It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2020 or even drafting now. The hot stove league is just taking shape, 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. The first five articles in the series were batting average, WHIP, home run, strikeout, and ERA sleepers. This week, we’ll be looking at stolen base sleepers. 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.
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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.
Saves are one of the most frustrating categories for fantasy owners because we are at the mercy of major league managers. Much of the fun in fantasy preparation is forecasting based on indicators, talent, and predictable skill, yet saves are just as much about opportunity and being in the right place at the right time.
Below is a rundown of the obvious saves sleepers heading into 2020 – mostly pitchers with a history of closing and at least a fair probability of getting a significant opportunity to close at some point this season. Also, there are a few less obvious picks to keep an eye on. Despite our best efforts to predict, there will surely be a few new closers crowned in 2020 that no one expected. That makes the strategy of dumping saves seem that much more attractive.
The Obvious (Mixed League Worthy)
Nick Anderson, RP, Rays
What a year it’s been for Anderson. Basically an anonymous 28-year-old pitcher in Marlins camp last year, Anderson had just finished his fourth season as a minor leaguer in the Twins organization following time in the Independent Frontier League. He was highly effective as a reliever in the MLB-affiliated minors, with a 2.25 ERA and 11.4 K/9 over 183.2 innings for his career, but Minnesota traded him to Miami in November, 2018. Anderson managed to make the Marlins out of spring training and blossom into a setup man with a 3.92 ERA and 14.2 K/9 before he was shipped up the state to Tampa Bay at the trade deadline.
Anderson got even better in his new digs, with a 2.11 ERA and unbelievable 41/2 K/BB in 21.1 innings with the Rays to end the regular season. All offseason, it looked like he’d serve in the same role in 2020 until the Rays threw fantasy owners a curveball last week, trading assumed closer Emilio Pagan to the Padres. Thus, the hard-throwing Anderson (96 mph average fastball last season) is in the thick of the closer conversation for the Rays heading into spring training. Anderson has experience closing in the minors, but he will also have competition with the experienced Jose Alvarado assumed healthy again and Diego Castillo also recording eight saves in 2019. The Rays have often used committees in the past, so it’s tough to apply a 20-plus save projection to Anderson with much confidence, but Anderson’s performance last year should at least put him near the front of the line. Since the Pagan trade, Anderson’s ADP is around 191 in NFBC leagues, putting him between the likes of Jose Leclerc and Archie Bradley. For the accompanying skillset and huge strikeout numbers, that’s still a price that can lead to big profit.
Yoshihisa Hirano, RP, Mariners
Last year was constant frustration for fantasy owners trying to forecast saves from Mariners relievers, and this year might not be much different. Matt Magill finished out the year as the team’s closer, tallying five saves over the final two months, but up until that point fantasy owners had spent the year speculating on Hunter Strickland, Sam Tuivailala, Anthony Swarzak, and Roenis Elias, among others. The final product was only 34 saves for the year from the team.
Magill is now the incumbent, but the recent addition of Hirano gives him significant competition. A former full-time closer in Japan, Hirano converted at least 29 saves four times before signing with Arizona in 2018. He got a cup of coffee as a closer fill-in for the Diamondbacks but struggled in his second MLB season with a 4.75 ERA. Seattle is clearly a great opportunity for the soon-to-be 36-year-old, and his bread-and-butter splitter remained effective last season despite the struggles. For all we saw from Magill last season, he still has a shaky track record, including a BB/9 above 3.5 in each of the last two seasons. Hirano’s experience makes him the clear fallback if he can rebound, and last year’s 10.4 K/9 still makes him plenty intriguing.
Daniel Hudson, RP, Nationals
Washington’s bullpen situation deserves far more discussion than it’s received this winter. Sean Doolittle has spent the last 2.5 seasons as the team’s regular closer, but that changed late last year and into the playoffs when he was apparently worn down. Instead, Hudson filled in and did a great job with six regular season saves and four playoff saves for the World Series Champs. The Nats rewarded him with a two-year contract this offseason after arguably his best season as a reliever with a 2.47 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 71 strikeouts in 73 innings. The team also added former Astros setup man Will Harris, who has converted 20 saves over the last five seasons, further complicating matters.
Judging by NFBC ADP, fantasy owners apparently believe that Doolittle will reclaim the closer role. The lefty’s ADP is around 212 over the last week. Trailing him are Hudson (370) and Harris (664). For all the success Doolittle has had as a closer, it’s worth noting that he’s basically a one-pitch pitcher whose velocity has declined significantly in consecutive seasons, and he also saw a sharp decline in strikeout rate last year, along with a terrible 1.7 HR/9. 2019 was also only the third time in Doolittle’s nine-year career that he reached 60 appearances. Of course, it’s tough to expect a repeat from Hudson, considering his ERA above 4.00 in three consecutive years leading up to 2019 along with a 3.97 FIP last year. Though, given the minimal cost and fact that Hudson finished 2019 as the closer, this is a nice profit opportunity.
Scott Oberg, RP, Rockies
Earlier this week Rockies manager Bud Block announced Wade Davis as his closer this season. With all due respect to Davis and his terrific career accomplishments, this seems like an endorsement more based on contract than skill following last season. Davis had one of the worst reliever seasons in recent memory during 2019 with an 8.65 ERA and 1.45 K/BB ratio in 42.2 innings, but he’s set to earn $17 million this year in the final season of his contract.
