In some ways, this is the best time of the baseball season. After the long, cold winter nights without America’s past time, we have baseball every day again. Spring Training is in full force, where position battles, roster spot wars, and prospects giving it their all come to the fore. For the rest of us, it means something more: fantasy baseball is back. To kick off this season, I’ll be taking a team-by-team look at fantasy baseball sleepers. The AL East will be first, followed by the Central, then the West. Then I’ll do the same order for the National League.
Given the nature of digging through all 30 teams, some of these sleepers will be pretty deep. There are some more obvious guys that other outlets have also covered, but hopefully, some players you hadn’t thought of will be put on your radar. Each division will be broken down into separate pieces on batters and pitchers. Below, check out the links to the other pieces in the series so far:
AL East Batters
AL East Pitchers
AL Central Batters
Note: All position eligibilities and ADP figures courtesy of FantasyPros. All statistics and percentiles courtesy of Baseball Savant, Baseball-Reference, and FanGraphs unless noted otherwise.
AL Central Fantasy Baseball Sleepers
Chicago White Sox
Dylan Cease – SP
There’s a significant amount of buzz surrounding Dylan Cease heading into the 2020 season. By now, his stuff isn’t much of a secret. Cease figures to be a lock for a back-end rotation spot come Opening Day. On a vastly-improved Chicago White Sox roster, that’s a very good thing.
Cease walks a lot of batters, shown by his career 4.3 BB/9 across all levels as a professional. On the flip side, he has a career 7.3 H/9 and 11.2 K/9. Much of those totals come from dominating up to the AA level – AAA and MLB numbers are much less appealing. Cease saw 73 innings in the majors in 2019, compiling a 4-7 record and a 5.79 ERA. He walked 35 batters and gave up 15 homers in that short time, but did manage 81 strikeouts.
What jumps out about Cease is the quality of his arsenal. He has three pitches that have a whiff rate above 25 percent – his curveball, slider, and changeup. His slider is especially lethal, with an xBA of only .185 and a whiff rate of 34.4 percent. Cease doesn’t go to his changeup nearly as often, but its xBA against is even lower (.168). The second-highest whiff rate belongs to his curveball (29.7 percent), and its vertical movement is among the highest in the league. There’s no denying Cease has the stuff to be a top-level pitcher – and if this spring is any indication, the walk rate should drop, thanks to a renewed approach. Cease is currently being drafted just inside the top-400 overall and could be a monster value this season.
Honorable mention: SP Reynaldo Lopez is another starter who could vastly out-produce his current ADP of No. 322 overall.
Aaron Civale – SP
Aaron Civale made 10 starts last year for the Cleveland Indians. He went 3-4, but he had a 2.34 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP. Civale only allowed 6.9 hits per nine innings as well, which is rather ace-like (other pitchers in that ballpark were Jacob deGrom, Chris Paddack, Charlie Morton, Mike Clevinger, and Stephen Strasburg). Last season, between AA and AAA, the 24-year-old Northeastern product went 7-1 with a 2.35 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP.
Civale is not a strikeout pitcher. He throws quality pitches, and that contributes to the lack of quality contact he creates, but he won’t overpower hitters and pile up the strikeouts – he had just 46 in 57.2 innings in 2019. On Baseball Savant, you’ll see his fastball spin and curveball spin are both nearing elite territory. So too are his xSLG against, xwOBA against, and hart-hit ratios against.
Sure, a bigger sample size is likely to lead to some regression. As good as that ERA looked last year, his xFIP was 4.61 and his SIERA was 4.74, suggesting Civale got rather lucky. But, don’t ignore the positive signs. Batters barrelled only 2.4 percent of his pitches – his 1.8 barrels per plate appearance was the best in baseball. He had a 20.3 percent strikeout rate and only a seven percent walk rate. Civale isn’t going to be an ace, but if he can continue to limit quality contact, he should provide some late value for fantasy owners this season.
