A Sophomore Slump, For Pete's Sake*
A sophomore slump seemed almost inevitable for the 2019 NL Rookie of the Year, and for all intents and purposes, that's exactly what happened for much of the shortened 2020 season. He still exhibited similar power that led to his 53-home run campaign two seasons ago, but he was slow to adjust to pitchers targeting his weaknesses. As for the power, Alonso was on pace for over 40 homers in a normal 162-game season, and while he may never actually hit 53 again, fantasy owners would certainly be satisfied with 40-plus. The drop from the 50's to 40's was supported by a very slight regression in hard hit rate and exit velocity. It was very slight, as was a drop in HR/FB%. It's all still very strong, just maybe not enough to repeat a 300+ ISO.
The real concern for Alonso's regression is batting average. A nearly 40-point drop in BABIP coincided with a nearly 30-point drop in average. This was mirrored in a 31-point drop in xBA. He made slightly less contact and the contact he did make was less potent: he hit more flyballs and less line drives. That is largely due to pitchers adjusting to Alonso's weaknesses. He does not hit high pitches well. Therefore, pitchers threw more high pitches in 2020 and he continued to... not hit them well. When he did hit them, he had very little power.
It wasn't all negative for Alonso last year though. He wasn't as pull-heavy, spraying the ball more towards right field, which should help his BABIP over time. Plus, a lot of the regression he showed came in the first couple months of the season. Alonso finished strong, contributing a .955 OPS in September. Also of note, Alonso repeated his reverse splits from 2019. He has more power against left-handed pitching but better contact/batting average against righties.
All in all, Alonso's home run potential is pretty safe, but he could be a drag on batting average.
Cookie in the Big Apple
Based purely on the human element, it was absolutely wonderful to see Carlos Carrasco healthy and dealing again in 2020. After a frightening battle with chronic myeloid leukemia in 2019, Carrasco was healthy and productive in 2020.
For fantasy purposes there are some concerns as the longtime Cleveland Indian moves to New York. First of all, Carrasco benefited from some luck last year. His LOB% was the highest of his career at 85.2%. Likewise, his xFIP and SIERA were the most elevated they've been since before Carrasco was a good pitcher, and that's a product in part due to the highest walk rate since his rookie year. Furthermore, he pitched against weak Central division teams in 2020, which was clearly a positive for pitchers.
On the flipside Carrasco didn't really see a dip in velo as it was right in line with 2018. He was healthy. That's hugely important. Furthermore, he gets to leave the home confines of Progressive Field, where he was markedly worse than on the road. Throughout his career, Carrasco's batting average allowed on the road is more than 30 points lower than at home. His road WHIP is 1.10 as opposed to 1.29 at home. Citi Field is a welcome place for right-handed pitchers and Carrasco should benefit from his new spot. The Mets improved their offense and bullpen, which should create a multitude of win opportunities for the veteran.
Carrasco will likely see some regression from 2020, but he is still a valuable fantasy asset.
The Face of the Mets
Maybe you didn't realize just how good the Mets offense was last year. Maybe you weren't aware the National League team from New York had the highest batting average in all of baseball. Were you informed enough to know the Mets' 121 wRC+ was second only to the Dodgers? Well, here's something you probably did know: the Mets have a new best hitter. Yes, Pete Alonso and Michael Conforto and Jeff McNeil are solid, but Francisco Lindor is the best hitter on one of last year's best offenses. You might not recognize it after Lindor's worst season in the majors. In 2020, Lindor had a career-low 102 wRC+ along with a career-worst 80.8% contact rate and career-high 9.2% swinging strike rate. Those are all still above-average marks, but they're not in line with the Hall of Fame-caliber metrics Lindor put out in previous seasons. Could that be related to the unconventional 2020 season? Might Lindor have been slow to adjust to a July start date or feeling the pressure of his pending contract negotiations/trade talks when he played to an 89 wRC+ over the first half of the season? Perhaps he settled in, which explains his more reminiscent output in the second half of the season: .340 wOBA, 112 wRC+, 1.06 batting EYE. I'd bank on the half of a season that looks like the rest of his career.
Lindor should hit right in the middle of the Mets lineup. He'll be surrounded by McNeil, Conforto and Alonso. He will thrive across the box score. Even at a deep position with a lot of excellent options, Lindor should be a first round draft pick, yet he's being selected in the 2nd round. He is an ideal option at or near the turn of a 15-team draft. Take the steal if presented.
