Know Who You Are: Michael Conforto Edition
Conforto's first home of spring training was his first extra-base hit in the Grapefruit League. Conforto has been in a constant battle over whether to be a home run hitter or a contact-based, high-average contributor. The latter is less attractive but it may just be who he is.
In many ways Conforto's 2020 season was the most productive of his young career. His OBP surpassed .400 for the first time, and his 157 wRC+ was a career high. However, Conforto's BABIP was an elevated .412 (he's at .305 in his career) and his power remains somewhat limited. His 2020 ISO was a career-low .193 and his power profile (exit velo, launch angle, hard hit rate) is very average. In Conforto's stellar three-year career at Oregon State, he hit .340 in 180 games with a solid-but-unspectacular 31 home runs. He hit a career-high 33 homers in 2019, but that came with a 40% flyball rate, which really limits Conforto's overall production. In two career seasons with a flyball rate over 40%, he hit .220 and .257. In last year's career-best season, Conforto's flyball rate was a career-low 28.3%. He is at his best when he hits the ball with a lower launch angle. Six seasons in, at 28 years old, it's about time the former first round pick figures that out.
I still believe the overall improvements in the Mets offense will benefit everyone, especially those in the middle of the lineup. Whether he's gunning for power or just trying to drive the ball, Conforto is a high-floor staple in the outfield (and gets a huge boost in OBP leagues), but he's better with a lower launch angle and a contact-based approach. Conforto doesn't have an extra-base hit in nine spring training games. A .280 average (OBP in the .380's) with 25-28 home runs is a reasonable expectation.
Platoons in the Outfield?
The Mets' outfield depth took a hit when Jose Martinez tore the meniscus in his left knee a couple weeks ago, but there are still options left with major league experience. Brandon Nimmo, Michael Conforto and Dominic Smith are the expected starters and Jonathan Villar should play a utility role, including some starts in the outfield. However, the Mets brought in Albert Almora Jr. and Kevin Pillar, who are essentially the same player separated by five years of age. Pillar has a little more power than Almora, but both are right-handed hitters much better against left-handed pitching and both are very good defenders. They're obvious complements to Nimmo, Conforto and Smith, all lefties. However, it's not a sure thing Pillar and/or Almora will serve as direct platoon partners with any of the three starters. Conforto and Smith are both adequate against left-handed pitching so Nimmo would be the most obvious platoon partner. He has dramatic splits; plus Almora and Pillar could each play centerfield. However, the Mets seem committed to more playing time for Nimmo and that could include starts against lefties, but continued struggles won't keep Mets' management from cutting into Nimmo's playing time because the alternate options are so clear. Mallex Smith is also currently on the Mets' roster but his role is very unclear and it's possible he never really sees time with the big-league club.
As fleshed out above, the Mets have plenty of outfielders. However, there is more quantity than quality, and that means recently-acquired prospect Khalil Lee may not be too far off from reaching the majors. Don't expect him up before September this year as the flaws in his game are plentiful (he was 0-15 with nine strikeouts this spring), but those in dynasty leagues need to keep an eye on the speedy outfielder with above-average power. First of all, it's hard to overlook Lee's 53 stolen bases in AA in 2019, and although that should not be expected at the major league level, a 20/20 combo is very possible.
In order for him to develop into a major league-ready player, he needs to improve his plate discipline. He struggles against good pitching, but the Mets acquired him to improve that skillset at AAA-Syracuse and eventually display his multi-category potential in the big leagues. There isn't a whole lot blocking Lee from playing in the Mets outfield next year except for his own individual improvements. If he can cut down on the strikeouts and decrease his groundball rate, Lee could be a nice contributor down the road.
Nuggets of Gold
The Cardinals' lineup was quite unimpressive in 2020. In spite of that, Paul Goldschmidt had his best season in several years. After three consecutive seasons with a double-digit swinging strike rate, Goldy was much more patient with a swinging strike rate of 8.3 percent. His bat speed has slowed and his barrel rate continues to decline, but Goldschmidt still offers plenty of fantasy intrigue. Because of his superb EYE, Goldschmidt is capable of a high batting average, and while he doesn't steal bases any more, he is the heartbeat of the Cardinals lineup, even after the acquisition of Nolan Arenado. The truth is Goldschmidt's played most of his career with minimal support in his lineup. I'm not sure that really matters to him, and it really shouldn't matter for fantasy owners. Nonetheless, Arenado does provide a level of protection Goldschmidt hasn't experienced in St. Louis. In fact, over the last three years, one of which was in Arizona, pitchers have pitched in the strike zone under 41 percent of the time. With Arenado likely hitting behind him, it's very possible Arenado will receive his highest zone percentage in years. That could help contribute to his counting statistics. Regardless, a high batting average with around 30 home runs is a reasonable expectation.
