MLB Draft Guide: Top 20 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers
Published: Jan 13, 2021
UPDATED: February 14 @ 12pm ET
Terms like sleeper can be misleading in an age of constant information with an inundation of statistical analysis. For the terms of this exercise, citing the early average draft positions (ADP) of players sets the market. Some of the players below own name value but possess the ability to return at least a two round profit on return. There's post-hype breakouts, unproven rookies, pitchers who altered their arsenals and potential late round stashes for saves or stolen bases included.
Dylan Carlson, OF - St. Louis Cardinals
- 2020 Statistics - 35 games, 119 plate appearances, 11 runs, three home runs, 16 RBI, one stolen base; .200/.252/.364
On the surface, seeing Carlson's slash line should depress his price in redraft leagues. However, Carlson faced a steady diet of breaking and offspeed pitches upon his debut in the majors. In fact, his plate appearances featured only 50.4 percent fastballs according to Statcast. This makes his growth in expected weighted on-base average throughout his debut all the more impressive:
In September, seven of Carlson's 10 hits resulted in extra-bases (seven doubles, one triple, two home runs) driving in 11 runs in 14 contests. Carlson hit clean-up for St. Louis in the playoffs while recording a .333/.571/.444 slash line with two runs, a double, a stolen base and four walks versus three strikeouts. His 27.4 O-Swing (outside the strike zone) percentage during his debut bodes well for future plate discipline metrics.
Since Carlson burned many of his owners in 2020, his price in the upcoming season comes at a discount. Getting him as a second outfielder with upside improves his draft stock, especially if he carries over his 20-plus home run potential combined with the ability to steal double digit bases. Key on his in-season adjustments, spot in the heart of the lineup to drive in runs and benefit on his slow start last season.
Ke'Bryan Hayes, 3B - Pittsburgh Pirates
- 2020 Statistics - 24 games, 95 plate appearances, 17 runs, 5 home runs, 11 RBI, one stolen base; .376/.442/.682
Not really a sleeper per se, but a wide open one due to his initial foray into the major leagues. Hayes surged upon his promotion to the Pirates producing 65 batted ball events with an average exit velocity of 92.8 MPH, a max of 110.3 MPH and a 55.4 hard hit percentage (events of 95 MPH or higher). Like Carlson above, Hayes displayed tremendous plate discipline with a 7.1 swinging strike percentage and robust 96.1 Z-Contact (in the strike zone) rate.
Many may be apprehensive to pay full retail for Hayes but for those seeking a third baseman after pick 125 in drafts should target Hayes with confidence. There's a chance his power takes a step back from his initial surge, but like Carlson above, Hayes can also enhance a fantasy roster with double digit steals. Even if he hits 17-to-19 home runs in 2021, the ancillary steals with above average slash lines adds to his appeal.
Tyler Mahle , SP - Cincinnati Reds
- 2020 Statistics - 2-2, 10 games, 9 games started, 47.2 innings, 60:21 K:BB, 3.59 ERA, 4.07 SIERA, 1.15 WHIP
Under the guidance of a new pitching coach, Mahle adjusted his pitch mix in 2020 ditching his curve and cutter while increasing use of his four-seam fastball, adding a slider plus mixing in his split-fingered fastball. This resulted in his swinging strike percentage rising from 9.4 to 13.8 percent, a reduction in contact percentage by 10 points and generating more swinging strikes outside the strike zone.
According to Statcast, Mahle improved his whiff percentage by 10.4 points, cut zone contact by 8.1 percent and upped his strikeout percentage to 29.9 percent last season. Carrying over his gains in the rotation enhances his appeal and grows if the walk rate ebbs. Use Mahle's strikeout upside with a sliding scale of his ERA predictor statistics of a 3.33 xERA and his SIERA above.
Victor Reyes , OF - Detroit Tigers
- 2020 Statistics - 57 games, 213 plate appearances, 30 runs, four home runs, 14 RBI, eight stolen bases; .277/.315/.391
From the second half of 2019 through the end of last year's shortened season among qualified hitters, Reyes tied José Ramírez and Mookie Betts for ninth in stolen bases with 16. During this time frame, Reyes owns a .297/.328/.421 slash with 54 runs in 475 plate appearances and a .372 batting average on balls in play.
Projected to hit lead-off for the Tigers, Reyes continues to accrue precious steals but does not receive the hype of others in the category. Yes, he's flawed in terms of on-base percentage atop the Tigers lineup but his ability to score runs along with an improved exit velocity in his sample from last season provides hope his .287 expected batting average can get him back in the low .280's in 2021. This and 20-plus steals sets his baseline to fantasy upside.
