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5x5 Sleepers: Batting Average

Alex Kirilloff

Alex Kirilloff

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

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It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2022 or even drafting now. Teams still have a lot of work to do when the lockout concludes (hopefully sooner than later), but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2022 fantasy baseball season.

For the eighth year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. In the first installment of the series we’ll be reviewing hitters who could be sleepers for batting average. 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).

Since the hot stove league still has a long way to go this offseason once it resumes, for the next few weeks we will focus on players in categories that are less based on opportunity and more based on skill. Other roto categories that are more dependent on opportunity, supporting cast, and batting order spot (R, RBI, SB) or team and manager (W, SV) will be discussed in the latter half of the 10-week series.

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

Alec Bohm, 3B, Phillies

If you drafted Bohm last season, you got burned. The third overall draft pick in the 2018 draft, Bohm garnered plenty of hype after hitting .338-4-23 over 180 plate appearances in his 2020 MLB debut. Unfortunately, he got off to a putrid start last season, hitting a combined .203-4-24 over the first two months. After Bohm did finally get on track, his defense was so bad that the Phils demoted him to the bench and then Triple-A in August. He only returned late in the year as a pinch-hitter, concluding a disappointing 2021 season in which he hit only .247-7-47 and really struggled against right-handed pitching (.228/.279/.297).

Fantasy managers who are burned by a player like Bohm are often hesitant to go back to the well, but there is reason to give him one more try. From June 1 through the end of the season, Bohm hit .293-3-23 with 27 runs scored over 208 plate appearances in MLB, and his batted ball numbers remained strong, including average exit velocity and hard hit rates hovering around the 90th percentile. We also shouldn’t forget about a very productive track record that saw Bohm hit .317/.393/.548 for his college career at Wichita State and .305/.378/.518, including 21 home runs in 540 plate appearances, between three minor league levels in 2019. There are concerns about Bohm’s power ceiling with a relatively poor launch angle, but there’s no reason to think he won’t hit for average again with regular playing time. The good news in that respect is that Bohm looks very likely to regain playing time, either at the hot corner or possibly at the DH spot if MLB employs it in the NL, as expected. A current NFBC ADP of 277 makes Bohm a late-round flier in standard leagues, ranking just 26th among third base eligibles behind the likes of Gio Urshela and Jonathan Villar. I’ll happily take Bohm’s upside at that price, especially if he can hit fifth in the order as he did early last season.

Willie Calhoun, OF, Rangers

We all have players we just can’t quit. To be honest, Calhoun falls in that category for me. The 27-year-old former top prospect has shown flashes in the majors, but one injury after another has halted his progress toward stardom. He missed the start of last season with a groin injury, and just as he was rounding into form in June, he suffered a fractured forearm. The end product was another disappointing season in which Calhoun played only 75 games, posting a sub-.700 OPS. Time is starting to run out on Calhoun with the Rangers making an aggressive effort to improve this offseason after the big-money signings of Marcus Semien and Corey Seager.

For now, there is still time for Calhoun to show when he can do for the Rangers, but he probably needs to perform well to remain in the lineup. If healthy, there are still signs that he’s capable. Calhoun hit only .250 last season, just three points better than his career .247 average, but the signs point to batting average improvement. He was a career .288 hitter in the minors and showed off an elite 12% strikeout rate last season, a rarity in today’s game for a hitter with power. The result was a .269 xBA and reason to believe the batting average will climb again in the future, at least to what it was when he hit .269-21-48 in only 83 games during 2019. It’s also worth noting that Calhoun spent more time in the leadoff spot than any other spot in the Rangers batting order last season. That will probably change now that the lineup has improved, but it still speaks to how highly the organization thinks of him despite his recent struggles and injuries. With a current ADP of 411, Calhoun is basically free in most drafts. As has been the case in recent seasons, Calhoun brings almost no risk and enough upside to be a top 40 outfielder if he can finally stay healthy.

Connor Joe, OF, Rockies

Sometimes minor league players just need an opportunity in the majors to show what they can do. Joe finally got his chance at age 28 last season and ran with it. He eventually carved out a regular spot in the Rockies lineup down the stretch and was truly one of their best hitters, hitting .285-8-35 in 211 plate appearances before a season-ending hamstring injury in September. Until that time, Joe played so well that he ascended to the leadoff spot in early August and did great work in that role with an .894 OPS. Joe’s track record is an interesting one as a first-round pick out of college in 2014 who didn’t really find his footing as a pro until 2018. Since that time he’s hit the cover off the ball with a .302 batting average and .944 OPS at Triple-A, albeit in mostly major hitter’s parks. Joe also overcame testicular cancer in 2020, so there’s even more reason to pull for him.

With regular playing time, there was absolutely no slowing Joe down last year. He hit an elite .297/.398/.471 in 43 games as a starter, and would seem like a perfect fit for the DH in Colorado as a natural first baseman who was moonlighting as a left fielder last year. The recent minor league track record supports last year’s batting average, and Joe also has an approach conducive to hitting for average with a strikeout rate that has been sub-20% in the upper minors and MLB last season. With the aid of Coors Field, Joe’s ADP hovering around 385 seems far too cheap for what appears to be a relatively high floor with playing time.

Alex Kirilloff, 1B/OF, Twins

Kirilloff was a much-hyped prospect when he was promoted by the Twins last year, ranking in Baseball America’s top 100 prospects in three consecutive years. Still, some had seemingly forgotten about the former first-round pick between the 2020 non-season for minor leaguers and a mediocre year at Double-A Pensacola in 2019 in which Kirilloff hit only .283-9-43 in 94 games. However, Kirilloff had made very easy work of pro pitching in 2018, hitting a whopping .348-20-101 with 44 doubles in 130 games between three levels, with a sweet stroke that made him such a prized prospect.

