Now that the calendar has turned to May, we have enough of a sample size to start asking some important questions. Are these struggling players “done” or just ready to turn the corner? Is this rookie for real? Why is it that every single player I drafted is on the DL already? These questions (well, two of them) and more are what we’re going to take a look at and see if we can figure out a good answer. Buy the right struggling player or sell the right hot starter and you could change your season around in a big way
Mitch Haniger – OF, Seattle Mariners
Last year’s Mariners darling has somehow managed to make himself this year’s Mariners darling as well. In 95 plate appearances in March/April of 2017 Haniger managed to slash .342/.447/.608 with 4 homers and 2 stolen bases. His owners were smugly throwing it about that they had discovered the single greatest baseball player in existence. He was going to lead the way to championships in leagues left and right. I genuinely remember seeing discussions about whether or not he was going to win the batting title and go 30-20 because once the summer months came and the weather warmed up, he would get even better.
We all know how that story went from there with a strained oblique, finger issue, and HBP in the face, knocking his plate appearances down to a grand total of 410. Haniger’s season numbers finished higher than many would have guessed and, to be honest, with little fanfare past that initial run. He hit 16 homers and stole 5 bases, and the slash line was excellent at .282/.352/.491, though the walk rate was a bit lower than had come to be expected in his career at 7.6%. That’s still very good and those career marks leave room for optimism.
Going into draft season this year, Haniger didn’t seem to be getting a ton of love, as he was the 196th player and 45th outfielder off the board. I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t in love with the guy, but I knew there was plenty of talent to be had here and entering his age 27 season there was a chance for even more of a breakout.
Well, breakout Haniger has as his 112 plate appearances have produced a .309/.384/.701 line with 10 homers and 1 steal. That’s good for 6th on the Fantrax leaderboard per their offensive value metric. Now before I get too into this, the first thing I’ll say is that the odds of Haniger hitting 58 homers (his pace if he were to get 650 plate appearances) are somewhere between slim and nil. His 27% HR/FB rate is probably about 10% higher than can be expected, and as his groundball rate begins to normalize the opportunities for the ball to leave the park will drop a bit. That said, with a full season of at-bats and this kind of head start, I can definitely see 30 within the scope of reality. I think the speed will never be what scouts had hoped, but if he can get to 5-8 steals that’s at least better than a zero in the stat.
Between last year and this year we’ve discovered that the hit tool plays up well enough that he can reasonably be expected to hit in the .280+ range. Now that the BB% has managed to make its way up into the double-digit range, he’s become quite the offensive force and one that the Mariners sorely need. I think if there were non-believers out there they’ve likely eased up a bit, so the cost of acquiring Haniger likely won’t be cheap enough to warrant a huge benefit. But the fact of the matter remains, Haniger is good.
Verdict: BUY BUY BUY
Javier Baez – 2B/SS, Chicago Cubs
Baez has in many ways become the true MLB prospect of this new age. He has always had an intriguing blend of speed and power, but questions about his hit tool and plate discipline and propensity to strikeout a lot litter his scouting reports. Of course, now that we’ve seen nearly 1,400 plate appearances these thoughts also litter his line scores and numbers. This season he’s managed to already hit 7 homers in his 108 plate appearances, while also stealing 3 bags and scoring 20 runs and driving in 26. His slash line of .280/.333/.630 is easily the best of his career.
In managing to put up those numbers, Baez has actually cut his strikeout rate down from his career mark of 28.7% to 22.2%. His walk rate gains from last year have remained as he’s sitting at a 5.6% BB rate, and though that’s not exactly great it really is a victory to see him continue walking even that much. A .304 BABIP says that what he’s doing with the batting average isn’t necessarily fluky, and after three years of him hitting .289, .273, and .273 I think it’s safe to say the fear of him hitting .250 is firmly in the past. I firmly believe the first two lines of his triple slash line of .280/.333 are legit and I have zero problem with them.
It’s that last number that gives me pause.
Obviously no one thinks he’s going to slug .630, but after slugging .480 last year there are plenty out there who likely believe he’s taken a step forward to becoming a truly elite slugger. I’m not quite ready to say that, though in all honesty he’s damn good and better than I ever thought he could be. The two things that concern me here are the lowered K rate (I think it goes back up to career levels), and an insane 28% HR/FB rate. If we add 7% to his strikeout rate and take away 10% of the HR/FB rate, we’re looking at just about the same guy as last year.
