Is Aaron Nola for Real?
After a good but under-the-radar 2017 in which Aaron Nola went 12-11 with a 3.54 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP with 184 strikeouts in 168 innings, few saw him as a Cy Young contender in 2018. Now, many are wondering if he's going to win it in 2019 after improving to 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA, a 0.98 WHIP, and 224 strikeouts in 212 1/3 innings, especially after the Phillies continued to build during the offseason. A repeat for Nola seems unlikely, however, as much of his improvement last year appears luck-based. His 0.7 HR/9 rate was the lowest of his career, thanks to the lowest HR/FB rate (10.6%) of his career. His .251 BABIP was 40 points below his career average and tied for the fifth-lowest mark among pitchers who qualified for the ERA title last year. His 82.5% strand rate ranked fifth as well and was also the highest of his career. Meanwhile, most of his skill-based peripheral stats were very close to his career rates. His 2.5 BB/9 rate matched his career mark perfectly, while his 9.5 K/9 rate was his lowest since his rookie season. Accordingly, his ERA should've been nearly a full run higher based on his 3.01 FIP, so his ERA and WHIP are likely to jump considerably in 2019. Nola is still a great pitcher and relatively young at 25, but he shouldn't be considered on the level of Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, or Justin Verlander just yet.
How will Bryce Harper fare in his new digs?
Bryce Harper, as you may have heard, is a Phillie now, perhaps for the rest of his career. That means he better get used to his new home, Citizens Bank Park, which has a reputation of being one of the homer-friendliest parks in the bigs since opening in 2004. The reputation is well deserved, as Citizens was the second-easiest park to homer in from 2013-2017 according to ESPN park factors before slipping all the way to fourth in 2018. Harper has had his share of success there, batting .268/.365/.564 with 14 homers and 32 RBIs in 50 career games as a visitor. That's roughly on par with his career line of .279/.388/.512, however, and it's worth noting that Harper hasn't shown much of a home/road split throughout his career with a .912 OPS at home and an .887 OPS on the road. Perhaps that's because Nationals Park has been a pretty decent place to hit as well, rating as homer-friendly according to ESPN park factors every year from 2015-2018. Just last year, it ranked as the fifth-friendliest home run park in the majors, right behind Citizens Bank. Accordingly, fantasy owners shouldn't expect a significant uptick in production for Harper based on his new home field.
Is J.T. Realmuto the top catcher in fantasy?
J.T. Realmuto has steadily improved as a hitter since debuting in 2014, increasing his home runs, RBIs, walk rate, SLG, and OPS every season. Despite playing in a pitcher's park and having almost no offensive talent around him last year with the Marlins, he still slashed .277/.340/.484 with 21 homers (third among catchers) and 74 RBIs (tied for second) despite the constant trade rumors swirling around him. Realmuto has also been the best backstop at stealing bases by far, leading the position with 31 thefts over the past four seasons while no other catcher has 20. Now in a much better lineup and a homer-friendly ballpark, Realmuto could maintain or even keep improving on his power numbers in his age-28 season. Throw in his steals, solid batting average (.279 career) and the possibility of batting ahead of or behind Bryce Harper, and Realmuto could be headed for a huge season.
Don't sleep on Miguel Cabrera
Once one of baseball's most feared and dangerous hitters, Miguel Cabrera has seen his career derailed by age and injuries in recent seasons. The aging slugger, who turns 36 this April, has played 130 games or less in three of the past four seasons after averaging 157 games per year from 2004-2014. His production has suffered as a result, as his .728 OPS in 2017 and his .843 OPS last year were his two lowest marks since he was a rookie in 2003. Over his last 168 games dating back to the start of 2017, he's a .260/.344/.410 hitter with just 19 homers and almost twice as many strikeouts (137) as walks (76). Coming off the shortest season of his career in which a hamstring strain and left biceps injury limited him to just 38 games, his fantasy stock has never been lower. He still wields a potent bat, however, after hitting .299 with a .395 OBP last year. Despite the injuries, Cabrera posted the third highest walk rate (14.0%) and best hard-hit rate (46.3%) of his career in 2018, and after nearly a whole year off, he should be better rested and healthier than he has in years. The Tigers don't have much talent around him anymore, but he still has the skills to be a potent middle-of-the-order bat.