Jack of All Outcomes
Flaherty is a prime example of why 2020's numbers can be misleading. He finished with a career-worst 4.91 ERA/4.11 FIP. However, if you extract his 9/15 start at Milwaukee (3 IP, 9 ER), Flaherty's 2020 ERA is 3.13. In a nine-start season, one brutal start is insurmountable. He got hit that day. He was abysmal, but other than that he was pretty darn good. His swinging strike rate was a career-high 14.3% and his strand rate was more than 10 percentage points lower than his career mark. The bad luck, along with a 23.1% HR/FB rate, justifies a career-best 3.42 xFIP. Flaherty went from being overvalued due to good luck in the second half of 2019 to undervalued based on bad luck in essentially one start in 2020.
In reality, he's somewhere in between. The Fantistics Draft Advisory Software projects Flaherty for 14 wins with a 3.50 ERA and 1.14 WHIP, right on the edge of SP1 status. He won his arbitration case against the Cardinals and so he's finally getting a relatively decent salary for a good pitcher. With a few years of experience and the skillset to excel, it's reasonable to believe 2021 is Flaherty's best season yet. Pitching in an extremely weak NL Central with a greatly improved defense behind him should help the young right-hander, and you could certainly make the case for him as your top pitcher to complement an elite hitter or two at the outset of your draft.
Dylan Carlson finally started to receive regular playing time late last season. Carlson struggled with an undefined role and inconsistent expectations leading to a demotion to the team's alternate site in early September. Two weeks later he was recalled and although he was hitting at the bottom of the Cardinals lineup upon his return, the highly-touted prospect started to produce. In 40 plate appearances, Carlson hit .278 with seven extra base hits, en route to a 142 wRC+. His exit velocity improved from 87.4 pre-demotion to 92.9 post-callup.
2021 should offer different circumstances. The Cardinals dumped Dexter Fowler on the Angels so Carlson is entrenched in the St. Louis outfield and should sneak up in the lineup (I'd love to see him hit 2nd and Paul DeJong 5th, but Mike Shildt is unpredictable to say the least). Carlson has real power/speed potential and should get on base a lot. Is it possible to nab Carlson as a post-hype sleeper prospect even though, in truth, he's still kind of a prospect? It seems like his lackluster performance in limited time last year dulled the shine of his five-category potential. I really like the spot he's in this year.
An Indirect Benefactor
The Cardinals pitching staff has some question marks. The St. Louis defense does not. Right now in the rotation, after Jack Flaherty there is Kwang Hyun Kim (greatly outpitched his advanced metrics), Adam Wainwright (he turns 40 in August), Miles Mikolas (missed the entire 2020 season after undergoing surgery on his right flexor tendon) and Carlos Martinez (struggled mightily with injuries and poor performance in five starts). There's also flyball-specialist (is that a thing?) Daniel Ponce de Leon and a few other middling prospects in the mix. All in all, it's a fairly uninspiring group.
But they do have something to feel pretty good about. Behind the Cardinals pitching staff is arguably the best defense in the National League. Even in spite of losing elite defensive 2nd baseman Kolten Wong, the Cardinals are certainly better with Nolan Arenado at the hot corner. Tommy Edman's best defense is at 2nd base, and while he isn't Wong, he is an above-average defender. Arenado may end up going down as the best defensive 3rd baseman in history, Paul Goldschmidt is still one of the better first basemen and Paul DeJong has turned into a top-10 defensive shortstop (he actually led all MLB shortstops in UZR in 2019). Those guys behind them will make plays. The St. Louis outfield is pretty good, too, especially with the departure of Dexter Fowler, and even at 38 years old Yadier Molina will always benefit his pitching staff.
All of that is to say you can anticipate Cardinals pitchers outperforming their FIPs. Contact pitchers like Mikolas, Wainwright and Kim will receive the biggest boost, but it will pay off for Flaherty, Martinez and the relievers as well.
AROUND THE LEAGUE:
Shun Yamaguchi, P (SFG)
The Giants signed Shun Yamaguchi to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training after he was released by the Blue Jays last week. Yamaguchi transitioned from a successful career in Japan to the major leagues last year, and it did not go well. He finished 2-4 with an 8.06 ERA and a 14.2% BB rate in 17 relief appearances for Toronto, but it's entirely possible he will right the ship in San Francisco. He did induce a 13.1% swinging strike rate and fairly weak contact so a more normal season and change of scenery could pay off. The Giants bullpen has openings and Yamaguchi could work his way into a higher-leverage situation if he performs well.
