Spring Training is rapidly approaching, and that means it is time to prepare for yet another season of successful fantasy baseball. While every season is ultimately unpredictable, there are many methods available to ensure fantasy success, and a deep and thorough knowledge of the players set to breakout or bounce back is central to a winning fantasy baseball campaign.
In every fantasy baseball draft, it is vital to identify the players that have been undervalued and will produce much better than their draft position would seem to indicate. This involves taking some risks on players returning from injury and on young players who seem ready to break out, so the following 20 players represent the best calculated risks in the game today, and selecting them at the opportune place in the draft will go a long way toward ensuring fantasy success.
These sleepers are all poised to produce much better results than expected, with many flying under the radar on their respective teams in past seasons. Of course, the value of each player is directly related to their draft position, so taking some of these players too early will mitigate the value they deliver to a fantasy team. The idea is that these players are undervalued and should be available at places in the draft that will maximize their value by providing above-average production for a player usually taken at that position.
20 Dellin Betances, RP
Even though the Yankees bolstered their bullpen with the acquisition of Andrew Miller, Betances figures to put up pretty good fantasy numbers in 2015. In 90 innings with the Yankees last year, Betances racked up 135 strikeouts, and there is the strong possibility that the reliever could add a significant number of saves to his stat line, as manager Joe Girardi has called the closer position “fluid,” meaning that Betances and Miller could split time in the role, or Betances could conceivably win the position out of Spring Training.
19 Neil Walker, 2B
Perhaps Walker was a bit overshadowed by the exploits of teammates Andrew McCutchen and Josh Harrison, but the Pittsburgh second baseman put up some very solid numbers during his 2014 campaign. He slashed .271/.342/.467 while hitting 23 homers, driving in 76 runs and scoring 74. Expect an even better 2015 from Walker, as all of his numbers have been on an upward trend for the past four seasons. If Walker is able to give the Pirates a full season in 2015 (he hasn't played more than 137 in each of the last three years), his production could really improve and provide even more value to fantasy owners.
18 A.J. Pollock, OF
Always be on the lookout for players returning from fluke injuries, as these players are often erroneously regarded as risky because of an injury history. While an injured hamstring should certainly raise flags going forward, a broken hand caused by an HBP (as in Pollock’s case) is an injury that is unlikely to recur in 2015. Pollock was having a very solid 2014 season before the Johnny Cueto pitch that broke his hand, slashing .302/.353/.498 with 7 homers, 24 RBI and 14 stolen bases in just 75 games. As far as buy-low candidates go, Pollock is a nice option and is a near-guarantee to have a big season in 2015 with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
17 Carlos Martinez, SP
If there is one thing the Cardinals are good at, it is developing young pitchers and ensuring they have early-career success. Martinez is next in line in this regard and should get every opportunity to join the Cardinals rotation in 2015. His 2014 peripherals were much better than his 4.03 ERA indicates, and his live arm should be able to generate a lot of swings-and-misses over the course of a full season with the St. Louis Cardinals.
16 Jean Segura, SS
Segura’s poor showing in 2014 will keep the price low on the shortstop, but he seems like a prime bounce-back candidate for 2015. It’s easy to forget that Segura is only entering his age-25 season, so fantasy owners should see a great deal of potential in the former All-Star. He is still only one season removed from a year in which he put up solid fantasy numbers, including a slash line of .294/.329/.423 with 12 homers, 10 triples, 44 steals and 49 RBI. As a potential late-rounder, Segura is solid.
15 Brett Lawrie, 3B
Lawrie has struggled to stay healthy over the course of a full season, but Billy Beane doesn’t target a specific player in a trade without good reason. Lawrie is immensely talented and should thrive in a new environment in Oakland, improving upon his recent production and hopefully playing in many more games than in recent seasons. His health will make him easy to snatch up in later rounds, and he is an absolute steal if he can stay on the field. That’s a big “if,” but there is some power potential in that bat and Lawrie’s numbers could soar if he gets to 150 games or more in 2015.
