DON'T SLEEP ON SANCHEZ
Sixto Sanchez (SP-MIA) made a solid MLB debut in 2020, as he compiled a 3.46 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, and 2.5 BB/9 across 7 starts (39 IP). The 22 year-old's xFIP finished at 4.08, which mainly points to a slightly lucky 9.4% HR/FB suppressing his ERA a bit. While the strikeout numbers don't exactly impress, Sanchez did record a nice 13% swinging-strike rate and induce groundballs at a healthy 58% clip while keeping the free passes to a modest rate. It was, by any metric, an encouraging debut for a young starter.
But what to expect from Sanchez in 2021? In a word, growth. His average fastball velocity was nearly 98mph, and yet it got hit a fair amount because of his arm angle and because the pitch lacks movement. But he possesses an elite 89-mph change-up and a solid 89-mph slider. With his combination of stuff and control, we expect him to take a step forward this year. We have Sanchez pegged as roughly a #40 overall SP, certainly someone you could take as your #4-5 arm in fantasy. And he could very well be better than that, as we have him projected for a 3.90 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and a K/9 about 9.
REGRESSION IS AN INEVITABILITY, MR. ANDERSON
Brian Anderson (3B-MIA) was arguably the most useful Marlins hitter last season, as he finished the 2020 campaign with a .255 average, 11 homers, and 38 RBI across 229 PA, good for a 122 wRC+. While his walk rate remained stable at 9%, his strikeout rate jumped to 29% while he logged a .210 ISO that was very close to 2019's .207. Anderson's hard-hit rate, however, came in at a career-low 38% per Statcast even as his contact rate plummeted to just 68% and his swinging-strike rate jumped to over 15% (12% career).
Suffice to say we aren't crazy about Anderson as the 2021 campaign approaches. We expect his not-so-impressive peripherals to catch up to his surface numbers and the results won't be pretty. His hit tool is mediocre at best and while he does have some pop, the 27% HR/FB that he logged last season is due for correction toward his 14% career clip. We have Anderson ranked as the number 35ish 3B for that reason, with a projected .250 average and a homer total that pushes toward 20.
PUMP THE BRAKES ON ALCANTARA
Sandy Alcantara (SP-MIA) defied my expectations and was useful for fantasy purposes in 2020, as he made 7 starts (42 IP) in which he logged a 3.00 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, and 3.2 BB/9. But before we get too excited about that, I should point out that he finished with a 4.04 xFIP based on a slightly low .274 BABIP suppressing his ERA as well as a just okay K/9 and slightly high BB/9. Alcantara's swinging-strike rate remained steady at 10% while opposing batters actually made a bit more contact (78%) than in years past. While he possesses a 96-mph average heater, he's essentially a two-pitch pitcher, as he deploys that 60% of the time and his 87-mph slider 24% of the time; he rarely sprinkles in his 90-mph change (10%) and 81-mph curve (6%). Because of his arm strength and limited repertoire, in fact, some believe that he may end up a reliever at some point.
But what do we expect from Alcantara in 2021? In a word, regression. We have him listed as roughly our #80 overall SP, with a projected ERA around 4.10, a WHIP about 1.3, and a K/9 around 8. That would be serviceable for a back-end type or, even better, a spot-starter. We do like that Alcantara can limit hard contact (just 33% last season per Statcast) and induce some grounders (49% last year). But his two-pitch approach, fringey control, and lack of strikeout ability put a ceiling on his potential as a starter.
Gregory Polanco (OF-PIT) struggled mightily in 2020, as he put together a .153 average, 7 homers, 22 RBI, and 3 stolen bases across 174 PA. I liked him as a bounce-back candidate entering the season, but an atrocious 37% strikeout rate that came with a crazy 21% swinging-strike rate as well as an awful 59% contact rate made him all but useless for fantasy purposes. On the plus side, Polanco did register a really nice 51% hard-hit rate and continued to swing for the fences with a launch angle of 20.8 and flyball clip of 46%. But that approach alone lends itself to a likely low average and that was exacerbated by the massive hole in his swing.
