A Next Step for Musgrove?
After struggling with injury issues in 2018, Pirates SP Joe Musgrove put together a solid if unspectacular 2019 campaign. It was an up-and-down season to be sure, but when it was all said and done, his numbers were slightly above average - a 4.44 ERA, 8.30 K/9, and 2.06 BB/9 in 170.1 innings of work (31 starts). While the overall numbers aren't exactly impressive, bear in mind that Musgrove had never started more than 19 games in a major-league season, nor had he ever tossed more than 150 total innings in any professional campaign. Advanced metrics - such as his identical 4.31 SIERA and xFIP - suggest that while Musgrove was perhaps slightly unlikely (see his career-low 63% strand rate), his surface numbers were fairly true to his performance. Encouragingly, his swinging-strike rate climbed slightly to 12% (11.4% in 2018) while his hard-hit rate allowed came in at 37% (34% career) and HR/9 finished at 1.11 and HR/FB at 11.7% - both below his career clips - despite a league-wide power surge.
At Fantistics, we are cautiously optimistic that Musgrove will take a modest step forward in 2020. With a full campaign as a starter finally under his belt, the 27-year old should continue to progress in his prime years. His ability to minimize free passes, ability to accumulate a few more strikeouts than your average starter, and that he calls a generally pitcher-friendly stadium in PNC park his home, Musgrove should lower his ERA toward 4.00 while perhaps adding a few more Ks if he's able to tick his swinging-strike rate up a little. There's downside here in that he plays for the lousy Pirates and may therefore not earn many wins, but should be at least a solid back-end option for fantasy rotations.
Can Bell Rebound?
On the surface, 2019 was a resounding success for Pirates 1B Josh Bell. He followed up a highly disappointing 2018 campaign (.261-12-62 in 583 PAs) with a .277 average, 37 homers, and 116 RBI across 613 PAs. His hard-hit rate jumped nearly 12% to a stellar 45% - easily a career best - while he also posted a career-high 37% flyball rate to go along with a career-low 44% grounder rate. However, it was a true tale of two halves, as Bell recorded a nice .302 average, slugged 27 bombs, and drove in 84 runs through 388 PAs before the All-Star break, but logged just a .233 average, 10 dingers, and 32 RBI in 225 second-half PAs. His batted-ball profile suggests that perhaps Bell tried too hard to mash homers after the All-Star break, as his line-drive rate dipped from 20% to 17% while his flyball rate climbed from 36% to 40%; a 2% infield flyball clip before the break was followed by a 13% rate afterward. Moreover, his excellent 49% hard-hit rate before the break crashed to 38% afterward while his soft-hit rate jumped from 11% to 17%. Given how his 2019 campaign wrapped up, any concern entering 2020 is understandable.
However, we at Fantistics aren't too worried. While we think it's unlikely that Bell sustains his 24% HR/FB, his selective approach at the plate (12% career walk rate, replicated in 2019), ability to put the ball in play (19% strikeout rate in 2019), and improved ability to make hard contact make him an easy top-10 option at 1B. We anticipate that overall in 2020 he'll put together something in between his torrid start to 2019 and his whimper of a finish to that same campaign - a solid average in the .270s and a homer total in the low-mid 30s. Given his uneven production last year, though, it's tough to be confident that he'll be consistent throughout the year. If you draft him, it would be wise to expect some scorching-hot spells and some ice-cold ones.
Don't Forget about El Coffee
There was a time when many fantasy owners and experts expected great things out of Pirates OF Gregory Polanco. Although he's showed flashes of potential throughout his major-league career, Polanco enters the 2020 campaign - his age-28 season - largely forgotten. His 2019 was all but lost to a shoulder injury that he sustained toward the end of the previous season and never got right. After being shut down late last year, Polanco is expected to be ready for opening day 2020. Given that the shoulder clearly bothered him and impacted his production in his limited playing time last season, it might make more sense to look back at what he did in 2018 before the injury sidelined him. Through 535 PAs, he was hitting .254 with a career-high 23 homers, 81 RBI, and a dozen stolen bags. His career-best 11% walk rate suggests that he was being more selective at the plate, and he was posting a 34% hard-hit rate that was an improvement on his 31% career clip.
