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 and home runs, and this week we’ll be reviewing pitchers who could be sleepers for strikeouts. 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
Jose Berrios, Twins
You’ll hear about plenty of high upside arms bound to make their debut during 2016 in the coming months. At the time of this writing, Berrios has as great an opportunity to break camp in the starting rotation as any of those arms. An elite prospect, Berrios had a spectacular 2015 season between Double-A and Triple-A, finishing 14-5 with a 2.87 and 175 strikeouts in 166.1 innings. The former first-round pick also has exemplary control, posting a 2.1 BB/9 last season.
While the strikeouts are quite attractive, it’s Berrios’ polish that gives him the greatest chance of arriving early in the 2016 season. Berrios’ flyball tendencies should play just fine at Target Field, and the Twins have already extended an invite to major league spring training. Still only 21 on Opening Day, Berrios won’t be handed anything on a roster with plenty of starting candidates, but it’s fair to say that he has as much fantasy upside as anyone on Minnesota’s current pitching staff. With a career 9.5 K/9, his strikeout potential is just one part of his very enticing immediate upside.
Jose De Leon, Dodgers
De Leon was one of the top breakouts of 2015 in the minors, and there’s a legitimate argument to be made that he has a higher ceiling than prized Dodgers pitching prospect Julio Urias. An under the radar 23rd round draft pick out of Southern in 2013, De Leon has basically been untouchable over the last two seasons. Among minor league pitchers with at least 100 innings last season, De Leon had the highest K/9 (12.83). Since 2006, there have only been four season and three pitchers with at least 100 innings that have produced higher strikeout rates (Matt Moore accomplished the feat twice). For the year, De Leon had a 2.99 ERA in 23 starts between High-A and Double-A with a 4.41 K/BB ratio.
Featuring mid-90’s velocity, De Leon’s nasty changeup is what sets him apart. The biggest concern at this point is his inability to keep the ball in the park, allowing 11 long balls in only 76.2 innings at Double-A Tulsa. While he doesn’t throw quite as hard, De Leon’s stuff and profile compares well to Cleveland flamethrower Danny Salazar. The Dodgers are likely to give him more seasoning in the upper minors to start the year, though he’ll also get a close look in spring training. It wouldn’t be a stretch to expect a contribution similar to what we saw from Lance McCullers last season, with De Leon making his debut before the All-Star break at age 23.
Rich Hill, A’s
If you told me anytime over the last five years that I’d be writing about Hill as a fantasy asset again, I’d call you nuts. But here we are, and Hill is one of the more interesting pitchers going into 2016. He signed a one-year, $6 million contract to remain a starter with Oakland. That money is a flier in a world where Mike Pelfrey is getting two years, $16 million, but it could be an astute flier for Billy Beane and company. You might recall the lefty’s strong fantasy value with the Cubs back in 2007, in which he had 32 starts and produced a 3.92 ERA and 8.4 K/9. His control left him the following year, and Hill has been trying to figure it out mostly as a reliever since then. He got an opportunity to start last season for the Long Island Ducks of the Independent Atlantic League and made the most of his chance before tagging on with the Red Sox organization.
Hill saw five starts at Triple-A Pawtucket, posting a 2.78 ERA and 29/9 K/BB in 32.1 innings prior to his September call. Fantasy owners likely remember his string of September starts in Boston, with an amazing 1.55 ERA and 36/5 K/BB in 29 innings. It’s especially notable for our purposes that Hill’s average velocity over the last three seasons has actually been better than it was in 2007, and it’s clear that his nasty curveball remains intact. We’ll likely be able to see if Hill can maintain his new found control in spring training. If so, he’s well worth the late-round investment in a spacious home ballpark like the O.co Coliseum given his career 8.8 K/9 in exactly 500 major league innings.
Robbie Ray, Diamondbacks
Ray joined his third organization in as many seasons when he was traded to Arizona last offseason in the Didi Gregorius/Shane Greene trade. The lefty didn’t make headlines at the time, but he could turn out as the most valuable piece of that trade. Ray’s velocity has wavered over the last few seasons, but he saw a two mph increase last season and the difference showed in his performance. Despite a 5-12 record, Ray had a very solid 3.52 ERA and 8.4 K/9. While he struggled after the break at times, Ray had a dominant 9.4 K/9.
Ray hasn’t been the most consistent pitcher during his pro career, but his performance didn’t come out of nowhere. He has a career 8.9 K/9 in the minors, including a 12.3 K/9 in 41.2 innings at hitter-friendly Triple-A Reno last season. It’s clear as to why the Tigers soured on him in 2014, as Ray posted a 4.23 ERA and only 1.70 K/BB ratio at Triple-A with his velocity lacking. Though, it’s also clear why Detroit took him as the centerpiece of the Doug Fister trade before 2014, as he posted a 10.1 K/9 in 2013. Ray won’t be handed a rotation spot in spring training, but he clearly offers more upside than competitor Chase Anderson and more recent success than Archie Bradley. If the velocity sticks, Ray’s ERA indicators from last year match the performance, and should give him the chance to pile up strikeouts.
Drew Smyly, Rays
This isn’t the first time Smyly will be regarded as a sleeper going into draft day, and hopefully it’s the last time he requires that title. The southpaw made only 12 starts last season due to shoulder problems, but finished out the season on a tear (no pun intended). During his nine starts after returning, Smyly had a 3.24 ERA and 10.1 K/9 in 50 innings. Smyly has always had strong peripherals, but his strikeout rate increased last season with pure dominance of lefties. He fanned left-handed batters in more than 45 percent of plate appearances, up from 28 percent in 2014.