His results with the Twins were far from spectacular over 59 games, hitting only .251-8-34 in 231 plate appearances, but some components of his performance sound better in context. Kirilloff fought through a wrist injury that eventually required season-ending surgery in late July, but he showed strong batted ball numbers to that point resulting in a .291 xBA. Cherry picking Kirilloff’s splits also showed strong flashes, as he hit .283 in May and .278 in June. That production resembles what he did in the minors, and Kirilloff did so while fighting a major injury for hitters. The biggest concern remains an aggressive approach that causes pitchers to give him a steady diet of offspeed stuff (58% offspeed last season), but there’s more than enough reason to invest in the 174 ADP.

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Single League Sleepers

Bryan De La Cruz, OF Marlins

De La Cruz was an under-the-radar prospect in Houston before he was traded to the Marlins at last year’s trade deadline for Yimi Garcia. However, the profile is an interesting one for an outfielder who can play all three positions and find his way on base. De La Cruz hit an impressive .324-12-50 in 293 plate appearances at Triple-A Sugar Land before the Marlins promoted him for the final two months of the season, and the results weren’t far off in his MLB debut, hitting .296-5-19 in 219 plate appearances for the Marlins.

The production isn’t reserved to only last season. De La Cruz has hit at least .280 every season since 2018, and he’s fared similarly well at the Dominican Winter League. The lack of big power with only one season of double-digit home runs explains why De La Cruz hasn’t created much buzz on prospect lists with a ceiling that is limited, but he’s a respectable .276 career minor league hitter who has flourished since some early struggles as a pro. While the Marlins have already added Avisail Garcia this offseason, the path to playing time remains favorable with Jesus Sanchez employing another outfield spot and De La Cruz having an eye toward playing in either center field or the likely DH role.

Andy Ibanez, 2B, Rangers

A Cuban defector who signed with Texas in 2015, Ibanez had a slow ascent to the majors the culminated last season at age 28. It wasn’t for lack of offensive production, as Ibanez hit .283-12-55 in 2018 and .300-20-65 in 2019. However, we didn’t see Ibanez until the Rangers were at their worst last season and after he produced a 1.051 OPS in 30 games at Triple-A Round Rock. The production as a major leaguer was good, as Ibanez hit .277-7-25 with a .756 OPS in 272 plate appearances. He absolutely mashed against lefties with an .898 OPS, and hit above .300 in each of the last two months while playing regularly.

There are elements of Ibanez’s skillset that show the strong production wasn’t a fluke. His excellent 13% strikeout rate is conducive to hitting for average, and the ability to hit lefties should serve his batting average well in a bench role where he can avoid elite right-handed pitching. Ibanez has shown a lot of defensive versatility, which will come in handy now that most infield spots in Texas are spoken for after the Rangers signed Marcus Semien and Corey Seager, with top third base prospect Josh Jung also very close. We’d expect him to get more work in the outfield after playing there only once last season, while being a fallback at all four infield positions should injuries strike. The path to regular playing time is bleak, especially if Ibanez has to compete with Nick Solak and Isiah Kiner-Falefa off the bench, but the Rangers will find ways to give him some playing time if he can keep up what he did in his rookie campaign.

Jose Miranda, 3B, Twins

Prospects blossom at their own paces. That’s certainly valid for Miranda, who had a complete breakout season in his sixth year as a pro. He tore the cover off the ball and became arguably the Twins best hitting prospect last year, hitting .344-30-94 in 591 plate appearances between Double- and Triple-A. The batting average stands out among his stats, particularly since he hit .345 at Double-A and .344 at Triple-A. Miranda had never hit .300 prior to last season, which isn’t to say he wasn’t a strong prospect. The former second-round pick did produce an .824 OPS at Rookie Level in 2017 and a .736 OPS between Low-A and High-A the following year.

Contact has long been a strength of Miranda’s, and that ability has finally transferred over to his batting average. He fanned just over 12% of the time last season, a rate that’s in line with his lower minors numbers. With 80 games under his belt at Triple-A, Miranda could be ready for the Big Show now. It also helps his cause that Miranda has played significant time at every infield position, so sliding over to another infield position or being employed as a utilityman is a realistic possibility. Of course, the Twins could still open up a clear path for Miranda following the lockout.

Gabriel Moreno, C, Blue Jays

The Blue Jays farm system continues to blossom, and Moreno is a prominent name in their next line of top prospects. He has an argument as one of the elite catching prospects in the game after hitting .367-8-45 in 159 plate appearances mostly at Double-A last season in a year cut short by a thumb injury, but he followed up in the Arizona Fall League hitting .329-1-18 in 100 plate appearances. The track record of batting average beyond last year is also terrific, as Moreno hit .359 at Rookie League in 2018 and .280 at Low-A in 2019. Moreno has long been considered a strong defensive catcher, and the consistent batting average and developing pop is making him quite the offensive prospect.

As you’ve probably noticed, there’s nowhere for Moreno to play in Toronto as the roster stands now. The team has arguably the best catching depth in MLB with Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk, and Reese McGuire. It probably wouldn’t hurt Moreno to get some seasoning at Triple-A, either, considering he’s played a grand total of three games at that level. It’s reasonable to expect Moreno to be held back until midseason, but in two catcher AL-only and keeper leagues where the pickings are slim, he appears to be a very worthy batting average stash for the second half of the season.