It’s that time of year again when we hear the phrase “fantasy baseball sleeper” non-stop. What is a sleeper though? It seems like everyone in the fantasy baseball industry has a different way of defining a sleeper. So for the purposes of this piece, we’re talking about players who we expect to vastly outperform their draft positions. Some players are projected to have far better years than they’re being drafted for. Some are in better positions to contribute than their getting credit for. Lastly, some have injury concerns that shouldn’t necessarily be factored in when drafting. All of that is combined to give these 10 players immense fantasy baseball draft value going into the 2023 MLB season.
Carlos Correa, SS Minnesota Twins
Correa has been the talk of the offseason after signing three different deals with three different teams. All due to injury concerns. It’s likely that those injury concerns that kept teams from signing him are bleeding into fantasy baseball drafts and fantasy managers' minds. That shouldn’t be happening. Since missing time with his injury in 2019, he’s played 89-percent of the games and has topped 136 games in both 2021 and 2022. He’s had at least 522 at-bats the last two years with a combined slash line of .285/.366/.476 and 48 total homers, 174 R, and 154 RBI combined. That makes him one of 19 total players with at least those counting stats in that span regardless of position. He’s been a top-five shortstop each of the last two years and is projected as a top-five shortstop again this year. So why is he coming off the board well outside of the top-10 shortstops in drafts? The injury that made it a risk of a long-term signing in real life won’t affect his 2023 season, so don’t pretend it changes his value in 2023 fantasy baseball.
Alex Cobb , SP San Francisco Giants
Why are we not trusting San Francisco pitchers at this point? How many years in a row do they have to be good producers for us to trust them? Alex Cobb has posted two straight years of ERAs in the mid-3.70s between the Angels and Giants. However, his FIP marks in those same two years have been 2.92 and 2.80 respectively. Cobb also struck out more than a hitter per inning too. If we take a peek at his 2022 stats, Cobb’s 3.7 fWAR ranks him 23rd among pitchers with at least 140 innings pitched. So why is he going so late? He’s going outside the first 18 rounds and yet should finish as a top-30 starter. Cobb is a perfect example of a sleeper as a guy who’s established and yet for some reason is going at a major discount in drafts. If his ERA this year matches the xERA, FIP, xFIP, and/or SIERA from the last two years once more, you’d gladly take a 3.40 ERA with 10-12 wins and a little more than a K per IP from a guy who’s going in flyer territory in drafts for pitchers.
Patrick Sandoval, SP Los Angeles Angels
Everyone loves Sandoval’s pitches but apparently not the results enough to draft him early enough right now. The question is why is that the case? Sandoval improved his walk rate, and drastically reduced his HR/9 rate last year from 2021. He also pulled his ERA under 3.00 for the year with his second half. Just how good was his second half? In the final 67.2 innings of the year, he posted a 2.53 ERA compared to a 3.22 ERA in the first 81 innings. He also allowed a 20-point lower BAA and 28-point lower OBP in the second half as compared to the first half. Sandoval managed that by doing less nibbling in strikeout counts and going after hitters more. Don’t expect Sandoval to keep pitching to a sub-3.00 ERA this coming season but a mid-3.00 ERA is possible while still positing a strikeout per inning over even more innings this year as he continues to build his workload. That makes him a top-40 starter who’s coming off the board in the P70-P85 range which is just way too much value.
Anthony Rendon, 3B Los Angeles Angels
Is it fair to count a player of Rendon’s caliber, when healthy, as a sleeper? Sure. If the value is there coming into draft season, which it is. Over his three seasons in L.A., he’s combined for 157 games played with a .252/.359/.419 slash line with 20 homers, 90 RBI, 68 R, and 2 steals. Those counting stats, over a full season of games, was only accomplished by 23 total hitters, regardless of position, last year. Clearly, there’s a huge elephant in the room with his inability to stay healthy at this point. A couple of notes on that though, firstly, the wrist surgery he had was supposed to be a season-ending one but he was healthy enough to come back for the last few games of the season. Secondly, we should never draft expecting a player to be injured because that’s a recipe for getting burned. Look what happened with Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey in the NFL this year coming back from huge injuries. He’s still too good of a player to brush aside because of injuries with a three-year average of wRC+ of 116. If Ke’Bryan Hayes also counts as a sleeper, so does Rendon going several spots behind Hayes.
Merrill Kelly, SP Arizona Diamondbacks
Kelly might not be as sexy as some of the other names on this list, but there’s value here nonetheless. Among pitchers who have thrown at least 200 innings over the last two years, Kelly’s fWAR ranks him 39th out of 114 such pitchers. The Diamondbacks’ righty had a pretty balanced year in terms of first and second-half splits across ERA and ratios like BAA and OBP and wOBA. However, what should catch your eye is the K-rate improvement in the last 90 innings of the year. He struck out 88 over those innings compared to 89 over the first 110 innings. While it’s still less than a K per IP, it did jump his K% from 19.1-percent in the first half to 24.5-percent in the second half. Kelly pitches in a good pitcher's park and most of the NL West is pitcher-friendly which helps keep his ratios down to begin with. Now he’s adding in a bit more strikeout upside which ups his profile. He should come in as a top-70 pitcher by the season’s end but is being drafted outside the top 90 in most leagues.
Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B Pittsburgh Pirates
Hayes just barely classifies as a sleeper in my eyes, but if we’re being honest, it seems like people are forgetting about him, or pigeonholing him as a guy that is only good for stolen bases. Sure, he doesn’t have a prolific power profile, but if he were to start launching the ball, watch out. He makes a ton of hard contact, and his 85th percentile average exit velocity, 89th percentile max exit velocity, and 84th percentile hard hit rate could lead to quite productive power numbers for Hayes. Yes, he’ll need to launch the ball more and stop hitting so many ground balls, but at his current price, why not take the chance on him? The Pittsburgh lineup should be better than last year, and Hayes provides excellent speed for his position. He had 34 XBH (7 HR) last season in 136 games, so just imagine if a few of those turn into home runs. If he stays healthy and lifts the ball just a bit more, we are talking about a guy who will be in the 15/20 club and hit .260 or better in 2023. There aren’t many at the position projected to do that, and the door is wide open for Hayes to be a potential league winner in 2023.
Justin Steele, SP Chicago Cubs
Steele is one of my biggest sleepers this year and I am absolutely shocked at where we can get him in drafts. It’s insane! If you just look at the surface level, a 4-7 record with a 3.18 ERA and 9.53 K/9 may not exactly jump off the page, but he flashed legitimate stuff down the stretch last year. Over his final seven starts of the season, he posted a 0.98 ERA and 11.54 K/9 before heading to the IL with a back strain. Over those seven starts, he posted a 30.9 percent strikeout rate and 22.4 K-BB%, which for comparison’s sake is on par with Corbin Burnes (30.5 K%, 24.1 K-BB%) and Shane McClanahan (30.3 K%, 24.3 K-BB%). The 27-year-old southpaw will be healthy coming into the season and there’s a ton to like about Steele heading into 2023. His slider and curveball can wreak havoc on opposing hitters late in the count, and if he minimizes hard contact like he did last year, he's in line for a productive 2023.
Graham Ashcraft, SP Cincinnati Reds
Once you look past the surface-level numbers, you’ll see where the excitement surrounding Ashcraft for 2023 is. Ashcraft admitted he got tired down the stretch, and over his final five starts, he posted a 7.92 ERA. Prior to the final five starts, he had a 3.94 ERA through his first 14 starts of the season. His velocity is excellent, but his sixth-percentile whiff rate and strikeout rate didn’t help out many fantasy managers. His strikeout numbers in the minors were solid, and there are reports that he’s working on refining his changeup and adding in a splitter. There are reports that he’s worked on refining his changeup and maybe even adding a splitter to his repertoire, and another wrinkle to put into his pitch mix should only benefit him, as even just one other average offering should give the batters more to think about. He’s a ground ball-heavy pitcher, which should help him offset the struggles that come with pitching at Great American Ball Park. Ashcraft won’t be your team’s SP1, SP2, or even SP3, but he’s currently free in drafts, and when he pushes his ERA down to 4.00 and his strikeout rate up closer to 20 percent, you basically just stole a solid back end starter for your fantasy rotation.
Bryan De La Cruz, OF Miami Marlins
After acquiring Luis Arraez in mid-January, there’s a good bit of buzz surrounding the Marlins, mainly amongst some of its young pitchers, Arraez, and budding fantasy star Jazz Chisholm Jr. However, one guy isn’t being talked about enough, and that’s Bryan De La Cruz. He’s looking at a full-time role in 2023, and the trade of Arraez just adds another high-OBP guy to the upper half of the lineup, so when De La Cruz works his way up to that part of the order, he should have more lucrative opportunities when he steps into the box. He posted a 96th percentile xBA, 94th percentile xSLG, and 86th percentile hard-hit rate last season. Here were the players last year to have also posted the above marks: Yordan Alvarez, Aaron Judge, Freddie Freeman, and Bryce Harper.
From September on last year, he slashed .388/.419/.718 with six home runs, 10 doubles, and 22 RBI, and of players with at least 50 plate appearances in the aforementioned span, his .476 wOBA was the third-best in baseball, trailing only Judge and Julio Rodríguez. Even if he starts the year in the lower half of the lineup, it’s only a matter of time before he works his way up the order, and the fact that he’s being drafted outside of the top 50 outfielders and 225 picks overall is crazy. There’s so much value to be had here with De La Cruz, who is not getting nearly the fantasy attention he deserves.
Eduardo Rodriguez, SP Detroit Tigers
Remember this guy? He didn’t pitch in 2020, but across 2018, 2019, and 2021 seasons, he posted a 4.11 ERA (3.63 FIP) with a 1.33 WHIP and a 26.1-percent strikeout rate. He signed a big deal with Detroit, but flopped in 2022, as he missed time due to a rib cage sprain, and then spent some time away from the team for personal reasons. In the nine starts, he made with the team upon returning, he posted a 3.81 ERA with a 1.33 WHIP and 47.5 percent ground ball rate. The strikeouts were way down upon his return, but this is the first season since 2015 where he didn’t post a strikeout rate north of 21 percent, so one would figure there’s to be some bounce back here for Rodriguez in 2023, which is instrumental to rewarding fantasy managers. In Spring Training, we need to see a return to more normal levels with his velocity and see if his complimentary offerings have more bite to them. Rodriguez can opt out of his deal after 2023 and can earn a $1M bonus if he gets to 180 IP, something he’s only done once in his career. While I doubt he reaches that incentive, this is essentially a “contract year” for the veteran southpaw, so there’s a little added motivation for him this season. He’s someone I want to watch closely in Spring Training, but at his current price, he’s worth the flier.
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