Cole is a popular pick to win the AL Cy Young Award this season, and it's easy to see why. Not only did Cole see his velocity rise last year for the second consecutive season (to 97 MPH with his fastball), but he also ditched his remarkably poor sinker in favor of a much more effective curveball (and fastball). As a result, Cole got hitters to chase pitches more frequently than he ever had while also limiting contact at a career best rate (71.5% contact rate, 14.1% swinging strike rate). Even with a little bit of expected regression (Cole's incredible 34.5% strikeout rate will likely fall a little bit), Cole should still easily finish as a top-ten fantasy pitcher in 2019. There aren't many aces slipping outside of the first couple of rounds, and Cole is an excellent opportunity in the late second round or early third round (where he's currently being drafted). Fantasy owners in need of pitching shouldn't be afraid to reach a little and grab Cole earlier too -- expect another dominant season from the 28-year-old.
Devenski was a rare middle reliever with significant fantasy value in 2017 when he recorded a 2.68 ERA with 11.2 K/9 over 80.2 innings for the Astros, but the 28-year-old struggled and posted a disappointing 4.18 ERA over 47.1 innings last semester. Spring training hasn't been overly kind to Devenski -- he's posted an 8.31 ERA -- but he's pitched in just 4.1 innings and allowed all four of his runs in one outing. Devenski spent the offseason cleaning up his mechanics (particularly in his lower body) which could lead to an uptick in his velocity, and his peripherals from last season indicate that he may not be far off from being able to repeat his stellar 2017 campaign. There's no reason to jump on Devenski in drafts (his current ADP sits at 413), but he could be a sneaky valuable asset in fantasy relief slots this season, so keep an eye on how his season progresses.
Reddick posted the best offensive season of his career in 2017 with a .314/.363/.484 slash line but struggled last season as his OPS dropped 129 points. Most of the drop off in production can be attributed to expected regression -- Reddick posted a .339 BABIP (career .286 BABIP) despite posting a very close to career average batted ball profile -- and most of Reddick's underlying metrics have remained steady over the past few years. Steady, solid production is fine out of a late round pick (which Reddick is with an ADP of 348), but Reddick has less upside than many of the other players being drafted around him (like Johan Camargo and Avisail Garcia) and is the most likely Astros outfielder to lose playing time if Kyle Tucker forces his way back on to the major league roster. If your team needs a solid, consistent .260 hitter with strong plate discipline and contact skills but mediocre power, then Reddick is your guy. Otherwise go for a pick with more upside at this point in drafts.
Santana had a very strong Spring Training (1.424 OPS) that carried into the Mariners' opening series against the A's when he launched a grand slam to help power the M's to their first win of the season. Santana's ability to hit the ball hard has never been in doubt (career 38.5% hard hit rate), but his tendency to swing and miss has always held him back -- even in his breakout 2017 season. Despite demonstrating solid plate discipline skills (30.9% o-swing rate, 71.8% z-swing rate), Santana posted a paltry 66.4% contact rate last year with a 15.8% swinging strike rate. Santana has always particularly struggled to make contact against offspeed and breaking pitches, and those issues got even worse last season. Santana's hot Spring Training (and start to the season) has fans projecting a (second) breakout season for the 25-year-old (and he'll get every opportunity to prove himself this season), but he likely won't be able to produce enough to make reaching for him worthwhile without improving his contact rate substantially. Still, Santana is capable of hitting to all fields and players have been valuable fantasy assets with worst plate discipline profiles, so he's a solid upside pick later in drafts (though I prefer Jake Bauers at the same spot).
Crawford's major league experience leaves a lot to be desired, and his Spring Training performance didn't show significant improvement. Over 72 major league games, Crawford has slashed .214/.333/.358 and hasn't shown any signs of real power (not that he was expected to, but a 21.4% hard hit rate and 23.7% soft contact rate is exceptionally bad). The good news is that Crawford has maintained an impressive plate discipline profile (22.1% o-swing rate, 60.5% z-swing rate) with solid contact skills (77% contact rate, 9.2% swinging strike rate) and enough athleticism for double digit steal upside. The other good news regarding Crawford is he's currently going undrafted in almost all leagues and the Mariners' weak middle infield should provide ample opportunity for a quick call-up if Crawford starts hitting well in the minor leagues (Crawford's strong defense won't hurt here either). Crawford isn't someone who will make an immediate impact on anyone's fantasy team, but he has the potential to be a difference maker down the stretch for owners who keep a close eye on his progression.
