The Yankees gave away A.J. Burnett, paying him along the way, and they still have enough viable starting candidates to make for a competition for the back end of the rotation. It is quite a luxury and it is an opportunity that fantasy owners can jump on.
See, Phil Hughes isn't currently in the rotation if you had to project the Yankees' top five today -- CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia. Manager Joe Girardi came into spring saying only Sabathia and Kuroda are assured of spots.
That is merely masking what should be obvious to fantasy laymen: Hughes is a former 18-game-winner still with a lot of upside and one that comes with a very small investment on draft day, particularly if you are drafting early this March.
At the winter meetings, Girardi planned to have Hughes a part of the rotation:
"This is a guy that won 18 games in 2010, and that's not always easy to do, win 18 games," Girardi said. "But he pitched well for us, and that's what we're asking him to do to give a chance to win, keep us in the games like he did in 2010. I do consider him a big part of our rotation."
That was before Pineda and Kuroda were added. The Burnett deal, though, has given Hughes a chance to compete with veteran Garcia for the No. 5 spot. Hughes is best served getting slotted in the rotation and being let go, finally, after years of being jerked around and put at risk for shoulder woes.
Picking the winners of position battles, in addition to the six ways we outlined in finding breakouts and potential sleepers (prime 27-year-olds, third-year starting pitchers, injury-risk sleepers, rookies, overlooked sophomores and contract years), are a prime way to unearth some hidden value on draft day.
Here are the top fantasy sleepers in the American League, broken down by division and team (with
A healthy Hughes is an elite fantasy starter. He failed in 2011, but we'll get a look at the strength of his shoulder this spring. Watch his velocity (it is already in the low-90s) and ability to take regular spring turns and stretch out his pitch counts on a regular schedule. He is a potential Top-25 fantasy starter and will get picked far later than that. His disastrous year makes him cheaper than ever, but he is still 25 with a big future. The Yankees gave up '11 breakthrough Ian Kennedy to keep Hughes for a reason.
He was a bust in Boston in Year 1, and is still troubled this spring and unlikely to be ready for Opening Day, but it tends to be the second year after signing a big free-agent contract when a player feels comfortable. A lot of people are going to be down on Crawford -- even more than they are already, due to that spring wrist issue -- but he is still capable of going .295-15-85-100-40. That makes for a decent middle-round pick if he falls that far as an injury-risk sleeper.
No only is he a 27-year old we have yet to see the best of, but he also is in a contract year. Maybe we finally get .290-30-100-100-30. If there is a Matt Kemp breakthrough in this class of 27-year olds, it is Upton. That kind of potential for a player you are going to draft in Round 5 or later is too much to pass up.
Drabek started last season in the Jays' rotation, somewhat surprisingly. He fared well, but looked bad in the middle and the end, and even struggled mightily back in Triple-A. Drabek is a potential future fantasy ace, so he could rebound and become a solid Low Investment Mound Ace. "Despite his struggles, it was a major learning curve for him last year," manager John Farrell said. "We can't lose sight of some of the games he pitched early on -- seven innings against the Twins in his first start of the year -- and I think he learned a lot about himself, learned a lot about the major leagues. Those negative experiences or those challenges will go a long way in him understanding who he is as a pitcher."
Markakis has posted back-to-back mediocre seasons. The 28-year old no longer looks like a potential .300-25-100-100-15 outfielder. Two down years and his spring injury (abdominal surgery) will get him picked a lot lower than his talent suggests. You just might strike gold here finally.
Young, a 27-year old heading into a contract year like former teammate B.J. Upton, has been a fantasy disappointment for years. An awful first half ruined his value for '11. That isn't all bad news. He is going to come off the board late and few will look at his solid second-half numbers over his mediocre full-season stats. Young can go .280-25-100-100 as a great late-round fantasy selection.
Dunn is going to get every chance to prove he can be a viable big-league hitter again. He won't have much fantasy value going into the season, but manager Robin Ventura is going to give him a chance to play in the field more to see if it can ignite his bat. As we said with Crawford above, free agents tend to have better seasons in Year 2 in their new home, so Dunn could provide a great return relative to draft position. The decline was just too sudden. As a late-round pick who has the potential to go .240-30-100-80, Dunn can be a steal in the latter rounds. Just don't count on him as a fantasy lineup regular out of the gate.
The Indians' recently designated Opening-Day starter won only 12 games last year, but Masterson pitched like a 15- to 18-game-winner. We should expect continued improvement and perhaps a move into the Top 25 starting pitchers in fantasy.
He is smack dab in the category of overlooked sophomores mostly because it took a summer for him to prove big-league worthy, but once he did, he was a monster. He went .352-4-12-10-2 in September, which could make him a great late-round pick at the sketchy third base position. If Moustakas proves capable of building on his strong finish at age 23, he could go .280-20-80-80 and be a steal at his draft position.
He has hurdles to climb, but he is an injury-risk sleepers who could return to fantasy prominence if he can prove healthy. Watch him closely, particularly if you are going to be one to take the risk on him in the second half of drafts this spring. A healthy Morneau is a .300-30-100-100 star, even in that pitcher's park.
The Angels were confident Morales would be able to contribute last year, but he needed a second ankle surgery that ruined his year. They are even more confident this time, but the depth at 1B/DH allows them to be cautious with Morales. That should allow him to fall into the late rounds. A healthy Morales, hitting behind Albert Pujols, can be a .290-35-110-100 fantasy beast.
If Joe Nathan really is the Rangers' closer -- and he will be as long as they don't back off on Neftali Feliz in the rotation -- he is going to be a candidate for 35- or maybe 40-plus saves. Nathan won't even have to post a sub-3.00 ERA to get to that level. He is going to be an underrated closer, a position that generally creates sleepers out of late-rounders and busts out of the early rounders.
As a rookie, Ackley proved not only capable of being a major leaguer, but he showed he can be a very good one right away. The second base position is getting deeper by the year, and Ackley could develop into an elite option -- as soon as this year. Consider this potentially overlooked sophomore a great fallback option if you miss out on the few studs at second base. We haven't seen a full season of Ackley yet, so we might not know exactly where his ceiling lies.
Carter has game-changing power the A's haven't had in a long, long time. He will have to earn his at-bats at first, left and DH in spring training, but a big spring can make him a potential sleeper slugger in deeper formats, particularly AL-only leagues.