14 Drew Smyly, SP
Smyly has quietly broken out as a starter with both Detroit and Tampa Bay, and his first full season with the Rays could be a very good one. Smyly is a talented starter who has already delivered some solid numbers, posting a 7.82 K/9 and just 2.47 BB/9 in his 153 innings of work a season ago. Entering his age-26 season, Smyly is a prime candidate to post even better numbers in 2015, and he should be available in the middle parts of most fantasy drafts. He offers solid value there, and a full season in Tampa Bay will likely prove to be an exceptionally productive one.
13 Dylan Bundy, SP
The talented Orioles prospect has yet to deliver on his immense potential, and 2015 figures to be the year in which he finally does. He ascended through the minors exceptionally quickly before missing all of 2013 due to Tommy John surgery. He is now completely healed and figures to be a part of the Baltimore rotation in 2015, offering some serious upside from a player most will want to stay away from given his injury history and relative youth. But Bundy is the real deal, and his outstanding stuff will translate well for both the Orioles and fantasy owners.
12 Yasmani Grandal, C/1B
Just like Devin Mesoraco a year ago, Grandal is set to have a breakout season in 2015. Acquired by the Los Angeles Dodgers from the San Diego Padres in the Matt Kemp trade, Grandal figures to get most of the starts behind the plate (though he will split time with veteran A.J. Ellis), and has some serious power potential. He faced some injury difficulties that limited his production in 2014, but he has said he is healthy and believes a successful stint in the Dominican winter league will translate to an impressive 2015 campaign. A former high first-round draft pick, Grandal has a ton of potential and will finally deliver with some big-league production in 2015.
11 Aaron Sanchez, SP
Sanchez was extraordinarily impressive in his brief debut with the Toronto Blue Jays as a reliever, posting a 1.09 ERA and 0.697 WHIP in 33 innings in 2014. He will be moving into the Toronto rotation in 2015, and his power arm is sure to bring a lot of strikeouts to the mix over the course of a full season. Sanchez is a serious talent, and 2015 should prove to be the year that he has his breakout season for both the Blue Jays and fantasy owners.
10 Eric Hosmer, 1B
It’s no secret that Hosmer is a talented first baseman, but his talent has yet to yield the kind of on-field production that fantasy owners want out of a traditional power position. While Hosmer’s 2014 regular season was another disappointment, he was outstanding in the postseason, helping the Royals reach the World Series while slashing .351/.439/.544 with 2 homers and 12 RBI. If he can build off of his successful postseason, 2015 could be the year that Hosmer finally gives some solid fantasy production during the regular season.
9 Xander Bogaerts, SS
Bogaerts didn’t have the kind of year many expected of him in his first full season with the Red Sox, but the talented shortstop is still only entering his age-22 season and should vastly improve upon his .240/.297/.362 slash line, 12 homers and 46 RBI. With Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez joining the Boston lineup, expect to see Bogaerts’ production soar, especially now that he has a full season of experience under his belt.
8 Wil Myers, OF
Myers’ value will be at an all-time low after his struggles to produce and stay healthy in Tampa Bay in 2014, and moving to the spacious Petco Park will not help matters much either. This makes Myers an excellent candidate to buy low on, as there should be no doubt that he will be able to improve upon the season in which he slashed a meager .222/.294/.320 and hit just 6 homers while driving in 35 runs. He may struggle defensively in center field, but his offensive production will be much more reminiscent of the 2013 season in which he won Rookie of the Year despite playing in only 88 games.
7 Carlos Rodon, SP
Rodon is just a 2014 first-round draft pick, but there is the expectation in Chicago that 2015 will be the year that he joins the formidable White Sox rotation. Widely regarded as the most MLB-ready player in that 2014 draft, Rodon breezed through the minors and ultimately reached Triple-A in his first season as a pro. In his 24.1 minor-league innings, Rodon pitched to a 2.96 ERA and averaged 14.1 strikeouts per nine innings. Even if he doesn’t make the rotation out of Spring Training, the White Sox have a history of using young pitchers out of the bullpen rather than sending them to Triple-A, so it is very likely that fantasy owners will get production out of Rodon one way or another in 2015.
