It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2019 or even drafting now. The hot stove league is just taking shape, 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. 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
Willians Astudillo, C, Twins
There’s an emerging obsession in the baseball stat head community involving Astudillo, and it’s not just that he resembles the cleanup hitter in your local softball league. Simply put, Astudillo’s contact ability is legendary. He fanned only three times in 97 plate appearances during his MLB debut last season after tallying 14 strikeouts in 307 plate appearances at Triple-A Rochester. That means he recorded an unbelievable 4.2 percent strikeout rate for the year between Triple-A and the majors. He also has just three strikeouts in 205 plate appearances at the Venezuelan Winter League. Not only is Astudillo making contact with almost everything in sight, but he’s a career .306 hitter in the minors and hit a whopping .355 in his limited sample size of playing time late last year with the Twins.
The .355 batting average hardly seems sustainable, but there’s major promise for hitters with a sub-10 percent strikeout rate in the majors. Over the last four seasons, we’ve only had 14 qualified MLB seasons that have had a sub-10 percent strikeout rate, and nine of those hitters batted at least .280. Over the last 10 seasons, 49 of 79 (62 percent) hit at least .280. Astudillo has a truly unique offensive skill, especially in this day and age, and his qualification at catcher is a huge bonus for fantasy owners. Last season he appeared at catcher, third base, DH, second base, center field, left field, and even pitched in just the 29 games we saw him. If the Twins are committed to keep Astudillo around as a utilityman, the batting average upside almost certainly makes him worthy as a top 15 catching option.
Willie Calhoun, OF, Rangers
Calhoun was supposed to be an AL Rookie of the Year candidate last season, but he never really got off the mat. The outfielder didn’t make his first MLB appearance until July 20 and saw only 108 plate appearances for the entire season. The results were also disappointing when he did play (.222-2-11), and he suffered an odd power outage at Triple-A Round Rock, hitting only .294-9-47 in 470 plate appearances. It was a truly odd year after Calhoun hit 27 home runs at Double-A Tulsa in 2016 and 31 home runs at Triple-A in 2017.
At age 24, it’s still much too early to give up on Calhoun, and there’s reason to believe he can be a major batting average contributor. While his contact rate dropped off in the majors last year, Calhoun has notoriously been a great contact hitter in the minors with a career 11.2 percent strikeout rate and exactly 10 percent last year at Round Rock. It’s no coincidence that Calhoun has also hit at least .294 in three out of four minor league seasons and his small strike zone at 5-foot-8 doesn’t hurt, either. After a down year, Calhoun won’t be handed anything next season, but there are positive reports this offseason with Calhoun on his way to losing 20 pounds. His spring will be worth watching after last year’s struggles, but he’s at least still worth a flier.
Yandy Diaz, UT, Rays
Here’s a confession. This is the third time I’ve mentioned Diaz in this section over the last four seasons and the second year in a row. This will by the last time, I promise! Lack of opportunity was a big issue for Diaz in Cleveland, but it doesn’t look like that will be an issue anymore after he was traded to Tampa Bay in the Edwin Encarnacion/Carlos Santana three-team blockbuster during the Winter Meetings. The Rays apparently prefer Diaz’s potential over Jake Bauers, and he’s finally set to see playing time at the infield corners. Diaz did fare well late last year when Encarnacion was injured, hitting .312/.375/.422 in 120 plate appearances. For most of the year, he was stuck at Triple-A yet again and hit .293/.409/.388 while the team hoped he would develop more power.
The lack of power is what has kept Diaz down in the minors, but the Rays apparently don’t care. Diaz has posted an on-base percentage above .400 in four straight minor league seasons, and he’s also a career .311 minor league hitter with more walks (328) than strikeouts (322) in 2,247 career plate appearances. The fact that he appeared at DH more than any other position last year limits his eligibility in standard-rules leagues, but he should get eligibility at one or both of the infield corners in short order. It also wouldn’t be surprising if Diaz hit near the top of the batting order given his on-base ability.
Luis Urias, 2B, Padres
Here’s another repeat offender from last year. Urias didn’t arrive to the majors until late August, playing 12 games before getting hurt. He’s moved very quickly through the Padres minor league system relative to age, as he was just 21 at Triple-A El Paso last year. It’s easy to see why the Padres wanted to take their time last year with a strikeout rate that ballooned to a career-worst 20.5 percent after it was at only 12.4 percent at Double-A in 2017. The good news is that Urias continued to hit for average, hitting .296 for the second straight year, and he’s still a .306/.397/.405 hitter for his minor league career.