But is that such a bad thing?
Miguel Cabrera – 1B/DH, Detroit Tigers
You can count me among the many people who were terrified with the well-known back issues and reaching age 35, wondering if Miguel Cabrera’s career was on the downswing for good. Of course, you can still count me among that group of people, despite the solid start to the season for the once elite slugger. His .326/.413/.528 line is reminiscent of his heyday, the walks are up, the strikeouts are down, and, more importantly, he’s playing a lot of baseball.
The big problem right off the bat with Cabrera this year is that despite the strong start, he’s only compiled three home runs. If he matches his plate appearances total from last year of 529, that puts him on pace for nearly exactly last year’s 16 home runs. Obviously there’s room on your fantasy team for a guy who hits .300/.400/.500, but if he’s only doing it by hitting 15-20 home runs, how valuable can that be in this day and age of the home run? I suppose there is room for optimism considering an insanely low fly ball percentage (20.3%) and grossly high ground ball percentage (55.4%). But if those don’t change you can certainly expect that batting average to plummet. Guys who run as slowly as Cabrera does don’t exactly beat out a lot of balls, and a change in luck in that regard could see his average fall to last year’s .249 mark.
Cabrera is hitting the ball well, walking, and striking out at one of the lowest rates of his career. He also has a chronic back issue. If I’m an owner of Cabrera I’m selling as fast as I can. I think he may even have another good month in him and if you are a bit of a gambler you can wait it out a bit longer to see if he has a four or five home run stretch in a week or two and try to capitalize on the good press. However it shakes out, even if he has a “Cabrera-like” season I’m still getting out as quickly as possible.
Gerrit Cole – SP, Houston Astros
I have waited as long as I possibly could to tell everyone that I TOLD YOU SO. Cole has always had better stuff than results, but this year I just felt that something big was coming. I’ve posted the comparison stats between Max Scherzer and Cole through their age 26 seasons more than I can count, and what Cole has done this year for the Astros has been downright Sherzian. Through his first six starts of the 2018 season Cole has amassed a 1.73 ERA (with a FIP and xFIP of 1.91 and 2.36, respectively), a 13.18 K/9, 1.73 BB/9, and a much improved 8.1% HR/FB rate. Of all those numbers the last is the most important in my opinion.
Last season with the Pirates Cole managed to increase his K/9 by a full strikeout an inning and lower his walk rate, but the overall numbers were really marred by an insane 15.9% HR/FB rate. He was pitching half his games in the pitching-friendly PNC Stadium in Pittsburgh and still giving up home runs by the bushel. Those homers inflated his ERA to a gross 4.26 mark, and you’re just simply not going to be an ace when your HR/9 rate is 1.37. I can’t say for sure that bad luck was entirely to blame for last season, but even with better luck he wouldn’t suddenly become this good. No, there’s a reason for the improvement and it’s a big one — it’s his pitch mix.
Cole throughout his career has utilized his fastball around 64% of the time. This season that number is down to its lowest mark at 52.4%. That has increased his slider percentage about 8%, curveball about 5%, and dropped his changeup usage about 4% (remember change-up and fastball go hand-in-hand, so that’s not surprising). Anytime I see a huge change like this the first thing you need to check is whether the command remained under control. It’s a pretty resounding yes in this case. Cole’s zone percentage has increased over the previous year, so he’s actually gained better command of all of his pitches. Of course, his walks have dropped below 2.00 per nine for the first time since his career year in 2015 as well, so his entire game has gotten better and it is most definitely showing.
I was actually a bit worried at the outset of the year that a homer-prone pitcher going to a worse park to pitch in would hamper his game, but the consensus in the industry that the move to a better team would actually help him, so his value inflated a little bit higher than I would like. Cole’s ADP hovered around pick 70 and as SP #20 meant that even if he became a 3.25 ERA, strikeout per inning pitcher his value wouldn’t be that much higher than his draft slot. However, now that he’s essentially become an ace, and I firmly believe he has, then you’re getting really good value even taking him that early. I think the verdict is pretty obvious here, but just in case you were still on the fence…