Fantasy baseball: Adley Rutschman, George Kirby lead list of sleepers

The sleepers to target in fantasy baseball this season (1:56)

Tristan H. Cockcroft and Eric Karabell detail which under-the-radar fantasy baseball players to target. (1:56)

I've written it many times before in this space: Success in this game -- finding value -- is when personal preference meets opportunity.

We fantasy baseball players are an opinionated bunch, but it's when we find a particular opinion about a player that rises noticeably above our competition's, that's when we discover value.

Of course, to get there, one must have strong opinions on players, and I'm no different than you in that regard. Welcome back to my annual list of draft targets, players I feel the most passionately about during the upcoming season. This is where I effectively show my hand, sharing with you the names of players I most hope to draft to a majority of my teams this season.

These 20 players cover a wide range of league types, from ESPN's new standard game, to 12-team, old-school rotisserie formats, to deep mixed, AL- or NL-only leagues. There's surely a name or three on here who might help you to a league title in 2023, and perhaps my sharing my particularly strong opinions on them might help you as you seek to form your own takes on players as we head towards draft day.

Good luck in your drafts!

Ozzie Albies, 2B, Atlanta Braves: Bad luck on the injury front ruined his 2023, as a broken left foot suffered when he tripped while exiting the batter's box on June 13 cost him 81 games. Then, a fractured left pinky finger suffered while sliding into second base on Sept. 17 (only his second game back) cost him the remainder of the year. Considering the fluky nature of both injuries, it's easier to forgive Albies for the effectively lost campaign -- especially since he managed 158, 160 and 156 games played in three of his previous four seasons.

Albies had showed enhanced pop in 2021, setting personal bests with 30 home runs, 9.3% Statcast Barrel and 37.2% hard-hit rates, and had been one of the more efficient baserunners before last season's 3-of-8 performance on his attempts. He should be primed for a significant rebound and is one of the players for whom I'm hoping the larger bases might lead to a new career high in the stolen base category (currently 20, in 2021).

Triston Casas, 1B, Boston Red Sox: Although his 56.6% ground-ball rate in his brief big-league time didn't reflect it, Casas' power potential and penchant for fly balls makes him a sneaky-good power source. He has already shown at this level that he has some of the best strike-zone judgment in the game and he's already off to a strong start this spring training. He seems primed for a breakthrough.

Roansy Contreras, SP, Pittsburgh Pirates: The Pirates kept Contreras on a short leash last season. Contreras showed his strikeout-generating mettle with a 34.1% rate in their minor-league system following his January 2021 acquisition from the Yankees in the Jameson Taillon trade, but his restricted usage in 2022 seemed to have an adverse impact upon his performance.

He began the season as a long reliever, then was started on four days' rest only 10 out of 27 times (including his time at Triple-A) and in seven of those he was limited to fewer than 60 pitches. Then, in mid-July, he was given a 2 1/2 week "rest." Contreras simply didn't seem to get into a groove accordingly, his final numbers pushing him to the afterthought category among fantasy options, but his raw stuff did shine through at certain times.

His slider generated a 42% miss rate on hitters' swings, plus was responsible for 54 of his 86 strikeouts and, when he dialed his four-seam fastball to 97 mph or greater, it was exceedingly tough to hit (23% miss rate, .188 BAA). Contreras should be on a more regular schedule this season after totaling 129 1/3 innings last year, he's in an extreme pitchers' environment and he has lots of strikeout upside.

Oneil Cruz, SS, Pittsburgh Pirates: Fans of Statcast know his name, after he set records for both the hardest-hit and hardest-thrown infield assist just six weeks apart. Oh, and he has 98th percentile sprint speed to boot. Cruz's raw skills are immense, the kind that could make him the first 40/40 player in 17 seasons, he finished last season with .279/.350/.531 rates, eight homers and five steals in his final 37 games, and he's off to a similarly strong start this spring.

There's a lot of swing-and-miss in his game, which is sure to subject him to some painful slumps. However, the good outweighs the bad with this youngster. Cruz has a top-five shortstop's statistical ceiling, and you'll probably get him outside of the top 10 at the position in most leagues.

Reid Detmers, SP, Los Angeles Angels: Following a demotion to Triple-A Salt Lake last June, Detmers returned with a lowered arm angle, having made a critical tweak to his delivery, after which his slider showed considerably greater life. From that point forward, he generated misses on 32% of hitters' swings at the pitch and recorded 41-of-78 strikeouts with it, the improved slider giving him depth to his repertoire.

