Making Edwin's Case
Death. Taxes. And unreliable closers. It's 2021 and I still haven't figured out how to manage closers on my fantasy team. One thing is for certain. I continue to target Edwin Diaz throughout my drafts. In fact, I'm going to go so far as to label Diaz a top-3 fantasy closer for 2021.
Why? Well, you know you're getting a massive number of strikeouts out of him, regardless of the rest of his production. He soared to a career-high 21.5% swinging strike rate in 2020, which is supported by consistent velocity and a devastating slider that rebounded from a rough 2019. Last year batters hit .143 against his slider. ISO against that pitch was 0.024. He actually threw that pitch more than ever in 2020, which leads to fantasy owners' biggest concern: walks. More sliders = more walks, and Diaz had a career-high 12.7% walk rate last season. He wasn't punished for the free bases though. His strand rate was 89.7% and that should regress, but on the other hand his BABIP the past two seasons was inordinately high. He is too unhittable and overpowering to regress back to 2019 when his ERA was 5.59 (xFIP was only 3.07 and HR/FB rate was out of whack).
Last year he finished with only six saves because the Mets pulled him from the closer role early in the season. They gave him far too short a leash and that was a huge mistake. I would imagine his leash is longer this year (although not infinite) and he could easily cruise to 40+ saves on a good Mets team. Still only 26 years old, it is entirely feasible Edwin Diaz finishes the 2021 season as the top fantasy closer.
Backend of the Rotation
The Mets have one of the best frontend pitching rotations. Jacob deGrom, Carlos Carrasco and Marcus Stroman are locked in to pitch every fifth day. After that there is no shortage of arms, but with Noah Syndergaard likely out until June the picture becomes less clear. Taijuan Walker, recently signed to a two-year $20 million contract, is almost certain to secure one of the final two spots in the rotation. After that there are literally as many as seven pitchers with major league starting experience that could get a shot in the rotation.
Perhaps the most likely candidate is David Peterson who was very strong as a rookie, going 6-2 with a 3.44 ERA. However, he doesn't have a strong minor league pedigree and his advanced metrics, like a 5.11 xFIP and 11.7% walk rate, don't support the mid-3.00's ERA. On the other hand, Peterson mixes in four pitches and would be the only left-handed starter in the rotation.
Last year Seth Lugo made seven starts for the Mets and also closed for the team, but this season he will be on the injured list to open the season after undergoing surgery to remove a loose body in his elbow. When he comes back it would make sense for Lugo to return to the bullpen. He has been far more successful as a reliever and the Mets brought in so much starting experience, there's no reason he should be needed in the rotation.
As for that starting experience, here are some of the guys in spring camp with New York: Joey Lucchesi, Mike Montgomery, Sean Reid-Foley, Jordan Yamamoto, Robert Gsellman, Corey Oswalt and Jerad Eickhoff. That reads like a laundry list of players we all took a bite on at some point in fantasy over the past few years.
It has been suggested the Mets could move to a six-man rotation when Syndergaard comes back. It makes sense as it would allow them to ease the TJS-returnee back into game action, give 30-somethings deGrom and Carrasco more rest and limit the innings of 2020-optout Marcus Stroman. If Peterson is relegated back to AAA or to the bullpen, Yamamoto and Lucchesi are probably next in line. Lucchesi is coming off a miserable 2020 campaign in which he was ultimately demoted in San Diego, but he has had success and is intriguing for fantasy purposes if for nothing more than some moderate strikeout upside. Yamamoto had success for most of his minor league career, but he's been below average in his two major league seasons. A weak fastball that generates too much hard contact diminishes Yamamoto's value.
We've read the books on Montgomery, Eickhoff and Gsellman. They weren't very good. Oswalt isn't the guy and Reid-Foley offers more value as a reliever than a starter.
All in all, Peterson is the most likely 5th/6th starter, but injuries and attrition could push the Mets to explore their deep pool of SP veterans.
My KingDom for the DH
As of this writing, it looks highly unlikely the National League will impose the designated hitter in 2021. That creates some playing time issues for the Mets and brings into question exactly what role Dominic Smith will have. Smith is not an especially strong fielder, and the Mets have a bevy of options (we will explore this later in the preseason) in the outfield. The difficult part of this for fantasy owners is Smith offers fantasy intrigue, and since we don't typically care about defensive abilities, we just want him to play. However, this is why it's important for fantasy owners to understand a player's defensive capabilities because Smith's status as an everyday player is very much in question. Over the last month in NFBC drafts, Smith has been drafted as high as 68 and as low as 200. That wide variance is based on people not really knowing how many at bats he will get.
