The Pirates' Real Ace
Chris Archer might have once been an ace and Trevor Williams certainly had a monster second half in 2018, but the real ace on the Pirates staff is SP Jameson Taillon. Taillon, who is slated to start on Opening Day for the Buccos, put together a very good 2018 campaign, tossing a career-high 191 IP in which he recorded a 3.20 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 8.43 K/9, and 2.17 BB/9. His 3.77 SIERA suggests that he did benefit from some good fortune, though, and his 79.8% strand rate does appear to be a little high (76.3% career) while his .298 BABIP was a tad low (.313 career). But Taillon made some real progress in 2018, especially by cutting his BB/9 from 2017's 3.10. A key to his improvement appears to be the addition of a hard slider (89.8 MPH average) to his repertoire, which he tossed 18.2% of the time, replacing some heaters (57.5%, down from 2017's 64.1%), curveballs (19.7%, down from 26%), and change-ups (4.6%, down from 9.9%). The revamped arsenal has already served Taillon well, and it's entirely possible that he reaches new heights in 2019 as he is in his prime at age 27 and finally has a full MLB season under his belt.
Will Musgrove Finally Pay Fantasy Dividends?
SP Joe Musgrove showed some promise in his first season with the Pirates, but still didn't deliver the results that fantasy owners have been waiting for. The 26 year-old's season debut was delayed until late May as he recovered from a right (pitching) shoulder strain, and he did make another trip to the DL in July because of a right index finger infection. But when he was on the mound, he showed glimpses of promise, as evidenced by his 4.06 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and 3.93 SIERA. The hard-throwing righty posted just a 7.80 K/9 (just below his career 7.94 career rate), although his 1.79 BB/9 was stellar (2.10 career). Musgrove was a little unlucky, as his 69.2.% strand rate was a bit low compared to his 72.1% career rate. Curiously, he threw his excellent slider (which induces swings off the plate at a 46% clip) just 18% of the time compared to 28.1% of the time in 2017, instead favoring a cutter (15.4%, up from 5.5%). If Musgrove can tap into some of the strikeout potential that he showed during his minor-league career while maintaining about the same level of control that he demonstrated last season, he can take the next step and be a true fantasy asset that comes at a low price in 2019 drafts.
What Can We Expect from Kang?
Back in 2015 and 2016, 3B Jung Ho Kang was a legitimate fantasy producer who posted a 128 wRC+ in 2015 and a 132 wRC+ in 2016. But he then became mired in legal issues that resulted in him being unable to play in the U.S. until last season, when he briefly appeared in Pittsburgh after getting up to speed in the minors. Now nearly 32, Kang seems poised to beat out Colin Moran for the Pirates' starting 3B gig; although he's hitting just .182 entering spring training play on Friday (4-22), he's slugged four homers. He could be an impact bat at the hot corner, and one that comes cheaply in drafts. In 2016, he showed growth from the previous season, as he raised his walk rate from 6% to 9.7% while smacking 21 dingers in just 370 plate appearances (.258 ISO). The 23.3% HR/FB rate he logged in 2016 is likely unrepeatable, but he did post a more doable 16.9% HR/FB in 2015 en route to smashing 15 dingers across 467 PAs (.173 ISO). His hard-hit rate climbed from 34.4% in 2015 to an excellent 39.4% in 2016 even as he boosted his flyball rate from 27.6% to 37.3%, which indicates that his power is legitimate and therefore not entirely attributable to a fluky HR/FB rate. And for a power hitter, he's not especially susceptible to whiffing, as he has struck out 21.2% of the time in his major-league career, which means that a reasonable average can be expected. The .255 clip that he recorded in 2016 was likely on the low side, as it was suppressed by a .273 BABIP. All that said, Kang could be a nice value pick in 2019 drafts - or at least a high-priority watchlist guy.
