It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates. We’re barely into the offseason, but it’s a great time to start discussing some players to watch as we look toward 2016.
For the second year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. Over the next 10 weeks, I will be providing a list of sleepers per each category (BA, HR, RBI, R, SB, W, ERA, WHIP, K, SV). Since the hot stove league still has a long way to go this offseason, for the next few weeks we will focus on players in categories that are less based on opportunity and more based on skill. Other roto categories that are more dependent on opportunity, supporting cast, and batting order spot (R, RBI, SB) or team and manager (W, SV) will be discussed in the latter half of the 10-week series.
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.
Keep in mind that the list below is more breakout home run hitters than rebound candidates.
Mixed League Sleepers
Jedd Gyorko, 2B/SS, Cardinals
On paper, it looks like Gyorko’s playing time will be cut after being traded from the Padres to the Cardinals for Jon Jay last week. However, that might not be the case if we judge GM John Mozeliak’s words. Gyorko has shown the ability to play three infield positions, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he got time in the outfield during spring training to help his versatility for the Cards.
There’s no question Gyorko will spell Kolten Wong vs. lefties after Wong produced a .552 OPS vs. southpaws last season, and it’s not impossible that Gyorko could challenge for regular at-bats. Wong hit only .238-2-24 in the second half of the season, while Gyorko hit .259-13-43 in 70 games after the break.
Keep in mind that Busch Stadium has played almost as poorly for right-handed power as PETCO Park recently, but Gyorko has averaged 22 home runs per 162 games over his career and is now just entering his prime. Gyorko was also an accomplished minor league hitter, hitting .318-67-270 over 1,436 at-bats during his minor league career, including three 20-plus home run seasons. He enters the year as more of an inseason pick up than a draftable player in 12-team leagues, though the addition of shortstop eligibility after playing 29 games at the position last season does help his cause.
A.J. Reed, 1B, Astros
If you’re looking for a game changer and top Rookie of the Year candidate, look no further than Reed. The 2014 second-round pick had an incredible season between High-A and Double-A, hitting .340-34-127 in 135 games. After putting an end to Chris Carter’s time in Houston this offseason, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow said the first base job is Jon Singleton’s to lose. That’s quite a bit of confidence for a playoff team to put in a player who has hit only .171 in 357 career at-bats and effectively failed in the same situation last spring. It’s premature to give up on Singleton, but the Astros can enter spring training with this situation because of their first baseman-in-waiting.
Reed has emerged as an elite hitting prospect, and arguably the best in baseball. While some scouts have questioned whether he can hit for average in the majors, the minor league stats at age 22 speak for themselves. If the Astros do enter the spring with their first base situation unchanged, Reed should have the opportunity to win the first base job in spring training and certainly looks like a 30-plus home run hitter in the making.
Domingo Santana, OF, Brewers
Santana has shown rare tape measure power as a pro, yet he’s never been especially hyped as a prospect while coming up in the deep Astros farm system. Baseball America ranked him as Houston’s 10th best prospect last offseason, behind such names as Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers.
He responded by hitting 20-plus home runs for the third time as a pro in 2015, and eight of his 26 home runs came in the majors. Sent to Milwaukee in the Carlos Gomez trade, Santana hit a robust .333-18-77 in only 354 at-bats at Triple-A last season. While his mediocre contact rate is a concern for his batting average, Santana’s power looks like it’s for real and the Brewers seemed willing to play him in center field with 23 games at the position. Despite their status as a team in rebuilding mode, the Brewers have an impressive and powerful outfield between Santana, Ryan Braun, and Khris Davis. The team could provide plenty of at-bats for Santana to work out the kinks in 2016, and he’s capable of 20-plus homers if you’re willing to stomach a likely sub-par batting average.
Trevor Story, SS, Rockies
It wasn’t a question of if Story should be on a sleepers list, but which 5x5 category list to put him on. Story is Colorado’s best upper minors hitting prospect, and seems ready to contribute after a breakout 2015 season that saw him hit .279-20-80 with 23 steals between Double-A and Triple-A. He held his own in 61 games at Triple-A Albuquerque, albeit a major hitter’s atmosphere, but he has the best major league home hitting environment in his near future.
Story is a former first-round pick who has hit double-digit home runs in four consecutive seasons, capped up by last season. There is currently a major obstacle for playing time at shortstop in Colorado with Jose Reyes, but Reyes’ status is up in the air after he was charged with domestic abuse in October. It also should be noted that Story has seen significant time at second base and third base in the minors, with the organization previously thinking he’d emerge behind Troy Tulowitzki. With the Rockies in rebuilding mode, it seems likely that Story will see regular playing time if he impresses in the spring. Given his five-tool talent, Story is one of the more exciting Rookie of the Year candidates as he embarks on a career at Coors Field.
Preston Tucker, OF, Astros
Fantasy owners caught a glimpse of Tucker in 2015, and he performed well with 13 home runs in 300 at-bats. After adding Carlos Gomez, however, Tucker sat for much of the second half and was even sent down to Triple-A briefly. Adding 11 homers in only 33 games at Triple-A Fresno last season, Tucker has now hit at least 24 home runs in three consecutive seasons as a pro.