Following last year’s performance, Smyly now sports a career 3.54 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and 8.5 K/9 as a starter. Those numbers make him an attractive pitcher already, but last year provides a glimpse of the upside. Be mindful that there’s risk here, particularly with Smyly’s recent shoulder woes and home run issues, but the ceiling could be 180-plus strikeouts this season.
Single League Sleepers
Mychal Givens, Orioles
I always like to include a relief pitcher in the single league section because they’re people, too. Plus, they actually can help your strikeout totals significantly in single leagues, as owners of Dellin Betances can attest. Givens was absolutely nasty in his major league debut last season, posting a 1.80 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 11.4 K/9, and 1.8 BB/9 in 30 innings. That followed a breakout performance at Double-A, where Givens had a similar 1.73 ERA and 12.4 K/9 in 57.1 innings. That means he threw 87.1 innings out of the pen last season, if you’re counting at home, and tallied 117 strikeouts.
The sidearming Givens came out of nowhere last season, and the reason you probably hadn’t heard of him was his complete lack of control before 2015. He really struggled with walks in 2014, with 39 free passes in 58.2 innings. The question is how much can Givens really help fantasy owners out of the pen? He was in the majors for two months and change last season, so projecting his numbers out to a full year would be about 90 innings. After bringing back Darren O’Day, it seems likely that Givens will keep a similar role with the O’s. Granted, some regression should be expected as hitters gain experience against his rare arm angle, but Givens has the upside to create $10 of value in AL-only leagues at minimal cost.
John Lamb, Reds
Lamb isn’t the same pitcher he was when Baseball America rated him the 18th best prospect in the game before 2011, but his perseverance deserves applause. He had a very slow return to full strength after 2011 Tommy John surgery, really not showing the success he had before the surgery until last season. Included in the Johnny Cueto trade, Lamb was dominant at Triple-A between two organizations in 2015 with a 2.67 ERA and 9.5 K/9 in 20 starts (111.1 innings).
The pitching-hungry Reds gave him 10 starts at the end of the season, which could easily be overlooked after posting a 1-5 record, 5.80 ERA, and 1.55 WHIP. If we take a deeper look at the numbers, there is something to get excited about. Lamb had a dominant 10.5 K/9 and 3.05 K/BB ratio in 49.2 innings, and his ERA indicators showed something closer to 4.00. That’s still not an especially appetizing number these days, and the ERA will likely be a work in progress as Lamb is an extreme flyball pitcher in a hitter’s park. The rebuilding Reds still seem likely to roll with the punches this year as Lamb develops and tries to build on the 160-plus innings he threw last season. If successful, Lamb should be able to net 150 strikeouts and positive value in NL-only leagues.
Sean Manaea, A’s
Yet another young pitcher traded from the Royals last season, Manaea could have a chance to win Oakland’s fifth starter job after a great showing at the Arizona Fall League. The 2013 first-round pick got work in the Fall League after making only 14 starts during the regular season due to nagging injuries that weren’t arm-related. The lefty has been dominant when he has been on the mound over the last two years, posting a K/9 above 10.0 at every stop on the strength of his mid-90’s fastball. That includes nine starts at Double-A last season, going 6-1 with a 2.36 ERA and 11.2 K/9.
If there’s one strength the A’s have right now it’s depth, though a lot of it isn’t necessarily reliable. Manaea would have quite a hill to climb in order to beat out names like Jarrod Parker, Sean Nolin, Aaron Brooks, and Felix Doubront for what looks like one rotation spot heading into the year, and the organization probably wants to see more than nine starts above Single-A from Manaea anyway. Still, it’s realistic to expect a second half contribution if Manaea is healthy, and he shows big strikeout upside.
Nick Tropeano, Angels
Acquired from Houston last offseason for Hank Conger, it’s easy to see why former Angels GM Jerry Dipoto liked Tropeano. He’s built a strong minor league track record, posting a 3.49 ERA, 9.3 K/9, and 2.8 BB/9 for his career. His year didn’t go quite that well at Triple-A Salt Lake in 2015, with a 4.81 ERA in 16 starts, but it is a noted hitter’s environment. Even with the struggles, Tropeano had a 9.8 K/9 at Triple-A and continued to fan batters in his spot starts in the majors. The only extended period Tropeano saw with the Angels was in September, when he posted a 2.53 ERA in 26 strikeouts in 21.1 innings, including four starts.
Averaging only 91 mph on his fastball in the majors last season, Tropeano doesn’t show much margin for error, but the polish he displayed in September gives him great momentum heading into spring training. The Angels don’t look like they have a rotation spot open with C.J. Wilson and Tyler Skaggs returning from injury, but Tropeano’s strikeout rate shows the ability to help in any role as he waits his turn.
Vincent Velasquez, Phillies
If the Astros live to regret the Ken Giles trade, it will likely be due to Velasquez’s successful development. The huge strikeout rates that accompany Velasquez’s mid-90’s fastball make him a high upside arm, though some believe that he’s destined for the bullpen with less than perfect control and an injury history.
Injury issues aside, Velasquez has produced a 10.8 K/9 in the minors over his career and more than one strikeout per inning during his rookie season. He began his Astros career as a starting pitcher in June, and posted a 4.03 ERA and 9.0 K/9 in seven starts. The rebuilding Phillies have far more opportunities for starts than Houston, so the move could be great for Velasquez’s career development and fantasy value. Philadelphia has two exciting young starters in Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff, but Velasquez’s superior stuff and huge past strikeout rates show a higher long-term ceiling. For now, we’ll probably have to deal with Velasquez’s control woes (3.4 BB/9 with the Astros) and hope he can pitch every fifth day.