CRUZ WILL MASH... IF HE MAKES CONTACT
Oneil Cruz (SS-PIT) could make his MLB debut in 2021, and there's reason to be interested in that possibility. The tall (6'7") 22 year-old possesses tremendous power and good speed, although his hit tool is likely to be problematic. Cruz split the 2019 campaign between High-A and Double-A, hitting .301 in the former and .269 in the latter to go along with a combined 8 longballs and 10 stolen bases across a total of 281 PA. He struck out at a 26% clip at both levels and walked at an 11% rate in Double-A (under 6% in High-A). His biggest single sample size in the minors comes from A-ball back in 2018 (when he was still a teenager), where he hit .286 with 14 dingers and 11 RBI across 443 PA. Scouts, however, report that Cruz tends to make poor decisions in terms of offering at pitches, which contributes to his tendency to whiff. And while he does tend to hit lots of grounders (50% or more at every stop so far but one), he does possess plus speed and an ability to stroke liners. He doesn't hit a ton of flyballs, so that could limit his ability to truly tap into his plus-plus power. At any rate, Cruz is an intriguing prospect because he could stick at SS despite his size and his combination of power and speed could make him a fantasy asset. The question will, of course, be his ability to make contact.
NOT BULLISH ON BRAULT
Steven Brault (SP-PIT) put together a 2020 stat line that might, on the surface, appear useful, as he finished the campaign with a 3.38 ERA and 1.20 WHIP across 42.2 IP. But a quick glance at some peripherals - such as his 8 K/9, 4.6 BB/9, and 4.85 xFIP - should raise a bunch of red flags if you consider drafting him in 2021. The 28 year-old lefty kept hard contact to a modest 32% clip and recorded a career-best 49% groundball rate. But Brault benefitted from a suppressed .243 BABIP (.302 career) and 6% HR/FB (11% career). He does not miss many bats (9% swinging-strike rate) and opposing hitters have little trouble making contact against him (78% in 2020, same for career). Brault did deploy his 93-mph heater a career-low 39% of the time last season while raising his changeup usage to a career-high 24%; he also utilized his slider 23% of the time and his sinker a career-low 12% of the time. Given his limited strikeout ability (7.8 K/9 career) and control issues (4.7 BB/9 career), it is tough to get excited about him for fantasy purposes. We rank him as roughly the #150 SP, with a projection of a 4.6 ERA, 1.4 WHIP, and a K/9 about 8.4. At best, he could be used as a streaming option for home starts, as he's performed significantly better at PNC Park than on the road over the last two seasons.
Miguel Yajure (SP-PIT) made his MLB debut with the Yankees in 2020 as a 22 year-old, logging a 1.29 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 10.3 K/9, and 6.4 BB/9 across 7 IP (3 appearances). His 5.41 xFIP, of course, points to a 100% strand rate and .143 BABIP suppressing his ERA in that tiny sample size. Yajure moved to Pittsburgh during the offseasons as part of the Jameson Taillon deal, and there is reason to be optimistic about his future for fantasy purposes. He lacks overwhelming stuff on the mound, but does deploy five average to above-average pitches that he commands well; his velocity did spike into the mid-90s late in 2019, so there is that. And, encouragingly, his track record in the minors indicates that his control issues in 2020 were an aberration, as he logged a BB/9 between 1.4 and 2.1 at each stop from 2016 onward. It is worth noting that he underwent Tommy John surgery back in 2017 and rebounded well; in A ball in 2018, he logged a 3.90 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, and 2.1 BB/9 with a 3.41 xFIP across 64.2 IP as he built back up to strength. Yajure's most complete minor-league season came in 2019, when he posted a 2.26 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, and 2 BB/9 across 127.2 High-A IP (18 starts, 4 relief appearances); his 2.88 xFIP confirms that he wasn't just lucky that year. He did move up to Double-A at the end of that campaign, making 2 starts (11 IP) in which he logged a 0.82 ERA, 1 WHIP, 9 K/9, and 1.64 BB/9 to go with a 2.88 xIP. Yajure should see some MLB action this year with the rebuilding Pirates. He's not one to draft, but should be on your watch list. Expect bigger things in 2022.
