A draft isn’t officially a draft if analysts don’t try to identify its sleepers. It’s in the sports writing by-laws. Sleeper lists allow writers to separate themselves from the herd while looking smart in the process, and if Fantasy owners can identify them it provides an opportunity to leapfrog the field and maximize value.
The minor leagues are one big sleeper pool that dynasty leaguers and prospect writers are constantly treading water through in an attempt to find the next Mookie Betts – a fifth round pick, 172nd overall in 2011. Every organization has at least five levels of minor league affiliates with 25 players per roster, and the amateur draft is 40 rounds deep and ushers in a brand new crop of possibilities every June. You can troll the stat sheets (and I do) or read every player profile (I don’t read EVERY one), but I have an efficient trick for identifying potential amateur draft sleepers. Troll the signing bonuses.
There are a variety of reasons why a player might fall in the draft and while Fantasy owners try to be informed, and I am sure there are some dedicated competitors in your leagues; once you get beyond the top 50 selections, never mind outside the top 150, you are looking at players that very few owners research unless they are tipped off.
Trolling signing bonuses places a target on the back of a potential sleeper based on the assumption that an organization wouldn’t significantly overpay a draft pick that they’ve scouted extensively, just to guarantee that he signs, unless they see something that they like.
When an organization is willing to offer a fifth round pick a signing bonus comparable to that of a second round pick, or give a third round pick a bonus similar to that of a Top 15 selection, then it’s pretty clear that they see something in that player that his draft slot may not otherwise imply. That’s a good indicator, and an efficient one, that the player is worth a closer look.
I trolled through Baseball America’s draft database (all 40 rounds) and I found bonuses and some potential sleepers as late as the twelfth round that stood out from the crowd.
Chad McClanahan, 3B, Brewers
Selection: 321 Overall – 11th Round
Signing Bonus: $1,200,000
This might be the shocker of the draft, and McClanahan the biggest sleeper of it, because you just don’t see an eleventh round pick receive a signing bonus of over a million dollars very often, which definitely raises some significant flags. McClanahan was thought to be un-signable because of his strong commitment to college and the one-million-dollar price tag needed to convince him to sign, as reported by MLBTradeRumors.com.
McClanahan has significantly more raw power than you typically see available this late in the draft. His swing and miss issues, potential defensive limitations (Scouts believe he will be a first baseman) and a strong college commitment explains why he fell, but it is still a surprise to see him fall to the eleventh round only to sign for a larger bonus than most second round picks.
The dollars being thrown around by the Brewers alone make McClanahan a must-draft player in deeper leagues, which makes him the perfect player to illustrate my point about the benefit of finding sleepers according to their signing bonuses. This kind of investment by the Brewers almost guarantees that he will receive preferential treatment and opportunities ahead of typical, less expensive prospects. The Brewers have drafted toolsy players aggressively in recent years and are obviously willing to put their dollars behind them, even with a new general manager directing the ship.
Kevin Gowdy, RHP, Phillies
Selected: 42nd overall – 2nd Round
Signing Bonus: $3,500,000
Gowdy was the first pick in the second round, so it is a stretch to call him a “sleeper,” but the Phillies offered him the same bonus that the Tigers offered ninth overall pick Matt Manning. In shallower dynasty leagues a prospect drafted 42nd overall might slip through and go undrafted, but in deeper, more competitive leagues, Gowdy is more likely to be drafted. However, he will fall significantly further in Fantasy Amateur drafts than Seattle Mariners OF Kyle Lewis, who was offered a lower signing bonus and even though he was drafted eleventh overall and whom I ranked as the best Fantasy hitter in this years draft. That could make Gowdy a third or fourth round draft pick in your league draft, making him a great value.
The scouting reports on Gowdy describe him as physically projectable, but polished, athletic and smart with a chance to develop two plus pitches and above average command of a full arsenal. The reports I researched didn’t say, but Gowdy probably had a strong commitment to college, forcing the Phillies to offer him early to mid-first round money to convince him to sign.
Reggie Lawson, RHP, Padres
Selected: 71st overall – 2.5 Round
Signing Bonus: $1,900,000
Lawson is a perfect example of a player who can fall in the draft but receive a bonus well above the rest of the players drafted in his neighborhood. He is an athletic kid with plus stuff and a lot of upside who had a down spring season that was cut short by an injury. He is an unfinished prospect who could have developed into a first round pick if he attended college, forcing the Padres to buy him out of taking that path.
