Fantasy baseball sleepers and undervalued - SP

by Tim Heaney and Nicholas Minnix on April 4, 2012 @ 00:28:26 PDT



Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox

Sleeper creepers were jumping all over Sale last year when saves were opening up in Chicago. Now, when he'll get more innings to employ his eye-popping K/9, people are hesitant or forgetful?

The educated guess for such reluctance would be his hitter-friendly home park and the transition into outputting a starter's workload. The grounder rates he forced as a 'penman would likely dwindle a bit with the longer outings. Sale, who turned 23 in March, boasts 10 1/3 frames of minor league ball; that's probably a concern for many.

New York Mets SP Jonathon Niese
Have a Niese day

Still, he's polished for his age and, even if he has to conserve some to last deep into games, his high-90s velo should matter more than his DOB, especially since you can get a K/9 that'll at minimum sit comfortably between 8.00 and 9.00 in the late stages of mixed drafts. When the price and commitment go down, prioritize skills before environment. -TH

Luke Hochevar, Kansas City Royals

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft had failed to live up to that value; a look below Hochevar's generic statistics will discover a glaring second-half growth in his approach. The right-hander's seasonal dip in K/9 doesn't accurately represent his progress.

His cutter and slider are blossoming, and renewed confidence in pitching to all areas of the strike zone helped him fan 8.40 per nine frames in August and September combined. More dominance should help him strand more runners and elevate him to a strand rate closer to the league average; an improved ERA would follow if all goes right.

Can KC's defense handle another year of high grounder inducement? As a mixed staff capper, you'll only need to pay a flier's price to find out. Though KC isn't a favorable uniform for a pitcher, he could be the top dog in a cheap AL-only staff. -TH

Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox

The much maligned right-hander enters what seems likely to be his final season with the ChiSox. In 2010 and 2011 combined (218 2/3 innings), he gave the club a 4.77 ERA and surrendered 0.95 home runs per nine innings, the latter figure about what one would expect from a hurler who gives up fly balls at the rate at which he does. In short, he's been disappointing - when he's been healthy.

Retrace the hurler's steps. Early in 2009, as trade rumors swirled while he was still with the San Diego Padres, Peavy developed a torn tendon in his right ankle that took longer than expected to recover from. He pushed it, and when he returned to action in September of that year, as well as early in 2010, he continued to compensate for the balky ankle, which played a part in the development of pain in his shoulder and back.

Peavy continued to pitch, which likely led to the tearing away of the latissimus dorsi muscle in his back. He had surgery to reattach the muscle in July 2010 and missed the rest of the season. It was an innovative procedure, and although he'd be cleared to pitch well before then, doctors told him that it could take a year or more to recover from fully.

In 2011, Peavy missed more than a month to begin the season, but he pitched fairly well through his first seven games. That is, until after he made that seventh appearance - a relief outing at home a month and a half after his season debut. From then on, the club's staff felt that he just wasn't the same.

It sounds as if his body has been mangled, but these aren't the chronicles of a player we label "injury-prone." Chicago has probably mishandled him to some degree, and the righty has also pushed himself too much in an effort to feel like he's contributing. Peavy, who's only 31 years old, seems to have taken the right course to prepare for this season. He's healthy, whatever that means for him at this stage of his career.

Despite the foul results, Peavy still struck out 7.73 and walked a mere 2.39 per nine innings in his full two years on the South Side. He posted a FIP and xFIP of around 4.00 in 2010, and in 2011, his FIP (3.21) and xFIP (3.52) extolled the virtues of a man who pitched very well at times but failed to get results consistently. Those willing to take a low-dollar shot on him in 2012 face the prospect of something a lot closer to those marks in ERA, with a healthy dose of K's. -NM

Jonathon Niese, New York Mets

The Mets probably won't win many games, but you shouldn't make wins your priority. Niese has the makeup to approach 10 with upside for more, while offering attractive accompanying stats. Since mixed league drafters will need to worry about him only in deeper formats, they should be willing to take the chance on his skills, which have him sniffing the top 50 fantasy SPs.

In what might look like a lost season using surface numbers, the 25-year-old boosted his velocity across the board, improved his curveball effectiveness and bumped his worm-burning rate over 50 percent. He could've done more but was halted by a lingering intercostal strain - another injury halting his growth. His August numbers would've been better had he not tried pitching through the ailment; he gave up a career-high eight runs in a start before hitting the DL for good.

