As we begin another exciting offseason, every dynasty league owner has the same questions on their mind: Who will be next season’s big-time fantasy sleeper? If you want someone no one is talking about right now, in the same way there was silence surrounding surprise breakout players Jonathan Villar and Adam Duvall last season, look no further than Tommy Pham of their division rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals.
It’s hard to believe that Pham will only be 29 years old when the 2017 season starts, as he has yet to even surpass 200 at-bats in any season in his brief Major League career. Most 29 year-olds with only 358 career at bats may get written off as ‘Quad-A’ players who serve as organizational depth, but a closer look at Pham reveals some positive indicators that he may in fact be a major sleeper who could be poised for a breakout, and soon.
Pham started his professional career off slowly, but he was an age-appropriate, league-average A-ball hitter in 2008 and 2009. His 2010 season was when he really started to take off, that is until a broken wrist ended his season prematurely. He started to get some helium in dynasty leagues heading into the 2011 season, but as fate would have it, he tore a ligament in his thumb trying to rob a home run. In early 2012, Pham noticed a pop in his shoulder after diving head-first for a fly ball, but doctors told him to play through it. After further examination, it was revealed to be a torn labrum. Heading into 2013, Pham needed to make up for lost developmental time, but instead, he tore his other labrum, once again ending his season. Finally healthy going into 2014, Pham put up a 132 weighted runs created (wRC+) mark in 390 AAA at-bats with 10 homers and 20 steals. He earned a Major League call-up in September 2014 and found his way to semi-regular at-bats after tearing the cover off the ball in AAA to start off 2015. Pham did not disappoint, hitting .268 with a 125 wRC+ and .209 isolated power in 173 at bats.
Fast forward to today where we have over 350 Major League at-bats to evaluate, and despite his oblique injury to start off the 2016 season, there is a lot to like about Pham heading into 2017. Through 358 at-bats, Pham is hitting .245/.333/.455 with 14 homers, and 4 steals, making him good for a 113 wRC+. While his 32 percent K% is atrocious, he hasn’t had any trouble making contact at any level since 2008, so I’m expecting that to regress closer to the 23 K% he showed in AAA. His 11 percent BB% through the last two seasons would place him 52nd among all qualified hitters, and that number has improved since he graduated. Finally, Pham’s 93.4 mpg average exit velocity places him 26th among all qualified batters. For context, this places him in between Miguel Sano and Christian Yelich, and scouting reports have always noted his ability to hit the ball hard with lots of loud contact.
Sleepers like Villar and Duvall that have awoken in past seasons have mostly followed a pretty simple recipe: talent + opportunity + adjustments = breakout. With Brandon Moss (and Matt Holiday) probably out the door in St. Louis, Pham has the perfect opportunity to take advantage of his talented bat and strong arm in the Cardinals 2017 Opening Day outfield. His inflated strikeout rate is the result of adjustments to his plate approach, and if he can keep making improvements to his pitch selection while remaining elite with his hard-hit rate (12th among all batters with 180 PAs or less), he should be able to seize a starting outfield job this spring. If he can do that, and stay healthy of course, he may end up being one of the steals on Draft Day for re-draft leagues, and if you are in a dynasty league (like you should be!), the window of opportunity to acquire Pham’s services may be closing fast, so time to move now before your league-mates realize the potential and upside he offers owners, both for 2017 and beyond.