What do we expect of him in 2021? While it's a bit concerning that he fractured his wrist while playing in the Dominican Winter League, the 29 year-old is expected to be ready for spring training. We have Polanco ranked in the 60s as an OF, with a projected average of .260 to go along with a homer total in the mid-20s and about 10 stolen bases. That would pretty much be what he did in 2016 and 2018, so it's quite doable. After all, his .193 BABIP in 2020 was nearly 100 points below his career average and some correction there while moving his strikeout rate toward the 29% clip he logged in 2019 would boost his average significantly. And we know the pop is there with a touch of speed. Polanco could be a #4 OF type for fantasy.
CAN REYNOLDS REBOUND?
Bryan Reynolds (OF-PIT) disappointed in 2020, logging a .189 average, 7 homers, 19 RBI, and 24 runs scored through 208 PA. This came after he impressed with a .314 clip, 16 dingers, 68 RBI, and 83 runs scored in his rookie campaign back in 2019. The culprits were a suppressed BABIP (.231) and elevated strikeout rate (27%) to go along with a lower hard-hit rate (38%) and average exit velocity (87.5mph) per Statcast. Meanwhile, Reynolds also hit fewer liners (22%) and groundballs (44%) en route to lofting flyballs (34%) as his launch angle ticked upward to just north of 10. That's all well and good so long as the hard contact rate remains high (which it did not).
We do think that Reynolds rebounds to some degree in 2021. As lucky as he was in BABIP in 2019 (.387), he was unlucky in 2020 (.231), and so we expect somewhere in the middle for 2021 (his minor-league track record indicates that him logging a BABIP around .350 is not impossible). We also expect Reynolds to lower his strikeout rate back toward the 22% he logged in 2019 (his minor-league track record indicates that around 20% is certainly possible). Meanwhile, he did boost his barrel rate from 7% in 2019 to 10% last season, which bodes well for him smacking a few homers. We have Reynolds rated in the 60s at OF, with a projected .265ish average with a homer total in the mid-20s.
LIKELY TO CLOSE
Richard Rodriguez (RP-PIT) is likely to open the 2021 campaign as the Pirates' closer. The 30 year-old hurler did log a strong 2020 season in which he posted a 2.70 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 13.1 K/9, and 1.9 BB/9 in 24 appearances (23.1 IP). He recorded 4 saves and a pair of holds along the way. His 2.83 xFIP points to the performance being more real than not. The K/9 and BB/9 were each career bests while Rodriguez elevated his swinging-strike rate to a likewise career-high 15% and limited opposing batters to a 67% contact rate. However, it's worth noting that when hitters did make contact, they tended to tattoo the ball, as they logged a 50% hard-hit rate against Rodriguez.
We're not convinced that you should count on Rodriguez as a reliable closer in 2021. Obviously, there is the team context. On the downside, the Pirates likely won't win many games. But on the plus side, those that they win will likely be close ones that require Rodriguez's services to close out. But there are some reasons to be concerned about his ability to repeat what he did last season. The hard contact and 92-mph average exit velocity he surrendered are certainly concerning. His stuff is solid (93-mph heater and 81-mph slider) but not exactly overwhelming. His career average 10.3 K/9 and 2.75 BB/9 suggest that his exceptional figures in those areas last season were just that - exceptional. We have him down for an ERA about 3.40, a WHIP about 1.35, and a K/9 just under 9.
Danny Jansen (C-TOR) disappointed again in 2020, as he followed up an underwhelming 2019 campaign (.207 average, 13 homers, and 43 RBI across 384 PA) with just a .183 average, 6 longballs, and 20 RBI in 147 PA. That was good for a wRC+ of 86. His walk rate jumped to just over 14% (was 8% in 2019) while his strikeout rate remained fairly stable at 21%. The problem was his batted ball profile, for while he registered a 35% hard-hit rate per Statcast, his average exit velocity was just 85mph. Jansen did, however, log a nice 25% line-drive rate but a 39% flyball rate for a guy who doesn't make a ton of hard contact is problematic. Hence his putrid .190 BABIP. That seems due for some correction in 2021. It's difficult to believe in Jansen at this point, but with Reese McGuire - who had an even worse 2020 season - and rookie Alejandro Kirk his primary competitors for playing time, Jansen should have an opportunity to put things together out of the gate in 2021. At this point, he's a watch list guy that we have projected for an average of about .250 and 15ish homers. Could be useful if the catcher you draft ends up stinking (very possible) or you need a plug-in for an injury (also quite possible).
