First-round picks get all the attention, but they’re usually pretty straightforward, and the late rounds are where smart, bold owners can really separate themselves from the rest of the league by making tough choices once all the big names are off the board. Let everyone else pay for last season’s numbers while you snatch up high-upside breakout picks and overlooked bounceback candidates.
Below are 22 names to target, including undervalued veterans, relative unknowns on the rise, good players capable of being great and hype-worthy prospects. They’ll out-perform your leaguemates’ cheat sheets, so don’t be afraid to look silly in the short term. Last year our “sleepers” touted Francisco Liriano, Hisashi Iwakuma, Glen Perkins, Domonic Brown, Jason Grilli, Jean Segura, Stephen Drew and Alex Cobb.
Matt Adams, 1B, St. Louis Cardinals
Adams gets his first crack at a full-time gig after faring very well as a part-timer in 2013. He may disappoint somewhat in batting average thanks to a high strikeout rate and iffy plate discipline, but Adams totaled 50 homers in 185 games between Double-A and Triple-A before going deep 19 times in 410 plate appearances for the Cardinals. Big Mayo will do plenty of damage in the middle of the order.
Oswaldo Arcia, OF, Minnesota Twins
Arcia was very streaky as a 22-year-old rookie and finished with good, but not great, numbers in part due to a wrist injury, but he showed tremendous power potential in a ballpark where left-handed slugging has been rare. His plate discipline figures to be an issue long term, and Arcia may never post huge batting averages, although he did hit .328 at Double-A and .313 at Triple-A. He’s a small investment in big RBIs.
Heath Bell, RP, Tampa Bay Rays
Following in the footsteps of Fernando Rodney, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour and Kyle Farnsworth as Rays bullpen reclamation projects, Bell comes to Tampa Bay as the favorite to close. He’s been a punchline for two years thanks to a 4.59 ERA and some ghastly blown saves, but Bell also had 131 strikeouts in 129 innings during that time and averaged 93.2 miles per hour on his fastball in 2013.
Kole Calhoun, OF, Los Angeles Angels
Calhoun played well enough as a rookie (and is cheap enough) that he should get an extended look in the Angels’ outfield this year. At age 26, he lacks long-term upside, but Calhoun hit .318 with 26 homers, 22 steals and a .940 OPS in 164 total games at Triple-A. Some of that is due to a hitter-friendly environment, but Calhoun draws walks without whiffing a ton and has a nice power-speed combo.
Khris Davis, OF, Milwaukee Brewers
Milwaukee traded Norichika Aoki to clear space in the outfield for Davis after he hit 11 homers in a 56-game debut. His track record in the minors suggests he is more of a 25-homer threat than a 40-homer threat, and at age 26 he’s likely done developing, but he’s expected to play every day and can definitely mash with a combined .865 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A.
Adam Eaton, OF, Chicago White Sox
Traded from Arizona to Chicago in the Mark Trumbo three-team deal, Eaton takes over as the White Sox’s center fielder and leadoff man with a chance to have a big fantasy impact. Eaton held his own in 88 games as a major leaguer through age 24 and hit .365 with 38 steals in 129 games at Triple-A. Those numbers are inflated by a hitter-friendly environment, but he’ll be an asset in batting average and steals.
Doug Fister, SP, Washington Nationals
Fister was an afterthought in the Tigers’ stacked rotation, and the same will be true with the Nationals, but don’t let that obscure how good he’s been. Among the 81 starters to throw at least 400 innings from 2011-2013, he ranked 16th in ERA and 13th in K/BB ratio. He’s a No. 2 starter who’s played the role of a No. 4 starter, and moving to the NL should give his good but not great strikeout rate a nice boost.
Evan Gattis, C/OF, Atlanta Braves
Gattis figures to be pretty rough defensively behind the plate and will likely make way too many outs to be anything close to an elite hitter in real life, but if the Braves give him 500-plus plate appearances following the departure of Brian McCann, he’ll launch at least 25 homers and knock in a bunch of runs. During the past three years, no catcher hit more than 30 homers, and only five hit more than 25 homers.
Kevin Gausman, SP, Baltimore Orioles
On the surface, it looks like Gausman struggled in his debut with the Orioles, but go beyond the ugly 5.66 ERA, and you’ll see a fantastic 49/13 K/BB ratio in 48 innings for the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft. He blitzed through the minors, making just 20 starts with a 95/15 K/BB ratio in 97 innings, and with an average fastball of 95.9 miles per hour, he has the raw stuff to match the big strikeout rates.
Yan Gomes, C, Cleveland Indians
Gomes came out of nowhere to post an .826 OPS and throw out 41 percent of steal attempts, making the Indians reconsider whether Carlos Santana should be spending so much time behind the plate. Gomes’ batting average is likely to crash because he strikes out a lot and doesn’t walk much, but the 20-homer power is for real. Dating back to 2011, he’s averaged 24 homers per 550 at-bats in the minors and majors.
