It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2021. The hot stove league is still developing, but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2021 fantasy baseball season.
For the seventh year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. So far we’ve looked at batting average, WHIP, home run, strikeout, ERA, stolen base, and saves sleepers. In the eighth installment of the series we’ll be reviewing hitters who can be sleepers for RBI. 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). After looking at categories that were more based on player skill over the first five weeks, we shift to categories that are more dependent on opportunity, supporting cast, and batting order spot.
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.
Fantasy owners sometimes overlook the simplest of concepts in projecting RBI hitters and potential sleepers for the category. An analysis of past production by batting order is a great exercise to help project the leaders and breakouts in the category. The following table is an update of the same info presented last year, showing a breakdown of the average RBI per game by lineup spot over the last three seasons.
Average RBI per Game
It’s quite clear that batting order spots 3-5 are the most productive for RBI, as expected. Since teams usually stack their best hitters in these spots, it comes as little surprise. However, the RBI production isn’t just about the talent at those spots. The Book: Player the Percentages in Baseball by Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin gives a great breakdown of RBI opportunities by spot in the batting order, albeit with data from the 2000s hitting era.
|Batting Order||PA empty||PA men on||% with men on||Number of Runners On|
Batting order spots 3-5 see a significant increase in plate appearances with men on, as well as more runners on during those plate appearances. This is particularly important to remember in-season when you are trying to beef up on the RBI category via trade or waiver pick up.
With all these facts in mind, the list of RBI sleepers below is dependent on both hitting ability AND possible opportunity to hit 3-5 in the batting order.
Jesus Aguilar, 1B, Marlins
Fantasy managers became quite familiar with Aguilar after his breakout 2018 season in Milwaukee. During that season, he took over first base full-time for the struggling Eric Thames and hit .274-35-108 in the middle of the Brewers batting order. Unfortunately, production was tougher to come by for Aguilar between Milwaukee and Tampa Bay in 2019 (.236-12-50 in 369 plate appearances), but Miami was willing to give the big first baseman a regular opportunity last year. Aguilar made the most of his chance, hitting .277-8-34 in 216 plate appearances while batting in the third spot for most of the season.
The Marlins lineup has been mostly stagnant during the offseason despite a change in front office leadership, so it looks as though Aguilar will enter 2021 as the starting first baseman again. It’s up for debate whether he deserves the playing time with a WAR that’s been barely positive over the last two seasons and a sub-.800 career OPS against right-handed pitching. Regardless, Aguilar does have some pop and RBI to provide in the middle of Miami’s batting order, especially if the NL adopts the DH again this season to help keep him in the lineup. One small risk for Aguilar later in the year is the potential emergence of first base prospect Lewin Diaz, who was promoted last year and hit .270-27-76 between High-A and Double-A in 2019. Still, for the current ADP around 311 in NFBC leagues it’s hard to go wrong with Aguilar’s counting stat upside at that price.
Willie Calhoun, OF, Rangers
In the world of MLB prospects, it’s often a case of “what have you done for me lately?” Calhoun is a former top prospect who was once the centerpiece of a trade for Yu Darvish, but his stock is markedly down after an injury-riddled 2020 season. After hitting .269-21-48 in 83 games during 2019, he broke his jaw last spring and then missed time with hip and hamstring injuries. The result when Calhoun did play was only .190-1-13 in 108 plate appearances, a far cry from what we saw in 2019.
Despite the recent struggles, Calhoun’s spot in the Rangers lineup seems all but assured on a rebuilding team at age 26. The team has lost multiple regulars from last year’s squad, and don’t have many alternatives that would seem to threaten Calhoun’s job, Even better, Calhoun hit either second or third in the order for much of the time that he did play in 2020, and he’s one of the few power-capable bats remaining on the roster. For all the bleakness of Calhoun’s recent results, it’s worth remembering that he was a career .289/.356/.499 hitter in the minors and certainly has 30-plus home run upside based on what he did in 2019. The current ADP of 346 looks quite reasonable for a potential middle of the order hitter, even if Calhoun is starting to attract the injury-prone label after last season.
Starlin Castro, 2B, Nationals
Castro played only 16 games last season due to a fractured wrist, so you might not even remember that he plays for the Nats. Indeed, the veteran second baseman signed a two-year, $12 million contract last offseason after hitting .270-22-86 for the Marlins in 2019. He got the benefit of being a middle of the order hitter for that poor Miami squad, and during 16 games of 2020, Castro’s role wasn’t much different as the team’s No. 3 hitter.
Washington has added Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber this offseason, but a spot in the middle of the order still looks in play with Yan Gomes, Carter Kieboom, and Victor Robles likely to man the bottom-third of the batting order. With a career .733 OPS, it’s not a great sign for a team hoping to contend that Castro is a real candidate to hit in the middle of the order again, but that’s not fantasy managers’ problem. Another 80 RBI season is in the range of reasonable expectation if Castro gets another favorable opportunity, and the second baseman has come at a steep discount with an ADP around 334.