He Is What He Is
No, 2B Starlin Castro didn't retire after wrapping up the 2017 season with the Yankees - he was exiled (er, traded) to the Marlins as part of the Giancarlo Stanton deal. Speaking of exiles, I can't help but wonder if the stellar Miami front office was going for anything more than a cheap publicity stunt by chasing a "Castro arrives in Miami" headline. Anyway, Starlin Castro. He was his typical underwhelming self for fantasy purposes with the Marlins in 2018, batting .278 with 12 homers, 54 RBI, and 6 stolen bases over 647 plate appearances. As he sits on the brink of 29 years of age, it's pretty clear that Castro is what he is - there's no use in fantasy owners hoping for more, especially since he now calls that cavernous monstrosity of a ballpark in Miami his home field. He effectively squandered a career-high 37.3% hard-hit rate by hitting 50.9% turf-burners en route to logging a .121 ISO that clocks in just below his career clip of .130. Think his 8.8% HR/FB was a tad low? Nope - it was just above his career rate of 8.7%, which was inflated by a career-high 16.2% HR/FB with the Yankees in 2017 which paralleled a .153 ISO that was the second-highest in his career. His highest ISO, you ask? Why, that .163 figure came in 2016 with the Yankees, when he logged a 15% HR/FB rate - the second-highest of his career, and almost 5% higher than any HR/FB he posted with the Cubs. So, unless he somehow lands back in New York - with the Yankees, of course - Castro is no more than a back-up option for fantasy purposes.
Not Missing Many Bats, or Batters
The Marlins have announced that SP Jose Urena will start for the club on Opening Day against the Rockies. Up to this point in his career, Urena is probably best known for intentionally plunking rookie sensation Ronald Acuna last season, which earned him a 6-game suspension and a lot of public criticism; if you recall, Acuna had led off three straight games with a homer and had hit 8 dingers in his last 8 games before Urena popped his elbow with a 97.5 MPH heater on the first pitch of the game. That unpleasant episode aside, the Marlins' hard-throwing "ace" turned in his best season in the majors, recording a 3.98 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and 4.39 SIERA over a career-high 174 IP. Despite his nice velocity (his average fastball sat at 95.8 MPH last year), Urena logged a career-high K/9 of just 6.72. At the same time, he did post a career-low 2.64 BB/9. His BABIP allowed was a low .272, which helps explain the disparity between his ERA and SIERA; his low strikeout clip also contributes to that. Although the hard-hit rate that opposing batters recorded against him jumped to 38.2% (his previous career-high was 32.5% in 2016), he did induce the highest groundball clip of his career at 49.6%. I'm not saying that Urena is a real breakout candidate, but another step forward (perhaps a few more punchouts) would make him relevant as a back-end rotation guy for fantasy (despite being the Miami's "ace." Yikes...).
Keep an Eye on Caleb Smith
Probably the most interesting arm in the Marlins rotation belongs to SP Caleb Smith, whose 2018 campaign ended in June due to a Grade 3 lat strain. Smith recently returned to the mound for Miami in a spring game against the Cardinals, working 4 perfect innings of relief in which he whiffed 6. The 27 year-old southpaw showed considerable promise across 77.1 IP last season, recording a 4.19 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and 10.24 K/9. Although his 3.84 BB/9 was on the high side, his 4.09 SIERA indicates that his surface numbers roughly reflect his true performance. The strikeout rate certainly stands out for fantasy purposes, and while it's concerning that opposing batters turned 50.8% of batted balls into flyballs, that he makes about half of his starts in cavernous Marlins Park helps to keep those in the field of play. Overall, Smith used a fastball with an average velocity of 92.8 MPH alongside a slider and change-up that each induced swinging strikes at a 16% clip to miss plenty of bats in 2018 - I like him as a late-round flier in 2019 who could become the Marlins' real ace before season's end.