Lawson was paid a similar bonus to 29th overall pick Dane Dunning of the Washington Nationals ($2,000,000), but he profiles to develop better stuff and has a much higher ceiling. Lawson isn’t a can’t-miss prospect but he deserves a roster spot, and as the 71st overall pick there is a very good chance that he is ignored in amateur drafts in most leagues this year.
One thing to keep in mind; the Padres had a large pool of money to spend because they had so many selections, and that could explain why they spent over slot on a few of their early draft picks. Lawson and the next over slot bonus baby, Mason Thompson, were both signed well above their draft neighborhood.
Mason Thompson, RHP, Padres
Selection: 85th overall – 3rd Round
Signing Bonus: $1,750,000
Thompson is another perfect example of a player that received a huge bonus because of some unfortunate circumstances leading up to the draft. He blew out his elbow as a high school junior and he hasn’t been cleared to throw yet.
Baseball America characterized Thompson before the injury as a better prospect than seventeenth overall pick Forest Whitley ($3,148,000) while the Padres offered him a little more than half of what Whitley received. Will Smith, a catcher drafted by the Dodgers, was paid $1,772,500 as the 32nd pick overall while Robert Tyler at #38 was a right handed pitcher offered $1,701,600 by the Rockies, both first or supplemental first round selections.
Thompson projects to develop two plus pitches (fastball and breaking ball) and a changeup that can be a third above average pitch, which would make him a steal at 85th overall if he can become that “guy.” He hasn’t pitched in a long time, his profile is entirely projection without any recent data or tape to analyze and while the Padres had to spend real money to land him all Fantasy owners need to do is find a roster spot. He has more risk than a typical first round draft pick but he has the potential to perform like one because of the upside.
Jesus Lazardo, LHP, Nationals
Selection: 94th overall – 3rd Round
Signing Bonus: $1,400,000
Lazardo is another player who had the potential to be a first round selection but suffered an injury (Tommy John surgery – that darned virus) that could have sent him the college route. Lazardo was offered a signing bonus comparable to supplemental first round pick Jordan Sheffield, who was drafted by the Dodgers and who had a similar story to Lazardo coming out of high school. Jefferies flashed 97 mph velocity in high school (as Lazardo had at times this year), but needed TJ surgery that sent him to Vanderbilt for college.
Both Lazardo and Sheffield project to have plus breaking pitches to go with the possibility of plus velocity. Sheffield was one of the later picks in the first round that I liked a lot and Lazardo has an extremely similar profile and is a potential diamond in the deep rough at 94 overall.
Colin Holderman, RHP, Mets
Selection: 280th overall – 9th Round
Signing Bonus: $400,000
Holderman is a late round pick that was offered a signing bonus commensurate with a mid-fourth round selection in an area in the draft where players were offered as little as $10,000 dollars to sign. He has the physical projection and a current three pitch mix to be a third starter in a starting rotation with a little more if he can boost the velocity from low to mid-90’s. He doesn’t currently have a plus pitch, but at #280 overall clearly the Mets have hopes that he can use his 6’5″ frame and above average athleticism to generate more velocity and become a quality starter. He is viable in leagues with deep minor league rosters and justifies monitoring for the next two years in leagues with fewer roster spots.
Josh Stephen, OF, Phillies
Selection: 317 Overall – 11th Round
Signing Bonus: $600,000
Stephen’s signing bonus is significantly higher than most eleventh round picks but there are a few this late in the draft. Stephen’s has a lower ceiling than what most Fantasy owners should be using a roster spot on but he has a plus hit tool that could carry him to the major leagues if everything falls right.
Dustin Pedroia didn’t profile to be much of anything projection wise, but he could absolutely make consistent, hard contact and that’s what Stephen’s brings to the table. One special tool is enough for an organization to take a chance on with the hopes that they can develop a second one that could turn an eleventh round pick into a full time player or possibly a utility man. Stephen is another player worth tossing on your prospect pile in deep prospect leagues and if he starts out well, which is very possible since he should be more advanced than his competition in the lower minors, he could be a possible sweetener at the back end of larger trade talks.
Matt Rowland, RHP, Braves
Selection: 319th Overall – 11th Round
Signing Bonus: $400,000
Rowland was offered the same bonus as Colin Holderman and while he currently flashes better velocity with similar physical projection at 6’3″, his delivery isn’t as clean and he profiles more as a reliever than Holderman because of it. In extremely deep leagues he is worth tossing on your prospect pile or monitoring because he has the velocity to work off of if he can develop the rest.