Alexander Guerrero, 2B, Los Angeles Dodgers
Guerrero signed a four-year, $32 million contract after defecting from Cuba and is expected to take over for Mark Ellis as the Dodgers’ second baseman. Projections for foreign players are part science and part guesswork, but he hit .290 with 21 homers and good plate discipline in 330 plate appearances last year, nearly cracking a 1.000 OPS. Given the low standard for middle infield offense, he’s worth gambling on.
Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati Reds
While perhaps not technically a “sleeper” in that anyone paying any attention knows about the fastest man in baseball, the full scope of Hamilton’s base-stealing potential might still be understated. There are questions about his ability to get on base as a big leaguer, but even with an OBP around .300 he’d likely lead the NL in steals and at .340 or so he could become the first 100-steal man since Vince Coleman in 1987.
Dan Haren, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Haren's health status made him a big question mark last winter, and he chose a one-year deal with an eye on resurrecting his value and hitting the open market again. Things went horribly for him early on, but from July 1 through the end of the season, he started 15 games with a 3.29 ERA and 84/18 K/BB ratio in 88 innings. His upside has definitely been lowered by age and injuries, but he can still be plenty effective.
Roberto Hernandez, SP, Philadelphia Phillies
On one hand, the Rays not being able to fix a pitcher means he may not be fixable. On the other hand, Hernandez's secondary stats improved dramatically with just 38 walks in 151 innings after years of awful control and a decent number of strikeouts while maintaining a strong ground-ball rate. He's not the same pitcher he was back when his name was Fausto Carmona, but there's still reason to be intrigued.
Josh Johnson, SP, San Diego Padres
Johnson has always struggled to stay healthy and always pitched like an ace when not hurt, but last year he was injured and ineffective. However, his secondary stats were vastly superior to his bloated 6.20 ERA—including more than a strikeout per inning—and his fastball averaged 93 miles per hour. He’s a big risk, but with Petco Park on his side and a one-year contract, the payoff could be even bigger.
Scott Kazmir, SP, Oakland A’s
Kazmir was a dominant young starter for the Rays and then rapidly deteriorated to the point that he posted a 5.34 ERA in independent ball. He made an incredible comeback with the Indians, racking up strikeouts at the same rate that made him a star in the first place and finished strong with a 43/4 K/BB ratio in September. Kazmir is a risk, but he's still just 29, and Oakland is an ideal landing spot.
Tim Lincecum, SP, San Francisco Giants
Lincecum obviously isn’t what he once was in terms of raw stuff or results, but his secondary numbers have been significantly better than his ugly ERAs in each of the past two seasons. He still generates around a strikeout per inning despite averaging just 90 miles per hour with his fastball, and Lincecum’s swinging strike rate ranked among the 10 best in baseball. He figures to be a very solid draft-day value.
Rick Porcello, SP, Detroit Tigers
You wouldn’t know it based on his ERA, but Porcello took a major step forward last season. After years of posting terrible strikeout rates, he upped his missed bats by 30 percent and induced a career-high 55.3 percent ground balls. And while he’s been around seemingly forever, Porcello is still just 25 years old. He should benefit from the Tigers’ improved defense and has a chance to have a breakout fantasy season.
Jurickson Profar, SS/2B, Texas Rangers
Profar’s presence helps explain why the Rangers felt comfortable parting with Ian Kinsler. His rookie numbers were nothing special, but simply playing regularly in the majors at age 20 is special in itself. This time last year he was widely considered the top prospect in baseball and Profar has a balanced all-around skill set with plate discipline, 20-homer power and 20-steal speed.
Danny Salazar, SP, Cleveland Indians
As a rookie, Salazar had trouble working deep into games, but he pitched effectively with a 3.12 ERA in 10 starts, and there’s no doubting his monstrous upside at age 24. Salazar averaged 96.3 miles per hour with his fastball and racked up 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings in his debut. And it was no fluke, as he struck out 10.8 batters per nine innings between Double-A and Triple-A. There’s no. 1 starter potential here.
Drew Smyly, SP, Detroit Tigers
Doug Fister’s departure from the Tigers’ rotation opens up a spot for Smyly, who thrived in a relief role last season. He won’t be as dominant pitching every fifth day, but Smyly had a 3.99 ERA and 94/33 K/BB ratio in 18 starts as a 23-year-old rookie in 2012, and his minor-league track record is impressive. He’s capable of emerging as one of the better young left-handers in the league.
Jonathan Villar, SS, Houston Astros
Villar didn’t hit much as a 22-year-old rookie, and his long-term potential offensively is in question, but the guy can run. He figures to be one of the cheapest options with a legitimate chance of stealing 40 bases, with the added bonus of playing a position where late-round value is scarce in general. Villar averaged 50 steals per 150 games between Double-A and Triple-A and does have the power for double-digit homers.