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5x5 Sleepers: Home Runs

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

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. After reviewing batting average and WHIP sleepers over the last two weeks, we will be looking at possible home run sleepers this week. 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

Lewin Diaz, 1B, Marlins

Miami has been craving offensive help in recent seasons, and Diaz is clearly one of their most promising hitting prospects. He’s been overmatched in 169 plate appearances over two seasons with Miami, hitting only .193-8-16 with 8/45 BB/K, but the power potential is shown in the minors. The 25-year-old first baseman launched 27 home runs in 501 plate appearances between High-A and Double-A in 2019, and he hit 20 homers in only 312 plate appearances at Triple-A Jacksonville last year. He has plenty of strength at 6-foot-4, and a swing that’s conducive to the long ball. His flyball rate has hovered around 50% at every level, and Diaz’s eight home runs in 128 plate appearances with Miami last year showed a flash of the power transferring to the MLB level.

While there’s no clear path to playing time, it won’t take much for Diaz to find at-bats with the current Marlins roster. Jesus Aguilar served as the team’s primary first baseman last season, but the big right-handed slugger had only a .781 OPS against right-handed pitching and is entering his age 32 season. Diaz is a left-handed hitter, making him a natural fit if Aguilar continues to decline, or he could also be a fit if/when the NL adds the DH spot. The profile of big power potential and strikeouts isn’t much different than Cleveland first baseman Bobby Bradley, yet Diaz is currently going over 200 picks later around pick 600 in NFBC leagues. With the possibility of playing time, Diaz looks like a huge bargain at his price.

Cal Raleigh, C, Mariners

Raleigh was an under-the-radar promotion by Seattle around the All-Star break. The catcher appeared in 47 games with the Mariners during the second half, failing to find regular playing time with Tom Murphy and Luis Torrens already on the roster. That doesn’t mean Raleigh should be overlooked. There’s a track record of huge power for the switch-hitter in the minors. He has a career .529 slugging percentage as a minor leaguer, hitting 29 home runs in 507 plate appearances between High-A and double-A in 2019 and nine home runs in 199 plate appearances at Triple-A Tacoma last year.

Like Diaz, Raleigh was overmatched by MLB pitching in his first go-around in the majors. He fanned 52 times in 148 plate appearances, hitting only two home runs. Still, he’s shown much better contact in the minors, and has been able to get consistent lift with a flyball rate that was 46% in the majors last year and 47% at Triple-A. The offensive upside looks at least as good as assumed starter Tom Murphy, who posted a terrible .655 OPS last season after a breakout campaign in 2019. If Raleigh can convince the team he’s comparable defensively, he has a shot to be a worthy second catcher in mixed leagues with 15-plus home runs.

Darin Ruf, 1B/OF, Giants

A platoon player early in his career with the Phillies, Ruf had to go to Korea to find regular playing time. That was to their benefit, as he hit .313/.404/.564 over three seasons, launching 86 home runs over that time. Since Ruf has returned to MLB in 2020, he has raked for the Giants. He’s cumulatively hit like an excellent regular at .272-21-61 with a .900 OPS in 412 plate appearances. Like he did early in his career, Ruf has made easy work of left-handed pitching, but he also mashed against right-handers last year mostly in Brandon Belt’s stead. He hit .262-7-22 with an .824 OPS in 172 plate appearances, showing a bat capable of playing full time.

If the DH is added in the National League, there’s a fair chance Ruf will get regular playing time. The Giants are likely to make some moves when the offseason resumes, but as their roster stands now, he’s clearly the best candidate for the role as he enters his age 35 season. Regardless, the Giants have reason to keep Ruf’s bat in the lineup, so an ADP of 468 shows significant profit potential for a hitter who looks like a surefire 25-plus home runs as a regular.

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, 1B/OF, Pirates

Tsutsugo’s two years in the majors have mostly been a struggle to this point. He hit just .197-8-24 in 185 plate appearances with the Rays in his first season after a productive power career in Japan. Last year was even more challenging, as Tsutsugo appeared for three teams and hit only .217-8-32 in 262 plate appearances. Though, it’s notable that most of that production came late in the year when he was playing regularly for the Pirates. Tsutsugo hit a very productive .268-8-25 in 144 plate appearances with Pittsburgh, and was rewarded with a one-year, $4 million contract. Pittsburgh apparently sees the potential for Tsutsugo to maintain his late-season production after he hit 205 home runs in 10 seasons in Japan, including 45 home runs in 2016.

