2021 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: Breakouts & Undervalued Players To Target
Here’s The Game Day’s list of 2021 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: Breakouts & Undervalued Players To Target. As fantasy baseball players and drafters will notice, our use of the words “sleepers” and “breakouts” can vary depending on the context.
Is an otherwise highly talented player being undervalued in fantasy baseball drafts? Is a certain name ready to take his production to another level and can be drafted at a value price?
To be considered a fantasy baseball sleeper or breakout for this piece, a player must have an average draft position (ADP) north of 100, using the ADP consensus at FantasyPros as of March 5.
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2021 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: Breakout & Undervalued Players To Target
Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: Hitters
NEW — Dominic Smith, 1B/OF, New York Mets (ADP: 112.8, 10th Round in 12-Team Leagues)
Dominic Smith’s big-league career got off to a slow start. The bat-first big-leaguer struggled mightily at the dish through his first two partial seasons, but he raked the last two years.
He’s slashed .299/.366/.571 with 21 homers, an 8.3 BB%, and 22.5 K% in 396 plate appearances since 2019. The left-handed-hitting Smith’s batted-ball data supports his excellence at the plate, too. He amassed a .301 expected batting average (xBA) and .563 expected slugging (xSLG) with a jaw-dropping 9.0 barrels per plate appearance percentage (Brls/PA%) that ranked tied for 16th out of 142 qualified hitters, per Baseball Savant.
Smith’s bat will force itself into the New York Mets’ lineup even with the projected elimination of the universal designated hitter. He belongs in the top 100 picks.
Byron Buxton, OF, Minnesota Twins (ADP: 119.6)
Byron Buxton was once the unquestioned top prospect in baseball. His bat’s lagged behind his defense, and he hasn’t come anywhere close to hitting his ceiling.
However, he’s produced back-to-back stellar seasons at the plate with a 111 wRC+ in 2019 and 118 wRC+ last year. Buxton’s smacked 23 homers with a .274 ISO, 16 stolen bases in 20 attempts, and a .259/.299/.534 slash in 430 plate appearances .
He’s utilized an aggressive approach at the plate, and it’s produced above-average results. Even before turning into an above-average hitter, Buxton put together a season in which he hit 16 homers with 29 stolen bases. He’s reached double-digit homers and stolen bases in three seasons, falling short of 100 games played in two of them due to injuries.
Buxton stole only two bases last year, but his speed is still elite, ranking tied with Trea Turner for fourth in sprint speed.
It’s not hyperbole to say a 30-homer, 30-steal season is within his range of outcomes.
The Minnesota Twins have a deep lineup that can provide Buxton more run and RBI potential than the standard down-order hitter if he remains in the bottom third of the lineup. His ascension to the leadoff and second spot for a handful of games by the end of the 2020 season, on the other hand, might’ve foreshadowed something much bigger that finally sticks this year.
Franmil Reyes, OF, Cleveland Indians (ADP: 149.2)
Homers are plentiful across MLB, but Franmil Reyes’s ability to put a charge into the ball is elite. The powerful slugger smashed 37 homers in 548 plate appearances in 2019, but his home-run output sunk to nine homers in 241 plate appearances last year. The 25-year-old hitter’s batted-ball data remained in the upper echelon.
He was tied for 28th out of 142 qualified hitters in barrels per plate appearance percentage (7.9% Brls/PA%), 11th in flyball/line-drive exit velocity (97 mph), and tied for 14th in max exit velocity (114.7 mph). Reyes’s launch angle has climbed each year in The Show, perhaps foreshadowing a homer explosion this season. He’s worth a top-125 selection for his power alone, but a spot in the heart of the order should yield helpful contributions to runs and RBIs, too.
Ha-Seong Kim, 2B/SS, San Diego Padres (ADP: 176.5)
Ha-Seong Kim opens his first season in Major League Baseball with second base and shortstop eligibility, but he could pick up third base and outfield eligibility as well. General manager A.J. Preller said Kim’s initial focus is on shortstop, second and third base. He’ll offer valuable versatility to the club while teams transition from the short 60-game season last year to a full season this year.
A regular, everyday gig would be optimal for Kim’s fantasy outlook, but a near everyday gig that allows him to pick up more positional eligibility isn’t a bad fallback, either.
