It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2020. The hot stove league is still developing, but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2020 fantasy baseball season.
For the sixth year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. So far we’ve looked at batting average, WHIP, home run, strikeout, ERA, stolen base, and saves sleepers. In the eighth installment of the series we’ll be reviewing hitters who can be sleepers for RBI. 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). After looking at categories that were more based on player skill over the first five weeks, we shift to categories that are more dependent on opportunity, supporting cast, and batting order spot.
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.
Fantasy owners sometimes overlook the simplest of concepts in projecting RBI hitters and potential sleepers for the category. An analysis of past production by batting order is a great exercise to help project the leaders and breakouts in the category. The following table is an update of the same info presented last year, showing a breakdown of the average RBI per game by lineup spot over the last three seasons.
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Average RBI per Game
It’s quite clear that batting order spots 3-5 are the most productive for RBI, as expected. Since teams usually stack their best hitters in these spots, it comes as little surprise. However, the RBI production isn’t just about the talent at those spots. The Book: Player the Percentages in Baseball by Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin gives a great breakdown of RBI opportunities by spot in the batting order, albeit with data from the 2000s hitting era.
|Batting Order||PA empty||PA men on||% with men on||Number of Runners On|
Batting order spots 3-5 see a significant increase in plate appearances with men on, as well as more runners on during those plate appearances. This is particularly important to remember in-season when you are trying to beef up on the RBI category via trade or waiver pick up.
With all these facts in mind, the list of RBI sleepers below is dependent on both hitting ability AND possible opportunity to hit 3-5 in the batting order.
Robinson Cano, 2B, Mets
It’s hard to imagine how Cano’s first season with the Mets could have gone worse. The veteran second baseman was acquired from Seattle prior to the season, looking to rebound from an abbreviated 2019 campaign due to a PED suspension. His struggles added fuel to the skeptics following his positive test, as Cano hit only .256-13-39 in 107 games and missed significant time due to quad and hamstring injuries.
As Cano enters his age 37 season, there doesn’t seem to be great optimism about a rebound based on his ADP (383 in NFBC leagues). There’s obvious risk after his last two seasons, but the eight-time All-Star does have his lineup spot going for him. Cano hit between the 3-5 spots in the Mets batting order for the vast majority of last season, and that’s expected to continue in a lineup mostly unadjusted from last season. That’s not to say Cano couldn’t play himself out of the middle of the order if he gets off to another slow start, but for the minimal price, there’s major profit to be had due to opportunity.
Corey Dickerson, OF, Marlins
Miami is in their third year of a rebuild, but has started to turn the corner with some reputable veteran additions this offseason. One of the more significant additions was Dickerson, who signed a two-year, $17.5 million contract. The outfielder has found success at the plate in every stop of his career, most recently with the Pirates and Phillies last season (.304-12-59 in 279 plate appearances). The move to Miami isn’t great for his power given the roomy park dimensions, but there is one very positive tradeoff.
The Marlins lineup continues to develop, but it’s clear Dickerson will be hitting in the middle of the order. Dickerson hit all over the batting order last season, getting playing time in spots 1-6, but the Marlins will almost certainly hit the outfielder in the middle of the order with a lineup that’s mostly lacking power. Among the team’s presumed regulars, only Brian Anderson hit 20 home runs last season. Dickerson is one of few players in MLB who has hit .300-plus in back-to-back seasons, and has also shown capable of hitting for power with at least 24 home runs in three seasons. While he’s never hit more than 76 RBI in a season, Dickerson shouldn’t have much of a problem setting a career high in RBI if he can stay healthy.
Evan Longoria, 3B, Giants
It’s apparent fantasy owners have moved on from Longoria, judging from his NFBC ADP (488). That draft spot means that he’s been undrafted in most 12-team mixed leagues, and it’s easy to see why the price has dropped after consecutive down years in San Francisco. Longo enters his age 34 season having barely reached 500 plate appearances in back-to-back years due to injuries, as well.
Perhaps we shouldn’t overlook Longoria just yet. The Giants were offensively challenged last season and haven’t made many moves to fix those issues this offseason. Longoria got all but 12 of his starts last season in the 3-5 spots in the batting order, and the lack of moves likely mean that he will get another shot in the middle of the batting order. There’s still an argument to be made that Longoria is deserving after hitting at least 20 home runs for the 10th time last season, and his 20 home runs actually ranked third on the team last year behind only Mike Yastrzemski and the departed Kevin Pillar. Longoria doesn’t exactly have on-base machines hitting ahead of him, but he should provide enough RBI production when he’s healthy to continue helping fantasy owners.
