Prior to that, he was hitting .263/.326/.411. Obviously, there could be something in the Justin Morneau area here that could scare you away from wanting Panik on your fantasy team, but he showed a couple of statistics that would warrant a rebound. Overall, including the times that he was apparently dazed, Panik walked more than he struck out in 2016, while posting career highs in homers (10) and RBI (67). In addition to that, Panik had a woeful .245 BABIP. While the league average is typically around .300, Panik’s was incredibly low. There are always outliers and it appears that Panik was one of them in 2016. Expect a rebound in 2017.

Brandon Finnegan, LHP, Cincinnati Reds

The Reds have a lot of interesting young pitchers. Finnegan was, prior to Anthony DeSclafani‘s return from injury, the only Reds’ pitcher worth owning in fantasy leagues. Like any young pitcher, there were growing pains…lots of them; however, it wasn’t all Finnegan’s fault. The Reds had Finnegan paired with Ramon Cabrera in 12 of his 31 starts and Cabrera was ranked 113th out of 114 catchers in pitch framing. Whether that is something you consider or not, you should know that he should have Devin Mesoraco back there again, barring another injury, in 2017. In addition to the potentially damning battery mate in 2016, Finnegan was able to change something in his approach down the stretch, throwing a changeup more often and posting some ridiculous numbers over his final seven starts: 1.93 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 47:16 K:BB, 37.1 IP, .199 BAA. Sure, the Reds will be one of the worst teams in MLB in 2017…unless they have players like Finnegan continue to grow while on the job. Consider adding him in late rounds and be willing to bail on him if he goes through battles of inconsistency in the middle of the year.

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Cincinnati and Jocketty Continue to Pass the Blame While Failing Their Rebuild

"Yes, I'll take whatever you're offering. I'm on my way out anyway." Courtesy: Redleg Nation
“Yes, I’ll take whatever you’re offering. I’m on my way out anyway.”
Courtesy: Redleg Nation

I spent time in December defending Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips, and it is time to do it again. During the Reds recent caravan, the club’s manager, Bryan Price, dropped this zinger:

“It looks like Brandon is with us. Brandon, for me, is a second baseman of tremendous value and talent, it’s hard to just assign someone else that job. If Brandon’s with us, I expect him to be playing second base.”

Oh? It does appear that the player who the club offered an extension to, giving him 10-and-five rights, is still “stuck” with the club – or is it that the club is “stuck” with him? This, apparently, came after both Walt Jocketty and Price had praised the club’s new, future second baseman, Jose Peraza, who was acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the three-team deal that sent fan favorite Todd Frazier to the Chicago White Sox.

Phillips didn't turn his back on the Reds - it's the other way around Courtesy:datdudebp.com
Phillips didn’t turn his back on the Reds – it’s the other way around
Courtesy:datdudebp.com

Oh? So, the team that has spent the whole offseason trading away their talent for lesser talent is now going to try to make the upcoming 90-plus loss season the fault of a 35-year-old who refused to move away. At one time, that was called loyalty. It was waiting out the horrendous contract that Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin was given to finish his career in Cincinnati, but, now…Phillips is the problem. He’s blocking the super prospect now.

The problem with this thinking, however, is that the Reds acquired a “ready” talent without knowing that they were going to be able to deal the veteran. This is the equivalent of the club dealing for young talent and acquiring the top first base prospect in baseball. Without the designated hitter, the kid would be riding the pine in favor of Joey Votto. So, why are the Reds pinning this stall in the rebuild on a player?

This fiasco is the fault of Walt Jocketty and Walt Jocketty only. Major League Baseball is not the NFL – you don’t need multiple, elite play-makers at a single position. You need to have a steady flow of talent within your minor league system, and you deal a player like Yasmani Grandal when you have a Devin Mesoraco ahead of him for the long-term. That made sense four years ago when the club was dealing young talent for proven talent and acquiring Mat Latos from the Padres. Now, Jocketty has a very unimpressive farm system that has a dearth of offensive producers, even after dealing Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Aroldis Chapman, and Frazier since last July. Jesse Winker is the great hope for the future, and he profiles as a corner outfielder who is going to hit about 15 home runs, and if you think Peraza is the answer…you have that scum Phillips blocking him at second.

The problem continues to be the Baseball Operations side of things in Cincinnati. The organization continues to try to pass the blame elsewhere, but it starts and finishes there. For a positive change in Cincinnati, it is Jocketty who needs to go. Quit with the small-market nonsense. Get someone in there with a plan that can work.

 

2015 Season Previews: Atlanta Braves

Over the next several weeks, The Baseball Haven will be creating season previews for all 30 MLB teams. You’ll find their projected records (based on PECOTA records from Baseball Prospectus, as of 2/15/2015), each team’s top three players (based on Steamer WAR projections from FanGraphs), and some valuable notes on each team, including likely bounce-back candidates, potential breakout players or fantasy sleepers, as well as a look back at offseason transactions which led to each team’s projections. Stop back frequently to see where your favorite team ranks! 