UPDATE 2/14 - With Detroit adding Robbie Grossman via free agency, Reyes now needs to hit well in spring to keep a spot in the lineup, cutting his upside potential for 2021. A pivot to Raimel Tapia hitting atop the Rockies lineup with a better average but less power makes sense in light of recent moves by Detroit. Post-hype candidate Nick Senzel of Cincinnati also could breakout this season if looking for double digits in home runs and stolen bases.
Zach Eflin , SP - Philadelphia Phillies
- 2020 Statistics - 4-2, 11 games, 10 games started, 59 innings, 70:15 K:BB, 3.97 ERA, 3.50 SIERA, 1.27 WHIP
Taking a page from the Sandy Alcantara breakout from 2019, Eflin ramped up his sinker usage to 51.6 percent in 2020 with success producing an 18.7 whiff rate and 26.2 put away percentage. His slider and curve also played well off of this adjustment evidenced in his SIERA above along with a 3.31 expected ERA on Statcast setting the potential for migration to the mean in the season ahead.
Generating more ground balls and swinging strikes may enable Eflin to take the next step in his development. Eflin's swinging strike percentage rose to 10.2 last season and his O-Swing jumped by 5.1 percentage points to 36.8 percent. If he throws more curves (43.9 whiff rate, 33.9 put away percentage), the strikeout rate may rise once again in 2021.
Leody Taveras, OF - Texas Rangers
- 2020 Statistics - 33 games, 134 plate appearances, 20 runs, four home runs, six RBI, eight stolen bases; .227/.308/.395
Expecting a slow start from Taveras due to only 293 plate appearances at Double-A proved poignant but one cannot ignore his counting statistics. Taveras flashed some pop with speed in his limited sample. Although his 77 batted ball events produced an 88.9 MPH average exit velocity, his max of 107.8 MPH along with a 41.6 hard-hit rate provides hope for growth in the year ahead.
Taveras also ranked in the 96th percentile in speed on Statcast with his 29.1 feet per second 19th overall in the majors. His last start of the season yielded two stolen bases against the Astros and with Texas in the midst of a rebuild, Taveras may hit leadoff all season. Unlike many speedsters, Taveras does not rate as a "one-trick” pony. He can hit some home runs. If Taveras reaches the teens in power with the chance to record 25 or more stolen bases, his appeal grows and his present price tag seems too low.
UPDATE 2/14 - With so many fantasy owners trying to identify speed, Tavares’ price continues to climb in drafts. Myles Straw of Houston could be a cheap source of steals as well. Our own Matt Selz also likes taking Michael A. Taylor late in drafts who may return a batting average near Tavares with 15-to-18 home runs and 18 stolen bases three hundred picks later.
Brady Singer , SP - Kansas City Royals
- 2020 Statistics - 4-5, 12 games started, 64.1 innings, 61:23 K:BB, 4.06 ERA, 4.29 SIERA, 1.17 WHIP
Leading the arrival of many upside arms in the Royals prospect stable, Singer impressed in his shortened season sample. Developing a third pitch will ensure continued success. Here's his usage patterns from 2020:
- Sinker - 57.1 percent usage, .224 xBA, .345 xSLG, 18.4 whiff rate, 21.1 put away percent
- Slider - 37.4 percent usage, .244 xBA, .415 xSLG, 32.8 whiff rate, 15.1 put away percent
- Change-up - 4.7 percent usage, .279 xBA, .335 xSLG, 16.7 whiff rate and put away percent
This arsenal produced a ground ball rate of 53.7 percent with less than 20 percent fly balls and a 22.6 line drive percentage. His ability to keep the ball out of the sweet spot of contact enhanced his results but if he's going to achieve his 3.98 xERA, Singer needs to be able to diversify his offerings a second and third time through the lineup to maximize another step in his development. It's possible to track his starts in the spring noting if he's working on a new pitch or refining the change-up.
John Means , SP - Baltimore Orioles
- 2020 Statistics - 2-4, 10 games started, 43.2 innings, 42:7 K:BB, 4.53 ERA, 3.93 SIERA, 0.98 WHIP
Just viewing his surface statistics, it's tough to believe Means could not do better with a WHIP below one as a starting pitcher. Of course, pitching for the Orioles and a tough start to his season inflated his ERA while depressing wins. For instance, his last start of 2020 featured Means throwing six innings giving up one hit, one earned run, one walk and striking out nine, in a loss.