The lack of clarity about his playing time is just one unclear element of projecting Kim’s fantasy value. He’ll also be adjusting to a new league after playing in the Korean Baseball Organization to this point in his career. Changing leagues is challenging in its own right, but getting accustomed to new cultures adds another wrinkle. FanGraphs grades his hit tool roughly average and his game power a pinch below average, but his speed tool is his headliner with a 60 present and future grade.
Kim’s ADP adequately factors in the vast array of possible outcomes, and he’s worth a selection in that vicinity for his potential to chip in across the board. He’s a probable glue guy who won’t cripple your roster if he struggles and ends up cut off of fantasy teams.
Nick Madrigal, 2B, Chicago White Sox (ADP: 213)
Nick Madrigal’s a throwback player who hits for very little power but profiles as an annual contender for the batting title. Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs grades his hit tool as a 60 presently with a 70 future grade, and MLB Pipeline grades it as a 70-hit tool. The righty’s innate ability to make contact resulted in the third-lowest swinging-strike percentage (3.3%) among hitters with a minimum of 100 plate appearances last year.
Furthermore, his .340 batting average would’ve ranked behind only three qualified hitters if he amassed enough plate appearances to be a qualified hitter himself. He hit .337 in 314 plate appearances in Double-A and Triple-A combined in 2019, lending credence to his ability to continue to record an average well above .300.
Madrigal also swiped 18 bases in the upper-minors in 71 games, and his plus speed/run tool (60 grade present and future at FanGraphs and 60 grade at MLB Pipeline) bode well for him stealing bases at a higher rate than his two in 29 games last year suggests.
The soon-to-be 24-year-old second baseman is an ideal target in drafts for gamers who need batting average and stolen base help. His on-base ability could allow him to climb from the bottom of the order to a table-setting spot atop the order, giving him run-scoring potential, too.
Draft him a little earlier than his ADP if you need help in those categories, and if Madrigal can move up the order, consider that a cherry on top of a possible 2021 fantasy baseball breakout.
NEW — Jarred Kelenic, OF, Seattle Mariners (ADP: 231.2)
The Triple-A season is starting a month late, and that’s likely to delay the debut of some of the game’s best prospects. Jarred Kelenic could fall into that group. However, former President of the Seattle Mariners, Kevin Mather, might have aided Kelenic’s cause for breaking camp with the team.
All eyes will be on how the team handles Kelenic after Mather spoke openly about service time manipulation — among other things that were rightfully heavily scrutinized and resulted in him resigning from the President position.
If Kelenic rakes in the spring, he’ll have a uniquely strong grievance case in the event he’s optioned to the minors. The supremely talented youngster is off to a fast start with a homer and a .333/.429/.833 slash, one walk, and one strikeout through his first seven plate appearances.
Kelenic is one of baseball’s best prospects, boasting five-category potential, and his upside warrants a pick in the top 200 selections even with uncertainty about whether he’ll open the year in the majors. I’m optimistic he hits his way onto the team as they also try to recapture goodwill after Mather’s blunder.
Austin Riley, 3B/OF, Atlanta Braves (ADP: 232.4)
Austin Riley made huge improvements at the plate last season that belie his surface stats. He improved his batting average from .226 to .239. An improved strikeout percentage from 36.4% to 23.8% and zone-contact percentage gains from a 73.7 Z-Contact% to an 83.3 Z-Contact% (84.2% was the league average in 2020) should’ve resulted in an even better batting average. Further, his batted-ball data supported a better batting average, as evidenced by his .262 expected batting average, per Baseball Savant.
Riley’s plus power has resulted in 26 homers and a .216 ISO through 503 plate appearances in his young career. He has 30-plus homer potential as the projected everyday third baseman for the Atlanta Braves this year, with batting-average potential that’s 20-or-more points higher than his .232 batting average in his career. Such an outcome would qualify as a 2021 fantasy baseball breakout for the 23-year-old third baseman.
Alejandro Kirk, C, Toronto Blue Jays (ADP: 294.8)
Alejandro Kirk brings a potentially above-average bat to the table at a position with a lack of above-average hitters. He hit .290/.403/.465 with a higher walk percentage (15.1%) than strikeout percentage (10.5%) in 310 plate appearances at the full-season Single-A and High-A levels combined in 2019. He transitioned to the majors with aplomb last year despite no seasoning in the upper-minors, albeit in only 25 plate appearances for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs ranked him as the fourth-best prospect in Toronto’s farm system, grading his present hit tool as a 55 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale with a 60 future grade, as well as grading his game power 40 present and 45 future. He’ll compete for playing time with Danny Jansen and could end up on the larger side of a time share.
