By Andrew Ball
I hate the term “sleeper”. With the amount of information available to fantasy owners nowadays, players just don’t sneak by in drafts. Sleeper tags are also typically applied only to late round players, when really any player can return value if selected at the right time. Players like Jacoby Ellsbury in 2011 and Andrew McCutchen in 2012 may have been the best draft day bargains the past two years, but neither appeared on any preseason sleeper lists. League settings, size and hundreds of other factors also dictate who should be coined a sleeper. Despite all of that, the big question in fantasy baseball remains, “Who are the sleepers for 2013?”
Because I think the question is impossible to answer, I am not going to give any sleepers. Rather, I will give you my Black Swans Team for 2013. Like black swans, the players on this team are known by all, but for one reason or another they are being undervalued this season. Some may be early round picks, while others can be had in the closing stages of a draft or auction, but all of these players should give owners a big return on investment in 2013.
C – Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins
Joe Mauer has a chance to be the top catcher in 4 of the 5 roto categories. In fact, last year he was 1st in runs scored, 2nd in steals and 3rd in both average and RBI among catchers. The one category he does not excel in, home runs, is vastly overrated by fantasy owners, making Mauer’s elite production available at a discount.
1B – Freedie Freeman, Atlanta Braves
In 2012, Freeman improved upon his rookie campaign in every category except batting average. His .259 average can really be credited to a large discrepancy between his .295 BABIP and his .345 xBABIP, which should correct itself in 2013. Also, his OBP and isolated power saw significant increases in the second half last season. Normally, I disregard second half splits due to small sample size caveats, but Freeman had a tangible reason for his improvement. He had corrective eye surgery half way through last season, making me believe that the boost to his production should be sustainable.
2B – Robinson Cano, New York Yankees
Cano is the poster boy for the Black Swans team, a consensus first round pick that is still undervalued this year. There are 4 truly elite talents this season: Ryan Braun, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout and Robinson Cano, yet Cano is only 7th in ADP on Mock Draft Central. In each of the past three years, Cano has hit at least .302, scored at least 102 runs, hit at least 28 home runs and driven in no fewer than 94 runs. In 2012, he set career highs in homers, runs scored, walk rate, and isolated power, displaying that he is not done improving as a hitter. His numbers alone should make him a top pick, but when you remember he is eligible at second base you have every reason to consider him first overall in drafts.
3B – Hanley Ramirez, Los Angeles Dodgers
Ramirez could have made this team at either shortstop or third base, an impressive feat. What’s not to like about Hanley Ramirez? He is a 20/20 lock that has put up numbers his entire career in spite of his ballpark and teammates. At 29 years old, I see no reason he won’t at least repeat his 2012 numbers and I actually think we will see some improvement now that is away from Miami. He should be happy playing SS full-time again and I think a .280 average with 20 home runs, 20 steals, 90 runs and 90 RBI is well in reach for Ramirez.
SS – Alcides Escobar, Kansas City Royals
Escobar detractors will point to a .344 BABIP in 2012 and scream regression, when the truth is he actually underperformed his xBABIP of .354. He will be hitting second in an emerging Royals lineup, which should boost his runs scored and RBI totals from a year ago. He also has tremendous speed and instincts on the bases, evidenced by his 35 of 40 success rate on steals last year. With another year of development, and more plate appearances at the top of the order, I think Escobar swipes 40 in 2013.
OF – Carlos Gomez, Milwaukee Brewers
Blind resumes don’t work quite as well when you have already revealed the player, but just take a guess which player hit .278 with 14 home runs and 26 steals after the all-star break last year? Gomez finished last season with 19 home runs and 37 steals and he did that in only 452 plate apperances. No he won’t help you in batting average, but a little more closely at the outfield crop this year and you will find a plethora of players who will probably hit somewhere between .245-.265. Gomez falls in that range, but unlike most of the others, he may also finish with 20-25 home runs and 40-45 steals.
OF – Johnny Gomes, Boston Red Sox
Gomes was one of several players that enjoyed fine seasons with the A’s last year in platoon roles. The knock on Gomes has always been that he struggles against righties, so it was a surprise that Boston signed him to be their everyday leftfielder this offseason. Despite his perceived platoon problem, Gomes actually posted a 101 RC+ against right-handers last year, and he now is moving into a much better overall hitting environment. Look at Gomes’ road totals from last year: .273/.409/578 with 11 home runs in just 48 games. If you’re look for a late round gamble to be this year’s Josh Willingham, look no farther than Johnny Gomes.
OF – Domonic Brown, Philadelphia Phillies
Two years ago, Brown was one of the top-5 prospects in the game and he is still just 25 years old. I have to believe he will earn regular at bats over the likes of Laynce Nix, Delmon Young (coming off an ankle injury), John Mayberry Jr., and Darin Ruf, and I am excited to see what he will finally do with the playing time. Currently he is being selected as the 80th outfielder in drafts, so the reward far outweighs the risk with Brown. And if you need more convincing, check out what this smart writer had to said over at Fake Teams.
SP – Jeff Samardzjia, Chicago Cubs
Samardzjia will fall into the late round starting pitcher category this year, when really he should be drafted in the top 20 at the position. Among pitchers that threw at least 150 innings in 2012, Samardzjia ranked 7th in K% and 15th in xFIP. He gets ground balls at a decent clip, limits walks, is just entering his prime and boasts one of the fastest average fastballs among starting pitchers. With a slight decrease in ERA and increase in innings, Samardzjia should finish with 12-15 wins, a 3.50 ERA, a 1.25 WHIP and 210 strikeouts.
SP – Jason Hammel, Baltimore Orioles
Hammel was a top-30 starter last season before suffering a season ending injury after making 20 starts. He always was a serviceable enough starter in Colorado, but last year he morphed into a groundball/strikeout machine by adding a power sinker to his repertoire. The sinker led to his highest groundball rate, 53.2%, and strikeout rate, 22.9%, of his career and reminded me of what Brandon Webb used to be like. Hammel’s inclusion on the Black Swans team just indicates that I believe his 2012 to be the real new and improved Jason Hammel, and I don’t think the majority of fantasy owners have caught on to that just yet.
RP – Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Huston Street has trouble staying healthy, that’s the only downside you can list to owning him. On the other hand, he pitches in Petco, he racks up strikeouts (10.85/9), he limits walks (2.54/9), and he has saved at least 20 games in four consecutive seasons. Every closer has some risk, but I don’t see how relievers like Addison Reed, J.J. Putz, or Joel Hanrahan are being selected before Street with they all have similar issues and aren’t nearly as good as Street. As noted in our rankings, we feel that Street is an elite closer, so if you can acquire him at less than an elite price, you should definitely do so.