Are Shane Greene's saves worth it?
Shane Greene was a strong source of saves last year with 32, which tied for fourth in the AL and seventh in the MLB. Those saves came at a costly price for fantasy owners, however, as he also put up a ghastly 5.12 ERA and a 1.37 WHIP, essentially wiping out the value of his saves. Greene is slated to open the season as Detroit's closer, but is he still worth owning with his potentially damaging ratios? The main culprit for his struggles last year was an inflated home run rate, which more than doubled from 0.8 HR/9 in 2017 to 1.7 HR/9 in 2018 - well above his career 1.1 HR/9 mark. His 16.4% HR/FB rate was much higher than the league average as well as his career average, indicating bad luck. What's more, Greene was also slightly unlucky in terms of strand rate (69.7%) and BABIP (.311). These misfortunes masked the fact that he posted the best walk rate (2.7 BB/9) and K/BB ratio (3.4) of his career, resulting in a 4.05 xFIP that was more than a full run lower than his ERA. With better batted ball luck, Greene should bounce back if he's able to sustain those improvements. Accordingly, he is still worth taking on draft day and can likely be had for a discount in most leagues.
Can Michael Fulmer rebound?
Michael Fulmer's career has been trending down since he won the AL Rookie of the Year award in 2016, as his ERA, WHIP, H/9 rate, and K/BB ratio have all gotten progressively worse. Last year was especially rough for him, as he went 3-12 with a 4.69 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP - including a 5.38 ERA from May 7 onward - before his season was cut short by right knee surgery. Fulmer is still only going to be 26 this season, however, and did post the highest strikeout rate of his career last year at 7.5 K/9. His main issue was home runs, as he went from posting the AL's lowest home run rate in 2017 at 0.7 HR/9 to 1.3 HR/9 in 2018. His 14.5% HR/FB rate was significantly higher than his career mark of 11.4% and could come down this year. Fulmer was also somewhat unlucky with his subpar 68.2% strand rate and the highest BABIP of his career (.288). After outpitching his peripherals in his first two seasons, his ERA was higher than both his FIP (4.52) and xFIP (4.29) last year. Fulmer may be hard-pressed to replicate his 2016-2017 success and the Tigers won't help him win many games, but he's also capable of pitching better than he did last year, making him an intriguing fantasy option for 2019.
Around the League:
David Price (BOS) - Red Sox lefty David Price took the loss in his first spring start Tuesday against the Tigers after allowing two runs on two hits and two walks with four strikeouts over three innings. Both runs scored on a two-out homer in the third by Jordy Mercer, blemishing what had been an otherwise solid debut for the veteran southpaw. Price, who went 16-7 with a 3.58 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP last year before exorcising his playoff demons during Boston's World Series run, is expected to be a mainstay in the Red Sox rotation again at age 33. He's closing in on 2,000 career innings, however, so fantasy owners may want to opt for someone with less mileage come draft day.
Daniel Norris (DET) - Tigers lefty Daniel Norris won after tossing three scoreless innings against the Red Sox on Tuesday, allowing four hits and one walk with three strikeouts. The victory evened his spring record at 1-1 and lowered his ERA to 3.52, although his WHIP is still an obscene 1.70. The 25-year-old is going to have to do a better job limiting baserunners if he wants to keep his rotation job this year after going 5-13 with a 5.42 ERA and a 1.57 WHIP over the past two seasons combined. His strikeout potential (10.4 K/9 last year) makes him intriguing in AL-only leagues and deeper mixed leagues, but owners in standard leagues should avoid him until he figures out his control.
Jacob deGrom (NYM) - Mets righty Jacob deGrom lost after allowing two runs on six hits and no walks with six strikeouts in five innings against the Marlins on Tuesday. In a game reminiscent of last year, deGrom pitched well but received no run support, as New York didn't score until after he left the game and managed only one run total. Despite going 10-9 last year, deGrom still managed to win the NL Cy Young award on the strength of his ML-leading 1.70 ERA and 1.99 FIP. While he'll be hard-pressed to repeat those numbers, the 30-year-old is still one of the best hurlers in baseball and deserves to be one of the first arms taken off the board in fantasy drafts this spring.
