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When and How Do You Target Sleepers on Draft Day?


If you're the type of fantasy baseball enthusiast who enjoys the preparation as much as the draft itself, chances are you've been filing away names as potential under-the-radar breakout candidates. Maybe you've got your eye on a young utility player who is one injury away from regular playing time (not that anyone should be rooting for injuries). Maybe you're intrigued by that underrated hitter who changed teams in the winter and figures to put up better numbers in his new lineup. Maybe you noticed a trend in one team's bullpen use last season that indicates their setup man could take over ninth-inning duties this year.

Additionally, if you've done this kind of homework leading up to your draft, you know the three hypothetical players above all fall into the category of "sleeper." We all have that secret list of rankings or tiers we don't want anyone else to catch a glimpse of on draft day; the players for whom we believe ourselves to have significantly higher expectations than our league mates. The only question we need to ask ourselves regarding our sleepers is not if we are going to nab these guys up, but when?

Allow me to help with that. For the purposes of this article, we will outline snake-draft sleeper strategies for 12-team redraft leagues with 25-man rosters comprised of both AL and NL players, using ADP information from NFBC.  Note: Every draft is going to have different twists and turns, so the players and draft-slot scenarios we are about to discuss should not be interpreted as concrete examples of what to expect at any given point in a draft.

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Don't Go Rogue Early

First and foremost, we never want to look back on the first few rounds of our draft and see unknown quantities on our roster. We should spend, at minimum, the first three rounds targeting players whose floors are higher than the average player's ceiling.

For instance, let's say we have the eighth pick in a 12-team league. We could theoretically be looking at Ronald Acuna, Aaron Judge and Kris Bryant as our first three picks. We've obviously elected to take our chances on mid-tier pitching in this scenario, but we come away with three hitters who can reasonably be expected to meet or exceed 30/100/100 thresholds. Barring injury troubles, we feel very comfortable with our offense after three rounds.

Regardless of whether our first three rounds yield elite quality in hitting, pitching or both, we should be able to feel at ease about the players we've chosen without any second-guessing. Additionally, depending on what we may have sacrificed by going heavy on pitching or hitting, it's my contention that we should continue to target high-floor players all the way through Round Six.

 

How Has the Draft Unfolded?

Depending on the format of your draft, the early rounds can pass by in a whirlwind and leave you with little time to evaluate your roster (or anyone else's). That said, it's important to at least try to take stock of how the draft is unfolding. The seventh round is a good place to start, as the talent pool starts to thin slightly around the 70-85 ADP range.

I believe it was the legendary John Steinbeck who once wrote, "The best-laid plans of mice and fantasy baseball managers often go awry." Maybe the first quarter of our draft has gone exactly as we'd hoped, or maybe, despite all our preparation, our league mates keep plucking away our targeted players right before we have a chance to take them and we're scrambling just to piece each round together.

In either case, we're going to find ourselves facing a decision. If we're satisfied with our draft after six rounds, we can choose to stay the course. On the other hand, we may feel we have the luxury to start taking chances on somewhat risky, high-upside players. If the draft has spiraled wildly out of control, however, we may feel forced to take chances on those players.

Here is where we should begin to take stock of our mid-round sleepers; players we may have to reach for in order to land, but more importantly are comfortable doing so.

 

Luxury or Sacrifice?

Here is an illustration of a potential mid-round crossroads we might face.

Imagine we're drafting out of the 12th slot, meaning we'd have back-to-back selections in the seventh and eighth rounds. We scoop up Mitch Haniger (ADP 89), but we're not particularly enamored with the next few pitching options. Moreover, we're already happy enough with our home run projections that Nicholas Castellanos (ADP 88) and Scooter Gennett (ADP 90) aren't on our radar. So we scroll down and see Nationals prospect Victor Robles (ADP 101) sitting there for the taking. It's nearly 20 selections "too early," but there's a high likelihood he'll be gone by the time we pick again at 108, so we reach for him on account of his stolen base upside and his potential to earn a spot near the top of a dangerous Nationals lineup.