In many ways Smith broke out in the shortened 2020 season. He finished with a .316/.377/.616 slash. He led the Mets with a 164 wRC+, and this comes after a huge improvement in 2019 where he put up a 132 wRC+ in 177 at bats. He may not sustain a .316 batting average, but he is a good enough hitter to hover around .300 (his 2020 xBA was in the 95th percentile). He has some power, but he's not a masher. Twenty-five home runs would be a good season. It's the consistency, the batting average, the RBIs that you're counting on. But what if you can't count on that volume because he doesn't get enough playing time?
If you're a Dom Smith owner or a wannabe-owner, it's important to track not only his development and playing time but the others in the outfield as well. The good news is you get dual-eligibility in 2020, but none of that really matters if he only ends up with 300 at bats.
Still a C1?
Molina waited until February to do what we all knew he was going to do: re-sign with St. Louis. For a decade and a half Molina has been pretty reliable as a Catcher 1 in fantasy circles, but there are signs he may be slipping from his pedestal in his 18th season in the big leagues.
The good news is he should remain the Cardinals' primary catcher, holding Andrew Knizner off a little bit longer and continuing to be a wizard behind the plate, but Molina's normally strong eye at the plate is wavering. Even if you throw 2020's stats out (you probably should as he had COVID and only totaled 156 plate appearances), Molina's swinging strike rate is on a gradual rise and his walks continue to decline. His xWOBA is waning and his batting average is no longer safe.
Age affects reaction time. Age affects bat speed and Molina knows he doesn't have the same physical skills at the plate as he used to, which explains a chase rate over 40% each of the past two seasons. He's trying to get ahead of the pitch, but that means he isn't seeing the pitch all the way through. That leads to more swings and misses and weaker contact on less hittable pitches.
He is still capable of hitting double-digit home runs. His batting average will probably hover in the mid-.200's. And he will continue to get volume, but Molina's days as a safe answer in one-catcher leagues are over. He's better off as your No. 2 in two-catcher formats.
The National League Central Division stinks. It has bad teams and particularly bad offenses. Not a single NL Central team finished in the top half of baseball in wRC+ last season. In fact, the Cardinals had the highest wRC+ at 93. Pittsburgh was dead last. If you don't want to take 2020 into account, let's go back to 2019 when the Cubs were the only NL Central team with a wRC+ over 100. And the Cubs are worse now than they were then.
That's a good thing for Cardinals pitchers, for all NL Central pitchers really. While it isn't the wholly lopsided schedule from last season, pitchers face divisional opponents more than any others. Additionally the Cardinals stay in the Central for interleague play, and the AL Central has three of the worst offenses in Detroit, Kansas City and Cleveland.
Combined with the Cardinals improved defense, St. Louis' weak opponents should be a nice boon for pitching production this season.
If there's a player whose 2020 production I want to throw out, it's DeJong. First of all, like a number of his teammates, DeJong contracted COVID-19 in the middle of the season, and we're still probably not sure how much it impacted his production on the field. Why else would the shortstop with a career ISO over .200 drop under .100? How do you explain his 3.6% increase in swinging strike rate along with a 69.8% contact rate, which put him under 74% for the first time in his career? I really think it's dangerous to read too much into last year's production.
However, at a deep shortstop position it's easy to fade DeJong's low floor/medium ceiling. While he is capable of hitting 30 home runs (he did it in 2019), his batting average is going to remain below average due to a consistently high flyball rate. It's understandable if you would rather go with more upside in Ha-seong Kim or Jorge Polanco or even Wander Franco, but DeJong does offer consistent playing time and maybe a little more positive regression could come with his increased line drive rate. Last year it was 28.3%, but even if you take away 2020 (AND I WANT TO!), he was in the low to mid-20th percentile over his first two seasons.
At the point in the draft you're getting him (14th round in a 15-team league), it's kind of nice to have that 30-homer upside.
AROUND THE LEAGUE:
Jackie Bradley Jr., OF (MIL)
JBJ finally has a roster spot. The 8-year Boston Red Sox outfielder signed a two-year deal with Milwaukee for $24 million. Bradley has an opt-out clause after the first year. That's a significant investment for the frugal Brewers and signals Bradley should receive regular playing time, although struggles could lead to more of a platoon with Avisail Garcia or Lorenzo Cain. The Brewers improve their defense with Bradley's presence, and they get a player coming off one of his best offensive seasons. He hit a career-high .283 and was on pace for 19 home runs and 14 stolen bases in a full season. However, it wasn't a full season and the notoriously streaky player avoided a prolonged slump that would have inevitably brought down his numbers. He moves from a good hitter's park to another good hitter's park and slots into a decent lineup. Where he hits in the lineup is crucial as his value rises if he has Christian Yelich behind him.
