Will deGrom Regress?
Search, if you'd like, for reasons why Jacob deGrom will regress. Sure, you'll find them. For one, he is unlikely to sustain last year's 6.3% HR/FB rate. His 82% strand rate could foretell mild regression, and his .281 BABIP was the 2nd-lowest of his career. However, there are far more reasons to believe deGrom is poised for another Cy Young-caliber season. Going back to that .281 BABIP: yes, it was a vast improvement from his two previous seasons, but it is also correlated to his impressive 26.6% hard hit rate against, 5.4% increase in chase rate and an uptick in the use of his offspeed pitches. His slight increase in fastball velocity may not be as important as the two miles per hour added to his slider, which he used nearly a quarter of the time in 2018.
It's hard to expect a repeat of his 1.70 ERA, but then again we may not see that ERA for another 25 years. However his improved pitches, in terms of velocity and selection, support his incredible 15.1% swinging strike rate. So if you seek regression, you'll probably get it, but if you want an ace in 2019, you're likely to get that, too. Oh yeah, the Mets agree. They named him Opening Day starter on Thursday. However, deGrom was asked about the idea of a self-imposed innings limit as his agents continue to negotiate an extension with the Mets. If no deal is agreed upon, deGrom said that limited work is something he and his agents will consider.
New Additions Showcase New Strategy
The Mets have a new general manager, former sports agent Brodie Van Wagenen. He's already made a number of moves, most prominently the deal that brought in Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz from the Mariners. Let's start with Cano: 2018 was Cano's first season with less than 600 plate appearances since 2006. Of course that was a result of his suspension for PEDs. He still managed to produce at a similar level to previous seasons, albeit in a limited capacity. His ISO and wOBA were consistent with recent years, but notably his walk rate and OBP improved. That is likely something Van Wagenen is banking on as Cano takes his talents to Citi Field.
In fact, the Mets added three starting hitters this offseason: Cano, Wilson Ramos and Jed Lowrie. All three will likely bat in the middle of the lineup, and all three posted OBPs over .350. I imagine that was intentional by the new regime as the Mets ranked 21st in OBP in 2018 at .312. Adding players like Cano, Ramos and Lowrie will benefit the rest of the lineup and will also cause more problems for opposing pitchers. Whereas the Mets were an offense to target against in 2018, that may not be as much of a given this year. It may also lead to more than 10 wins for Jacob deGrom.
Nimmo in a Platoon?
Nimmo was very good in his first full major league season. What's impressive, for a player who never had an ISO over .200 in the minor leagues, is that he hit 17 home runs in 535 plate appearances. He also added 9 steals, although he was caught 6 times.
What is concerning is Nimmo's struggles against lefties. He hit .234 with a 32.5% strikeout rate against southpaws. His OPS was .946 against righties, .742 against lefties. In fact, all three projected starters in the outfield are left-handed hitters, although Michael Conforto and Jeff McNeil aren't as susceptible to the LHP/RHP splits as Nimmo. So the Mets traded for right-handed Keon Broxton in January, who has a 111 career wRC+ against lefties versus a 84 wRC+ against righties. New York also still has Juan Lagares in the outfield, another hitter with more career success against lefties. It all begs the question as to whether Nimmo will be on the strong side of a platoon in centerfield. If so, he may not exceed the 535 plate appearances he had last year, and therefore he may not see a dramatic increase in home runs or steals.
This Rotation Goes to 11
The Cardinals pitching staff is funky this year. In 2018, St. Louis featured 11 different starters. Austin Gomber and Daniel Ponce de Leon made their MLB debuts while mainstays Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez battled injuries. Luke Weaver put together his first full season before being shipped to Arizona in the Paul Goldschmidt deal. Miles Mikolas was a revelation and Jack Flaherty showed true promise. So what do we make of this unit for 2019?
Mikolas, Flaherty and Martinez are expected to anchor the rotation. Wainwright and Wacha are projected to fill the fourth and fifth slots. Because of the injury concerns throughout the rotation, look for some of those younger guys to continue to be filtered in and out of the rotation. John Gant is the logical "next man up" after logging 19 starts in 2018 and posting solid yet unspectacular results. Ponce de Leon outperformed his minor league pedigree, but being a flyball pitcher is well-suited for Busch Stadium so he is worth monitoring, particularly in DFS (although coincidentally he was much better on the road last year). One sleeper to keep an eye on is Gomber. Despite being moved in and out of the rotation and up and down from MLB to AAA, the young lefty managed to finish 6-2 with a 4.03 FIP in 11 starts. He posted a 9.3% swinging strike rate, but has a minor league track record of inducing double-digit swinging strike rates at every level. He features an average fastball, changeup and slider but an above average curveball. He may not open the year in the Cardinals' rotation, but he will likely get a shot and don't be surprised if he holds onto that spot. If so, he'd be pitching for a winning team in a friendly ballpark and could be a big boost in fantasy.