ANOTHER ONE FOR THE WATCH LIST
JJ Bleday (OF-MIA) appears likely to make his MLB debut in 2021. The 23 year-old was taken in the first round of the 2019 draft out of Vanderbilt, so he's played relatively few professional games - 38 to be exact - as COVID-19 sabotaged the 2020 minor league season. But he made the leap from college to High-A in 2019 with relative ease, as he logged a .257 average, 3 homers, and 19 RBI across 151 PA. He struck out at a 19% clip while drawing walks at a 7% rate. In that small sample size, Bleday smoked liners at a 24% rate while lifting flyballs at a 41% clip. He was heralded as one of the more polished bats and athletic players in his draft class. Scouts report that the lefty utilizes a short swing that generates some loft, and that bodes well with his plus power; he did lead the NCAA in homers in 2019. Bleday's hit tool also projects to be a plus and his defense grades well, so he is expected to move fairly quickly through the Marlins system. We have him getting a cup of coffee in 2021, with a projected average of about .250ish to go along with a handful of homers and a few steals. He's therefore not a guy to roster right away in redraft leagues, but one to put on your watch list in case he gets the call earlier than expected and produces. The Marlins do have a track record of aggressively promoting younger players (and he's already 23), so his call could come sooner rather than later.
ROGERS COULD BE FANTASY RELEVANT
Trevor Rogers (SP-MIA) is currently slated to open the season toward the back end of the Marlins rotation after leaping from Double-A in 2019 to the majors in 2020. He didn't exactly set the world on fire across his 7 starts (28 IP), as he finished with a 6.11 ERA, 1.61 WHIP, 12.5 K/9, and 4.2 BB/9. But his 3.67 xFIP indicates that he wasn't nearly as bad as the ERA suggests, as a 68% strand rate, .380 BABIP, and 21% HR/FB inflated his surface numbers. A 13% swinging-strike rate and 72% contract rate were certainly not bad. And Rogers surrendered a 1.61 HR/9 despite inducing grounders at a 47% clip. A 21% HR/FB certainly seems destined to correct toward the mean. The 6'6" lefty possesses a plus heater that can reach into the high-90s to go along with a plus changeup and a developing slider that he is working on during spring training; for what it's worth, the early reports and results have been encouraging. We have Rogers slated as roughly our #150 SP, with a projected ERA of around 4, an ERA about 1.3, and a K/9 in the neighborhood of 9. He will likely go undrafted in most leagues, so make sure he is on your watch list in case he takes a step forward in 2021.
YET ANOTHER PROMISING MARLINS SP PROSPECT
Edward Cabrera (SP-MIA) is a guy to keep an eye on as the 2021 campaign unfolds. The 22 year-old is likely to start the season in the high minors, as he did not play in the majors in 2020 after wrapping up the 2019 campaign in Double-A, where he recorded a 2.56 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 10 K/9, and 3 BB/9 across 8 starts (38.2 IP). Cabrera's 3.14 xFIP confirms that he performed well, although an inflated 90% strand rate and deflated .242 BABIP suppressed his ERA a bit. He was even more dominant across 58 High-A IP before his promotion (2.02 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 11.3 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, and 2.53 xFIP in 11 starts (58 IP)). Behind those numbers were an improved slider and changeup to complement his mid-90s heater. So, keep an eye on the 6'5", 220-pound righty as he continues to refine his repertoire in preparation for a likely late-2021 debut. So while it is probable that Cabrera makes little more than an audition in 2021, make sure he is on your radar in case he impresses early in the season and a spot opens in the big-league rotation. Otherwise, keep him in mind for 2022.
Sean Murphy (C-OAK) flashed some potential as a fantasy backstop in 2020, as he batted .233 with 7 dingers and 14 RBI across 140 PA. That represents the 26 year-old's largest body of work in the majors to date, and while the average might seem discouraging, there are some great signs under the hood. Murphy did fan at a 26% clip, but he showed a discerning eye at the plate as he drew walks at a 17% rate and logged an excellent 48% hard-hit rate when he hit the ball. His 12.7% barrel rate and average exit velocity of 92mph attest to his ability to punish a baseball. Encouragingly, his 9% swinging-strike rate was down from when he got a cup of coffee in 2019 (12%) while he elevated his contact rate to 77%. The hit tool may never be much better than average, but Murphy possesses plus raw power that he has begun to apply in game. And, importantly, he's a very good defender behind the dish and so he should get plenty of work. We have him ranked inside our top 10 for catchers, projected for an average of about .260 or so to go along with a homer total in the mid-20s. C is pretty shallow for fantasy purposes, and the quality drops off quickly after this Murphy goes off the board.