Joe Jimenez – RP
Here we go again with closers on bad teams (see Mychal Givens in the AL East pitchers link above). There’s no beating around the bush here: you’re not likely to find much pitching value from the Detroit Tigers. Someone is going to have to close out games, though. Joe Jimenez went 3-4 last season, earning nine saves and 15 holds. He posted a not-so-great 4.37 ERA (but combated by a pretty nice 3.41 SIERA) and a 1.32 WHIP. In 59.2 innings, he struck out 82 batters.
Last season’s xBA against of .215 was in the 83rd percentile. Jimenez almost exclusively relies on a four-seam fastball and a slider. His fastball averages 95 MPH and has 95th-percentile spin (read vertical movement), and his slider has a 40.5 percent whiff rate. Interestingly, Jimenez sometimes also throws a changeup, but all 61 occurrences were against left-handed batters. It wasn’t a very successful pitch (.571 BA and 1.000 SLG against).
Bigger closer names will go much earlier, and most people are going to forget about the closer for the worst team in baseball. The Tigers won just 47 games last season, but most of those were save opportunities (Jimenez and ex-Tiger Shane Greene combined for 31 saves). If you miss out on the big guys – or more wisely just wait to draft your saves – Jimenez is a good target. He’ll likely get you a good number of saves and a bunch of strikeouts.
Honorable mention: SP Matthew Boyd is on just about everyone’s radar – at least he should be – but it’s worth mentioning he’s still going just outside the top-150 overall and should provide elite strikeout ratios.
Kansas City Royals
Ian Kennedy – RP
Another late-draft saves source is Kansas City Royals closer Ian Kennedy. For the first time in his long career, Kennedy made the switch from starter to reliever and performed admirably. He appeared in 63 games, posting a 3-2 record, a 3.41 ERA, and a 1.28 WHIP. Kennedy struck out 73 batters in 63.1 innings of work and converted 30 of 34 save chances.
Kennedy was quietly one of the better pitchers in all of baseball last season, despite a middling ERA and WHIP. He was in the 70th to 80th percentile range on most of Baseball Savant’s featured metrics (see specifics here). Last season, his age-34 season, Kennedy posted a career-best 10.4 K/9. He also set a career mark with a 4.29 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
For all intents and purposes, last season was arguably the best of his career. It was certainly the best since his 21-win 2011 season. He induced groundballs more often than ever before and only surrendered six home runs all year. Kennedy is currently being drafted around the No. 193 spot overall. There’s little reason to expect any less than 30 saves again in 2020. As far as fantasy baseball sleepers go he is a closer who can get traded midseason to a team needing a relief pitcher.
Kenta Maeda – SP/RP
Kenta Maeda had a very successful 2019 season. On the surface, you may look at that mediocre 10-8 record and 4.04 ERA and think otherwise, but in every other aspect, Maeda was fantastic. Maeda was traded from the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Minnesota Twins last month, where he figures to be the No. 3 starter. An added bonus is the fact he’s eligible as a reliever on all the major fantasy baseball platforms.
Maeda bounced between starting a relieving in Los Angeles but should be a full-time starter for the Twins. Expect much more than 10 wins in 2020 given he’s got one of the best lineups in the MLB giving him run support. In terms of metrics, Maeda truly shined in 2019. His xwOBA and xSLG were both in the 88th percentile. He had elite hard-hit against ratios while also posting the best hits per nine of his career (6.7).
Even with all of these good signs pointing toward an even more successful 2020 campaign, Maeda is still being drafted rather late at No. 170 overall. Moving to the AL Central means he’ll get to square off against the likes of Detroit and Kansas City regularly. Expect more wins, more innings, and therefore more strikeouts this season from the 31-year-old. Maeda is another one of those really good fantasy baseball sleepers.
Honorable mention: SP Rich Hill is now a Twin but won’t be back until June at the earliest. Make sure he’s at least on your watch list as the season progresses – he’s proven at this point he can be a fantasy stud when healthy.
Thanks for reading this edition of fantasy baseball sleepers, AL Central pitchers edition. Be sure to check out the links in the intro to stay caught up on all the other sleeper picks to this point. Up next: AL West batters.
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