Top potential NL sleepers for 2012
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If everyone liked sleepers, then they would never fall to the deft drafters. Luckily, we're here to navigate you toward the players you may not have on your radar but should.
Chad Billingsley, for example, has done a great job hiding his potential in the NL. He has gone 11-11, 12-11 and 12-11 in his past three seasons, proving to be little more than a marginal fantasy option.
"We don't really feel like [Billingsley's] a .500 guy," manager Don Mattingly said at spring training. "We feel he's better than that. The stuff says he's better than that. I think we're looking for more consistency and a little steady improvement from Chad.
"We need him to step up and be that No. 2-type guy behind [Clayton Kershaw] that when you go into the series and these guys are hooked up back-to-back that you're going to have trouble with us."
No one should expect much from the Dodgers. But they shouldn't sleep on a talent like Billingsley. He should be capable of going over 200 innings for just the second time in his career and his modest draft position (just 266th overall currently in MockDraftCentral.com's draft averages) will make it easy for him to outperform his draft position.
Billingsley is no longer in that category of a third-year starting pitcher, one of our six favorite sleeper/breakout categories we outlined earlier, but he still is a talent we have yet to see the best from.
He is a lot closer to the 2011 version of Clayton Kershaw than the '11 version of Billingsley himself. This is still an ace in the making. Sometimes power arms just take a little while longer to develop the command and those secondary pitches.
We have already looked at the top fantasy sleepers in the American League, so here is the National League edition, broken down by division and team (with MockDraftCentral's average draft position, at the time of this writing March 8, in parenthesis):
He had a career breakthrough as a 27-year old and now will be given the chance to start for a top contender in a great hitter's park. If you project his numbers for a full season, we could be looking at 25 homers and 90 RBI, not bad for a late-round pick.
Honorable mention: Domonic Brown (368) is ticketed for Triple-A to start the season, but he is an immense speed-and-power talent who could wind up being a must-have in all leagues when he finally arrives. Heck, he could still earn a full-time job out of spring training.
He is in the injury-risk category, coming off his own shoulder woes. A healthy Johnson, though, has the potential to be a top-five fantasy starter. The Marlins gave him plenty of rest, so if you can stomach the shoulder questions, you can get someone who will dramatically outperform his draft position.
Honorable mention: Carlos Zambrano (324) has made his enemies, but he starts with a clean slate and under a manager who can appreciate his competitiveness and quirks. It is too easy to forget last season was his first with an ERA over 4.00. He can be a big winner with a competitive team, which the Marlins hope to be.
If you miss out on Giancarlo Stanton, Heyward is going to be a nice option rounds later. He struggled with his shoulder and the consistency of his swing, but he still has 30-100-100-30 potential. It wouldn't be all that surprising to see him even out-produce Stanton in fantasy because of the steals and better strikeout-to-walk rate. Don't sleep on a yet-to-pop talent like Heyward.
Honorable mention: Jair Jurrjens (217) is the one healthy veteran in the Braves' rotation right now with Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson a bit banged up in front of the quartet of Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran competing for three rotation spots. Hudson is going to miss most, if not all, of April. Jurrjens is the Braves' Opening Day starter and a solid Low Investment Mound Ace candidate.
He might not be draftable in a standard league if he gets sent to Double-A in mid-spring, but he could produce a .280-20-50 stat line after June, which would make him a fantasy star. The problem considering him a sleeper, though, is that it is more likely his name and hype will get him drafted far sooner than a 19-year-old hitter should ever be considered.
Honorable mention: John Lannan (496) is in a dogfight to make the Nats' bolstered rotation, but he warrants a starting spot and a late-round pick in standard mixed leagues. He is going to be a valuable waiver pickup if you miss out on him in the last round of the draft.
Bay has had two disastrous seasons in New York, but now the fences are being moved in. That gives him a chance to be a .280-25-90 outfielder again, and you will be able to snatch him up with a late-round pick. The potential reward far outweighs the potential risk. He has one good year left in him.
Honorable mention: Ike Davis (178) has prodigious power, but he needs to prove healthy for a full season for the first time. He is an ideal injury-risk sleeper who could develop into a .300-30-100 beast at the deep first base position.
Leake gets little credit for what he has been able to do in his first two professional seasons. It is rare a young arm can go straight to the major leagues and pitch like a winner right away. Leake deserves a spot in the Reds' rotation for the full season and is a sleeper to win 15 games. If he falls into the late rounds -- behind that potentially potent offense -- he can be a real gem of a Low Investment Mound ace.
Honorable mention: Devin Mesoraco (334) has good pop and can run away with the Reds' catcher job this spring, perhaps even NL Rookie of the Year honors. Two of his top competitors for that award will be teammates Zack Cozart and Todd Frazier perhaps. Mesoraco can be a steal as a stopgap catcher if you ignore that position until late.
The converted catcher didn't really take off as closer until the postseason, but he enters spring training as the go-to guy. Plus, he won't have to deal with Tony La Russa's fickle behavior with relievers anymore. Motte could be a 30-plus save stopper for fantasy owners, maybe even 40-plus.
Honorable mention: Jaime Garcia (177) somehow doesn't get the love he deserves. Perhaps it is due to him slotting third in the Cards rotation behind the returning Adam Wainwright and the aging Chris Carpenter. Garcia has the potential to outperform both many rounds later.
He has already shown pop in his bat, but questions still surround his defense at third base. That should be less of a worry at first in place of Prince Fielder. Gamel is capable of performing well enough in spurts to be useful in mixed leagues and can be a solid mid- to late-round value in NL-only formats. He could be a .260-25-90 hitter in his first full season, a great value relative to draft position.
