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, and home run sleepers over the last few weeks, we will be looking at possible strikeout 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.
Mixed League Sleepers
Andrew Heaney, SP, Dodgers
Heaney has quite the player profile: The ninth overall pick in the 2012 MLB Draft, a three-time top 50 prospect in Baseball America, a career 3.11 ERA in the minors, and the 24th best K/9 among MLB starting pitchers since 2017 (9.9). Despite all of that history and ability to miss bats, he’s coming off a season in which he posted a 5.83 ERA in 129.2 innings with the Angels and Yankees. Heaney was still able to get a significant guarantee with a one-year, $8.5 million contract before the lockout, likely due in part to the aforementioned flashes of upside. Home runs have been a major culprit leading to Heaney’s career failures, including an atrocious 2.0 HR/9 last season, and it’s easier said than done that he will fix his home run issues in 2022.
Still, the move to Dodger Stadium should be beneficial for the long ball issues, especially relative to the nightmare that was Yankee Stadium late last year. The deceptive Heaney also showed an elite fastball spin rate and high whiff rate on all three of his pitches last season, resulting in an impressive 10.4 K/9. It should be noted that Heaney has a history of arm troubles, throwing 150 innings only twice in his pro career, but his current NFBC ADP of 325 is flier territory. The upside is huge on a great team that has a penchant for developing elite pitchers.
Tanner Houck, P, Red Sox
The strikeout ability when watching Houck is clear. Compared to as the right-handed version of Chris Sale due to his arm angle and stature, Houck was terrific as a swingman in Boston last season with an 11.3 K/9 over 69 innings. The former first-round pick was still handled with kid gloves by the organization after an abbreviated 2020 season, tallying only 90 innings between Triple-A and the majors. He had 13 starts in 18 appearances, and was arguably better as a starter than relief with a 4.87 K/BB, 11.2 K/9, 3.68 ERA, and 1.13 WHIP. Not only did Houck add two mph of velocity compared to his 2020 debut, but he showed off three wipeout pitches that each produced a whiff rate of better than 30%. Among starting pitchers, that K/9 ranked 14th best in MLB behind a range of aces mostly being selected in the early rounds of drafts.
The only limitation for Houck could be his innings. The Red Sox were aggressive with their rotation early in the offseason, replacing Eduardo Rodriguez with Michael Wacha and Rich Hill, so the team’s starting rotation depth stacks up nicely. Still, Houck figures to be stretched out in Spring Training, and going on age 26, should garner a significantly bigger workload. His current NFBC ADP hovering around 200 still provides room to significantly out-earn the price, provided that Houck can deliver over 120 innings as a starter.
Cristian Javier, P, Astros
Javier was one of the saviors of the Astros starting rotation in 2020, posting a 3.48 ERA and elite 0.99 WHIP over 54.1 innings. Unfortunately, he struggled to repeat last season after being removed from the starting rotation in mid-May. He was still very successful as a starter with a 3.14 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 48.2 innings, but the team’s depth and a conservative workload left Javier to finish the year in the pen. Javier also had control issues, which he long showed in the minors, with a poor 4.7 BB/9 for the season. The combination of poor control and slight home run issues does make Javier’s ERA a risk, but a possible shot to return to the starting rotation should keep fantasy managers interested.
While Lance McCullers Jr. rehabs an elbow injury and Justin Verlander returns from Tommy John surgery, Javier will be waiting in the wings during Spring Training. His strikeout history in the minors is truly elite with a career 12.2 K/9, and he showed similar upside (11.5 K/9) last season with increased velocity. The price remains low without a starting rotation spot locked up, but a lot could change when the offseason resumes. At worst, Javier should be able to stack up huge strikeout numbers again as a swingman, and his current ADP near 310 isn’t much of an investment.
Tylor Megill, SP, Mets
High upside young pitchers can come from unexpected places. Megill wasn’t a high draft choice or a top prospect before his arrival to Queens last season, but he certainly impressed. His 4.52 ERA disguises a terrific 9.9 K/9 in 18 starts with the Mets, piggybacking on a great 12.0 K/9 in 140 minor league innings since 2018. He came under the radar after pitching in relief for most of his college career at Arizona and seeing limited professional innings before last season with the cancelled minor league season in 2020. Still, the stuff backs up the big strikeout numbers with a fastball that averaged about 95 mph and a changeup and slider that both produced strong 32% strikeout rates.
