Entering the 2018 campaign, Cubs C Willson Contreras was widely regarded as a top-3 fantasy option at the position. After all, the then-25 year-old was coming off a strong 2017 season in which he batted .276 with 21 homers and 74 RBI over 428 plate appearances (good for a 122 wRC+). But 2018 was disappointing for his fantasy owners, as he hit just .249 with 10 longballs and 54 RBI over a career-high 544 plate appearances (for a merely average 100 wRC+). He actually struck out slightly less than in 2017 (down 0.7% to 22.2%) while also walking less often (down to 9.7% from 10.5%), so his batted ball profile is important to explaining his decline. His hard-hit rate dipped from 35.5% in 2017 to just 28.9% last year while his groundball clip remained high at 52% (53.3% in 2017). Some regression, especially in the power department, was certainly to be expected last season, as he was unlikely to replicate his 25.9% HR/FB from 2017. If his 2017 production was a bit on the high side with his 2018 output on the other end of the spectrum (his 9.3% HR/FB and .141 ISO from last season both seem a tad low), I would expect something in between for him in 2019; that would make him a solid option given the weak state of the position overall for fantasy purposes.
The New Backstop
Although pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez was the centerpiece of the deal that sent J.T. Realmuto to Philadelphia, Miami C Jorge Alfaro should be fantasy relevant in 2019. The 25 year-old was ranked the sixth best prospect in baseball entering last season, although back in 2016 he was ranked first. His star has lost a bit of its luster over the last couple of years, but he put together a decent .262 average with 10 homers and 37 RBI over 377 plate appearances with the Phillies last season, with the average a pleasant surprise given his history of contact issues and the fact that his power (graded 70 raw) is his calling card at the plate. While there is reason to believe that he would produce more in the power department in the event that he gets more regular playing time with his new squad, some of the peripherals are alarming. Right off the bat, his 36.6% strikeout rate and 4.8% walk rate last season largely reflect trends from his minor league career, and his .406 BABIP indicates that he'd be very lucky to eclipse a .260 batting average again. Alfaro's 37.7% hard-hit rate in 2018 was solid, but he also hit 47.8% groundballs compared to 29% flyballs. Ultimately, the young backstop has the potential to continue to develop and become a useful contributor in the HR department, but I wouldn't bank on him being an asset in 2019 as he continues to settle into the majors.
Marlins OF Lewis Brinson was a popular breakout candidate going into the 2018 season, but his performance fell well short of expectations. Entering the campaign, the centerpiece of the deal that sent Christian Yelich to Milwaukee was ranked the number 27 overall prospect in baseball, and Miami committed to him as their starting CF from the first day of the season. But at season's end, he had just a .199 batting average to go along with 11 homers and two stolen bases over 406 plate appearances. Brinson did miss nearly two months of action with right hip inflammation, but he produced neither before nor after that injury. He struck out 29.6% of the time, walked in just 4.2% of at-bats, and hit 51.9% grounders. His hard-hit rate was a solid 38.6%, but only 16.8% of his contact produced line-drives and 31.3% were flyballs. Brinson is just 24 and boasts tremendous raw talent, so it's too early to write him off entirely, but given his mighty struggles in 2018 I would take a wait-and-see approach. After all, he showed little sign of progress down the stretch last season, batting just .239 with a single homer and a lone stolen base over the 92 plate appearances that followed his return from the DL; his strikeout rate was still high at 27.4% and his walk rate actually dropped to 3.2%. He might have been pressing given the high expectations for him, but the numbers give little reason for optimism in the near future.
What's Up with Brian Anderson?
Miami 3B/OF Brian Anderson was never touted as one of the game's top prospects (or even one of the top couple of prospects in the Marlins system), yet he made one of the most solid (if unspectacular) splashes by a rookie in 2018. Over 670 plate appearances with the big club, he batted .273 with 11 homers, 65 RBI, and 84 runs scored, recording a nice 113 wRC+. The rookie very much held his own at the plate, striking out a reasonable 19.3% of the time while recording a walk rate of 9.3%. His batted ball profile raises some concerns, though, for while the 38.2% hard-hit rate was solid, his 51.8% grounder clip is concerning given that he isn't exactly a speedster (2 stolen bases last year). Perhaps predictably, he did fade down the stretch last season, as he hit just .245 with 3 homers, 16 RBI, and 32 runs scored in 246 plate appearances following the All-Star break. Although this may simply indicate that he tired as the season progressed, it is concerning that he regressed instead of showing growth after his solid start to the season (.288 with 8 homers, 49 RBI, and 55 runs scored over 424 first-half PAs). His strikeout rate did climb to 23.2% during the second half (17% before the All-Star break) while he made less hard contact (35.3% after the All-Star break compared to 39.7% before). With all that in mind, I would say it's tough to be bullish on Anderson going into the 2019 campaign; his sluggish second half raises some red flags.
