2020's Silent Starting Pitcher Breakout
I wrote about Kikcuhi's potential 2020 breakout, subsequent performance, and 2021 takeaways at various points last season, and my overall thoughts haven't changed much since then. Kikuchi finished the 2020 season with an uninspiring 5.17 ERA, but it came with a serviceable 3.78 xFIP that suggests that better days are ahead for the 29-year-old. Additionally, Kikuchi's 2.5 mph increase in his average fastball velocity and the introduction of a cutter into his pitch mix (40% usage rate, .288 xwOBA) were encouraging developments and support his xFIP breakout. Kikuchi should once again benefit from the Mariners' usage of a six-man rotation in 2021 after noting that the five-man rotation structure played a role in his rookie-year struggles, another point in favor of significant 2021 improvements. The only two major areas of concern regarding Kikuchi in 2021 are his draft price and his untested ability to maintain success over a full 162-game season. In addition to noting that limited rest impacted his 2019 performance, Kikuchi cited the length of the season as a reason behind his 2019 struggles, and fantasy managers should keep that in mind before drafting Kikuchi this season. On the draft price front, fantasy managers as a group have taken note of Kikuchi's 2020 adjustments and reacted by tagging him with a 328 ADP -- not particularly pricey, but more expensive than higher-upside pitchers like Freddy Peralta. Still, Kikuchi has the highest upside of any of the Seattle starting pitchers, and he's worth a look from fantasy managers later in drafts as a result.
The Staff Ace
Marco Gonzales was excellent in 2020 with a 3.10 ERA and a 3.32 FIP, and although those numbers will likely worsen in 2021, Gonzales remains the ace of the Seattle pitching staff. Let's start with the bad: the majority of Gonzales's 2020 improvements came from two unsustainable areas. For one, Gonzales benefited from a 2.5% walk rate without a meaningful change in his zone rate or chase rate. Secondly, Gonzales posted an xwOBA 31 points higher than his wOBA with a relatedly low .263 BABIP. Now onto the good: over the past three seasons, Gonzales has posted a 3.85 ERA over an impressive 439.1 innings, and he hasn't had an especially bad season at any point since becoming a full-time starting pitcher in 2018. Gonzales boasts one of the highest floors of all starting pitchers as a result, making him an attractive fantasy option in a position group rife with uncertainty.
A Solid Third Baseman At A Bargain Price
A consistently solid but seemingly underappreciated fantasy asset, Fantsitics projects Kyle Seager to post a solid .811 OPS with 25 home runs in 2021. Encouragingly, Seager cut his chase rate down a career-best 23.9% in 2020, helping fuel his impressive 1.03 K:BB. Additionally, Seager posted his second consecutive season with a ground-ball pull-rate south of 59%, increasing the possibility that his BABIP gets back up closer to .280 after sitting around .240 in recent seasons. Overall, Seager comes with 30 home run upside and is a safe bet to post an above-average OBP with solid production in other non-stolen base categories. That's not the most exciting profile, but it doesn't have to be -- Seager's 266 ADP makes him the 30th third baseman off the board on average in drafts so far this season, and he's a worthwhile investment at that cost for fantasy managers.
A Rare 30/20 Threat
One of only nine hitters projected by Fantistics to eclipse 30 home runs and 20 stolen bases in 2021, Kyle Tucker is well-positioned to be an extremely valuable fantasy asset this season. Tucker finally broke into a starting role in the Houston starting lineup last season, posting a .837 OPS with nine home runs and eight stolen bases through 58 games. With a full(ish) season as a starter now under his belt, Tucker has a chance to improve upon his already solid foundation and continue showing off the skillset that made him a consensus top-20 prospect as recently as two seasons ago. Fantasy managers should consider Tucker to be a second-tier fantasy hitter in 2021 as a result, and his 31 ADP puts him squarely in that category.
The Best Hitter With An ADP Higher Than 75?
