Loss of Thump
Marcell Ozuna's two-year run in St. Louis is over, and while he never reached the level of his final season in Miami (.388 wOBA), he provided the second-most thump in the Cardinals lineup after Paul Goldschmidt, and now the Cardinals will see if the loss of Ozuna affects the rest of the hitters in the lineup. Will Paul DeJong approach 100 runs without Ozuna behind him? Will Goldy see any pitches in the zone?
On one hand, there's this: hitting 3rd in the Cards' lineup, which was almost always hitting in front of Ozuna who batted cleanup in every game he started, Goldschmidt had a 103 wRC+ as opposed to a 130 wRC+ hitting anywhere else. Likewise, DeJong was better hitting BEHIND Ozuna rather than in front of him. Yet even though Ozuna objectively underperformed, the Cardinals lineup is a lot less intimidating with his bat now in Atlanta. The Fantistics Fantasy Baseball Draft Advisor (try it out! It's awesome!) projects zero St. Louis players to reach 90 runs and only DeJong to surpass 90 RBIs.
The Cardinals are one of the many teams in baseball that lost at least one key piece this offseason and didn't acquire anything of great substance. So a team that was below average in wOBA, runs and 7th-worst in home runs lost their second-most prolific slugger. It's enough to mark a slight downgrade to Cardinals hitters on Draft Day.
Is Flaherty a Top-5 Pitcher?
The Fantistics Draft Advisor has Jack Flaherty as the no. 11 pitcher, just outside the top tier of starters. Some analysts have him as the 20th best, some 10th best, some in the top-5. Right now he's being drafted as the seventh pitcher off the board in NFBC, an overall ADP of 24. That begs the question: should Flaherty be considered in the top-5? Is one half of utter dominance worth a 2nd-round pick? Well, when that half-season includes a 0.91 ERA, 5.36 K/BB and near-30% SOFT-contact rate, it's certainly worth exploring.
You cannot begin Flaherty's 2020 evaluation without first investigating the chasm between his 2019 first and second halves. A less-than-spectacular April and May were followed by a dismal June, only for Flaherty to follow that up with one of the most dominant finishes for a starting pitcher in years. What changed on July 7, 2019, when Flaherty began this incredible stretch? For one, he gained some velocity on his fastball. Therefore, he started throwing his harder stuff (fastball/slider) more and his curveball less. He nearly abandoned his seldom-used changeup. However, despite turning to higher-velocity pitches, he actually induced weaker contact. That partially explains his near-100 point drop in BABIP, but only partially. The other factor is luck, and this is where it becomes unwise to project Flaherty's 2nd-half numbers throughout an entire season. His BABIP in the 2nd half of 2019 was .196. His strand rate was 95%. His HR/FB rate was 6.7%. While it is evident Flaherty was pitching better in the second half, he wasn't that much better. The odds he replicates those BABIP/LOB/HR rates are almost as good as the odds Yadier Molina steals 40 bases. This is all supported in advanced metrics, including a 3.27 second-half xFIP.
This is not to say you shouldn't be excited about Flaherty's prospects in 2020. It's just to point out last year's best pitcher down the stretch is unlikely to be this year's best pitcher. Or top five. Or possibly even top twenty.
Is Matt Carpenter Done?
At some point in every deep draft, some owner will have to decide if Matt Carpenter can find any semblance of his 2018 May-August. Consider this, however. Since that glorious MVP-caliber stretch two seasons ago, Carpenter is a well-below average hitter, a .216/.330/.365 slash. And remember when his early 2018 struggles were not really supported by the analytics? Well, that ugly slash line over the last season-plus is supported by a .303 wOBA and 88 wRC+. His swinging strike rate is spiking and his walk rate, which always was a great factor in his fantasy production, is plummeting. He still hit the ball hard last year but that's in conjunction with a groundball rate that is his highest since before he was a good hitter (2015 was when he broke out). Moreover after absolutely demolishing fastballs in 2018, pitchers predictably started throwing him more offspeed pitches in 2019. Not only did he continue to struggle against those pitches, he lost his penchant for crushing heaters. Statcast supports all of these declines. His barrel % dropped six points, his average exit velocity is down 2.4 mph and all of his expected averages were right around where his surface numbers ended.
As explored above, the Cardinals lineup isn't any better around Carpenter, he is one year older and nearly all the statistics support a rapid regression. It won't cost you much to take a flyer on Carpenter, but you should be fully prepared for a continuous decline.
The Sophomore Scare
Alonso exploded onto the scene last season, leading all of baseball in home runs en route to winning NL Rookie of the Year. So we inevitably have to ask, is Alonso poised for a repeat or doomed to a sophomore slump? There are some causes for concern, like a 12.5% swinging strike rate, but an all-or-nothing power hitter like Alonso is going to whiff a good amount, and the truth is his swinging strike rate ranks 29th, lower than other sluggers like Kris Bryant, Nelson Cruz, Bryce Harper, Nicholas Castellanos and Jorge Soler. Likewise, his 30.6% HR/FB rate was the 4th highest in MLB, but we can't just classify that as good luck. Christian Yelich is now onto two full seasons with a HR/FB rate north of 30%. When you hit the ball as hard as Yelich and Alonso, flyballs are more likely to leave the park. So I'm okay with believing in a similar rate in 2020.
