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Weekly Top-10: NL Breakout Players and How to Value Them

Last week we went over the top breakout players in the American League this season. This week we take a look at the breakout players in the Senior Circuit. And boy has there been a lot of them. Just look at the #10 guy on this list. Nobody could get the dude out for the first month of the season, and he still barely cracks this list.

Seven of these 10 guys are from three teams (Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Los Angeles), which is a big reason why all three teams are contending for playoff spots. Okay, Milwaukee and St. Louis are contending. The Dodgers could take the rest of the season off and still make the playoffs.

As we enter the stretch run in fantasy, it’s time to figure out how we should value these guys for the rest of the season and beyond. I know the trade deadline in some leagues has already passed, but if it hasn’t in your league, there are a few names below you might want to sell high on. For you dynasty leaguers, there are some names you’re definitely want to invest in, especially the top three guys below.

10. Eric Thames (1B/OF – MIL)

The “Korean Babe Ruth” has turned back into the American Eric Thames and possibly the second coming of Chris Shelton. Who the heck is Chris Shelton, you ask? In April of 2006, Shelton was arguably the best hitter in baseball. In 92 at-bats, he mashed 10 home runs to go along with a .326 average and 1.186 OPS. However, for the rest of the season (281 AB), he hit only .256 with six homers and a measly .681 OPS.

I’m not saying Thames is going to slide into obscurity as quickly as Shelton, as Thames is a better overall hitter. But did we really think that, after five years out of Major League baseball, that Thames was going to suddenly become an All-Star hitter? “But, just look at his stats in Korea!” Stop it. The KBO is roughly the equivalent of Double-A minor leaguer baseball here in the States.

After posting a ridiculous 1.276 OPS in April, Thames’ OPS since then is only .758. That’s not horrible, but it’s not anything to write home about either. With more guys hitting for power this year, you can do much better than Thames and his pathetic .214 post-April batting average.

2017 Re-Draft: Trade/Cut for a hot free agent

Keeper/Dynasty: No thanks

9. Corey Knebel (RP – MIL)

Every year a new bullpen arm emerges as an elite fantasy closer. This year, that arm was Milwaukee righty, Corey Knebel. As it stands today, only Craig Kimbrel and Dellin Betances have a better K/9 rate than Knebel’s 15.38 K/9 rate. Ultimately, I’m not going to dive into Knebel too much. He’s an elite closer this year but could post an ERA over 5.00 next year. I don’t expect that to happen, but we never know when it comes to closers. Enjoy the ride this season because he’s certainly one of the top closers in fantasy right now.

2017 Re-Draft: Hold

Keeper/Dynasty: He’s a closer

8. Travis Shaw (3B – MIL)

As a Red Sox fan, this pains me. Well, not so much anymore now that Rafael Devers is up, but you try having to deal with Pablo Sandoval and a bunch of minor league crap as your third baseman for about 90 games. I digress. I don’t think many saw this breakout coming. Shaw was always decent, but not spectacular in the minors and his brief time in Boston.

[the_ad id=”384″]After a modest 2016, where he hit 16 home runs and drove in 71, he’s on a 35/105 pace this season. He’s even chipped in nine steals so far for good measure. The .293 average doesn’t seem sustainable given that he was only a .266 hitter in the minors, but Shaw looks like he’ll be a solid power source from the hot corner for the next few years. I wouldn’t draft him as my starter next year, but he’s definitely a good corner infield or utility bat.

2017 Re-Draft: Hold

Keeper/Dynasty: Sell High

7. Robbie Ray (SP – ARI)

Injuries have derailed a lot of good individual seasons this year. Ray was having a breakout season until he took a comebacker off the noggin and landed on the disabled list with a concussion. Through 20 starts, Ray had a 3.11 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and 11.5 K/9. That K rate is almost identical to his 2016 rate of 11.3, but his ERA has dropped considerably this season from the 4.90 mark he posted in 2016. The biggest difference has been the 2.9 H/9 drop from 9.6 to 6.7.

Concussions have a nasty way of lingering sometimes, but assuming Ray comes back 100%, he has SP2 upside for next year and beyond. The only thing that could derail that is his walk rate, which has been steadily climbing over his career to 4.4 this season.

2017 Re-Draft: Sell High

Keeper/Dynasty: Hold

6. Paul DeJong (SS – STL)

If I had told you during spring training that the two most valuable offensive players for the Cardinals this season were going to be Paul DeJong and Tommy Pham, you’d think I was losing it, right? However, that’s been exactly the case this season. If you combine his minor and major league statistics, DeJong has 31 home runs in 438 at-bats. Everyone and their grandmother will take that from a fantasy shortstop.