So, given good health in 2020 - which is admittedly no sure thing given the shoulder problem - what can we expect out of Polanco this year? His .252 career batting average indicates that he'll likely never be an asset (nor a real drain) in that category, but he clearly has at least moderate pop and can also swipe a few bases. And his improved ability to take some walks should help him score a few runs. In the later rounds of a snake draft or at the low price of just a buck or two in an auction draft, Polanco may be worth rostering in case he starts the season strong and can stay on the field to reach our expectations - about a .250 average to go with a homer total in the mid-20s and about a dozen steals. And given his pedigree, there's always the chance that he gives us more.
A New Start for Jesus Aguilar
On the heels of his 2018 breakout campaign, 2019 was a huge disappointment for fantasy owners who invested in now-Marlins 1B Jesus Aguilar. He was a surprise to say the least in 2018, as he hit .274 with 35 homers and 108 RBI in 566 PA with Milwaukee, but in 369 PAs with the Brewers and Rays last season he batted just .236 with a dozen longballs and 50 RBI. Although Aguilar slashed his strikeout rate 3% from his career year to just 22% and raised his walk rate nearly 2% to 12%, his hard-hit rate dipped just over 2% to under 42% while his groundball rate spiked nearly 7% to 32%; accordingly, his liner rate dipped nearly 4% to 20% and his flyball rate dropped about 3% to 38%. Perhaps the most striking thing about Aguilar's peripherals is his HR/FB, which plummeted from almost 24% in 2018 to just 13% last season. His hard-hit rate on flyballs last year came in just under 40% while that figure was 52% in 2018.
For 2020, there's some reason to expect a modest bounce-back for Aguilar. Although the move to Marlins Park will do him no favors, his 13% HR/FB was well below his 20% career clip. And while his .272 BABIP (30 points below his career average) can be partly attributed to contact issues, as his barrel rate dipped from 11% in 2018 to 7.5% last season, there was likely also some poor luck involved. All of that is to say that the 29 year-old is worth watching (no need to draft, as his deplorable 2019 should put him on the waiver wire to start the season) in case he shows signs of returning to some semblance of his 2018 form.
Villar's Prospects in Miami
2B Jonathan Villar heads to Miami after putting together a productive 2019 campaign in Baltimore, batting .274 with 24 homers, 73 RBI, 111 runs scored, and 40 steals across 714 PAs. The peripherals indicate that his performance was pretty legit. His walk rate (8.5%), strikeout rate (25%), BABIP (.341), HR/FB (16.7%), and hard-hit rate (29%) were all fairly close to his career figures. The spike in homers can be attributed to a more flyball-oriented approach, as Villar shifted about 7% of batted balls that would have normally been grounders to flyballs. As his wRC+ of 107 suggests, Villar is only a slightly above-average contributor at the dish, with his fantasy value really coming from his ability to swipe plenty of value on top of being a slight plus at the plate.
I can't say that I love the move to spacious Marlins Park from hitter-friendly Camden Yards given his shift toward flyballs last season. Villar's homers and average seem likely to regress a bit thanks to the change of home parks (and he'll be swapping road visits to Yankee Stadium and Rogers Centre for the likes of Citi Field and Truist Park). Thankfully, Villar will turn only 29 this season and his ability to steal bases should remain intact. So while it is difficult to expect him to put together the kind of season he did last year he should remain a solid fantasy contributor.
Is THIS the Year for Caleb Smith?
