It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2018 or even drafting now. The hot stove league is just taking shape, but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2018 fantasy baseball season.
For the fourth 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.
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
Ozzie Albies, 2B, Braves
Albies is well known in prospect circles and due to his excellent rookie debut last season. Promoted by Atlanta on August 1, the 20-year-old hit .286-6-28 with eight steals and 34 runs scored over 57 games. That followed a great showing at Triple-A Gwinnett in which Albies hit .285-9-41 with 21 steals in 23 attempts over 97 games. For the year, Albies showed drastically improved base stealing skills between the minors and majors, as he was successful on 29 of 32 attempts after being successful on only 30 of 43 attempts between Double- and Triple-A in 2016.
The Braves weren’t shy about rewarding Albies late in the year, as he hit either leadoff or No. 2 in the batting order in every game that he started during September. It’s no coincidence that six of his eight steals came during that month, and at least to this point, the Braves haven’t added anyone in the offseason who will challenge Albies for a spot near the top of the batting order alongside Ender Inciarte. The organization is expected to promote top prospect Ronald Acuna at some point, who swiped 44 bases last season, but he likely fits better in the middle of the batting order after hitting .325-21-82 last season. Based on last year’s success, speed, and rapidly improving skills, Albies is a fair bet for 30 steals, yet his ADP is hovering around 156 in NFBC, a cheap price to pay for a player who can also be an asset for batting average and runs.
Franchy Cordero, OF, Padres
Cordero didn’t get much of an opportunity last season after being promoted by the Padres in late May, finishing the season with only 30 MLB games. That’s likely due to the fact that he was overmatched when he was in the majors, fanning 44 times in only 99 plate appearances. Indeed, strikeouts have been a major issue during Cordero’s pro career, as his 28 percent strikeout rate at Triple-A El Paso showed last season. Still, the speed and tools are undeniable. Cordero hit .326-17-64 with 15 steals, 21 doubles, and a whopping 18 triples, albeit in an extreme hitter’s park, but produced those impressive counting stats in only 93 games. That followed his breakout 2016 season in which he hit .290-11-54 with 23 steals, 24 doubles, and 16 triples, mostly between High-A and Double-A. Cordero has continued to make waves with a strong showing at the Dominican Winter League, hitting .323-5-25 with six steals in 50 games at age 23.
While much of the offseason buzz in the Padres outfield has surrounded Manuel Margot, Cordero has gone relatively unmentioned. At the moment, he’s at least in the conversation to compete for the left field spot in spring training against Alex Dickerson, Jose Pirela, and possibly Cory Spangenberg. For all the strengths that the group holds, Cordero is certainly the most talented offensively. There is cheap 20 steal upside if and when Cordero does get his chance, and the rest of his roto upside will help support those “cheap” steals as a flier stash, sitting near 606 in NFBC ADP.
Leonys Martin, OF, Tigers
It wasn’t a fun 2017 season for Martin owners, as the outfielder turned out to be a massive bust after swiping 24 bases and hitting 15 home runs as the Mariners starting center fielder in 2016. The performance was so poor (.174-3-8 with six steals in 34 games) that Martin spent most of his year at Triple-A and was shipped to the Cubs for basically nothing at the end of August.
As poorly as Martin fared last season, his one-year, $1.75 million contract signed in early December with Detroit went under the radar. Still, he couldn’t have picked a better destination for playing time, with the Tigers full speed ahead in a rebuild. At the time of this writing, Detroit has Nicholas Castellanos and Mikie Mahtook entrenched as starters in the outfield, while Martin and JaCoby Jones are the only options with MLB experience for the final spot. Otherwise, top outfield prospects Mike Gerber and Christin Stewart could be factors in 2018 but have almost no experience above Double-A. For all of Martin’s faults, he does have plenty of MLB experience, and stolen bases are at a premium for fantasy owners. Martin is entering his age 30 season but has averaged more than 30 steals in his three seasons as a full-time regular between Texas and Seattle. If the competition remains as bleak in spring training as it is now, he’s a fine flier for cheap steals.
Raul Mondesi, 2B, Royals
The Royals are entering a full rebuild, and at least for now, Mondesi is a top candidate to take over for free agent Alcides Escobar at shortstop. We’ve seen Mondesi in the majors over the last two seasons, along with the 2015 playoffs, but the results have been less than stellar at the plate. He’s hit just .181/.226/.271 in 209 plate appearances, though the son of the former All-Star outfielder by the same name also has 14 steals in that time. As discouraging as the major league results have been, Mondesi did have a breakout season at Triple-A Omaha last year, hitting .305-13-52 with 21 steals in 85 games, and he was still younger than the competition, turning 22 in late July.
