In 2022, most managers in 15-team leagues will have a solid first baseman to lock into lineups on a daily/weekly basis. This is particularly true with guys like Joey Votto, Kyle Schwarber, Trey Mancini, Anthony Rizzo, and Jake Cronenworth going off boards as the 16th-twentyth first basemen drafted.
With drafts almost all complete and Opening Day only a few days away, we are now looking at some very deep first base sleepers who can help managers in the event of injuries, or as great bench compliments in deeper formats. Below are options that should likely be available on waiver wires as FAAB runs begin.
All three of these players should far exceed their value at their current ADP. These deep sleepers could prove to be great options as starting corner infielders on fantasy rosters as the season gets underway. Of course, worst case, if they don’t pan out, the cost is minimal and managers can simply cut bait and move on.
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The massive struggles of Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Keston Hiura have been well documented. After bursting onto the scene in 2019 with 19 home runs, 49 RBI, and a .303/.368/.570 slash in just 348 plate appearances, Hiura has been absolutely putrid. In 2019, Hiura was as-advertised — the ninth overall draft pick in 2017 with excellent contact capabilities. Then the strikeouts caught up with him. His 2020 season was a disaster eleven pitchers adjusted. Hiura posted a .212/.297/.410 line and struck out 85 times in just 217 at-bats. Last season was even worse where I posted just a .168 average and, basically forgot how to hit. Since 2019, he’s shuffled between the minors and majors, has posted a combined .192/.279/.362 slash line, and has struck out an impressive 162 times in only 390 at-bats.
So, what’s changed? Well, for one, Hiura was dealing with personal issues last year, coupled with COVID and some elbow issues. In the offseason, he had minor elbow surgery to deal with that issue, and he has adjusted his swing and batting stance to reduce his leg kick. The results in spring training have been noticeable. In 25 at-bats, Hiura has posted a .400/.500/1,000 slash to go with four HR, 10 RBI, and three doubles. Of course, in 2020, I have posted a .393/.414/.893 slash line in spring training (and we all know how 2020 worked out for him).
Hiura does have 10 strikeouts in spring training, which of course signals that his K% issues still remain. Does he have a bounce-back campaign in him? Perhaps. He still managed a 96.2 mph EV on FB/LD in 2021 which was just 0.1mph slower than that of teammate Hunter Renfroe and Blue Jays outfielder Teoscar Hernandez.
Hiura’s pedigree and 2019 numbers suggest he has the ability to bounce back. While he will likely never achieve similar results as he did in 2019, with a 435 ADP or low FAAB bid, why not take a chance? I see three possibilities: (1) he sucks and you drop him after April; (2) he rebounds and you trade him after April to some poor league mate before he begins to suck again; or (3) he lives up to his potential and has a solid season at basically zero draft capital or FAAB cost to you.
Much like Hiura, Mets first baseman/outfielder Dominic Smith is another post-hype sleeper I have my eye on. Smith is poised to rebound in 2022 after a wretched 2021 campaign, thanks to renewed health (he played most of 2021 with a partially torn labrum in his right shoulder), and the chance for regular playing time as the Mets’ designated hitter.
We have seen what Smith can do when healthy and getting regular playing time. In 2020, Smith posted a .316/.377/.616 slash line, 10 home runs, 42 RBI, a 0.993 OPS, and a 1.7 WAR. He finished tied for second in the National League with 32 extra-base hits and his .616 slugging percentage was fourth-best in the National League. Last year, Smith fell off a cliff with a .244/.304/.363 slash line over 446 at-bats (with just 11 HR), despite being a 2021 fantasy draft-day darling with a 91 ADP.
Did Smith forget how to hit or return to the mean? Well, Smith’s 2020 metrics all suggested that his increased contact and power from him were legitimate. Perhaps the shoulder injury he dealt with shouldn’t be quickly discounted. He’s primed to rebound and has looked great this spring with a .381/.500/.714 slash line, though he only has one homer over 21 at-bats.
The big issue will be playing time. The Mets currently have Robinson Cano rostered and there has been discussion that he will start at DH. Mets fans are hopeful, however, that manager Buck Showalter will come to his senses from him and smart Smith regularly at DH. Hope only gets you so far, however. The Mets will likely need to trade one of Cano (unlikely with his contract from him), JD Davis, or Smith himself to clear a path to regular playing time for Smith in 2022.
Recent talk of a trade that fell through with the Padres involving Smith, Chris Paddack, Emilio Pagan, and Eric Hosmer suggests it is Smith whom the Mets are shopping. If the Mets do move Smith for much-needed starting pitching depth, managers will want to get in on Smith immediately. If he finds himself in a better situation and in a better hitter’s park, he has the potential to return value equivalent to that of a player with an ADP of 100 in 2022.
Pavin Smith, Arizona Diamondbacks
Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman/outfielder Pavin Smith is coming off a 2021 campaign in which he posted a somewhat uninspiring .267/.328/.404 slash line to go with 11 HR, 49 RBI, and 27 doubles in 498 at-bats. The seventh overall pick by Arizona in the 2017 draft, Smith has the pedigree to potentially take a step forward in 2022.
Heading into 2022, Smith will likely be in the Arizona lineup regularly, batting sixth or seventh and playing right field or first base on most occasions. While Smith won’t be mistaken for a power hitter, the hit-first tool he possesses makes him a solid late-round or waiver wire flier in deep formats. An elite whiff rate of 17.3% (in the top 10% in MLB in 2022) combined with a K% and BB% in the top half of MLB should make him more valuable in on-base percentage formats. That said, if he can adjust that launch angle which was only nine degrees in 2021 (well below the league average of 12 degrees), he could do some damage at the plate.
With a sprint speed of 26.5 ft/sec (38th percentile in MLB) in 2021, a ground-ball approach definitely limits Smith’s potential. If he can reduce that 47.8% ground ball rate we saw in 2021, Smith has the chance to far exceed his current ADP where he is, generally going undrafted in all but the deepest of formats.
So far this spring, Smith has posted a .300/.391/.500 slash line, with one HR and one double over 20 at-bats. It’s worth a gamble to see if this carries over into the regular season. Even if the power numbers aren’t there for a corner infielder, the hit tool could be hugely beneficial for fantasy managers in need of players to help balance average and OBP ratios. Smith could also post a decent number of RBI in 2022, depending on how well the underrated Diamondbacks lineup, which boasts Seth Beer, Ketel Marte, Dalton Varsho, and Christian Walker (who should also be on this list), performs in front of him .
Honorable Mentions: Luke Voit (particularly since his trade to the Padres), Christian Walker, and Eric Hosmer (if he is finally negotiated from San Diego).
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