Beneath his numbers, Means notched a 12.5 swinging strike percentage, produced more ground balls (up 12.3 percent compared to 2020) and ranked in the 97th percentile in expected on-base percentage. Focus on his fastball velocity rising by 2.1 MPH helping grow his strikeout rate by 4.9 percent, reducing his walk percentage by two and raising his whiff percent by 4.1 points. Means may struggle to produce wins on a rebuilding team, but he's still an upside arm worth owning.
Austin Riley , 3B - Atlanta Braves
- 2020 Statistics - 51 games, 206 plate appearances, 24 runs, eight home runs, 27 RBI; .239/.301/.415
While many view Riley's season as a continuation of his struggles, he made strides cutting his strikeout percentage by almost 13 points while increasing his walk rate by 2.4 percent. Riley also reduced his swinging strike percentage to 14.8 last season compared to 20.5 in 2019 while moving his contact percent up nine points to 72.5 percent.
Transitioning to Statcast, Riley's .262 xBA hints at some bad luck along with his .471 xSLG rate. Riley's average exit velocity rose to 91 MPH with a reduction of his whiff rate by 8.6 percentage points. His last 28 games yielded a .264/.331/.426 slash with an 8.3 walk percentage and 19.8 strikeout percent. Riley only turns 24 in April and may be on the precipice of the power breakout many anticipated upon his promotion.
Jordan Montgomery , SP - New York Yankees
- 2020 Statistics - 2-3, 10 games started, 44 innings, 47:9 K:BB, 5.11 ERA, 3.84 SIERA, 1.30 WHIP
Pitching half of his games in hitter friendly Yankees Stadium makes producing ground balls a key to success. Montgomery ramped up his change-up usage to 25.6 percent along with throwing more four-seam fastballs with fewer sinkers and still increased his ground ball rate to 44 percent. His ability to avoid hard contact (84.6 MPH average exit velocity) fueled his 3.86 xERA and SIERA above, both well below his actual earned run average.
It remains to be seen if Montgomery would take the Rich Hill path to success using his curve even more but it may unlock the door to more success. Montgomery's curve rates as his best swing and miss pitch with a 36.3 whiff rate along with a 28.4 put away percent. With his walk percentage ranked in the 92nd percentile and his average exit velocity in the 98th percentile, a further tweak of his offerings in how he deploys them with some positive migration to the mean could yield double digit wins with improved ratio statistics.
Willi Castro , 3B/SS - Detroit Tigers
- 2020 Statistics - 36 games, 140 plate appearances, 21 runs, six home runs, 24 RBI; .349/.381/.550
Small sample aside, Castro absolutely surged in 2020 at a rate unseen in his minor league profile. His 85.3 MPH average exit velocity leaves much to be desired but his 38.3 sweet spot sits above league average and his .299 xBA with a .453 expected weighted batting average on contact (xwoBACON) insulate his results.
Lost in his 2020 breakout, Castro ranks in the 84th percentile in regards to speed and projects to hit second in the Tigers lineup. There's a chance his power regresses a bit but if he runs like he did in the minors, Castro could provide a sneaky double digit result in home runs and stolen bases this season. One of the Statcast profiles Castro aligns most with, Dansby Swanson .
Manuel Margot , OF - Tampa Bay Rays
- 2020 Statistics - 47 games, 159 plate appearances, 19 runs, one home run, 11 RBI, 12 stolen bases; .269/.327/.352
While one cannot ignore postseason statistics, Margot's power showed up in the playoffs during which he hit five home runs in 19 contests after only one in the regular season. In fact, his slash lines rose to .276/.344/.552 in the playoffs. Margot represents a frustrating blend of speed with power who always seems to underachieve.
But, since the second half of 2019 through the end of the 2020 regular season, with at least 200 plate appearances, Margot's 10th in stolen bases (21) in only 117 games spanning 390 plate appearances (one stolen base per 18.6 plate appearances). At a time when everyone's trying to mine every available stolen base, Margot may even provide a bit more pop in 2021 with better counting statistics if he takes over hitting fifth in the lineup. Stay tuned.
Rowdy Tellez , 1B - Toronto Blue Jays
- 2020 Statistics - 35 games, 127 plate appearances, 20 runs, eight home runs, 23 RBI .283/.346/.540
Taking into account six of the eight home runs Tellez hit happened in Buffalo (Triple-A ballpark) it's relieving to see all eight rated as expected home runs in Toronto as well. Tellez made strides in 2020 reducing his swinging strike percentage by almost four points, increasing his contact rate by over eight percent and his contact in the strike zone by 8.2 percentage points.
