Can Rhys Hoskins Sustain 2020 Improvements?
After bursting onto the scene with a 1.014 OPS, 18 homers and 48 RBIs in 50 games as a rookie in 2017, Hoskins wasn't able to maintain that success over full seasons in 2018 and 2019. In fact, he seemed to be going in the wrong direction, as his batting average and slugging percentage both decreased in successive seasons while his strikeout rate kept creeping up. Rather than continue to regress in 2020, however, Hoskins enjoyed his best season since his abbreviated rookie campaign. His batting average and OBP both climbed nearly 20 points from 2019, while his ISO jumped by 30 points. And while 2020 was a severely shortened season, there are signs that Hoskins improved his approach last year. His strikeout rate came down from 24.5 percent to 23.2 percent, for instance, and he started going the other way more, hitting a career-high 24.1 percent of batted balls to the opposite field. He also posted the best barrel rate of his career at 14.8 percent - a huge improvement from 2019's 8.4 percent. Always a patient hitter, Hoskins was also slightly more aggressive than he'd been in the past, swinging at a career-high 61.6 percent of pitches inside the strike zone. Put it all together, and these seemingly minor improvements helped Hoskins get back to being one of the better hitters in baseball last year. If he can keep it up for a whole season, his first 40 homer/100 RBI campaign might be imminent.
Is Aaron Nola Still a Fantasy Ace?
In 2018, Nola put it all together in his fourth MLB season, going 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA, a 0.98 WHIP and a 3.01 FIP over 212 1/3 innings en route to a third-place Cy Young finish. Just 25 at the time, he seemed poised to challenge Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer as the NL's top hurler for years to come. Since then, he's gone 17-12 with a 3.72 ERA, a 1.22 WHIP and a 3.81 FIP in 46 starts. Good numbers, but not great. However, Nola's sneaky good 2020 means he could be headed for another big season in 2021. His 12.1 K/9 rate last year was the best of his career, and his second straight year over 10.0. His 4.17 K/BB ratio tied his previous career best, while his 3.19 FIP and 1.08 WHIP were both excellent. While Nola may never come close to replicating that 2.37 ERA ever again, his ability to provide great ratios and huge strikeout totals over 200-plus innings absolutely makes him a fantasy ace. He may not have the name recognition or career accomplishments of some of his peers, but he's a great choice to slot in at the top of your fantasy rotation.
Andrew McCutchen May Finally Be Over The Hill
McCutchen has been a great player for a long time, but it's been clear for awhile now that his best days are behind him. He's 34 now, and about to enter his 13th MLB season. After batting .298 over his first seven seasons, he's a .261 hitter over his past five. He doesn't run as much as he used to, doesn't get on base like he used to, and doesn't clear the fences with the same regularity. Last year, McCutchen struck out more than twice as often as he walked, which is something that had only happened to him in 2016 - the start of his demise. His .253 average, .324 OBP, and .757 OPS were all career worsts, as was his 9.1 percent walk rate. While McCutchen still does enough to be a useful fantasy outfielder with his 20/10 potential and decent rate stats, he's more of a fourth or fifth outfielder type in fantasy formats who should be available later in drafts. The consistency just hasn't been there for him the last few years, and at his age injuries start becoming more frequent as well. He still has a stable floor, but the ceiling just isn't there anymore.
Jonathan Schoop Remains Underrated Keystone Option
Schoop's been bouncing around lately, switching teams three times from 2018-2020, but he's hit wherever he's gone. That was true even last year, when he found himself anchoring a lackluster Tigers lineup while playing half his games in the pitching-friendly Comerica Park. That didn't stop him from quickly establishing himself as one of the best hitters on his new team, as he slashed .278/.324/.475 with eight home runs and 23 RBIs in 44 games. After eight years and more than 3,000 at-bats in the majors, Schoop's fantasy profile is pretty much etched in stone at this point; a second baseman with 20-homer power who hits for solid averages but rarely walks or steals a base. That makes him more valuable in traditional leagues that still use average instead of OBP, but his high strikeout totals and low walk rates make him tough to own to points leagues. His current situation doesn't help his upside, but he's got a strong floor and makes for a fine middle infielder in standard leagues or starting second baseman in deeper leagues.
