It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2017. The hot stove league is still developing, but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2017 fantasy baseball season.
For the third year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. So far we’ve looked at batting average, WHIP, home run, strikeout, and ERA sleepers. In the sixth installment of the series we’ll be reviewing hitters who could be sleepers for stolen bases. Over 10 weeks, I will be providing a list of sleepers for each 5x5 roto category (BA, HR, RBI, R, SB, W, ERA, WHIP, K, SV). After looking at categories that were more based on player skill over the first five weeks, we shift to categories that are more dependent on opportunity, supporting cast, and batting order spot.
Before reading any further, it’s important to note the definition of a sleeper. In this case, it’s a player who will exceed draft day ADP AND projections in a particular category. The players are broken down by mixed league sleepers and single league sleepers.
Mixed League Sleepers
Byron Buxton, OF, Twins
Here’s an excuse to mention Buxton, the former No. 1 prospect in baseball. For the most part, Buxton has been overmatched through his first two seasons of major league work. That was particularly the case in 2015, when he hit just .209-2-6 with 6/44 BB/K over 138 plate appearances. He broke camp with Minnesota last season and was arguably worse, hitting .156 with 2/24 BB/K in April. He made little progress while going up and down between Minnesota and Rochester until September. During that month, Buxton hit .287-9-22 in 29 games.
While Buxton swiped only one base during his huge September, it’s encouraging enough that he finally started to hit major league pitching. The poor performance in the majors hasn’t impacted Buxton in the minors, hitting .305-11-24 in 209 plate appearances last season, though his strikeout rate has spiked with 58 strikeouts at Triple-A last season. Regardless of whether the poor contact rate impacts Buxton’s batting average in the majors, it looks like he could be finally here to stay. He swiped 17 bases between Triple-A and the majors last season, 24 in 2015, and has stolen as many as 55 bases in a season as a minor leaguer. The Brian Dozier trade rumors also remain significant, as Buxton could move up to the leadoff spot if Dozier is finally moved. If Buxton can stick around the majors for all of 2017, 20 steals is probably his floor.
Manuel Margot, OF, Padres
San Diego is in clear rebuilding mode, and is expected to give Margot a long look in spring training and onward. The top center field prospect got a taste of the majors in September after hitting .304-6-55 with 30 steals in 124 games at Triple-A El Paso. That marked the third straight season that he’s reached 30 steals in the minors. There’s optimism about Margot’s batting average due to his strong contact rate, fanning only 64 times in 566 plate appearances last season at El Paso.
Even in rebuilding mode, the Padres currently have a crowded outfield that includes Margot, Travis Jankowski, Hunter Renfroe, and Alex Dickerson. Both Jankowski and Dickerson came on during the second half of last season, while Renfroe is arguably a better prospect than Margot. Still, Margot should see plenty of playing time in the majors as long as he holds serve during spring training, and he will likely get significant work as a leadoff man, as he did late last season. A 25-plus stolen base estimate is fair in his rookie season.
Roman Quinn, OF, Phillies
Philadelphia continues to rebuild their farm system, and isn’t lacking bodies in the outfield. A converted shortstop, Quinn could have a future as a regular in Philadelphia’s outfield sooner than later. He performed well in 15 games of work with the Phils late last season, hitting .263 with a .373 on-base percentage and five steals. Up to that point, Quinn hit .287-6-25 with 31 steals in 322 plate appearances at hitter-friendly Double-A Reading. He’s swiped at least 29 bases in five straight minor league seasons, and has also cumulatively hit .295 at Reading over the last two years.
Despite being one level lower in the minors last season, Quinn could be set to jump fellow outfield prospect Nick Williams for a regular job in the majors after Williams struggled with his plate discipline at Triple-A Lehigh Valley last season (19/136 BB/K). Quinn has the defense and speed to make an immediate impact for the Phils, even if his bat doesn’t show up early in 2017. The Phillies added Howie Kendrick this offseason to play the outfield, but still have a relatively weak cast of characters to compete for the final starting right field job that also includes Aaron Altherr and Tyler Goeddel. Unless the Phillies add another option this offseason, Quinn has an excellent shot to see regular at-bats and add cheap steals.
Bradley Zimmer, OF, Indians
Cleveland already added Edwin Encarnacion as a big ticket item this offseason, but don’t underestimate the impact that top prospect Zimmer could make in 2017. He hit .250-15-62 with 77 walks and 38 steals between Double- and Triple-A last season after swiping 44 bases between High-A and Double-A in 2015. Zimmer’s contact rate has declined as he’s move up the minors, but it’s clear that the offensive tools and batting average make him a top fantasy prospect going forward.
