Anthony Rizzo will be one of the best fantasy baseball sleepers of 2014

      November 12, 2013 @ 16:22:16 PDT

Last year, I was all over Freddie Freeman as a bargain among fantasy baseball first basemen. Worked out pretty well, but I probably won't land him in many places this year. (That .319 BA and .371 BABIP are overblown anyway.)

Chicago Cubs 1B Anthony Rizzo
Don't forget the uni discount

For 2014, if you miss out on a select handful of established 1B boppers; want to steer clear of Albert Pujols (foot); wisely fear Brandon Belt's batting-average correction; hope to avoid moving Ian Kinsler there eventually; or want some semblance of immediate homer upside unlike the Eric Hosmer types, you'll have to wade through the next crop of breakthrough players.

Even more than Freeman was this past season, one of the best value plays in 2014 will be Anthony Rizzo. Yes, he who let down so many overzealous pluckers last season. I hesitate to call the Chicago Cubs' heart-of-the-order bat a sleeper, because we in the industry will blow his ADP cover by March. But he looks like this year's Freeman, with a better chance of meeting that return than he boasted in 2013. I would've picked Rizzo in Round 6 of the recent mock had we gone past 5.

Rizzo's walk rate swelled, partially because of intentional and probably many unintentional free-passes he was punished for not having much support on the lineup card. But look at how much he cut down his rate of swinging at pitches outside the zone. Don't ignore the improvement in the infield-fly category over the second half as his HR/FB remained static.

Detractors will point to his performance versus southpaws, which, along with his increasing tendency to put leather into the air, jeopardizes his immediate BA ceiling. They're right. That .189 split clip was nauseating. However, against them, he raised his walk rate from 4.7 percent in 2012 to 10.2, while displaying a similar pace of fence-clearing over nearly twice as many at-bats (25.25 AB/HR in '12; 27.1 in '13). Hints of improvement....

By the way, the only qualifying left-handed bats to swat more dingers against southpaws than Rizzo, who had seven: Chris Davis (13); Jay Bruce and Kyle Seager (10); Prince Fielder and Joey Votto (nine); Carlos Gonzalez, Alex Gordon and Raul Ibanez (eight). Rizzo equaled Robinson Cano and David Ortiz. Not bad company.

Rizzo isn't just hacking away. He's learning, as early-season adjustments to his swing prove. His cuts were shamed with a reputation for being too long, which slowed his path to the zone. He's aware of it and is in position to make further modifications.

He's not far off from the traditional 1,500-PA milestone in which a player defines himself. And this author's instincts, combined with statistical notions, say the progress this post-hype prospect made last year, his third and most extended piece of a major-league calendar, leaves room for more immediate, exponential growth. He'll have plenty of RBI opportunities, especially if Starlin Castro gets his act together, or they find a better solution for the top two spots in the order.

Let others overpay for the Allen Craigs and Adrian Gonzalezes. Pick Rizzo as others write off his lineup mates. Expect him to split the difference on his batting average from the last two campaigns, finishing around .260-.270, and, more importantly, reach the 30-homer plateau many thought he'd break last year.

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About Tim Heaney

Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum, who competes in the prestigious LABR and Tout Wars, has won numerous industry leagues in both baseball and football.

He appears frequently, including every Sunday, on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, as well as every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore.

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