Detmers managed a 3.04 ERA and 25.8% strikeout rate over his final 13 starts, scraping the surface of the potential that made him a 2020 first-rounder, a top-50 prospect at the time of his debut, and fueled a May 10 no-hitter. He's one of the better pitchers you could pick to round out your staff in a deeper mixed league.

Nick Gordon, OF/2B, Minnesota Twins: He proved to be plenty capable with the bat as a near-regular over the final two months of last season -- on a related aside, can you believe that the Twins roster is injury-prone up the middle? -- batting .281/.324/.453 while starting 54 out of 61 games. Look, it's not like the Twins are in any different circumstance up the middle today. Gordon should be 2023's "super utilityman" who you don't even think about on draft day. Yet, he's got enough pop, enough speed and a good enough hit tool to be a handy guy to have around.

Hunter Greene, SP, Cincinnati Reds: Included on my "Kings of Command" list, Greene has perhaps the highest ceiling of any pitcher you'll find going outside the top-40 SP in terms of ADP. He had a quartet of 25-point starts last season, which excludes his 7 1/3 no-hit inning performance against the Pirates on May 15, illustrating how successful he can be when he has full command of his near-100 mph fastball. Greene struck out 37-of-90 (41.1%!) of the batters he faced over his final four starts last season and is only scraping the surface of his immense strikeout potential.

Trent Grisham, OF, San Diego Padres: One of the deeper-dive players who could benefit from the new rules limiting defensive shifts, Grisham's fantasy stock has plummeted along with his batting average, though his speed and hint of pop has gone largely unchanged. He's too valuable defensively for the Padres not to give him a chance at fairly regular at-bats, and if he can deliver even a .230 batting average with 15/15 numbers, he'd be a relevant piece in mixed leagues of at least 12 teams.

Cristian Javier, SP, Houston Astros: You know him as "that guy who started those combined no-hitters against the Yankees (in June) and Phillies (in the World Series)," but I know him as that guy with the high-spin, "rising" fastball and slower, quick-moving slider that first burst onto the prospect scene while with Double-A Corpus Christi in 2019 and hasn't looked back. Javier's lower arm slot and unusual movement on his pitches makes him one of the toughest pitchers to hit even on an average day for the right-hander. Sure, he may have some ERA to give back in 2023, but there's a good chance he'll enjoy an IP boost to counter it.

Josh Jung, 3B, Texas Rangers: Like Albies, Jung had it rough on the injury front in 2022, his anticipated big-league debut delayed by a fracture in his left foot during spring training, then a left shoulder injury suffered while lifting weights that ultimately led to surgery which kept him sidelined until August. Jung admitted during the winter that he took a conservative approach to his play following his return, fearing a recurrence of his shoulder issues, but so far this spring he's playing with greater confidence and stronger results. He's going around 20th at his position in early drafts, but has the kind of power upside that might vault him into the top 10.

Jarred Kelenic, OF, Seattle Mariners: Kelenic, according to Baseball Reference, had one of the worst starts to a big-league career in history. The site lists Kelenic's .168 batting average over his first two seasons as the worst all-time among hitters who had at least 558 plate appearances in them (and note that a "year" for these purposes includes any season with at least one game played).

Since then, however, Kelenic overhauled his swing in the hope of recapturing the promise that made him a top-five overall prospect in baseball entering his 2021 debut year. The simpler approach seems to be working, as he homered four times in his first six Cactus League games, and the injury to Taylor Trammell nearly guarantees that Kelenic will at least serve as Seattle's left fielder against right-handers to begin the year.

Fantasy managers who have been stung by trusting Kelenic in either of the last two seasons seem to be entirely out on him so far this spring. Couple that with the changes he has made and the success he's currently having, and you've got a recipe for a prospective bargain in the final rounds.

George Kirby, SP, Seattle Mariners: He has among the best control in baseball, and an elite big-league fastball already. Add to the mix a curveball, slider and changeup that all should be above-average pitches in time. Kirby should be afforded a longer leash this season than last, à la rotation-mate Logan Gilbert from 2021-22, and I see Kirby's step forward this year being somewhat similar to Gilbert's last year.

Alex Lange, RP, Detroit Tigers: The dirt-cheap closer hopeful you'll most want if you go that route, Lange managed the majors' second-best miss rate when batters swung last season (44.1%) -- a signal as to how filthy his stuff truly is. What really made the difference for him, however, was the introduction of a sinker, effectively replacing his four-seam fastball and pushing his ground-ball rate to 55.6%. The Tigers might claim they're going the committee route to close games, but Lange's skill set is a significant step above the competition. He is clearly capable of top-15 RP production.