At 36 years old, Edwin Encarnacion is likely in the midst of his decline. According to baseball savant, Encarnacion's hard hit rate has dropped in each of the last four years, and his xWOBA tumbled nearly 40 points just last season. Even in a down year though, Encarnacion clubbed 32 home runs, accumulated 107 RBIs, and posted an OPS north of .800 for his seventh consecutive season. Although he will likely continue to decline this season, Encarnacion remains a solid source of power with a very high floor and a limited but still strong ceiling. Encarnacion isn't the most exciting pick, but he's currently the 17th first baseman being drafted on average (just two ahead of Jurickson Profar and three ahead of Ian Desmond) and ranks among the safest bets at that spot. Don't reach for Encarnacion expecting the 40 home runs and 120 RBIs that he posted in 2016, but another 30 home run, 100 RBI season is still closer to his floor than his ceiling.
Around the League:
Yu Darvish (CHC) - After developing a blister in his last Spring Training appearance, Darvish threw a bullpen session on Friday and is expected to be ready for Opening Day. Darvish has had his share of on-field issues over the past two seasons and will look to rebound in 2019 after posting a career worst 4.95 ERA (albeit in just 40 innings) in the first year of a 6 year, $126 million pact with the Cubs last season. Encouragingly, Darvish put on 10 to 15 pounds of muscle over the offseason and has looked good in his Spring Training appearances outside of some shaky command (although Darvish's fastball velocity is sitting at just under 94 MPH, which would be his lowest regular season mark since 2014). Considering that his disastrous 2017 World Series performance was likely due to tipping pitches and that his 2018 season was cut short by arm injuries, Darvish seems to have the potential to recapture his ace-level performance from earlier seasons. Expecting Darvish to be fully healthy and throw 150+ innings might be optimistic, but he's a solid high upside pick at his current ADP of 142 and has one of the highest ceilings of any mid-to-late round pick.
Nick Senzel (CIN) - The Reds reassigned Senzel to the minor leagues after the 24-year-old slashed a solid .308/.300/.462 over 12 Spring Training games. Senzel is a consensus top-ten prospect who had an outside shot at making the major league roster out of Spring Training but was likely held down to give the Reds an extra year of team control (to be fair, the Reds are also moving Senzel to center field after he'd never played the position in the minor leagues). Drafted second overall in 2016 and regarded as one of the league's best overall prospects, Senzel has as good of a hit tool as any other prospect and boasts solid power and plate discipline skills as well. Although his 2018 season was cut short by a finger injury, Senzel has put together an impressive minor league career that features a .314 batting average and .904 OPS. Senzel's profile doesn't make him seem like a fantasy superstar, but he has a good chance at being a very good major league player and a solid fantasy asset. Look for Senzel to get called up after the Super-Two deadline and grab him when he breaks the major league roster.
Alex Colome (CHW) - Colome was named the closer for the White Sox on Friday. Valuable closers can be hard to find after the few elite guys come off the board, but Colome shouldn't warrant too much attention from fantasy owners. One of Colome's major problems will likely be opportunities: the White Sox ranked 27th in the major leagues in save opportunities last season and don't look like a much better team this year. Colome will also have Kelvin Herrera ready to take over if Colome's performance falters during the season. That being said, Colome closed 2018 on a high note after tweaking his pitch mix mid-season to focus more on his cutter than his fastball (as he did in 2017 and the end of 2016) and his peripherals were in his 2016-17 range last season, so an ERA in the low 3.00's with solid strikeout numbers seems likely. Don't reach too high for Colome, but teams in need of bullpen help could do a lot worse.
Jimmy Nelson (MIL) - Nelson finally broke out in 2017 after years of failing to live up to his pre-major league hype and posted a 3.49 ERA (with a 3.05 FIP and 4.15 K/BB ratio) to finish among the top-ten in NL Cy Young Award voting. Nelson's 2017 season ended abruptly though when the 29-year-old injured his shoulder sliding into first base -- an injury that kept him out through the 2018 season as well. Nelson has been working his way back from the injury and is expected to join the Brewers' staff in April, but reportedly felt soreness in his elbow after pitching in a minor league game on Thursday. Although the injury isn't considered to be serious, it is still worrying to see a pitcher coming back from shoulder surgery add another potential issue to the mix. If (and it's a big if at this point) Nelson can come back fully healthy, then he could be a valuable fantasy asset again in 2019. Nelson's breakout in 2017 was largely fueled by a significantly improved curveball that he began throwing more frequently and with much more success. The 27.3% strikeout rate that Nelson posted in 2017 will almost definitely fall (especially because it was maintained with a 31.8% o-swing rate and 76.4% contact rate), but another season with an ERA in the mid-3.00's and above average strikeout numbers is a reasonable expectation.
Hyun-Jin Ryu (LAD) - Ryu was named the Dodgers' Opening Day starter on Friday. Health issues in the Dodgers' rotation more or less forced Ryu into the role, but the 31-year-old posted an impressive 1.97 ERA over 82.1 innings last season while struggling with injuries and has pitched well this spring with a 3.00 ERA, 12 strikeouts, and no walks over 15 innings. Ryu's (brief) success last season can largely be attributed to some significant changes in his pitch selection. Ryu drastically increased his cutter usage, added a sinker, and added movement to his curveball in 2018. As a result, Ryu posted career bests in o-swing, contact, and strikeout rates and should be able to maintain at least some of that success in 2019. Ryu will probably miss significant chunks of the season on the DL, and a repeat of his 2018 numbers would be overly optimistic, but he should be a strong fantasy asset when he pitches this season.