Tom Murphy, C, Mariners
Seattle’s rebuild continues this offseason, as they continue to shed MLB talent. One of their most significant losses was Omar Narvaez, but that move opened up a starting spot for the talented Murphy. The long-time Rockies farmhand finally got a real opportunity last season, and made the most of it hitting .273-18-40 in only 281 plate appearances. That power production wasn’t a mirage based on his minor league numbers that include 47 home runs in 875 career plate appearances at Triple-A, though it should also be noted that Murphy feasted on lefties, hitting 11 of his 18 home runs against them in only 130 plate appearances.
Murphy is slated for a more full-time role this season, as well as a chance to hit in the middle of the order. The catcher saw more starts in the fifth spot of the batting order than any other position last year, and he has a chance to move up to cleanup early this season with Mitch Haniger out indefinitely and the M’s thin on power. With that opportunity, Murphy currently looks like a bargain as the 17th catcher off the board in NFBC leagues at ADP 248.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pirates
Like the Mariners, Pittsburgh has been shedding talent this offseason. Most notably, they traded star outfielder Starling Marte and only added Jarrod Dyson to replace him. That means the team will be counting on their other talent to pick up the slack, and Polanco will be one of the most important pieces. His last two seasons have been disrupted by a shoulder injury, as his 2018 season ended prematurely, and Polanco appeared in only 42 games last year. Despite those recent struggles, it’s worth remembering that Polanco has two seasons with at least 20 home runs and 80 RBI over his last four campaigns.
Marte served regularly as the Pirates No. 3 hitter last season. With him out of the way, the rest of the lineup is set to move up, including Polanco. At age 28, Polanco will almost certainly hit in the 3-4 spots in the batting order regularly on a team that lacks much power beyond him and Josh Bell. There’s reasonable distrust from fantasy owners after an injury-plagued season, but an ADP of 314 in NFBC brings a great chance at profit, especially considering Polanco is also a capable runner with double-digit steals in four seasons.
Anthony Santander, OF, Orioles
Like last season, Baltimore’s roster is a mess, and it’s rational to expect them to be a bottom feeder in the AL again after losing 108 games last season. Regardless of last year’s struggles, the O’s did discover some hitting talent on their roster, with Santander one of the most noteworthy breakouts. The former Rule 5 draft choice finally got a real shot in his third MLB season, and hit .261-20-59 in only 405 plate appearances while playing all three outfield spots.
Santander found most of his starts (48) as Baltimore’s No. 3 hitter last season, finishing out the year in that spot. That lineup spot put him on a clear 100 RBI pace when stretched over a full season, and he seems very likely to remain in the middle of the order without much talent around him. There is some reason to be wary regarding Santander’s ability with a career .702 OPS at Triple-A over 256 plate appearances, but the Orioles don’t have many great outfield alternatives. With an ADP of 369, Santander has a lot of upside and won’t kill you if he does face plant.
Travis Shaw, 3B, Blue Jays
The 2019 season is one that Shaw would like to forget. After hitting 30-plus home runs in back-to-back seasons with Milwaukee, Shaw adjusted his swing last offseason and was lost for the entire year. He ended the year hitting a pitiful .157-7-16 in 270 plate appearances, so it wasn’t a shock that the Brewers opted to move on this offseason.
Shaw has reverted back to his old approach as he enters his age 30 season, and the first base job is his to lose in spring training. The Blue Jays have also stated that he will hit fifth or sixth in the batting order, which looks like a favorable spot on paper behind the likes of Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the batting order. Last year’s struggles are priced into Shaw’s 349 ADP in NFBC, but he seems like easy profit at that spot if he can have any semblance of a rebound given the situation, as well as pending first base eligibility.
Christin Stewart, OF, Tigers
Like Baltimore, the Tigers are set to be a really bad team again this season. The organization does see some light at the end of the tunnel with several elite pitching prospects in the upper minors, but there isn’t much top-end hitting talent coming soon. They will be counting mostly on what’s available at the MLB level, such as former top prospect Stewart. He had a rough first full season in the majors, hitting only .233-10-40 in 416 plate appearances and spent significant time in the minors.
Even with last year’s struggles, Stewart has a great chance to hit in the middle of the order again given his minor league history and the lack of talent around him. He’s hit at least 25 home runs three times in the minors, and spent September in spots 4-6 of the batting order. The additions of C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop have given Detroit more pop, but Stewart still slots in well as the cleanup hitter against right-handed pitching to give the middle of the order the optimal right-left-right alignment between Miguel Cabrera and Cron. Of course, it’s unlikely Stewart will be given a proverbial blank check if he struggles to begin the year, but the outfielder is in a great spot with a 629 ADP in NFBC leagues. Basically, fantasy owners can get rare 25 home run, 80 RBI upside for a flier.