Fantasy baseball 2014 draft prep: NL sleepers
We've already identified five of the finest sleepers in the American League. Now we shift our gaze to the senior circuit, which has a nice crop of sleepers of its own. As with the AL, the list below was culled from an original group of 20 players, ensuring one of only the most prime cuts of sleeper-worthiness.
• SP Doug Fister, Washington Nationals -- Fister's case for a breakout season is covered in our Burning Questions series. No pitcher suffered more because of the makeup of the defense behind him more than Fister did last year. An extreme ground-ball pitcher, Fister was done in by having Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and, for a large chunk of the season, Jhonny Peralta in his infield. Despite pedestrian strikeout totals, Fister has put up 13.3 WAR the last three seasons. Only eight pitchers have had more, and you probably recognize all of their names: Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and David Price. Fister has long been one of the most underappreciated commodities in all of baseball. That will change this season.
• OF Ben Revere, Philadelphia Phillies -- Revere had a terrible first month of the season in 2013, hitting .200 with a .234 OBP. He turned it around the next two months, hitting .312 with a .361 OBP in May, and .354 with a .390 OBP in June. He was well on his way to another season with a strong batting average and 40-plus steals before a broken ankle in July put him on the shelf for the rest of the year. Couple that with the Phillies' disappointing season overall, and it's easy to forget that Revere hit .305 with 22 steals in just 88 games last year. He's a three-category player at best, but he can easily provide his owners with a .290 batting average, 35-40 steals and 80-90 runs hitting atop the Phillies' lineup. He's the perfect player to insert in an offense that is already heavy on power, as he can almost single-handedly make a team competitive in steals from week to week. Given that you can likely snag him outside the top-50 outfielders in an average draft, he's in line to be one of this year's biggest bargains.
• 3B Aramis Ramirez, Milwaukee Brewers -- The third base position starts to thin out around the 10th- and 11th-ranked players, so a few owners in all but the shallowest of leagues will have to hit the bargain bin. Make no mistake, the only reason Ramirez finds himself in that category is because of a knee injury that limited him to 92 games last year. At 35, he carries some inherent injury risk, but Ramirez' production has hardly slowed as he has entered the twilight of his career. He hit .283/.370/.461 with 12 homers and 49 RBI in his injury-shortened 2013 season. In 2012, he hit .300/.360/.540 with 27 bombs and 105 RBI. His ceiling isn't much higher than his floor, but when that floor is .280/.360/.460 with 22-25 homers and 80-90 RBI, you can afford to sacrifice some upside.
• SS Chris Owings, Arizona Diamondbacks -- You might be dubious about Owings' inclusion on this list, given that he's somewhat of a sleeper to be a starter on his own team, let alone in fantasy leagues. The bet here, though, is that Didi Gregorius' defensive advantage isn't near strong enough to offset how much more Owings will bring to the plate for the Diamondbacks. After hitting .330/.359/.482 with 12 homers and 20 steals in 575 plate appearances at Triple-A Reno last year, Owings earned a promotion to the majors, where he acquitted himself quite well, albeit in a small sample. He hit .291/.361/.382 in 61 plate appearances with Arizona while playing solid-enough defense. Gregorius, meanwhile, hit .252/.332/.373 last year, and his minor league stats have always foretold of an all-glove, no-hit player. If there's one position you can get away with that at, it's shortstop, but Owings' bat is too good for the Diamondbacks to keep stashed on the bench. He'll be the starter before long in Arizona, and make himself relevant in mixed leagues.
• OF Justin Ruggiano, Chicago Cubs -- The trade that brought Ruggiano to the North Side of Chicago didn't generate a ton of national press, but he has a real chance to make an impact in most fantasy formats this season. He's expected to be the Cubs primary center fielder; though he will likely see time at all three outfield spots, alongside Ryan Sweeney, Nate Schierholtz and Junior Lake, which should give him somewhere between 550 and 600 plate appearances. He has 999 appearances for his career, so we can start to draw some reliable conclusions on him. Russell Carleton did some great work at Baseball Prospectus a few years ago determining when sample sizes become large enough to be predictive. His study found that HR/FB ratio generally becomes reliable after 50 fly balls, line-drive rate at 600 balls in play and fly-ball rate at 80 balls in play. Ruggiano hasn't quite put enough balls in play to rely on his line-drive rate just yet, but he has hit 242 fly balls in his career, so we can feel pretty safe using his career fly-ball rate and HR/FB ratio to project for this season. If he stays true to his career HR/FB ratio of 15.3 percent and career fly-ball rate of 38.6 percent Ruggiano seems like a safe bet for 20-22 home runs. He stole 14 bags in 320 plate appearances in 2012 and 15 in 472 last year. Tack on another 100 or so PAs in 2014, and Ruggiano looks like a real threat to put up a 20-20 season. He has a career strikeout rate of 25.6 percent and swinging-strike rate of 13.5 percent, so he's likely to be a drag on your batting average and OBP, but he has the look of a top-45 outfielder, at worst.
• C Wilson Ramos, Washington Nationals -- Ramos logged significant time in the majors in 2011 and 2013, hitting 31 homers with 101 RBI and 77 runs in 738 plate appearances over the two seasons (he lost most of 2012 to a serious knee injury that required two surgeries). Assuming he spends the entire 2014 season as the Nationals' primary catcher, he should come to the plate approximately 450-500 times. Like Ruggiano, we can start to take Ramos' batted-ball rates as his legitimate profile given that he has 916 career plate appearances. If he stays true to his career 30.6-percent fly-ball rate and 16.5-percent HR/FB ratio, he'll hit 24 homers in 475 plate appearances. That alone will give him plenty of value as a catcher. Given that he'll be in an advantageous spot to drive in runs in a potentially strong Washington offense, Ramos could push up near 75-80 RBI if all breaks right.
• SP Marco Estrada, Milwaukee Brewers -- I've saved the best for last, as no player fits the sleeper profile better than Milwaukee's Estrada. Try as I might, I cannot figure out why my brethren in the fantasy industry have conspired to push his consensus ranking among starting pitchers all the way down to No. 57. In 2012 and 2013 combined, he has a 3.75 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 1.11 WHIP and 8.82 K/9 in 266.1 innings. Among pitchers with at least 200 innings in the last two seasons, only 16 have more K/9 than Estrada. He dominates hitters with a fastball-changeup combo that keeps them guessing, thanks to the consistent 12-mph difference between the two offerings. According to Pitch F/X, he had the 15th most valuable change in baseball last year, saving 1.23 runs for each 100 times he threw it. This is a pitcher with legitimate top-30 upside that you can get in the final stages of your draft.
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