What is Noah Syndergaard?
Syndergaard tossed a career high 197.2 innings in 2019 but with volume came some regression: a career-high 4.28 ERA (3.83 xFIP), career-low 12.5% swinging strike rate and only 10 wins in 32 starts. Syndergaard was stronger in the 2nd half of the season, where his xFIP was right around his career average at 3.34.
Syndergaard altered his pitch selection in 2019, throwing his fastball significantly more than the previous season. While his velocity was consistent at right around 98 miles per hour, batters were able to generate harder contact. The average exit velocity on his most popular pitch, the hard sinker, was 88.1 mph. That led to a .353 wOBA allowed on that pitch. He also saw a wOBA increase on his four seamer, but it was his slider that showed the most regression, both in velocity and results. His slider in 2018 was 92 mph. In 2019 it dropped to 89 mph, leading to a 48-point increase in wOBA. The diminished slider success can also be a catalyst for the negative results on his heater as batters were teed up a little more for the hard stuff.
Syndergaard is only 27 years old and his arsenal is still elite, with many ways to get batters out. A return to a sub-4.00 ERA is likely with continued 200+ strikeouts and a moderate increase in wins.
In 2019, Michael Conforto reached a career high in plate appearances, home runs, runs and RBIs. Not to be ignored, he chipped in a career best seven stolen bases as well, but fantasy owners waiting for overall improvement may be disappointed. His batting average continues to drag and despite excellent plate discipline in the minor leagues and in college, he has a below-average swinging strike rate and contact rate.
After showing improvements against left-handed pitching in 2018, Conforto reverted to familiar struggles in 2019, posting a 90 wRC+ versus southpaws. Encouragingly, Conforto did add more launch to his swing last year, leading to a 24% line drive rate and 40% flyball rate. That contributes to his above-average 20.5% HR/FB rate and 11.9% barrel rate. In fact, I think that has more support than an otherwise pedestrian 36.5% hard hit rate. The other factors lead to Conforto's mid-30's home run total and justify another season with similar results. If, in only his third full season, Conforto can recreate the plate discipline he exhibited in his early career while maintaining the 15 degree launch angle, Conforto could turn into the elite outfielder for whom many have waited.
Sixty percent of the Mets rotation is settled. Despite losing Zack Wheeler to the rival Philadelphia Phillies, New York made the midseason acquisition of Marcus Stroman, who will be an anchor in the starting five along with Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. One of the two remaining spots will likely be inhabited by former Cy Young winner Rick Porcello, who the Mets signed to a one-year deal in December. However, there are seemingly two players for one remaining rotation spot: Steven Matz and Michael Wacha. The Mets signed Wacha right around the time they inked Porcello, and depth in the rotation is prudent as several of the starters have some sort of injury history or concern. If the Mets are the model of health, however, who gets more starts: Matz or Wacha?
Let's start with Matz, the only left-handed option of the main six. That in and of itself is reason to believe he will be first in line for the starting role. Plus, the career Met has made 30 starts each of the last two seasons while Wacha battled injuries and threw more than 100 innings less than Matz from 2018 to 2019. Matz is far from over-powering and gives up a lot of home runs. Furthermore, his home/road splits are eye-popping: 2.31 ERA/.288 wOBA at home, 6.62/.366 on the road.
Wacha is far from a model of consistency himself. After finishing 8-2 with a 3.20 ERA in 2018, the former St. Louis Cardinal regressed to 6-7 with a 4.76 ERA in 2019. His arsenal isn't all that different from Matz's, but his command is slightly worse. Plus, Wacha is a reverse-split guy, better against lefties than righties.
All in all, Matz edges Wacha in most categories and gives the Mets a left-handed option in the rotation so he would figure to get the bulk of starts, but Wacha will play a factor, perhaps serving in a similar role to the one he played in St. Louis.
Who Plays in the Cardinals Outfield?
The makeup of the Cardinals outfield is a major question facing the team this season. Last year St. Louis saw nine different players appear in at least 10 games in the outfield. One of those players was Marcell Ozuna, who is now with the Braves. Another was Jose Martinez, a current member of the Rays. Meanwhile, the Cards didn't add anyone notable to the mix, although highly-rated prospect Dylan Carlson could make his major league debut this season.