KC was forced to replace Mondesi in mid-April after a slow start last year, but they can afford to be much more patient in 2018. Simply put, the organization knows that they’re not going to compete in a top-heavy AL, and Mondesi’s defense has been long regarded as Gold Glove caliber. Currently, the major competition for the shortstop job on the Royals roster is Ramon Torres, a player who has shown similar offensive deficiencies until last season. Even if Mondesi continues to struggle with the bat, he’s shown the speed to be a potential 30-plus steal asset. For a miniscule price (329 ADP in NFBC), Mondesi brings some upside in a scarce category.
Single League Sleepers
Tony Kemp, OF, Astros
Kemp was actually mentioned in this spot two years ago, and yet here we are again. The 5-6 utilityman has done nothing wrong in that time, but Houston’s depth has limited him to only 175 plate appearances to this point in his major league career. During that time, he’s hit only .217 with three steals, but the minor league stats still show a player we should watch closely. The natural second baseman had another excellent year at Triple-A in 2017, hitting .329-10-62 with 24 steals and 35/43 BB/K in 552 plate appearances. Through five seasons in the minors, Kemp has hit .310/.388/.419 and has swiped 20-plus bases four times.
That numbers satisfy statheads, but Kemp’s lack of size still hasn’t made him a scouting favorite. Perhaps that’s why he remains in the Astros organization and not with another team that can give him a shot at playing time. We can still keep our fingers crossed that something changes, but the ability Kemp has shown in the minors is still worth stashing in AL-only leagues given the difficulty of finding speed.
Rafael Ortega, OF, Marlins
Give Ortega and his agent credit, they found a great destination for him to get another shot at playing time after the Marlins traded Marcell Ozuna and Giancarlo Stanton this offseason. Plus, judging by media reports, a Christian Yelich trade could also be forthcoming. Ortega didn’t appear in the majors last season, but he did see 202 plate appearances with the Angels in 2016. He didn’t hit in that opportunity (.575 OPS), but Ortega did have eight steals. Last season was spent at hitter-friendly Triple-A El Paso in the Padres organization, hitting .317-6-53 with 26 steals and 46/49 BB/K in 472 plate appearances.
Capable of playing all three outfield sports, Ortega has been a regular double-digit base stealer in the minors. Already with his fifth MLB organization at age 27, Ortega has swiped as many at 39 bases in one season as a minor leaguer, and he’s regularly shown leadoff skills since arriving to Triple-A in 2014, with a .367 on-base percentage at that level for his career. As we sit now, Magneuris Sierra and Yelich are penciled in as outfield starters, but the entire Marlins roster is obviously fluid as they continue the Derek Jeter ownership firesale. We should know more about Ortega’s potential opportunity entering spring training, but it’s looking promising at this time.
Magneuris Sierra, OF, Marlins
The aforementioned Sierra was acquired from the Cardinals in the Marcell Ozuna trade, and looks like the Marlins center fielder of the future. Highly regarded defensively, Sierra was promoted from the low minors when the Cardinals were desperate for help last May and got at least one hit in each of his first seven games. The opportunities for the rest of the year were less consistent, as the Cardinals continued to develop the 21-year-old in the minors. He finished the year hitting .270-1-44 with 20 steals in 442 plate appearances between High-A and Double-A, along with .317 in 60 major league at-bats.
Whether he’s truly ready for the majors, the Marlins might just see if Sierra will sink or swim at the beginning of the season given their lack of major league talent. After all, he does have some major league experience already, and scouts have generally believed that he will hit for average at the highest level, as he’s hit above .300 twice in his minor league career. Sierra’s base stealing skills are still extremely raw, as shown by his success on only 20-of-30 attempts in the minors last season and 31-of-48 attempts in 2016. Still, the Marlins are clearly a team that will need to manufacture runs, and Sierra could be a cheap 20-plus steals in his official rookie campaign.
Tyler Wade, 2B, Yankees
The Yankees traded last year’s starting second baseman, Starlin Castro, in the Giancarlo Stanton trade, and as we stand now the job will be a competition between Wade, Ronald Torreyes, and elite prospect Gleyber Torres. Wade shouldn’t be overlooked after a very good season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre at age 22. He hit .310/.382/.460 in 386 plate appearances and swiped 26 bases in 31 attempts. He’s generally been a very solid on-base hitter, with a career .355 on-base percentage in the minors, and swiped more than 20 bases for the fourth consecutive season.
If the Yankees don’t make additional moves, Torres is likely Wade’s biggest competition entering the year. Torres is a natural shortstop and a truly elite prospect, but GM Brian Cashman said recently that he will likely need more minor league seasoning. That’s not surprising considering that Torres played only 23 games at Triple-A last season and is coming off of Tommy John surgery last June. In addition, as the Yankees roster stands now, Torres could emerge as the team’s third baseman after they traded Chase Headley. As for Torreyes, he saw 336 plate appearances last season but produced just a .689 OPS, so the upside seems far more limited than either Wade or Torres. For a very minor investment, Wade is capable of being a nice jolt for steals at the beginning of the year in AL-only leagues.