Alvarez projects to be one of the best four-category contributors in baseball this season, with Fantistics expecting a .282 BA, 35 home runs, and 200 combined runs and RBI. If Alvarez is fully recovered from the knee injury that shut him down in 2020, then those numbers might represent something closer to his floor than his ceiling. One of the league's premier sluggers, Alvarez owns an elite 49.6% hard-hit rate for his career. Adding to Alvarez's value is that he's paired his power with solid plate discipline (30.3% chase rate) and contact (10.2%) skills that allow him to post a palatable strikeout rate alongside his fantastic contact quality. The only real downside to drafting Alvarez (besides his injury risk) is that his positional eligibility is limited to UT and DH slots, denting his fantasy value. Still, Alvarez should be one of the league's best hitters in 2021, and fantasy managers should strongly consider drafting him despite his less than ideal injury risk and position as a result -- especially at his 84 ADP.
Ryan Pressly: Closer
Ryan Pressly is expected to be a full-time closer for the first time in his career in 2021, and Fantistics expects him to rack up 30 saves in that role. Pressly has been an excellent relief pitcher since joining the Astros in 2018, and he's posted a strong 2.58 ERA with a stellar 27.1% K-BB over the past three seasons. It's worth noting that Pressly lost fastball velocity in each of the past two seasons and has seen his fastball's swinging-strike rate drop as a result, but the 32-year-old has still posted an overall swinging-strike rate above 17% in that time. Combined with his better-than-average control, Pressly's elite ability to generate whiffs gives him the chance to be one of the league's most productive closers in 2021.
Around the League
Shohei Ohtani (SP/UT - LAA)
Ohtani reportedly hit 97 mph with his fastball on Wednesday, an encouraging sign as he looks to bounce back from an injury-marred 2020 campaign. A flexor strain limited Ohtani to just 1.2 innings as a pitcher last season, and his average fastball velocity was down four mph from his 97 mph mark in 2019. Ohtani and manager Joe Maddon have both been optimistic about Ohtani's health and performance recently, though, and fantasy managers should be extremely encouraged by the fact that Ohtani is putting up numbers that back up that optimism. Ohtani still comes with plenty of risk, but he has arguably the highest upside of any player with an ADP outside of the top 100 (Ohtani has a 233.76 ADP) and should be targeted by fantasy managers as a result.
Tim Anderson (SS - CHW)
White Sox manager Tony La Russa named Anderson the team's leadoff hitter for the 2021 season. That announcement should come as no surprise after Anderson batted leadoff in all 49 of his games last season, but it's good to hear the new manager re-affirm Anderson's lineup position. An elite batting average producer thanks to his aggressive plate approach (55% swing rate) and solid contact quality (.420 xwOBAcon over the past two seasons), Anderson should pile up runs once again in 2021 while batting leadoff for what is projected to be a strong White Sox offense. Fantistics is justifiably low on Anderson because of his high .390 BABIP and 13.9% over the past two seasons, but he's still likely to be an excellent producer in the runs and BA categories in 2021.
Eugenio Suarez (3B - CIN)
Suarez reportedly lost 15 pounds this offseason and enters the season looking to rebound from a relatively poor 2020 season that saw him post a .202 batting average with a .781 OPS. Offseason shoulder surgery likely contributed to Suarez's lackluster performance last year though, and full health combined with improved physical shape should do nothing but boost his chances of bouncing back this season. If that news isn't enough to get fantasy managers excited about Suarez, Fantistics loves him as a fantasy asset this season with his projections expecting a season with 41 home runs and nearly 200 runs+RBI, and fantasy managers should make Suarez a priority in drafts at his 79 ADP as a result.