What else? He struggles against breaking pitches, especially those on the outside of the plate, probably pulls the ball a little too much right now and his deserved Barrel % is significantly lower than his actual Barrel % (Alex Chamberlain at Fangraphs wrote up a great column on it in October). With a season's worth of tape on him, opposing pitchers will target those weaknesses, and Alonso will have to make adjustments. Ultimately we'll have to see if that's possible. If Alonso can improve against breaking balls, commit to occasionally hitting the ball to right field and cut down on his chase rate just a bit, he can remain a top power hitter.
One other note: don't read too much into the large variance on his home/road splits. While Citi Field is definitely less-than-friendly overall to hitters, it is fairly average for home run hitters and his peripheral numbers were not as bad as his surface stats. I think that will level out a bit in 2020.
Fear of Diaz
Nearly everything went wrong in Edwin Diaz's first year with the Mets. After saving a league-high 57 games with the Mariners in 2018, Diaz only registered 26 saves, his ERA ballooned from 1.96 to 5.59 and he battled through a couple minor injuries. Nonetheless, there is no question he enters camp as the team's primary closer. However, the Mets brought in former Yankees reliever Dellin Betances and still have multiple players with closing experience in their bullpen. Whether he finishes the season as the closer and whether he should be considered an RP1 is of important discussion as pitchers and catchers report.
Several things went wrong in Diaz's disastrous 2019 campaign. Above all, his hard hit rate went from 29.3% to 48.8%. Likewise, his groundball rate dropped from 44.4% to 36.7%. Hence, he gave up triple the amount of home runs in 2019 as he did in 2018, which is a glaring pitfall for a shutdown closer. On one hand, the hard hit rate and diminishing groundballs are not to be ignored. They are legitimate concerns heading into the 2020 season. However, a 26.8% HR/FB rate can explain part of the home run problem.
From an optimistic viewpoint, his velocity was steady and his swinging strike rate was still elite. While his command faltered a bit, it's not to the point of great concern due to his incredible strikeout prowess. A 3.07 xFIP and 2.63 SIERA suggest Diaz was a lot better than his results. This could very well have been an issue of struggling in his new surroundings. He is still only 25 years old (will turn 26 in March), and while the enormously high hard hit rate keeps barking at me, we can't dismiss all the other factors, including a near-100 point jump in BABIP.
Furthermore, it's important to remember hard hit rate over one season can be misleading and a byproduct of sample size. There were 129 batted balls against him last season. Only 13 of those were Barrels. If you cut out three Barrels, his statcast ratios start to look a lot better. Diaz is the perfect example of how volatile relief pitching can be in fantasy baseball. Last year's No.1 reliever is hovering around 8th-best RP this year. Snag him up at that value. He has all the tools to return to top-5 status.
Amen to Amed
Once again shortstop is a stacked position, which partially explains why Amed Rosario is being drafted 17th at the position in NFBC. I will venture to say it's entirely possible, and perhaps even likely, Rosario is a top-10 player at his position next year. First of all, everything you want to see in a developing player is taking place. In his three seasons in the league, Rosario improved his swinging strike rate, ISO, hard hit rate and contact rate. He went from a wild freeswinger to a contact rate approaching league average. Chasing less and seeing gradual reduction in his groundball rate, Rosario managed a 15-15 season that is poised to evolve into 20-20 in... 2020.
He still doesn't walk enough (if he could increase that just a little, he could steal 30-35 bases), but at 24 years old Rosario is adjusting to baseball with all the tools you want to see. Perhaps new Mets manager Luis Rojas recognizes Rosario should be at the top of the lineup instead of Brandon Nimmo.
AROUND THE LEAGUE:
Nick Ahmed, SS (ARI)
The Arizona Diamondbacks avoided arbitration with Nick Ahmed by signing the two-way shortstop to a four-year, $32.5 million contract. Ahmed is 29 years old so the contract will cover his prime years, but Arizona is banking on the deal turning into a bargain after Ahmed, who was already an elite defender, improved his offensive numbers across the board. Last season he hit a career-high 19 home runs, stole eight bases and drove in 92 runs. His advanced metrics supported the output as Ahmed's EYE improved for a third straight season and he's made incremental improvements in power. With that being said, I'm not sure there's a whole lot more there. His groundball rate shot up last year and his hard hit rate is around league average. Nonetheless, with his elite fielding and a new contract, playing time should not be an issue.
