Chris Sale - Forecasting how relievers will perform when moved into the rotation is probably one of the more difficult things to do, but the consensus on Chris Sale seems to be that he'll be one of the better pitchers in the league. I think that might be asking a bit much of the 22 year old, but I think it's pretty clear that Sale is going to be much more valuable for fantasy purposes than he was last year as a set-up man. Sale has averaged almost 10.6 K/9 with a 2.58 ERA through his first 94 innings of big-league ball,but his occasionally spotty control might prove to be a bit more of an issue when he's facing more than a handful of batters at a time. I wouldn't be surprised to see him post double-digit victories and an ERA under 4.00 with a passel of K's, which is a worthwhile starter to be sure...I just don't want to see people get carried away with expectations before he even has his first pro start.
Dayan Viciedo - I'm fairly optimistic regarding Viciedo's chances to blossom in his first full season as a regular....much more so than most people it would seem. Viciedo made huge strides last year in improving both his walk rate and K rate without sacrificing much in the way of power at AAA, but his September struggles in Chicago seem to have tempered enthusiasm a bit. Viciedo has the ability to hit for both average and power, and last year's better understanding of the strike zone leads me to believe that he's much closer to harnessing those abilities than you might think. Combine that with a friendly home park, and I think he could be a very pleasant surprise in 2012.
Scott Baker - Scott Baker had probably the best year of his career in 2011 despite some nagging elbow issues, and it seems pretty clear to me that the Twins' new park has made Baker even a bit better than the reasonably consistent #3/#4 starter that he's been for years. Baker's excellent control has remained steady throughout the past few seasons despite the occasional DL time, and last year's 8.2 K/9 was a career best....if he can make 30 starts he seems destined to be in the top half of SP. A very solid, very consistent option.
Denard Span - Span had a concussion-marred 2011 that I'm inclined to throw out the window for the most part....unfortunately Span's 2010 was almost a mirror image except for the steals. After 44 XBH and 33 SB back in 2008 as a 24 year old, it was easy to envision Span turning into a pretty decent ballplayer by now, but instead he seems to have regressed in every area but contact rate. Span still has the ability to provide value in all categories but power (and he isn't a complete cipher there either, unlike the player to his right most days), but as we've seen from many players the ability to recover from concussions is clearly not universal. There's some risk here, and with the limited upside that Span provides I'd be inclined to look elsewhere for an OF that will outproduce their draft slot/auction price.
Justin Smoak - I am getting a bit worried that Justin Smoak hasn't developed anywhere near as much as I thought he would by now. The power is starting to come, but while you could chalk 2010's poor showing in AVG up to some bad luck on balls in play, there's no such excuse available for last year's .234 mark. The 25 year old still could become a league-average 1B, which is no small feat, but past projections of potential stardom can probably be set aside at this point. He's not a bad start in deeper formats or AL-only leagues, but the majority of your mixed leagues should see Smoak as a reserve to start 2012.
Dustin Ackley - Ackley may end up as the Mariners' leadoff man this year with Ichiro sliding down to the #3 spot, which likely means a positive bump to Ackley's 2012 value. His K rate last season was definitely higher than I expected to see, but with the swinging strike% down at 6.2, I expect significant improvement this season. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him hit .280 with 15 homers and 15 steals, which at 2B would make him extremely valuable, and he's still just 24 to boot. I'm definitely bullish.
Grady Sizemore - Once again, Sizemore was under the knife yesterday, and the latest procedure on his lower back will likely keep him out until around Memorial Day. The Tribe have a whole slew of OF's in camp that are at least mildly intriguing: Fred Lewis, Felix Pie, Aaron Cunningham, and Ryan Spilborghs just to name a few. Michael Brantley seems like the first choice to replace Sizemore in CF, but that leaves LF open for the first few months. I could easily envision some sort of job-sharing arrangement between Shelley Duncan and one of the NRI's, but it's anyone's guess as to who that could be this early in camp. Whichever of that group emerges as the frontrunner over the next few weeks will be a decent sleeper in deep leagues for the first 6-8 weeks of the season.
Edinson Volquez - I think Volquez could be huge this year in San Diego, and it isn't just the massive park adjustment that makes me optimistic. Control has never been his strong suit, but it would be typical to see some improvement there in the second year following TJ surgery. His velocity seems to be completely intact from his pre-injury days, so the stuff is still there, and he also should expect some positive regression in HR/FB rate, as he allowed a home run on more than 1 out of every 5 flyballs hit last season. The Padre offense isn't going to help him like Cincinnati's did, but the likely improvement in ERA should offset that...I'd be happy to take a flyer on him in any format to start 2012.