Dustin May, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers: His recovery from Tommy John surgery couldn't have gone much more smoothly than it did. May marked his return to the mound roughly 14 months to the day of his operation. In 12 combined starts between the minors and majors, he had a 30.5% strikeout rate while showing similarly elite velocity and spin on his four different, frequently used offerings to how the pitches performed before he got hurt. There's a valid question as to how many innings he might be allowed to throw in 2023 -- I'm guessing 125-130 -- but he looks like he could provide a top-40 fantasy starter's production with the ones he works.

Jose Miranda, 1B/3B, Minnesota Twins: He struggled initially in his first taste of the majors last May, but quickly recaptured the form that saw him break through in a big way while in Double- and Triple-A in 2021, batting .282/.349/.430 while starting 78-of-83 Twins games from July 1 forward. Miranda enjoyed above-average numbers in terms of hard-hit rate (41.0%), contact rate (80.2%) and line-drive rate (25.8%) during that time, the kind of combo that makes him a plenty attractive, high-floor corner infielder for the price.

Gabriel Moreno, C, Arizona Diamondbacks: Although he'll almost assuredly be worked in as a near-equal partner to Carson Kelly initially, make no mistake about it -- Moreno is the future behind the plate for the Diamondbacks. Moreno maintained his impressive contact rate in brief time for the Blue Jays last season (.319 BA, 88.4% contact rate), delivering a statistical floor that's attractive in a No. 2 fantasy backstop, and he was plenty adequate defensively, which gives him a good chance at emerging with the lion's share of the starts sooner, rather than later.

Amed Rosario, SS, Cleveland Guardians: He's one of those players for whom I'm surprised he doesn't amass larger stolen base totals, and considering the larger bases and tighter rules on pickoff throws this year, a breakthrough in that department alone is a distinct possibility. Rosario has registered at least a 93rd percentile Statcast sprint speed in each of his six big-league seasons, and he was 31-of-35 on his attempts over the last two seasons combined. His spike in contact rate also helps alleviate some of the worry about his free-swinging nature. Rosario often slips outside the top 15 at his position in drafts, but selected anywhere outside the top 10, he provides a pretty sound return on investment.

Adley Rutschman, C, Baltimore Orioles: You know his name and you also know you'll need to pay a premium to draft him. However, I see a very real possibility that Rutschman claims universal No. 1 catcher honors in fantasy as soon as this year and doesn't give it back for a decade -- and that probably won't quite be reflected in his draft-day price tag.

Orioles fans and longtime fantasy baseball players might have subconscious fears of Matt Wieters parallels, with Rutschman also being a switch-hitter, a top-five-overall draft pick and widely regarded No. 1 prospect in baseball at the time of his MLB debut, but Rutschman has already translated his elite plate discipline to the big-league level in a way that Wieters never did. Additionally, from July 1 forward, Rutschman had a .373 wOBA and 214 fantasy points, second among catchers behind only J.T. Realmuto (.405, 217), and his top-shelf defense earned him 61 starts behind the plate in that time, again second only to Realmuto (66).

Clarke Schmidt, RP, New York Yankees: He had a surprisingly solid season despite serving across several roles for the Yankees in 2022, his high-spin offerings and tough-to-hit curveball and slider giving hints of a mixed league-relevant fantasy starter if he can snag a rotation spot this spring. Injuries to Frankie Montas and Gerrit Cole have made that now a near-certainty. Schmidt has added a cutter to his repertoire, helping address one of his bigger weaknesses, his struggles against lefties (.297/.392/.478 career rates). His creativeness and willingness to make quick, necessary adjustments makes him an intriguing dart throw.

Taylor Ward, OF, Los Angeles Angels: He got off to a torrid start to 2022 before dramatically cooling off, but what many fantasy managers seemed to overlook -- perhaps some having turned their attention to football by then -- was Ward's strong, final-six-weeks recovery (.353/.397/.579 rates, 7 HR in 36 games). That supported the notion that the shoulder injury he suffered when crashing into the outfield wall on May 20 indeed might have been responsible for his mid-year funk, lending credence to the first and final six weeks of his season being the better talent indicators. Ward's Statcast page is full of red (that's the color you want to see there) and he's a 2015 first-rounder who did have some very big years in the minors. He's a late bloomer, but he sure looks the part of a top-20 fantasy outfielder now.