Oberg, on the other hand, has been terrific over the last two seasons (2.35 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 105 appearances) and converted five saves last year before undergoing surgery for a blood clot in his pitching arm. The Rockies extended Oberg’s contract in the offseason, and the team hasn’t made any significant bullpen moves since 2019 ended. Davis’ velocity has declined in four consecutive seasons, and he simply can’t be trusted until he shows something resembling his old form. Oberg is being taken ahead of Davis in NFBC leagues over the last week (298 vs. 413 ADP), and even that ADP puts Oberg at the end of drafts.
The Less Obvious (Single League Worthy)
Trevor Gott, RP, Giants
New Giants manager Gabe Kapler has always been a public proponent of closer committees and multiple-inning relievers since his time in Philadelphia, and it’s looking like that preference will be on full display early in San Francisco this season. That matches San Francisco’s offseason moves or lack thereof in their bullpen. The team allowed last year’s closer, Will Smith, to walk in free agency, and haven’t added a relief arm with notable closing experience. Going into spring training, only Tony Watson has significant MLB closer experience, but he’s coming off a season in which he posted a 4.17 ERA with a K/9 that fell by three strikeouts compared to 2018.
That’s not to say that Watson won’t remain in the saves conversation, but Trevor Gott, Shaun Anderson, and Tyler Rogers are other names worth watching. All of those pitchers have their fair share of pros and cons, but my money is on Gott. The journeyman right-hander had a 4.44 ERA in 50 appearances for San Francisco last year, but he also showed a dominant arm with a 9.7 K/9, 3.35 K/BB ratio, and 3.12 FIP. For what it’s worth, Gott also has minor league closing experience (38 career saves) and a dominant mid-90’s four-seam fastball. His 2019 season ended on a sour note with elbow and groin injuries, but he’s 100% heading into spring training and showed the growth last year to be worth a flier.
Hunter Harvey, RP, Orioles
There isn’t much conversation about saves for an Orioles squad coming off a 54-win season and doing little to improve in the offseason. Last season Mychal Givens was at the head of a closer committee, notching 11 saves for a team that had only 27 saves for the entire season. It was truly a frustrating season for Givens owners who invested thinking he would be the full-time closer after tallying nine saves in 2018. Givens has remained a strikeout machine over the last two seasons despite a cumulative 4.25 ERA and 3.71 FIP in 127 appearances.
Givens is the likely frontrunner for saves entering the season, but former top prospect Hunter Harvey could also figure into the conversation. The former first-round pick and top prospect has struggled to stay healthy during his pro career, but got an opportunity to pitch out of Baltimore’s bullpen late last season and shined in the role with 11 strikeouts in 6.1 innings. He’s had an inconsistent career in the minors with a 3.67 ERA overall, but Harvey has shown dominant stuff with a career 10.7 K/9. His fastball averaged a sizzling 98 mph during his time with the O’s last year, so there’s obvious prototypical closer pedigree.
Alex Reyes, P, Cardinals
The Cardinals have had one heck of a time finding quality relief pitching in free agency over recent years. The front office has whiffed on the likes of Luke Gregerson, Brett Cecil, and Greg Holland, with Andrew Miller also struggling during his first season with the Cardinals last year. The team took a much quieter approach to free agency this offseason, and with 2019 second half closer Carlos Martinez getting stretched out again, it’s likely the team will have a new closer in 2020.
Fantasy owners have assumed to this point that Giovanny Gallegos is the name to own and for good reason. He posted a 2.31 ERA, 11.3 K/9, and 1.9 BB/9 in a setup role last season, his first as a full-time MLB reliever. Still, the team has yet to announce a closer and has other interesting options like Miller, Ryan Helsley, and an intriguing dark horse in Reyes. The oft-injured prospect is being groomed to pitch out of the pen this spring after three consecutive injury-plagued seasons. Still only 25, Reyes has a gaudy 12.4 K/9 in the minors for his career and a proven track record as a starter when he’s been healthy. The door is open for Reyes now, especially with former closer Jordan Hicks still recovering from Tommy John surgery for much of this season, and the strikeout upside shows potential as a late stash even if he doesn’t get a shot at saves soon.
Drew Steckenrider, RP, Marlins
Since their fire sale two years ago, Miami has had a lot of movement in the closer spot. Steckenrider looked like the favorite last spring after posting five saves in 2018, but he struggled with elbow problems for most of last season. Recently, the Marlins signed veteran reliever Brandon Kintzler, who looks like the closer going into spring training given his past experience in the role.
Kintzler’s ability should be respected, but on a one-year contract at age 35, he’s unlikely to be the long-term solution. Steckenrider should be healthy following arthroscopic surgery in August, and showed dominant ability in his first two MLB seasons with a 3.35 ERA and 11.6 K/9 over 108 appearances. Over the long year, Steckenrider could get a chance to earn back his closer credentials behind Kintzler, a reliever who pitches to contact (6.3 K/9 career) and is well worth a stash on NL-only benches.