Every season, a handful of players punch in the right coordinates and make the light speed-esque jump from promising up-and-comer to genuine star.
Arguably the most important challenge for fantasy owners is to identify those players early and snatch them up before their stock soars into the firmament.
As the exhibition slate rolls forward and we edge closer to the start of games that count, here’s a look at 10 bust-out fantasy candidates.
A couple of notes before we proceed:
- We’re only considering offensive output, so you won’t find any pitchers on the list, and defensive metrics weren’t part of the calculus.
- Many of these players are already well-known names; there’s even an All-Star in the mix. While they may not qualify as “sleepers” per se, all are poised to take their games to new heights and stuff the stat sheet like never before.
1.After a surprise breakout rookie season in 2014, Joe Panik was on track for a strong sophomore follow-up with the San Francisco Giants before a back injury put him on the shelf.
Still, Panik’s 2015 line—.312 average, .833 OPS and 119 hits in 100 games—hints at elite middle-infield production.
Panik’s power is more of the gap variety, though he did crack eight home runs last year after hitting just one in 2014. Mostly, the 25-year-old is a reliable contact hitter who could reach the 200-hit plateau, provided he’s healthy.
On that front, CSN Bay Area’s Alex Pavlovic reported Feb. 12 that Panik was cleared by doctors in mid-December and said he’s at “100 percent” and “feeling normal.”
2. Staying at second base, we find Jonathan Schoop, whose power potential alone should leave fantasy owners and Baltimore Orioles fans salivating.
Schoop is a free swinger and posted a pedestrian .306 on-base percentage, so his .279 average may well be due for a regression.
On the other hand, the 24-year-old clubbed 15 home runs despite being limited to 86 games by a knee injury, hinting at the possibility of 25-30 dingers over a full season.
Provided he can avoid the injury bug, Schoop is a candidate to lead all second basemen in home runs, which would more than cover up the shortcomings in other aspects of his offensive game.
3. Baseball isn’t bursting with high-upside offensive catchers, so you’d think a guy with the potential to hit 15 home runs and steal 10-15 bases would be getting more attention.
The attention will come if J.T. Realmuto takes the next step after hitting .259 with 10 home runs, eight thefts and seven triples in his first full big league campaign.
Count Miami Marlins skipper Don Mattingly among the believers.
“Everything about him says that he’s going to be successful,” Mattingly said of his 24-year-old backstop, per Shandel Richardson of the Sun Sentinel. “We believe that.”
Other Marlins hitters, including outfielders Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, are also primed to break out under Mattingly and new hitting coach Barry Bonds. But Realmuto might be the most intriguing Fish on the rise, given his position.
4. Yet another power bat whose 2015 season was shortened by injury, Randal Grichuk could help St. Louis Cardinals fans (mostly) forget about Jason Heyward.
Grichuk, who can play all three outfield spots but will slot into center field, doesn’t boast Heyward’s all-around game. But the 24-year-old posted an .877 OPS with 17 home runs in 103 contests.
Yes, he strikes out a lot. In fact, his 31.4 percent whiff rate led all National League hitters with at least 350 plate appearances, per ESPN.com’s Mark Saxon.
Then again, as Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak told Saxon, “I think the tradeoff right now is something we understand and are accepting of. In terms of [hitting coaches] John Mabry and Bill Mueller, I’m sure the strikeouts are something they’ve mentioned. But you look at our club and having the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark, it’s nice to know that’s there.”
Along with right fielder Stephen Piscotty, Grichuk gives the aging Cards a needed infusion of youth. And if he stays off the disabled list, he could easily give fantasy owners 25-30 long balls.
5. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen remains the franchise cornerstone, but another Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder could be equally important to the team’s success next season.
In his first full MLB campaign, Gregory Polanco hit .256 with nine home runs, 83 runs scored and 27 stolen bases in 153 games.
And he ratcheted up his production in the second half, doubling his home run total from three to six and raising his OPS nearly 100 points.
The biggest key for Polanco in 2016 will be getting on base as much as possible ahead of boppers like McCutchen and Starling Marte and making optimum use of his speed.
The best news is he’s still just 24 years old, suggesting that second-half surge could be a harbinger of things to come.
6. The third and final second baseman on our list, Rougned Odor set himself up for big expectations last year in his age-21 season, hitting .261 with 16 home runs and 61 RBI in 120 games.
The young Venezuelan, however, is built to endure and thrive under the pressure, according to Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels.
“I think with his makeup, the way he’s wired—the higher the expectations the better,” Daniels told KRLD-FM 105.3 The Fan, viaSportsDayDFW.com. “I think he’s a guy that can handle it. He wants to be great.”