The fantasy upside beyond Urias’ batting average is somewhat limited, as he’s yet to hit double-digit home runs and has only one double-digit stolen base season over five minor league seasons. However, he’s a proven on-base machine in the minors and has never hit worse than .296 before reaching the majors. San Diego’s recent signing of Ian Kinsler could potentially push Urias to shortstop until Fernando Tatis Jr. is ready, but it shouldn’t disrupt his playing time in 2019. Added is the runs potential, as Urias hit either leadoff or second in the order in all 12 games with the Padres.
Single League Sleepers
David Fletcher, 2B/3B, Angels
Infield injuries allowed Fletcher to get regular playing time in the second half of last season, and he did make some noise early on by hitting .324 in June. However, he had a sub-.700 OPS over the last two months of the season, failing to do anything notable for fantasy owners. As of this writing, Fletcher should compete for regular at-bats at second base or third base for the Angels, depending on where Zack Cozart winds up. He finished his rookie season with a more than satisfactory 11 percent strikeout rate after hitting .350 with only 21 strikeouts in 275 plate appearances at Triple-A Salt Lake.
Fletcher is a career .294 hitter in the minors, but there are valid questions about his ability to be a regular in the majors. He hasn’t shown much power (career .398 slugging percentage in the minors), but Fletcher does bring some speed, peaking at 20 stolen bases in 2017. The possibility of being a regular doesn’t bring much upside, but Fletcher’s great contact rate and recent success in the minors makes him an intriguing flier for batting average.
Josh Naylor, OF/1B, Padres
At this point, it’s safe to assume the Marlins are regretting the trade that sent Naylor to the Padres for Andrew Cashner and company in 2016. The 2015 first-round pick hadn’t done much in the majors to that point, but he’s now coming off a breakout year at Double-A San Antonio in 2018. The converted first baseman hit .297-17-74 with 64/69 BB/K in 574 plate appearances, facing more advanced competition after turning 21 in June. His plate discipline showed enormous improvement, and Naylor’s strikeout rate went from 17.2 percent in 2017 to 12.0 percent last year. The performance also followed an impressive Arizona Fall League in which he hit .304-3-14 in 19 games.
Naylor’s major league arrival isn’t exactly around the corner, especially if he remains with the Padres. San Diego’s current outfield depth chart is loaded, and Eric Hosmer is now the long-term first baseman. Still, with the progress Naylor showed last season, he’s looking like a surefire regular in the majors, and he has a good shot to see regular playing time during the second half if he gets off to a nice start at Triple-A. The batting average and contact improvement we’ve seen recently makes him a player to stash in NL-only leagues.
Kevin Newman, SS, Pirates
Hello, Newman! The 19th overall draft choice in the 2015 draft, Newman arrived to the majors late last season and is currently set to compete with Erik Gonzalez for the starting shortstop job in Pittsburgh. The Arizona alum has a typical 1980’s shortstop skillset, with great contact ability, defense, and some speed. After a down 2017 season, he hit .302-4-35 with 28 steals in 477 plate appearances at Triple-A Indianapolis last season. He also hit .320 in 2016 between High-A and Double-A.
While Newman struggled in his major league debut, there is reason to think he has more ability to hit in the majors based on his skillset. Last season he fanned only 50 times in 477 plate appearances at Triple-A (10.5 percent strikeout rate), and he’s shown consistently strong contact ability up through the minors. It’s still possible Pittsburgh could sign another shortstop to compete with Newman and Gonzalez, but for now Newman has a great shot at winning the starting job. There’s plenty of ability for him to help in NL-only leagues.
Kevan Smith, C, Angels
Smith was claimed off waivers by the Angels in late October from the White Sox, and he makes for an interesting catcher if the team doesn’t make any additional moves at the position this offseason. Obviously, the prospect of value would be shattered if the Angels sign one of the remaining catching free agents such as Yasmani Grandal or former starter Martin Maldonado, but for now Smith has a great shot to pick up more at-bats next to Jose Briceno.
He’s already hit .281 in 497 career plate appearances, and there’s reason to think that can continue if he sees semi-regular playing time. Smith drastically improved his contact rate last season, fanning less than 10 percent of the time (18 strikeouts in 187 plate appearances), and the 30-year-old was a career .284 hitter in the minors. It’s worth noting his 9.6 percent strikeout rate was a bit out of character with what we’ve seen from Smith in the past, but he’s generally been an above average contact hitter for his career (14.1 percent strikeout rate). With more plate appearances, Smith is definitely rosterable as a second catcher in AL-only leagues.