SleepersMarch 18, 2012

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Sleeper Watch

By R.J. White

Sometimes a prospect tears through the minors, earns an early promotion to his Major League club, and then takes the majors by storm en route to becoming one of the better players in baseball. Think Ryan Braun. Most of the time, that doesn’t happen. Fantasy owners are particularly fickle with these cases, discarding them in the trash bin in favor of The Next Big Thing. However, one man’s trash is another man’s potential fantasy breakout. The players below were once elite fantasy prospects on the verge of joining the elite. Some fell to injury, some were good and not great. All are being undervalued by the people in your league.

Chris Davis, 1B/3B, BAL

Davis’s first thousand major-league ABs haven’t quite gone according to plan. After barreling through the Rangers’ farm system and hitting 74 HRs in under 1,000 at-bats from 2006 to 2008, Davis debut to much fanfare in ‘08, hitting .285 with 17 HRs in a half-season’s work with the Rangers. Fantasy owners were all over him heading into 2009, but the slugger managed just 21 HRs while hitting .238. After that, he disappeared from the fantasy landscape but continued to mash in Triple-A.

With about 2,000 plate appearances in the minors, Davis sports a .318/.375/.597 line that looks nothing like his .252/.301/.448 major-league line. He was superhuman in the minors last year, slugging .819 while hitting 24 HRs in 193 at-bats with Triple-A Round Rock. He was later shipped to Baltimore, where his power evaporated again in the majors. Is he the classic Quad-A hitter, or is a breakthrough lurking?

When he’s played this spring, the Orioles have hit him clean-up; if he sees that slot in the lineup on a regular basis during the season, it’s an obvious boost to his stock. Regardless, you have to remember that even though it seems he’s been in the fantasy consciousness forever, Davis just turned 26 this St. Patty’s Day. Baseball Reference’s similarity scores had him most similar to Mark Teixeira at age 23 and Carlos Delgado at age 24. Last year, his comps included Carlos Pena, who seems like an excellent comparison for the purposes of Davis’s fantasy value this year. Pena hit 27 HRs with a .241 average in his age-26 season, but a fantasy explosion was just around the corner; he had 116 HRs from ages 29 to 31, despite not topping 500 at-bats in any of those seasons. As a late draft pick or $1 auction player, you’d take .241 and 27 HRs from Davis while hoping for the breakout.

Mat Gamel, 1B, MIL

Gamel likely worked his way into your consciousness in 2008 when he hit .329 with 19 HRs in 508 Double-A at-bats. He was given a shot with the Brewers in 2009 but was underwhelming, hitting .242 with five HRs. Of course, that came in just 128 at-bats, and he’s been MIA in the majors since, piling up just 41 at-bats between 2010 and 2011 combined.

So where was he? Destroying the stock of minor-league pitchers everywhere. After hitting .309 with 13 HRs in 311 Triple-A at-bats in 2010, Gamel exploded last year, smacking 28 HRs while hitting .310 in his first full year in Triple-A (though he did have 332 previous at-bats at the level). The Brewers didn’t rush him back despite the production, leaving Gamel to stew at Triple-A while being blocked in the majors.

That was before Prince Fielder left town, opening up the 1B job for Gamel to take. The team didn’t sign anyone to compete with the youngster, planning on using Corey Hart at 1B should Gamel falter. Well, Hart’s dealing with an injury, so Gamel should get the opportunity to impress on a daily basis early in the season. The 26-year-old has been great in spring thus far, hitting three HRs in his first 27 at-bats while posting a .296/.406/.704 line and even stealing three bases. While a higher-than-average K-rate will likely preclude an average that high over the course of the season, he could be in line to hit about 30 HRs, steal a handful of bases and post a lot of RBIs hitting behind Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez.

Jordan Schafer, OF, HOU

A two-time top-50 prospect according to Baseball America, Schafer debuted with the Braves in 2009 with a healthy amount of buzz. After OPSs of .850 or better in his previous two seasons, along with 25 HRs and 25 SBs in about 850 ABs over those years, Schafer had the potential to provide five-category fantasy value. Instead, he hit .204 and slugged .287 in 167 at-bats with Atlanta and was sent to the minors in June of that year.

Schafer again struggled through 2011, first with a forgettable spring (.167/.196/.278) and then battled injuries and ineffectiveness all year. The Braves eventually sent him to Houston in the Michael Bourn deal, where he improved marginally, if at all.

However, Schafer did show a little bit of speed in 2011, stealing 31 bags between his various stops over the course of the year. While he’s apparently abandoned his HR swings, Schafer is still capable of contributing a healthy number of steals and runs for fantasy teams while hitting atop the Astros lineup. He only has about a season’s worth of playing time in the majors over the course of his career, so a step forward isn’t out of the question. He’s played extremely well in spring this year, posting a .391/.440/.522 line while only striking out twice and walking twice in 25 trips to the plate. He seems leaps and bounds ahead of where he was just 12 months ago, and a healthy season could mean a long-awaited breakout finally comes to fruition.

Jeremy Hellickson, SP, TB

Once upon a time, there was a Rays pitcher who, coming off a dominant late-season performance which included turns in the rotation and bullpen, won the AL Rookie of the Year award behind an excellent 2.95 ERA. If you hadn’t read the name above this paragraph, you may have through I was predicting Matt Moore’s 2012 season, but (as I’m sure you know), this was Hellickson in a nutshell last year. At 25 years old and coming off an award-winning season, you’d figure the fantasy world would be fighting over each other for this young ace, right?

Well, the hype just isn’t there as it was last year, thanks in large part to Hellickson’s low K-rate (5.6 K/9), high BB-rate (3.4 BB/9) and huge gap between ERA (2.95) and FIP (4.44), and even between those numbers and xFIP (4.72). Also, fantasy owners are expecting a big regression from last season’s .223 BABIP. So this all means stay away from Hellickson, right?

Some think so. I don’t. Neither does Fangraphs’ Steve Slowinski, who recently published a must-read take on Hellickson’s supposedly “lucky” season. In addition, remember that in Hellickson’s age 18 to 23 seasons in the minors, he was 49-16 with a 2.71 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 9.8 K/9, 2.1 BB/9 and 4.6 K/BB. Looking at those outstanding numbers, 2011 seems to be the outlier. Hellickson’s strikeout rate should rise, his walk rate should fall; depending on how much, he could be in line for another award this year (hint: it starts with “Cy”). His extreme fly-ball tendencies draw a favorable comparison to elite fantasy pitcher Jered Weaver, but at a fourth-starter price. Incredibly, this Rookie of the Year could wind up being severely undervalued before all is said and done.

(And I know he’s doesn’t fit with the rest of the “post-hype sleepers” in the article, but I shoehorned him in anyway. Just do yourself a favor and read the linked article above before you pas judgement on him.)

Other post-hype guys that could make an impact: Pedro Alvarez, 3B, PIT; Luke Hochevar, KC; Matt LaPorta, 1B/OF, CLE; Brian Matusz, SP, BAL; Justin Smoak, 1B, SEA; Chris Volstad, SP, CHC; Brandon Wood, 3B, COL.

R.J. White is the head editor at the Cafe, writes for FanDuel and Razzball and has previously written for FanHouse. Catch up with him in the forums under the name daullaz. Follow him on Twitter; don't follow him in real life.
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