The argument can be made that the most important part of fantasy sports in general is who can find the players late in the draft that turn out to play way above the level in where they were drafted.
In 2015, Lorenzo Cain had an average draft position in ESPN leagues of 206.6, and finished the season as a top-25 player. Jake Arrieta had an average draft position of 102.4, but he ended up winning the NL Cy Young award and finished as a top-5 player.
Finding players late in the draft that can emerge into elite, or even just a very good player, is what can make or break a season.
With the 2016 fantasy baseball season just around the corner, here is a list of five pitchers and five hitters to keep an eye on as sleepers for the upcoming season.
- Jung Ho Kang – 3B, SS – Pittsburgh Pirates
Last season, Kang spent the entire season as a utility player for Pittsburgh’s infield. The Pirates spent the entire season shifting players around, having trouble finding their set infield to consistently roll with. Here’s how the Pirates infield broke down by starts at each position.
First Base: Alvarez – 125 starts
Second Base: Neil Walker – 147 starts, Josh Harrison – 37 starts
Shortstop: Jordy Mercer – 116 starts, Jung Ho Kang – 60 starts
Third Base: Jung Ho Kang – 77 starts, Josh Harrison – 73 starts
Kang spent most of his season shifting between third base and shortstop, filling in for Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer when they missed time due to injury.
Kang missed the end of the 2015 season due to a knee injury that will also cause him to miss the first part of the 2016 season, but the Pirates should have their infield set once everyone is healthy, unlike last season. With Neil Walker now a member of the New York Mets, Harrison will become the full-time starting second baseman, leaving a spot for Kang to get consistent playing time at third base when he returns from his injury. In 421 at-bats in 2015, Kang his 15 home runs and drove in 58 RBIs, while batting .287 on the year.
- Michael Conforto – OF – New York Mets
Conforto was called up by the Mets midway through the 2015 season and finished with 174 at-bats in his first sting in the majors. He finished with nine home runs and 26 RBIs while hitting .270 with a .841 OPS. He is set to begin the 2016 season as the Mets starting left fielder, and could easily become one of the go-to hitters in New York’s lineup. Conforto’s numbers from a year ago put him on pace to hit 25 home runs and drive in 78 runs over a full 500-plus at-bat season.
Conforto likely won’t become a top-50 player in fantasy baseball this year. However, where he is ranked heading into drafts, Conforto has the ability to be a real value play as a late-round pick.
- Rougned Odor – 2B – Texas Rangers
Odor struggled in the first part of the 2015 season, hitting just .147 and .136 in April and May. But he burst onto the scene in the summer by hitting .391 in June, .319 in July and .280 in August before struggling again in September and October (.230, .133).
All-in-all, a second baseman who is capable of hitting 20 home runs, stealing 15 bases, driving in 80 runs, scoring 80 runs, and hitting .270 for the year deserves to be looked at as a top-5 second baseman. In fact, those numbers might be on the safe side of the equation for Odor, who has the potential to really become a star at age 22.
The argument could be made that he is going to be drafted right where he is going to finish, and that may be the case. However, there are few second basemen that have shown the ability to produce at a high level that are as young as Odor. He likely won’t be overvalued on draft day, but the upside on this third-year player is tremendous hitting atop the dangerous Rangers lineup.
- Randal Grichuk – OF – St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals were decimated with injuries n 2015, losing Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Thommy Pham, Randal Grichuk, Jordan Walden, Lance Lynn, Jamie Garcia, Carolos Martinez, Yadier Molina, and Matt Adams to the disabled list at some point during the 2015 season.
Despite being injured himself, Grichuk compiled 323 at-bats last year mainly filling in for the oft-injured Holliday. With Jason Heyward now a member of the rival Chicago Cubs and Jon Jay now with the San Diego Padres, Grichuk is set to be the full-time center fielder in St. Louis in 2016.
Grichuk played just over half a season in 2015, compiling 17 home runs and driving in 47 runs. Much like Kang, and Conforto, Grichuk will be the starter for the Cardinals to start the year. He has 30-home run potential and can hit for average and drive in runs in a revamped Cardinals lineup.
- Gerardo Parra – OF – Colorado Rockies
Not only was Parra’s value instantly amplified when he signed with the Rockies this offseason, but the Rockies traded Corey Dickerson soon after, making room for Parra to be an every day outfielder in the Rockies lineup to go along with Charlie Blackmon and Carlos Gonzalez. Parra set a career high last year with 14 home runs, splitting his time between Milwaukee and Baltimore. While it’s doubtful that Parra is going to turn into a power-hitting outfielder, his numbers could be in line for an increase hitting in Colorado.
In 100 games with Milwaukee before being traded, Parra hit .328 in 351 plate appearances. He managed a very respectable .291 average for the entire 2015 season over 155 games, scored 83 runs, hit 14 home runs and had 14 steals. If Coors Field increases his numbers across the board, he could be in store for a 90 runs, 20 homers, 60 RBIs and 20 steals, which would make him a much more valuable player than he will be on draft day.
- Raisel Iglesias – SP – Cincinnati Reds
There’s not a pitcher I like more who falls into the “sleeper” category in 2016 than Iglesias. He had a rough 2015 in his limited time with the Reds, posting a 4.15 ERA in just 95.1 innings pitched. However, Iglesias struck out 104 batters in those 95.1 innings, making him an elite strikeout pitcher on a really bad Reds team. With Johnny Cueto no longer atop Cincinnati’s rotation, Homer Bailey is set to be the team’s number one starter, that is, if he can fully recover from Tommy John surgery he had last May. Iglesias has the chance to turn into a real workhorse for the Reds this season, that is, if the Reds don’t leave him on an innings restriction.