The big question mark on the Cardinals' pitching staff is...
Alex Reyes: Is This the Year?
Let's get this out of the way: due to the number of capable arms in the system, the Cardinals have no reason to push Reyes. Whether he is used as a starter or reliever and whether he pitches primarily at AAA-Memphis or St. Louis, he is unlikely to throw a lot of innings. However his talent level, as has been enumerated on this site, is off the charts. He's still only 24 years old and is almost two years removed from Tommy John surgery. Yes, he only had one major league start last season before being shut down with a lat injury, but he was superb in four minor league outings while making his way back to the big leagues. He should be fully healthy from the elbow surgery of 2016 and the lat surgery last June, and depending on what role he is thrust into, Reyes could provide moderate fantasy gains in 2019 and is an obvious target in dynasty/keeper leagues for 2020.
The Cardinals 'Gold' Mine
As the Cubs and Brewers battered each other en route to the two best records in the National League last year, the Cardinals missed the playoffs for the third straight season. Rather than let their talented division rivals coast again in 2019, St. Louis addressed the offense in a big way. After putting up middle-of-the-pack totals in wOBA, wRC+ and ISO, the Cards traded youth and speculation for Paul Goldschmidt. On the surface, Goldy's .290/.389/.533 appears to be his worst offensive season since an injury-riddled 2014, but you must take into account a horrid start to the season. On May 22, 2018, Paul Goldschmidt had a .301 wOBA and a 71.5% contact rate. From May 23rd on, he had a .428 wOBA and a 77.8% contact rate. It was never clear just what went wrong in the first two months of the season, but what is clear is that Goldschmidt returned to the player he's been.
Yes, he's 31 years old and, yes, he does not steal bases like he used to, but his power is still very real. Busch Stadium is not the most rewarding to hitters, especially right-handed hitters, but of Goldschmidt's 33 home runs last year, only six were "Just Enough" (barely got over the fence). Fantistics projects the 31 year old for 31 long balls in 2019. Consider the improved cast around him, the fact the Cardinals' OBP without Goldschmidt was .321 and the Diamondbacks' OBP with Goldschmidt was .310, and expect his runs and RBIs to return to triple digits.
Lastly, a final reminder: when you're looking at his diminished plate discipline, remember that is dramatically skewed from those first two months. Goldschmidt was right in line with career norms from June-September.
AROUND THE LEAGUE:
Max Kepler, OF (MIN)
The Twins were in the giving mood on Thursday, handing out multiple extensions, including a 5-year, $35-million extension to Max Kepler. Kepler is floating around a number of fantasy sleeper lists this year, and most are pointing to his improved EYE (0.41 in 2017, 0.74 in 2018), but perhaps the most glaring distinction between Kepler's last two seasons is an improved contact rate (78.9% to 83.3%) and a drastic alteration to his batted ball profile. After hitting the ball on the ground nearly half the time in 2016, he was down to a 37.8% ground ball rate last year. In accordance, his fly balls increased nearly seven percent. This all correlates with a greater launch angle (12.7 to 16.2), which then led to an enhanced Barrel rate (4.0 to 6.6). All the improvements only led to one more home run in 2018, but he had a sub-10% HR/FB rate for the first time in his career and his BABIP was a measly .236.
Jorge Polanco, SS (MIN)
While the Twins were executing a 5-year extension on Kepler, they were also adding another five years to Jorge Polanco for $25.75 million. Polanco missed 80 games last year while serving a suspension for PEDs, but he delivered a fine performance in his return. He already showed double digit power and speed in 2017, and he displayed the same traits last year. He improved his batting average, coupled with an extra 70 points on his BABIP. However, don't discount the improved BABIP as he hit way more line drives and registered a higher hard hit rate (who needs steroids?!). Assuming health, he should eclipse 600 plate appearances for the first time in his career and is a nice underrated fantasy asset.
Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., 3B (TOR)
Toronto general manager Ross Atkins said young talent Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has no timetable for a major league callup. Every year we have this situation where an elite prospect is held down in the minor leagues for the first few weeks of the regular season while his organization plays the service time game. They always use the "he needs to work on his defense" excuse. Look no further than the minor league ghosts of Kris Bryant and Ronald Acuña. In terms of fantasy, Bryant and Acuña both offered solid returns in their rookie seasons, and Vlad could provide the same boost. It just likely won't come until mid to late April.
Matt Harvey, SP (LAA)
Less than a week after we heard all about how fit Matt Harvey was and how focused he is on resurrecting his career, the new Angels pitcher is out with an injury. Not expected to be anything too serious (where have we heard that before?), Harvey will be shut down for 10 days while he deals with strained glute. Apparently he's still butthurt after the way his tenure with the Mets ended. The team doesn't expect the injury to affect his status for the regular season, but it is always worth keeping an eye on. Harvey finished 2018 with a 4.94 ERA/4.21 xFIP.
Mychal Givens, RP (BAL)
New Baltimore manager Brandon Hyde said he "won't manage to the save stat." I love that as a baseball evolutionist but hate that as a fantasy owner. Givens finished last season as the Orioles' primary closer, converting 9 of 13 save opportunities. He threw more than 70 innings for the third consecutive year, but on a bad team without a secure 9th-inning role, Givens will be hard to invest in for fantasy purposes. He struggled to an 0-7 record with a 3.99 ERA in 2018. He had a bit of bad luck, however, as his strand rate was under 65%. He is probably somewhere between his solid 2017 and uninspiring 2018.
Buster Posey, C (SF)
Posey Watch continues this week as the former MVP keeps working without setbacks from last year's labrum and hip surgeries. He continues to hit in the batting cage and so far has not reported any issues. Posey produced the lowest batting average and home run totals of his career in 2018, but of course he was hampered by those injuries. He's still only 31 years old and continues to make excellent contact while producing career norms in hard hit rate (even reduced for inflation) so I still feel there is potential for modest gains, especially as people seem so turned off by the former top fantasy catcher. With that being said, I keep thinking how many years Posey's career could be prolonged if MLB does eventually bring the DH to the National League.
Nick Senzel, SS (CIN)
Cincinnati manager David Bell said it "is more than possible" Senzel will not only see time in the outfield, he could be the Reds' starting centerfielder. He's played almost exclusively at 3rd base in the minor leagues, but the Reds have Eugenio Suarez at 3rd, Jose Peraza at SS and Scooter Gennett at 2nd. Senzel has good on-base skills, excellent speed and budding power. Fantistics prospect analyst Lou Blasi gives Senzel a Long Term Fantasy Grade of 'A.'
Doug Fister, SP (FA)
Doug Fister is hanging up his cleats, according to his agent. Retiring at 35 years old, Fister made 12 starts for the Rangers last year, finishing with a 1-7 record and a 4.50 ERA. He was always a pitch-to-contact arm, but last year his swinging strike rate was a pitiful 5.1%. He had a nice two-year run where he won 30 games from 2013-2014, but he never finished with an ERA under 4.00 after that.
Jake Arrieta, SP (PHI)
Heading into his second season in Philadelphia, Arrieta revealed he is coming off knee surgery after a torn meniscus he suffered last June. That is of major interest as the former Cy Young winner was 5-2 with a 2.16 ERA in April and May and 5-9 with a 4.88 ERA from June through the end of the season. Interestingly, his xFIP was nearly identical between those two stretches. Even if his knee is healthy, Arrieta's swinging strike rate has dropped precipitously while his FIP has risen each of the last four seasons. Also, don't discount the effect of Philadelphia's catcher change. Jorge Alfaro, despite numerous other fielding limitations, was an excellent pitch framer while the incoming J.T. Realmuto is one of the worst.
Robbie Grossman, OF (OAK)
Grossman signed a one-year contract with the Athletics after spending the last 3+ seasons in the Twins' organization. Grossman's on-base skills are excellent, but he doesn't offer much power and hasn't displayed the type of speed he showed early in his minor league career (he stole 35 bases in 2009 at A-West Virginia). Furthermore he does not have an everyday role, and because he hits LHPs far better than RHPs, he will likely see the weak side of a platoon. In other words, Grossman can be ignored in the majority of leagues.