Fantasy baseball sleepers, breakouts and busts for 2019

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

The fantasy baseball draft is the most exciting and fun part of the season. You get to pick the squad you'll manage for the season, digging deep for those sleepers and breakouts you really like and dodging the busts sure to let you down.

But which players will soar past their draft value and help you win your league, and which players are sure to fall short and leave you wishing you'd made a different pick? Our experts are here to provide their picks to help guide you on draft day.

For the purposes of this piece, a "sleeper" is defined as a player expected to exceed his draft position by a large amount and who is not being drafted as a definite starter in ESPN standard 10-team drafts.

"Breakouts" are players who will emerge into a new "tier" this season, establishing a new baseline of talent and rising beyond expectations. They can be of any ranking or average draft position.

Similarly, "busts" can be of any draft position or ranking and are players who will fall short of their draft value this season.

ESPN Fantasy's team of experts, Eric Karabell, Tristan H. Cockcroft, AJ Mass and Kyle Soppe, provide their picks in each category below.


Karabell: Ramon Laureano

Laureano reminds me a bit of Atlanta's Ender Inciarte because he is an elite defensive center fielder, and that alone should guarantee his playing time. Plus he offers stolen bases. But there are some differences: Laureano hits right-handed and looks like he has more power, and he strikes out more. Still, whether he hits top or bottom of the order, I see the floor of a 15-homer, 20-steal fellow, and obviously, there is upside for considerably more.

Other sleeper picks: Miguel Sano, Nick Pivetta

Cockcroft: Tyler Glasnow

Control was a problem for Glasnow in 56 games of his Pittsburgh Pirates career, as his walk rate was 13.9 percent. Following his trade to the Tampa Bay Rays last July 31, the team seemed to "unlock the code" to Glasnow's top-25-prospect-overall potential (that ranking as recently as 2017). He polished his mechanics, began throwing more fastballs up in the zone and walked 8.4 percent of the hitters he faced in 11 starts.

Now, Glasnow is showing increased average fastball velocity in the spring, plus adding a pause to his windup, which means he's continuing to work on the adjustments that might put him back on track to future-ace status. I don't think he'll be afforded much more than 160 innings in 2019, but with the ones he gets, he could be a top-20 positional performer in fantasy if everything clicks.

Other sleeper picks: Josh James, Willians Astudillo

Mass: Adalberto Mondesi

He's currently being drafted as the No. 16 SS, according to ESPN's Live Draft results, which amazes me, considering that this is a guy who went 14 HR/32 SB last season in fewer than 300 at-bats. I know, the OBP percentage brings up Billy Hamilton flashbacks, and he never developed into that 70-steal guy we all hoped he would. Even so, the power-speed combo you get from Mondesi makes him -- at worst -- a low-end starting shortstop, with the potential to be top-five at the position if all goes according to plan.

In terms of points leagues, Mondesi is a near-lock for top-10 shortstop status this season. After all, if he ends up with double-digit triples and homers while getting 50-60 steals for the season, he'll be a top-50 hitter value, even with a likely sub-.300 OBP.

Other sleeper picks: Yoan Moncada, Marcus Semien

Soppe: Adam Eaton

You might not like Eaton because he's boring, no longer in his 20s, injury-prone and in an offense that is perceived to be weaker than last season. I'm not saying he is a league winner, but I am saying that he is exactly the type of player who goes overlooked because he does nothing at a high level.

At his current price, the injury risk is baked in, and the upside simply isn't being factored in. Bryce Harper moving on from Washington doesn't mean this team is going to struggle to score runs, and Eaton's potential exceeds the risk at this price point. Eaton is leg day at the gym ... feel free to work the glory muscles in the early round, but don't skip leg day. Ever.

Other sleeper picks: Nick Pivetta, Brett Gardner


Karabell: Brandon Woodruff

Opportunity should be there for young Brewers right-handers Woodruff and Corbin Burnes. These fellows were mostly relievers for the big club last season, but each profiles as a 170-inning starter with strikeout potential. Most probably think Burnes has more upside, which makes Woodruff, a bit older and with some control concerns, a value pick later.

