- Whether it be a young phenom primed for a breakout season or a struggling veteran due for a bounceback campaign, SI's list of fantasy baseball sleepers could help win your league this summer.
The idea of a true sleeper is such a relic of the past that even identifying how the definition of the term has changed is passé. There’s an entire generation of fantasy sports owners who have never lived in a world where that kind of sleeper existed. These days, a sleeper is simply someone who is significantly undervalued. So why do we still use the term? Well, that’s simple, too. It’s catchy.
How undervalued are these players? Well, I have six of the seven sleepers I am about to present ranked at least 42 spots higher than their consensus ranking on FantasyPros, and I have five of them ranked 70-plus spots higher. The seventh, meanwhile, is ranked outside the top 250. That’s how undervalued these sleepers are.
Franmil Reyes, OF, Padres
Reyes got some coverage in our outfield primer, but he’s one of our top sleepers this season, so he cannot be ignored here. The following is part of what we wrote about him in the outfield primer.
If I were running the Padres, getting Reyes playing time would be one of my outfield priorities. The 23-year-old spent about half the season with the big league club last year, hitting .280/.340/.498 with 16 homers and 31 RBI. He didn’t log enough time to qualify for the batting title, but if he had his 130 OPS+ would’ve tied him for 25th with Nicholas Castellanos, ahead of players like Trevor Story and Giancarlo Stanton. Before getting the call to the majors, Reyes slashed .324/.428/.614 with 16 homers in 250 plate appearances at Triple-A El Paso. He spent all of the previous season, when he was 21 years old, at Double-A San Antonio, slugging .464 and belting 25 homers in 566 plate appearances.
Additionally, Gabriel Baumgaertner uncovered a few great nuggets on Reyes’ pop and included them in the addendum to our MLB Top 100. Reyes’ hard-hit rate of 47.5% was higher than that of Mike Trout, Ronald Acuña and Khris Davis. He had a higher average exit velocity, 92.3 mph, than Mookie Betts, Christian Yelich and new teammate Machado. Reyes’s power is for real, and the Padres may suddenly have a fantasy friendly lineup. This is someone you want to bet on this season.
Joe Musgrove, SP, Pirates
Guess how many pitchers struck out more than 20% and walked fewer than 5% of the batters they faced last season? Two: Corey Kluber and Musgrove. Those may be arbitrary endpoints, but the idea here isn’t just to rig the parameters for a club to make Musgrove look more impressive by the company he keeps. Rather, it’s to set the foundation for why the 26-year-old will have a breakout season. Arbitrary endpoints or not, when the only other pitcher to do something you’ve done is Kluber, you’re likely on the right path.
Musgrove missed the first two months of last season due to injury, and ended the year throwing 115 1/3 innings across 19 starts, totaling a 4.06 ERA, 3.92 xFIP, 1.17 WHIP and 100 strikeouts. The further removed Musgrove was from his recovery, the better he was. He made 10 starts in the second half, pitching to a 4.04 ERA and 1.01 WHIP with 50 strikeouts against seven walks.
Musgrove paired his swing-and-miss stuff with a knack for inducing soft contact. His 20% soft-hit rate tied him for 14th in the majors, while his 45.5% ground-ball rate ranked 22nd. He mixes five pitches—a four-seamer, two-seamer, slider, cutter and changeup—effectively, with all having usage rates between 13.9% and 32% last season. Musgrove’s heater sits in the mid-90s, with an average velocity of 94 mph. No one would call him a soft tosser, but in today’s game he isn’t exactly blowing hitters away, either. A pitcher with his repertoire needs to work low in the zone, mix up his offerings, and have more than his fair share of deception if he is going to keep hitters off his hard stuff. One last stat suggests that Musgrove was a step ahead of hitters, more often than not.
Fangraphs measures the frequency with which a pitcher gets hitters to swing at pitches outside the zone with a stat it calls o-swing rate. Musgrove’s o-swing rate last year was 37.7%, third in the majors behind just Patrick Corbin and Jacob deGrom. Check out the o-swing rate leaderboards from the past few years, and you’ll find the names Scherzer, Sale, Kluber and Verlander over and over again. Pitches outside the strike zone are generally pitcher’s pitches. Getting hitters to swing at them is a great thing. Musgrove did that with the best of them last year.
Collin McHugh, SP, Astros
After adding Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander in a span of six months last year, the Astros moved McHugh to the bullpen, where he excelled as a multi-inning reliever. He made 58 appearances, totaling a 1.99 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and 94 strikeouts in 72 1/3 innings. With Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel off to new homes and Lance McCullers out for the season because of Tommy John surgery, McHugh returns to the rotation for the Astros in 2019. Fantasy owners aren’t giving him nearly the respect he deserves.
Before last year, McHugh was a starter for his entire career. He missed the first four months of 2017 with an elbow injury, but returned in late July to make 12 starts, amassing a 3.55 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and 62 strikeouts in 63 1/3 innings. There is some concern that, without being able to give max effort in every inning he pitches now that he’s back in the rotation, he could lose some of the strikeout gains he made in the bullpen last year. That ignores one major factor in McHugh’s 2018 resurgence: he’s not exactly the same pitcher he once was.