His strikeout potential, mixed with the opportunity he has in the Reds rotation to instantly become their ace, makes Iglesias a very intriguing fantasy option this season. He won’t jump from a top-100 player to a top-5 player like Arrieta did, but look for him to help Iglesias to be a productive fantasy starter.
- Yordano Ventura – SP – Kansas City
Last year was supposed to be the year for Yordano Ventura to take his 100-mph fastball and become the ace of the Royals staff, but that didn’t go as planned. With Johnny Cueto now in San Francisco, Kansas City is without a true ace again, but Ventura still has the potential to be that guy.
Ian Kennedy signed with KC this offseason, and Edison Volquez is back in the rotation as well, leaving three solid options in the rotation for the defending champs. Kennedy and Volquez are solid starters no doubt, but they aren’t what the Royals need at the top of their rotation. Ventura needs to take that next step the Royals are looking for him to take.
The 28-year-old finished with 163.1 innings pitched in 2015, and was even sent down to the minors at one point. But he finished with a 4.08 ERA and 1.30 WHIP. He struck out 156 batters along the way, which is just under one per inning. Other than his one start in October, August was the best month for Ventura after he went 4-0 with a 3.41 ERA in six starts. He had two starts in those six that weren’t a quality start — he gave up five earned in seven innings to the Blue Jays, and six earned over five innings to the Tigers.
From August 11th to September 2nd, Ventura allowed just three earned runs in 32 innings and struck out 43 batters in that span. In fact, in August, September and October, Ventura started 13 times, eight of which were quality starts, and posted an 8-1 record while striking out 86 batters across 80 innings.
While the season as a whole for Ventura shouldn’t be considered a success, there’s no doubt he showed definite signs of improvement, which is what the Royals will need if they want to make it back to the World Series.
- Carlos Rodon – SP – Chicago White Sox
The White Sox made a big splash this offseason by trading for Todd Frazier and signing of Brett Lawrie to help bolster their infield. However, the White Sox quietly have developed quite the pitching staff with Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Carlos Rodon and Mat Latos in the rotation.
Rodon showed why he was a highly touted prospect during his rookie year. In a 3-0 with against the Angels on August 11, he pitched seven shutout innings and struck out a career high 11 batters. However, just two starts before that at home, Rodon would surrender eight earned against the Yankees in just three innings.
As is the case for many young starters, Rodon had many “welcome to the big leagues” moments, but still finished with a respectable 3.75 ERA and a 9-6 record.
Rodon pitched 139.1 innings in 2015 and struck out 139 batters, finishing the year as close as you can get to being a strikeout-per-inning pitcher. His 1.44 WHIP is worrisome, but if he can cut down on the walks he should be in line for a terrific second season with the White Sox.
- Patrick Corbin – SP – Arizona Diamondbacks
Corbin was one of the biggest surprises in the league in 2013, as he posted a 1.91 ERA in April of 2013, 1.53 ERA in May, 3.05 ERA in June, and a 2.34 ERA in July. The wheels came off in August and September, in what would eventually lead to Tommy John surgery and a 5.13 and 7.04 ERA in the final two months of the season respectively.
Corbin made the National League All-Star team in 2013, did not lose a decision until July 2nd against the Mets and was 11-1 at the All-Star break. Post All-Star break, Corbin was just 3-7, however, finishing with a 14-8 record.
Corbin would go on to miss the entire 2014 season with Tommy John surgery, as well as the first half of 2015. He posted a 3.60 ERA in just 85 innings pitched for the Diamondbacks, striking out 78 batters he faced.
ESPN currently has Corbin ranked as the 220th player on the overall draft board, and the 55th best starting pitcher. Lindy’s has him ranked as the 36th best starting pitcher.
Corbin has the tools in his repertoire to be able to turn that into a top 25 pitcher this season if he can put it all together like he did in 2013 before his surgery. He has good command of his pitches and actually pitches better at home than he does on the road, despite pitching at Chase Field. He has a 2.99 ERA in his career at home, and a 4.58 ERA on the road.
- Carter Capps – RP – Miami Marlins
This one might come as a surprise, as Carter Capp is set to begin the year as the setup man for A.J. Ramos in Miami. However, Capps has the stuff to be an elite closer in the majors.
In 2015, Capps posted a 1.16 ERA in 31.0 innings and struck out 58 batters in the process. Capps is no where on the radar on the ESPN rankings because he has not been named the closer in Miami, however, he should be considered in leagues where it’s generally tough to find saves. Ramos took over for Steve Cishek last season, but will be on the hot seat if he struggles early.
There is a chance that Capps wins the job out of spring training, however, as the Marlins have not yet stated who their closer is going to be. It will most likely be Ramos because of the success he had last season, but look for Capps to become very fantasy relevant if he slides into the closer’s role.
He can be compared to Aroldis Chapman or Dellin Betances, both of the Yankees, in terms of strikeout potential after he racked up 58 Ks in just 31 innings a season ago. In fact, Capps had a higher K/9 ratio in 2015 than Betances, Miller, Chapman and Jansen. The only pitchers to have a higher K/9 a season ago were Rafael Martin, who pitched just 12.1 innings for the year. An injury to Capps cut his 2015 season short, but there is no denying that his fastball and slider combo, much like Craig Kimbrel, who is now with the Red Sox, makes him a very intriguing option to keep an eye on in fantasy circles.