C.J. Cron (1B-COL) seems perennially underrated, although he did fizzle last year thanks to a knee ligament injury that required season-ending surgery. He finished his extra-abbreviated 2020 campaign in Detroit with a .190 average, 4 longballs, and 8 RBI across just 52 PA. With Tampa Bay and Minnesota in 2018 and 2019, respectively, he batted exactly .253 with at least 25 homers each season. Now, he's heading to Colorado, where he is expected to log most of the starts at 1B. Suffice to say this is good for his fantasy value. Before Cron signed with the Rockies, we had him rated as roughly our #27 1B, with a projected .250 average and 27 homers. That should be about right, although it's possible he hits closer to .260-.270 with a couple more homers thanks to the Coors effect. Cron possesses a 39% career hard-hit rate to go along with a 89-mph average exit velocity per Statcast, and a fairly balanced batted-ball profile (21% liners, 40% grounders, 39% flyballs). With a 23% career strikeout rate to go along with a 12% swinging-strike rate and 76% contact rate, he's in some ways a prototypical slugger, even if his power output has just never been elite (he hit a career-high 30 homers back in 2018). Expect Cron's anemic .182 BABIP from his shortened 2020 campaign to rebound toward his .291 career clip and, with it, his average. Add an average that doesn't hurt you to a good bit of pop, and you have at least a solid CI or UTIL guy for fantasy in Cron, who should be a nice fill-in 1B in the event of an injury.
Brandon Lowe (2B-TB) should have firmly established his standing as a top-10 2B with a strong 2020 campaign in which he batted .269 with 14 homers and 37 RBI while chipping in 3 steals across 224 PA. This came on the heels of an impressive 2019 breakout in which he hit .270 with 17 longballs, 51 RBI, and 5 stolen bases in 327 PA. There was - understandably - much skepticism about his ability to perform at a high level again in 2020 based on his 35% strikeout rate, which came with a 19% swinging strike rate and 65% contact rate. But instead of regressing overall, he maintained that same average and ticked his power output upward while trimming his swinging-strike rate to 15%, raising his contact rate to 67%, and slashing his strikeout rate to 26%. All of that while producing a hard-hit rate of 43% that wasn't far off the 46% he logged in 2019. The reduced strikeout rate, in fact, accounted for Lowe's ability to nearly replicate his .270 average (.269 - close enough) even as his BABIP tumbled from an inflated .377 to a very repeatable .309. Oh, and he showed considerable patience at the plate, raising his walk rate from just under 8% to over 11% in 2020. We like Lowe to bat about .260 or so again in 2021, with about 30 bombs to go with it. Draft him with confidence based on two straight years of showing that he can mash while not being a liability in the average department.
Jake Cronenworth (SS-SD) impressed as a 26 year-old rookie in 2020, as he posted a .285 average, 4 homers, 20 RBI, 26 runs scored, and 3 stolen bases across 192 PA. He did not strike out often (16%) while logging a healthy 9% walk rate and recording a nice 43% hard contact rate. While he did not loft many flyballs (29%), he smoked plenty of liners (25%) and possesses plus speed, which works well with a 46% groundball rate. We see Cronenworth as a decent fantasy option in 2021, as we have him ranked as roughly the #15 overall SS, with a projected .270 average, 18 homers, and 17 SB. He's not a bad guy to draft in the later rounds if you want to roster someone with some position flexibility (he's currently eligible at 1B, 2B, and SS in ESPN leagues). Otherwise, he's certainly worth keeping an eye on in case he appears to be taking a step forward or if you need an injury replacement.
Jeimer Candelario (3B-DET) showed some signs of growth in 2020, as he finished the abbreviated campaign with a .297 average, 7 homers, and 29 RBI across 206 PA. The then-26 year-old did log a .372 BABIP that he is not likely to repeat, so I would not expect an average near .300 again. But there were some encouraging developments under the hood, including a slightly improved strikeout rate (24%) to go along with a career-high 47% hard-hit rate per Statcast. The resulting career-high 90mph average exit velocity and 10% barrel rate drove his ISO to a career-best .205. We like the healthy combination of a 26% line-drive rate and 34% flyball rate to go along with his newfound hard contact. Candelario's fantasy value will hinge on him continuing to make that kind of hard contact again in 2021, as Statcast shows that he never logged a hard-hit rate north of 34% before last year. We are fairly optimistic, as we have him projected for a .270 average to go with a homer total in the mid-20s. We see Candelario as roughly the #20 overall 3B, but he'll climb upward if he continues to smoke the ball.
Nick Senzel (OF-CIN) is just 25, but the shine seems to have worn off the one-touted prospect. In 2020, he logged just 78 PA in which he batted just .186 with a pair of homers and two steals. Slated to start in CF for the Reds, Senzel possesses an intriguing blend of an ability to hit for average, some power, and swipe a few bags along the way. So, we should really view his 2019 production (.256, 12 homers, 14 RBI in 414 PA) as the jumping-off point for what he can do in 2021, instead of what he did in 2020 when he missed about a month of playing time while he was on the IL because of an illness. Encouragingly, he did trim his strikeout rate to 19% last season while cutting his swinging-strike rate to 9% (was 11% in 2019) and raising his contact rate to 81% (78% in 2019). We have Senzel ranked in the mid-60s as an OF, with a projected average about .270 to go along with 20ish homers and about 15 steals. I think that, for fantasy purposes, he should be viewed and drafted as a #4 OF with potential for more.