After showing some promise in an injury-shortened 2018 campaign (4.19 ERA (4.42 xFIP) and 10.24 K/9 in 77.1 IP), it appeared that Marlins SP Caleb Smith was primed for a breakout in 2019. However, he lost a month of the season to a hip injury and finished with a disappointing 4.52 ERA (5.05 xFIP), 9.86 K/9, and 3.52 BB/9 through 153.1 IP. It's worth noting, however, that the injury apparently derailed his season, as he recorded a strong 3.50 ERA (3.90 xFIP), 11 K/9, and 2.63 K/9 in 72 IP before the All-Star break while logging an awful 5.42 ERA, 8.85 K/9, and 4.32 BB/9 in 81.1 second-half IP. Smith was especially bad from August onward, positing a 6.39 ERA overall across 56.1 IP in those months, with a 6.47 xFIP in August and 7.06 xFIP in September/October. So, considering he hadn't thrown more than 120 innings in a professional season since he was in the Yankees minor league system in 2015, he may have also fatigued down the stretch.
It's tough to keep giving a player free passes for injuries, but Smith's pre-injury runs in 2018 and, especially, 2019 indicated that he was on the verge of breaking out. Fantasy owners will need to keep an eye on his spring performances, especially any reports on his velocity, which did dip last season and appeared to be part of the reason he struggled as the season wore on. If he appears to be back to form as the new campaign approaches, there's a very good chance the 28 year-old could finally put together a strong full season. You could do far worse in terms of later-round lottery tickets.
Around the League
Mitch Garver (C-MIN) broke out in a big way at age 28 last season, batting .273 with 31 homers and 67 RBI in just 359 big-league plate appearances. At a time when C options in fantasy really get dicey beyond the top half-dozen or so guys, it might be tempting to jump at the opportunity to take a shiny new(ish) toy like Garver to seemingly lock down that position on your roster. Buy buyer beware. To be sure, Garver's 47% hard-hit rate was excellent, and he capitalized on that with a 47% flyball rate overall (including a 48%-hard hit rate on those flyballs). But he's apparently allergic to ripping liners (14%) as he seemingly focuses on trying to pull balls out of the park (51% pull rate). While that approach may translate to a high HR/FB given his propensity for making hard contact, it would be a mistake to expect him to replicate his 29% HR/FB from last season. And given Garver's flyball-heavy approach in a spacious home park, one can reasonably expect his average to dip even as his power production regresses to the mean. We're not saying he will be a bust in 2020 but there are some indicators that we can't fairly expect him to build upon or even replicate what he did last season.
Manny Machado (SS/3B-SD) had a pretty... okay first year in San Diego, finishing with a .256 average, 32 homers, and 85 RBI in 661 PAs. To put that into perspective, that's a tick below what the likes of Matt Chapman, Mike Moustakas, and Josh Donaldson did last season. All were productive players, but none can be labeled superstars right now, which is what Machado is paid to be and what fantasy owners expect him to be. So, what went wrong in 2020? Yes, there was a little bad luck, as his BABIP dipped to .274, well below his career .298 clip. His hard-hit rate was a career-best 43.5%, and his liner (17%), grounder (42%), and flyball (41%) rates were all in the ballpark of his career averages. But bear in mind that he did move from hitter-friendly Camden Yards to pitcher-friendly Petco Park, which may have suppressed his production just a bit. If anything, one thing that does stand out in his profile is the 19.4% strikeout rate, his highest in the majors since he entered the league. When one looks at Machado's production year-by-year, one will see that his average fluctuates significantly between the .250s and .290s while his homer totals have only ranged from 32 to 37 annually since 2015. As he embarks on his age-27 season, fantasy owners can fairly wonder if he will ever truly take the next step to superstardom. It's difficult to see any real progression since 2015, so 2020 can be a real test as to whether Machado is what he's been touted to be. Or if he's just a costlier version of late-career Josh Donaldson.
