Tristan’s List: 20 fantasy baseball sleepers to target
Success in fantasy baseball isn’t about filling your roster with all of your favorite players. It’s fun to build a team of players you love, but it won’t win you your league. Success in this game is when personal preference meets opportunity. It’s when your strong, informed opinion separates from that of your competition, good or bad. That’s finding value.
That’s not to say that we can’t have favorites among players. If we didn’t, how would we know when our opinion deviates from the norm? Sure, there are measures such as ADP or expert-league results or any mock drafts with which we experiment before the real deal, but you’ll never truly know where those pockets of value reside until you actually sit down at your own league’s draft table.
The most important task to undergo in advance of your draft is to take your own stands on players — each and every one of them. Welcome to the space where I take my stands and share them with you: Presenting my annual “Tristan’s List,” 20 players that I expect to draft on a majority of my teams due to a particularly strong, positive opinion about each.
On this list, you won’t find Juan Soto, Kyle Tucker, Luis Robert, Rafael Devers or Lucas Giolito, despite my very much liking all five. Who doesn’t? They’re household names in our game, meaning none can hardly be termed a prospective “value.” I mention them simply because I think the premium you’ll pay for each is worth it (although Robert’s is — and should be — more affordable in points-based scoring).
No, this list runs a bit deeper than that, ranging from the fringes of the top-50 overall in my rankings to some final-round sleepers for those of you in AL- or NL-only leagues. As always, I’ve attempted to balance things. The list includes 10 American League and 10 National League players, 12 hitters and eight pitchers, and at least one apiece at each of the infield positions (as well as catcher).
Let’s dive in.
Willy Adames, SS, Milwaukee Brewers: A big reason for his transformation as a hitter following his May 21 trade to the Brewers last season was his escaping Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field, a venue in which he openly admitted he struggled to pick up the baseball while at-bat. In his first 81 team games on the Brewers roster, Adames batted .293/.377/.542 with 17 home runs, 50 RBI and 50 runs scored (for 34/100/100 full-162 paces), and to reiterate the point about the ballparks, prior to his trade he had a massive, 98-point career home/road wOBA split (.268 at Tropicana Field, .366 everywhere else). He’s more of a rotisserie-style value than one for points-based leagues because of his high strikeout rate, but he’s a clear target of mine for my middle-infield spot in either.
Aaron Ashby, RP, Milwaukee Brewers: The Brewers’ creativity, and tendency to go six-deep in their rotation, is a big reason Ashby is a preferred late-round sleeper of mine, as he’ll surely factor as either a sixth starter or bulk reliever for most, if not all, of 2022. The role uncertainly will suppress his draft price, and he does come with some control questions (note that 10.4% career minor-league walk rate), but he brings a 96-mph sinker that gives him a legitimate chance at a 60%-plus ground-ball rate, as well as a slider and a changeup that both generated more than 15% swinging-strike rates.
Matt Barnes, RP, Boston Red Sox: There isn’t much in the way of “closer bargains” entering 2021, not with the league increasingly going the committee route, but Barnes is one of the few who qualifies for me. Sure, the June ban on sticky stuff had a clear, statistical effect on him, but so far this spring, he seems to have returned to what works for him — most notably getting ahead early in counts. Barnes’ skills make the best fit among Red Sox closer hopefuls, especially with Garrett Whitlock looking like a good bet for the team’s rotation.
Oneil Cruz, SS, Pittsburgh Pirates: He might not be breaking camp with the Pirates, but the fact that they’re experimenting with him in left field is a promising sign as far as his 2022 role, especially considering his defense at shortstop might be the biggest obstacle to his emerging as an everyday player. Cruz’s raw power is massive, having clubbed a 408-foot homer among his nine trips to the plate last October, plus another two homers in his 15 spring plate appearances, and it’s not an outrageous projection that he could lead his team in home runs if he gets the requisite at-bats. (Yes, that speaks a bit to the Pirates’ lack of lineup depth.) Even though he’s beginning the year in Triple-A, he’s a name to tuck away as an instant pickup the moment the Pirates’ shortstop (left field?) job becomes his.
Jeimer Candelario, 3B, Detroit Tigers: While his 2021 stat line looked ordinary, Candelario’s underlying skills measured right there with what was his breakthrough 2020, signaling that he’s probably more of a .290-20 than a .271-16 hitter. He’s a high-floor (albeit low-ceiling) performer, but playing in Detroit in the midst of a rebuild these past few years has deflated his fantasy perception, and this year, the Tigers lineup should begin to show signs of life while he continues to occupy a three-four spot in it. Candelario’s skills are rather underrated for points-based scoring, thanks to his patience and penchant for doubles.