Garrett Crochet, P (CHW)
According to Scott Merkin of MLB.com, the White Sox hard-throwing lefty added about 15 pounds of muscle over the offseason. This comes less than one year after he was drafted in the first round and subsequently made his MLB debut, allowing three hits and zero runs with eight strikeouts in six innings of relief. It would be fascinating to see how Crochet would perform as a starter, but for now it appears the White Sox are going to continue to use him as a reliever, and he could provide extraordinary late-round value across the board (don't expect many saves) for fantasy owners.
Phillip Ervin, OF (CHC)
Ervin was designated for assignment before ever appearing in a game for the Cubs. After parting ways with Albert Almora Jr. and Kyle Schwarber in the offseason, Chicago suddenly became gluttonous for fourth outfielders, bringing in Ervin and Jake Marisnick and most recently Cameron Maybin. That left Ervin expendable and so he will be back on the waiver wire for the third time this offseason. He's only two seasons removed from hitting a respectable .271 with seven home runs and four stolen bases en route to a 102 wRC+. He is only 28 years old and should find a home somewhere as a bat off the bench.
Noah Syndergaard, SP (NYM)
The Mets officially placed Syndergaard on the 60-day injured list to create a spot on the 40-man roster for the recently signed Taijuan Walker. Syndergaard is expected to miss most of the first half of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last March.
Forrest Whitley, SP (HOU)
Astros top prospect Forrest Whitley has not yet arrived at spring training. Manager Dusty Baker was vague in his reasoning for why Whitley wasn't available, but it could be due to COVID-19 protocols and intake screening. Whitley has yet to make his major league debut and has struggled at times in the minor leagues, but he offers a versatile pitch mix with high upside.
Curt Casali, C (SFG)
The Giants' backup catcher is recovering well from December hamate surgery and should be ready for Opening Day. Signed in the offseason to play behind Buster Posey and give prospect Joey Bart more seasoning in the minor leagues, Casali did show some power, hitting six home runs in 76 at bats last year. Posey has dealt with a myriad of injuries over the last several years so it wouldn' be surprising if Casali is getting regular playing time at some point, but until then he is only relevant in deeper mixed leagues with two catchers.
Joe Kelly, RP (LAD)
Kelly is dealing with soreness and has yet to throw a bullpen session at Dodgers spring training although the Dodgers don't seem too concerned. After two subpar seasons, Kelly was excellent as the Dodgers romped to their World Series title registering a 1.80 ERA and holding opposing hitters to a .229 batting average. He did not allow a home run last year and induced mostly weak contact; however, the Dodgers bullpen is packed and Kelly's path to saves is almost nonexistent.
Shane Bieber, SP (CLE)
The reigning AL Cy Young winner finally arrived at the Indians spring training facility after dealing with COVID-19. Bieber's symptoms were reportedly very mild so he should be free to begin ramping up his activity, hoping to capitalize on an incredible 2020 campaign in which the big right-hander cruised to an 8-1 record with a 17.1% swinging strike rate. Bieber's command is excellent and so his potential for consistent results is higher than most breakout stars. Expect Bieber to continue ranking at or near the top of the league and you can definitely justify taking the 25 year old as the first pitcher off the board.
Jarren Duran, OF (BOS)
The Red Sox appear to be very high on Duran, even going so far as manager Alex Cora comparing him to Jacoby Ellsbury and Grady Sizemore. Cora said Duran will see regular playing time this spring and could make an appearance in the Red Sox outfield this season. Right now Boston's outfield has questions beyond Alex Verdugo. Hunter Renfroe and Franchy Cordero have elite skills but major flaws. Marwin Gonzalez has declined and is better utilized as a utility player all over the field. That means a strong spring could open the door for the former Long Beach State standout. Duran has elite speed. If he could provide the same moderate power he showed over his first few stops in the minors, he may be roaming centerfield at Fenway by May.
J.A. Happ, SP (MIN)
Happ tested positive for COVID-19 during his intake testing and he will quarantine until he is cleared to join the team. Happ is asymptomatic and could be back on the field by the end of next week. Happ is 38 years old but coming off a solid season for the Yankees, finishing with a 3.47 ERA and the highest swinging strike rate of his career. He definitely had some luck with an 81.3% strand rate and .223 BABIP, but he is in a good spot in Minnesota and is certainly worth a fantasy roster spot.