Let's start there, with Carlson, ranked in the top-10 in some prospect lists and as far down as 50 in others. The general consensus is Carlson will play for the Cardinals much of this season and perhaps as early as April. This comes off the best stretch of his minor league career, where he tallied a .448 wOBA in 79 AAA appearances. Contact has been a concern since he was drafted in the first round of the 2016 Amateur Draft, but he minimizes those worries with a patient approach and the potential for power and speed (he finished 20/20 through two levels in 2019). However, Carlson is not a finished product and 2019 was his only minor league season with an ISO over .200. Nonetheless, it appears the Cardinals cleared the way for Carlson to make his big league debut.
Also projected for significant playing time is defensive specialist Harrison Bader. After a serviceable offensive display in his rookie season, Bader regressed mightily in 2019, to the point where the Cardinals had to demote him to AAA midseason. After showing some immediate promise after his St. Louis return, Bader was miserable in the final month of the season, finishing with a 36.8% strikeout rate and a 71 wRC+. Despite the statistical regression, Bader actually improved his power, contact and EYE. Unfortunately his BABIP dropped 90 points from 2018 to 2019. That's not just bad luck though as his line drive rate fell from 26.8% to 17.4% and his flyball rate leapt to 44.2%. What that all means for Bader's chances of staying in the lineup is important. He has major offensive deficiencies, enough to force the Cardinals to pull him off the major league roster. If he can't offer better results in 2020, his leash will not be long.
Then there's Dexter Fowler, who has the most experience in the outfield, not to mention the biggest contract, but at 33 years old Fowler is demonstrating predictable regression. Despite finishing with a career-high 19 home runs, Fowler's contact rate is plummeting. The Fantistics Draft Advisor ranks him 111th among outfielders so he's pretty much a non-factor in fantasy, and despite the amount of money the Cardinals are paying, it was just two years ago Fowler lost his role. That is plausible again in 2020, which just further muddies an already unsettled St. Louis outfield.
There's a good chance the versatile Tommy Edman becomes a fixture in the outfield. He started 11 games there last year and was excellent at the plate. There's also the power-hitting Tyler O'Neill, who crushes the ball but has absolutely no plate discipline. Another guy to keep an eye on is Lane Thomas. Thomas played sparingly at the major league level last year and did well. He's a former 5th-round draft pick with a good EYE, mediocre power but very strong defense. Sounds like a St. Louis Cardinal to me. Therefore, he may not be such a bad sleeper option in very deep leagues.
Best Bet for Saves
Right now the expectation is Carlos Martinez will be in the Cardinals' starting rotation. That opens the closer spot for former stud closer Andrew Miller or the inexperienced Giovanny Gallegos. Miller's velocity continues to drop, his command is regressing and batters hit him hard last year. He is not the reliable relief pitcher he once was. Gallegos on the other hand pitched like a closer last year without the save opportunities. He ranked in the top-20 among relievers in swinging strike rate but still exhibited good control with a walk rate under six percent. He was boosted by a strong 87.3% strand rate and a 47.3% flyball rate led to too many home runs, but in 74 innings Gallegos had the lowest xFIP among St. Louis relievers, besides Jordan Hicks.
And speaking of Hicks, one caveat to all this is the pending return of the Cardinals' former closer. Hicks is recovering from Tommy John surgery and could be back around the All-Star break. Nonetheless, where we are right now in February, Gallegos is your best bet for saves in St. Louis and may secure the role for all of 2020.
DeTale of DeJong
In his first full season (he played 159 games), Paul DeJong showed notable improvements at the plate, which led to a career-high 30 home runs and 97 runs. He improved his contact rate to a league-average 77.3%, upped his hard hit rate to an above-average 41.6% and pushed his walk rate to a strong 9.3%. The .233 batting average was suppressed a bit by a .259 BABIP. However DeJong is a flyball hitter, which limits his ability to generate base hits. His .199 singles rate is extraordinarily low but also partially a result of his 18.5 degree launch angle, which is 21st in baseball. That launch gives credence to the 30 homers he hit last year but it depresses other notable statistics. DeJong should hit in the middle of the St. Louis lineup once again and another 30 home run campaign is certainly possible, although there probably isn't a whole lot more power than that. If he can continue to improve his contact rate while getting a moderate bump in BABIP, DeJong could be a strong return on investment (currently being drafted as the 22nd shortstop off the board; NFBC ADP: 194).
AROUND THE LEAGUE:
Kris Bryant, 3B/OF (CHC)
The Cubs have a new manager and may have a new leadoff hitter. According to David Ross, he is committed to Kris Bryant as the leadoff man in 2020. Earlier this week Bryant said a meeting with Chicago President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein led him to believe he will be with the Cubs for the rest of this season. He also said he is open to leading off, and Ross is apparently on board. The Cubs played around with that leadoff spot a lot since letting Dexter Fowler go in 2017, having sluggers like Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo get previous experience in the role. Obviously if Bryant is leading off, his RBI totals would decline while his runs scored would increase. Perhaps he would add a few more stolen bases as well, as part of the reason Ross would consider Bryant is for his elite baserunning. It also relates to his .385 career OBP.
