It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2017. The hot stove league is just taking shape, but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2017 fantasy baseball season.
For the third year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. In the first installment of the series we’ll be reviewing hitters who could be sleepers for batting average. 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
Josh Bell, 1B/OF, Pirates
Pittsburgh signed John Jaso as a first base placeholder for Bell last offseason, and waited until late August for Bell to arrive for good. The former second-round pick hit only .273 over 128 at-bats, but showed the advanced approach that he had throughout the minors with 21/19 BB/K in 152 plate appearances. That was after Bell hit .295 at Triple-A Indianapolis, and he’s hit .303 for his minor league career. His sub-13 percent strikeout rate is also significant. Among the 22 qualified hitters with a strikeout rate below 13 percent in 2016, 15 of them hit at least .290. Also included in that group were AL Batting Champ Jose Altuve and non-Coors Field aided NL Batting Champ Daniel Murphy.
Bell will enter 2017 as an everyday player, likely to share time between the outfield corners and first base. He’s also starting to show the power upside scouts projected, hitting 17 home runs last season. He enters the year as a hitting sleeper across the board based on his minor league track record and major league debut, and the so-so batting average in his major league debut could help keep his price down.
Andrew Benintendi, OF, Red Sox
Be prepared for Benintendi to be a popular sleeper in all leagues, but he could still be a bargain if you’re drafting early. The seventh overall pick in the 2015 draft, Benintendi has shown an incredible eye in his pro career. He hit .313-11-31 with 35/24 BB/K over 239 plate appearances in the low minors in 2015. Then he showed that performance wasn’t a fluke last season, hitting .312-9-76 with 39/39 BB/K in 418 plate appearances between High-A and Double-A prior to his promotion to Boston. As expected, Benintendi’s strikeout rate did increase in the majors, but he also managed to hit .295 in 105 at-bats. It’s also notable if you’re projecting his ceiling that Benintendi was a 20/20 man at Arkansas.
While the Red Sox did bury Benintendi at the bottom of the order during his major league time, he could move up rapidly if last season’s production continues. His incredible contact rate shows a potential Batting Champ waiting to happen, and an excellent supporting cast, even after David Ortiz’s retirement, makes Benintendi a potential bargain even as the hype picks up.
Joe Panik, 2B, Giants
Panik is more of a bounce back than a sleeper, but he’s a clear candidate to provide profit with his batting average this season. The second baseman hit only .239 last season and missed significant time with a concussion. The batting average plunged after he hit .305 in his rookie season and .312 in his sophomore campaign. Still, Panik’s contact ability that is so important for his batting average actually increased slightly over 2016 at 89 percent, and he had the most at-bats per strikeout in baseball. Unfortunately, Panik’s BABIP fell 85 points even as his extra-base hit percentage was slightly above his career norm.
It’s unclear if the concussion impacted Panik after his return, though he wouldn’t be the first player to have adverse effects from such an injury. The performance does cast some doubt about how much it impacted him, and Panik’s maintained contact rate should lead to optimism that he can help in batting average again.
Andrew Toles, OF, Dodgers
The fact Toles was a regular for the Dodgers during the playoffs shows his upside and ability to persevere. The former third-round pick of the Rays was once dismissed from Tennessee’s baseball team and released by Tampa Bay prior to the 2015 season due to personal issues. Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, who drafted Toles in Tampa, signed him before last season, and Toles hit .331-7-38 with 23 steals in 349 plate appearances between three minor league levels.
Toles played in LA for most of the second half, hitting .314-3-16 with one steal in 115 plate appearances and also went 8-for-22 during the playoffs. Despite his presence in an outfield with immense depth that included Joc Pederson, Josh Reddick, Yasiel Puig, Andre Ethier, and Howie Kendrick, Toles was getting regular at-bats during the Dodgers’ most important games. That says a lot for his performance and potential moving forward, and it’s worth noting that Toles is a career .309 hitting in the minors over more than 1,300 plate appearances. He should be penciled in for a spot on the 25-man roster, and it wouldn’t be a shock if Toles is in the Opening Day lineup.
Single League Sleepers
Austin Barnes, C/2B, Dodgers
Free Austin Barnes! The Dodgers’ catcher and infielder has seen very limited major league time in consecutive seasons due to the organization’s depth, but has had no problem hitting at Triple-A Oklahoma City. He hit .295-6-39 with 43/53 BB/K in 85 games in 2016, and similarly hit .315-9-42 with 35/36 BB/K in 2015. He will be 27 by Opening Day, and certainly provides a versatile offensive asset for a major league roster, albeit with LA or someone else.
The question is now whether the Dodgers will give him a shot or trade Barnes to another team. They’ve already cleared some depth by trading Howie Kendrick, and currently have their second base spot open with Chase Utley heading into free agency. It remains to be seen if Barnes will enter into that equation, but he shows offensive upside if he gets a chance.
Adam Frazier, OF, Pirates
Frazier was an often overlooked prospect who emerged as a steady utilityman for the Pirates late last season. The former sixth-round pick out of Mississippi State hit .301-2-11 with four steals in 160 plate appearances after hitting .333 with 29/27 BB/K in 299 plate appearances at Triple-A Indianapolis. Previously, he hit .324 in 2015 at Double-A Altoona. A shortstop early in his minor league career, the Pirates have mostly moved him off the position, but he got significant work in the outfield corners, second, and third base with the Pirates.
The small market Pirates have a bevy of depth, especially after the arrival of Josh Bell and pending arrival of top outfield prospect Austin Meadows. At least for now, that depth limits the likely playing time for Frazier. Still, multi-position eligibility, consistent batting average, and some steal potential should make Frazier worth owning as a flier in NL-only leagues at the start of 2017.
Chance Sisco, C, Orioles
Baltimore made Matt Wieters a qualifying offer last season, but they didn’t do the same this year after another disappointing campaign. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will head into the season with their top catching prospect, Sisco, as the starter, but it seems inevitable that he will get an opportunity in 2017.
Sisco hit .320-4-44 at Double-A Bowie in 410 at-bats in 2016 and also got four games in at Triple-A Norfolk. For his career, Sisco is a .323 hitter with a very impressive .402 on-base percentage. The former second-round pick hasn’t done a great job of controlling the running game in his pro career, allowing 103 steals in 136 attempts last season, but that probably won’t stop him from getting a long look in 2017. He will certainly have value in two-catcher and single leagues when he gets his shot.
Raimel Tapia, OF, Rockies
Tapia got a look late in the season, seeing 41 plate appearances over 22 games. The Dominican will be 23 by Opening Day, and likely has a future as a regular because of his high batting average ability and excellent defense. Developing into a strong contact hitter, Tapia hit .328-8-48 with a sub-11 percent strikeout rate, mostly at Double-A Hartford. He’s now hit above .300 in five straight seasons, with a .317 batting average for his minor league career. Obviously, playing his home games at Coors Field makes him that much more likely to maintain his high batting average. It should also be noted that Tapia has swiped more than 20 bases in three straight seasons, though he was just 23-for-40 in stolen base attempts last season.
Colorado has a glut of outfielders following the promotions of David Dahl and Tapia. They’re expected to address the issue in some way this offseason. Carlos Gonzalez has seemingly been mentioned in constant trade rumors over the last few seasons, while Charlie Blackmon’s name has also come up a few times. Even if the Rockies don’t make any moves, it’s been suggested that CarGo could be moved to first base, and Gerardo Parra didn’t exactly produce enough last season to be handed a regular spot. In the worst case, Tapia will get some early-season time at Triple-A while he waits his turn, but could certainly have mixed league value at some point in 2017.