It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2022 or even drafting now. Teams still have a lot of work to do when the lockout concludes (hopefully sooner than later), but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2022 fantasy baseball season.
For the eighth year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. After reviewing batting average, WHIP, home run, and strikeout sleepers over the last four weeks, we will be looking at possible ERA sleepers this week. 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 once it resumes, 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.
Also, there are references to two ERA metrics below: FIP and SIERA. You can read more about FIP here and SIERA here.
Mixed League Sleepers
Aaron Ashby, P, Brewers
Milwaukee has been a factory for top young pitchers recently, with the development of aces Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, and Freddy Peralta. Ashby has the elite stuff to be the next in line. The former fourth-round pick has developed into a terrific prospect due in large part to a nasty power sinker. The pitch averaged better than 96 mph last season in 31.2 innings with the Brew Crew, and in conjunction with a plus slider and changeup, helped him produce an elite 61% groundball rate. The groundball rate was even better in 63.1 innings at Triple-A, at almost 67%. As you’d expect, Ashby’s ability to provoke grounders has helped him keep the ball in the park, and his ERA metrics last season (3.58 FIP, 3.18 SIERA) were far superior to the 4.55 ERA that we saw in limited innings.
There remain some big questions about Ashby heading into 2022. His control is still an issue, with a 4.5 BB/9 at Triple-A and 3.4 BB/9 in Milwaukee. His role is also up in the air. He served as a swingman at both levels last season, and Milwaukee’s top five starters look set with the aforementioned trio plus Adrian Houser and Eric Lauer. It should be noted that the Brewers used a six-man rotation for much of last season, so there is still a direct path to starts for the 23-year-old. Regardless, he’s likely to see an innings cap after throwing only 94 innings last season. The great stuff and groundball rate should play in any role, but you have to keep the innings in perspective when you draft Ashby. His recent NFBC ADP of 267 still shows decent profit potential.
Alex Cobb, SP, Giants
Cobb has a long track record of effective pitching in MLB, including six seasons with the Rays when he posted a 3.50 ERA in 115 starts. Unfortunately, he’s had trouble staying healthy for much of his career and has managed only 31 starts over the last three seasons. That wasn’t enough to stop the Giants from giving Cobb a two-year, $20 million contract before the lockout, and it’s easy to see why the stats-minded front office was so inclined to spend. Cobb’s extreme groundball ability has returned over the last two seasons, posting a groundball rate of at least 53% in consecutive years. Just as impressive is that his terrific changeup referred to as “The Thing” seems to be back. He had a 35% whiff rate with the pitch last season, and the rest of his repertoire also played better with a sudden increase in velocity in 2021. Thus, Cobb fanned more than one batter for the first time in his career and posted a K/9 above 7.0 for the first time since he had Tommy John surgery in 2015.
It’s somewhat risky to bet on increased velocity sticking from a pitcher in his mid-30’s, but certainly wouldn’t be unprecedented, with Charlie Morton as a prominent recent example. The ERA signs are tremendous for Cobb even after posting a solid 3.76 ERA last season. His FIP (2.92) and SIERA (3.83) are further evidence of his improvement, and the move to roomy Oracle Park can’t hurt. There’s some risk betting on Cobb to stay healthy given his history, with only three seasons of 27-plus starts in his 11-year career, but it’s still worth the price to find out with a current ADP around 267.
Dane Dunning, SP, Rangers
The primary return for Lance Lynn last season, Dunning was one of the only reliable pieces of a bad Rangers rotation in 2021. Even his results were mediocre, going 5-10 with a 4.51 ERA and 1.44 WHIP over 117.2 innings, as Texas handled Dunning with kid gloves after he returned from Tommy John surgery in 2020. Still, we did see some very encouraging signals from Dunning that he should be able to build on going forward. The former first-round pick showed very good command (2.65 K/BB) and fanned nearly one batter per inning while doing a nice job of keeping the ball in the park with his excellent 54% groundball rate. You would think the solid peripherals would have produced a better ERA, but Dunning was the victim of an unlucky .338 BABIP, sixth worst among pitchers with at least 100 innings last season. The ERA metrics show he deserved better (3.94 FIP, 4.12 SIERA).
Dunning has a very safe spot in the Rangers starting rotation behind newcomer Jon Gray, and it’s safe to bet on an expanded workload now more than a full year recovered from Tommy John surgery. He threw as many as 144 innings in a season while in the White Sox farm system, and should easily get a chance for a more expanded workload per start after averaging only 74 pitches per outing last year. His current ADP of 409 shows a very worthy flier.
Chris Paddack, SP, Padres
There might not be a more frustrating pitcher in MLB over the last two seasons than Paddack. The much-hyped right-hander was terrific in his rookie season in 2019 with a 3.33 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and 4.94 K/BB in 26 starts, but his performance was deteriorated since then. He had a 4.73 ERA over 12 starts in the shortened 2020 season, and last year was even worse with a 5.07 ERA in 23 appearances before suffering a season-ending elbow injury. The good news is that his pinpoint control has persisted, with an elite 1.8 BB/9 over the last two seasons. The ERA metrics were also very good last season with a 3.78 FIP and 4.05 SIERA, but Paddack had a mediocre .311 BABIP and a whopping 61% left on base, second worst in MLB. Paddack did go a long way in correcting the home run issues that plagued him over his first two seasons, and his velocity improved in spite of the elbow injury.
