Any fantasy baseball magazine, book or website is bound to have a sleepers section somewhere. They are a fantasy staple loved by all and for good reason as everyone is looking to get the next big thing at a great price that will propel them to a title and help them for years to come if they play in a keeper league.
Of course in the Information Age we live in these days, it is really hard to get anything by your leaguemates in terms of a legitimate sleeper. The more obvious sleepers turn up in seemingly every one of these articles all of sudden making them overvalued or at least just fairly priced sapping the value. I am not here to bash sleeper articles as I have done them for the last five or six years whether here or at the various outlets I have worked for in the past. I wanted to try a different approach this year.
Instead of worrying about sleeper label and pretending like we are pulling a fast one on our leaguemates, let’s just look at some guys I like for 2011. These aren’t necessarily sleepers as many will be firmly entrenched on the radar of your opponents. Nor are they necessarily breakout candidates, either. After all, who really knows what defines a breakout? It can mean 10 different things to 10 different people.
If you read the Starting Pitching Guide then you won’t be surprised by some of these guys as I made it clear how much I liked them there by suggesting you aggressively buy in or go the extra dollar or a host of other ways I used to convey my excitement for them. Essentially if they are on this list, I like them more than their current projection meaning there is profit to gained. There isn’t a uniform theme to this piece so let’s just get started with the names and you’ll see what I mean.
1. Cole Hamels – Seeing Hamels on a list like this might come as a surprise after all he doesn’t fall too far out of the top 10 starting pitchers in most drafts. His inclusion is due to the fact that I have him as a top 5 guy for 2011. He has Cy Young-quality stuff. It was a travesty that his pitching led to just 12 wins, but that’s why judging pitchers on wins is foolish. He is a bit overshadowed by teammates Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt, but I think he’s the best bet from a production-to-cost ratio.
2. Tommy Hanson – Like Hamels, this is a superstar in the making, but an overreaction to a 10-11 record from 2010 is depressing his value a bit. Guys like Hamels and Hanson are the ones who will be my aces in 12-team mixed leagues because I refuse to pay the premium attached to the Lincecums and Felixes of the world. If you’re looking for guys to take Ubaldian leaps from good to great, target Hanson and this next guy…
3. Chad Billingsley – Noticing a trend with these first three guys? Billingsley also had a record that belied his true value going 12-11 for the second straight season masking his return to 2008’s 2.5 K/BB and a career best 0.4 HR/9. Are you surprised to learn that he is just 26 years old? In a standard 12-team mixer, I’m building my hitting base filling in some scarcity fields like shortstop (if I can get Hanley or Tulow), third base and outfield (remember, we need five) while taking advantage of the first base depth with those first 6-8 picks then pairing Hanson and Billingsley as my 1-2 punch. My offense is going to be better than the guy who took Halladay in round 1 or 2 and my pitching is going to nearly on par and potentially better even if he paired a Sabathia or Weaver with him using yet another early round pick.
4. Brandon Morrow – I think he is getting a little trendy raising his value, but that doesn’t dissuade me. Last year, I loved Gio Gonzalez and Jonathan Sanchez to make big leaps forward and they didn’t let me down. Morrow is my guy of that class this year. If he can shave a full walk off of his rate like Gonzalez did, he would be near 3.0 and if it didn’t cost him over two strikeouts in the process (as it did Gonzalez), he can be truly elite.
5. Ricky Romero – I love me some Blue Jays this year. I will lift a quote from myself from the Guide re: Romero, “Romero meets the three criteria of Sporer Trifecta of Excellence (patent pending) with a strong strikeout rate (7.5 K/9), a truly elite groundball rate (55% career) and an above average changeup (though it was valued higher in ’09)”. He has the stuff to take a step forward, but even a 2010 repeat has value at the cost I’m seeing for him in the two drafts I have already done and the expert leagues that have already taken place.
6. Hiroki Kuroda – A victim in the W-L column going just 11-13 last year despite a very strong skill set. He has managed three straight sub-3.80 ERA seasons in the majors despite failing to reach even 70% LOB% let alone the league average 72% mark. His age (36) undoubtedly scares some off, but nothing in his profile warrants fear (50%+ GB rate, 2.2 or better BB/9 and improving K/9 reached 7.3 last year). He comes cheaper or at the same cost as the likes Matt Garza and Tim Hudson despite a more stable set of skills and even a tick of upside if that LOB% bumps up to average.
7. Edwin Jackson – Not much love out there for Jackson for some reason. Maybe because it took him so long to begin paying any sort of dividends on his elite prospect status (4th in baseball in 2004) or because he teased and tantalized with so many false starts prior to that breakout year in Detroit back in 2009. In Don Cooper I trust. In 75 innings he righted Jackson’s season from the disaster it was in Arizona assisting Jackson to eight quality starts out of 11 including a run of three in which he struck out 11, 10 and 11. I think Cooper and the Sox will finally extract the best out of Jackson for a full season returning a sharp profit on his current value.
8. James McDonald – This is the third year of me driving the McDonald Bandwagon. He’s just getting going after a trade to the Pirates finally got him into a rotation so I’m not going anywhere now. He went for $4 in NL Tout Wars over the weekend. He is the kind of endgame play that can yield $10+ dollars of profit and be integral to a championship run. Frankly I’m surprised he was so cheap as he has popped up on a lot of sleeper lists this offseason, much to my chagrin.
9. Jordan Zimmermann – He got a nice little 71-inning (31 in the majors) tune up last year coming back from Tommy John Surgery displaying 99% of his velocity from 2009 (92 of 93 MPH) and posted some decent stats albeit in smallish sample. I am quite intrigued by what he can do in a full season (though a full season this year may mean approx. 170 innings) having displayed strikeout an inning stuff throughout his minor league career as well as the 91 innings from his rookie year. Injury returns are often a great source of profit and Zimmermann will be a prime candidate in this field for 2011.
Tomorrow’s portion of the list will feature nine names geared more towards single leagues and deeper mixed leagues. That doesn’t mean they are entirely out of play for 10 and 12 mixed leaguers, especially if you have a reserve roster or taxi squad, but a lot of those leagues will have several of these guys on the waiver wire after the draft.
Ed. Note – if you’re wondering where Dan Haren is on this list, I figured he was too obvious to include. If you’ve been reading my work at all this offseason, participated in the chat I hosted a few weeks back or talked with me via Twitter, you know how much I love this guy for 2011 (and beyond for that matter). He is an unheralded ace with one of the best and most stable skills profiles in all of baseball. He was tied with Max Scherzer as the 6th most expensive starter in AL Tout Wars ($20), a bargain in my book. I have him 3rd-best in the AL behind Felix Hernandez and Jon Lester, just ahead of Justin Verlander.