Jorge Polanco (SS-MIN) emerged as a solid fantasy contributor in 2019 and should remain one in 2020. He finished the last campaign with a nice .295 average that included 22 dingers, 79 RBI, and 107 runs scored. A lot of that newfound production stemmed from a significantly improved hard-hit rate (39%, up from his previous high of 32% in 2018) and a flyball-oriented approach that saw him smoke 26% liners and slug 44% flyballs, leaving a balance of just 29% grounders. While his 10% HR/FB might suggest that he should produce more in the way of dingers in 2020, bear in mind that his exit velocity on batted balls was a below-average 87 mph while his average homer distance of 393 feet is also nothing to write home about. And as for speed, the modest contributions that he made in the stolen base department have pretty much dried up, as it's been steady regression from the career-best 13 steals he logged in 2017 to just 4 last year. We like Polanco to produce a 2020 campaign pretty much on par with what he did in 2019, so value is the key here - he should be a solid option at SS so long as you don't overpay.
Domingo Santana (OF-CLE) appeared to be nearly back to 2017 breakout (.278-30-85-15) form when an elbow injury derailed his 2019 campaign. Through 399 PAs entering the All-Star break, he was batting .286 with 18 longballs, 63 RBI, and 6 stolen bases, but in just 108 second-half PAs he hit only .128 with 3 longballs, 6 RBI, and a pair of steals. Overall, he posted a strong 42% hard-hit rate and smoked lots of liners (27%), although his 31% flyball rate hurt his ability to put batted balls over the fence. At a glance, Santana's 24% HR/FB from 2019 might appear on the high side, but his career clip sits at 25.5%. His 29% strikeout rate from the first half of the 2019 season mirrored what he logged in 2017, so that was also a positive sign given his 32% career clip. It's tough to not be optimistic about Santana's potential entering his age-27 season. It doesn't hurt that he will be moving from spacious T-Mobile Park in Seattle to the more neutral Progressive Field in Cleveland.
Eddie Rosario (OF-MIN) posted a career year in 2018 (.276-32-109) and all signs point to him being able to put together a similar campaign in 2020. He slashed his strikeout rate to just under 15% (was about 18% the previous two seasons) and raised his contact rate to 80% while posting a career-best 39% hard-hit rate and keeping his groundball rate fairly low at 37%. Rosario's 16% HR/FB might be a little on the high side for him, but he did record a slightly higher HR/FB back in 2017, when he hit 27 bombs in 589 plate appearances. Even if that figure regresses a little, we expect him to put up about 30 dingers and there's the fact that his .273 BABIP from 2019 was a bit depressed from his .310 career rate; his average will rebound a bit if that moves back toward the mean. There's no reason to think that he won't be at least a fringe top-20 OF in 2020.
Max Fried (SP-ATL) established himself as a quality fantasy starter in 2019, tossing 165.2 innings (including 30 starts) in which he recorded a 4.02 ERA, 9.4 K/9, and 2.55 BB/9. His 3.32 xFIP suggests that he ran into some bad luck along the way, with opposing batters logging a .336 BABIP and 20.2% HR/FB against him. Combine his strikeout ability, propensity for giving out relatively few free passes, and his 54% groundball rate and you have a guy that could easily blossom further in his age-26 season. Teammate Mike Soroka might have overshadowed him in 2019 and is a few years younger, but Fried has already shown that he can whiff his share of batters, and that makes me put him just ahead of Soroka in fantasy.
Frankie Montas (SP-OAK) added a splitter to his repertoire prior to the 2019 season and, just like that, he flashed the potential to be a top-30 fantasy starter. In a season shortened by an 80-game PED suspension, Montas logged 96 strong innings on the mound (16 starts) in which he recorded a 2.63 ERA, 9.66 K/9, 2.16 BB/9, and 49% groundball rate. Sure, his 3.47 xFIP suggests that there was some luck involved, but even a mid-3s ERA with more than a K per inning would make him a solid #2-3 SP for fantasy squads. His 0.75 HR/9 and 11% HR/FB may have been a bit on the low side, but bear in mind that he plays half his games in Oakland and will also make more than a few visits to Seattle, so those figures may not come up much. He threw his 97-mph heater a career-low 57% of the time last season while slinging his 88-mph slider 25% of the time, leaving the remaining 18% to his new 87-mph splitter. Given the control that he showed, that's an unfair arsenal that will induce plenty of whiffs and groundballs. I'm excited to see what he can do over a full campaign.
