The term “sleeper” is probably the most overused word when it comes to preseason fantasy prognostications. It’s all about context, as most, if not all, of the players listed below are well known in your league and most, if not all, will be drafted. For the purposes of this article, I’m simply saying that the following 15 players have a chance to outperform their draft position. Let’s get to it.
Joc Pederson, OF, Dodgers
Selected in the 11th round of the 2010 Draft, Pederson wasted little time in putting himself on the fantasy radar in dynasty leagues, hitting for average while showing power and speed right out of the chute. The 22-year-old got his first taste of Triple-A in 2014 and batted .303/.435/.582 with 33 homers, 78 RBI and 30 stolen bases, earning a cup of coffee in September. The offseason trade of Matt Kemp to the Padres means Yasiel Puig returns to his more comfortable position of right field while Pederson takes over in center. Pederson struck out a bunch at Triple-A (149 times in 553 plate appearances) and in his brief time in the majors (11 times in 38 plate appearances), so hitting for average right away probably isn’t going to happen. However, it would not be a surprise if the young outfielder is a 20/20 guy in his rookie season.
Andrew Heaney, SP, Angels
Heaney blazed through the minors, requiring no more than 15 starts at any one stop before making his major league debut for the Marlins last June. Things didn’t go as well as hoped in his brief stint with the big club, as he held a 5.83 ERA while serving up six homers across 29 1/3 innings. Those struggles could provide a nice buying opportunity if your fellow fantasy owners read too much into them. Heaney was fantastic on the farm, posting a 2.77 ERA and terrific 262/68 K/BB ratio over 259 2/3 frames. He also allowed just 15 homers, so his issues with the longball while with the Marlins look like a fluke. The left-hander is a safe bet to break camp as a member of the Angels’ rotation and will benefit from his spacious home yard at Angel Stadium.
Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies
As a former top prospect and two-time Gold Glove winner, Arenado isn’t going to be sneaking up on anyone. Still, I think there could be some value to be had here, as injury likely kept the young third baseman from having a true breakout season offensively in 2014. Everything trended right for Arenado last season, as his strikeout percentage was down, his walk percentage was up, his flyball percentage was way up and his flyball distance was up. Between a broken finger and a bout with pneumonia, Arenado missed two months of action, which meant his counting stats weren’t all that sexy. He’ll turn just 24 shortly after Opening Day, and this could be your last chance to get the future star at a discount.
Avisail Garcia, OF, White Sox
Garcia received plenty of sleeper attention last spring, as the talented young outfielder was in line to get his first shot at everyday at-bats at the major league level. Unfortunately, his 2014 campaign was sabotaged by injury, with Garcia suffering a torn labrum in his left shoulder while diving for a ball just a week into the season. The good news is that he recovered much quicker than expected, returning in mid-August and contributing five homers and four steals down the stretch. Garcia has never been a patient hitter, and he’s going to need to hit more flyballs in order to take advantage of his big raw power. However, he’ll turn just 24 in June and is slated to hit in the middle of a revamped White Sox lineup.
Kevin Gausman, SP, Orioles
One of the reasons the Orioles didn’t go after a big-name pitcher over the offseason is because they’re expecting Gausman to make big strides in 2015. I am, too. The former number four overall pick made 20 starts for the O’s last season, putting up a 3.57 ERA and 88/38 K/BB ratio over 113 1/3 innings. This was after he held a 3.32 mark while striking out a batter per frame at Triple-A. Gausman in 2014 didn’t get as many strikeouts as you’d expect for a guy who hits the upper-90s with his fastball, and it’s because his split-change and slider have lacked consistency. He’ll need to show improvement with his secondary offerings in order to take the next step, but the upside to be a frontline starter is clearly there.
Christian Yelich, OF, Marlins
Yelich’s first full season in the majors was a terrific one, as the 23-year-old outfielder sported a nifty .284/.362/.402 batting line with nine homers, 54 RBI, 94 runs scored and 21 stolen bases. Arguably the most impressive part about Yelich in 2014 was the plate discipline he showed. Not only did he draw 70 walks, but only four players swung at fewer pitches outside the strike zone than Yelich. He was over three years younger than the other players ranked in the top-10 in that category. That bodes quite well for Yelich’s future, as it’s very unusual for someone so young to show such an advanced approach. Yelich hits a ton of grounders, but there’s still double-digit home run potential in his bat. He’s going to be a five-category contributor for many years.
Wilmer Flores, SS, Mets
The Mets have struggled to find a defensive home for Flores, as he started games at every infield position in the minors and every infield position except for first base in the majors. The reason they’ve bothered trying to shoehorn him into spots is because his bat is potentially an impact one, with the 23-year-old sporting a .321/.360/.543 batting line the last two seasons at Triple-A. As it stands right now, the youngster is slated to be the team’s Opening Day shortstop. Flores doesn’t run, but he has good pop for a middle infielder and has consistently posted high contact rates, giving him a chance to hit for average.
Mookie Betts, OF, Red Sox
Betts followed his breakout 2013 season with an even more remarkable showing in 2014. He batted .346/.431/.529 with 11 homers, 65 RBI and 33 steals between Double- and Triple-A and capped it off with an impressive .291/.368/.444 showing with the big club that included five longballs, 18 RBI and seven pilfers across 213 plate appearances. When you consider that he accomplished all this during his age-21 season, it’s no wonder that the Red Sox believe Betts could be special. Shane Victorino is still around as part of a crowded Red Sox outfield, but all signs point to Betts being the right fielder on Opening Day. The upside here is enormous.
UPDATE: The Red Sox have named Victorino their right fielder, provided he's healthy. Still, the odds of Betts finding enough at-bats to be a quality fantasy option are high.