Is Williams For Real?
On the surface, Pirates SP Trevor Williams enjoyed a strong 2018 campaign, as he recorded a 3.11 ERA and 1.18 WHIP, both of which were significant improvements over his 4.11 ERA and 1.31 WHIP from 2017. He was especially impressive during the second half of the season, when he posted a 1.38 ERA and 1.07 WHIP over 71.2 IP. But one doesn't have to look under the hood very long to see why he will likely regress in 2019. His 4.54 xFIP and 4.68 SIERA over the full season certainly raise an eyebrow, with his .261 BABIP allowed, 0.79 HR/9, and 6.64 K/9 highlighting the discrepancy between the low ERA and the considerably higher advanced metrics. Even during his magical second half, his xFIP was 4.19, driven by an astounding 90.8% strand rate and absurd 0.38 HR/9. Interestingly, his velocity dipped considerably across the board last year, with his fastball down to 90.5 MPH (down 1.6 from 2017), his slider down to 81.5 MPH (down 2.6), and his change-up down to 82.3 MPH (down 2). All the signs point to a guy who benefited from lots of good luck, so as a fantasy owner I would be wary of Williams in 2019.
Can Bell Bounce Back?
After he batted .255 with 26 homers and 90 RBI over 620 plate appearances in 2017 - his first full MLB season - Pirates 1B Josh Bell logged a disappointing .261 with just 12 home runs and 62 RBI over 583 plate appearances last year. A look at the peripherals suggests that he should be able to rebound in the power department in 2019. Despite his ISO dropping from .211 to .150 from 2017 to 2018, his hard-hit rate was actually up 1.2% last season while his flyball and line-drive rates were both up 1.3%, meaning his grounder rate was down 2.6%. His HR/FB rate plummeted from a high 19.1% in 2017 to just 9.2% last year, perhaps in part because his pull rate went down 7.7% and his centerfield rate jumped 8%. Bell made strides at the plate overall, as evidenced by his 13.2% walk rate (up 2.6%) and his 17.8% strikeout clip (down 1.1%). He was never touted for his power in particular as he ascended the minors, but even a return to 20 dingers paired with his excellent on-base skills would make Bell a solid CI option, especially in OPB leagues; his 6'4", 235-pound frame certainly offers hope for even more longballs as he enters the 2019 at just 26 years of age.
Keep an Eye On...
Pittsburgh SP prospect Mitch Keller. He's the #1 prospect in the Pittsburg organization, the #6 pitching prospect in all of baseball, and the #19 overall prospect according to MLB.com. And the good news for fantasy owners is that the 22 year-old flamethrower is close to the majors, as he made 10 Triple-A starts last season. MLB.com grades his fastball a 65 with good sink, and his curveball as a second plus pitch at 55. Keller's changeup reportedly improved over the 2018 season, developing into an average third offering. He fans plenty of batters (9.8 K/9 over his 10 Triple-A starts last season), and the walks typically aren't a problem despite a spike in those last season as he reportedly pressed a bit following his promotion to Triple-A (3.78 BB/9, up from the 3.35 that he logged over 14 Double-A starts in 2018 and up from the 2.33 he recorded over 15 High-A starts in 2017); but he did finish strong after his bumpy start at his most recent level. Although he will most likely begin the season back in Indianapolis, Keller's stuff and command make him worth adding to your watch list in case he gets the call partway through the season.
At a time when the catcher position lacks obvious top-end options, a guy like Toronto C Danny Jansen should be on fantasy owners' radars as a potential value pick. In a cup of coffee with the Blue Jays last season, the 23 year-old batted .247 with 3 homers, and 8 RBI over 95 plate appearances. He was clearly not overmatched or pressing at the plate, as evidenced by his 17.9% strikeout rate and 9.5% walk rate. If anything, he did run into a bit of poor luck, as his .274 BABIP was significantly below those that he posted in Double-A and Triple-A in 2017-2018 (range of .292-.333, with his average ranging from .275 to .328). His hard-hit rate was just 20%, so that is a bit of a red flag, but... We just can't dive too deeply into a tiny sample size. So, we have to look at his work in the minors for a better perspective on what he's done and might be able to do in the majors. In 2018, Jansen logged 360 plate appearances in Triple-A, hitting .275 (.292 BABIP) with 12 homers, and 58 RBI; he walked (12.2%) nearly as often as he struck out (13.6%). This was no anomaly, for in 2017 he climbed all the way from High-A to Triple-A, batting no less than .291 at any stop while popping 10 homers and striking out at a 9% clip in both Double-A and Triple-A while taking walks at a 10.5% rate in Double-A and a 14.1% clip in Triple-A. I'm not saying that he's destined to become a superstar, but in 2019 Jansen could be a great value pick who offers solid average, some pop, and, of special value in OBP leagues, takes plenty of walks.
