It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2020 or even drafting now. The hot stove league is just taking shape, but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2020 fantasy baseball season.
For the sixth year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. In the first installment of the series we’ll be reviewing hitters who could be sleepers for batting average. Over 10 weeks, I will be providing a list of sleepers for each 5x5 roto category (BA, HR, RBI, R, SB, W, ERA, WHIP, K, SV). Since the hot stove league still has a long way to go this offseason, for the next few weeks we will focus on players in categories that are less based on opportunity and more based on skill. Other roto categories that are more dependent on opportunity, supporting cast, and batting order spot (R, RBI, SB) or team and manager (W, SV) will be discussed in the latter half of the 10-week series.
Before reading any further, it’s important to note the definition of a sleeper. In this case, it’s a player who will exceed draft day ADP AND projections in a particular category. The players are broken down by mixed league sleepers and single league sleepers.
Mixed League Sleepers
Randy Arozarena, OF, Cardinals
Arozarena didn’t rank among the Cardinals top prospects heading into last season, but really opened some eyes in spring training by hitting .346 in 26 at-bats. Fortunately, he was able to extend that success into the regular season, hitting .344-15-53 with 17 steals in 399 plate appearances between Double- and Triple-A. The Cuban defector was signed by the Cards in 2016 for $1.25 million, but didn’t produce an .800 OPS in his first two seasons with the organization. That changed last year, albeit in two hitter’s leagues (Texas League and Pacific Coast League), but the right-handed hitter has long shown above average contact skills (18% strikeout rate last season) and continued to hit .300 in 20 MLB at-bats late in the year.
At the time of this writing, there is opportunity available in the Cardinals outfield with Marcell Ozuna possibly departing in free agency. Dexter Fowler looks like the only surefire regular, with Harrison Bader, Tommy Edman, Jose Martinez, Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, Arozarena, and eventually top prospect Dylan Carlson fighting it out for at-bats in the other two spots. Of course, it wouldn’t be a surprise if St. Louis added a veteran to the fray, but the pickings are already getting slim in free agency. If Arozarena can continue the progress he made last year in spring training 2020, he has a chance to carve out a real role and significant batting average value.
Nico Hoerner, SS, Cubs
The 24th overall pick in the 2018 draft, Hoerner got a long look at shortstop in September despite playing only 89 minor league games to that point. The Stanford alum flashed as a polished, old-time middle infielder when he was drafted, and he hasn’t done anything to change that perception by hitting .284-3-22 with eight steals and 21/31 BB/K in 294 plate appearances at Double-A Tennessee last season. Hoerner missed part of the year due to injury, but the brilliant contact ability he showed in college has continued to shine with a sub-10% strikeout rate in the minors. The strikeout rate was slightly higher while he filled in for the injured Javier Baez late last season, but he still managed to hit .282 in 82 plate appearances for Chicago.
With Addison Russell seemingly out of the way and the continued possibility of a Kris Bryant trade, Hoerner does have a potential path for playing time in 2020. Not only has Hoerner played extensively at both middle infield positions in the minors, but he added center field to his resume both at Double-A and the majors last year. That’s yet another spot where the Cubs have a need after Albert Almora’s struggles last season. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much power or steals upside with Hoerner, but with a career .303 batting average in college and .297 in the minors, he shows the potential to still help in deeper mixed leagues.
Nick Madrigal, 2B, White Sox
The fourth overall pick in the 2018 draft out of Oregon State, Madrigal was lauded for his hand-eye coordination and baseball instincts when he was drafted. So far, he’s been exactly as advertised. Working his way up to Triple-A last year, Madrigal had an outstanding season hitting .311-4-55 with 35 steals in 532 plate appearances. However, the most impressive part of Madrigal’s game was his 16 strikeouts, good for an unbelievable 3% strikeout rate. His amazing contact ability shouldn’t come as a big surprise after fanning only seven times in 201 plate appearances during his junior season at Oregon State.
Madrigal played only 29 games at Triple-A last season, but proved he was ready offensively by hitting .331 with an .822 OPS. There’s a clear path to playing time for him after the White Sox moved on from Yolmer Sanchez early in the offseason, and the White Sox have made enough high-profile moves this offseason that it’s clear they’re trying to win now. The organization still might hold off promoting Madrigal out of spring training due to service time concerns, but he shouldn’t be down for long. The diminutive 5-foot-7 hitter is often compared to Dustin Pedroia and Jose Altuve for both his size and skillset, and has a chance to make a similarly impressive early fantasy impact as they did upon their MLB arrivals, especially with his batting average.
