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Success in fantasy baseball is predicated on a number of factors, not the least of which is deep analysis of underrated players and a little bit of luck.
It takes almost no studying to determine what will happen in the first couple of rounds. Everyone knows Mike Trout, Jose Altuve and Bryce Harper are going to come off the board in the first five picks.
The skill in fantasy baseball comes from hitting on your picks in the later rounds. Sleepers always come with a significant risk because, by definition, they aren’t going to be on many players’ radars. That can be due to injuries, age, a poor showing last season, etc.
Looking at possible sleeper candidates for the 2018 season, here are the names to keep in mind while filling out the roster that will lead you to a championship.
Lance McCullers Jr., Houston Astros
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The biggest issue standing in Lance McCullers Jr.’s way and fantasy stardom is health. The Houston Astros right-hander has the peripheral numbers to entice fans, including 10.15 strikeouts per nine innings and 3.60 ERA.
While those are strong numbers worth drafting in the early rounds of a fantasy draft, McCullers’ career high in innings pitched is 125.2 when he was a rookie in 2015. The 24-year-old hasn’t appeared in 25 regular-season games in his MLB career.
Fantasy owners are still fairly bullish on McCullers, possibly giving him a bump after his six-inning start against the New York Yankees in the ALCS. His average draft position of 97.2 places him near the end of the ninth round of a standard 10-team league.
That’s still fairly high for someone with durability concerns as significant as McCullers’, but the upside is so great it would be worth the gamble if he’s able to hit 150 innings as a combined starter-reliever for the World Series champions.
Tanner Roark, Washington Nationals
Pitching in the back of a loaded rotation can make it easy to get lost in the shuffle, but Tanner Roark has carved out a niche for the Washington Nationals.
The right-hander has made 63 starts over the past two seasons with 391.1 innings. He had a wild variance in ERA from 2016 (2.83) to 2017 (4.67), mostly due to a home run rate that spiked to 1.14 per nine innings.
Roark’s strikeout rate of 8.24 per nine innings was the highest of his MLB career. He’s had no problems bouncing from the starting rotation and bullpen, though his primary role has been as a starter with just three relief appearances over the past two seasons.
Even though Roark won’t provide the kind of dominant numbers from a front-line starter—like McCullers is capable of—his durability makes him attractive as a late-round rotation option.
With an average draft position of 234.1, Roark is being drafted after John Lackey (233.5), who is still a free agent.
Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers
There is a limited upside for Josh Hader. Corey Knebel had a breakout 2017 season as the Milwaukee Brewers closer, with 126 strikeouts and 39 saves in 76 innings.
Hader has the misfortune of being a setup man, costing him the tremendous value of saves. It takes a special non-closer—think of Andrew Miller or Chad Green—to warrant being drafted and not just a waiver addition.
The good news for Hader is how impressive he was last season. The 23-year-old allowed just 25 hits and had 68 strikeouts in 47.2 innings.
If Hader had enough reliever innings to qualify, his 12.84 strikeouts per nine innings was higher than the totals of star closers Aroldis Chapman (12.34) and Cody Allen (12.3).
Hader’s average draft position is 222.4, so if your stable of relievers is light and you need a power arm who can rack up strikeouts, there’s no reason to avoid him.
Greg Bird, 1B, New York Yankees
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It would be hard to think of many players whose postseason performances last year helped their stock more than Greg Bird.
Some of that is because he’s been unable to stay healthy during the regular season, not playing more than 100 games in a year since 2014, when he was in High-A and Double-A.
Bird was also terrible in 48 games during the regular season last year. He tied for 45th out of 53 first baseman with a minus-0.4 FanGraphs wins above replacement (min. 170 plate appearances) thanks to a .190/.288/.422 slash line.
By the time October rolled around, though, Bird showed some of the potential that makes him look like a key piece of the New York Yankees’ future. The 25-year-old had a .250/.429/.563 slash line with three homers in 10 games.
Fantasy owners are selecting Bird (152.1) in the middle rounds, where his upside makes him significantly better value than Ian Desmond (151.1).
Kurt Suzuki, C, Atlanta Braves
It’s no secret catcher is a soft position by depth, both in reality and fantasy.
After Gary Sanchez, Buster Posey and Willson Contreras in the top 70, there isn’t another fantasy catcher drafted until Salvador Perez at 124.
Kurt Suzuki is coming off one of the best seasons of his career despite appearing in just 81 games for the Atlanta Braves in 2017. He hit 19 homers in just 276 at-bats, a better rate than those of Sanchez (14.5) and Bryce Harper (14.6).
The problem for fantasy owners is Suzuki’s defense behind the plate has made the Braves turn to Tyler Flowers as their primary catcher. Flowers also had a strong offensive season in 2017 with a career-high .823 OPS in 99 games.
Consistent playing time isn’t going to be available for Suzuki, but if you can manage your bench to carry a part-time player, he’s worth waiting on at a position without a lot of depth.
Ozzie Albies, 2B, Atlanta Braves
As the Braves continue to upgrade their roster by bringing up prospects from their wildly talented farm system, it will be hard for players to slip in under the radar.
Ozzie Albies quietly had a tremendous 57-game debut in 2017, recording a .286/.354/.456 slash line and 20 extra-base hits in 217 at-bats.
Among second baseman, Albies is being drafted between Paul DeJong and Jonathan Villar. DeJong deserves his position after hitting 25 homers in his rookie season, but Villar had an OPS of .665 in 122 games in 2017.
Albies has produced with the bat throughout his professional career. He hit .304/.365/.424 in 390 minor league games before being called up last season.
If you want to bet on a young middle infielder to take a leap in 2018, Albies is the best bet heading into the season.
Fantasy draft information via Yahoo Sports.