Here are my annual sleepers, listed in three categories: Shallow Sleepers, meaning the kind of sleepers you'll read about in most publications, Average Sleepers, digging a little deeper into the player pool and Deep Sleepers, players who are probably available right now in even the deepest of keeper leagues. Put your glasses on now.
John Axford How many titles did Axford's totally out-of-the-blue 24 saves win his fantasy owners in 2010? Who knows, but I'll bet it was a lot. On my NL LABR experts team (a superdeep one-year league), I was lucky enough to have landed Trevor Hoffman as my closer. And I was also smart enough to back him up with a buck on LaTroy Hawkins. Axford is why I always scoff at those "backup closer" columns. Perhaps I should listen to my own advice. Anyway, there's no reason to think he won't keep the job in 2011. He's only 28 and his last not-so-great season came with an experiment as a part-time starter in 2008. Let the name closers go for higher prices and grab the shaky guy in Milwaukee. And stay away from LaTroy Hawkins.
Yunel Escobar The Braves aren't a team known for dumb moves, but one had to wonder what the heck they were thinking when they traded Escobar more or less for Alex Gonzalez. Escobar is years younger, at least as good a fielder and, despite a slow season start for Escobar and a fast start for Gonzalez, Escobar out-hit Gonzalez after the trade by a considerable margin (.275/.340/.356 to .240/.291/.386). Yes, I've heard the rumors that Escobar was not a great clubhouse guy. That's not a fantasy category anyway and I'll bet Escobar has a nice bounce-back season in Toronto.
Jeremy Guthrie Guthrie isn't exactly the most exciting starting pitcher in baseball, but he's not exactly risky either. He's had only one bad season in four since becoming a rotation horse in 2007. Guthrie's strikeout-per-inning totals aren't impressive, but he's easy on the WHIP and ERA, is a fairly safe bet for doubledigit wins, and, due to his innings-eating abilities, will strike out over 100 batters per season. Last year he was discussed as trade bait even though the O's ended up hanging onto him. A midseason boost to a contending team would make Guthrie even more appealing.
Carlos Lee The big, old Caballo is still as big, but maybe not as old as you think (turns 35 in June). Truth be told, after a weak first half last year (.240/.287/.395), I expected a big second half, but unfortunately, Lee's improvement was pretty tepid (.254/.296/.442). After four straight seasons of .300-plus batting averages leading into the 2010 season, I don't see Lee hitting .246 again. Even .280 would produce nice counting numbers, considering Lee's usual 600-AB durability. Only the OBP is dangerous, and in a lot of old-fashioned leagues that doesn't matter anyway.
Alcides Escobar Escobar's 2010 was a big disappointment for a lot of reasons. He didn't hit, he didn't hit for power and he didn't walk. Escobar's 10 stolen bases seem OK if you forget he was a threat to steal 30 with a full-time job, which he did accomplish, 506 ABs-worth. But there are positives here. Escobar has already experienced a full season in the majors at 24 and his defense at shortstop was at least decent. His stumble with the bat last year was the first of his career and, now with the Royals, we'll hope he's given more of a green light a lot more. A step forward on all levels doesn't seem too hard to imagine for a guy who could easily be getting his first taste of Triple-A.
David Freese One can't say Freese was tearing up the league last June when he was shut down with ankle troubles, but he was doing pretty well. Freese, who has had great success in the minors his entire career, took more time to convince St. Louis to give him a shot as a ninthround draft pick (of the Padres) than perhaps a blue-chip high draft choice would. Offensively, Freese didn't show the power he displayed in the minors, showing more doubles-power than home-run power, but that could've been adjustment or the ankle. His defense was a little below average, but the Cards weren't expecting Brooks Robinson. As of this writing, St. Louis looks ready to give Freese most of the playing time at third base. With health and just a little bump in power, Freese will be a fantasy asset.
Mat Gamel A year ago, Gamel's status was about the same as it is now, maybe even a tad better. Gamel's credentials haven't changed much since he was a hot prospect a couple of years ago he can mash minor league pitching (.309/.387/.511 again in 2010), he hasn't turned the corner on major league pitching (.241/.335/.414 career) and his glove work at third base is problematic. What I like about Gamel starts with the fact that he's still only 25. And, more often than not, guys who can hit in the minors eventually hit in the majors with enough chances. In addition, the holes in Casey McGehee's game are starting to show, especially defensively. There's no certain place for Gamel to gather regular playing time with the Brewers right now, but that kind of thing can change, with injury, trade or some other opportunity. We can only hope Gamel doesn't take the Alex Gordon path to prospect stardom.
