The Power to Sell
It's not that Marcell Ozuna was miserable last year. He provided baseline results: .280/.325/.433, but his 2018 was so much worse than his 2017. After breaking out with a .237 ISO and .376 OBP in his final year in Miami, Ozuna was more like his previous version as a member of the Cardinals. Some have credited the shoulder injury that eventually led to offseason surgery, but if he was dealing with a sore shoulder late in the season, why were August and September two of his most productive months? In other words, it's dangerous to just chalk up his down season as injury-related. In fact, last year's results are eerily similar to his pre-2017 season. It was actually his third time finishing with 23 home runs (the only time he finished with more was when he had 37 in 2017). Clearly his 23.4% HR/FB rate of 2017 was an anomaly as it regressed to 13.9% last year, which is in line with career norms.
Nonetheless, there is enough on the table to believe in a semi-rebound in 2019. For one, Ozuna's hard hit rate increased each of the last four seasons, all the way to an elite 45.2% in 2018. He also had a career high 76.6% contact rate. I actually think Ozuna was a bit unlucky in those first couple months. His HR/FB rate was miniscule despite that consistently high hard hit rate. It's interesting, if you look closely at his development last year, to wonder if he started trying too hard after his early struggles. For instance, from July-September, Ozuna who never had a pull percentage more than 40% in his career, pulled the ball nearly 47% of the time. He continued to make solid contact, but he was lofting more fly balls and clearly forcing them to the left side of the field. Over that same span, Ozuna struggled mightily with offspeed pitches, hammering fastballs, primarily in the air to left field. While that obviously resulted in more home runs over that stretch, it also limited his overall production. It's not to say you don't want Ozuna jacking the ball over the left field fence. Of course you do, but if he's forcing it, perhaps because of early season struggles, he's not the complete player he can be.
2019 is a new season, with an improved supporting cast featuring Paul Goldschmidt. A whole offseason of, yes surgery, but also getting comfortable with his team could pay dividends. Fantistics projects Ozuna for a very reasonable 30 home runs. It's not 2017 but it's better than 2018.
Finding A Spot For Tyler O'Neill
On Friday, the Cardinals told O'Neill he made the Opening Day roster. On Saturday he went 4-5 with a double in a 4-4 tie with Washington. However, he is still presumably being cast as St. Louis' fourth outfielder, behind Dexter Fowler who was 0-4 with three strikeouts on Saturday. O'Neill obviously offers enormously more fantasy upside than Fowler with extreme raw power but atrocious plate discipline. However, it appears the Cardinals don't see O'Neill as an everyday player, and that's understandable based off his 56% contact rate in limited time last year. O'Neill has never had a swinging strike rate less than 15% in the minors, and it spiked to 22% in his 2018 MLB callup. Yet he still produced the power that carried him through the minor leagues. That is continuing through this year's spring training as the 23 year old has five home runs in 60 at bats. In the era of Three True Outcomes, O'Neill seemingly has a fit, but can he improve his plate discipline enough to persuade the Cardinals' brass to give him more starts? And if not, will a bench role allow him to improve his game with less frequent at bats? It's a wishy-washy situation that favors a trade of some sort, but as it stands right now with an apparently limited opportunity, it's difficult to trust O'Neill in season long leagues. On the flipside, he always offers DFS value with "double-dong" potential every time his name is penciled into the lineup.
The 5th Man
Over a month ago I opined on the construction of this Cardinals rotation. This was before Carlos Martinez was officially out and Reyes was officially assigned to the bullpen. It was before Austin Gomber stumbled to a 10.64 ERA in spring training. At that time, Dakota Hudson, one of St. Louis' top prospects was a dark horse candidate for the rotation. Well, on Thursday manager Mike Shildt named Hudson the team's fifth starter to open the season. Hudson has been excellent this spring and was solid in a brief bullpen run in the majors last year. He is not an elite strikeout guy, but a highly effective sinker induces a whole lot of groundballs, which fits in nicely in the St. Louis rotation.
The Cardinals have enough depth and bullpen versatility to ease Hudson into his first MLB season as a starter, and that could mean short outings. Plus, the NL Central is one of the toughest divisions to pitch, but with a skillset that should translate well to Busch Stadium and on a team that has high win potential, Hudson provides enough value, as long as his draft position doesn't take too much of a meteoric rise (NFBC ADP is up about 100 spots over the last two days).
Robinson Cano, Don't You Know
Despite going 0-5 in Saturday's game, Cano is still slashing a cool .404/.446/.577 this spring. After serving a suspension for PEDs last year, Cano was quite productive for the Mariners. While his BABIP was 35 points higher than 2017, his hard hit rate was up as well. In fact, most of his numbers were consistent. All Cano does is hit. There is some concern with the move to New York. While T-Mobile Park (formerly Safeco Field) is no slugger's paradise, Citi Field is arguably the worst park for left-handed hitters. Furthermore, the NL East features several elite pitchers. Nonetheless, there is still so much to like about the 36-year-old slugger. For one, did you know that Cano ranked in the top 10 in all of baseball in average exit velocity last year? Did you know he had his second lowest HR/FB rate since 2008 and second lowest chase rate since 2009?