Can Niko Goodrum Be Good Again?
2020 was a step back for Goodrum, who couldn't get it going at the plate after a pair of decent offensive seasons in 2018 and 2019. Goodrum's average cratered to .184 as his strikeout rate soared to 38.5 percent - 9.3 percent higher than it was in 2019. It wasn't all bad, though, as his walk rate improved to 10.1 percent and has gone up every year he's been in the big leagues. He also continued to offer his typically solid combination of power (five homers in 158 at-bats) and speed (seven steals in eight attempts). Goodrum hit the ball hard when he made contact, even setting a personal best with a 9.8 percent barrel rate. His main problem was that he didn't get the bat on the ball enough, as he may have been swinging for the fences too often based on his fly-ball rate skyrocketing from the low 30s to 45.7 percent. If Goodrum can can't down on his strikeouts a bit and focus on making more consistent contact, he still has the potential to be a 20/20 player over the course of a full season. But if he keeps trying to do to much, he'll likely be a subpar three-true outcomes hitter. There's definitely some risk here, but I like his rebound potential.
Was JaCoby Jones' 2020 an Anomaly?
Over the first four years of his career, Jones wasn't of much use to fantasy owners, batting .211/.276/.369 overall with more than five times as many strikeouts (313) as walks (60). That changed last year, as the 28-year-old was in the midst of a breakout season before a hit-by-pitch prematurely ended his season. Even so, his .849 OPS and 14 extra-base hits in 30 games gave fantasy owners a taste of what might be in store for 2021. 2020 was Jones' second straight season with an OPS increase of at least 100 points, as he's quickly evolved from a terrible hitter into an above average one. While he's played five years in the majors so far, he's only appeared in 316 games, which amounts to essentially two full seasons of experience. It's possible, then, that last season was continued improvement rather than a fluke, especially given his previous improvement in 2019. Fantasy owners shouldn't get too excited, however, as his 2020 was largely driven by a .356 BABIP that was nearly 60 points above his career high. So while Jones doesn't seem to be terrible anymore, he's unlikely to be a star, either, making him a serviceable fantasy option only in deeper leagues and AL-only formats for now.
Around the League
Shohei Ohtani (SP/DH-LAA)
Ohtani showed why he's one of the most exciting players in baseball on Wednesday by launching a monster home run over the center field batter's eye in the 5th inning of LA's 6-2 victory. The blast traveled an estimated 468 feet and left Ohtani's bat at 107 mph. The Angels are hoping Ohtani can deliver swings like that more consistently in 2021 after slumping to .190/.291/.366 last year. Still just 26, however, the 2018 AL Rookie of the Year could be poised for a big rebound if he's able to stay healthy, which has been a major obstacle for him throughout his MLB career thus far.
Dylan Bundy (SP-LAA)
Bundy flourished in his spring debut on Wednesday, firing a pair of scoreless innings against the Rangers. Bundy, who posted a 3.29 ERA with a 1.04 WHIP and a 9.9 K/9 rate in 11 starts with the Halos last year, didn't allow a hit after walking the first batter he faced and needed only 28 pitches to complete the two frames. The Angels are hopeful that Bundy can bring some much-needed stability to their rotation, which has generally been lackluster in recent years. While Bundy had his ups and downs with the Orioles, the change of scenery and move to the West Coast seems to be having a positive effect on him.