Now, as we come to this decision, we should be asking ourselves a question: Is this a "luxury reach" or a "sacrifice reach"? It's a luxury reach if we have padded our roster with as many multi-category players as possible in the first six rounds, and can thus afford to roll the dice on an unknown quantity with a high ceiling. It's a sacrifice reach if we feel we've been backed into a corner, and are thus "sacrificing" some elements of our roster with the intent of gaining a non-guaranteed advantage in another. In the example above, we're passing up the relatively predictable production of Gennett and Castellanos in favor of Robles, who could just as easily be this year's Lewis Brinson.

The reason it's important to differentiate between the two is that we don't want to find ourselves consistently sacrificing just for upside. A few sacrifice reaches here and there are fine in the middle rounds, but too many in a row could leave us with a bunch of players who may excel in one or two categories while providing little to nothing in the rest.

 

Anything Goes After Round 18 (Pick 216)

By the time we've made our 18th selection, we should have a pretty good idea who our go-to guys are at most positions. We should have a solid mix of hitters, starting pitchers, and even if we didn't spend big on saves, we should have rostered at least a couple of relievers by this point. With our final seven picks we can identify and address perceived weaknesses at certain positions by drafting for depth, but we can also truly start to throw caution to the wind as we try to round up all of our coveted late-round sleepers.

In keeping with the theme of this article, here are a few examples:

Atlanta's Johan Camargo is currently sitting at ADP 329. In a 12-team league with 25-man rosters, that means he's largely going undrafted. This is, of course, due to the fact that Josh Donaldson now occupies his position of third base. That said, Camargo has seen time at shortstop in the past, and the Braves plan to use him in something of an everyday utility role in 2019. With Donaldson coming off an injury-plagued 2018 season and Dansby Swanson having struggled mightily at the plate in his young career, Camargo isn't very far removed from regular playing time. He's well worth a flier in Rounds 19-25 considering his solid numbers from last year.

Or maybe we find ourselves in search of some high-upside starting pitching. We see promising Oakland prospect Jesus Luzardo (ADP 234) and Reynaldo Lopez (ADP 260) of the White Sox are still on the board. Considering we already have a solid stable of starters, neither one of these guys is going to torpedo our season this late in the draft. Luzardo in particular actually has the potential to significantly bolster our team if he gets enough innings.

This is also where there is next to no risk in nabbing up relatively anonymous players who still figure to provide value in one way or another. Cleveland's Jake Bauers (ADP 230) could wind up hitting cleanup behind a couple of All-Stars; Minnesota's C.J. Cron (ADP 253) hit 30 home runs last year and joins an improved Twins offense in 2019: Miami's Brian Anderson (ADP 277) scored 87 runs in 2018; Detroit's Niko Goodrum (ADP 288) hit 16 home runs in 131 games last year and can play multiple positions. None of these players would be the "safest" pick available to us, even in the home stretch of our draft, but we don't stand to lose anything if we take them.

These are all just examples pulled from a collection of ADP results, and the specific names are not meant to be the big takeaway here. The point is that unless we've completely blundered our way through the first 75 percent of our draft, we're not squandering our team's potential by shooting for the moon in the final rounds. Even if none of our final seven picks pan out, we can replace them quite easily with serviceable players via the waiver wire.

It is said that you can't win your league on draft day, but you can lose it on draft day. I'd like to expand on that: You can't lose your league in the final rounds of your draft, but you can win it there if you're willing to be bold.

I'm also just one person in a global community of fantasy baseball managers. You might have a different philosophy than I do. Maybe you think the seventh round is too early to consider rolling the dice, or maybe you prefer to seek out your sleepers even earlier than that. The best way to evaluate what works for you is by participating in (and staying for the duration of) mock drafts. In doing so, you'll be able to determine roughly where your sleepers need to be taken. After all, we all have that secret list, and yours might be totally different than that of your league mates.

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