There is a natural tendency to cast aside aging players like Cano in fantasy drafts, whether it's a result of expected regression or simply because he's just been around a long time, but there's no question Cano can help, especially at a relatively thin 2nd base position.
An Opportunity for J.D.
Sometimes injuries can be a good thing. Like in the case of Mets 3rd baseman J.D. Davis who will likely start the season with the big league team due to the injuries of veterans Jed Lowrie and Todd Frazier. Davis bounced around the Astros organization last year, never really finding his footing at the major league level. Nonetheless, in 333 AAA at bats, Davis hit .342 with 17 home runs. He still has too much swing-and-miss in his game, but it is worth noting that has come down throughout his professional career (his swinging strike rate was 13.9% in 113 plate appearances with the Astros last year). The important thing is whether he makes enough contact to show off his raw power. He has never had an ISO under .216 in the minors and he hit 30 home runs across three levels in 2017.
The obvious concern is we haven't seen Davis translate his minor league success to the major leagues, but remember he was moved around quite a bit last year. Furthermore, his groundball rate is 53.8% across two major league seasons. Contrast that with his minor league production, where he typically had a groundball rate in the low 40's. Once he gets regular at bats, which might come as soon as this year, expect his ground ball rate to follow alongside his minor league history. That means an improved BABIP (it was .233 with the Astros last year) and obviously more power. Davis profiles as a hitter that needs opportunities to produce in the big leagues, and right now there are opportunities. Unfortunately, Lowrie and Frazier will eventually return and that could cost him opportunity. Until they go down again.
Rebuilding the Wheel
There is so much to like about Zack Wheeler heading into 2019. I like his career high 10.7% swinging strike rate from last season. I like his 3.25 FIP. I like that he pitches half his games in Citi Field. More than anything, I like that he threw 182 innings last year, especially coming off back to back injury-riddled seasons. The former top prospect found his pre-injury velocity and limited opponents to a .221 batting average and an MLB-best 24.8% hard hit rate. He uses four pitches, all are effective and he is getting hitters to chase more than ever. While he will likely see an uptick in his 8.1% HR/FB rate, Wheeler has the legitimate upside to finish as a top-10 SP. Because of his injury history and an improved Mets bullpen, it's unlikely he will approach 200 innings, but then again, these days who does throw 200? In NFBC leagues, Wheeler has gone as high as 42 and as low as 129. Not a whole lot not to like about that.
AROUND THE LEAGUE:
Ian Happ, INF/OF (CHC)
In a surprising move, the Chicago Cubs demoted Happ to the minor leagues. Happ spent all of last year with the big league club, hitting .233 with 15 home runs, but he had a ghastly 36.1% strikeout rate and 63.5% contact rate. Even with Addison Russell out for the first month of the season finishing his suspension, Happ couldn't secure a spot on the Cubs' roster. Chicago manager Joe Maddon said he hopes the former first-round pick can improve his hitting against right-handed pitching, even though he actually hit much better from the left side in 2018. That begs the question as to whether the Cubs see Happ as simply a platoon player and nothing more. It's also fair to wonder if he will ever improve his plate discipline. He has never had a swinging strike rate below 15% at either AAA or MLB. It is still likely too early to give up on him. Remember, he had 24 home runs in 413 plate appearances in 2017 and a 15.2% walk rate last year. He is still an above-average offensive player, but right now he's nothing more than a project for the Cubs, and that means he offers no value for your fantasy team.
Alex Cobb, SP (BAL)
Cobb exited his spring training start on Saturday with soreness in his groin. It's an ominous start to his season, coming after a brutal season that saw Cobb suffer through a 6.41 ERA in the 1st half of 2018. He actually rebounded with decent 2nd half numbers, including a 2.56 ERA, but that was boosted by a .249 BABIP. He said he will not get an MRI, but nonetheless, this groin injury could affect his availability to start the season. When he does come back, you can expect results somewhere in between his 2018 first half and second half.
Gio Gonzalez, SP (NYY)
Gonzalez's outside chance of making the Yankees starting rotation took a big whack on Saturday when he gave up five runs in two innings in his first spring appearance. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. took him deep in the 6th for a 2-run homer, and the veteran lefty departed with five hits allowed, two walks and zero strikeouts. Gonzalez has always been inconsistent, but what is trending in the wrong direction is his FIP. It has gone up every year since 2014. Furthermore, he just doesn't seem to have a spot in the Yankees rotation, even with the Pinstripes battling multiple injuries. General manager Brian Cashman implied he'd rather his young guys get a shot than Gonzalez. There is a strong possibility Gio will be offered the opportunity to stick around for insurance or accept his release. In other words, lay off for fantasy purposes.
