Six Degrees of Fantasy Baseball Victory

*Note this article first appeared in The Fantasy Baseball Guide Professional Edition 2020 available on a newsstand near you now and online at https://www.thefantasyguide.com/

My victory this year in AL Tout Wars, like any fantasy baseball win, was the product of draft day strategy, free agency and trade savvy, and a fair share of luck.

Mitigating Risk
For years I’ve been a proponent of “boring is best” or risk mitigation. To that end, I went with a budget of 180 to 190 on hitters, rostering stalwarts in the power/OBP categories like Edwin Encarnacion, Carlos Santana, and Nelson Cruz all while without going over $25 and budgeting between $180-$190 hitting. In the same vain I targeted an established ace and went with Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Corey Kluber being my other primary targets. The reason was those three, plus Kluber, were the only amongst a bunch of pitchers being purchased at ace-level prices, had the baseline of throwing the amount and quality of innings at a high level for the last three or more years. As we can see, anchoring your staff especially at the above normal prices of 2019 is a risky move, but some options, at least theoretically speaking, were safer options than others based on track record.

Draft Day Bargains
I was certain Mike Minor ($7), D.J. LeMahieu ($9), and Mark Canha (RES) were all going to earn profits for me, but more of the $15 to $20 combined range. I didn’t predict LeMahieu improving on his Coors Field experience or for Minor to throw over 200 innings and perform at that high a level. Minor was grabbed after pitching budgets had emptied out while LeMahieu and Canha’s uncertain playing time muted the room’s enthusiasm to acquire them.

Knowing Your League Rules
Tout Wars has a fifteen-game minimum rule as opposed to the normal twenty and often in the heat of the auction, it can fall by the wayside and lead to opportunities which I found for Carlos Santana at 3B and Jonathan Schoop to fit nicely at shortstop. At the very least, targeting the secondary position of players for later in the auction or draft for when their primary positions have been filled on other league mate’s roster is a good way to bargain hunt.

Lemons into Lemonade
While I aimed to snag an ace of the three I mentioned above, I also wanted to similarly focus on anchoring my pen with a closer with a fair track record and failed miserably to say “$20” on Aroldis Chapman and ended up with Cody Allen at $14. Allen at the time had the saves track record, but every other bit of his skills and talents were trending downwards and he may now be out of baseball, let alone no longer a closer. Having a failed closer early in the season though helps focus one’s efforts on his likely successor and everything pointed to the Angel’s favoring Hansel Robles over second-year player Ty Buttrey and I pounced with a risky $300+ bid. Robles is known for his strikeouts and the home runs he’s let up, particularly with my hometown Mets, so a few of those early on could have sunk them, but a closer role and non-high leverage situation suited him. Liam Hendriks meanwhile had similarly established himself as the number two guy while Blake Treinen was struggling and managed to pick him up before he was potentially prohibitively expensive. I originally projected myself to finish in the lower to the middle of the pack in saves with Allen, but the duo along with the occasional save from Adam Ottavino, whose value in innings and strikeouts cannot be understated in the environment of the post-200 inning starter era, landed me third place in saves. The addition of a second closer in single-league only formats remains one of the easiest and best ways to vault up the standings if you can acquire them via trade or FAAB.

Minor League Monitoring
Another of Tout Wars’ somewhat unique rules is the ability to pick up players still in the minors and add them to your roster provided you’re willing to earn 0 points in that roster slot for the upcoming week. When you’re replacing an injured or unproductive player, that’s an easy call. Yordan Alvarez was mauling Triple-A pitching and Houston was playing with a platoon outfield, an injury to Springer, and a revolving door at DH made him a very targeted grab in late April at $9. The luck/lesson here is being lucky enough where no one else was ready to pull the trigger yet and to be thinking several weeks in advance. There were several other good examples of this year with Orlando Mercado and Cavan Biggio being other examples of good grabs in that regard. It helps though to focus on contending teams not afraid of service time. The White Sox have had Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert destroy the minors two years in a row, tantalizing fantasy owners as potential call-ups. I had drafted and then re-FAABed Oakland catcher Sean Murphy just shy of September call-ups knowing he’d get a chance to play and though used part-time, played well.

