As the 2018 season approaches, here is a list of players at every position I like more than their current average draft position.
The high-end fantasy catchers are currently divided into two tiers: Gary Sanchez, Willson Contreras and Buster Posey in the top group, with Realmuto, Salvador Perez, and Evan Gattis the second trio. Realmuto should probably be in that first tier, though, based on his bat-to-ball skills and durability. He led all catchers in plate appearances last season and ranked 11th at the position (minimum 250 plate appearances) in contact rate. Unlike most of the players in front of him on that contact rate leaderboard, though, Realmuto packs a bit of a punch. Only Buster Posey had both a higher contact rate and average exit velocity among catchers than Realmuto did last season. He is also coming off a season in which he set career-highs in pull rate, hard contact rate, and fly ball rate, unsurprisingly helping him to post career bests in home runs and slugging percentage. On top of that, he is the only catcher in baseball who can really run, having stolen 28 bases over the past three seasons, lapping the position in sprint speed in the process. He surprisingly remains a Marlin, which hurts his stock a bit given their otherwise complete teardown, but he could be moved to a contender any minute. And even if he stays in Miami all season, his combination of contact, power, and speed is unmatched by any other at the position. Realmuto is closer to Posey and Contreras than his ADP would suggest.
Deep Sleeper: James McCann
Hosmer’s flaws have been so well-documented in recent years (particularly this offseason) that his strengths may be overlooked in fantasy circles. He’s not a traditional slugging first baseman; he’s BABIP-dependent because he refuses to hit fly balls and he sprays the ball evenly to all fields. Toss in some strange but significant fluctuations in his line drive rate over the past few years, and there is some risk in his profile. Still, he has all the tools to hit for a high average: hard contact to all-fields, a low strikeout rate, and a low infield fly ball rate. While he has never settled in as an elite power hitter, he has hit 25 home runs in each of the past two seasons and slugged .498 last year. Interestingly for a player who has been so wildly inconsistent, Hosmer even projects well offensively by both Steamer and ZiPS, with a projected slash line of .282/.350/.462 with 24 home runs in nearly everyday playing time. For fantasy purposes, Hosmer’s awful defensive metrics are unimportant, and there is always the possibility that he unlocks more offensively if he gets the ball off the ground more often. Even as is, though, Hosmer’s a good hitter, one who has a chance to outperform players like Edwin Encarnacion and Rhys Hoskins who are coming off the board two and three rounds earlier.
Deep Sleeper: A.J. Reed
I’ve written up Albies a couple of times this offseason, and I’ll do so again here. He’s got above-average tools across the board: high-end speed with a track record of stealing bases in the minors, plus bat-to-ball skills, and above-average power on contact, all entering his age-21 season. Perhaps the best marker of his offensive ability was his miniscule 1.4% pop-up rate last season, an indicator of his stellar bat control. He’s not entirely without flaws: His plate discipline metrics in his brief MLB time were below-average, and he has never been a huge walk guy in the minors, so he will need to prove capable of laying off pitches out of the strike zone moving forward. However, there is ample upside here. The projections are understandably cautious, but Albies has shown enough that I would be willing to gamble that he exceeds his projected .265/.322/.412 line, particularly in Atlanta’s hitter-friendly home park.
Deep Sleeper: Jed Lowrie
Another player whom I’ve written highly of before, Castellanos has long had elite batted-ball metrics, but he has never put together the breakout offensive season that has long seemed possible. Maybe most owners have given up on the breakout hopes, or maybe it’s just positional depth at the hot corner, but Castellanos is currently being selected 116th on average. He should be going off the board well before that. His Statcast data are fantastic (he ranked 21st in baseball in average exit velocity last season), he cut his strikeout rate to a career-low level, and he continued his trend of never popping up. Still, his .272/.320/.490 line was more good than great. Why? Seemingly, poor luck. Despite no real change to his batted ball mix, Castellanos had a career-low .313 BABIP last season, a mark that should regress upwards given his consistent hard contact. There has been some speculation that Castellanos’ (and other Tigers’) exit velocity readings have been inflated by a hot gun at Comerica Park; on the other hand, Comerica may just be a more hitter-friendly environment than it seems at first glance, which would be a permanent boon to Castellanos’ fantasy stock. Indeed, he has been significantly better hitting at home than on the road throughout his career. Even his poor defense ironically works in his fantasy favor; he was so bad at third base that he will be moved to the corner outfield next season, so he should have dual-positional eligibility in most leagues by May. Yet again, Castellanos looks on the verge of a breakout, and owners should not be afraid to take that leap.