Unlike many power hitting dart throws, Tellez owns strong discipline metrics with an 8.7 walk rate and 15.7 strikeout percentage. His 90.7 MPH average exit velocity accompanied a 117.8 max exit velocity and a 44.2 hard hit rate. He enters 2021 with a chance to play first base full-time (if Vlad Guerrero Jr. returns to third base) or at the least take over the strong side of a platoon at designated hitter. Tellez turns 26 in March and may take a step forward as he enters his power peak on a team with plenty of upside for counting statistics.
Yusei Kikuchi , SP - Seattle Mariners
- 2020 Statistics - 2-4, 9 games started, 47 innings, 47:20 K:BB, 5.17 ERA, 4.34 SIERA, 1.30 WHIP
Like others on the list, Kikuchi made strides in terms of his swinging strike percentage (up to 12.1 percent) while reducing contact (down 7.7 points) and contact in the strike zone (8.3 percentage points lower). Kikuchi added a cutter to his arsenal in 2020 helping fuel his underlying numbers success. His cutter yielded a .230 xBA with a .303 xSLG while generating a 25 percent whiff rate with a 20.2 put away percent. As a result his four-seam fastball whiff rate also rose to 31 percent compared to 16 percent in 2019.
Kikuchi reduced zone contact, grew his whiff rate and produced more ground balls. His arsenal last year aligned with Max Fried . Cutting his expected batting average by 50 points and upping his strikeout percentage by 8.1 percent combined with adding velocity to his fastball points to more success if Kikuchi maintains the gains. At his price point, it's easy to afford finding out. Use his 3.51 xERA and 4.34 SIERA as a guide for a sliding scale on improving his ERA.
Tanner Rainey , RP - Washington Nationals
- 2020 - 1-1, 9 holds, 20 games, 20.1 innings, 32:7 K:BB, 2.66 ERA, 2.30 SIERA, 0.74 WHIP
Teaser alert, but there's a portion of the draft guide which centers on relievers which features this process: Rainey rates as one of 12 relievers with a strikeouts minus walks percentage of at last 25 percent, a swinging strike percentage of 15 or better and a contact rate of 67 percent or less last season.
Rainey recorded a 33.3 K-BB percentage with an eye popping 21.7 swinging strike percent and allowed a minuscule 56.7 percent contact rate. His slider produced a 72.9 whiff rate with a 37.8 put away percentage. Amongst his peers, Rainey rated in the 99th percentile in both strikeout percentage (42.7 percent) and whiff rate (47.3 percent) while owning a fastball velocity in the top 91st percentile. Last year most drafted Sean Doolittle only to see Daniel Hudson lead the team in saves. This year, Rainey takes the reins.
UPDATE 2/14 - Washington signed Brad Hand who moves atop the bullpen hierarchy. If his velocity does not rebound or Rainey pitches well early on, there's still a chance for Rainey to get saves but his overall total takes a hit with this news.
**Update from a reader question and answer on MLB.com with beat writer, Jessica Camerato:
Edwin Ríos , 3B - Los Angeles Dodgers
- 2020 Statistics - 32 games, 83 plate appearances, 13 runs, eight home runs, 17 RBI; .250/.301/.645
Two things factor in placing value in Rios, either the universal designated hitter remains in the National League or the Dodgers allow Justin Turner to leave via free agency. If neither occurs, taking Rios comes with much more inherent risk.
However, Rios made the most of his limited playing time averaging an enticing 91.5 MPH exit velocity with a 110.8 maximum. Of his 59 batted ball events, 27 rated as hard hits (45.8 percent) with an xBA of .285 and an xSLG of .639 proving his season may not be a fluke. Rios also increased his fly ball percent to 33.9 last season compared to 23.1 percent in 2019 while raising his solid hit percentage by over eight points. Cutting his strikeout rate by almost 16 percent with the ability to hit right and left-handed pitching makes Rios an interesting lottery ticket late in drafts if given enough plate appearances to make a difference.
UPDATE 2/14 - If there's no universal designated hitter in the National League, Rios will be battling for at-bats with Justin Turner returning to the Dodgers on a two-year deal. Keep close tabs on this information. If shooting for late round power from corner infield as a pivot from Rios one can target Renato Nunez instead.
Tyler Stephenson, C - Cincinnati Reds
- 2020 Statistics - 8 games, 20 plate appearances, 4 runs, 2 home runs, 6 RBI; .294/.400/.647
It's difficult to get a full read on Stephenson due to his limited sample from last season. But, Cincinnati non-tendered Curt Casali which opened the door for Stephenson to make the 2021 roster. In two-catcher formats, Stephenson receives a chance to contribute. Known as a contact first hitter, Stephenson failed in his first taste of the majors with a gaudy 45 percent strikeout rate. Key on his swinging strike percentage (nine percent) and 73 percent contact.