Tucker hit right-handed pitching more than well enough to earn additional playing this season, producing an .802 OPS and all 13 of his homers against them. Unfortunately, the Astros outfield is currently full after Colby Rasmus accepted Houston’s qualifying offer. As a result, Tucker looks like the team’s fourth outfielder enter the season, though it’s notable that all three of Houston’s starting outfielders have seen the DL recently. Tucker is highly capable of helping with home runs if he can find regular playing time, and that scenario seems likely sometime in 2016.
Single League Sleepers
Derek Dietrich, 3B/OF, Marlins
Dietrich’s power isn’t a secret with 24 home runs in 623 career major league at-bats. Though, it’s his recent progress that makes him so enticing for NL-only owners. He produced an impressive .864 OPS in 238 plate appearances vs. right-handed pitching last season, and saw more playing time in the second half of the season with Miami’s roster ailing.
An extreme flyball hitter, Dietrich’s flyball-hitting tendencies are also becoming more pronounced, with a flyball rate that increased by five percent last year. Dietrich ranked 33rd in flyball percentage among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances last season, and his recent offensive production could lead to more opportunities between the outfield, third base, and second base. It’s also worth noting the relative weakness of the Marlins bench, already behind the eight ball offensively after re-signing 42-year-old Ichiro Suzuki. Granted, there’s plenty of time in the offseason for Miami to upgrade their bench, but Dietrich’s opportunity to reach 15 homers and perhaps even see regular playing time is promising.
Trey Mancini, 1B, Orioles
With a thin first base market in free agency, Baltimore could be looking at options within at first base after pulling their offer to Chris Davis. One of their best options in Mancini, a 2013 eighth-round pick who had a breakout 2015 season. Playing between High-A and Double-A, Mancini hit .341-21-89, producing an OPS that was more than 200 points higher than his 2014 performance.
In this case, it will be all about opportunity for Mancini. If these comments are any indication, chances are good that he’ll at least get a look in spring training. Keep in mind that Camden Yards does play better than average for power from right-handed hitters, so that improves his prospects even more. In the event the O’s don’t add first base competition this offseason, they’ll likely put Mancini head-to-head vs. fellow prospect Christian Walker in spring training. Walker has a full year of Triple-A under his belt, but he hit only .257-18-74 with a .748 OPS. This situation is worth tracking closely this offseason.
Tom Murphy, C, Rockies
It would be a stretch to say Colorado added Nick Hundley last offseason to keep the catcher seat warm for Murphy, but that’s the situation now. Murphy had a terrific 2015 season, hitting .256-20-63 in 394 at-bats between Double-A and Triple-A, and adding three more homers for the Rockies in September. With well-regarded defense, it’s only a matter of time before Murphy is playing regularly.
The question really becomes how quickly the Rox want to move with Murphy. He played 33 games at Triple-A last season, and really held his own, albeit in an extreme hitter’s park. Most fantasy baseball owners learn early on that rostering Rockies hitters is a no-brainer, and Murphy has two 20 home run minor league seasons under his belt. Hundley did perform admirably well last season, but he’s been a sub-par hitter away from Coors Field and is entering the final year of his contract. Murphy should be at least worthy of second catcher duty in NL-only leagues, with the upside to be a top 10 player at the position in all leagues in 2016 if he can garner regular playing time.
Peter O’Brien, OF, Diamondbacks
Few people thought O’Brien would be able to stick at catcher, and a case of the yips last spring cemented his position switch. The former second-round pick has moved to the outfield, hitting .284-26-107 in 490 at-bats at Triple-A Reno last season. That followed up a campaign in which he launched 34 homers in 399 at-bats in 2014. It’s safe to say O’Brien has power to spare.
Of course, his bat doesn’t play nearly as well in the outfield corners as it did at catcher, but O’Brien still projects well as at least a fourth outfielder and possible platoon partner for David Peralta in 2016. O’Brien managed to produce a .970 OPS vs. lefties last season, and his OPS vs. southpaws was over 1.000 the previous year. After moving Ender Inciarte, O’Brien has a great opportunity to break camp with Arizona and produce double-digit homers.
Andrew Susac, C, Giants
Ranked by Baseball America as San Francisco’s best prospect last offseason, Susac withered away on the Giants bench in 2015. He would have seen significant at-bats late in the year if not for a wrist injury that plagued him during the second half and ended his season in early September. The end product of three homers was nothing to get excited about, but Susac has proven very capable in the minors.
Susac hit 10 homers in only 213 at-bats at Triple-A Fresno in 2014, and launched 12 home runs in 262 at-bats at Double-A Richmond in 2013. To this point, Susac has only had a chance for at-bats when Buster Posey has been rested from duty behind the plate. If Susac remains on the roster heading into the year, the realistic best-case scenario would be more at-bats behind the plate, with Brandon Belt getting more time in the outfield and Posey sliding over to first base. That scenario still doesn’t give Susac a chance for more than 200-250 at-bats, but he has double-digit power upside even in that case. Of course, he’s also a very tradeable asset for the Giants, perhaps the most marketable in their organization given the need for quality catching help around baseball.