Honorable mention: Randy Wolf (406) probably shouldn't get picked on draft day, but he always tends to be that steady starter who is popular off the waiver wire when he is getting double starts. You wouldn't be far off making him your last-round pick and shuttling him in and out of your fantasy rotation this season.
It is possible, if not likely, Alvarez needs more seasoning in the minors. The Pirates do have a functional stopgap in Casey McGehee, so they can send Alvarez to Triple-A and allow him to prove worthy of being a big-leaguer again. Alvarez was one of the best hitting prospects of his class, but his aggressive approach has gotten him into trouble with extended slumps. If Alvarez finds his niche this season, he can be a real gem of a late-round pick at third base.
Honorable mention: Jose Tabata (253) doesn't do anything on the elite level, but he can be a valuable addition for steals in rotisserie formats. Steals tend to be overpaid for, particularly on players with pop, but Tabata will come affordably and he just might find power to boot.
He won't have to hold off prospect Anthony Rizzo this spring, because Theo Epstein wants LaHair to open the year in Chicago at first and Rizzo to open in Triple-A. LaHair was the Pacific Coast League MVP last season, hitting .331 (.405-.664) with 38 home runs, so there is legit potential here. "Bryan LaHair is our first baseman," Epstein said. "I don't believe in the concept of four-A players. The guy can hit." LaHair is going to be a nice NL-only sleeper and might even have hot streaks that make him worthy of starting in mixed leagues, particularly on days the wind is blowing out in Chicago.
Honorable mention: Ian Stewart (451) never hit his stride last season, but he is now 27 and ready to break through as a big-leaguer. There is still .280-25-90-90 potential here and a strong spring can make him a great late-round pick in mixed formats. Regardless, the Cubs are handing him the starting 3B job unchallenged, something the Rockies never really did a year ago.
Lowrie wasn't a starting shortstop on a contender, but with the Astros he is going to get plenty of rope defensively. At the plate, he has shown flashes of brilliance and he just might develop into a .280-18-80-80 fantasy shortstop. He can be a very valuable late-round stopgap at a thin position.
Honorable mention: Bud Norris (256) is turning 27 this spring and is ready to reach 200 innings for the first time in the major leagues. Those are two very good times to expect a breakthrough for a pitcher. Norris is on a bad ballclub that won't win games, but that will make him affordable on draft day. He is capable of winning 15 games even with this short deck, posting a low-3.00 ERA and striking out over 200 batters. That is a top 25 fantasy starter that will be on the board until very late in most drafts.
His awful '11 will keep him off the radar in many leagues. But he showed a lot of improvement after change of scenery, hitting .301 in September with his move to Arizona. Hill is a late-round pick with early round potential at the still-thin second-base position. Few fantasy picks have that wide a range of potential value.
Honorable mention: Stephen Drew (148) is still dealing with his ankle issue that might keep him out for the start of the season. His draft position should get progressively later. If he falls into the late rounds, he can prove to be worth the gamble. He is a lot closer to being .280-20-80-100-10 guy than anyone might think.
Belt's development is a big key to the Giants and might be for fantasy owners out of the bargain bin as well. Watch him closely in spring and how many starts Aubrey Huff gets in left. Belt has the kind of pop that can help even in mixed formats when he is going well. Young sluggers are famously streaky, and Belt can put some huge weeks together.
Honorable mention: Ryan Vogelsong (224) already broke out a year ago, but since he is an old pitcher who is roughly in the category of a third-year starting pitcher -- with 40-70 career starts -- many are not trusting his numbers. He needs to slip into the late rounds to be worth picking, but he very well might.
This is still an ace in the making. Sometimes power arms just take a little while longer to develop the command and those secondary pitches. Don't miss out on this potential ace late in drafts.
Honorable mention: Dee Gordon (141) performed like a poor man's Jose Reyes last season. If his splits from his rookie year hold up over a full season, this potentially overlooked sophomore can be a huge steal after Round 10, particularly in rotisserie formats for that 70-steal potential.
He assumes the closer's role and might be able to hold off 23-year-old closer of the future, Rex Brothers, for longer than many might anticipate. Betancourt is going to represent a good value at the closer position in fantasy, particularly if those young starters prove capable early.
Honorable mention: If you didn't follow fantasy deep into the August and September, you might have missed Dexter Fowler's (227) arrival as a viable mixed-league fantasy outfielder. He hit .288 with five homers, 51 runs and 10 steals in the second half. His best month was September (. 287-3-15-3). He turns 26 in spring training and might be capable of the .290-15-60-100-25 season we have longed for when he was once an elite outfield prospect.
He looked like a burgeoning fantasy ace last year while making it back from Tommy John surgery, but he wore out his welcome in Cincinnati and now has to remake himself in San Diego. Petco is a great place to do it, even if the Padres won't score that many runs. Volquez can win a Cy Young, he can be that good, so consider him a great value in the Low Investment Mound Ace category.
Honorable mention: The Padres made some offseason deals that ostensibly wound up making them choose the gap-hitting Yonder Alonso (290) over the arc-swinging slugger Rizzo, who failed in his monthlong trial last summer. Alonso has a good strikeout-to-walk rate and the ability to hit .300 in the majors, but his lack of top-shelf power and having to hit in spacious Petco Park make him less intriguing at the first base position in fantasy. That should make him a bargain, though, so if you miss out on a big slugger at first, Alonso can be a great fallback option. The Padres are at least committed to him now, because of the high-profile trades they made putting their eggs in his basket.
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).
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