I view Kirk as a top-20 fantasy catcher, making him a must-draft player in two-catcher leagues and flyer in 12-team mixers using a single catcher.
Justin Upton, OF, Los Angeles Angels (ADP: 333.6)
Justin Upton’s mired in a two-year slump. He showed signs of life to close out last year, though. He hit .289/.379/.602 with seven homers, a 17.9 K%, .313 ISO, 94.5 mph exit velocity, 40.9 FB%, and 53.0 Hard% in his last 95 plate appearances last year. The excellent finish coincides with a reworked stance, per this report in The Athletic.
Upton hit at least 30 homers, scored at least 80 runs, piled up at least 85 RBIs, and stole at least eight bases each season from 2016 through 2018. He slashed .258/.338/.490 with 96 homers, 261 runs, 281 RBIs, and 31 stolen bases in all in 450 games and 1,874 plate appearances during those three years. Maybe he’s washed up, but the superb finish and recent three-year run of success is reason enough to spend a late pick in the hopes he has something left in the tank.
Franchy Cordero, OF, Boston Red Sox (ADP: 376)
Injuries have limited Franchy Cordero to 25 games and 62 plate appearances over the last two years due to injury. The 26-year-old outfielder will have a fresh start with a new club, the Boston Red Sox, in the wake of being traded. Staying healthy is the biggest hurdle he needs to clear, as his tools and batted-ball data hint at a promising young player and could again sneak onto 2021 fantasy baseball breakout lists.
He showcased tantalizing batted-ball data when last healthy for a meaningful sample of games. He ranked tied for 57th out of 476 batters with a minimum of 50 batted-ball events in barrels per plate appearance percentage (7.1 Brls/PA%), tied for 19th in flyball/line-drive exit velocity (97.2 mph), and 13th in max exit velocity (116.9 mph) in 2018, according to Baseball Savant.
He’s also a faster than average runner, ranking tied for 149th out of 454 players in sprint speed (27.5 feet per second, the average is 27.0 feet per second) last year. The left-handed-hitting outfielder paired his power and speed for seven homers and five stolen bases in 40 games and 154 plate appearances in 2018.
The toolsy outfielder’s biggest problem is his propensity to strike out, with a 34.9 K% in his career. He’s struck out in only 17.7% of his 62 plate appearances the last two years, and he’s patiently worked a walk 12.9% of the time. His plate discipline statistics are encouraging, featuring a 24.1 O-Swing%, 82.6 Z-Swing%, 86.3 Z-Contact%, and 11.2 SwStr%, according to FanGraphs, that compares favorably to the 2020 league-average marks of 30.6%, 67.8%, 84.2%, and 11.3%, respectively. He totaled an 11.8 BB% and 27.6 K% in 76 plate appearances in the Dominican Winter League this offseason, per Baseball Reference.
Even his slightly less encouraging Dominican Winter League stats would represent progress from Cordero. Cordero has a chance to offer helpful homer and stolen base numbers to fantasy squads while not being a total drag on batting average if some of his plate discipline numbers stick. He’s an easy player to cut early in the season if his swing-and-miss issues from the bulk of his career persist.
Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: Pitchers
Pablo Lopez, SP, Miami Marlins (ADP: 140.8)
Pablo Lopez, like Musgrove, broke out last year but is underrated by drafters. He threw his heater a little harder, added a cutter, and dialed up the usage of his best offering, the changeup, to a new high last season, and the results were superb. He recorded a 3.61 ERA, 3.98 SIERA, 1.19 WHIP, 7.5 BB%, 24.6 K%, 52.2 GB%, and 12.1 SwStr%. The righty coaxed a 35.1 O-Swing% and 81.1 Z-Contact% that were both better than the league averages of 30.6% and 84.2%, respectively.
Lopez piled up punchouts with his changeup (32.5 K%), four-seam fastball (32.6 K%), and curve (42.9 K%). The former two offerings missed bats at high rates with a 17.8 SwStr% and 13.8 SwStr%, while the latter offering froze hitters in the zone with only a 22.7 Z-Swing%. The cutter he added to his repertoire also had value, albeit not as a strikeout weapon. He didn’t allow a single line-drive on the pitch, netted a 53.3 GB% with it, and the 49 wRC+ hitters posted against it was the lowest mark of any of his five offerings.
