It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2019. The hot stove league is still developing, but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2019 fantasy baseball season.
For the fifth 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, ERA, stolen base, and saves sleepers. In the eighth installment of the series we’ll be reviewing hitters who can be sleepers for RBI. 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.
Fantasy owners sometimes overlook the simplest of concepts in projecting RBI hitters and potential sleepers for the category. An analysis of past production by batting order is a great exercise to help project the leaders and breakouts in the category. The following table is an update of the same info presented last year, showing a breakdown of the average RBI per game by lineup spot over the last three seasons.
Average RBI per Game
It’s quite clear that batting order spots 3-5 are the most productive for RBI, as expected. Since teams usually stack their best hitters in these spots, it comes as little surprise. However, the RBI production isn’t just about the talent at those spots. The Book: Player the Percentages in Baseball by Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin gives a great breakdown of RBI opportunities by spot in the batting order, albeit with data from the 2000s hitting era.
|Batting Order||PA empty||PA men on||% with men on||Number of Runners On|
Batting order spots 3-5 see a significant increase in plate appearances with men on, as well as more runners on during those plate appearances. This is particularly important to remember in-season when you are trying to beef up on the RBI category via trade or waiver pick up.
With all these facts in mind, the list of RBI sleepers below is dependent on both hitting ability AND possible opportunity to hit 3-5 in the batting order.
Jake Bauers, 1B/OF, Indians
Bauers had a long run in Tampa Bay last season, appearing in 96 games, but was shipped to Cleveland this offseason in the three-team blockbuster trade that included Edwin Encarnacion and Carlos Santana. He will almost certainly have a starting spot on Opening Day, with the Indians make few big moves this offseason and losing Michael Brantley in free agency. With the make up of the current team, his shot at a spot in the middle of the order looks very good.
As we stand now, Cleveland has lost their regular No. 2 hitter (Brantley), No. 4 hitter (Encarnacion), No. 5 hitter (Josh Donaldson), and No. 6 hitter (Yonder Alonso) from last year’s roster. With the exception of Santana, the replacements are severely lacking power, but Bauers hit 16 home runs between Triple-A and the majors last year and also hit double-digit homers in the three seasons leading up to 2018. His on-base ability was just as appealing to Cleveland, with a career .361 on-base percentage in the minors. Certainly, Cleveland could address what looks like a weak outfield with a cheap addition like Adam Jones, but as things stand now, Bauers is a prime candidate to hit fifth behind Jose Ramirez and Carlos Santana after getting significant work in the No. 3 spot with Tampa Bay last year.
Josh Bell, 1B, Pirates
Bell was one of the biggest disappointments in standard 5x5 leagues last season, going from .255-26-90 with 75 runs in his breakout 2017 season to only .261-12-62 with 74 runs last year. He spent the first two-plus months as Pittsburgh’s cleanup hitter but was demoted in early June when he was hitting sub-.240. Bell was mostly used as the Pirates No. 6 hitter for the next three months before settling in as the third hitter in the order during September.
Even despite Bell’s early-season struggles as the cleanup man, he had a solid 34 RBI in 65 starts in that spot. There’s reason to believe he will regain a spot in the middle of Pittsburgh’s batting order, especially with Gregory Polanco possibly missing the first two months of the season to a shoulder injury. Polanco’s injury was originally what promoted Bell to the third spot in the order during September, and the Pirates haven’t made any notable moves for power hitters during the offseason. Simply put, they don’t really have any viable competition for the middle of the order spots unless Jung Ho Kang finds the power-hitter stroke that he had a few years ago and displaces Colin Moran at third base. Whether Bell can bounce back to his 2017 level is up for debate, but he could be a safe 80 RBI projection on opportunity alone.
Paul DeJong, SS, Cardinals
DeJong had a frustrating sophomore season in St. Louis after a surprising rookie campaign in which he hit .285-25-65 in only 108 games for the Cardinals. He regressed to just .241-19-68 in 115 games last year, including a hand injury that robbed him of a large chunk of the season. DeJong also opened the year as the No. 7 hitter before bouncing around. After coming off the DL on July 6, he resumed his inconsistent lineup spots from No. 2 to No. 7.
Then something drastic happened in mid-July. Manager Mike Matheny was fired. Interim manager Mike Shildt immediately moved DeJong to No. 3 in the order on July 15, and he started nearly every game from that point forward hitting either third or fifth in the batting order. As a result, DeJong had 49 RBI in his final 67 games despite hitting just .225/.288/.422 during that timeframe. The significant addition of Paul Goldschmidt would seem like bad news on the surface for DeJong’s lineup spot, but apparently that’s not the case. Shildt insinuated in December that DeJong would remain the team’s No. 3 hitter between Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna, which would obviously be a major coup for his RBI opportunities. His RBI production under Shildt netted out to 118 RBI over a full 162-game season.