He'll put runners on and could continue allowing higher-than-normal hit rates, but he should strand more runners as his arsenal matures, and his second-half hit rate was way beyond normal expectations.

He's built to survive the reductions in distance to and height of Citi Field's fences. Grounder-K combos with Niese's pristine control induce drools when drafters mine for arm gems. -TH


C.J. Wilson, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

In his second year as a full-time starter, Wilson improved his K/9 by nearly one whiff to 8.30; lowered his BB/9 by more than one walk to 2.98; sustained a grounder rate of nearly 50 percent; solidified his ability to strand runners effectively; built on one of the best cutters in the game; and jacked up his first-strike percentage more than 4 points and his opponents' swinging-strike rate by nearly 2.

Wilson executed a perfect peripheral storm, even while calling Arlington home, and now moves to a team with a pitcher-friendly park that also added Albert Pujols, much to the delight of ... well, every Halo. Wilson stays in the AL West, which boasts two more stadiums that aid arms, and he's already accustomed to pitching in bat-boosting Texas.

Wilson should hover around top-10 mixed SP status this season and could receive a doubt-fueled discount. His reliever-to-starter transition is one of the better pitching success stories in recent seasons, and you should confidently commit to the next chapter. -TH

Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals

Pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery are typically limited in innings the next season in which they pitch. Wainwright might be a case of that, sure, but his recovery timeline works out much better than most since he underwent the procedure last March, before the start of the 2011 campaign.

He has been working ahead of schedule all offseason and has already started throwing all of his pitches. Some of the scar tissue in his elbow broke up last season; generally, once a patient endures this hurdle, it's usually a smoother recovery from there on out. Good thing it happened early, so to speak.

And it appears the knife work might result in extra movement on his pitches:

Surgery consisted of replacing the spent ligament with one fashioned from a strip of his hamstring. That has given his arm a livelier feel and greater extension on his pitches that has, during workouts, meant a sharper sink on his fastball.

Few pitchers present the profit potential Waino offers if the room discredits his track record and conjures added risk, even if you can get him as a No. 3 mixed SP. He has enough pitching acumen that he doesn't necessarily need 100 percent of his velocity to come back in order to succeed. Even if you don't draft him, he's a fantastic buy-low candidate if he starts off slow and his owner becomes impatient.

The Cards expect to limit him to somewhere between 150 and 180 innings this year, but betting on the higher end would still make him a top-25 starting pitcher. Heck, if drafters are buying Stephen Strasburg's 160 expected frames in the top 20, Waino deserves similar consideration.

The 2010 Cy Young candidate pitched for 10 seasons with his right elbow's ulnar collateral ligament partially torn. Imagine the possibilities with a successful, ramped up recovery ... and a newly enhanced elbow connection. -TH

Tommy Hanson, Atlanta Braves

New Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim SP C.J. Wilson
Give Wilson his due

Last year Hanson was one of the hottest pitchers in the majors, registering a 9.49 K/9, a 3.05 BB/9 and a 10-4 record in his first 17 games started. This preceded a series of poor outings before his season ended prematurely in August thanks to a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.

Back problems from 2010 created some bad habits that produced the injury, the right-hander deduced, and he's hoping to ease the stress on his shoulder during what many considered to be a violent delivery, as well. He's focusing on eliminating the pause in his windup that produced a violent arm snap at his release point.

Like Adam Wainwright, Hanson is being passed on by the risk-averse. Problem is, he's not even earning consideration as a No. 3 mixed pitcher in many circles. It's misplaced fear; the 25-year-old has plenty of prime years left, and his body can easily recover from such an injury. Best part is you won't have to pay an ace's ransom for him for Hanson to deliver a potentially completed version of his 2011, even at a more modest level. -TH

Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers

The 4.40 ERA from 2011 was the worst of Mad Max's career. Scherzer's K/9 dropped from 2010 (8.46 to 8.03), but it's negligible when you also consider the drop in his walk rate (3.22 to 2.58). An outlier was the 4.30 BB/9 from April; that statistic didn't top 2.43 in any other month. The righty had to tinker with his slider in June, but his innate skills didn't lag. He simply missed location too often.