Tsutsugo’s 45% flyball rate reflects a power hitter swinging for the fences, and he now has a clear path to regular at-bats for the first time in his MLB career. Even if Tsutsugo falters early in the year, the Pirates don’t have many alternatives, nor do they have many other power candidates beyond Bryan Reynolds who fit the prototypical middle of the batting order. The power potential is clear based on Tsutsugo’s history in Japan and late last season, yet he’s basically free in mixed leagues if his 404 ADP holds up.

Single League Sleepers

Michael Chavis, 2B, Pirates

Fantasy managers became familiar with Chavis after his 2019 rookie season in Boston. He broke onto the scene to hit .254-18-58 in 382 plate appearances, though Chavis has struggled to hit or remain in the majors since then. He saw only 158 plate appearances in the shortened 2020 season and spent most of last year in the minors before a trade to Pittsburgh in late July. The good news is that Chavis did remain productive at the plate in Triple-A when he was there last season, hitting .271-14-37 in 217 plate appearances. That adds to his history of big power in the minors, including a 31 home run season between High-A and Double-A in 2017.

Chavis has some defensive versatility with appearances at second, first, third, and the outfield corners, and he has an opportunity to compete for the starting second base job entering the year. The biggest concern for Chavis is his complete lack of plate discipline, as he showed in the majors last year with a pitiful 1/42 BB/K in only 124 plate appearances. His 33% strikeout rate for his MLB career is a clear red flag for his batting average, and the lack of walks could prevent Chavis from maintaining playing time over the long term. Still, the power potential and path to playing time in his current situation makes Chavis a very intriguing NL-only redraft flier.

Drew Ellis, 3B, Diamondbacks

Ellis arrived to Arizona in late July, after his prospect profile was boosted with a big year at Triple-A. The former second-round pick had never posted an OPS above .760 in three minor league seasons, but hit .294-20-73 with a 1.014 OPS in 358 plate appearances at hitter-friendly Reno. He didn’t find the majors nearly as easy, eventually getting demoted in early September, but a path to playing time remains for him at the hot corner as the Diamondbacks roster stands now.

Like many of the hitters previously mentioned, Ellis’ profile suggests a player intentionally hitting for power. His flyball rate hovered around 48% at both Triple-A and the majors last season, with an MLB launch angle that was exceeded by only six other hitters. Without a long track record of success and with his struggles in the majors last year, Ellis is the definition of a fantasy flier in NL-only leagues, but he has a clear path to playing time if he impresses in Spring Training.

Edwin Rios, 1B, Dodgers

Rios was mentioned as a home run sleeper in this spot last year. Unfortunately, his season ended prematurely in early May due to a shoulder injury that required surgery. The good news is that he’s had almost a year to heal and regain his strength. The results in Rios’ brief time last season were ugly, but his history shows a much more capable hitter. He hit .260-12-25 in only 139 plate appearances with the Dodgers over the previous two seasons, and launched 24-plus home runs in three minor league seasons.

The always aggressive Dodgers seem likely to add positional depth when the offseason resumes. For now, it’s not difficult to see Rios receiving significant playing time in 2022. Max Muncy’s elbow injury possibly opens up a spot at first base early in the year, and Rios can also be a fallback option if Justin Turner takes a turn for the worse at age 37. The possible addition of the DH in the NL is an additional path for Rios to find regular at-bats if he can prove that he’s healthy in Spring Training. His early ADP of 577 shows that many fantasy managers have forgotten about his early-career contributions.

Juan Yepez, 1B, Cardinals

Speaking of the addition of the DH in the NL, Yepez could be one of the biggest beneficiaries in MLB with that possibility. He’s primarily a first baseman, but has also played some third base and outfield corners. Regardless, the path to playing time in St. Louis is blocked with Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Tyler O’Neill, and Dylan Carlson in those spots.

Yepez has shown he could be ready for the majors, however, hitting .286-27-77 with a .969 in 434 plate appearances between Double- and Triple-A last year. He put an exclamation point on his 2021 season by hitting .302-7-26 with a 1.028 OPS in 103 plate appearances at the Arizona Fall League. Yepez was only a middling prospect until last year, hitting .269-10-43 in 275 plate appearances between three levels in 2019. The progress he’s made with the bat is clear, and his flyball rate also hovered around 45% last season. A strong Spring Training could be all Yepez needs to make a big contribution next season.