Myles Straw, Starting Center Fielder?
Myles Straw (OF - HOU): Stolen bases have become extremely scarce in fantasy baseball relative to other categories, and that's especially true in later rounds. Myles Straw is an outlier in that regard, owning a cheap 473 ADP despite Fantistics projecting him for 28 stolen bases over just 118 games in 2021. With Straw being given the opportunity to win the starting center fielder job for the Astros, that projection may represent something closer to Straw's floor than his ceiling. In addition to an impressive sprint speed that ranked among the top-10% of hitters in 2020, Straw has demonstrated a patient plate approach (23.2% o-swing rate) and superb contact skills (91% z-contact rate, 5.2% swinging-strike rate) over his brief MLB career so far. As a result, Straw is likely to post a better-than-average strikeout rate with a walk rate of around 8% in 2021; the question that remains is whether or not his contact quality will be strong enough to allow him to rack up stolen bases and maintain an everyday role in the Houston lineup. Straw won't confuse anybody for a power hitter with his career 18.8% hard-hit rate, but given his likely high-frequency contact, solid walk rate, and upper-tier speed, Straw should manage to post a consistently above-average OBP. Combined with his strong defense and production on the basepaths, that should be enough to keep Straw entrenched as the Astros' starting center fielder with plenty of stolen base opportunities. Straw has the potential to be one of the most productive hitters picked late in drafts as a result, and fantasy managers should target him in drafts.
A Rare 200-inning Starting Pitcher
Zack Greinke (SP - HOU): Pitcher workloads have been in a sharp downward spiral in recent seasons, but Zack Greinke has bucked that trend by throwing more than 200 innings in three consecutive seasons coming into 2020. Unsurprisingly, Fantistics projects Greinke for more innings pitched than all but 10 pitchers in 2021, giving him tremendous value in a category that is quickly becoming scarce. Greinke isn't perfect -- he lost fastball velocity last season and maintained a 10.6% swinging-strike rate largely because of an apparently unsupported seven-point jump in his changeup's swinging-strike rate to 23.57% -- but his elite command and deep pitch arsenal provide him with a relatively high floor. Fantasy managers should expect Greinke to post an ERA around 4.00 with around 200 innings pitched and 15 wins -- not particularly exciting numbers, but valuable nonetheless.
A High-End, Three-Category Contributor
Michael Brantley (OF - HOU): A healthy Michael Brantley remains a strong fantasy contributor across several fantasy categories, pairing a batting average consistently around .300 with 20 home run potential and high-level run and RBI production thanks to his role in what has been and is projected to be an above-average lineup in Houston. Injuries have been the only major drag on Brantley's fantasy value over his career, but the 33-year-old has managed to stay on the field in recent seasons, missing fewer than 20 regular-season games in each of the past three years. A streak of relatively good health doesn't mean that Brantley won't miss significant time in 2021 -- he did have four consecutive fairly healthy seasons before playing in a combined 101 games in 2016 and 2017, after all -- but Brantley's demonstrated ability to stay on the field makes and valuable fantasy production makes him worth the relatively high injury risk.
Power, Power, Power
Evan White (1B - SEA): White is coming off of draft boards near pick 400 on average this season, and fantasy managers should be all over him at that price. Few players boast more power than the 24-year-old slugger as he posted a stellar 52.5% hard-hit rate in 2020, a mark that only 12 batters surpassed. Of course, power isn't the only factor that controls fantasy value, and White struggled to produce overall thanks to an ugly 41.6% strikeout rate. But White's high strikeout rate was unusually reliant on called strikes, and his career 20.4% strikeout rate at the minor league level suggests that he should be able to get his strikeout rate down to more palatable levels in 2021. An OPS around or above .800 is well within reach for White in 2021 as a result, and if he's able to maintain his power while getting his strikeout rate down below 30% then an OPS approaching .900 is plausible.
Unexceptional But Productive
Mitch Haniger (OF - SEA): Haniger hasn't played a major-league game since June of 2019 due to several injuries, but he's a strong hitter when healthy and worth a look from fantasy managers at his 275 ADP. After a solid rookie season in 2017, Haniger posted an impressive .378 xwOBA and .859 OPS in 2018, the result of better-than-average plate discipline and contact skills (26% chase rate, 9.2% swinging-strike rate) and high-quality contact (.448 xwOBAcon, 43.2% hard-hit rate). Haniger got off to a relatively slow start in 2019 with a .329 xwOBA over 63 games, but he began showing signs of improvement before landing on the injured list for the rest of the season. Combined with his quiet but valuable production on the basepaths (four stolen bases in 63 games in 2019), Haniger's potential for a return to 2018 form in 2021 makes him a worthwhile fantasy target.