In addition to striking out batters aplenty, he avoids quality contact when hitters put the ball in play against him. Lopez’s 2.9 Brls/PA% allowed to hitters was the ninth-lowest mark out of 101 qualified pitchers, according to Baseball Savant. Lopez has an ADP of SP41, but I’m enamored with him and view him as a fringe SP2, making him a top-100 player.
Joe Musgrove, SP, San Diego Padres (ADP: 141.3)
Joe Musgrove broke out last year, yet he’s being underrated relative to his excellent work and possesses more untapped potential. He set new career-best marks in ERA (3.86), SIERA (3.50), strikeout percentage (33.1 K%), swinging-strike percentage (14.4 SwStr%), left-on-base percentage (77.3 LOB%), groundball percentage (48.4 GB%), exit velocity against (85.1 mph), and xwOBA against (.268). Musgrove’s LOB% was higher than the league average of 71.8%, so some regression is likely in order. The rest of his statistical profile is tantalizing.
The San Diego Padres traded for him, and he’ll receive run support from a juggernaut offense. Gamers should be willing to spend a pick a couple of rounds earlier than his ADP to assure themselves rostering a hurler I have pegged as a fringe SP3. If he stays healthy and can discover his strikeout potential, he would be on track for a 2021 fantasy baseball breakout.
Jose Urquidy, SP, Houston Astros (ADP: 196.0)
Jose Urquidy’s 2.73 ERA in five starts totaling 29.2 innings last year was in stark contrast to his 5.36 SIERA. Normally, that would be grounds for me cautioning regression. Instead, I’m suggesting throwing out his 2020 results and focusing on his 45.1 innings pitched in return from COVID-19 as his most noteworthy statistic. The young right-handed hurler spent significant time quarantining with COVID-19 and rebuilding his strength when he was healthy.
Urquidy dazzled in his 2019 debut with a 3.95 ERA, 4.03 SIERA, 1.10 WHIP, 4.2 BB%, 24.0 K%, and 12.0 SwStr% in 41.0 innings stretched across seven starts and two relief appearances. He added to his resume in the postseason by tallying a 0.90 ERA, 3.70 SIERA, 1.10 WHIP, 4.9 BB%, and 29.3 K% in 10 innings. Urquidy’s ADP is fair, and I don’t advise reaching much earlier to draft him. He’s an upside SP5.
Drew Smyly, SP, Atlanta Braves (ADP: 249.3)
Drew Smyly didn’t endure the smoothest sailing after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2017. He pitched only one minor-league inning the following year prior to getting knocked around for an 8.42 ERA in 13 appearances for the Texas Rangers in 2019 before beginning his turnaround for the Philadelphia Phillies, wrapping up that campaign.
The veteran southpaw was rock-solid for the San Francisco Giants last season. He’s totaled a 4.15 ERA, 3.79 SIERA, 1.26 WHIP, 8.0 BB%, 29.4 K%, and 13.0 SwStr% in 89 innings spanning 19 appearances (17 starts) with the Phillies (2019) and Giants (2020). His consensus ADP at FantasyPros makes him SP97, but I have him ranked considerably higher as a top-70 starting pitcher.
NEW — Jordan Montgomery, SP, New York Yankees (ADP: 256.5)
Jordan Montgomery’s 5.11 ERA in 10 starts totaling 44.0 innings last year masks tantalizing underlying numbers, starting with his 3.84 SIERA.
The lefty recorded a 4.7 BB% and 24.4 K%, and his 12.9 SwStr% teases more strikeout potential. Further, his curveball totaled a 14.5 SwStr%, and his changeup was an even more hellacious bat-missing offering with a 23.7 SwStr% last year, providing him a put-away offering for lefties and righties.
Montgomery’s batted-ball data is excellent, too. His 4.1 Brls/PA% ceded to hitters last year tied for the 29th best mark out of 101 qualified pitchers, and his 84.6 mph exit velocity was the third-lowest mark.
The 28-year-old pitcher looks the part of a low-four ERA, 1.25 to 1.30 WHIP option with more than a strikeout per inning. Wins are often volatile, but the juggernaut offense the New York Yankees feature enhances his chances of helping fantasy squads in that category as well.
Justus Sheffield, SP, Seattle Mariners (ADP: 276.3)
Justus Sheffield broke out last year, but his low ADP relative to my ranking as a top-70 starting pitcher makes him a sleeper. One change primarily led to his breakout for the Seattle Mariners, using his sinker instead of his four-seam fastball.