6 Travis d’Arnaud, C
D'Arnaud’s second half is indicative of the kind of power potential the Mets catcher possesses, as the 26-year-old hit .265 with 7 homers and 22 RBI in 196 second-half at-bats while also cutting down on his strikeouts. Injuries have been the limiting factor with d’Arnaud, so he is not without some risk as a 2015 draftee. If he is able to remain healthy over the course of an entire season, d’Arnaud could prove to be quite a steal in any fantasy draft.
5 Joc Pederson, OF
Fantasy owners may be scared off by Pederson’s September call-up, and while the outfielder undoubtedly struggled in his limited time with the club, the Dodgers are completely unconcerned. He is going to get every opportunity to win the club’s starting center field job and has an array of impressive tools that could yield a superb fantasy stat line. In Triple-A, Pederson posted a 30/30 season, the only player in all of professional baseball to do so in 2014. If he struggles early, he may be used as the left-handed bat in a platoon situation, but it won’t be long before Pederson is an everyday player in Los Angeles. Though some early struggles may be likely, Pederson's potential is through the roof and could prove to be an exceptionally valuable fantasy baseball asset.
4 Carlos Carrasco, SP
Carrasco was extremely impressive once he finally gained a foothold in the Cleveland rotation, and a full season as a starter should help him to have an even better season in 2015. In his 91 innings of work as a starter, Carrasco posted a FIP of 2.96 and a K/9 rate of 9.99, so there is plenty of reason to believe that the right-hander will continue his run of success as a full-time starter alongside the 2014 Cy Young winner in Corey Kluber. He may be overlooked given the fact that he only made 14 starts in 2014, so he could prove to be quite a steal for the 2015 season.
3 Oswaldo Arcia, OF
Don’t be fooled by Arcia’s paltry .231 batting average for 2014, as the Minnesota outfielder has an above-average bat to go with some serious pop. He often hits the ball hard, and that should ultimately help that poor batting average rise in 2015, plus there is the obvious benefit of Arcia’s significant power. In just 372 at-bats in 2014, Arcia was able to hit 20 homers, so there is a good chance he could break out for a 30-homer season in 2015 if he is able to get 500 at-bats. The problem thus far is his platoon split, which may limit his use against left-handers and prevent him from reaching that 500 at-bat plateau, but that power is still worth the gamble if he is still available in later rounds.
2 Kolten Wong, 2B
Wong has a nice combination of power and speed for a second baseman, both of which he showed off during the St. Louis Cardinals’ run to the NLCS in 2014. Wong slashed .249/.292/.388 during his rookie season, a season in which he also spent 18 games at Triple-A. He seemed to steady his performance during the postseason, and it isn’t out of the question that Wong gives fantasy owners a 15-20 homer season to go with 20-25 steals. He needs to show some more patience at the plate, and if he does, Wong could prove to be a solid investment during the 2015 fantasy season.
1 Marcell Ozuna, OF
Ozuna had an excellent 2014 campaign, but most of the attention on the Miami team seemed to focus on Giancarlo Stanton’s MVP-type season and Christian Yelich’s breakout year, and perhaps rightly so. As a member of the exciting outfield triumvirate in Miami, Ozuna slashed .269/.317/.455 and delivered 23 homers and 85 RBI in 153 games for the Marlins. That's an impressive stat line, and it’s important to remember that Ozuna is only entering his age-24 season. The Marlins spent the offseason upgrading their lineup, and the return of Stanton should only benefit Ozuna’s 2015 production. Even after generating impressive production in his first full season, there is plenty of room for improvement for Ozuna, a fact that fantasy owners should take advantage of on draft day.