Avisail Garcia, OF, Brewers
The Brewers lineup saw significant turnover last offseason, and one of their bigger moves was signing Garcia. Coming off a good year in Tampa Bay, Garcia got a two-year, $20 million contract from the Brewers, only to hit .238-2-15 in a forgettable 53 games. Despite those struggles, Garcia hit in the top half of the order for most of the year and was even promoted to leadoff in September following Lorenzo Cain’s opt-out.
Cain is set to return for 2021, but there is reason to be believe Garcia will have a favorable spot in the batting order following the loss of Ryan Braun. At this time, Milwaukee’s lineup has very limited power beyond Christian Yelich and Keston Hiura, while Garcia hit at least 18 home runs in three straight seasons leading up to 2020. Garcia presents 80-plus RBI upside for a an ADP around 331.
Aaron Hicks, OF, Yankees
Hicks returned from Tommy John surgery last season for the Yanks, but he still didn’t look quite right, hitting only .225-6-21 in 211 plate appearances. Fortunately, much of Hicks’ value comes from his patience at the plate, as his 41 walks resulted in a .379 on-base percentage. The patience helped Hicks hit third in the batting order for most of the season, and it’s reasonable to expect a similarly favorable spot in the batting order in 2021 for a lineup that’s status quo from last year.
Of course, Hicks does have more counting stat upside than what we saw last year, as he showed in his last full season in 2018 when he hit .248-27-79 with 90 runs and 11 stolen bases. It’s worth noting that was the only time he’s even reached 400 plate appearances in his eight-year MLB career, so Hicks should hardly be considered a plug-and-play. Still, he has excellent RBI upside if he’s able to get back on track and comes with a cheap ADP price tag around pick 282.
Ryan McMahon, 2B/3B/1B, Rockies
Colorado’s trade of Nolan Arenado last week shocked the baseball world, due in part to the lack of return for the Rockies. It’s disappointing for Rockies fans to lose their franchise player, but the move does open up a better opportunity for some other players currently on the roster. McMahon has played all over the infield in Colorado over the last few seasons, and has a chance to take over at third base with Arenado now gone.
More significant for McMahon’s fantasy potential is that he will likely see a move up the batting order, potentially to cleanup behind Trevor Story and Charlie Blackmon. The bottom of Colorado’s batting order looks relatively unproven with the likes of Sam Hilliard, Garrett Hampson/Brendan Rodgers, and Elias Diaz, while McMahon is just one year removed from hitting .250-24-83. His multi-position eligibility in most leagues is another bonus, and it goes without saying that playing in Coors Field automatically presents huge upside. It wouldn’t be a surprise for McMahon’s ADP to rise from its current price around 250.
Colin Moran, 1B, Pirates
The Pirates have undergone a full-scale fire sale this offseason, trading away Josh Bell, Joe Musgrove, and Jameson Taillon, but they still have some legitimate major leaguers remaining on the roster. With the trade of Bell, Moran is expected to be the team’s starting first baseman, a role that he assumed for part of last season with the promotion of third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes. Moran also worked as the team’s primary cleanup hitter, finishing hitting .247-10-23 in 52 games.
Pittsburgh’s lineup looks thin, to say the least, and Moran is definitely a candidate to be traded at some point in 2021 as the team continues to rebuild. That said, he’s one of the team’s only capable middle of the order options again this season with a host of unproven hitters who lack much pop. For Moran’s purposes, he’s a respectable career .270 hitter who started to show more pop than usual last year. While Pittsburgh’s offense is expected to be anemic this season, it should be good enough for Moran’s RBI to help as a corner infielder in mixed leagues, especially at his current 452 ADP.
Jonathan Schoop, 2B, Tigers
Most fantasy managers know what Schoop is capable of providing, hitting over 20 home runs four times. His fantasy contribution has long been more impressive than his real-life baseball contribution with a career .297 on-base percentage, but there isn’t much to complain about from a second baseman who averaged .265-25-77 with 74 runs scored from 2016-2019. Schoop’s pace last season remained relatively consistent (.278-8-23), and the Tigers have brought him back for 2021.
Schoop hit most in the No. 2 hole for the Tigers last year, and should remain somewhere between the 2-4 spots in a lineup that’s lacking much proven depth. As we’ve seen in recent seasons, Detroit has been relatively quiet on the transaction front as they continue their rebuild, and the addition of high on-base man Robbie Grossman increases the chances that Schoop will be in a prime RBI spot. While the ADP is likely to improve from 395 since he’s finally found a home, Schoop is still a relative RBI bargain.