Velocity Rebound In Store?
James Paxton (SP - SEA): Paxton endured a rough 2020 season that saw him post a 6.64 ERA with diminished velocity, but the 32-year-old is an intriguing bounce-back candidate in 2021. Given that Paxton hadn't been in the midst of a steady decline in fastball velocity heading into 2020 and that Paxton's 2020 issues can at least somewhat be traced back to a flexor strain that kept him sidelined for the last month of the season, it's not unreasonable to expect Paxton to regain his form in 2021. Additionally, the Mariners' insistence on a six-man rotation should help Paxton maintain full-health, further bolstering his chance at a bounceback season. If Paxton can rebound, he'll once again offer fantasy managers an appealing 20-plus percent K-BB% and an ERA below 3.80 -- excellent upside for a pitcher with an ADP around 250.
Around the League
Carter Kieboom (3B - WSH)
Kieboom will reportedly enter the 2021 season as the Nationals' starting third baseman, giving him the chance to live up to his lofty expectations as a (former) top-25 prospect. Kieboom has demonstrated solid contact skills during his young major-league career so far with a 10.2% swinging-strike rate and a 90% z-contact rate, but inconsistent contact quality (.302 xwOBAcon) has held him back from producing at a high level. Kieboom's struggles against changeups (18% swinging-strike rate) haven't helped either, and the overall result has been a paltry .541 OPS over 44 major-league games. Kieboom still has the prospect pedigree and minor league production to warrant attention from fantasy managers though, and it's encouraging to see him start the season with an everyday starting role. Kieboom is going undrafted in most leagues with a 476 ADP and still probably isn't worth a roster spot on draft day in shallower leagues, but fantasy managers should monitor the 23-year-old's progress this season and be prepared to grab him on waivers with hints of a breakout season.
CJ Cron (1B - COL)
The Rockies signed Cron to a minor-league contract on Monday, and the 31-year-old will compete with Josh Fuentes for the team's starting first base job. Cron has posted reliably strong contact over the past four seasons with an xwOBAcon north of .420 and a barrel rate north of 10% in each season, and his power should play up at the hitter-friendly Coors Field. Even with Cron's potential to lose out on a starting job, this move should do nothing but bolster his fantasy value and draft price. Cron now has a shot at 30+ home runs for the season, and fantasy managers looking for cheap power later in drafts should target him.
Keone Kela (RP - SD)
The Padres signed Kela to a contract on Monday. Kela joins a crowded San Diego bullpen with several formerly established closers, and his addition makes it even less likely that the Padres rely on just one or two pitchers for saves in 2021. That makes Kela (and the rest of the bullpen) less than ideal for fantasy purposes, but Kela could still draw value for fantasy managers who value holds. Kela had posted a sparkling 2.84 ERA between 2017 and 2019 before missing effectively all of 2020 with coronavirus and a forearm injury, and there's little reason to expect anything different in 2021 unless last season's injuries continue to nag.
Trevor Rosenthal (RP - FA)
The Mets are reportedly interested in Trevor Rosenthal, although it's likely that most teams have at least checked in on the flamethrowing reliever after his strong 2020 campaign. Rosenthal enjoyed a rebound year last season that saw him post a 1.90 ERA with an impressive 41.8% strikeout rate (16.5% swinging-strike rate), and fantasy managers should expect him to pitch well again in 2021. The Mets aren't an ideal free agent destination for Rosenthal's fantasy managers -- Edwin Diaz likely has a reasonably tight grip on the closer job, relegated Rosenthal to setup duty -- but Rosenthal should rack up holds in that role and would likely stand-in for Diaz should he miss any time in 2021. The uncertainty surrounding Rosenthal's team situation makes him a little pricy at his 179 ADP, and fantasy managers should avoid drafting him with a top-200 pick without more clarity on his role in 2021.