The power is for real. DeJong makes hard contact 37.1% of the time while putting 42.1% of his batted balls in the air. On the other hand, his current .299 average appears to be a mirage. DeJong’s BABIP is .375 and he has a near 9/1 K/BB ratio. Those aren’t what you usually see out of a .300 hitter. I’d expect the average to drop into the .260-.270 range, but the 25-plus home run potential makes DeJong an intriguing shortstop target next season.

2017 Re-Draft: Hold

Keeper/Dynasty: Wait and See

5. Tommy Pham (OF – STL)

I’m pretty bummed I didn’t get Pham in more leagues because he’s been a five-category asset all season. If you extrapolated his current stats out over 600 at-bats, you’d have yourself a 27-91-121-29 line with a .312 average. Wait, what? Pham is on that type of pace? Yes, yes he is. He won’t get there due to not playing in 29 of the Cardinals games so far, but he’s showing no signs of slowing down as we enter the last quarter of the season.

The one area that seems a bit fluky is his near 30 home run pace. Pham has been hitting fly balls only 24.5% of the time this season with 25.9% of those ending up as home runs. Even if the home run pace drops, Pham is still a solid 3rd or 4th outfielder in fantasy next season.

2017 Re-Draft: Hold

Keeper/Dynasty: Wait and See

4. Chris Taylor (OF – LAD)

It’s time for a pop quiz. Don’t you groan at me; this is going to be a fun one. Which player leads all major league left fielders in WAR for the 2017 season? I hope you know the answer because of the player name this is being asked under. That’s right, it’s Chris Taylor.

With a quarter of the season to go, Taylor has an outside shot at a 20/20 season while hitting over .300. There’s some cause for concern, though, as his BABIP currently sits at an insanely high .391. Taylor is a decent player, but he’s not good enough to keep up a .391 BABIP. Expect that average to drop some as the season winds down.

2017 Re-Draft: Sell High

Keeper/Dynasty: Wait and See

3. Aaron Nola (SP – PHI)

Most starting pitchers that have a K/9 rate over 9.0 have a fastball in the mid to upper 90s. Nola is one of the few who does not fall into that category. He’s registered a 9.1 K/9 throughout 313 career innings and has done that with an average fastball velocity of 90-92 miles per hour. It helps that Nola is a very smart pitcher that can control his arsenal and really attack hitters with four different pitches. The best of which is his curveball, which is one of the best in the game and has been basically since he came up in 2015.

For pitchers that have thrown at least 500 curveballs this year, Nola has the 5th highest swing rate. Opposing hitters swing at Nola’s curveballs 49.5% of the time and either miss or foul it off 60.8% of the time. Moving forward, Nola is a very solid SP2/3 in all formats.

2017 Re-Draft: Hold

Keeper/Dynasty: Hold

2. Michael Conforto (OF – NYM)

The elite talent and potential have always been evident with Conforto, but a rough 2016 cast some doubt. Chalk that up to the dreaded sophomore slump. This season, he’s has been everything fantasy owners had hoped for. Through just 355 at-bats, Conforto has 26 home runs, 64 RBI, and 69 runs scored to go along with a .279 batting average. He’d be on pace for 44 home runs if he hadn’t missed time with a wrist injury in June and July.

If you play in a keeper or dynasty league, this is a guy you’re going to want on your team. He’ll never be a threat on the bases, but he’s turning into a three-category monster with a solid batting average. My colleague, Greg Jewett, thinks Conforto will be a top-20 hitter next season. I strongly agree.

2017 Re-Draft: Hold

Keeper/Dynasty: Hold/Buy

1. Cody Bellinger (1B – LAD)

Just like my American League article, it’s not much of a surprise as to who is No. 1 on this list. Pointing out the obvious here, but Bellinger has crazy good raw power. He’s averaging a home run per every 10.7 at-bats since his call-up and would be leading the NL in home runs if Giancarlo Stanton hadn’t turned into Babe Ruth over the last month.

There’s nothing fluky about his power output this season either. He hits fly balls 48.2% of the time and has a 45.6 hard contact percentage. That’s a deadly power combination, and there’s not really any reason to doubt that it will continue. We’re witnessing the birth of one of the most feared hitters for the next decade or so. I already ranked him #4 in my midseason 1st base dynasty rankings and #21 overall. I have a feeling those rankings will rise a good amount come springtime.

2017 Re-Draft: Hold

Keeper/Dynasty: Hold/Buy

Thank you for reading another edition of the Fantrax weekly top-10. I hope you can use this article to your advantage and get a leg up on your fellow league members. Check back next Saturday as we tackle another list. Got a question about a player not covered here? Ask in the comments below or follow me on Twitter @EricCross04 and ask there.

Statistics are from MLB, Baseball Reference, and Fangraphs.

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