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. We’ve already covered WHIP, home runs and strikeouts, and this week we’ll be reviewing hitters who could be sleepers for batting average. Over 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.
Mixed League Sleepers
Max Kepler, OF, Twins
We saw the first wave of hot Twins prospects arrive last year with Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, and Eddie Rosario. The next wave includes Kepler, who could compete for at-bats in spring training. Kepler built on the momentum of his strong Arizona Fall League performance in 2014 to hit .322 in 407 at-bats at Double-A Chattanooga last season, with more walks (67) than strikeouts (63).
Kepler got a brief taste of the majors in September, and will more than likely begin 2016 at Triple-A. The German-born outfielder needs to show that he can hit more advanced pitching in spring training and Triple-A before getting an extended stay in the majors, but the opportunity looks promising with a youthful outfield in Minnesota. Kepler is also experienced at first base, should Korean signing Byung-ho Park not work out as well as hoped or something happen to Joe Mauer. While the power and speed is limited for Kepler, his batting average and on-base skills should make him a desirable major league regular. With 300 at-bats, he can certainly help with batting average in mixed leagues.
Tyler Naquin, OF, Indians
Please forgive me for mentioning Naquin on this list two years running. Injuries plagued Naquin for the second straight year in 2015, but the former first-round pick hit .300 in 327 at-bats between Double-A and Triple-A. That performance was on top of hitting .313 at Double-A in 2014. With 50 games under his belt at Triple-A, Naquin should be ready to graduate to the majors this season.
Following Michael Brantley’s major shoulder surgery in November, the Indians could have a spot for Naquin sooner than later. So far during the offseason, the team’s outfield acquisitions seem to be more about depth than impact after adding Rajai Davis, Joey Butler, and Collin Cowgill. While Lonnie Chisenhall enters the season as a likely regular, the outfield has plenty of opportunities for at-bats. Fellow first-round picks Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier show significantly more upside than Naquin, but they’re each probably a full year away from helping. Naquin could be helpful for batting average immediately, and he’s also contributed 27 steals over his last two seasons (160 games).
Dalton Pompey, OF, Blue Jays
It’s almost easy to forget that Pompey began last season as Toronto’s starting center fielder after the contribution that Kevin Pillar made with the team. Overmatched in April, Pompey was demoted to Triple-A in May and didn’t make it back to the majors until September. Despite his struggles, Pompey had a fine year in the minors, hitting .307-7-40 with 23 steals in 96 games between Double-A and Triple-A.
The hope of success in Toronto last season was optimistic considering that he’d only played 48 games above High-A coming into the year, but there are still high hopes long-term for the 23-year-old. While he struggled in the majors, Pompey still showed signs of growth after fanning only 64 times in 387 at-bats last season. He’s now hit above .300 in the minors in two consecutive years, and certainly shows the ability to be a batting average asset in the future along with his plus speed. He doesn’t have a clear path to playing time entering the season, but there’s still time for the Jays to make a move as we head into the year, either involving Pompey or another outfielder.
Andrelton Simmons, SS, Angels
Simmons is well known for his elite defense, but has yet to show much offense in the majors aside from 17 homers in 2013. Just one plate appearance short of 2,000 for his career, Simmons is just a career .256 hitter, but there are some positives to draw from his recent performance.
Simmons hit .283 during the second half of 2015, while also showing a career-best 8.2 percent strikeout rate and 1.23 K/BB ratio. Contact rates of Simmons’ ilk often lead to good batting averages, as Simmons ranked second among qualifying hitters behind Daniel Murphy last season and was one of only six hitters with a strikeout rate below 10 percent. It’s also worth keeping in mind that Simmons was a .299 hitter during his brief minor league time that included 930 at-bats. The upside does seem quite limited, but Simmons could fill-in as a middle infielder if his batting average matches what he produced in the second half of last season.
Single League Sleepers
Cristhian Adames, SS, Rockies
While Trevor Story was mentioned in the home run sleepers, it’s far from a given that he’d be handed the Rockies shortstop job if Jose Reyes is moved or suspended. Adames doesn’t profile as much more than a utility infielder in the long term, lacking much pop or speed.
Still, Adames has hit for average in the upper minors, and he’s also shown the ability to make contact. Last season was his best offensively while playing at hitter-friendly Triple-A Albuquerque, as Adames hit .311 with only 56 strikeouts in 463 at-bats. For his minor league career, Adames is a respectable .281 hitter. Despite a career .375 slugging percentage, the batting average is enticing for fantasy owners and even more appealing at Coors Field. With a real possibility of playing time, Adames could be a worthwhile stash in NL-only leagues.
Willson Contreras, C, Cubs
Say hello to your likely 2017 Opening Day starting catcher for the Cubs. Contreras’ receiving skills are strong behind the plate, and he had an all-out offensive breakout in 2015 at Double-A. The 23-year-old hit .333-8-75 while also showing excellent plate discipline with a 57/62 BB/K ratio in 521 plate appearances.
The Cubs enter 2016 relatively happy with Miguel Montero behind the plate, along with veteran David Ross backing him up. That combination, along with Kyle Schwarber’s ability to play catcher, leaves little room for Contreras to help entering the season barring an injury. Still, the Cubs have high hopes for 2016, and giving Contreras significant playing time at some point probably gives them the best chance to win. Even with a strong 2015 season, Montero has hit only .240 with a .702 OPS over the last three seasons. At a position with a relatively low bar to be an offensive asset, Contreras’ high-average ability could make him helpful by midseason in NL-only leagues.
Yandy Diaz, 3B, Indians
An under the radar prospect from Cuba, Diaz really produced well at Double-A last season. He lacks much power or speed, but Diaz hit .315 with 78/65 BB/K in 564 plate appearances. That added up to a .412 OBP, and Diaz also got a taste of Triple-A. During his first year in the States in 2014, Diaz hit .286 in 283 at-bats at High-A.
The 24-year-old Diaz played second base in Cuba, and could still get some time at that position as he moves up. Either way, it’s looking like his on-base skills could be enough for him to have a role at the highest level, with an advanced approach. The Indians aren’t exactly set at the hot corner, installing defensive phenom Giovanny Urshela last season and sticking with him despite a .225 batting average in 81 games. With a .710 career OPS in the minors, Urshela is far from a given as the organization’s third baseman of the future. If Diaz gets off to a hot start at Triple-A, he’s a threat to unseat Urshela and could be of some help in AL-only leagues for batting average.
Kelby Tomlinson, 2B, Giants
Where in the world do the Giants find these guys? Matt Duffy emerged as San Francisco’s starting third baseman last season despite being an 18th round selection in 2012. Tomlinson didn’t have much more fanfare as a 12th rounder in 2011, but he’s showing similar upside. The Texas Tech alum hit .303 in 178 at-bats during his major league debut, mostly filling in at second base while Joe Panik was sidelined late last season. After hitting .268 at Double-A in 2014, last season represented a major breakout at the plate for Tomlinson with a .321 batting average and 21 steals in 389 at-bats between Double-A and Triple-A.
Already renowned defensively in the middle infield, Tomlinson has gotten work in center field in the instructional league. That’s valuable depth given Angel Pagan’s age and recent injuries, not to mention Panik’s back issues. There should be some skepticism given that Tomlinson didn’t hit much in 2013 or 2014, but it’s also clear that he couldn’t be stopped at any level last year. Serving as a super utility man in 2016, Tomlinson is an interesting add in NL-only leagues.