Deep Sleeper: Eugenio Suarez
Another player who has age in his favor despite potentially causing some breakout fatigue, Russell is coming off a disappointing season in which he slashed .239/.304/.418. Still, he showed some underlying signs of offensive improvement, setting career-highs in contact rate, hard hit rate, and average exit velocity on balls in the air. He is not much of a base-stealer (and his sprint speed rates right around league average), but the offensive upside here is rare for a shortstop. The offense around him should give him runs and RBI chances all season, and he has 25-30 home run upside if he plays a full season. For a player being selected behind Tim Beckham and Jorge Polanco, that kind of upside is worth betting on.
Deep Sleeper: Ketel Marte
Davis had the second-best average exit velocity on air balls in baseball last season (behind only Aaron Judge). Even coming off back-to-back 40 home run seasons, there might be more home run upside in here, as Davis has increasingly struggled to pull the ball in the air in recent seasons. He’s gifted enough to make that all-fields approach work, but his ceiling could be even higher if he hits a few more fly balls to left field, since pulled fly balls are the best batted ball for home runs. He also made significant strides forward in his plate discipline last year, cutting his chase rate by nearly five percentage points from the year before as pitchers worked him out of the zone more than ever. So long as he continues to prove willing to take his walks, pitchers may be forced to come back in the zone against him this season. Throw in an Oakland lineup that should be improved with a full year of Matt Olson and a potentially improved Franklin Barreto, and Davis should have a few more opportunities to hit with men in scoring position. He’s largely a one-tool player (he has hit .247 in each of the past three seasons and he projects to hit .249 next year), but Davis’ power is truly elite. He should be off the board earlier than 18th among outfielders.
Cain’s elite baserunning and outfield may cause him to be underrated league-wide, because he can end up unfairly lumped in with defensive specialists like Billy Hamilton and Kevin Pillar. Cain, though, has a real bat as well. Among the 300 players with at least 500 at-bats since 2015, Cain ranks 83rd in average exit velocity, including tied for 21st among regulars in that category last season. Despite entering his age-33 season, he retains his elite speed, as well, ranking 16th in league-wide sprint speed. That’s a rare blend of power and speed; no player in baseball ranked higher than Cain in both exit velocity and sprint speed last season, and Cain was one of only seven players (Jose Altuve, Tommy Pham, Elvis Andrus, Whit Merrifield, Mookie Betts, and Byron Buxton were the others) with at least 15 homers and 25 steals in 2017. Now, he heads to Milwaukee, one of the most hitter-friendly environments in baseball, joining a team that should offer him more run-scoring opportunities than Kansas City’s mediocre offense did last season. Even with his injury history, Cain presents a great value at 96th overall.
Deep Sleepers: Michael Brantley, David Peralta, Raimel Tapia
Darvish’s dreadful World Series and long wait on the free-agent market may adversely affect his reputation, but he’s been fantastic since returning from Tommy John surgery in May 2016. Darvish has above-average strikeout and walk rates since his return, and the 85.6 MPH average exit velocity which he surrendered last season ranked 22nd out the 94 pitchers who faced at least 400 hitters. He has been bitten by the home run ball somewhat, but ditching the hitter’s paradise in Arlington should help him in that regard (although he still had trouble keeping the ball in the yard following a trade deadline swap that sent him to the Dodgers). Now pitching in front of one of the league’s best defensive teams, and still featuring his strikeout stuff, Darvish should be a surefire top-10 starting pitcher, but he is currently coming off the board 14th at the position.
Paxton has durability concerns. In a league where fewer and fewer innings are allocated to starting pitchers, though, the fact that he has never surpassed 136 innings pitched in any year is less troubling than it might appear at first glance. On a rate basis, very few pitchers can match Paxton’s effectiveness. He ranked 15th last season (minimum 100 innings) in strikeout rate, with a 12th-place finish in strikeout and walk rate differential. On top of that, he limited authoritative contact, with an opponent expected weighted on-base average fifth-best among pitchers with at least 400 batters faced. For comparison, the only starters in baseball more dominant on a batter-for-batter basis than Paxton: Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, Chris Sale, and Clayton Kershaw. He is an elite performer with some of the best pure stuff in the game. His rate performance should more than compensate for the likely lack of volume.
Snell’s stuff ticked upwards at the end of last season, and improved results followed. He is worth a buy in the middle rounds.
Deep Sleepers: Michael Wacha, Luiz Gohara, Carlos Rodon
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