He'll have blowups from time to time and give up a fair share of homers, but he isn't Ricky Nolacso. Once an injury concern because of his violent delivery, Scherzer has learned to last deep into games and should deliver another 200-inning season when healthy.

A little more luck in HR/FB could bring his already enticing profile up to profitable levels in mixed leagues. He's already a bargain alternative for AL-only ace seekers. -TH

Tim Stauffer, San Diego Padres

This is no strikeout artist. Stauffer fanned 6.20 in 2011, a year after striking out 6.64 per nine while spending the majority of that season as a reliever. He must not be anything special, either. If Bud Black climbed back on the hill, he could probably still post a 3.73 ERA if he pitched half of his games at PETCO Park.

No rotisserie gamers are going to cut Stauffer a break. Considering that, not long after that - the break - things like strikeout rate, control and fly-ball rate began to unravel, you can understand them. The Friars skipped Stauffer a couple of times in the second half of September, in fact, sparing owners who decided to tough it out. Forearm tightness prompted the Padres to play it safe.

From July 24 through Sept. 10 (10 starts, 55 frames), Stauffer notched a 6.22 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP even though opponents hit .274 on balls in play against him. In his 20 starts (124 stanzas) prior to that period, he allowed 2.83 earned runs per nine innings and had a WHIP of 1.20 despite a hit rate against on balls in play of .299.

Excuse Stauffer, 29, if he hit a wall in a season in which he pitched about 100 more innings than he did in the previous year. His dark period was the lone stretch in which his fly-ball rate exceeded even 28 percent; it was above 40. He gave up 10 dingers in August and no more than three in any other month. It was also the only stretch in which he walked more than three batters per nine innings.

SD's default ace hasn't dealt with any discomfort since the conclusion of last season, and he participated in a normal offseason workout routine. Now that he's accustomed to a starter's workload - and 100 percent - he's set to continue the run-preventing ways he displayed in his first three and a half months of 2011. That should make an attractive target to NL-only players and a mixed-league pickup relatively quickly. -NM

Bud Norris, Houston Astros

Norris has always posted the kind of K/9 that ignites fantasy players' salivary glands. In fact, he finished in the top 20 among qualified starting pitchers this past year in whiff rate.

The walks were a problem ... at first. His 2010 issues with control scared many off but didn't hide the fantasy utility that many were rewarded with from 2011 bargain bins.

Seems there's skepticism on the improvement of more than a run in his ERA and more than one walk on his BB/9. Of course, his uniform doesn't tell us to buy him. But even if he maxes out at, say, 10 wins, the accompanying peripherals back up his potential breakout stock. He learned to use his power arsenal to strand runners more effectively - even if some was fortune-based, he returned to the league average last year, so he could even get better there.

Homer allowance and his park of residence will hold him back a little, but he defines the phrase "one skill away." Luckily for you, your opponents will probably let him slip to the late mixed rounds and into the value NL tiers because he plays for Houston. Don't let him slip far. -TH

Jonathan Sanchez, Kansas City Royals

Last spring, many fantasy baseball players disregarded some obvious red flags here. In 2010, Sanchez was phenomenal (13-9, 3.07 ERA, 9.54 K/9, 1.23 WHIP) for the World Series champ San Francisco Giants. But his BABIP against was .252, easily the lowest figure of his career. Although he dazzled in his first career playoff start, he was awful in three outings afterward. All told, at 27, he ended up pitching 50 more innings than his career high and one month deeper into the year than he'd ever been.

Walks were always a problem, but folks also had to be mindful of fatigue and risk of injury. In 2011, opponents made him pay dearly for those 5.86 free passes per nine innings. Biceps tendonitis forced him to the DL in late June, and a mid-August ankle sprain sank him for the rest of the campaign.

Fortunately, neither of those ailments is a long-term concern, and his new club isn't pushing him this spring. The southpaw should approach his characteristic 9.00 K/9 again this season, and he remains in a pitcher-friendly park for his home starts. Sanchez is only 29 and has new life. He'll come at a bit of a discount in AL leagues or be that solid backend piece for a mixed-league staff for next to nothing. -NM

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Fantasy baseball sleepers and undervalued: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | OF | SP | RP

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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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