Harold Ramirez, OF, Marlins
Ramirez got his first MLB opportunity last year in Miami after signing as a minor league free agent and definitely showed some flashes. Over 446 plate appearances, he hit .276-11-50 for an anemic Miami lineup, splitting time between all three outfield spots. For the eight-year minor leaguer who also played in the Pirates and Blue Jays organizations, it was good to see some of Ramirez’s minor league ability translate after producing a .303 batting average for his career and hitting at least .300 five times. Ramirez really doesn’t fit the current MLB craze of launch angle and patience with a 57% groundball rate and terrible 4% walk rate last season, but few hitters are as willing to hit the ball to all fields. It’s been one of his calling cards for his entire pro career, and Ramirez’s 28% opposite field rate was well above average.
It’s clear Ramirez has potential to be a batting average asset, but unclear if he will get as many opportunities next season. The Marlins are still trying to see if Lewis Brinson can hit MLB pitching, Brian Anderson could see more time in the outfield after Jonathan Villar’s addition, and the likes of Garrett Cooper, Jon Berti, and Austin Dean could also carve out roles in the outfield on top of a possible free agent addition. To put it another way, Ramirez might not be draftable in mixed leagues if you’re drafting tomorrow, but another shot at playing time should make him a viable option.
Single League Sleepers
Willians Astudillo, C, Twins
Astudillo was also mentioned in this spot last year, but injuries held down “Tortuga.” The stout Twins hitter had only 204 plate appearances while serving as a utilityman for Minnesota, hitting just .268. The good news was that his amazing contact rate held, as Astudillo had a 4% strikeout rate and now has a .297 batting average for his MLB career in 301 plate appearances. The minor league track record is far more impressive, as Astudillo has hit .311 with 88/83 BB/K in 2,563 career plate appearances.
Still catcher eligible, the question for Astudillo is the same as last season: How will he find enough playing time to help fantasy owners? The active roster expansion to 26 spots is good news for Astudillo’s ability to remain in the majors, and Minnesota’s use of Astudillo all over the field does give him a better change to find at-bats than a traditional backup catcher with the ability to play first, second, third, and both outfield corners. It’s asking a lot of Astudillo to be a mixed league option considering he has limited power, but he should safely be considered a solid second catcher in AL-only leagues.
Matt Beaty, 1B/OF, Dodgers
Sticking on the talented Dodgers roster is an accomplishment for any hitter, especially a 26-year-old rookie and former 12th round pick. Beaty showed some interesting ability last year, hitting .265-9-46 in 268 plate appearances after his late-April promotion. The Belmont alum’s calling card in the minors has been his eye and batting average ability, as a career .309 hitter with a 12% strikeout rate, and that contact rate continued in LA last season.
Finding more playing time could be a task for Beaty, especially considering he’s never hit more than 15 home runs in his career, but he can do enough to be an end of roster NL-only player. Beaty finished last season with a solid 41% hard hit rate and .280 xBA that shows more upside than what he actually produced in roto last season, and he also has additional versatility with the ability to play third base.
Nicky Lopez, 2B/SS, Royals
There’s no sugarcoating the fact that Lopez was a bust last year after all the hype he had upon getting promoted from Triple-A in mid-May. It’s a lesson in sample size after he hit .353 with 20/5 BB/K at Triple-A Omaha but did so in only 138 plate appearances. The numbers weren’t nearly as impressive in the minors prior to last season, and Lopez floundered against MLB pitching while showing a 84 mph average exit velocity and 19% hard hit rate, both ranking among the worst in MLB.
For all the bad signs with the Royals last season, there is still hope for Lopez. He started to come on in September, hitting .289, and his strikeout rate overall was vastly improved and elite in the second half (9%). The slap-hitting middle infielder does need to improve his contact quality, but there’s no debating his excellent eye and bat control. The upside here is likely no better than David Eckstein, but Lopez should be given every opportunity to perform again for the rebuilding Royals and has the contact ability to be the batting average asset similar to what he showed in the minors as a career .296 hitter.
Ildemaro Vargas, 2B, Diamondbacks
Vargas has had an interesting pro career, getting his first real opportunity in the majors last year at 27 with after starting his career in 2008. His career was really jumpstarted after he was released by the Cardinals in 2015 and got a cup of coffee in the Independent Leagues before Arizona scooped him up. Since that time, Vargas has shown a vastly improved eye and has been a batting average machine in the minors. He’s spent much of his time at Triple-A Reno since 2016, hitting .326 with 91/104 BB/K in 1,468 plate appearances, including his best Ted Williams impersonation last year as a .403 hitter in 137 plate appearance.
The switch-hitter wasn’t great in 211 plate appearances with Arizona last year, and he was a terrific asset against left-handed pitching, hitting .340-5-17 with only three strikeouts in 55 plate appearances. He settled into a pinch-hitting role late in the year with some success, and has certainly earned a longer look this year. Vargas’ outstanding ability to make contact and upper minors track record makes him an intriguing batting average player for NL-only leagues if he can carve out a more significant role in 2020.