Other breakout picks: Shane Bieber, Rafael Devers

Cockcroft: Michael Conforto

Major surgery to repair a torn posterior capsule in his left shoulder cast a shadow on Conforto's 2018, but he answered every question with aplomb: He hit more home runs last season (28) than in the one before (27), and he slashed .273/.356/.539 with 17 home runs in 68 games after the All-Star break. Comparing that half-season performance to his injury-free period in the 2017 first half, Conforto registered similar underlying metrics -- average exit velocity, launch angle and hard-contact rates especially -- which gave the impression that his shoulder is completely healed. Before that surgery, he had been on track to become one of the 10 best fantasy outfielders in the game, a high-average, solid-power player who has become rarer in today's game. This might be the year he gets there.

Other breakout picks: Luis Castillo, Jose Alvarado

Mass: Mitch Haniger

One might say last season was a bit of breakout, but it really wasn't. Haniger held consistent in categories such as K-rate, batting average, slugging, ISO, BABIP, HR/FB and hard-hit percentage. The main reason his stock soared in 2018 was that he was finally given every-day status. If he ends up hitting second in Seattle, with pitchers forced to pay attention to Dee Gordon and Mallex Smith on the basepaths, there's every chance that Haniger's run production will take a step forward. Last year's output earned him an All-Star appearance and MVP consideration (11th in the voting). If he can get to 30 HRs, 100 RBIs and 100 runs, he'll absolutely enter that next tier.

Other breakout picks: Joey Gallo, Raisel Iglesias

Soppe: Zack Wheeler

Just because he is a "common" breakout pick doesn't mean he is too trendy to pick. There were four pitchers last season who racked up at least a strikeout per inning while ranking in the top 50 in limiting barreled balls (per Statcast) and recording an ERA under 4.50: Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Trevor Bauer and Walker Buehler. All of those pitchers are currently going in the first six rounds (if not the first five) in ESPN drafts, and deservedly so. Wheeler was part of this list until his final nine innings of the season, and I like the growth to continue. His chase rate skyrocketed last season, so don't be shocked if Wheeler adds a strikeout (or more) per inning to the ledger this season, vaulting him into the top 15-20 SPs when all is said and done.

Other breakout picks: Alex Bregman, Roberto Osuna


Karabell: Corey Seager

Seager might have been on my bust list a season ago because so many fantasy managers think he is a lock for major power numbers, but he averaged only 24 home runs his first two seasons and offers nothing with stolen bases. Sure, it is nice when a shortstop hits for power, but there are middle infielders supplying this level of it going 10 rounds later, and most do not come with major injury concerns. This is not a weak fantasy position anymore, and Seager in the early rounds is a risk.

Other bust picks: Carlos Correa, Madison Bumgarner

Cockcroft: Adalberto Mondesi

I don't like paying premiums for roles over skills, and too much of Mondesi's fantasy stock for 2019 is centered on his role. He's likely to hit high in the Kansas City Royals' lineup, and he plays for a manager in Ned Yost who gives green lights to steal among the most often in the game. So what happens if Yost changes his strategy or, worse, is replaced during the season? Mondesi certainly can't repeat what was a near 50 percent attempt rate, which ranks among the highest marks this century. Even worse, what if Mondesi's low walk rate, aggressiveness at the plate and difficulty making contact cause him to slump so extensively that Yost has to reduce his role? There are so many pitfalls here, certainly more than there are for any top-50 overall ranked player -- and I've seen Mondesi routinely selected among that group in roto leagues on other sites.

Other bust picks: Edwin Encarnacion, Jon Lester

Mass: Juan Soto

I'm not saying 2018 was a fluke, nor am I suggesting that Soto will bat .220 in his first 50 games and get sent to Triple-A to try to get back on track. However, a 20-year-old being selected as a third-rounder is inherently risky -- especially considering that he started last season at advanced-A Potomac. I think there's every chance that he ends the season with more strikeouts than hits, and though I do think he could have a solid April, that might hurt his fantasy value in the long run as pitchers simply start to pitch around him.