Zimmer’s contact rate has declined as he’s move up the minors, and he seemed overmatched at Triple-A last season with 56 strikeouts in only 150 plate appearances. Given those struggles, it would be surprising if Zimmer is able to break camp with the Indians. Still, Lonnie Chisenhall hasn’t exactly been an immoveable force in right field, and Zimmer is superior defensively. When Zimmer does arrive, the Indians seem likely to bury him at the bottom of the order as he gets his feet wet, but he’s a clear leadoff man in the making and possible fantasy star. It’s fair to expect a June arrival and 20-plus steals in 2017.
Single League Sleepers
Adam Engel, OF, White Sox
Engel has been garnering more supporters since tearing apart the Arizona Fall League in 2015, when he hit .403 with 10 steals and a 1.165 OPS. At age 24, he spent last season at three minor league levels and hit .259-7-46 with 45 steals and a .344 on-base percentage. The outfielder had swiped 64 bases at High-A in 2015, and has consistently been a top base stealer in the minors during his pro career.
The White Sox rebuild provides a major opportunity for Engel. After trading Adam Eaton, center field is open on the South Side, and Engel could enter the conversation for the role despite only 41 games at Triple-A last season. Engel clearly profiles best in center field, and is currently penciled in to battle Rymer Liriano and Charlie Tilson (see below). Chicago does have some preferable leadoff prospects like Tim Anderson at Yoan Moncada, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if Engel gets a look in that spot should he win a starting role. Even off the bench, Engel is a threat to swipe 20-plus bases.
Zach Granite, OF, Twins
Granite put himself on the radar with an outstanding 2016 season at Double-A Chattanooga, hitting .295 with 56 steals and 42/43 BB/K in 584 plate appearances. He was added to the Twins 40-man roster following the regular season, gaining more consideration on the organizational depth chart. That’s saying a lot in an organization that’s loaded with outfield depth, including Buxton, Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario, Robbie Grossman, Daniel Palka, and Danny Santana.
It’s the outfield depth that makes Granite very unlikely to break camp with the Twins, but an injury or two could change things. Granite profiles best as a fifth outfielder due to his lack of power, though the outstanding contact rate and speed does make him interesting as a player with Ben Revere upside. For now, the best bet is an arrival sometime around the All-Star break with the hope 15-plus steals.
Mallex Smith, OF, Braves
Most fantasy owners know all about Smith following his arrival last season, but his stock is down after the Braves signed Ender Inciarte to a long-term contract last week. Smith enters the season as Atlanta’s fourth outfielder, at best, behind Inciarte, Nick Markakis, and Matt Kemp. He missed most of last season with a fractured thumb, but did swipe 16 bases in 24 attempts over 72 games when he was healthy.
The pessimism regarding Smith’s playing time and last year’s poor batting average could prevent him from being drafted in some NL-only leagues, but his upside makes that a mistake. Smith was one of the truly elite minor league leadoff candidates before his promotion, hitting .303 with 56 steals between Double- and Triple-A in 2015 and .310 with 88 steals between Low-A and High-A in 2014. Last year’s poor hitting stats are also somewhat deceiving, as Smith hit .295/.365/.453 against right-handed pitching. Currently, regular playing time looks difficult, but Smith has the ability to earn playing time if his prowess against right-handed pitchers continues. There’s still clear 40-plus steal upside for a regular, and Smith has the talent to be owned on all fantasy rosters if he ever gets regular playing time.
Charlie Tilson, OF, White Sox
White Sox prospect Adam Engel was mentioned above as a competitor for the White Sox center field job, and Tilson is also in the conversation. A former second-round pick by the Cardinals, Tilson was acquired at last year’s trade deadline for Zach Duke. He doesn’t have as much speed as the aforementioned Engel, but Tilson has been a more consistent hitter in the minors. He hit .283-4-34 with 15 steals in 395 plate appearances at Triple-A Memphis last season after hitting .295-4-32 with 46 steals at Double-A Springfield in 2015. Those 46 steals do look like an outlier in his minor league career, but Tilson has still been a consistent double-digit base stealer.
Tilson’s full year at Triple-A could give him the edge in the center field competition ahead of Engel, but both players should have an opportunity to win the job in spring training. Regardless of who wins, the White Sox are likely to give both outfielders significant work this season considering the team’s limited enthusiasm with Avisail Garcia in the outfield. Tilson has 20 steal upside for a small price.