Anthony Rendon (3B-LAA)
Rendon returned to the lineup Wednesday against the Rangers after being held out of the first three spring games due to general soreness. Rendon didn't look too rusty at the plate, going 1-for-2, with a double. He also looked good defensively, making a nice play at the hot corner. Rendon will be a critical piece of the Angels' puzzle this year as they try to reach the postseason for the first time in 2014, especially given that Rendon has World Series experience from his time with the Nationals.
Jarred Kelenic (OF-SEA)
Kelenic crushed his first homer of Spring Training on Wednesday, showing why he's the Mariners' No. 1 prospect as well as MLB's No. 4 prospect. The 21-year-old, who's expected to make his Mariners debut this year, showed good power in the Minors with a .226 ISO and 81 extra-base hits in 173 games. He flashed good speed as well with 35 steals, batting .290 with a .366 OBP. Kelenic appears to be one of the best all-around young players in baseball, making him an early favorite to win AL Rookie of the Year in 2021.
Blake Snell (SP-SD)
Snell's spring debut with the Padres was a piece of cake, as he faced the minimum three batters in his one inning of work against the Brewers. After striking out the first batter he faced, Snell walked the next hitter before erasing him on an inning-ending double play. Snell needed just 15 pitches to get the three outs, which was a positive given that he isn't always the model of efficiency on the mound. Hopes are high for him and the Padres this year, especially after Snell helped pitch the Rays all the way to the World Series last year.
Juan Soto (OF-WSH)
Soto made his spring debut on Wednesday, going 0-for-2 against the Marlins before departing. While he didn't exactly set the world on fire, nobody's worried about Soto given that he's coming off a .351/.490/.695 showing in 2020. Still just 22 years old, Soto has already established himself as one of the best young players in baseball history, and it's possible he still has room to improve from his limited MLB experience thus far. Regardless of where his spring numbers end up, he'll be one of the first players off the board on draft day.
Adam Duvall (OF-MIA)
Duvall cranked an opposite-field three-run homer Wednesday in Miami's 8-5 over Washington, helping Miami remain undefeated this spring. The blast was Duvall's first of the spring, but it likely won't be his last based on the slugger's impressive track record. With a pair of 30-homer seasons already under his belt, Duvall likely would've had a third last year were it not for the pandemic, which limited him to 16 home runs in just 57 games. Now in his first season with the Marlins, Duvall will look to build off his impressive performance last year and maintain it over the course of a full season.
Gio Gonzalez (SP-MIA)
The Marlins and Gonzalez have agreed to a Minor League deal with an invitation to big league camp, according to sources. While the deal is not confirmed, it makes sense that the Marlins would like to add some veteran depth to what is shaping up to be a pretty young rotation. Gonzalez, 35, has been up and down over the past few years but was effective as recently as 2019, when he posted a 3.50 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP in 19 appearances (17 starts). He also showed some promise last year with a 9.7 K/9 rate for the White Sox, although his walk rate ballooned to 5.4 BB/9. Never the most accurate pitcher, Gonzalez will need to sharpen his command this year in order to make an impact for the Marlins.
Nelson Cruz (DH-MIN)
Cruz homered in his spring debut against the Red Sox on Wednesday, proving he still has some thump in his bat at age 40. Coming off another excellent campaign in 2020, Cruz has aged like a fine wine over the past decade. Over his past 12 seasons, he's slugged 395 home runs while batting .280/.350/.538 and racking up 1,070 RBIs. He's essentially become the right-handed David Ortiz during the second half of his career, so don't bet against him putting up more monster numbers in 2021.
Wander Franco (SS-TB)
Hyped prospect Wander Franco went 2-for-3 with a massive home run against the Pirates on Wednesday, breaking out of his 0-for-5 hitless streak to begin Spring Training. Franco, who turned 20 earlier this week, showed why he's currently rated baseball's top prospect with his huge homer, which he said afterwards was the longest he's ever hit in a game. After setting the Minor Leagues ablaze to the tune of a .336/.405/.523 batting line, Franco is clearly ready for the Show and should be a star for years to come.
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