Top potential AL sleepers for 2012
If Phil, Hughes has regained velocity and is healthy, he could be Top-25 pitcher
Adam Dunn will get chance to play defense in attempt to reignite his batting stroke
Dustin Ackley could be great option after elite second basemen have been drafted
The Yankees gave away A.J. Burnett, paying him along the way, and they still have enough viable starting candidates to make for a competition for the back end of the rotation. It is quite a luxury and it is an opportunity that fantasy owners can jump on.
See, Phil Hughes isn't currently in the rotation if you had to project the Yankees' top five today -- CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia. Manager Joe Girardi came into spring saying only Sabathia and Kuroda are assured of spots.
That is merely masking what should be obvious to fantasy laymen: Hughes is a former 18-game-winner still with a lot of upside and one that comes with a very small investment on draft day, particularly if you are drafting early this March.
At the winter meetings, Girardi planned to have Hughes a part of the rotation:
"This is a guy that won 18 games in 2010, and that's not always easy to do, win 18 games," Girardi said. "But he pitched well for us, and that's what we're asking him to do to give a chance to win, keep us in the games like he did in 2010. I do consider him a big part of our rotation."
That was before Pineda and Kuroda were added. The Burnett deal, though, has given Hughes a chance to compete with veteran Garcia for the No. 5 spot. Hughes is best served getting slotted in the rotation and being let go, finally, after years of being jerked around and put at risk for shoulder woes.
Picking the winners of position battles, in addition to the six ways we outlined in finding breakouts and potential sleepers (prime 27-year-olds, third-year starting pitchers, injury-risk sleepers, rookies, overlooked sophomores and contract years), are a prime way to unearth some hidden value on draft day.
Here are the top fantasy sleepers in the American League, broken down by division and team (with MockDraftCentral's average draft position, at the time of this writing March 7, in parenthesis):
A healthy Hughes is an elite fantasy starter. He failed in 2011, but we'll get a look at the strength of his shoulder this spring. Watch his velocity (it is already in the low-90s) and ability to take regular spring turns and stretch out his pitch counts on a regular schedule. He is a potential Top-25 fantasy starter and will get picked far later than that. His disastrous year makes him cheaper than ever, but he is still 25 with a big future. The Yankees gave up '11 breakthrough Ian Kennedy to keep Hughes for a reason.
Honorable mention: Hiroki Kuroda (171) might not look like much, but he is steady and will get all of that run support from that potent Yankees lineup.
He was a bust in Boston in Year 1, and is still troubled this spring and unlikely to be ready for Opening Day, but it tends to be the second year after signing a big free-agent contract when a player feels comfortable. A lot of people are going to be down on Crawford -- even more than they are already, due to that spring wrist issue -- but he is still capable of going .295-15-85-100-40. That makes for a decent middle-round pick if he falls that far as an injury-risk sleeper.
Honorable mention: Jarrod Saltalamacchia (345) was supposed to be a burgeoning stud fantasy catcher when he arrived in '07 with 11 homers in 308 at-bats. He hasn't been able to play a full season since, although he came close last year with the Red Sox. With the likes of Carlos Santana, Buster Posey, Alex Avila, Matt Wieters, Miguel Montero, J.P. Arencibia and Wilson Ramos going off the board before Salty in most drafts this spring, there is an opportunity to catch a sleeper here. With Jason Varitek now retired, Salty is capable of going .265-20-80-65 (.330, .500), great production that comes as a fallback catcher option.
No only is he a 27-year old we have yet to see the best of, but he also is in a contract year. Maybe we finally get .290-30-100-100-30. If there is a Matt Kemp breakthrough in this class of 27-year olds, it is Upton. That kind of potential for a player you are going to draft in Round 5 or later is too much to pass up.
Honorable mention: In a short time down the stretch last year, Desmond Jennings (56) proved to be the next Crawford he was billed to be. If you project his rookie season's numbers to 500-plus at-bats, we could be looking at a .260-20-60-100-40 fantasy gem. The power is probably the least likely plateau he will reach, but the power usually is the last thing to come for prospects.
Drabek started last season in the Jays' rotation, somewhat surprisingly. He fared well, but looked bad in the middle and the end, and even struggled mightily back in Triple-A. Drabek is a potential future fantasy ace, so he could rebound and become a solid Low Investment Mound Ace. "Despite his struggles, it was a major learning curve for him last year," manager John Farrell said. "We can't lose sight of some of the games he pitched early on -- seven innings against the Twins in his first start of the year -- and I think he learned a lot about himself, learned a lot about the major leagues. Those negative experiences or those challenges will go a long way in him understanding who he is as a pitcher."
Honorable mention: Kelly Johnson (283) hit just .222 last season, but he has the speed (16 steals) and power (21 homers) that can make him a fantasy star if he can hit even .260. That is his career average, by the way.
Markakis has posted back-to-back mediocre seasons. The 28-year old no longer looks like a potential .300-25-100-100-15 outfielder. Two down years and his spring injury (abdominal surgery) will get him picked a lot lower than his talent suggests. You just might strike gold here finally.
Honorable mention: Brian Roberts (344) still has plenty to prove health-wise this spring, but the fact this kind of talent might not get picked in a standard rotisserie league is eye-opening. He epitomizes the injury-risk sleeper.