McHugh never threw a slider before 2017, leaning on his four-seamer, cutter and curve. He introduced it after coming off the disabled list in ’17, and then made it a key part of his repertoire last year. The slider had a usage rate of 23.8% last season, more than every pitch in his arsenal other than his four-seamer. It also had a 15.3% whiff rate, and was a key offering against righties. McHugh never had extreme left/right splits before, which isn’t necessarily as good a thing as it sounds, especially for a right-handed pitcher. Put another way, McHugh didn’t dominate righties the way that many pitchers with his same skill set do. That changed with the addition of his slider. Last year, he held same-siders to a .135/.196/.220 slash line in 154 plate appearances. Returned to the rotation with one of the best offenses in the league at his back, McHugh can be a top-40 starter this year.
Sean Newcomb, SP, Braves
Newcomb got off to a solid start last year, pitching to a 3.51 ERA and 1.28 WHIP with 97 strikeouts in 105 innings in the first half. He was particularly good in May and June, when he had a 2.07 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 56 strikeouts in 65 1/3 innings across 11 starts. At that point of the season, Newcomb looked like a potential breakout performer.
Then the wheels came off just before the All-Star break: Newcomb allowed 13 runs on 12 hits and 12 walks in his final three starts of the first half. Things didn’t get much better after the break, with Newcomb racking up a 4.58 ERA, 1.42 WHIP and 29 walks in 53 innings across 11 second-half starts. This, of course, does not sound like a sleeper. So why are we buying the 25-year-old lefty? Two reasons.
The first is his youth. Newcomb turns 26 in June and has made all of 49 starts in his career. Given his first-round pedigree and minor league success, there’s reason to think he can still succeed as a major leaguer. The second is a curveball that, when on, can be one of the best in the game. See for yourself.
Despite the pitch’s obvious upside, it had just an 8.4% whiff rate last year. Newcomb missed the zone with it 66.2% of the time, and when it became clear he couldn’t command it for a strike, hitters laid off. The pitch had a total swing rate of 29%, and hitters chased it out of the zone just 16.7% of the time.
The relative struggles of the curve were a huge part of the reason Newcomb never found a pitch he could trust outside of his four-seamer. Still, look at that thing. It’s beautiful. We’re willing to bet that Newcomb’s youth and pedigree will help him find the command over what could be a special pitch this season. If that’s indeed the case, he’ll prove to be a huge fantasy bargain.
Ian Happ, 2B/3B/OF, Cubs
Let me get the obvious out of the way right off the bat. In fact, “off the bat” is the perfect phrase for this section: Happ didn’t have enough off the bat events last year. If he strikes out in 36.1% of his plate appearances again, he won’t realize his evident potential, and it’s that strikeout rate and uncertain playing time that is driving Happ down draft boards.
Despite his whiffing ways, Happ made some clear strides last year. His walk rate leapt to 15.2%. He may have had a .233 batting average, but he totaled a .353 OBP. He had 15 homers and a 17.9% HR/FB ratio. That was down from the likely unsustainable 25.3% HR/FB ratio of his rookie year, but still high enough to suggest he could hit 25 homers this season. Some players who didn’t reach a 17.9% HR/FB ratio last year included Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Mookie Betts, Rhys Hoskins and Manny Machado. When Happ gets the ball airborne, it often travels a long way.
Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez may be the only players on the Cubs with a guaranteed spot in Joe Maddon’s everyday lineup, but Happ’s a natural second baseman who has proved he can play all three outfield spots. What’s more, outside of the three regulars, Kyle Schwarber and possibly Willson Contreras, Happ has a higher ceiling as an offensive player than any of the rest of his teammates. That, too, will get him into the lineup more often than not, especially if he hits early in the season. With his eligibility at second base, third base and in the outfield, Happ provides major flexibility to fantasy owners, and he’s still in just his age-24 season.
Domingo Santana, OF, Mariners
Last year was an extreme fall from grace for Santana. In 2017, he hit .278/.371/.505 with 30 homers, 29 doubles, 85 RBI and 15 steals on a Brewers team that nearly made the postseason. Last year, when he was expected to be just as crucial to a squad that was clearly a pennant contender, Santana regressed so badly that he was eventually benched. He hit .237/.321/.269 in April and was phased out of the lineup by the end of May thanks to the rise of Jesus Aguilar, spent two months in the minors, and was reduced to a pinch-hitting role in September. This offseason, the Brewers shipped him to Seattle for Ben Gamel and a minor league pitcher.
Santana’s sleeper status is based largely on two factors. First, he’s coming off the board outside the top-280 picks in a typical draft. Even in a 14- or 15-team league, he’s basically free. Second, he’s 26 years old and two years removed from a .278/.371/.505, 30-homer, 15-steal season. If he can rediscover even 80% of that production with the Mariners, he’ll turn a huge profit. If he doesn’t, at least he cost you nothing more than a late-round flier. Santana should be on everyone’s endgame target list this season.
Garrett Hampson, 2B, Rockies
What’s a sleeper list without someone expected to be a newly minted starter in Colorado. With D.J. LeMahieu off to the Yankees, Hampson is the favorite to win the second base job for the Rockies. Hampson, a third-round pick in the 2016 amateur draft, split most of last year between Double-A Hartford and Triple-A Albuquerque, earning a promotion to the majors in September. He hit .311/.382/.462 with 10 homers, 25 doubles and 36 steals in 504 trips to the plate in the minors. Isolating for Albuquerque, he slashed .314/.377/.459 with six homers, 17 doubles and 17 steals in 21 attempts.
Hampson spent three years in college at Cal State Long Beach, so he’ll be 24 years old in his first full major league season. While he may not possess the extreme youth of some of his fellow prospects, he still has a monster ceiling, especially factoring in his home park. Assuming he can win and keep the second base gig, he’ll carry 15-homer, 20-steal upside as a rookie.