Aaron Hicks (NYY) - The Yankees announced that Hicks will likely remain out past April 4th (when he can first come off the IL) as he continues to recover from a back injury. Hicks was rewarded with a seven year contract extension from the Yankees after slashing .255/.368/.470 while playing valuable defense over his last two seasons, and the 29-year-old could be in line for a career year in 2019 if he can stay healthy. Hicks has always boasted strong plate discipline skills (career 22.4% o-swing rate, 78% contact rate), but he's made a concentrated effort to add power since joining the Yankees and it's paid off so far. Hicks has seen his hard hit rate and home run totals rise in each of his last three seasons and has continued to add muscle (Hicks reportedly put on 15 pounds this offseason) and increase his average launch angle as he pushes for 30 home runs. Add in the fact that he's projected to bat at the top of a dangerous Yankees offense and Hicks looks like he could be a steal at his current ADP of 116 (especially if he slides due to his injury).
Jose Alvarado (TB) - Alvarado pitched allowed no hits or walks in one inning on Friday for his second Spring Training appearance. Although he hasn't had much in-game work this spring, Alvarado is firmly in the mix to emerge as the Rays' go-to closer after posting a 2.39 ERA over 64 innings last season. Alvarado's success comes on the back of a devastating sinker, and the 23-year-old posted a 69.6% contact rate and 12.8% swinging strike rate largely on the back of that pitch, although his slider (his second most used pitch) is also effective at generating whiffs. As his heavy reliance on his sinker suggests, Alvarado also induces a high number of ground balls which helps suffocate his BABIP and keep the ball in the park. The Rays have ranked among the top-ten teams in save opportunities in each of the last two seasons and appear built to repeat in 2019. If Alvarado can lock down the closer role at some point this season then he could emerge as a relief ace for fantasy teams.
Scooter Gennett (CIN) - Gennett had to be helped off of the field with a golf cart after suffering an undisclosed injury in Friday's exhibition against the Brewers. The 28-year-old comes into the 2019 season looking to build off of his first career All-Star selection from last season, but an injury this close to the start of the regular season puts his Opening Day status (and potentially beyond) in jeopardy. As a good bet to hit .280+ with above average power, Gennett should be a valuable fantasy contributor if he is healthy this season. Although Gennett frequently chases pitches (39.1% career o-swing rate, 40.3% last season), he makes contact at a solid 82% rate (both career average and last season's average) and as a result maintains roughly average (if not slightly better than average) strikeout numbers. Additionally, Gennett posted a strong 38.8% hard hit rate last season (34.4% in 2017) so most of his numbers from 2018 (.310/.357/.490) appear to be repeatable with the exception of his .358 (which will likely fall closer to .330 in 2019). This injury could be cause for concern, but Gennett will likely be a valuable asset when healthy.
Craig Kimbrel - Despite posting a 2.74 ERA with 42 saves and strong peripherals last season, Kimbrel is still a free agent with the regular season quickly approaching. According to a Friday report from Braves writer David O'Brien, the Braves and Brewers are the two teams in play for Kimbrel. Considering the injuries to both teams and the fact that both teams are expected to compete for the playoffs this year, a deal should be expected sooner rather than later. With both teams fielding competitive rosters and likely to provide a similar number of save opportunities, the difference for Kimbrel's performance will come down to defense, park factors, and schedule quality (in total, the Brewers and Braves appear to be pretty similar in those metrics). Kimbrel's velocity drop off last season might be keeping teams (and fantasy owners) away, but fantasy owners shouldn't be too concerned about that yet; Kimbrel's average fastball velocity started high and rebounded towards the end of the season last year, signaling that the decline was potentially injury or fatigue related rather than signs of a career decline.
Clint Frazier (NYY) - The Yankees optioned Frazier to Triple-A on Friday after the outfielder hit just .130/.208/.217 over 17 Spring Training games. Frazier has yet to make an impact at the major league level after struggling with concussions for the better part of the last two years, but the tools are still there for him to succeed. The former top prospect should still possess his impressive plate discipline, dangerous power, and solid athleticism, so he may have a shot at rebounding and finding his way into playing time at some point. Unfortunately for Frazier, the Yankees outfield is loaded (even with Hicks hurt Frazier couldn't crack the roster), so he'll have a tough time securing major league playing time in New York. Fantasy owners should watch from afar and see if Frazier can rebound now that he's free from concussion symptoms and pick him up if he manages to force his way into playing time.
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