When searching for fantasy baseball sleepers, many people circle the names of incredibly young players they expect to take a step forward. Of course, if a young player has any type of hype attached to his name, it’s hard to find any profit in the draft or auction room. That’s why some of the best sleepers each year are either post-hype sleepers or aging veterans perceived to be on the decline. For our first base sleepers, we’re going to talk about a few guys in the latter category.
Justin Morneau, 1B, MIN
Starting with his MVP season in 2006, Justin Morneau was an elite fantasy baseball weapon for four-and-a-half years. In that time, he posted a .298/.372/.528 slash line with a 138 OPS+ and 162-game averages of 32 home runs, 124 RBI and 98 runs. Sadly, it all came crashing down for Morneau, as a mid-season injury went from bad (missing the remainder of the year) to worse (clearly affecting his play all throughout 2011).
Fantasy owners were willing to give Morneau a shot at retribution in 2012, and he responded with a ho-hum .267/.333/.440 line with 19 home runs in 570 plate appearances. This year, those same owners willing to blame injury for a couple forgettable years are likely to give him the heave-ho after seeing a season of mediocrity.
However, there are some positives when considering Morneau. He’s only 31 years old, still young enough to recapture a large part of his peak performance. He made it through 2012 healthy and is far ahead of where was physically in each of the last two offseasons, according to him. He played much better at the plate when manning first base (with a .275/.343/.450 split). Finally, it’s going to cost virtually nothing to grab him in your draft. I can see him topping .280 and 25 HRs if he can stay healthy, which would mean plenty of profit for you.
Ryan Howard, 1B, PHI
Ryan Howard was a lineup mainstay for much of his career heading into 2012, collecting at least 620 plate appearances in his previous six seasons. But after tearing his Achilles tendon while making the final out of the Phillies’ season in the 2011 playoffs, Howard was guaranteed to miss some time heading into 2012. How much time he would miss was up in the air, and an infection in the stitched-up area of the wound didn’t help matters.
Once Howard finally hit the field in July, he looked to be a shell of his former self, hitting just .219/.295/.423 with 14 home runs in 292 plate appearances. To add injury to insult and the previous injury, Howard broke his toe at the end of 2012 by dropping a batting-practice bat on it. The good news is that the injury isn’t expected to affect his availability for 2013, and Howard’s previous history of great health prior to the Achillies tear could mean a relatively healthy season for the slugger.
How much of his fantasy value can he reclaim? If he goes back to his regular workload of 620-plus plate appearances in 2013, I can’t imagine he’d hit less than 30 home runs. Even with an average in the .250s, that’s something to target late in the drafts. It wouldn’t shock me to see him have a statistically similar year to Mark Teixeira at a fraction of the cost.
Lance Berkman, 1B, STL
The third grizzled veteran in our first-base sleeper article can actually lay claim to the moniker, as they don’t come more grizzled or more veteran than Lance Berkman. Turning 37 in February, Berkman thought long and hard about retiring this offseason after turning in a dismal .259/.381/.444 line in 97 plate appearances in 2012. It marked the first time Berkman had managed to accumulate less than 400 plate appearances since the year 1999, when he picked up 106 plate appearances in his first cup of coffee.
Prior to that near-retirement-inducing line, Berkman had halted a downward performance trend in 2011 by hitting .301/.412/.547 with 31 home runs in 587 plate appearances for the Cardinals, even spending most of the season in the outfield for the first time since 2004. Turning his back on walking way, Berkman signed with the Rangers this offseason, bringing his career .296/.409/.544 line back to the state of Texas.
There’s plenty to love about his prospects for 2013. Manager Ron Washington plans to hit him third in the lineup. The DH role should keep him healthy if he can remain engaged in the game while not on the field. His excellent skillset is only one injury-marred season away. He plays in a great home park for offense, and more than a few of his road games will come in the friendly confines of Minute Maid Park. He’s a guy I’ll be looking to add at the CI slot for cheap in many leagues.
R.J. White is the head editor at the Cafe and contributes to CBSSports.com's MLB Rumors blog. He has previously written for FanHouse, Razzball and FanDuel. 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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