Tony Gonsolin, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers: Shoulder issues have held him back from claiming a regular role in the Dodgers rotation or from reaching the 90-inning plateau in each of the last three seasons, but despite that, he put forth an impressive 2.55 ERA and 26.0% strikeout rate in 27 games out of the rotation during that time. All indications are that Gonsolin’s shoulder is much healthier this spring, and his limited workload, coupled with the Dodgers’ tendency to go six-deep in the rotation while utilizing him as a swingman has served to deflate his draft price tag. He’s a high-ceiling, late-round pick I’m aiming to get to round out my staff.
Trent Grisham, OF, San Diego Padres: Hamstring and foot injuries took their toll on Grisham last season and, after his return from a June IL stint, he batted only .218/.304/.371 with nine homers while succeeding on only 6-of-10 stolen base attempts in 96 games — even dropping into a platoon role over the season’s final six weeks. Before that, however, he seemed to be emerging as a rotisserie-angled superstar, having batted .271/.364/.479 with 16 home runs and 17 stolen bases over the 98 Padres games for which he was on their active roster between 2020 and the first two months of 2021. That Grisham brings quality defense to the table stabilizes his playing time, and he’ll probably be needed to set the table for their lineup while Fernando Tatis Jr. heals. I’m not willing to write the youngster off after one disappointing, injury-plagued year.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr., OF, Toronto Blue Jays: His final 2021 numbers might look somewhat ordinary, but Gurriel finished the season with a flourish, having batted .289/.345/.526 with 16 home runs and 63 RBI over the Blue Jays’ final 100 team games, which projects to 26-102 numbers over a full 162. He’ll seek to clean up behind the team’s supremely talented top four in the lineup, meaning a 100-RBI season is well within his reach, especially as he has routinely put forth underrated hard-contact metrics (see his 45.0% career Statcast rate). The Randal Grichuk trade only helps pave the way for Gurriel to play pretty regularly.
Keston Hiura, 1B, Milwaukee Brewers: The best fantasy sleepers are the ones who possess at least one potentially elite skill — in Hiura’s case, his raw power — while having made an adjustment that seeks to unlock the full capability of said skill (as he apparently has). Hiura has been tearing it up during Cactus League play thus far, with three home runs and one double in his first 18 trips to the plate, and he’ll benefit from the reinstitution of the designated hitter, where he won’t have to worry so much about his iffy defense. He’s going in the final rounds of NL-only formats, and brings quite a lot of profit potential considering his recent play.
Tanner Houck, SP, Boston Red Sox: Let’s get his obstacles out of the way first. Houck wasn’t allowed to exceed 90 pitches or 5 1/3 innings by the Red Sox in any of his 13 starts for them in 2021, so while he looks likely to begin this year in their rotation, workload questions are valid. His skills, however, shouldn’t be questioned, as he boosted his average fastball velocity to 94.1 mph (on average), had pro-career-bests with his 7.5% walk and 30.1% strikeout rates (counting his minor league time) and had a mere 21-point wOBA platoon split (major-leagues only) last season. Houck isn’t generating much excitement in early drafts, so he’s a must for me as a back-of-rotation pick, even in mixed leagues.
Danny Jansen, C, Toronto Blue Jays: I speak and write often about the lengthy learning curve young catchers experience at the big-league level, with Yadier Molina being an excellent such example, as Molina didn’t have a 3.0-WAR year until his sixth (age-26) season. Jansen doesn’t at all appear to be the type of prospect that Molina was, though he did have better plate discipline numbers in the minors and he has been a plus-defender at this level thus far. Jansen will turn a prime-age 27 in April, and he finished last season on a high note, batting .322/.385/.763 with six homers and 18 RBIs over his final 21 games. He’s an ideal profit-potential pick as a No. 2 catcher, if you play in a league that requires one.
Francisco Lindor, SS, New York Mets: Lindor’s first season in New York was a disappointment, but lost in the cloud that hovered above his stat line was the fact that he seemed to begin to figure things out over the final four months of the year. During that time, he batted .252/.340/.482 with 16 home runs, 52 RBI and six stolen bases in the 79 Mets games for which he was on the active roster. Bear in mind that his Statcast expected batting average was .270, mostly in line with where it was during his days in Cleveland (.278 MLB career). It wouldn’t be the first time a star-caliber player struggled to adjust initially to the spotlight of New York, and Lindor was doing so under the pressure of having just signed a lucrative extension. I think Year No. 2 represents a near-total rebound.
Gavin Lux, SS/2B, Los Angeles Dodgers: Freddie Freeman‘s arrival was the most terrible news for Lux, who might otherwise have figured more into the second base and DH mix. Still, haven’t we all (as fantasy managers) learned the folly of the “no path to playing time” argument? Lux did only succeed last season when granted a position to play regularly, even if it came in the outfield, but the Dodgers are one of the most creative teams as far as assembling a daily lineup and they wouldn’t roster him to sit completely 4-5 times a week. He’s a worthwhile late-round stash, considering he batted .360 with 15.0% walk and 84.0% contact rates in 17 games last September.