An Afterthought Miles Later
Mikolas started 32 games in each of 2018 and 2019, but he missed all of 2020 with a sore flexor tendon and he hasn't yet pitched in spring training due to shoulder soreness. That is certainly concerning and makes it highly unlikely Mikolas will receive a full season's worth of appearances. However, he isn't really being drafted with any expectations, the 166th pitcher off the board in NFBC drafts since Feb. 1. Yet, if he does indeed get a majority of starts for the Cardinals, he has better value than those drafts indicate. Mikolas is a contact-first, groundball pitcher, which fits perfectly with a superb Cardinals defense. There is very little reason not to draft him in draft-and-holds or pick him up off the waiver wire in deeper leagues once he's healthy. Even with a slightly declining velocity, which should be expected with his recent injuries, Mikolas can still offer above-average ratios and the chance for a win every time out. He is an afterthought and should be an afterthought, but that is still a thought.
Adam Wainwright: It Ain't Sexy
Wainwright signed a one-year contract in the offseason to return to the Cardinals for his 16th season. He is 39 years old and rarely hits 90 mph anymore, but velocity was never really his game. Wainwright's success was typically predicated on one of the better curveballs in the game. He used it to great effectiveness in 10 starts last season and will no doubt use it as much as ever in 2021. When he has control of it, he's still a capable pitcher. In fact, he went at least six innings in eight of his 10 starts last season. He recorded at least six strikeouts in four of those starts, and he still manages average-to-weak contact.
Look, he isn't sexy, but sometimes the non-sexy are the key cogs to a winning fantasy season.
AROUND THE LEAGUE:
Carlos Rodon, SP (CHW)
Rodon was once again excellent in a spring training start. He threw four one-hit innings, striking out five and pushing his spring scoreless streak to nine innings without a walk. Barring a collapse in his next outing, he is very likely to start the season in the White Sox rotation. There was a time when Rodon was a rising star in fantasy, but multiple seasons of injuries and ineffectiveness have dulled his shine. However, he is still only 28 years old and could be the sleeper of the season if he continues his incredible spring performance.
Freddy Peralta, P (MIL)
Peralta is another pitcher who has shown enough in spring training to earn a long-inning role. Peralta allowed one run on five hits and a walk in 4.2 innings in Sunday's spring training start against Seattle. The lone run was his first of the spring, a solo homer off the bat of top prospect Jarred Kelenic. It appears the Brewers want to use Peralta as a reliever, but it's difficult to ignore his stellar spring and high-strikeout potential. Even if he's used in a long reliever role, there is still value from a fantasy perspective.
Tanner Roark, SP (TOR)
Roark allowed seven runs in only 2.1 innings on Sunday against the Yankees. It continues a subpar spring that should concern fantasy owners, especially following an abysmal season where Roark finished with a 5.84 xFIP along with a 10.5% walk rate. By all expectations, Roark will start the season in the Blue Jays rotation, but he shouldn't start in yours.
Antoine Kelly, P (MIL)
The Brewers second-round pick from 2019 is expected to miss the entire 2021 season after undergoing thoracic outlet surgery. Kelly has some dynasty intrigue, but his development will take a hit with the latest news.
Jorge Lopez, P (BAL)
Lopez's trek to the Orioles' starting rotation may be over after a terrible outing on Sunday. Lopez allowed seven runs over 3.2 innings. Baltimore's rotation is thin and injury-riddled, but there must be better options than this.
Willians Astudillo, C (MIN)
Astudillo hit his second home run this spring, which is half as many as the round-trippers he tallied in 190 at-bats in 2019. Astudillo's role on the Twins is questionable, but he has shown he's a capable major leaguer. A little more power could go a long way to securing a more regular role on Minnesota's roster.
Bobby Witt Jr., SS (KC)
Witt has been brilliant this spring and shown the potential of a future star. However, the Royals want to give the former number-two overall pick a little more seasoning as KC sent Witt down to the minor-league camp on Sunday. As much as the momentum surrounding his ascension to the majors was building, his demotion makes sense as Witt has never played a game above rookie ball, and it would be best to give the talented shortstop more run in the minors. With that being said, it's still feasible Witt could be up with the big league club some time this season.
Tejay Antone, P (CIN)
Antone is dealing with irritation of his hip flexor, a continuation of the groin injury he suffered in last week's spring training game. Opening Day is less than two weeks away and increased lower body injuries would certainly cast doubt on Antone's availability, but the Reds are still proceeding with the intention he will be ready to go. Antone has been one of the brightest stars of spring training with a 1.17 ERA and 13 strikeouts in 7.2 innings. The wide variance in his ADP means, if you want him, just go ahead and take him. Don't follow ADP with a high-risk/high-reward player like Antone.
Michael Lorenzen, P (CIN)
The Reds rotation is a bit more in flux with questions over Tejay Antone's availability and now Lorenzen is dealing with a shoulder strain. Cincinnati general manager Nick Krall said he's hopeful both Lorenzen and Antone will be available to start the season, but late-spring injuries are never encouraging. According to reports, the shoulder strain is "slight" so Lorenzen may have dodged a bullet.
DJ Stewart, OF (BAL)
Stewart may not be ready to start the season due to a hamstring strain. Not only does this impact Stewart's immediate availability, it's possible it could cost him the starting job. The Orioles are expected to roll with Austin Hays, Anthony Santander and Cedric Mullins in the outfield and it's possible that will be the plan even after Stewart comes back. If you take away a stretch of six games in early September where Stewart hit six home runs, he was pretty darn bad the rest of the year.