Nate Lowe (1B-TEX) moved onto Texas via a trade this offseason after never really getting an opportunity to play regularly in Tampa. In 2020, he registered just 74 PA in which he batted .224 with 4 dingers and 11 RBI. The 25 year-old showed his ability to take free passes (12%) but fanned at a 37% clip while making hard contact at a 44% rate. With a launch angle of just 7, Lowe smoked liners at a 28% clip while registering a flyball rate just south of 26%. So, it took a 40% HR/FB to log those 4 longballs. At any rate, his work during the 2020 campaign offers a pretty small sample size and so we still have to put a bit more stock in his minor-league track record, which was pretty solid. In 406 PA in Triple-A back in 2019, he recorded a .289 average, 16 homers, 63 RBI, an 18% walk rate, and a 20% strikeout rate. Those stats pretty much reflected scouting grades he received, so I would keep an eye on Lowe, who will be in the mix to start at 1B in Texas. We have him projected for an average around .270 and about 20 dingers in 2021. If someone in your league doesn't take a late flier on him, he should be on your watch list.
Cavan Biggio (2B/3B/OF-TOR) showed some signs of progress at the dish in the shortened 2020 campaign. In 265 PA, the 25 year-old batted .250 with 8 homers, 28 RBI, 41 runs scored, and 6 stolen bases. His 124 wRC+ was improved from his 114 in his rookie season. Biggio trimmed his strikeout rate from 29% in 2019 to 23% last year while posting an elite 16% walk rate and raising his contact rate to 78% (was 76% in 2019). However, that increased contact came with a lower percentage of hard-hit balls, as his hard-hit rate dipped to just 31% per Statcast (40% in 2019) while his barrel rate slipped to just 5% (8% the year before). Overall, we like Biggio to be a solid all-around contributor this season, as we have him ranked as roughly the #5 overall 2B with a projected .260ish average to go along with a homer total in the mid-20s and a stolen base total that should approach 20. His counting stats - especially runs - will get a boost from his exceptional ability to draw walks. Oh, and depending on your league, he could be eligible at 2B, 3B, and OF.
Corey Seager (SS-LAD) was the stud we thought he could be in 2020, as he posted a .307 average, 15 dingers, and 41 RBI across 232 PA. In doing so, the 26 year-old logged a career-best 55% hard-hit rate per Statcast to go along with a 16% barrel rate and 93-mph average exit velocity. While his swinging-strike rate was a shade north of 13% and his contact rate was 76%, Seager whiffed in only 16% of PA. He drew walks at a career-low 7% clip as he tended to jump on pitches early and, more often than not, hammer them. We expect Seager to post elite numbers this season as he enters his prime. Expect him to be a top-5 shortstop, with an average of about .290 or so to go along with a homer total in the mid-30s or so.
Jesse Winker (OF-CIN) put together a useful 2020 campaign as he batted .255 with 12 homers, 23 RBI, and 27 runs scored across 183 PA. The lefty saw little action against southpaws, which did reduce his PA and counting stats. He was certainly productive in a platoon role, however, as he posted a career-high wRC+ of 146. While Winker elevated his walk rate to a career best 15%, his strikeout rate leapt to 25% (17% career) as he swung and missed more often (10% in 2020, 7% career) and his contact rate tumbled to 74% (82% career). It does appear that Winker was trying to hit for more power, as his launch angle was up slightly to 10.5 while his hard-hit rate jumped to a career-best 49% per Statcast. Also, his 13.5% barrel rate more than doubled his career average (6.3%) and his average exit velocity reached a career high of 92mph. Curiously, Winker's flyball rate stayed at his career average of 29%, which left him with an unsustainable 40% HR/FB. The combination of positive signs and red flags - as well as the odds that he again platoons - makes us lukewarm on Winker, as we have him slotted as about the #50 overall OF, with a projection of roughly a .270 average to go with a homer total in the mid-20s.