Ketel Marte, OF/2B, Arizona Diamondbacks: The Diamondbacks see the value in Marte, having inked him to a long-term extension this past week, but it doesn’t seem that fantasy managers share the same enthusiasm, judging by early ADP trends. Injuries are a large part of the reason, and it’s fair to point out that he has missed 19.5% of the Diamondbacks’ games while on the IL over the last three seasons combined. However, keep in mind this means he has batted .318/.374/.543 with 48 home runs, 159 RBI, 13 stolen bases and 168 runs scored while on the active roster during that same time — which projects to 25/83/8/88 over a 162-game schedule. Marte had a 91st-percentile contact rate on pitches in the strike zone in that three-year span, as well as an 86th-percentile hard contact rate in 2021 alone (48.4%). He’s so much better a hitter than people give him credit for being.
Triston McKenzie, SP, Cleveland Guardians: Control issues dogged McKenzie in the early stages of 2021, but after a brief midseason stint in Triple-A ball, he returned with a substantially improved approach. He lowered his walk rate to 6.2% while going 9-of-14 in quality starts to round out the season, the improved control allowing his tough-to-hit curveball and slider to flourish. McKenzie has carried that approach over into spring training, and it’s one that makes him another attractive late-round target as I seek to fill my pitching staff on the cheap — and it’s not simply a first-names solidarity thing. (By the way, it’s spelled “Trist-AN,” thank you very much.)
Frankie Montas, SP, Oakland Athletics: If I’m going the “cheap aces” route (as I’d hoped I could in LABR), Montas would be my favorite, value-based choice to lead a staff. However, I advise selecting two pitchers in this rankings range if you’re using that strategy. He has been surrounded by trade rumors all spring, but even if he remains with the Athletics all season, that’s not a bad thing, as they play in a spacious ballpark that only elevates his ERA/WHIP floor, even if limited run support might make wins tougher to get. Montas is coming off a pro-best 187 innings pitched, and he was rock-solid during the season’s second half, with 13 quality starts, a 2.17 ERA and 115 strikeouts over 16 starts, his splitter being a huge key to his success.
Max Muncy, 1B, Los Angeles Dodgers: This one’s a straight-value pick, as people seem to be discounting Muncy far too deeply as a result of the elbow injury that prematurely ended his 2021 on the regular season’s final day. He’s a high-floor, top-100 caliber player when healthy, yet in NFBC drafts which have occurred since Friday, he has gone only 113th overall on average, which seems grossly undervaluing a player who scored the 41st-most fantasy points while finishing 96th on the Player Rater. Muncy has one of the keenest eyes at the plate — out of anyone, and he has been a spot-on 35-HR hitter (when scaling to 162 games) in each of the last four seasons. As far as the injury is concerned, the Dodgers having the DH also gives them the luxury of easing him back into play.
Luis Patino, SP, Tampa Bay Rays: He’s a young pitcher with potentially elite stuff, but without any of the results to back it up thus far in the big leagues. Patino’s inclusion on this list is therefore more of a leap of faith, but can you blame me? He has four pitches that generated at least a 20% “whiff” rate last season (rate of misses on hitters’ swings), a fastball that averaged 95.7 mph with an 86th-percentile spin rate, and he’s part of an organization that ranks among the best at developing young pitchers. I think the Rays’ regard for Patino as a future ace is a big part of the reason they didn’t stock up on rotational depth during the offseason and, while they might cap his innings again in 2022, he’s almost assuredly going to get a long leash as a member of their starting five (or six).
Corey Seager, SS, Texas Rangers: Seager’s case is an easy one if taking the statistical route, as in 2020-21 combined, he batted .306/.381/.545 with 31 home runs and 98 RBI in 147 games played, with top-eight Statcast expected metrics with his .308 xBA and .407 xwOBA. That doesn’t even get to the fact that he batted .270/.361/.591 with 10 homers and 26 RBI in an additional 30 playoff games in those seasons. Seager’s lone obstacle to fantasy greatness has always been the injuries. It’s a legitimate concern, but one that is also being weighted far too heavily, at least judging by the early ADP returns.
Tarik Skubal, SP, Detroit Tigers: I typically try to avoid overlap between this list and my Kings of Command, but Skubal is the one guy who appeals enough to me to warrant inclusion here. He was always a strikeout artist in the minor leagues, so the fact that he improved his K-rate to 27.5% over his final 25 starts of 2021, all the while maintaining a 1.19 WHIP, is rather encouraging. Skubal was a popular breakthrough candidate discussed throughout the offseason, yet the early ADP returns suggest that perhaps fantasy managers still aren’t completely on board. Count me as one who is!
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