Taijuan Walker (SP - FA)
The Mets are reportedly interested in Taijuan Walker, and the team appears poised to sign one more starting pitcher (likely either Walker or Jake Odorizzi) before the start of the 2021 season. Walker fell a long way from being a consensus top-15 prospect back in 2014, but he's rebuilt his value after posting a 3.28 ERA since the start of the 2017 season. Encouragingly, Walker elevated his slider usage last season to a career-high 21.54%, and the pitch posted an arsenal-best 11% swinging-strike rate. Still, fantasy managers should expect significant negative regression from Walker in 2021, at least if the baseline is his 3.28 ERA from the past few seasons. Walker is unlikely to post much better than an average strikeout rate going forward, and, his middling .326 xwOBA makes it unlikely that he posts an ERA south of 4.00 in 2021. All of that makes Walker a less than exciting fantasy option, although if his slider's performance improves in 2021 then a jump in his strikeout rate isn't out of the question.
Matt Shoemaker (SP - MIN)
The Twins signed Shoemaker to a one-year, $2 million deal on Monday, giving the 34-year-old a chance to compete with Randy Dobnak for the team's fifth-starter gig. Injuries have held Shoemaker to only 166 innings over the past four seasons, but he's been decent when healthy with a combined 4.12 ERA over that time. Reliant mostly on a sinker and splitter, Shoemaker generally posts a roughly average strikeout rate and depends primarily on generating ground balls and favorable contact for success. Pitching in front of a solid Twins defense should help Shoemaker as he attempts to earn a role in the team's starting rotation, but Dobnak likely has the upper hand in the competition. Fantasy managers should monitor Shoemanker's performance over spring training, but he's likely to be little more than an occasional DFS option in 2021.
Clayton Kershaw (SP - LAD)
Clayton Kershaw was noncommittal about his plans for playing in 2022 in a recent interview, and the 32-year-old may retire following the upcoming season. Although fantasy managers should still expect Kershaw to pitch in 2022 -- he's still relatively young and could see one final major payday after hitting free agency at the end of this season -- those in dynasty leagues would do well to feel out the trade market for Kershaw, especially after his characteristically stellar 2020 season. Kershaw posted a 2.16 ERA backed by an elite 24.4% K-BB% in 2020, and although his .232 BABIP and 28.1% strikeout rate (12.7% swinging-strike rate) are both likely to fall back towards 2019 levels in 2021, fantasy managers should still expect another strong season out of Kershaw this year, and dynasty managers should keep that in mind before dealing the future Hall of Famer.
Kevin Pillar (OF - NYM)
The Mets signed outfielder Kevin Pillar to a contract on Monday. The Mets have been stocking up on depth pieces recently, and the outfield has become somewhat crowded with Pillar joining Brandon Nimmo, Michael Conforto, Dominic Smith, and Albert Almora Jr. (not to mention Jonathan Villar, J.D. Davis, and Jeff McNeil, all of whom can play outfield if needed), and Smith's playing time may be threatened as a result. Of course, outfield depth doesn't hurt given Nimmo's and Conforto's checkered injury histories, but Smith's job as the team's starting left fielder has gotten more contested with each additional depth piece. Fantasy managers should still expect left field to be Smith's job to lose, but he's on thinner ice now than he was a month ago, and fantasy managers should keep that in mind on draft day.
Jaylin Davis (OF - SF)
Giants outfielder Jaylin Davis has a shot at carving out a consistent role for the team in 2021, according to manager Gabe Kapler. Davis boasts impressive raw power and speed that make him easy to dream on as a hitter, but he consistently posted swinging-strike rates around 15% in the minor leagues and owns a 27.5% strikeout rate for his minor-league career. Davis manages to offset some of his swing-and-miss tendencies with solid plate discipline skills, but he'll likely have to maintain a strikeout rate below 30% in the major-leagues to maintain value, and that looks like a tough mark based on his minor-league career. Still, Davis has the tools and the opportunity to make a significant impact in 2021, and fantasy managers should keep the talented 26-year-old in mind as a potential waiver pickup this season.
Justin Wilson (RP - NYY)
The Yankees signed relief pitcher Justin Wilson on Monday, bringing the southpaw back to the Bronx after five years away from the team. Wilson has been a productive middle reliever over his nine-year MLB career with a 3.27 ERA for his career, and he should continue to produce at a high level for the Yankees this season. Although Wilson will be blocked from the closer role by (at least) Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton, the Yankees offer plenty of hold opportunities to their relief pitchers (Yankee relievers comprised three of the top 10 pitchers by holds in 2019). Wilson should be a fantasy asset for fantasy managers who value saves as a result, though his middle-of-the-bullpen role gives him limited value in more traditional formats.