That attitude, plus his age and the fact he plays half his games in hitter-friendly Arlington, gives Odor that unmistakable special-player scent.
7. A third baseman who mostly played designated hitter last season, Miguel Sano is making a move to right field for the Minnesota Twins.
Position switches always carry risk, especially for young players. If Sano is busy learning the finer points of patrolling the outfield, it’s possible his performance at the plate could suffer.
Then again, all you have to do is watch this and your faith in the young slugger is instantly restored.
Last season, Sano hit 18 home runs with a .916 OPS in 80 games and finished third in American League Rookie of the Year balloting.
Do the math, and it’s apparent the 22-year-old Dominican Republic native can top 40 homers over a full, healthy season.
And Sano is at least saying all the right things about his position switch.
“If I need to play catcher, first base, whatever, I’ll play it to be in the lineup,” he said, per MLB.com’s Rhett Bollinger. “I think being in the field makes me a better hitter.”
That’s good news for fantasy owners and decidedly bad news for opposing pitchers.
8. In another dark cloud of a season for the rebuilding Philadelphia Phillies, Maikel Franco was a sparkling silver lining.
Yes, like many players on this list, Franco missed time to injury, specifically a fractured wrist suffered in August.
On balance, however, Franco’s 2015 campaign was an unvarnished success. The 23-year-old third baseman posted a .280/.343/.497 slash line with 14 home runs in 80 games. Meaning, as with Sano, simple arithmetic suggests frightening power possibilities.
Even though he’s yet to crack 100 games in a season, Franco is already the face of a franchise in desperate need of heroes.
“When I see and hear so many fans calling my name, it’s a great feeling,” Franco said Monday after a round of batting practice, per Rob Maaddi of the Associated Press (h/t Yahoo Sports). “I feel really good. I feel excited.”
As should fantasy owners who add him at the hot corner.
9. Corey Seager gave Los Angeles Dodgers fans a tantalizing appetizer last season, hitting .337 with a .986 OPS in 27 games.
Now, it’s time for the main course.
The Dodgers have handed the shortstop job to the lanky kid who won’t turn 22 until April 27. And from here, it appears close to a can’t-miss proposition.
Seager simply looked that polished after his 2015 call-up, and while slumps and struggles are inevitable, it’s easy to imagine the consensus No. 1 prospect in a stacked Dodgers system morphing instantly into an All-Star.
Mental acuity is harder to quantify than on-field performance, but Seager appears to be set in both departments, as USA Today‘s Jorge L. Ortiz outlined:
The advanced hitting approach Seager demonstrated in the minors carried over into his September audition — he drew 14 walks in 113 plate appearances — and he handled himself like a major leaguer from the moment he arrived. After the Dodgers lost a heated National League Division Series vs. the New York Mets, he answered reporters’ questions like a veteran.
After enduring a downturn at the position, MLB is suddenly flush with rising-star shortstops, including Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros and Francisco Lindor of the Cleveland Indians.
Add Seager to that list—and make plans to nab him early in your fantasy draft.
10. You could argue, convincingly, that Mookie Betts already busted out in 2015.
The Boston Red Sox outfielder hit .291, after all, with 18 home runs and 21 stolen bases in 145 games. But it’s a testament to the height of Betts’ ceiling that it still feels like he’s just getting started.
The big news for the Red Sox this winter was the offseason additions of potential game-changers like ace David Price.
The continued emergence of Betts, however, might do just as much to pull Boston out of the AL East cellar.
Among Betts’ many boosters is David Ortiz, who is about to begin his farewell tour with Boston and has anointed Betts as an heir apparent.
“He’s going to be one of the best players in the American League,” Ortiz said, per ESPN.com’s Buster Olney. And, he added, Betts could eventually land a $250 million contract. Heck, maybe Big Papi is angling for a second career as a super agent.
That kind of praise doesn’t feel like hyperbole, though, when you put Betts’ early production in context, as Over the Monster’s Matt Collinsdid:
After shooting through the minors, the now-23-year-old has already accrued 867 plate appearances and has produced a .291/.348/.471 line, good for a 120 OPS+. He’s one of just 31 players in the expansion era (since 1961) to start his career with at least 750 plate appearances through his age-22 season and put up at least a 120 OPS+. He also had a top-50 age-22 season in that same span by OPS+, and the 17th best age-22 season by Baseball-Reference’s WAR. Clearly, he’s a very special player is what I’m trying to say.
There are outfielders with more raw power and outfielders with more blinding speed. But if you’re looking to solidify your fantasy roster with a player who can basically do it all, you can’t do much better than Betts.