David Peralta (OF-ARI) put together a good but not great campaign in 2020, as he finished the abbreviated season with a .300 average, 5 homers, and 34 RBI in 218 PA. His seeming breakout effort in 2018 (.293 average, 30 homers, 87 RBI in 614 PA) is becoming a distant memory as he followed up that 130 wRC+ campaign with an identical 106 wRC+ in both 2019 and 2020. For the second straight year, Peralta's hard-hit rate dipped (to 36% per Statcast) while his average exit velocity (89mph) and barrel rate (5%) also ticked downward. The good news is that his strikeout rate remained stable at 21% while his swinging-strike rate came in slightly below his career average at 9.6%. The .300 average was nice, but it came with a .361 BABIP that exceeded his .338 career rate there. Although 2018 is looking more and more like a career year, we do think that the 33 year-old still has something left in the tank. We have him ranked as roughly our #40 overall OF entering the 2021 campaign, with a projected average of about .280 to go along with a homer total in the mid-20s.
Zac Gallen (SP-ARI) followed up a 2019 campaign in which he outperformed his peripherals by doing the same thing in 2020. Across 12 starts (72 IP), the 25 year-old recorded a 2.75 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 10.3 K/9, and 3.1 BB/9. His 3.62 xFIP, while not as high as the 4.15 he posted in 2019 when he logged a 2.81 ERA, suggests that he benefited from some good luck. For the second straight year, his strand rate sat at 84% while opposing batters logged only a .266 BABIP against him. Gallen, however, did show signs of improvement, as he slashed his BB/9 down from 4.1 while inducing more grounders (up to 46% from 39% in 2019) and reducing hard contact a bit, from 36% to 32% per Statcast. We slot him as our #25 SP, good for a solid #2-3 starter, with projections of an ERA about 3.80, a WHIP around 1.20, and a K/9 of about 10.
Lance McCullers, Jr. (SP-HOU) was effective across his 11 starts (55 IP) in 2020, as he returned from Tommy John surgery to record a 3.93 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, and 3.3 BB/9. His 3.68 xFIP says he was actually just a bit better than that, as a 65% strand rate and 15% HR/FB inflated his ERA a bit. Under the hood, though, we see that while his 11.4% swinging-strike rate was solid, it was down a bit from the 12-13.5% clips he logged in 2016-2018 while opposing batters did record slightly more hard contact (35% hard-hit rate) against him while posting a 10.3% barrel rate well above his 6.4% career average. The good news is that his average fastball velocity was about what it was before he underwent TJS (94mph) while his control was a touch better than usual (3.5 BB/9 career). We like McCullers as roughty the #35 overall SP in 2021, with a projected ERA of 3.80, a WHIP about 1.25, and a K/9 at roughly 9. Just bear in mind that he has yet to log more than 130 IP in a season since he made his big-league debut back in 2015.
Kenta Maeda (SP-MIN) impressed in his first season with Minnesota, as he registered a 2.70 ERA, 0.75 ERA, 10.8, and 1.35 BB/9 across 11 starts (66.2 IP). His 2.63 xFIP indicates that his luck was pretty neutral, but let's take a peek at some peripherals anyway. His 17.2% swinging-strike rate was a career best while opponents logged a career-low 67% contact rate against him. Moreover, Statcast shows that opposing batters logged a career-low 25% hard-hit rate against Maeda, with an average exit velocity of just 85mph. Oh, and the 49% groundball rate he induced was a career high. While the surface numbers are nice and the peripherals are also great, we think it will be difficult for Maeda to replicate his amazing 2020 campaign. But he should still be a top-30 starter. Expect an ERA about 3.70, a WHIP under 1.20, and a K/9 of about 9 and you should get at least what you paid for.
Framber Valdez (SP-HOU) put together a strong 2020 campaign, as he recorded a 3.57 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, and 2 BB/9 across 70.2 IP. The then-26 year-old southpaw finished the campaign with a 2.94 xFIP which indicates that he actually ran into a little bad luck in the form of a 68% strand rate, .312 BABIP, and 13.5% HR/FB along the way. Interestingly, his swinging-strike rate was 10% while opposing batters made contact at a 78% clip and often punished the ball, as indicated by a 49% hard-hit rate per Statcast. However, he did induce groundballs at a healthy 60% clip. Because Valdez is pretty hittable, we do expect a touch of regression this season. But his ability to induce some strikeouts and keep the walks low will help a lot. We see him as roughly a #30 overall SP and project him for about a 3.70 ERA, a WHIP around 1.25, and a K/9 right around 9.