Jed Lowrie - I am certainly willing to chalk up 2011 to a lost year for Lowrie, as he was hitting over .300 with 15 XBH in 160 AB before he first injured his shoulder, and that one incident plagued him the rest of the season. Lowrie has always hit when healthy, and moving to that bandbox in Houston could be a huge plus if (and that's a huge if, given his history) he can stay healthy. I like Lowrie's chances of surpassing every published projection that I've seen for him this season.
Wilin Rosario - The Rockies are experts at blocking catching prospects with mediocre regulars, and the signing of 35 year old Ramon Hernandez to a two-year deal has effectively insured that Wilin Rosario will be a backup catcher during his age 23 and 24 seasons. Rosario has a ton of power...not many guys post ISO's of over .200 at age 19, but suspect plate discipline would have me wanting him to get as many plate appearances as possible. Naturally, the Rockies will have him sitting on the bench multiple days a week, so that he too can stagnate the way that Chris Iannetta did over the past five seasons of being jerked around. Rosario is still a solid minor league prospect in deeeper leagues, but barring an injury to Hernandez he isn't going to warrant much of a look in starting lineups this year.
James Loney - If you just look at Loney's August and September numbers from last year, you'd be hard-pressed to believe that this was a guy that almost lost his job multiple times during 2011. Loney posted an OPS of well over 1.000 the last two months of the year, but he's had stretches like this in the past. The greatly weakened state of 1B in the NL makes Loney a better option to start 2012 than he was to start 2011, and it's clear from these random six-week runs that there is the potential for more in Loney, but in the end you're probably going to be getting a guy that doesn't hurt you very much, but also doesn't help you enough outside of AVG at a premium position. If you can get him cheaply, the potential upside is probably worth it.
Erik Bedard - As Michael pointed out earlier this week, Bedard was already on the "sleeper list" before the unfortunate injury to A.J. Burnett. Now it looks like Bedard may very well start the year in the rotation, and after moving from the AL to the NL Central I'd be very excited to see what kind of numbers he can put up. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him fan more than a batter per inning, and with a likely ERA under 4.00 he is easily worth a rotation spot in just about all formats as long as you know he's starting....something that the Burnett injury should ensure right out of the gate.
Matt Wieters - I'm very excited about Wieters this season, as while everyone is talking about the power spike from last year (HR from 11 to 22, ISO from .128 to .188) he also managed to increase his AVG 13 points despite significantly worse luck on balls in play. I think he's actually a bit under the radar despite fairly high projections this year, simply because he hasn't yet become the superstar that everyone expected to see immediately upon his arrival in Baltimore three years ago. He doesn't even turn 26 until May, and catchers typically seem to mature a bit later offensively, so I'd be very pleased to see him on my roster here in 2012.
Jay Bruce - Bruce is another guy that slides a bit under the radar because of his rather slow development and early entry to MLB, but since Bruce just turns 25 in April I think there is probably a bit more development to be had here. Bruce consistently hit well over .300 in the minors with ISO's in the .260's, so I don't think it's a stretch to expect him to be able to improve a bit more in both areas here in his fifth year with the Reds. He's increased both his HR total and his walk rate in each of his seasons with the club, and I wouldn't expect that trend to change here in 2012.
Josh Reddick - Reddick showed tremendous improvement in his contact rate last season, and that more than anything else is what has me thinking that the move from Boston to Oakland might not totally kill his value. Reddick actually had pretty poor luck on balls hit into play last year despite a BABIP of .318, and at age 25 it would be reasonable to expect a bit more in the power department as well (and this is a guy that already has posted ISO's over .200 numerous times in the minors). The downside with Reddick is that there is quite a bit of competition in the A's OF, so any kind of a slump could see a drastic reduction in playing time, but I would be in favor of taking the gamble with Reddick this year....I think there is a ton of upside here.
David Freese - Freese doesn't fit the normal mold of a sleeper....not on my list anyway, but as a nearly-29 year old with just about one full big league season under his belt, it isn't hard to envision a scenario where he surprises people. Freese's lowest AVG at any level in his pro career (in a sample size greater than four games) is .296, so I'm certainly surprised to see every published projection but one forecast an AVG lower than that for him this season. I also think that there's more power here than he's shown the last few years, perhaps as much as 20-HR power. The constant injury risk with Freese necessitates a solid backup plan, but there is considerable upside here.