Josh Naylor (OF-CLE) did not exactly impress as he moved from San Diego to Cleveland last season, as he finished the campaign with a .247 average, 1 homer, 6 RBI, and 13 runs scored across 104 PA. The 23 year-old did not strike out (11.5%) or walk (5%) much while logging just a 34% hard-hit rate per Statcast. Naylor currently appears to be the favorite to begin the season as Cleveland's starting RF, and there has been talk of him getting some reps at 1B as well. With a slightly above-average hit tool, plus-plus power that he's really yet to display in the majors, and an ability to draw walks while minimizing whiffs (in Double-A in 2018 and Triple-A in 2019, he did post nearly identical 11% walk and 12% strikeout rates), Naylor is an intriguing fantasy option. Given his short track record in the majors, it's tough to bank on him as a starting OF for fantasy purposes, but we do have him ranked about the #50 overall OF, with a projected average about .270 and a homer total in the mid-20s. I view him as a #4 OF type for fantasy as the season begins who could very well become your #3 before too long.
Griffin Canning (SP-LAA) appears to be a solid #4-5 SP for fantasy as the start of the 2021 campaign approaches, as we have him ranked right about #50 at the position. The 24 year-old did not light the world on fire in his sophomore campaign, but he did, encouragingly, show that there is reason to be optimistic that he can be a fantasy contributor. Across 11 starts (56.1 IP), Canning recorded a 3.99 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 9 K/9, and 3.7 BB/9. Just as was the case in 2019, however, he finished with an xFIP (4.81) that indicates his ERA was suppressed. We obviously do not like the rise in walks, and he does appear to be a guy who will log a walk rate in the low-mid 3s. At the same time, his swinging-strike rate did slump from 14% in 2019 to 12% last year while opposing batters raised their contact rate from 70% in his debut season to 74% last season. Encouragingly, they continued to make relatively little hard contact (34%). While we do not expect Canning to break out, we do like him to produce much along the lines of what he has in his first two seasons - an ERA about 4, a WHIP around 1.25, and a K/9 that could creep up toward 10 thanks to his average to slightly above-average four-pitch repertoire.
Nate Pearson (SP-TOR) endured a disastrous start to his big-league career in 2020, as he logged a 6.00 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 8 K/9, and 6.5 BB/9 across 18 IP (4 starts, 1 relief appearance). Obviously, the sample size was tiny and therefore we can really glean little of value from it. While it might appear discouraging on the surface, it was really an ideal spot for the 24 year-old to cut his teeth in the majors after climbing from high-A to Triple-A in 2019. That was the only year that he's surpassed 100 IP in his young MLB career, and it was a promising one (he spent most of the season in Double-A, where he recorded a 2.59 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 10 K/9, 3 BB/9, and 3.12 xFIP over 62.2 IP). Possessing a triple-digit heater and a plus-plus slider that clocks in the low-mid 90s that he utilized a combined 87% of the time in 2020, Pearson is still developing his changeup and curve. Don't expect big things out of him in 2021, but make sure he is on your radar just in case. You could do far worse with a late-round speculative add if you have the luxury of being able to stash him. We have Pearson ranked right around #100 for SP, with an ERA just over 4, a WHIP about 1.4, and a K/9 about 9.
Triston McKenzie (SP-CLE) is inside our top 50 for SP as the 2021 campaign approaches, and for good reason. For one, the 23 year-old's MLB debut last season could not have gone much better, as he recorded a 3.24 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 11.3 K/9, and a 2.4 BB/9 across 33.1 IP (6 starts and 2 relief appearances). His 3.60 xFIP indicates that he was about as good as the ERA suggests, although an 84% strand rate and .217 BABIP did suppress that figure a bit. While McKenzie's repertoire grades as average to slightly above-average across the board, he does possess plus command. His strikeout and walk rates in the bigs last season reflect his minor-league track record, and we liked his ability to miss bats (12.4% swinging-strike rate) and keep hard contact to a modest 36% clip (86mph average exit velocity). In his first full season of big-league play, we expect McKenzie to log an era about 3.9, a WHIP about 1.2, and a K/9 closer to 9. Add him as your #4-5 SP and you could get better than that. But I wouldn't reach for McKenzie, as he has surpassed 100 IP in a season only once since making his professional debut back in 2015.