If you are looking for a bounce-back candidate, Reds 1B Joey Votto could be your guy. His .284 average last season was well below his career clip of .311, his 12 homers were the fewest he's hit in a season in which he's played more than 100 games, and his 131 wRC+ was the lowest he recorded in a full season since his rookie season (2008). But that means that the 35 year-old could come at a discount on draft day in 2019. His batting eye is just fine, as 2018's 17.3% walk rate is still elite, and his 16.2% strikeout rate was below his career average (17.6%). Votto's .333 BABIP came in under his career clip of .352, which is odd given that he made plenty of hard contact (41%) and hit lots of liners (31.4%) and not an unreasonable amount of grounders (37.5%). His 9.5% HR/FB was about half his career rate (18.3%), so that seems fluky as well, especially given that hard-hit rate and his 31.4% flyball rate. Considering his age, it might be unrealistic to expect a return to the .320 with 36 homers that he hit in 2017, but the peripherals indicate that things just didn't break his way in 2018 and that he could rebound some this season.
After struggling through a disappointing 2017 campaign in which he batted just .241 with 11 homers and 23 stolen bases over 436 plate appearances, Baltimore 2B Jonathan Villar returned to fantasy relevance last season. Over 515 plate appearances with the Brewers and Orioles, he batted .260 with 14 homers and 35 stolen bases. In comparison with 2017, Villar was a little more patient at the plate (8% walk rate in 2018, 6.9% in 2017) and struck out notably less (26.8% in 2018, down from 30.3% in 2017). Although his 30.8% hard-hit rate in 2018 was actually lower than the previous season's 33.2%, he reduced his soft contact from 27% to 23.3% while also hitting slightly fewer grounders (55.9%, down from 57.4%) and more flyballs (24.4%, up 21.9%). When you put last season's production (which was largely supported by the peripherals) alongside his career numbers, it appears that what Villar did in 2018 is representative of what we should expect from him. And since he seems locked in as an everyday player in Baltimore, he should give fantasy owners a bit more in terms of the counting stats with more plate appearances.
Finally, Cubs 2B/SS/3B Javier Baez delivered the kind of season that some thought that he was capable of, batting .290 with 34 homers, 111 RBI, and 21 stolen bases over 645 plate appearances in 2018. But can he do it again? While he trimmed his strikeout rate to 25.9% (28.1% career), he somehow walked even less (down to 4.5%, 4.9% career). En route to posting his first wRC+ north of 100 (131), he also recorded a career-high .264 ISO (previous high was .207 in 2017) and career-high FB/HR rate of 24.3% (18.6% career). His 35.8% hard-hit rate was also the best of his young career, and his increased line-drive rate (22.1% last year, 19.3% career) likely helped bump his BABIP to .347 (career .337). With all that in mind, it appears likely that Baez can again produce strong numbers in 2019, but don't be surprised if the average and homers both dip slightly.
Rockies OF David Dahl has been on the fantasy radar for a few years now, but it appears that his breakout may have begun. Finally healthy and given regular playing time down the stretch last season, Dahl hit .273 with 16 homers, 48 RBI, and 5 stolen bases across just 271 plate appearances on the campaign. He finished on an especially high note by batting .287 with 9 dingers and 27 RBI after the calendar turned to September. His BABIP was actually a bit low for him at .311 (he often sat at .340-plus in the minors) and his 37.7% hard-hit rate, identical 37.7% flyball rate, and 23% liner clip (just 39.3% grounders) indicate that his power is for real. Of course, his 23.2% HR/FB will come down, but playing half his games in Denver fits nicely with his contact profile. Although I'm pretty bullish on Dahl based on his tools and production in an admittedly limited sample size in 2018, his platoon split is a bit concerning; he hit just .234 with 4 homers and 11 RBI against lefties over just 66 plate appearances last season (he hit .286/12/37 against righties, for the sake of comparison). Ultimately, the raw talent is there and it seems that the main things slowing him down from securing a very productive starting role in the Rockies outfield have been injuries and some crowding at that position. With a full-time role in his hands, fantasy owners only need to hope that Dahl can fight off the injury bug in his effort to build upon last season's success.