Danny Santana, 1B/OF (BOS)
The Red Sox signed Danny Santana to a minor league contract on Thursday. Santana won't be ready for Opening Day as he underwent modified Tommy John surgery last September. You don't want to clog a bench spot waiting for Santana's return, but he is worth a speculative late-round pick in draft-and-hold leagues only two years removed from a 20/20 season. There's no question Santana had some luck in his breakout 2019 campaign, but a return to full health could offer a sneaky power/upside combination.
Nate Pearson, P (TOR)
Blue Jays rookie Nate Pearson was diagnosed with a Grade 1 groin strain, and while Toronto general manager Ross Atkins resisted putting a timetable on his return, it's likely Pearson will not be ready by Opening Day. The Blue Jays are likely to practice caution with their talented young hurler and his workload will certainly be monitored. Pearson exhibited strikeout upside and top-of-the-rotation potential in the minor leagues. He was 1-0 with a 6.04 xFIP in 18 innings last year.
Framber Valdez, SP (HOU)
Valdez may miss the entire 2021 season if surgery is needed on his broken left ring finger. MLB Network's Jon Heyman is reporting the recommendation is for the season-ending surgery, but the team hasn't decided which course to go on the 27-year-old southpaw coming off an excellent season with the Astros. For now you have to avoid him in your drafts. Even in the deepest leagues, Valdez will miss significant time and might not be the same upon his return, if he returns at all this season.
Freddy Galvis, SS (BAL)
Galvis was scratched from Thursday's Grapefruit League game due to hip soreness. The team doesn't seem too worried and Galvis should be back in the lineup soon. The utility infielder batted .220 last year for Cincinnati but that was suppressed by a .231 BABIP. He only two years removed from hitting .260 with 23 home runs. Galvis is a sneaky late pickup in deep or AL-only leagues.
Max Scherzer, SP (WAS)
Scherzer is expected to make his first spring training start on Friday after suffering a sprained ankle in a February workout. Scherzer turns 37 in July, and while his production declined in 2020, he still remains a fantasy ace capable of contributing across the stat sheet. Scherzer's biggest regression last year was quality of contact. He was hit harder and more substantially, leading to a career-high .427 expected slugging percentage. As always in spring training with aging pitchers, it's not so much about the results but about velocity and pitch selection. We'll keep an eye on the future Hall of Famer.
Nick Castellanos, OF (CIN)
Castellanos is expected to play in a spring training game on Friday after missing most of the week due to a finger injury. It is not considered serious and Castellanos should be fine for Opening Day. Castellanos brought the power but his batting average was a career-low .225 in his first season after signing a 4-year, $64-million contract with Cincinnati. The low batting average was stymied by bad luck as Castellanos continued to hit the ball hard yet suffered a .257 BABIP, down more than 70 points from his career average. I'd say he's a buy-low candidate, but I think everybody knows that as he's being drafted as a top-25 outfielder. However, he does offer some power upside greater than some of those around him in ADP.
Alex Reyes, P (STL)
Reyes threw two scoreless innings, striking out three Astros in his second appearance this spring. He was perfect for one inning in his first appearance on Sunday. The oft-injured but supremely talented righty is in the mix for a number of roles in St. Louis, from starter to closer and everything in between, and a full healthy season could lead to massive returns. The expectation is Reyes will be a high-leverage setup man, but the Cardinals' closer situation is unsettled and Reyes could pin that position down with an extended run of dominance of which he is certainly capable.
Madison Bumgarner, SP (ARI)
So Bumgarner dazzled on Thursday. No, this blurb isn't taken from 2014. It's 2021 and MadBum struck out six Angels in two scoreless innings in his first appearance for the Diamondbacks this spring. That seems encouraging as does his fastball velocity which was clocked at 91 mph, up significantly from his lackluster 2020 season and closer to where it was during his best years. Bumgarner is still only 31 years old so it's not as if he can't continue to be a good pitcher, but he definitely wasn't last year as evidenced by his 5.85 xFIP and 7.5% swinging strike rate. Monitor that fastball velo. If it sits around 91 during the spring, three may be some bounceback value in the former World Series MVP.
Jose Castillo, RP (SD)
Padres reliever Jose Castillo's season is over. Castillo will undergo Tommy John surgery forcing him to sit out his second consecutive season. He missed all of last year and nearly the entire 2019 season after showing promising results as a rookie in 2018. There was a time when Castillo looked like a future closer, but his inability to stay healthy has squashed that prospect. Castillo is only 25 years old and after a full recovery from TJS he could still work his way into fantasy relevance.