Joc Pederson, OF (LAD)
As the Dodgers toyed with fantasy owners this week, certain aspects of the twelve trades that were discussed came to fruition. Joc Pederson was not one of them. Yes, Mookie Betts is a Dodger. Kenta Maeda is a Twin, but Pederson is not an Angel. The acquisition of Betts, as we already knew, crowds the Dodgers outfield so Pederson is still expendable. However, as we delve into below, LA made other moves that could signal Pederson is indeed staying with the Dodgers. Expect some of this to be cleared up soon.
Ross Stripling, P (LAD)
Likewise, Ross Stripling is still in blue. And like Pederson, Stripling is expendable with the acquisition of David Price. The Dodgers certainly like to have depth at the pitching position so they can exploit the 10-day IL, but Stripling has real value as a regular starter on another team. He would have looked nice in Anaheim, and maybe that's still a possibility, but wherever he goes, if he has a regular role in the rotation, there is sneaky fantasy value. With that being said, there is still a possibility the Dodgers hold on to Stripling and it's even possible he gets regular starts in the LA rotation ahead of an oft-injured Julio Urias or an inconsistent Alex Wood. Plus, Clayton Kershaw and David Price aren't models of health in recent seasons.
Nick Madrigal, 2B (CHW)
White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said Madrigal has a chance to make the team's Opening Day roster. With less than two full seasons in the minor leagues, the best bet is Madrigal starts the season in AAA, but he probably won't spend a lot of time there as he continues to produce at every level. Madrigal will probably never reach the level in fantasy that he holds in real life, but he is still worth knowing about. It's fair to say he probably has the contact skills in the minors. The guy just doesn't swing and miss. His power is very limited and he doesn't come with a lot of speed, but he's a player who will compete for a batting title one day. Due to his advanced baseball maturity, he can probably hit as soon as he is called up. Right now Leury Garcia is his competition at second base.
Hunter Pence, OF (SF)
Hunter Pence returns to the Giants after a renaissance season in Texas. Pence had his best season since 2014, hitting 18 home runs in 316 plate appearances. He continues to produce outside of the strike zone, finishing last year with a 61.8% contact rate on pitches outside the zone. He's always been good at that, but some mechanical changes to his swing helped Pence develop into a first half All-Star before injuries hampered his second half. He will work on the weak side of a platoon with Alex Dickerson and/or Steven Duggar, and that is a benefit if fantasy owners (especially DFS) play their cards right. Against left-handed pitching last season, Pence's 1.015 OPS was 13th best in the American League.
Jarlin Garcia, P (SF)
The Giants claimed Marlins pitcher Jarlin Garcia off waivers, providing some depth to a San Francisco staff that is full of mildly intriguing, mediocre arms. After dabbling with Garcia as a starter for a couple seasons, the Marlins left him in their bullpen in 2019, and he rewarded them by going 4-2 with a 3.02 ERA and six holds. Garcia's upside is limited because his strikeout numbers are low and his career xFIP is near 5.00 so even in an unsettled bullpen and on a team with a subpar rotation, Garcia's opportunity to play an integral role with the Giants is muted.
Willson Contreras, C (CHC)
A day before pitchers and catchers were set to report to the Cubs spring training facility in Mesa, Ariz., All-Star catcher Willson Contreras said he feels 'more secure to my team' after an offseason where he and other Cubs were involved in trade rumors swirling over Chicago. He said he expects to be with the team on Opening Day as he is under arbitration until 2023. Contreras is hoping to build off his best season in Chicago, a year where he hit a career-high 24 homers and lifted his ISO to a National League-best .261. Contreras' sub-70% contact rate and elevated 15% swinging strike rate hold him back from developing into an elite fantasy threat. For now, he's just of great value due to the position he plays.
Taijuan Walker, SP (FA)
Taijuan Walker worked out for the Chicago Cubs on Monday, a week after he showcased his abilities for multiple MLB teams. His fastball was reportedly clocked at 85-88 in that exhibition. Walker hasn't started in nearly two years after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2018, but he is still only 27 years old and displayed intriguing results in his first three years in the league. However, if it is indeed true that he isn't touching 90 on the radar gun, Walker is best left on the waiver wire this season.
Juan Lagares, OF (SD)
Juna Lagares signed a minor-league contract with the San Diego Padres after seven seasons as a part-time player with the Mets. A few days after trading outfielder Manuel Margot, the Padres' solution was a known defensive specialist who wasn't all that good defensively in 2019. Offensively he's an afterthought: a weak-hitting, less-than-elite speed, groundball hitter with only one season with a wOBA over .300. Lagares is a 5th outfielder if he makes the team.
Tyler White, 1B (LAD)
After trading for Mookie Betts, the Dodgers opted to keep Betts over Tyler White, leaving the former Astros prospect on waivers. Designated for assignment, it's probable White generates some interest on the market. He hasn't come close to the pedigree he came in with, but he has shown a power/contact skill that is somewhat rare. In more than 500 plate appearances from 2018 to 2019, White's contact rate is above 80%. He draws a decent number of walks and his 24.2% line drive rate is encouraging. However, his hard hit rate is below average and he is a major defensive liability, making it likely he ends up back in the American League.
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