National League East Sleepers by Brad Johnson February 3, 2020 Parity is apparently on the rise in Major League Baseball, and the NL East is one of the poster children for this new wave of competitive baseball. Four clubs are poised to take a shot at postseason glory while the Marlins have improved from horrific to merely bad. I’ll hit some of the fantasy highlights here. For a full evaluation of each team, check out my reviews of the Washington Nationals, Philadelphia Phillies, Miami Marlins, Atlanta Braves, and New York Mets on Patreon. We’ll touch upon relievers at a later date. Infield “Sleepers” By “sleepers,” I mean players who deserve further commentary. Several interesting infielders check in after a 250 ADP including Austin Riley, Carter Kieboom, Starlin Castro, Alec Bohm, Jon Berti, and Dominic Smith. Josh Donaldson forced Riley to man the outfield grass last season. Now he can return to his natural position. Riley is one of the early offseason transformation stories. Supposed mechanical adjustments are said to have removed stiffness from his swing, thus unlocking greater power and contact. Winter mechanical changes have a nasty habit of vanishing over the course of Spring Training. For one, the body likes to drift to its own mechanical equilibrium. Once a player is back performing at game speed, all the old cheats and techniques have a way of returning of their own accord. Additionally, not every mechanical shift is productive. See Shaw, Travis. The reigning World Series Champions have compiled an interesting collection of infielders. Kieboom will reportedly be given an opportunity to win the starting third base job. Castro is the presumed starting second baseman, although that’s not written in stone. Kieboom struggled in a small sample of 43 plate appearances in his age 21 season. Encouragingly, he ran 9.3 percent swinging strike rate, over-40 percent hard contact rate, and a meager .143 BABIP. In short, it looks like he suffered from small sample-itis. He remains a likely OBP machine with enough power to matter. Castro thrived over the final three months of the 2019 season, hitting .311/.342/.563 with 17 home runs. An increase to fly ball and hard contact rates coincided with the surge. Many are assuming the Phillies will quickly turn to Bohm, but I’m not so sure. He had a slow start to his 270 plate appearance stint at Double-A before catching fire. A longer adjustment period to Triple-A would establish a pattern and delay his promotion into the middle months of the season. Then we’d have to assume a Major League adjustment period. If, however, he mashes in camp and carries it over to the start of the Triple-A season, we might see him by mid-April. He profiles as a patient, low-strikeout power hitter. This general assemblage of traits can produce superstars, although Bohm specifically looks more like a solid core contributor. If Berti was younger, I’d stick my neck out projecting a big season. Alas, he’s a career minor leaguer entering his age 30 season. While his .273/.348/.406 batting line with six home runs and 17 stolen bases in 287 plate appearances has all kinds of roto-promise, he’s currently buried on the Marlins depth chart. His extreme utility should ensure semi-regular action until injuries inevitably create a fuller opportunity. He’ll still need to seize it. Speaking of buried players, Smith is one of the top trade candidates in the league specifically because there’s nowhere to play him in New York. He’s a bad outfielder, and he can’t edge past Pete Alonso. The club even brought in Matt Adams as additional first base depth, signalling a trade is likely. And if I’m not mistaken, Smith is also out of options. Once a top first base prospect, Smith is coming off a 133 wRC+ in 197 plate appearances. He still struggles with a high swinging strike rate and a below 40 percent hard contact rate. A trade could turn him into a lower-mid tier first baseman. Outfield “Sleepers” Brandon Nimmo, Ender Inciarte, and Harold Ramirez all have an over-300 ADP. As recently as 2018, Nimmo was a 20/10 threat with extreme OBP skills. Even in his supposedly bad 2019 campaign, he managed a walk-fueled 114 wRC+. He’s expected to be fully healthy entering Spring Training. A platoon role is a risk. The upshot is a chance to claim the leadoff job. Speaking of platoons, Inciarte will be hidden from left-handed pitchers. But that’s ok because he’s a useful hitter with the platoon advantage. In addition to a roughly league average batting line, we can expect plentiful stolen base attempts and just enough power to be relevant. You’ll have to pick and choose the matchups, making him an ideal streaming target in 12-team leagues. I think the industry is underestimating the possibility of Ramirez both ousting Lewis Brinson and batting in the heart of an improved Marlins offense. He’s the sort of second division prospect who only gets a chance in the majors when conditions are ripe. Fortunately for him, the Marlins aren’t quite ready to graduate some of their better outfield prospects. Ramirez could be a decent deep league source of run production and batting average. If he’s manning center field, he might start to feel a little friskier on the base paths. Starting Pitcher “Sleepers” Joe Ross is going after the 600th pick, and it’s a big mistake. While he’ll have to battle with innings sponge Austin Voth for the fifth starter role, Ross seemingly experienced a late-season breakout in the form of a new and improved curve ball. He flashed a 3.83 ERA with 8.21 K/9 and 4.38 BB/9 in his final 49.1 innings. Of course, it shouldn’t surprise any of you that I prefer teammate Anibal Sanchez at ADP 358. He clunked through his first few outings before recovering and turning in another strong value campaign. Philadelphia is going to need some life from Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, and Spencer Howard. Pivetta is preferred by the public, but I’m of the opinion he cannot start without completely reinventing his fastball. Reports of new pitching mechanics plus a winter training with Lucas Giolito and friends in a pitching lab leave some room for optimism. If we’re going purely off the past, I prefer Velasquez whose career reads a little like a poor man’s Zack Wheeler. The Phillies just paid Wheeler a truckload of cash because he seemingly put it all together just in time for free agency. We can’t rule out similar for Velasquez. He’s best used as a four-inning starter or Follower. As for Howard, the club is expected to manage his workload by giving him a late start to 2020. He’s a key cog in the Phillies long term plans. Sixto Sanchez, the big piece in the Realmuto trade, is nearing his debut. The funny thing about vaunted prospects on non-contending teams is that their path to the majors can be more difficult than those of less-touted pieces like Zac Gallen, Elieser Hernandez, or Jordan Yamamoto. I’m projecting about seven major league starts from Sanchez – probably around July or August. Despite impressive stuff, his strikeout numbers consistently sit below a batter per inning – probably because he works too predictably in the strike zone. The Braves almost have too many starting pitching prospects. It might be challenging to give them all a chance to settle into their rotational duties while simultaneously contending. Ian Anderson is among the most hyped, but he’s also not on the 40-man roster. Some combination of Sean Newcomb, Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson, or Kyle Wright will need to step up… assuming the Felix Hernandez rebound tour is purely a publicity stunt. I’ll only say this about Rick Porcello – he’s not as terrible as some of you pretend. A tamer baseball plus CitiField could yield something like his excellent 2016 and 2018 performances.