It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2020 or even drafting now. The hot stove league is just taking shape, but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2020 fantasy baseball season.
For the fifth year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. The first two installments of the series were batting average and WHIP sleepers. This week, we’ll be looking at possible home run sleepers. 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). 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.
Mixed League Sleepers
Sam Hilliard, OF, Rockies
Any Rockies hitter with the potential for playing time should open the eyes of fantasy owners, and Hilliard has quickly become an interesting find. The former 15th round pick had a breakout season at hitter-friendly Triple-A Albuquerque, hitting .262-35-101 with 22 stolen bases in 595 plate appearances. He capped off his 2019 season by hitting seven home runs in only 87 plate appearances for the Rox, which gives him strong momentum heading into spring training. The 42 home run season looks like a product of the juiced ball when compared to his nine home run season at Double-A Hartford in 2018, but Hilliard hit 21 home runs at the California League in 2017.
Standing at 6-foot-5, it’s cliché to say that Hilliard is growing into his frame as he develops more power, but it’s probably not far from the truth. The lefty notably made some mechanical adjustments at the plate last year and saw his flyball rate increase from 36% in 2018 in 41% at Triple-A last season. Hilliard’s poor contact rate hovering around 30% for much of his pro career is a legitimate concern, but he has the talent to take off in Coors Field and hit 30 home runs if he can outplay Ian Desmond. That upside potential is well worth following.
Jake Lamb, 3B/1B, Diamondbacks
Lamb is hardly a breakout candidate after hitting a combined 59 home runs between 2016-2017, but he’s now been a massive bust in consecutive seasons due to injuries. The 2017 NL All-Star has hit a total of 12 home runs in 464 plate appearances over the last two campaigns, missing significant time to shoulder and quad injuries. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see Lamb’s power sapped last year after left rotator cuff surgery in 2018. Still, some were surprised the Diamondbacks opted to retain the arbitration-eligible infielder in 2020 after his recent struggles at the plate.
Last year’s batted ball data shines a better light on Lamb’s numbers, which could be a reason why Arizona is giving him one more go. His xSLG finished at .429, more than 70 points better than his actual slugging percentage, and his hard hit rate, exit velocity, and launch angle all rebounded from the forgettable 2018 season. Part of Lamb’s issues late last year were lack of opportunity in the midst of breakout seasons from Eduardo Escobar and Christian Walker, and that remains a concern even with Escobar’s ability to play the middle infield. Lamb is left with any less margin for error this season, and is beginning to develop an injury-prone label after recent hiccups. Even so, it’s not quite time to give up on the 29-year-old after some of the positives from last season as he enters a walk year given the track record and last year’s signs.
Ryan Mountcastle, 1B, Orioles
If you follow prospects, you probably know about Mountcastle already. The 36th overall pick in the 2015 draft out of high school, Mountcastle has transitioned from shortstop to third base to first base and left field. That’s indicative of his defense that really isn’t well regarded, but fortunately, the bat should play at first base/designated hitter. He’s hit at every level and is now growing into his power, hitting .312-25-83 at Triple-A Norfolk last season at age 22.
The rebuilding Orioles have no reason to rush their young hitting prospect, but also not much blocking him at the time of this writing. Chris Davis has given no reason to keep a roster spot other than his salary, and Trey Mancini has proven capable of shifting to an outfield corner if needed. As for Mountcastle, he continues to fancy himself an above average flyball hitter (35% last season) and is set to play in Camden Yards, one of the elite parks for right-handed power. Usually, hitters in this situation are hyped in drafts, but that’s not at all the case with Mountcastle yet, as his NFBC ADP is a dirt cheap 422. While he will likely start the year at Triple-A due to service time considerations, it shouldn’t be long before Mountcastle is crushing the ball in Baltimore.
Nick Solak, DH, Rangers
A former second-round pick, Solak was traded for the second time last year after he was drafted by the Yankees in 2016. The infielder’s bat certainly hasn’t disappointed, with a career .850 OPS in the minors that was even better during his brief time with Texas last season. He spent most of his MLB time at DH late last season, but also found at-bats at third and second. Solak’s defense is very much a work in progress, but hit .289-27-74 with a .894 OPS at Triple-A last season and had no trouble in the majors, either, hitting .293-5-17 in only 135 plate appearances. That strong production at age 24 was after hitting .282-19-76 with 21 steals in 565 plate appearances at Double-A Montgomery in 2018.
At the time of this writing, Solak is the Rangers most viable third baseman entering 2020, though that could be changed by way of a trade or free agent signing (Josh Donaldson?). Texas has shown some aggressiveness this offseason as they open a new stadium, and it’s certainly a threat to Solak’s ability to start the year in the majors. Regardless, he’s shown all he can at Triple-A and has also demonstrated he can help Texas immediately. Power growth has been an annual occurrence for Solak during his four-year professional career, and he’s suddenly showing 30-plus home run upside after his late-season surge.