Trades
Down the stretch especially I targeted the categories I could make ground in and categories I could try to block others. With several late injuries on the hitting side, my best bets were to focus on steals, wins, and strikeouts. For the first part, I moved Aaron Hicks for Mallex Smith. Neither player was particularly good, but all I wanted were steals and the 19 I received were ideal. Though out of contention for Greinke on FAAB day, I used my depth on offense to acquire him the day after the MLB trade deadline who acc9ounted for 7 wins, a 3.02 ERA, and 50 strikeouts.

The Final Week
The standings were tight with me a nervous mess from August on. The last two weeks were all about filling in gaps with callups (Murphy and Ryan McBroom) and maximizing opportunities to obtain wins and strikeouts given enough breathing room in ERA/WHIP categories to throw Dillon Peters, Trent Thornton, and Gio Gonzalez into action. It didn’t hurt that Justin Verlander was chasing 3,000 career K’s and 300 season strikeouts as milestones that week either.

Veteran Pitchers

With all the controversy that is currently going on in baseball, players are trying to put things behind them as they prepare for the upcoming season. Two such players have been notable in this effort this past week and are former rotation-mates who have moved on from the Houston Astros two different organizations. I’m talking of course about Mike Fiers and Dallas Keuchel.

Dallas Keuchel after struggling to find employment for much of the first half of 2019, Keuchel landed in Atlanta and pitched well enough to secure a three-year contract with the White Sox. The 32-year has a good history of performing to his skills, in other words, there has not been a high degree of variance between his ERA and that which was expected, his xFIP in this case. That said, it says nothing of his skills or their recent trends, it just says in world full of pitchers with a wide variance of predictability, he has been one of the safer bets to get what you expected from him.

First and foremost, Keuchel remains a groundball machine, keeping an impressive 60% of his balls in play in 2019. This was to his benefit last year, pitching in front of one of the better team-defenses in baseball and should lead to some skepticism for 2020 as he moves to Chicago where the White Sox featured one of baseball’s poorest. Then keep in mind that this is a pitcher who has had a HR/FB rate in excess of 20% in his past two of three seasons and no less than 11% since 2014 and factor in, well park factors, Keuchel is now moving from a pitcher neutral/friendly park to one of the more homerun friendly parks may also not be in his favor. An ERA slide to the mid-4’s range is likely and a bid under $10 and closer to $5 is probably in your best interest.

For two successive seasons, Mike Fiers has defied the regression gods, posting sub 4.00 ERAs despite a steep decline in his ability to get generate strikeouts, continued high home rates, suppressed batting average on balls in play, and high left-on-base percentages. Pitching in Oakland has FIP his saving grace, showing improved ability in keeping the ball in the park there, but still producing FIP and xFIPs that are in the high 4’s to low 5’s. Fiers has managed to earn $10 or more dollars three years running but is always one step away from that flipping on its head and earning in the negative. As a result, he’ll cost less (and should!) than the amount he has earned and really should be considered more of an endgame, sub $5 play with the hope he has another season like this left in him. Even then, bench him weeks he is away if you can.

Gearing Up Again

Time to get back into writing gear, though I do have some under my belt already for the 2020 season. The Fantasy Baseball Guide 2020, now on newsstands near you, featured a few articles by yours truly.

We changed things up for the prospect section focusing not only on impact prospects for 2020 but rankings for keeper/dynasty leagues too! I pieced together the article, wrote a few of the profiles, and all the long-term prognosis. I also wrote the Prospect Retrospective piece and an article recapping my 2019 AL Tout Wars victory “Six Degrees of Fantasy Baseball Victory”. You’ll be able to buy it online in PDF or physical edition soon at thefantasyguide.com soon!

Enough advertising, time to take a glance at the Cardinals and Rays deal.

The Cardinals moved Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena to the Rays for Matt Liberatore, Edgardo Rodriguez and swapped competitive balance picks with the 38th overall pick going to the Rays and the 66th coming back to the Cardinals.

Cardinals outfield for 2020 is now up in the air with one less veteran to take up playing time. Dexter Fowler, Harrison Bader, Tommy Edman, Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, and Justin Williams are all in the playing time mix with Dylan Carlson poised to possibly take spring training by storm and maneuver his way into the starting lineup as a 22-year old with fewer than 100 plate appearances of experience in Triple-A.