At a time when the catcher position is a bit of a wasteland for fantasy purposes, new Mets backstop Wilson Ramos stands out as a top option in 2019... if he can stay on the field. In his first full(ish) season back after he tore an ACL, the 31 year-old showed that he had plenty left to offer fantasy owners last year, as he logged a .306 average, 15 homers, and 70 RBI across 416 plate appearances. His .353 BABIP seems unrepeatable, so it will be unlikely that he produces another .300 season in 2019. But he has a track record of hitting for a solid average (.273 career) and offering some power (his ISO has sat at .181-.189 since 2016). Although Ramos produced the second-highest hard-hit rate of his career last season (39.1%), he continued to hit lots of grounders (54.9%, career 54.2%). As a result, his HR/FB clocked in at a seemingly high 20%, but that figure sits at 18% for his career - so it wasn't far off the mark. It's a good sign that 7.7% of his plate appearances ended in a walk, which marks his highest walk rate in a season since a 96-PA stint in 2012 - so he's being a bit more selective at the plate. I like him for a .270-.280 average and 15-20 homers in 2019 - which will make him just about a top-5 catcher (for real).
In 2019, 1B Yonder Alonso will play for his fourth team in his last three seasons as he is now a member of the Chicago White Sox. That fact highlights his fantasy value - he is useful enough in real baseball for teams to want to acquire him, but not enough for teams to want to keep him around. As he approaches age 32, it appears that we finally have a good idea of what to expect from him. In his breakout 2017 season, Alonso surpassed his previous career high of 9 (for real) home runs by slugging 28, trading some contact (his strikeout rate jumped from 13.9% in 2016 to 22.6% in 2017) for power (his ISO climbed from .114 to .235) while improving his ability to get on base via the walk (13.1% walk rate in 2017, up from a career high of 10.4% in 2015). He followed up his strong 2017 season with an effective 2018 campaign in which he batted .250 with 23 homers and 83 RBI across 574 PAs for Cleveland. Some regression was to be expected last year, as his 19.4% HR/FB in 2017 was easily a career high (it dipped to 14.5% in 2018). A key to his 2017 success was increased hard contact (up to 36% from 32.3% the year before) and more flyballs (43.2%, up from 33.3% the year before) at the expense of grounders (down to 33.9% from 2017's 44.1%). Although he made even more hard contact in 2018 (37.7%), his grounder rate rebounded by 4.4% up to 38.3% while his flyballs declined by 3.1% down to 40.1%. There's nothing in his profile to suggest that he shouldn't produce at about his 2018 level again in 2019, so he makes for a solid CI option or backup 1B off the waiver wire - especially in OBP leagues.
Raise your hand if you got burnt by 2B Jonathan Schoop last season (::meekly raises hand::). Compensating for an early-season oblique injury reportedly messed up his swing in 2018, and the whizzes in Minnesota (the same ones that have capitalized on the potentials of Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano) have supposedly helped him correct his swing. Granted, it's just spring training, but the results haven't exactly been overwhelming so far, as he is hitting .233 with a homer and 2 RBI over 33 PA entering play on Friday. Coming off a 2017 campaign in which he batted .293 with 32 homers and 105 RBI, some regression to was to be expected in 2018 based on his elevated .330 BABIP and 17.7% HR/FB rates, but a crash to .233/21/61 was a bit surprising. So, what went wrong (metrics-wise, not reportedly-compensating-for-injury-wise)? His strikeout rate crept up from 21% to 23% while his walk rate dipped from 5.2% to 3.8% - so his patience and contact slipped a little. His hard-hit rate plummeted from a quality 36.1% to a lousy 27.8%, making most of his 36.6% flyballs easy outs. He also hit fewer liners (18.3%) and more grounders (45.2%), and that's not good for a guy who has stolen 7 total bases in 681 career games. The best (worst) part of his 2018 season was that most fantasy owners probably dumped him before he went on a tear in July just prior to his move from Baltimore to Milwaukee, hitting .360 with 9 dingers and 19 RBI over 100 at-bats. His next-best month? A May in which he hit .231 with 4 homers and a dozen RBI. Overall, 2018 was a dumpster fire for Schoop and while there is the possibility that he rebounds in 2019, his 2018 metrics are pretty concerning. Considering his age, there's a chance that he pushes back toward his 2017 production - just don't expect that level.