Pablo Reyes, OF (PIT)
Pirates outfielder Pablo Reyes was suspended 80 games for violating the MLB Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. Reyes tested positive for Boldenone, which keeps him off the Pirates' roster for the first 80 games of the 2020 regular season. Last month the Pirates outrighted Reyes to the minors, a season after he hit .203 with two home runs in 143 at bats. Reyes has the ceiling of a 20/20 player, but this is certainly a setback in his development.
Jonathan Lucroy, C (BOS)
The Red Sox signed Jonathan Lucroy to a minor league contract. Now four seasons removed from his breakout 2016 campaign where he hit .292 with 24 home runs, Lucroy is probably on the outside looking in on the Red Sox catching rotation, with Kevin Plawecki holding the inside track at the backup position behind Christian Vazquez. Lucroy makes elite contact and is still capable of hitting double-digit home runs, but a path to playing time is so narrow that he must be ignored in fantasy baseball.
Nelson Cruz, DH (MIN)
Nelson Cruz was hit by a pitch during live batting practice on Wednesday. First of all, how do you get hit in BP? Secondly, the HBP bruised his left wrist and so he will likely take a couple days off from spring training activities, but the injury is considered minor and Cruz should be just fine as the 39-year-old looks to post his seventh straight season with 35 or more home runs.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr., OF (TOR)
The Blue Jays are floating the idea of playing Lourdes Gurriel Jr. occasionally at first base this season. While he will see the majority of his at bats in the outfield, Gurriel could play in a weakside platoon at 1B with newly-acquired Travis Shaw, who struggles mightily against left-handed pitching. Gurriel on the other hand demolishes southpaws. Last year he posted a .403 wOBA with 11 of his 20 home runs against lefties. The extra positional eligibility would be a nice boost to his value as first base is a somewhat thin position.
Matt Shoemaker, SP (TOR)
The Blue Jays expect Matt Shoemaker to be ready to start the 2020 regular season after missing nearly all of last year with a torn ACL. He was very good in five starts before suffering the injury, but he hasn't made more than 15 starts since 2016. It's difficult to know exactly what to expect from the oft-injured hurler, but in 2014, Shoemaker went 16-4 with a 3.04 ERA and presumably has a hold on one of Toronto's rotation spots.
Justin Smoak, 1B (MIL)
Earlier this week Brewers manager Craig Counsell said right field will be a timeshare between Ryan Braun and Avisail Garcia. Justin Smoak's primary competition for playing time at first base is Braun so the more time Braun spends in the outfield the better Smoak's opportunity is at first base. The former Blue Jay regressed a lot since his career year in 2017 when he hit 38 home runs to go along with a .270 batting average. There is a lot of reason to believe in a bounceback for the slugger after a season where his BABIP dropped to .223 despite a 42.7% hard hit rate. He makes solid contact and should see an uptick in that .208 batting average.
Byron Buxton, OF (MIN)
Buxton made another step towards being ready for Opening Day as the Twins outfielder took live batting practice, five months after undergoing shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. Although a lot of fantasy owners probably feel like Buxton is in the twilight of his career, the former top prospect is still only 26 years old. Injuries and underproduction have washed some of the shine off Buxton's status, but he is still a fairly sure bet for double digit home runs and steals. Whether he will ever reach the 30/30 plateau many predicted is partly dependent on health, consistency and opportunity.
Adalberto Mondesi, SS (KC)
Adalberto Mondesi appears to be at full health after undergoing shoulder surgery in October for a torn left labrum. The five-tool shortstop is participating in spring activities, although he is yet to dive in the field or run the bases. Fortunately the injury was not to the lower body so Mondesi can again be a major source of stolen bases. Last year he tallied 43 steals in 443 plate appearances.
Nicky Lopez, 2B/SS (KC)
Lopez may be off your radar as a low-pedigree middle infielder coming off a rookie season where he hit only .240 with two home runs in 379 at bats. However, MLB.com's Jeffrey Flanagan reports Lopez added 18 pounds of muscle and "does look visibly larger." Lopez is a contact-first, defensive-minded player, but a little extra pop could put the 2nd-year Royal on the fantasy map.
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