Other bust picks: Eugenio Suarez, Blake Snell

Soppe: Javier Baez

The first two rounds this season are littered with players who posted unsustainably high home run to fly ball rates last season -- not a surprise given the momentum that launch angle is picking up -- but it's the approach of Baez that has me fading him this season. Among players being drafted in the top 25 in ESPN leagues, eight had a HR/FB rate of more than 20 percent. Among those eight, Baez had the highest chase rate (45.5 percent), and no one else came close (J.D. Martinez and Nolan Arenado at 33.2 percent are next, and the average of the group was 31.1 percent).

It's hard to maintain a high HR/FB rate as it is, and it's even more difficult if you're offering at just about everything. Look for pitchers to adjust how they attack Baez this season (.426 batting average and .847 slugging percentage on the first two pitches of at-bats), resulting in a season that resembles 2017 more than 2018.

Other bust picks: Dee Gordon, Stephen Strasburg

More predictions

Our experts didn't stop with their sleepers, breakouts and busts. They also shared their top rookie, most likely first-round pick to fall short and which relief pitcher could step into a closer role and provide sleeper value early this season.

First-round pick most likely to flop

Christian Yelich: Coming off an MVP season, Yelich will go in the first round of most drafts -- not the third round like in the past. My question is what really changed? Yelich has a high floor as a five-category fantasy option, but those expecting another 36 home runs could be disappointed. Yelich delivered a historic second half of the season, with 25 home runs thanks to an unsustainable fly ball rate. He had 11 homers at the All-Star break. I like him to have another fine season but not top-10-worthy. -- Karabell

Chris Sale: This is about the health of Sale's shoulder, which is only bothersome in that at the time he was breaking through as a star big leaguer, questions were raised about what his unusual delivery might do to him in terms of wear and tear. The Boston Red Sox can say what they want, but Sale wasn't the same pitcher after those shoulder issues surfaced. His average fastball velocity went down 1.2 mph, and his ERA was nearly two runs higher than before. One of the reasons he's so appealing as one of the top-tier starting pitchers has been his durability, and that's no longer guaranteed (or at least as close to a guarantee as a pitcher can provide). Sale is a first-rounder for me, which says a lot ... but what if this is Clayton Kershaw entering 2016? -- Cockcroft

Manny Machado: If I have to pick somebody in the first round to potentially flop, Machado seems to me to be the guy. Although I don't think he's going to sit back and relax, multiyear millions locked away, and not give 100 percent, I wouldn't be surprised by a down year, if only due to a bit of "relaxation" following a season with the uncertainty of his long-term fate hanging over him. San Diego isn't the worst park in the league for hitters, but I think it might suppress Machado's numbers just enough for those who grabbed him first to wish they had waited a round or two. -- Mass

Francisco Lindor: Lindor is great, but I worry about this strained calf and the impact it could have on his stolen base total. I'm fine with drafting a player who doesn't have high-end speed in the first round (J.D. Martinez for example), but the trick here is that if you're taking Lindor this high, you're assuming speed, and that could make things difficult from a roster construction standpoint if his running is limited. Even in a fully healthy 2018 season, Lindor was caught stealing 10 times (doubling his career total), so it is possible that a reduction in attempts happens even if the calf heals and he's back to full speed. As an aside, there are 29 batters with at least 830 at-bats vs. right-handed pitching since the beginning of 2017, and 27 of them have higher batting averages in such spots than Lindor (.255). -- Soppe

Best rookie not named Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Eloy Jimenez (Cockcroft, Soppe)

Victor Robles (Karabell, Mass)

Favorite sleeper relief pitcher who could earn saves

Trevor May (Cockcroft, Soppe)

Carl Edwards Jr. (Mass)

Diego Castillo (Karabell)