After seemingly waiting forever, fantasy owners finally saw Reds SS Jose Peraza produce as solid season in 2018. I only use the word "seemingly" because he is just 24, yet has now spent parts of 4 seasons in the majors. In what is to date a career year for him, Peraza batted .288 with 14 homers, 58 RBI, 85 runs scored, and 23 stolen bases. For a guy with good speed a .307 BABIP seems low, so it's possible that he hits for an even higher average in 2019 - but he did elevate the ball a bit more last year (.96 GB/FB rate in 2018, as opposed to 1.50 in both 2016 and 2017) so that will suppress his average a bit because he doesn't have great power. In fact, his .128 ISO last year was the highest he has recorded in a significant sample size, and that was driven by a hard-hit rate of 29.5% that was easily a career high (his previous high was 21.4% in 2017). While the shift from grounders toward flyballs is concerning, his line-drive rate did rebound to 25.5% from 2017's 21.6%. Overall, there's nothing in his profile to suggest that his 2018 was a total fluke, but neither is there any reason that we should expect him to become a fantasy monster in 2019. If you draft him expecting what he produced in 2018, you'll probably end up getting just about that.
So, it looks like 3B Mike Moustakas will be returning to Milwaukee, where his fantasy value will get a boost from the fact that he will serve as the team's regular 2B. On the heels of a breakout 2017 campaign in which he batted .272 with 38 dingers and 85 RBI over 598 PA with Kansas City, he split the 2018 campaign between the Royals and Brewers, hitting .251 with 28 homers and 95 RBI over 635 PA. Although it was a solid season, it was a case example of correction to the mean. His HR/FB in 2017 was high at 17.8%, with his 12.8% clip in 2018 fairly close to his 11% career rate. That happened despite the fact that, even though he hit slightly more flyballs (46.3%, up from 45.7%), his hard-hit rate jumped to a career-high 41.2% (30.7% career). Given how well he makes contact - as evidenced by his 80% contact rate and 16.2% strikeout rate last season - his average seems poised to move upward a bit while spending all of 2019 in Milwaukee instead of Kansas City should help his power output. He seems like a fairly safe bet for at least a .260 average and 30 or so bombs - not bad for a guy who should gain 2B eligibility before too long.
Beware: Arizona OF David Peralta might serve as the perfect example of why fantasy owners shouldn't blindly buy into a career year. At age 30, the former pitcher turned in a stellar 2018 campaign, batting .293 with 30 homers and 87 RBI over 614 plate appearances. Peralta had shown flashes before that, especially in the batting average department (career .293 average), but the power production was surprising given that he had never before cranked more than 17 in any professional season. Despite hitting only 29.2% flyballs (and 50.7% grounders... yikes), he recorded an amazing hard-hit rate of 48.6% that drove his HR/FB up to... wait for it... 23.4%. Yeah, that's not sustainable, especially since his career clip is 15.9%. To be sure, it appears that Peralta consciously traded some contact for power, as his career-best .223 ISO sits alongside (literally, on the stats page I am looking at) a 20.2% strikeout rate that dwarfs his 16.3% from 2017 when he logged a .150 ISO. Of course, the argument can be made that he may just be fully figuring things out since he only converted to a position player in 2013, but the high groundball rate and unrepeatable hard-hit rate are concerning. Based on his track record, he seems like a safe bet to put up a quality batting average, but counting on 30+ longballs again would be dangerous. Take him if the price is right, but don't overvalue the career year - especially with the likes of Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock no longer around to help with the counting stats and line-up protection (if you believe in that sort of thing).
Is 2019 the year that Padres OF Manuel Margot finally breaks out? Like Peraza, it seems like he's been hyped forever, but he's just 24 and has a few seasons of MLB experience under his belt. In 2018, he disappointed by hitting .245 with 8 homers and 11 stolen bases over 519 PA after batting .263 with 13 dingers and 17 steals across 529 PA in 2017. Fantasy owners expected (or at least hoped for) a step forward in 2018, but a BABIP drop from .309 to .281 hurt his average and his HR/FB plummeted to an inexplicable 5.5% after sitting at 9.4% in 2017. I say "inexplicable" because he hit just a few more flyballs (raising his FB rate from 36.3% to 37.1%) while making a TON more hard contact - his hard-hit rate jumped from 25.4% in 2017 to a strong 39.3% last season. He traded some liners (19.9%, down from 23.2%) for grounders (43%, up from 40.5%), but that's not a big problem for a guy that has nice wheels. So, to answer the question that I asked at the beginning of this blurb - Yes, I think this is the year that Margot begins to live up to the hype. There's good reason to expect an average north of .270 to go along with 15-20 each of homers and steals. Depending on where he hits in the improved San Diego line-up, the counting stats should be solid, too.