Atlanta Braves

Courtesy: MLB.com
Courtesy: MLB.com

2015 Projected Record: 73-89 (4th in NL East, 26th in MLB)

Manager: Fredi Gonzalez (358-290 in four seasons with Atlanta, 634-569 overall in eight seasons)

Top Three Players: SS Andrelton Simmons (4.1), 1B Freddie Freeman (4.1), Alex Wood (2.3)

Bounce-back Player: LHP Mike Minor

Minor missed some time in the 2014 season due to left shoulder inflammation. The shoulder is a tricky injury to struggle with for pitchers, and Minor struggled, going 6-12 with a 4.77 ERA and 1.44 WHIP over 25 starts and 145.1 innings. He was much more hittable in 2014, which likely has something to do with leaning on his fastball more than ever before. He threw the fastball 61.2 percent of the time (a career-high), while using his change just 8.3 percent of the time (the lowest of his career). Minor has a four pitch mix, using a curve and slider along with the fastball and changeup, so the shoulder issues may have led to some discomfort in mixing his pitches and keeping hitters off-balance. If he is healthy, he could be the same pitcher who posted a 2.90 ERA and 1.02 WHIP over 47 starts (298.1 IP) from July 5, 2012 through the end of the 2013 season, and if that is the case, the Braves have one of the strongest rotations in the National League.

Can Peraza boost the Braves and your fantasy teams? Courtesy: foxsports.com
Can Peraza boost the Braves and your fantasy teams?
Courtesy: foxsports.com

Fantasy Player to Watch: 2B Jose Peraza

Peraza is an interesting fantasy prospect thanks to his speed. He made it to AA last season at the age of 20 and promptly hit .335/.363/.422 over 44 games, while stealing 25 of the 60 that he stole during the entire 2014 season. Atlanta did sign Alberto Callaspo this winter, who could battle Chris Johnson for time at third or Jace Peterson for the Opening Day second base job, but Peraza is the man to watch for the keystone position in Atlanta. He is certainly worth grabbing in dynasty and NL-only leagues due to the potential that he offers with his legs, and he appears to have a similar skill-set to what Luis Castillo brought in his earlier seasons with the Marlins, which likely helped win several fantasy titles. He’s very unlikely to be on the roster when camp breaks, but if he continues to impress in the way that he has since his 2011 debut and the Braves are struggling to find production, this young man could spark the offense.

Offseason Overview: The Braves has a very busy offseason, dealing away more expensive, proven talent for younger, more affordable potential after a disastrous 2014, which saw the team finish 17 games back of Washington in the NL East. Sure, it was good for second place in the weak division, but Atlanta was hoping for more. After re-tooling (and decreasing payroll by approximately $12 million) by dealing Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden to St. Louis for RHP Shelby Miller and RHP prospect Tyrell Jenkins,  shipping Justin Upton to the Padres (along with RHP Aaron Northcraft) for a package of prospects (LHP Max Fried, 3B Dustin Peterson, OF Mallex Smith, and 2B/3B Jace Peterson), and moving C/OF Evan Gattis to Houston (with RHP James Hoyt) for 3B Rio Ruiz, RHP Michael Foltynewicz, and RHP Andrew Thurman, the Braves have stockpiled their system with depth while decreasing payroll. The club did add OF Nick Markakis and OF Jonny Gomes to make up for the loss in offensive output, albeit not nearly as intimidating on paper. However, it wasn’t as if Upton and Heyward had been individually producing at Mike Trout levels, even if it will be hard to replace the 9.6 WAR that they combined to post in 2014 with their new additions. They lost Brandon Beachy, Kris Medlen, and Ervin Santana to free agency from the rotation, but they were able to replace them through the moves or with other candidates, such as the smart minor league contract invites LHP Wandy Rodriguez and LHP Eric Stults. The addition of RHP Jason Grilli to the bullpen in front of RHP Craig Kimbrel shores up the bullpen, especially if he pitches as well as he did for the Angels last season, and especially if he returns to the dominance that he showed in 2013 for the Pirates.

The Verdict: While this may look like a totally different team from the 2014 season, the Braves could be very solid. They will thrive with their pitching and defense, possessing elite-level defenders in Simmons, C Christian Bethancourt, Freeman, and, if he returns to form, B.J Upton (a.k.a. Melvin). The big issue will be their offensive production. By dealing Upton and Heyward, they rid themselves of two players who were set to become free agents after the 2015 season, but Markakis and Gomes really won’t cut it in replacing them. Atlanta must be assuming that there will be further gains for Freddie Freeman, while counting on resurgent seasons from Simmons, 3B Chris Johnson, and Upton. Atlanta may be familiar with having a solid young group of arms, and now with RHP Julio Teheran, RHP Shelby Miller, and LHP Alex Wood at the top of the rotation, there could be reminders of the Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Steve Avery led youthful rotations that once turned into a dynasty. This is exactly how a team that knows what they’re doing spends an offseason. John Hart will look like a genius for the moves that he has made to rebuild the Braves in a couple of seasons, but it would take some pretty impressive breaks for the team to be a .500 team in 2015.