Scooter Gennett, 2B (CIN)
The Reds announced Gennett is expected to miss 8-12 weeks after suffering a severe groin strain in Cincinnati's spring training game against Milwaukee on Friday. This is awful news after Gennett put up back to back fantasy relevant seasons. After hitting 50 homers with a .300+ batting average between 2017-2018, fantasy owners are now left with a glaring hole at the keystone. Cincinnati is expected to move Jose Peraza to 2nd base and insert Jose Iglesias into the starting lineup at shortstop. This is the Reds' alternative to simply bypassing the service time issues and calling up top prospect Nick Senzel to play his natural position of 2nd base. Iglesias immediately garners slight interest, mostly for stolen bases as he nabbed 15 last year, but the real key to watch is Senzel and when they ultimately decide to call him up. Another indirect result of Gennett's injury is Scott Schebler's path to an even more extended run in centerfield.
Justin Verlander, SP (HOU)
Not long after Verlander reportedly agreed to a two-year extension worth $66 million, he dominated in his final spring start. Verlander threw four scoreless innings, striking out nine and allowing only two hits in an Astros' win over Miami. He threw 42 of 54 pitches for strikes and said he made a physical adjustment that has him more comfortable. Verlander finishes the spring with a 2.60 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 17 innings. Verlander goes where his fastball goes. As he continues to hold a velocity around 95 miles per hour, he will continue to pitch at an elite level. Analysts may be scared off by his elevated 85.3% strand rate from 2018, and it's fair to expect that to drop, but Verlander's elite arsenal does elicit a higher strand rate, and even mild regression in his overall numbers is still elite. I'm not sure if people still have nightmares of Verlander's struggles of 2014, but as long as his fastball remains effective with a proper velocity, there is nothing to suggest dramatic regression.
Matt Duffy, 3B (TB)
Duffy was scratched from Saturday's spring training game with renewed soreness in his hamstring. It's an injury he's been battling since February and almost certainly implies a trip to the injured list to start the regular season. Duffy hit .294 with four home runs and 12 stolen bases in regular time with the Rays last season, but that solid batting average was boosted by a .353 BABIP. He is certainly limited in the power department, and it is fair to wonder if, upon his return from the IL, he will have a regular spot in Tampa Bay's starting lineup. The Rays are expected to play 24-year-old Brandon Lowe along with Daniel Robertson in his absence, and there's enough to believe those players are actually more productive than Duffy. Duffy's roster spot is expected to be occupied by veteran outfielder Guillermo Heredia.
Mark Reynolds, 1B (COL)
The Rockies are opting to include Reynolds on their 25-man roster to start the regular season. One of the bridge players to the Three True Outcomes era continues to kick around in his 30's. Reynolds featured a .228 ISO in 2018, which was actually his highest since 2011. He hit 13 home runs in 235 plate appearances and now returns to Colorado where he hit 30 long balls in 2017. He will not see as many at bats as he did two years ago, but he will always be a DFS play at home against lefties. Last year he had a 133 wRC+ against lefties and that is primarily how the Rockies will utilize him.
Robbie Ray, SP (ARI)
In Robbie Ray's final spring training start, the 27-year-old lefty punched out 11 Giants in 5.1 innings. Ray can strike guys out. That is a constant. We're still trying to figure out what else this guy is. Is he the all-star from 2017 who went 15-5 with a 2.89 ERA? Or the SP4 from 2018 that had 6 wins and a near-4.00 ERA? As is often the case, he's probably somewhere in between. In 2017, his BABIP was .267. That is inordinately low considering his 40% hard hit rate. The BABIP jumped to .292 in 2018 and that seems more in line with what Ray's peripherals suggest. His walk rate also jumped from '17 to '18 , and he will have trouble producing all-star caliber numbers if he can't improve on last year's 13.3% BB rate. However, as Ray dwindles in the 40's and 50's for ADP among pitchers, it's important to remember this guy's strikeout potential. Yes, there are questions, but as long as he's out there, the strikeouts will pile up. Sometimes that's enough to value him for fantasy purposes.
Devin Mesoraco, C (NYM)
Devin Mesoraco is leaving the New York Mets, shortly after being told he will not make the major league roster. Refusing to report to minor league camp, Mesoraco can either be granted his release by the team or they will have to put him on their restricted list. The veteran backstop was hitting .231 with one home run this spring, but the Mets believe youngster Tomas Nido gives them better defense and so Nido will back up Wilson Ramos until Travis d'Arnaud returns from Tommy John surgery.
Francisco Lindor, SS (CLE)
Lindor went 2-4 with three RBIs in a minor league game on Saturday. Lindor will start the season on the injured list as he continues to recover from a strained calf, but it does not appear the five-category stud will be out long. Those fantasy owners that picked up Lindor late in the 2nd round shortly after the Indians announced his injury can feel good about his status. Lindor may not steal 25 bases again, based on the nature of the injury and the missed time, but his progressively improved power is well-supported by a continued increase to his hard hit rate and launch angle. In fact, it's still reasonable to expect his batting average to improve from the .270's of the past two years closer to the .300's of his previous two years. His BABIP was under .280 in 2017 and 2018, and his excellent hard hit rate imply positive regression on his balls in play.
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