The 24-year-old lefty’s full-season totals in 2020 were decent, but cherry-picking and dropping his first two starts yields even better results. He twirled a 2.64 ERA, 4.34 SIERA, 1.22 WHIP, 7.1 BB%, 20.9 K%, and 51.1 GB% in his last eight starts totaling 47.2 innings. Sheffield’s strikeout rate underwhelms, but a return to bat-missing form for his changeup (15.2 SwStr% in 2019) and slider (23.8 SwStr% in 2019) could fuel a surge in that department this year. Regardless, last year’s work warrants a selection earlier than his ADP.
Tejay Antone, SP/RP, Cincinnati Reds (ADP: 349.5)
Tejay Antone turned in a pop-up performance for the Cincinnati Reds last season. He started four games and appeared in relief in nine, spinning a 2.80 ERA, 3.69 SIERA, and 1.02 WHIP in 35.1 innings. The righty did an elite job of piling up strikeouts and missing bats, ranking 15th in strikeout percentage (31.9 K%) and tied for 31st in swinging-strike percentage (13.0 SwStr%) among pitchers who pitched at least 30 innings last season, according to FanGraphs.
He brings a five-pitch mix to the table, and four of his offerings generated a swinging-strike percentage over 14.0%. Antone’s role is unclear, but he was tabbed as a potential closer back in early December when Raisel Iglesias was traded.
However, the club has since signed Sean Doolittle, so the road to closing is more muddied. Antone could also win a spot in the rotation. Even in the worst-case scenario in which Antone is a multi-inning middle-reliever, he’s worth a pick earlier than his ADP thanks to his contributions to ERA, WHIP, and strikeouts. His value would skyrocket as a starter or closer, though, which would make him a fantastic out-of-nowhere 2021 fantasy baseball breakout.
NEW — Lucas Sims, SP/RP, Cincinnati Reds (ADP: 372.0)
Lucas Sims has excelled in the bullpen the last two years. He’s spun a 2.94 ERA, 3.45 SIERA, 1.08 WHIP, 34.7 K%, and 14.0 SwStr% in 40 relief appearances totaling 52.0 innings. He’s not without faults, namely his 12.2 BB% leaves something to be desired. Having said that, the rest of his statistical profile offsets the free passes.
The righty’s bat-missing ability gives him a shot to save games in a wide-open bullpen for the Cincinnati Reds. He got off to a late start this spring due to elbow tightness, but he’s progressing.
Reds relief pitcher Lucas Sims is out here throwing for the first time.
He got a late start because of elbow tightness but has said he’ll be ready for the season.
He looked sharp warming up. pic.twitter.com/8fM8J6JVL5
— Charlie Goldsmith (@CharlieG__) February 26, 2021
Lucas Sims threw 10 fastballs in "short box" drills yesterday. Basically, it's throwing off the mound with the catcher on the plate or right in front. He said a lot of pitchers are moving away from throwing flat ground drills because pitchers don't throw off of flat ground
— C. Trent Rosecrans (@ctrent) March 4, 2021
Matt Moore, SP, Philadelphia Phillies (ADP: 707.0)
Matt Moore spent the 2020 baseball season dazzling in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), amassing a 2.65 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 7.45 BB%, and 28.1 K% in 15 games spanning 85.0 innings, according to Baseball Reference. The 85 innings are notable, as Matt Gelb pointed out on Twitter.
Most notable thing about Matt Moore? He threw 85 innings in Japan last season, which would have led MLB. Teams need innings. He's also a lefty and Phillies had zero GS by a lefty in 2020.
— Matt Gelb (@MattGelb) January 29, 2021
Peter Gammons reports Moore threw in the 90-95 mph range with a balanced delivery.
Matt Moore, still 31, has become intriguing FA. Once threw shutout G1 2011 ALDS. Was 17-4@22. Arm, calf, knee injuries cripple career, but 15 starts in Japan–2.65, 95-26 K-BB, 90-95 velo, delivery back balanced…mid-rotation possibility for several clubs
— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) January 19, 2021
Moore’s stuff led to the seventh-highest swinging-strike percentage among 53 pitchers who threw 70-plus innings, per Delta Graphs, Jim Allen shares. The veteran lefty teased a rebound in an injury-abbreviated, two-start season for the Detroit Tigers in 2019. Coupled with his excellent showing abroad, he’s an intriguing dart throw late in fantasy drafts.