Stephenson only produced eight batted ball events but launched two home runs while recording a 50 percent hard hit rate. There's room for growth in his power and counting statistic production if playing time improves. It may take patience, but Stephenson remains a name to stash later in drafts with upside.
Adbert Alzolay , SP - Chicago Cubs
- 2020 Statistics - 1-1, 6 games, 4 games started, 21.1 innings, 29:13 K:BB, 2.95 ERA, 4.15 SIERA, 1.17 WHIP
Keeping in mind Alzolay issued five walks in one start against the Cardinals, his numbers still provide hope for future growth. Alzolay spent his time at the training facility reworking his slider with tremendous success. He used the pitch almost 40 percent of the time in this sample generating a .028 batting average against, .091 xBA, .155 expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA), 37.7 whiff percent and 29.7 put away percentage.
Alzolay also increased his ground ball rate to 43.2 percent but yielded a spike in line drives as well. With the Cubs on the precipice of a rebuild, Alzolay should assume a role in the rotation and provide fantasy owners with strikeout upside late in drafts. He may profile best as a streaming option, but if the slider gains hold and he improves his command, Alzolay represents a risk worth taking at his price point.
Jonathan Hernández , RP - Texas Rangers
- 2020 Statistics - 5-1, 5 holds, 27 games, 31 innings, 31:8 K:BB, 2.90 ERA, 3.67 SIERA, 1.03 WHIP
When Texas traded Rafael Montero to Seattle, a void at the backend of the bullpen occurred. Yes, José LeClerc should receive the first chance to be the closer due to his contract, but for the skills over role crowd, keep targeting Hernández. He fared well in his first full season as a reliever with Rangers fueled by an 18.4 K-BB percentage and 13.9 swinging strike percentage.
His 18.3 sweet spot percentage allowed, .192 xBA, .292 xSLG, .271 xwoBACON and 2.70 xERA all rank in the 90th percentile or better versus his peers. Hernández could also improve his strikeout numbers by using more of his arsenal:
- Slider - 39.8 percent usage, 48.3 whiff rate, 32.3 put away percentage
- Change-up - 12.9 percent usage, 51.7 whiff rate, 43.8 put away percentage
Monitor the health of LeClerc this spring and take note if Hernández or the Rangers beat writers suggest he's working on using his change-up more often. There's another level of success lying in wait if he improves his command with the pitch. Update: Plus, if Hernández does not become the closer, his manager hinted the talented reliever may take on more multi-inning outings which would boost his strikeout totals along with some vulture wins.
Garrett Crochet, SP/RP - Chicago White Sox
- 2020 Statistics - 5 games, 6 innings, 8:0 K:BB, zero earned runs, 1.81 SIERA, 0.50 WHIP
For those old enough to remember Chris Sale cut his teeth in the majors with time spent as a closer with these White Sox should not discount Crochet at his late round ADP. Crochet threw 45 of his 85 pitches in the majors last year at 100 MPH or better. He produced a 61.5 ground ball rate, a 49.4 swing percentage and 40.5 whiff percentage in this limited sample.
Scouting reports remain uncertain if Crochet can develop his change-up enough to become a full-time starter. Plus, the White Sox seem to be pushing the chips all-in this season meaning Crochet may land in the bullpen with an arsenal akin to a young Andrew Miller with a high octane fastball paired with a sweeping slider. Keep this quote in mind when stashing Crochet as a potential top-10 closer in upcoming drafts from pitching coach Ethan Katz:
Update: With the addition of Liam Hendriks via free agency, Crochet may not be in the saves mix. However, savvy fantasy owners remember how valuable Josh Hader proved to be in a multi-inning reliever role in the second half of 2017 and parts of 2018 without being the primary closer. Crochet pitches on a team projected to win the division so he may accrue wins with a high volume of strikeouts as a multiple inning reliever. Getting a ratio eraser at his present price point in drafts makes Crochet a terrific speculative target. Every year analysts search for the next impact reliever out of nowhere (2020 yielded Devin Williams), this year Crochet may be the guy.
This concludes the sleeper portion of the draft guide. There's many other players of interest who would benefit from a clearer path to playing time, especially if the universal designated hitter returns (Garrett Cooper ) or if a team takes a chance on providing an open roster spot for a free agent (Kirby Yates ). Use this as a guide to formulate your draft plan in 2021.