Jorge Polanco (MIN) - Twins shortstop Jorge Polanco went 1-for-3 with a ground-rule double, a run, two RBIs and a walk against the Pirates on Tuesday. Polanco helped pace Minnesota's 10-4 victory with his second double and second and third RBIs of the spring, lifting his preseason average to .250 through eight games in the process. Coming off a solid .288/.345/.427 showing in 77 games last year, Polanco is capable of reaching double-digit homers and steals as well, making him a solid fantasy option for 2019.
Jameson Taillon (PIT) - Pirates righty Jameson Taillon took a no-decision vs. the Twins on Tuesday after allowing three runs on five hits and no walks with two strikeouts in four innings. Taillon got off to a rocky start in his spring debut by allowing two quick runs in the first inning, but he settled down and yielded just one additional run over the following three frames. The fourth-year hurler is coming off a career year in which he went 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP over 191 innings, making him a solid fantasy option across all leagues.
Adam Frazier (PIT) - Pirates outfielder Adam Frazier went 2-for-4 with a double, a run and two RBIs out of the leadoff spot vs. the Twins on Tuesday. Frazier is off to a hot start this spring with a .333 average, a 1.135 OPS and four RBIs through four games. Although he's only logged 870 official at-bats over the past three seasons, he's been one of the more underrated outfield bats in the NL during that time, slashing .280/.345/.422 with 78 extra-base hits and 14 steals. The 27-year-old could be in line for a breakout this year if he secures regular playing time, making him a bench piece to consider at the end of fantasy drafts.
Miles Mikolas (STL) - Cardinals righty Miles Mikolas lost against the Braves on Tuesday after allowing five runs on eight hits and no walks with two strikeouts in five-plus innings. He was undone by a two-run homer in the second and a solo shot in the fourth before being charged for two more runs in the sixth without recording an out. The 30-year-old had not allowed an earned run in either of his previous two spring outings, however, so Tuesday's outing isn't cause for alarm. Mikolas will look to build on a wildly successful 2018 that saw him pace the NL in wins (18) and post a 2.83 ERA despite allowing the most hits (!86) in the Senior Circuit.
Ronald Acuna Jr. (ATL) - Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. went 3-for-3 with a double, two runs and two RBIs vs. the Cardinals on Tuesday. Acuna paced Atlanta's 5-0 victory over St. Louis by falling a triple shy of the cycle, blasting his third home run of the spring with a fourth-inning solo shot off Miles Mikolas. The 21-year-old sophomore is now batting a scalding .360 with a 1.208 OPS across 11 spring games and looks poised to become a superstar after taking last year's NL Rookie of the Year honors. Time will tell if pitchers expose him in his second full season, but until they do the sky's the limit.
Aaron Sanchez (TOR) - Blue Jays righty Aaron Sanchez settled for a no-decision vs. the Rays on Tuesday after yielding just one hit and one walk with three strikeouts over four scoreless innings. Sanchez was in command against Toronto's divisional rivals, retiring the first nine batters he faced while keeping his spring ERA spotless. Sanchez has struggled with injuries since winning the AL ERA crown in 2016, going 5-9 with a 4.72 ERA and a 1.60 WHIP in 28 starts over the past two seasons combined, but he's looking like a prime comeback candidate thus far. The 26-year-old needs to keep his walks down after issuing 5.0 BB/9 in each of the last two seasons, but if he does he has the skills to be a draft day steal.
Tyler Flowers (ATL) - Braves catcher Tyler Flowers went 1-for-3 with a two-run homer Tuesday vs. the Cardinals. Flowers connected for just his second hit of the spring in his first at-bat against Miles Mikolas to put Atlanta ahead 2-0 in the second. Both of Flowers' hits have left the yard, however, which is somewhat surprising given that he's never been much of a power threat. Flowers has quietly been one of the NL's better hitting catchers since joining the Braves prior to 2016, slashing .261/.360/.411 in his three seasons with Atlanta. While the 33-year-old doesn't play regularly enough to merit consideration in standard mixed leagues, he's more than adequate in two-catcher formats and NL-only leagues.