In 2018, Rangers OF Nomar Mazara was seemingly en route to putting together the best season of his young career when a thumb injury slowed him down considerably. When he sustained the injury on July 20, he was batting .272 with 15 home runs and 58 RBI over 388 plate appearances, making hard contact at a 37.9% clip and soft contact at a 15.2% rate. After he returned from the DL, though, he hit just .221 with 5 homers and 19 RBI over 148 plate appearances, making hard contact at a slightly lower 36.4% rate and soft contact at an inflated 26.2% clip. But there were some season-long trends that raise concerns about Mazara's ability to take his game - especially his power - to the next level. After hitting 46.5% groundballs in 2017, that figure spiked to 55.1% in 2018 while his flyball (26.6%) and liner (18.4%) rates were both the lowest such figures he's posted in his three full seasons in the majors. Should his 20% HR/FB regress (which is likely given that his career rate is 16.3%), it will be tough for him to produce much more than the exactly 20 dingers that he has now hit three years in a row. Of less concern - but still worth noting - is that his strikeout rate climbed for the second straight season, up to 21.6% from 2017's 20.6% (and 19.7% in 2016); interestingly, his strikeout rate was slightly higher pre-injury last season. Mazara is just 23 and still certainly has the potential to break out now that he is reportedly healthy again (he admitted after the season ended that the thumb bothered him down the stretch), so it will be interesting to see if he will be able to trim the grounders and hit a few more homers in 2019.
Some folks expected Rays SP Blake Snell to take a step forward last season, but I'm not sure that anyone foresaw him going so far as to win the AL Cy Young Award. Yet, he did. Can we expect him to replicate that level of performance in 2019? The advanced metrics say not quite. Over 180.2 innings of work, he logged an excellent 1.89 ERA and 0.97 WHIP. But his 3.16 xFIP and 3.30 SIERA indicate that he was just very good instead of great. Snell's 11.01 strikeout rate is a key to his success, and he reduced his walk rate from an ugly 4.11 in 2017 to a far more reasonable 3.19 last season. However, he stranded an absurd 88% of baserunners while opposing batters managed just a .241 BABIP against him. His HR/9 also dropped from 1.04 in 2017 to 0.8 last year despite opposing batters making hard contact at a 35.7% clip against him (up from 32.9% in 2017); the rate at which he gave up flyballs did drop from 37.8% to 36.4%. Overall, I would say that given his elite strikeout ability and vastly improved control, Snell shouldn't disappoint so long as you temper your expectations a bit based on the above numbers.
It was a tale of two seasons for Seattle SP Marco Gonzales in 2018, as he put together a solid first half before disappointing fantasy owners down the stretch. Over 113.1 IP before the All-Star break, he logged a 3.41 ERA and 1.16 WHIP, with a 3.52 xFIP saying that this surface numbers pretty much reflected his actual performance. He recorded a 5.23 ERA and 1.35 WHIP over 53.1 IP during the second half, although his 3.75 xFIP suggests that the regression had more to do with poor luck than anything else. Indeed, his BABIP allowed climbed from .310 prior to the All-Star break to .337 after while his strand rate dipped from 74.8% to 66.5% and his HR/9 climbed from 0.79 to 1.18. One of the encouraging things is that the rate at which he allowed hard contact dropped from 35.1% to 31.8% from the first to the second half of the season. Gonzales' ceiling is to some degree limited by his modest strikeout rates (7.83 K/9 last year), but his control (1.73 BB/9 in 2018) helps to minimize damage resulting from his more contact-oriented approach. For fantasy purposes, I like him as a solid if unspectacular third or fourth starter in 2019.
Expectations were pretty high for Reds SP Luis Castillo going into last season after his promising debut in 2017, but the then-25 year-old disappointed. The fireballer finished the 2018 campaign with a 4.30 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and 8.75 K/9 over 169.2 IP after he posted a 3.12 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 9.87 K/9 over 89.1 innings the year before. But even a glance at the advanced metrics indicate that he performed better than the surface numbers suggest, as he finished 2018 with a 3.69 xFIP and 3.85 SIERA. He did make a significant improvement last year by lowering his walk rate from 2017's 3.22 to 2.6, but some good fortune that he had the year before reversed in 2018 - his BABIP allowed rose from .247 to .282 while his strand rate fell from 80.1% to 71.2%. A look at his season splits offers even more encouragement, as he showed considerable improvement following the All-Star break. Whereas he recorded a 5.49 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 8.36 K/9, and 3.05 BB/9 over 103.1 first-half IP, he recorded a 2.44 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 9.36 K/9, and 1.9 BB/9 across 66.1 second-half IP. A dip in his xFIP from 4.02 in the first half to 3.17 in the second indicates that the improvement was real. I like him as a post-hype breakout candidate in 2019.
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