One of the most hyped players entering the 2019 fantasy season is Mets SP Zack Wheeler. And there is good reason to like him heading into the campaign. For the first time since 2014, Wheeler was able to log a full season on the mound last season, tossing 182.1 innings in which he recorded a 3.31 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 8.84 K/9, and 2.71 BB/9. As his 3.87 SIERA indicates, he benefitted from some good luck along the way, with his .279 BABIP and, especially, his .69 HR/9 (8.1% HR/FB), suppressing the surface numbers. But it was nevertheless a promising campaign for Wheeler, who had appeared on the rise after his stellar 2014 season (3.54 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 9.08 K/9, and 3.84 BB/9 en route to a 3.54 SIERA). While his strikeouts are slightly down from that year, he did trim his walks considerably while slashing hard contact allowed from 30% to 24.8%. Oh, and perhaps I should mention that Wheeler's fastball averaged a career-high 95.9 MPH in 2018. Also helping his case is a propensity for inducing groundballs (44.2%). Perhaps most encouragingly, his numbers improved considerably during the second half of the season, as he logged a 4.44 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, and 4.05 xFIP over 107.1 IP prior to the All-Star break and a 1.68 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, and 3.47 xFIP across 75 second-half innings. A key to Wheeler's improvement? Cutting his BB/9 from 3.35 to 1.80. One can't take that second half at face value, of course, as his .229 BABIP allowed and 84.1% strand rate help explain the disparity between the ERA and xFIP. But there's a lot to like about his season overall and his potential for 2019 at just 28 years old.
After surprising the baseball world in 2017, Diamondbacks SP Zack Godley disappointed his fantasy owners in 2018. Over 178.1 innings of work, he recorded a 4.74 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 9.38 K/9, and 4.09 BB/9. His 4.18 SIERA indicates that some bad luck hurt his overall numbers, and his .324 BABIP allowed and 67.5% strand rate attest to that. However, he didn't help himself by walking 1 more batter per 9 innings than he did in 2017 and by surrendering hard contact at a 38.4% clip last season - well above the 32.2% rate he allowed in his breakout campaign the year before. Opposing batters put that extra hard contact to good work, hitting 6.5% fewer grounders against him than in 2017, smoking an extra 4.5% liners and hitting 2% more flyballs. This will seem like a total cop-out, but I would expect something between his excellent 2017 and unlucky (and bad) 2018 campaigns. The strikeouts are there, so it's a matter of walking fewer batters and avoiding some of that hard contact. If he does that, his ERA should drop back below 4 and he's again useful for fantasy purposes.
Rounding out my unintentional Zack/Zach theme is Phillies SP Zach Eflin. After he recorded an atrocious 6.16 ERA (5.08 SIERA), 1.41 WHIP, and 4.90 K/9 over 64.1 IP (11 starts) in 2017, Eflin surprised over his 24 starts (128 IP) in 2018, finishing with a 4.36 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and 8.65 K/9. His 4.02 SIERA speaks to his improvement, as well as to the fact that he was probably a bit better than the surface numbers suggest - his 68.4% strand rate does seem a little low. Even though he boosted his strikeout rate considerably, Eflin maintained a reasonable walk rate of 2.60 while opposing batters managed a hard-hit rate of just 29.1% against him (was 33.3% in 2017). So, there are some signs that the 24 year-old could blossom into a solid SP for fantasy purposes, but the big concern here is playing time - he doesn't have an obvious place on the Phillies' pitching staff to start the season; barring an injury, he may start the season in Triple-A. So, he's one to keep an eye on in case he gets an opportunity to build upon his progress from 2018.
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