Single League Sleepers
Seth Brown, OF, Athletics
Brown received attention last year as one of the top power hitters in the Pacific Coast League, launching 37 home runs in 500 plate appearances. His other stats weren’t too shabby, either, hitting .297/.352/.634 and driving in 104. It was the second 30 home run/100 RBI season of his career after doing the same at High-A in 2017. Brown also got a look in Oakland down the stretch, and while he didn’t hit a home run, Brown did hit .293/.361/.453 with 10 extra-base hits in 83 plate appearances. It was a nice breakout season aided by the juiced ball, but Brown has also taken to the launch angle revolution with an extreme 48% flyball rate at Triple-A, compared to 36% the previous year.
Even though Brown was older than much of the competition, he’s at least shown some MLB intrigue with his September performance in Oakland. Like Sam Hilliard, Brown is a former late-round draft pick who capped off a huge breakout season at Triple-A in 2019 with some solid MLB results. However, Brown also turned 27 in July, and there’s no clear path for playing time in Oakland with his versatility limited to the outfield corners and first base. Nevertheless, Brown’s spring will be worth tracking, as he has some AL-only upside if he can win a roster spot.
Kevin Cron, 1B, Diamondbacks
The younger brother of C.J. Cron, Kevin is a big man with big power. He hit .331-38-105 in only 374 plate appearances at Triple-A Reno last season, and has now hit at least 22 home runs in five consecutive seasons. Cron also flashed in his brief time with the Diamondbacks, hitting six home runs in 78 plate appearances. He had an amazing 51% hard hit rate in the majors, albeit in very limited time, and had a sky high 50% flyball rate at Reno.
The biggest reason the soon-to-be 27-year-old Cron hasn’t gotten a real shot in the majors is pitch recognition, and that was on full display with Arizona last year. He fanned 36% of the time, and pitchers pounded him with offspeed stuff. Still, his strikeout rate at Triple-A last season was only 20%, so perhaps Cron’s plate discipline will show better in the majors over a larger sample size. Behind Christian Walker and Jake Lamb in Arizona, there isn’t much opportunity for Cron, but his consistent and elite power is worth tracking as an opportunity for NL-only owners.
Robel Garcia, 2B, Cubs
Garcia saw the majors for the first time last year, and started to create a buzz for the Cubs. His story is an interesting one, signed prior to last season after two professional seasons in Italy. Also a former Indians farmhand, Garcia showed sudden power between Double- and Triple-A last season, hitting .284-27-78 with a .586 slugging percentage in 388 plate appearances. The power continued in limited work with the Cubs, launching five home runs and a total of nine extra-base hits in only 80 plate appearances. All the while, he displayed an extreme launch angle and flyball rate around 50%.
The Cubs roster has seemed to be in flux so far this offseason, with an apparent unwillingness to spend money, as well as Kris Bryant’s service time grievance. As things stand now, Garcia has a good shot to make the roster in Ben Zobrist’s former role as a power bat off the bench who can play second base and the outfield. The likely loss of Addison Russell helps Garcia’s cause even more. His swing certainly seems conducive to the power that we saw last season, but the big concern will be his ability to make contact with a terrible 33% strikeout rate at Triple-A and 44% strikeout rate with the Cubs last year. Even with that concern, the power potential looks worthy of a flier in NL-only leagues, at the least.
Dustin Garneau, C, Astros
Houston has been curiously quiet in the catcher market this offseason despite the loss of Robinson Chirinos. The team struck early in the offseason by giving Garneau an MLB contract, which was a bit of surprise for a 32-year-old with 381 career plate appearances. Later in the offseason, they re-signed Martin Maldonado (career .644 OPS). Most recently, Garneau hit just .244-3-14 in 101 plate appearances between the Angels and A’s in 2019, so there doesn’t seem to be much of interest to fantasy owners on the surface. Garneau’s history and recent batted ball trends make for a more interesting player, however.
Garneau has a long history of plus power in the minors, with a career .459 slugging percentage. For his Triple-A career, Garneau has 61 home runs in 1,229 plate appearances. His swing also lends itself to the long ball, as the Statcast data shows an extreme 20.4 launch angle since 2015, and Garneau’s flyball rate has consistently hovered around 50%. The juiced ball helped Garneau hit seven home runs in only 129 plate appearances at Triple-A last year. At the time of this writing, Garneau has an inside track for Houston’s second catcher spot, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get significant at-bats with only Maldonado ahead of him. For AL-only leagues employing two active catchers, this is a situation with nice profit potential.