Young, a 27-year old heading into a contract year like former teammate B.J. Upton, has been a fantasy disappointment for years. An awful first half ruined his value for '11. That isn't all bad news. He is going to come off the board late and few will look at his solid second-half numbers over his mediocre full-season stats. Young can go .280-25-100-100 as a great late-round fantasy selection.
Honorable mention: Ryan Raburn (358) has pop and he heads to spring training projected to play second base regularly for the first time in his career. That makes him a solid fallback option in the middle infield for fantasy owners.
Dunn is going to get every chance to prove he can be a viable big-league hitter again. He won't have much fantasy value going into the season, but manager Robin Ventura is going to give him a chance to play in the field more to see if it can ignite his bat. As we said with Crawford above, free agents tend to have better seasons in Year 2 in their new home, so Dunn could provide a great return relative to draft position. The decline was just too sudden. As a late-round pick who has the potential to go .240-30-100-80, Dunn can be a steal in the latter rounds. Just don't count on him as a fantasy lineup regular out of the gate.
Honorable mention: Gordon Beckham (347) looked like a future leader of the second base position in fantasy. Now, he looks like mixed-league cannon fodder. It is easy to forget he is still just 25. Ventura went through a slow start and broke through, so the new manager should help get the best out of the .280-20-80-100-10 talent.
The Indians' recently designated Opening-Day starter won only 12 games last year, but Masterson pitched like a 15- to 18-game-winner. We should expect continued improvement and perhaps a move into the Top 25 starting pitchers in fantasy.
Honorable mention: Lonnie Chisenhall (349) had a huge spring and showed flashes of serious offensive potential last year. Third base is a bit thin after the elite options, so Chisenhall could quickly rise into the mixed-league mix early this season. Watch his spring numbers closely.
He is smack dab in the category of overlooked sophomores mostly because it took a summer for him to prove big-league worthy, but once he did, he was a monster. He went .352-4-12-10-2 in September, which could make him a great late-round pick at the sketchy third base position. If Moustakas proves capable of building on his strong finish at age 23, he could go .280-20-80-80 and be a steal at his draft position.
Honorable mention: Salvador Perez (327) looked like a future big-league stud behind the plate in his rookie season, hitting .331 in his 148 at-bat trial. He is a great late-round stopgap at the thin catcher position and may prove capable of going .300-10-65-60 in his first full season.
He has hurdles to climb, but he is an injury-risk sleepers who could return to fantasy prominence if he can prove healthy. Watch him closely, particularly if you are going to be one to take the risk on him in the second half of drafts this spring. A healthy Morneau is a .300-30-100-100 star, even in that pitcher's park.
Honorable mention: Scott Baker (205) doesn't throw hard, but he throws a lot of strikes and is a candidate to take a significant step forward from stopgap fantasy arm to an every-week starter.
The Angels were confident Morales would be able to contribute last year, but he needed a second ankle surgery that ruined his year. They are even more confident this time, but the depth at 1B/DH allows them to be cautious with Morales. That should allow him to fall into the late rounds. A healthy Morales, hitting behind Albert Pujols, can be a .290-35-110-100 fantasy beast.
Honorable mention: Mark Trumbo (138) is not yet healthy this spring, and behind Albert Pujols at first and perhaps Morales at DH, so Trumbo will slip in drafts this spring. After hitting 29 homers as a rookie, he, oddly, will be a bit of an overlooked sophomore because he won't have a certain path for at-bats. He might add some 3B eligibility during the season, but his at-bats will have to come at DH and perhaps OF.
If Joe Nathan really is the Rangers' closer -- and he will be as long as they don't back off on Neftali Feliz in the rotation -- he is going to be a candidate for 35- or maybe 40-plus saves. Nathan won't even have to post a sub-3.00 ERA to get to that level. He is going to be an underrated closer, a position that generally creates sleepers out of late-rounders and busts out of the early rounders.
Honorable mention: Matt Harrison (299) is not assured of a rotation spot, but the third-year starting pitcher has 15-plus-win potential. If he is in the rotation for a top contender with a great offense, look out. Colby Lewis, Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Feliz and Alexi Ogando are going to be tough to beat out, though.
As a rookie, Ackley proved not only capable of being a major leaguer, but he showed he can be a very good one right away. The second base position is getting deeper by the year, and Ackley could develop into an elite option -- as soon as this year. Consider this potentially overlooked sophomore a great fallback option if you miss out on the few studs at second base. We haven't seen a full season of Ackley yet, so we might not know exactly where his ceiling lies.
Honorable mention: Brandon League (182) is going to finally get a full season as a closer in the major leagues and he will do it heading into a contract year. This might be a time he takes a step forward into the elite. He has long had the potential to be among it.
Carter has game-changing power the A's haven't had in a long, long time. He will have to earn his at-bats at first, left and DH in spring training, but a big spring can make him a potential sleeper slugger in deeper formats, particularly AL-only leagues.
Honorable mention: Brad Peacock (368) and Jarrod Parker (362) are a pair of rookie pitchers the A's might hand rotation spots to this spring after getting them in deals for burgeoning aces Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill. Peacock and Parker, especially, are great young arms that will come cheaply on draft day because they pitch for a non-contender.
Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com. You can also find him on Twitter, where you can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice @EricMackFantasy. He reads all the messages there (guaranteed) and takes them very, very personally (not really).