Max Scherzer (SP - WSH)
Scherzer continues to recover well from a sprained ankle that he suffered in February, and he reportedly felt comfortable in a 40-pitch throwing session on the mound on Wednesday. Scherzer wasn't up to full-strength yet -- he was throwing at 80-85 percent -- but his progress has him on track to face live hitters after just one more bullpen session. Fantasy managers should expect Scherzer to be ready for Opening Day as a result, and he's likely to be a strong starting pitching option again this year. Scherzer endured a rough (for him) 2020 season that saw him post an uncharacteristically high 3.74 ERA, but Fantistics projects something close to a return to normalcy this season with Scherzer expected for a 3.49 ERA and an 11 K/9. That's not the ace-like Scherzer that fantasy managers are used to, but he's not terribly overvalued at his 29 ADP based on that projection and should be a more than solid fantasy asset.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (1B - TOR)
Guerrero Jr.'s offseason conditioning has been well-documented this year, and the 21-year-old put a number to that improved conditioning on Wednesday by announcing a 42-pound weight loss. Less than stellar conditioning has likely been one of the factors holding Guerero Jr. back from his sky-high potential thus far in his major-league career, and fantasy managers should be excited by his progress this offseason. Guerrero Jr. still has some notable areas for improvement in his game -- particularly his high 54.6% ground-ball rate -- but he boasts one of the highest upsides of any hitter in baseball. Fantistics projects Guerrero Jr. to scrape the surface of that potential this season with a .283 average and 26 home runs, but fantasy managers should view that projection as something closer to Guerrero Jr.'s floor than his ceiling given his offseason improvements.
Freddy Peralta (SP - MIL)
The Brewers plan to stretch Peralta out during spring training to prepare him for added innings in 2021. I'm high on Peralta as a breakout candidate this season, and manager Craig Counsell's recent comments about Peralta's innings suggest that he might crack the team's starting rotation this year. Armed with an impressive arsenal that features a fantastic slider that he re-introduced last season, Peralta posted a 15.7% swinging-strike rate and a 2.41 FIP in 2020. Those numbers might take a hit if Peralta winds up with a full-time role in the starting rotation, but Peralta still owns a tantalizing fastball (16.76% swinging-strike rate in 2020)/slider combination that makes him one of the best fantasy pitching options late in drafts.
Royce Lewis (SS - MIN)
Lewis tore his ACL on Wednesday, and he'll miss the entire 2020 season as a result. One of the league's best prospects, Fantistics expected Lewis to carve out a solid role for the Twins this season with 59 projected games played. An ACL injury certainly isn't ideal and makes Lewis a non-factor in redraft leagues this year, but the 21-year-old still has All-Star caliber upside and remains a must-own in dynasty leagues.
Jose Abreu (1B - CHW)
Abreu has tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss at least the next few days as he waits for negative test results. Fortunately, Abreu is asymptomatic and expects to rejoin the club relatively quickly, so it's unlikely that he suffers from lingering effects that disrupted the 2020 seasons of players like teammate Yoan Moncada. Once he returns to the field, Abreu will look to build off of a 2020 season that saw him ride a .987 OPS to the AL MVP award, and Fantistics projects the 34-year-old to once again produce at a high level in four fantasy categories (all but stolen bases) in 2021. That should come as no surprise given Abreu's strong contact quality (.426 career xwOBAcon) and 19.9% career strikeout rate. Fantasy managers shouldn't expect COVID to have much of an impact on Abreu's production this season based on his current condition and plan for another strong season from the first baseman.
Cody Bellinger (1B/OF - LAD)
Bellinger is reportedly ahead of schedule in his recovery from a dislocated shoulder that he suffered during the World Series last year, and the 25-year-old expects to have no problem being ready for Opening Day this season. Bellinger had a relatively forgettable 2020 season with a disappointing .789 OPS, but a slow start (.372 OPS over his first eight games) disproportionately affected his overall numbers because of the shortened season, and Bellinger finished the regular season with a .872 OPS over his last 48 games. Unsurprisingly, Fantistics expects a full bounceback from Bellinger, projecting him for a .904 OPS with 39 home runs and 15 stolen bases. Fantasy managers should feel comfortable drafting Bellinger early as a result, and that'll be necessary given his 16 ADP.
Sean Murphy (C - OAK)
Murphy is still a few days away from hitting as he continues to recover from offseason surgeries to repair a collapsed lung. Even so, Murphy appears to be on track to retain hold over the starting catcher job for the A's this season, and he doesn't seem to be in danger of missing Opening Day at this point. Murphy has had a productive MLB career so far with a .846 OPS and 11 home runs over 63 games, and he's one of the better young players at a thin fantasy position. Fantistics is relatively bullish on Murphy this season with a projection that pegs him as the seventh most valuable fantasy catcher, making him a worthwhile fantasy target based on his 164 ADP (ninth catcher off the board).