Even after the addition of Max Scherzer, Megill remains the team’s top candidate for the fifth starter job. That isn’t to say he won’t get some competition, but the organization clearly sees the upside in the big right-hander. Reasons to be wary include late-season struggles and a 1.9 HR/9 last year, but his ability to miss bats didn’t flounder much after his first time around the league with over one strikeout per inning in every month he pitched last season. The current ADP of 330 seems way too low for a pitcher with this much upside.
Single League Sleepers
Reid Detmers, SP, Angels
Detmers was the 10th overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft out of Louisville, and made his MLB debut a little over one year later last August. The results weren’t pretty with a 7.40 ERA in five starts, along with some time missed due to COVID-19. The poor performance masks what was a simply brilliant season between Double- and Triple-A in which Detmers had a 3.19 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 15.7 K/9. 12 of 14 starts were at Double-A Rocket City, and Detmers’ 16.2 K/9 at that level was the best of any starting pitcher in Double- or Triple-A dating back to 2006.
Unfortunately, Detmers’ control seemed to escape him in the majors with a 4.8 BB/9, but he has a long history of posting a sub-3.0 BB/9 in college and the minors. The lefty obviously has plus stuff with a fastball that averaged 93 mph, along with a curveball that has a chance to be a premium pitch. Still, the Angels inability to produce consistent pitching is reason enough for skepticism, but the success he showed in the minors last year is historic and undeniable. With a strong Spring Training showing, Detmers has a chance to not only make the starting rotation but become a difference maker in fantasy leagues.
Glenn Otto, SP, Rangers
Acquired from the Yankees in the Joey Gallo trade, Otto saw similar struggles to Detmers when he got his shot in the majors last season. The right-hander had an ugly 9.26 ERA in six starts with Texas, though the components were far better than the end result (10.8 K/9, 3.1 BB/9). He really increased his profile as a prospect last season after showing improved control, with a BB/9 that went from 5.3 in 2019 to 2.3 between Double- and Triple-A last year. All along, Otto has shown an ability to miss bats, including last year with a 12.6 K/9 in the minors and 10.8 K/9 in Texas.
Otto had a real Jekyll and Hyde act with his six starts late in the year with Texas, allowing two runs or fewer in three starts and at least five runs in the three other outings. The crooked ERA number explains why he’s outside the top 600 picks in NFBC leagues, but an elite 5.58 K/BB and 3.20 ERA in the minors last season shows the potential. The Rangers already added Jon Gray to the starting rotation before the lockout and could add more pieces, but Otto still has a chance to be a major part of the 2022 starting rotation and a nice find for strikeouts.
Grayson Rodriguez, SP, Orioles
If you follow MLB prospects, you’re likely well aware of Rodriguez. Arguably the best pitching prospect in baseball, the lefty has been unbelievable as a pro including a 2.36 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, and 14.1 K/9 in 23 starts between High-A and Double-A last season. The former first-round pick has dominated at every level, and there’s no reason for the rebuilding Orioles to rush the 22-year-old unless there are major changes with the new labor agreement. In other words, you can expect Rodriguez to start the 2022 season at Triple-A.
Projecting Rodriguez’s arrival could be difficult until we know about the details of a (hopefully) pending labor agreement. Will teams still be disincentivized from promoting top prospects at the start of the year or even when they are obviously ready for the majors, if the team isn’t ready to contend? That’s a question that will hopefully be answered in March, and could determine whether Rodriguez is likely to throw only a few innings or over 100 with the O’s in 2022. Regardless, last year’s numbers show this is a potential ace who could be undervalued as a stash in redraft leagues, particularly with Camden Yards moving the fences back next season.
Michael Wacha, SP, Red Sox
I don’t make a habit of mentioning the same player in back-to-back seasons as a category sleeper, but Wacha’s profile creates an exception. The intrigue last year was due to a 9.8 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9 in a limited sample size of innings with the Mets in 2020. The Rays apparently saw that upside, but it was another inconsistent season for the veteran right-hander with a 5.05 ERA in 124.2 innings. However, the adjusted repertoire that he showed with the Mets continued for much of last year, resulting in an interesting 3.90 K/BB and 8.7 K/9 over a full season. Boston signed Wacha for $7 million before the lockout, likely most impressed with his late-season adjustments.
Beginning in late August, Wacha almost completely trashed his cutter in favor of his mid-90’s four-seamer. From that point forward, the results were staggering. Wacha had 45/14 K/BB in 39.1 innings with a 3.20 ERA and sub-1.00 WHIP to close out the year. We always should take a sample size that small with a grain of salt, and Wacha’s injury history is also concerning. Though, for the price, he makes a very intriguing AL-only flier with the momentum created from his late-season adjustment.