Yasmani Grandal, C, Dodgers
The Padres seemed to rush Grandal back from his ACL tear, as he wasn’t able to start back-to-back games for a while last season and ended up with an ugly .210/.299/.364 line in the first half. However, he finished strong with a .242/.356/.440 batting line after the All-Star break, which included a .291/.408/.519 line with four dingers in September. While Dodger Stadium is a pitcher-friendly ballpark, it’s less so than Petco Park and Grandal will also be part of a much better lineup in 2015 than he was in 2014. Still just 26, the former top prospect could be in line for a true breakout this coming season.
Steven Souza, OF, Rays
Souza was off the prospect radar five years into his professional career, as he had just finished hitting .228 at the High-A level. Something clicked for him in 2012, though, as he finally translated his ample tools into success with a .938 OPS, 23 homers, 85 RBI and 14 stolen bases between Low- and High-A. His OPS continued to climb in 2013 (.944) and 2014 (1.004) as he scaled the organizational ladder, culminating in a brief appearance in the majors. The Rays targeted Souza over the offseason and eventually acquired him in the three-team deal involving Wil Myers. He certainly could have landed in a friendlier park for hitters, but Souza is set for an everyday role in 2015 and holds plenty of appeal as a power/speed upside play.
Drew Pomeranz, SP, A’s
Pomeranz received a much-needed fresh start in 2014 after an offseason trade sent him from Colorado to Oakland. The left-hander split time between starting and relieving with the Athletics and also spent some time at Triple-A, but he was successful in every role and location. In his 10 starts with the A’s, Pomeranz put up a 2.58 ERA while piling up 50 strikeouts over 52 1/3 innings. He wasn’t just a product of the hitter’s graveyard of O.co Coliseum, either, as Pomeranz was actually much better away from home with a nifty 1.42 ERA. Oakland rebuilt their rotation over the offseason, and they felt comfortable in trading away someone like Jeff Samardzija because they knew they had a guy like Pomeranz ready to assume a full-time starting role. It wasn’t that long ago when Pomeranz was one of the best pitching prospects in the game, and the southpaw is still just 26. There’s big breakout potential here.
Kennys Vargas, DH, Twins
It was quite a rise for Vargas in 2014, as he entered last season with no professional experience above A-ball and ended it being an instant-impact bat in the majors. Of course, Vargas swinging the stick with authority last season didn’t come as a surprise, as the 24-year-old has slowly but surely been growing into his huge frame and massive power. He had a 1.030 OPS in 2012 and banged out 19 homers in 2013 before slugging a combined 26 bombs and driving in 101 runs between Double-A and the majors last year. The Twins felt so good about Vargas’ bat even after he skipped over Triple-A that they put him in the cleanup spot for 48 of his 53 starts. He’s expected to remain in the number four spot in 2015 as he serves as the team’s everyday designated hitter, and with Danny Santana, Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer likely to hit in front of him, the RBI upside for Vargas is quite high.
Dalton Pompey, OF, Blue Jays
Pompey put himself on the prospect radar with a nice showing in 2013, but he truly broke out in 2014 with a .317/.392/.469 batting line across three levels that included nine homers, 51 RBI and 43 stolen bases. That standout work on the farm earned Pompey a cup of coffee last September, and although he struggled at the plate with the big club, he was competent enough and showed off his terrific defense to the point where the Blue Jays appear ready to use him as their Opening Day center fielder. The 22-year-old is still a work in progress at the plate, but his defensive prowess should give him some leash even if he gets off to a slow start. There’s loads of speed upside with the young burner.
Carlos Martinez, SP, Cardinals
Martinez began last season in setup duty for the Cardinals, but he got off to a slow start and ultimately bounced around in a variety of roles from middle relief to starting to even spending a couple weeks at Triple-A. With the trade of Shelby Miller over the offseason, Martinez is locked into the number five spot in the Opening Day rotation unless he has an awful spring training. Possessing mid- to upper-90s heat and a wipeout slider, the Dominican native has electric stuff and has struck out just a shade under a batter per frame so far in the majors. He’ll need to improve his changeup in order to combat left-handed hitters, and the Cards will keep a close eye on his innings in 2015. However, the fiery 23-year-old gets a ton of grounders, does a great job of limiting the longball and is able to miss bats. If your fellow owners are silly enough to have pause over Martinez’s career 4.28 ERA, don’t hesitate to pounce on him and reap the benefits.
Michael Saunders, OF, Blue Jays
Plagued by shoulder and oblique ailments as well as a virus, Saunders was limited to just 263 plate appearances last season. He produced when on the field, banging out eight homers in a half-season’s worth of at-bats while putting up a career-high .791 OPS. Born in Canada, Saunders not only landed in his native country in an offseason trade but also saw his fantasy upside receive a boost with a move from Safeco Field to Rogers Centre. Always possessing plus raw power, Saunders has a good shot to break his career-high of 19 homers in 2015, and he’ll chip in with double-digit steals, as well, as long as he’s able to stay healthy. The 28-year-old could be an underrated power/speed option.
UPDATE: Saunders suffered a meniscus tear in his left knee in late February and will begin the season on the disabled list.
Jung-ho Kang, INF, Pirates
Kang decided to come to the states following a monster season in Korea that saw him bat .356/.459/.739 with 40 home runs and 117 RBI across 117 games. How he's able to translate those gaudy numbers over to the majors remains to be seen, but the general feeling among scouts is that the 28-year-old's power is for real. The Pirates won the bidding for Kang and, at least initially, plan to use him in a utility infielder role. Jordy Mercer has been solid for the Bucs the last couple years and is a better bet defensively at shortstop than Kang, but you have to wonder how Pittsburgh will be able to keep Kang out of the lineup if he comes out of the gate hot with the bat.