Alexi Ogando Wow. Where the heck did this guy come from? From the Dominican Republic is the answer and the reason why he pitched professionally for the first time in 2010 is due to a marriage visa scandal. The fascinating details, summarized from an ESPN article: "(Omar) Beltre and Ogando were approached by someone offering what (GM Jon) Daniels called a small amount' of money to marry women to get them into the United States. They had lined up a number of them to marry women that wanted to get into the U.S. A number of them agreed to do it, including Alexi and Omar. The women that were married got access in the U.S., and by the time the players went to their visa appointments to come over, the State Department realized what happened and denied access to all players involved." What you most need to know is that Ogando was fantastic and is also being considered for the 2011 rotation.
Luis Valbuena Look at Valbuena's minor league stats alone and he looks like Placido Polanco with more power. I'll bet that's what the Indians have in mind as well. Unfortunately, it hasn't turned out that way, as Valbuena has struggled mightily with the stick in two extended major league trials and his defense has been mediocre has well. However, from a recurring theme in this article, Valbuena will play the 2011 season at just 25 years old. In addition, Cleveland isn't exactly stocked with infielders and Valbuena can handle second and third and can even fill in at shortstop, so his fielding could be better than we've seen. Valbuena surely won't cost much on Draft Day and I think he's worth at least one more chance before branding him Quadruple-A.
Scott Mathieson I watched this guy throw fireballs in-person several times this year for my local Lehigh Valley IronPigs. Mathieson was a hot Phillies prospect years ago, but was derailed by Tommy John surgery for a few years. Now 27, he served as the closer at Triple-A with 26 saves, 83 strikeouts and a 1.139 WHIP in 64.1 IP. If he can stay healthy, I see him as a contributor to the 2011 Philadelphia bullpen and a nice strikeout reliever for deep fantasy leagues. And you never know when Brad Lidge is going to hiccup.
Yunesky Maya Like Colby Lewis a year ago, Maya is a sleeper now in January, but by the time you read this, or especially if he has a good spring, he could very well-known, even to the point of over-hype. The bad: Maya is no kid at 29, doesn't have the foreign track record or the pedigree of a guy like Lewis and finally, most Cuban pitchers have struggled in the major leagues. However, Maya was one of the top pitchers in Cuba and, considering that the Nats paid him $8 million for four years, they must have seen something. Roll the dice if he's still cheap on Draft Day.
Brandon McCarthy It cost the Rangers not only John Danks, but Nick Masset as well, to acquire McCarthy back in 2008 (there were also two other players you've never heard of exchanged in the trade). McCarthy has been either disappointing or injured since. The injuries have been with his throwing shoulder, so that's not good. What's good about McCarthy is that he's still only 27, he pitched very well in 11 appearances last year at Triple-A and he's now with Oakland, a place where pitchers have magically come to life before. Let's keep an eye on McCarthy in spring training and go from there.
Mark Rogers Speaking of injured pitchers, 2004 first-round pick Rogers' write-up in the Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2005 says he "profiles as a front-line starter." That was two major shoulder surgeries ago. There's nothing I love much more in baseball than injury-plagued former blue-chip pitchers on the comeback trail. Amazingly, Rogers is still just 25, has revived his plus fastball and had his first good pro season ever at three levels in 2010, including four good appearances for the Brewers at the end of the season. His name is nondescript, but his abilities, when healthy (famous last words), are not.
Bobby Scales This is the deep sleeper to beat all deep sleepers. What chance does a 33- year-old third baseman who is currently sitting behind Aramis Ramirez and others on the Cubs' depth chart have of making an impact in 2011? Not much. But geez has this guy learned to get on base? His walk rates the last few years at Triple-A are crazy. Relevant or not, I remember noticing the same thing about a little guy named Frank Menechino years ago and he clawed his way into a contributor role soon after. Scales can play several positions infield and outfield and, with that walk rate, it's hard to imagine he wouldn't be a better choice as a 25th man on the roster than what several teams are running out there. I'm going to watch and keep my fingers crossed for good old 14th-round pick Bobby Scales.