Sean Manaea (SP-OAK) put together a very impressive short season in 2019, hurling 29.2 innings in which he recorded a 1.21 ERA, 9.10 K/9, and 2.12 BB/9. As one might guess, the peripherals don't support such an absurdly low ERA, as his xFIP comes in at 3.98. A 100% strand rate probably can't be repeated, and it would be just about as difficult to log another BABIP near .194. But considering he was coming off of shoulder surgery and fantasy owners probably didn't expect much out of him, he helped a few squads down the stretch. He'd never struck out more than 8 batters per 9 in a season and his BB/9 was a tick better than his career 2.39 rate. I'm a bit surprised that he managed to minimize the damage despite opposing batters tattooing the ball when they made contact (47% hard-hit rate), so that will be something to keep an eye on going forward. At the end of the day, one can't reasonably expect Manaea to be a stud in 2020. But the results of his abbreviated 2019 campaign should give hope that he can be a good value at the right price. He sits just outside of the top 50 SPs, right around guys like Jon Gray, Andrew Heaney, and Marcus Stroman - I think I would take Manaea out of that lot given what he showed in 2019, his home ballpark, and that he had also shown some flashes earlier in his big-league career.
Hyun-Jin Ryu (SP-TOR) was, overall, a tremendous fantasy surprise in 2019. He finally stayed healthy, tossing 182.2 innings in which he recorded a 2.32 ERA, 8.03 K/9, and 1.18 BB/9. However, he did fade a bit after the All-Star break, with an especially rough August (7.48 ERA in 21.2 IP) moving his overall line back toward the median (he had a 1.73 ERA in 109 IP through the first half of the season). As his 3.32 xFIP on the season suggests, there is reason to expect some regression in 2020. Opposing batters logged a career-low .278 BABIP against him, and that should move toward his .296 career average. There was tremendous value in taking Ryu late in drafts last year or picking him up off the waiver wire, but it's an entirely different story now as he is coming off what was likely a career year. Given the likely regression, it wouldn't be wise to view him as anything more than a mid-rotation guy for fantasy in 2020. And there's also the question of whether you are willing to gamble on a 33 year-old who has made 24 or more starts only twice in the last five years. If he lasts too long in a draft, sure, pull the trigger. But don't overpay.
Dinelson Lamet (SP-SD) is a hot name as the 2020 season approaches. There is good reason for that, but the danger lies in that hype inflating his draft price to the point where the return on investment may not be fully realized or, worse, he is a total bust. After all, that hype is largely based on the fantasy community's general love of velocity (count me among the many guilty parties) and the potential he showed in limited time on the mound in 2019. In just 73 innings of work (14 starts) as he returned from Tommy John surgery, Lamet recorded a filthy 12.95 K/9, a 3.70 BB/9, and a 4.07 ERA. His 3.44 xFIP and 3.61 SIERA agree that he ran into some bad luck along the way; a .311 BABIP seems a tad high while a 74% strand rate may be a little low and a 20% HR/FB certainly sits on the high side. And, encouragingly, his average fastball velocity sat at 96mph last season, a full tick above the 95 he logged in 114.1 IP back in 2017. So, there is plenty of reason to be excited about Lamet's potential to break out in 2020. But I would be wary of investing too many auction dollars or drafting too high a guy who doesn't have much of a track record in in the majors, doesn't possess very good control, and hasn't established a third pitch to complement his explosive heater and filthy slider.
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