Avisail Garcia, OF, Rays
Tampa Bay recently added Garcia in an under the radar move, and the former White Sox outfielder is expected to be the semi-regular DH for the Rays. The team found plenty of upside for only $3.5 million, as Garcia is just one year removed from hitting .330-18-80 with an .885 OPS for Chicago, and hit a career-high 19 home runs in only 385 plate appearances last season despite playing through a knee injury during the second half.
After getting rid of C.J. Cron, Tampa Bay’s only major power threat from last year’s roster, Garcia looks like a great option to hit in the middle of the batting order. Tommy Pham did find a home hitting between 2-4 in the order after he was acquired in July, and Mike Zunino is the only other player on the roster that has hit 20 home runs in a season. Of course, the sabermetric-minded Rays won’t be enthusiastic about leaving Garcia in the middle of the order with a sub-.310 on-base percentage, like he’s produced in five of the last six seasons, but the potential is certainly there for him to do much more.
Mitch Moreland, 1B, Red Sox
The Red Sox go into 2019 with the same first base platoon they had for most of last season, with Moreland likely to be the primary player vs. right-handed pitching and Steve Pearce taking lefties. After a poor second half from Moreland and a late surge by Pearce, there doesn’t seem to be much optimism surrounding Moreland. That’s reflected in his 496 ADP in NFBC despite making the first All-Star appearance of his career in 2018.
It’s easy to see why fantasy owners would want to avoid Moreland given his .600 OPS after the break last season, but streaky hitting has become a regular occurrence during his career. His OPS was more than 50 points lower after the All-Star break than before it in 2017 and more than 110 points lower in the second half than the first half in 2015. Obviously, the risk becomes greater now that Moreland is 33, but there’s still plenty of power and RBI upside here for AL-only and deep mixed leagues after he spent all of his starts last season between the 3-6 spots in the Red Sox batting order. Unless Moreland completely plummets early in the year, there’s no reason to think that trend will change this season.
Ryan O’Hearn, 1B, Royals
O’Hearn was one of the top performing rookies in the second half of 2018, seeing regular at-bats between first base and DH for the Royals. With Lucas Duda out of the way, O’Hearn has first base all to himself entering the 2019 season after hitting .262-12-30 in only 170 plate appearances during his major league debut. There is significant reason to be skeptical of that production after O’Hearn hit only .232-11-52 in 406 plate appearances at Triple-A Omaha earlier in the season, but he also averaged nearly 25 home runs per season in the three years leading up to 2018.
As for O’Hearn’s spot in the order, he blossomed from the bottom of the order to KC’s regular fifth hitter in September. Even with a supporting cast that left much to be desired, O’Hearn drove in 11 runs in 22 starts during that time, and there’s no reason to think much will change with O’Hearn’s spot in the order with limited power in KC beyond Salvador Perez and the oft-injured Jorge Soler. A sophomore slump is a valid concern for a hitter who showed little ability to hit southpaws and didn’t performe very well at Triple-A, but there’s 80-plus RBI upside here for a very reasonable price of 348 ADP in NFBC.
Neil Walker, 2B/3B/1B, Marlins
Now that J.T. Realmuto is finally out of Miami, the Marlins lineup has a chance to be historically bad. They don’t have even one player who hit 15 home runs in 2018, and there’s an argument to be made that they don’t have anyone truly capable given the ages of Walker and Curtis Granderson. Simply put, runs will be tough to come by this year in Miami, but that doesn’t mean you should overlook some of their hitters who will be put in favorable situations.
Walker is one of those hitters, currently penciled in as Miami’s starting first baseman after signing a one-year, $2 million contract. The former Pirates starting second baseman is trying to revitalize his value after a poor year with the Yankees, hitting only .219-11-46 in 398 plate appearances. That performance is certainly a red flag after his 2017 season ended with back problems, though it’s also worth noting that Walker produced an OPS above .800 in three out of four seasons leading up to 2018. If the Marlins don’t make any additional moves, Walker has a chance to not only start at first base everyday but also be the team’s cleanup hitter. Brian Anderson would seem to be the only other middle of the order hitter set in stone, and there’s also reason to believe Starlin Castro will fit into that equation if he’s not hitting at the top of the order. In terms of proven power, that leaves only Walker and Granderson, with the latter having extensive experience as a leadoff man. Drafting Walker is admittedly fishing for scraps at this point, but he’s basically free in NL-only leagues and has 70 RBI upside along with multi-position eligibility if he’s able to hold off minor league veterans Garrett Cooper and Peter O’Brien in spring training.