Liberatore is a well-regarded left-handed pitcher and former 2018 first-round pick of the Rays, drafted 16th overall and is instantaneously one of the Cardinals top five prospects or better. He more than held his own as a 19-year old at A-ball showing a four-pitch arsenal with an already plus fastball, but his calling card will be his plus to plus-plus curve. The changeup and slider are both still works in progress, but that’s to be expected for a 6’6” pitcher who just turned 20 this past November. He is at least two to three seasons from the Majors and at this moment time looks like a middle of the rotation starter. The feel-good here has childhood friends Liberatore and third base prospect Nolan Gorman reuniting and cheering them on to both reach the Majors together as starters are something to embrace.

Edgardo Rodriguez is currently listed as a catcher, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to stay there defensively. That said, despite missing most of 2019 due to injuries, his hit tool remains well regarded as a disciplined contact hitter with some power potential. He’ll likely move up to full-season A-ball this year but could also see more time in rookie ball given his minimal experience and age. While he is unlikely to ever be regarded as highly as Liberatore as a prospect, there is a chance he ends up having a more productive career. That is not an endorsement, just a brutal consideration given the youth of these two players and the variability of what may befall them between now and the time in which they shot at the majors.

On the Rays side, their decidedly left-handed hitting outfield needed another right-handed compliment. Neither Kevin Kiermaier nor Austin Meadows has extreme righty/lefty platoon splits. It is more that Martinez has an extreme bat against righties including a career .331/.405/.570 line when contrasted against his new teammates’ more modest abilities. Arozarena should also be a factor at the MLB level this coming season and is something of a dark horse candidate as an impact prospect. A later bloomer, the 24-year old is a good defender who can handle all three outfield positions, above-average foot speed, and a quick bat, but high single to low-double-digit homerun power. His upside is likely that of a fourth outfielder but has enough skills and tools to potentially be a right-handed centerfield compliment to Kiermaier.

Prospect Fever

Teams are not at all being shy this season. They are calling up their prospects and plugging them right into their rotations and lineups with little hesitation once they show they’re ready.

Indians’ Outfield

An injury to Cleveland’s Tyler Naquin opened the door for Oscar Mercado to get at least a cup of coffee as an everyday player. The righty had produced a .296/.396/.496 line in Triple-A to date. The Indians outfield has consisted of Carlos Gonzalez, Leonys Martin, Naquin, and Jordan Luplow (platooning with Gonzalez). None are noted for their on-base skills and only Luplow is slugging over .500 albeit over a small sample which includes a near-36% strikeout rate and .370 BABIP so take that level of performance with lightly. Enter Mercado. A former Cardinals farmhand, he has stolen at least 30 each season since 2005 and has already racked up 14 in Triple-A in little over a month. That alone, without any further discussion, makes him worth at least a flier in any format. Previous scouting reports had him pegged as a fourth outfielder type due to his speed and defensive abilities. Over the past two seasons, he has started to become more patient at the plate walking around 11% of the time but has had difficulty keeping his strikeout rates under 20%. Were he a pure, power-devoid standard speedster, that might be the death bell, but Mercado has gap power, capable of putting 5 to 10 home runs out of the ballpark per season. If he shows anything while Naquin is out, this could easily turn into a longer stay. The true test will be to see how Mercado handles right-handed pitching to verify whether or not he can be more than a platoon player.

Hiura Time in Milwaukee

With Travis Shaw going on the shelf for at least ten days, the Brewers elected to bring up 2017 first-round pick Keston Hiura from Triple-A. Shaw owners should be quite worried on several levels. First, wrist injuries often sap power and can take a fair amount of time from which to recover. Second, his struggles so far and Hiura’s Triple-A domination (.333/.408/.698) might consign him to a bench role regardless. Clearly, Hiura will not be maintaining a .405 BABIP at the MLB level and a significant degree of his level of production will be lost in translation to the Majors. Hiura’s bat speed and ability to make hard, line-drive contact are his calling cards which have long had him projected as a potential .300 hitter with mid to high teens home run power and single-digit stolen base skills. This year, however, he appears to be selling out for more power with 11 longballs already on the season and a strikeout rate (27%) to match. This has worked in Triple-A, but it will be interesting to see if he returns to his previously established norms or continues with this more power-conscious approach which is contrary to being a .300 hitter in the majors.

Today was just a brief taste of a few of the prospects and recent transactions. More tomorrow!