Paddack has some health questions that are playing a part in keeping his draft value down this winter. He underwent a stem cell injection in September for a partially torn UCL. If healthy, signs are pointing up with the peripherals and a new voice in pitching coach Ruben Niebla. Niebla is the former minor league pitching coordinator and assistant pitching coach in Cleveland, who has helped develop similarly talented pitchers on the cusp like Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger, Shane Bieber, and Triston McKenzie. If healthy come Spring Training, look for Paddack’s ADP to shoot up considerably from 396, with the ceiling of an ace based on his pure stuff, elite control, and dominant minor league history.
Single League Sleepers
Graham Ashcraft, SP, Reds
The youth movement is about to begin in the Reds starting rotation, with former first-round picks Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo on the cusp of the majors. However, they aren’t the only young pitchers who could make a leap to Cincinnati in 2022. By virtue of being a former sixth-round pick, Ashcraft is a bit under the radar but close to helping in the majors. He had a breakout season at age 23 between High-A and Double-A last season, cumulatively posting a 3.00 ERA and 129/37 K/BB in 111 innings over 22 starts. After struggling with his control in college, Ashcraft promptly fixed the control issues after he turned pro and had a solid 3.0 BB/9 last year at both levels. What makes him so intriguing in fantasy is not only solid strikeout ability (10.5 K/9) but also an extreme groundball rate, which was 55% at High-A and increased to 61% at Double-A last season.
The history of control issues should create some pause for his immediate potential, but Ashcraft’s elite ability to provoke groundballs with his mid-90’s fastball should come in handy in Cincinnati. His Spring Training and likely season start at Triple-A will be important for his potential MLB impact this season, but Ashcraft is an interesting, late stash who could really help the Reds and fantasy managers in the latter half of the season.
David Price, P, Dodgers
It seems odd to list a former Cy Young winner and No. 1 overall draft choice in the single league section, but that’s where Price is after opting out of the 2020 season and serving as a swingman for the Dodgers last year. Despite potentially losing Max Scherzer and potentially Clayton Kershaw in free agency, it’s unclear if Price will get an opportunity be a full-time starter again in 2022. Also unclear is what version of Price we will see next season, after he pitched to contact and became an extreme groundball pitcher last season.
Price finished last season with a 4.03 ERA, the worst since his rookie season. That mediocre showing, along with a questionable role, explains why he’s not really a consideration in mixed leagues at this point. Still, he showed signs of a capable starter in the 11 starts he did see with a 3.92 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and 3.09 K/BB in the role, looking far more comfortable than pitching out of the pen. Showing an increase in sinkers last year, Price was still a useful pitcher and remains a relatively safe bet to at least remain league average due to his 50% groundball rate and resulting 1.0 HR/9, even if the strikeouts and/or whiff rate on his offspeed stuff doesn’t bounce back.
Reiver Sanmartin, SP, Reds
Another young Reds pitcher with a chance to help in the starting rotation, Sanmartin got his first taste of the majors last season with two late-season starts. He confounded hitters, allowing only two runs in 11.2 innings, carrying over what was a breakout season between Double- and Triple-A. The “crafty” lefty hasn’t received much hype in large part due to his lack of elite stuff, with a fastball that only averaged 89 mph when he reached the majors, but there’s still a lot to like from the numbers. Sanmartin was terrific between Double- and Triple-A with a 3.32 ERA and 4.00 K/BB ratio in 100.1 innings, showing an extreme groundball rate of 54% at Triple-A. He’s already shown an ability to throw strikes in MLB after posting a 2.5 BB/9 in the minors last year, and his changeup looks like a viable swing-and-miss pitch.
Cincinnati moved on from Wade Miley after the season, so there is at least one rotation spot available. Top starters Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray have also been mentioned in trade rumors, so it might not take much for Sanmartin to break camp with the Reds. Despite the lack of velocity, Sanmartin could be more than just a back of the rotation starter if he can throw strikes and get groundballs consistently.
Kyle Wright, SP, Braves
Atlanta has produced so many pitchers in recent years that some prospects, even former first-round picks like Wright, are overshadowed. Wright was the fifth overall pick in the 2017 draft, and he’s seen brief time with the Braves in each of the last four seasons. Unfortunately, he’s yet to find much success in Atlanta as his control has continually escaped him, but Wright did have two valuable relief appearances in the World Series. That followed a very good year at Triple-A in which the right-hander had a 3.02 ERA and 137/45 K/BB in 137 innings at Gwinnett. He features all the tools we look for in strong ERA prospects, with one strikeout per inning and an excellent 51% groundball rate at Triple-A.
The hope is that Wright’s playoff success was the breakthrough we’ve been waiting for from him. Judging by the career 3.47 ERA and 9.0 K/9 in the minors, Wright doesn’t appear to be the ace prospect he looked like at Vanderbilt, but he should still be a quality MLB pitcher if he can get his control in order. With the statuses of Charlie Morton and Mike Soroka up in the air to start the year as they return from injury, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Wright cracks the starting rotation to begin the year.