Tuesday April 12th, 2016

The home run was an undeniable trend across baseball in 2015. Nine players left the yard 40 times, while 11 more cracked at least 30 homers. The last time the league boasted that many 30-homer hitters was in ’12 when there were 27. 2006 was the last season with at least nine players hitting 40 bombs, when there were 11. Power was back in a big way in ’15, and not a thing has changed in the early going this season.

The first week of the season produced 196 home runs, or 2.28 per game, and no, Trevor Story did not hit all of them. Robinson Cano, Josh Donaldson and Eugenio Suarez each have four homers, 10 more hitters—from big names like Carlos Gonzalez and Carlos Correa, to Tyler White and Scooter Gennett—have three. Even three pitchers—Jake Arrieta, Madison Bumgarner and Kenta Maeda—have gotten in on the act. Arrieta’s 442-foot blast off Shelby Miller was the 13th-longest homer of the opening week, while Bumgarner took Clayton Kershaw deep for the second time in their respective careers. 

Pitching report: Finnegan proving he belongs in starting rotation

Back in March, we told you to load your team with power hitters, and we told you to target big-time, middle-of-the-order bats early in a draft. That may have seemed counterintuitive. If homers are back, then surely there would be more of them available in the middle and late rounds. With greater supply should come a decreasing price.

Take a look at the names at the top of the 2015 home run leaderboard, though. No one was lucking into Mike Trout, Donaldson or Bryce Harper late in a draft. Sure, you could have targeted Chris Davis or Nolan Arenado, but even they were on the radars of most fantasy owners. The only big bopper who truly came out of nowhere last season was J.D. Martinez. Of course, his 2016 draft-day price tag skyrocketed.

Now look at the players leading the league in homers at this incredibly early juncture of the season. Small sample size rules over everything in early April, but we still see a lot of predictable names. Cano. Donaldson. Davis. Gonzalez. Correa. Machado. If all of them were in the top-10 in homers at the end of the season, the only one who’d be a surprise is Cano.

Pop is the best currency a hitter can have, in both the real-life and fantasy game. Even with homers up across the league, we’re saw why everyone understandably chases power during draft season in the first week of the 2016 campaign.

Players to watch this week

Trevor Story, SS, Rockies 

No matter what happens the rest of the season, Story has a place in the record books. His seven homers in six games last week earned him all of the following honors: most home runs in the first six games of a season; most home runs in first four, five and six games of a career; first player to homer in his first four career games (and fifth player to ever leave the yard in each of his team’s first four games); first player to homer in five of his first six career games.

Never-ending Story: Where Trevor Story's start ranks in MLB history

We’re going to explore Story’s trade candidacy in the season’s first trade column later this week. For now, let’s just enjoy what the 23-year-old shortstop was able to do during the season’s first week, and marvel at what might come this week. Now that he won’t be able to sneak up on anyone, pitchers are going to make significant adjustments when attacking him. He may have just a week in the majors under his belt, but you can bet that there’s already a book on him. It will be interesting to see how he handles the inevitably more educated approach he will see from pitchers after his first-week power binge.

Miguel Sano, OF, Twins

Like most everyone on the Twins, Sano had a brutal opening week, going 3-for-19 with 11 strikeouts while the team lost its first six games. Sano will get going, likely sooner rather than later, but the strikeouts are a cause for concern. When he was mashing his way to third place in the AL Rookie of the Year voting last year, he was still whiffing a ton. Sano fanned in 119 of his 335 plate appearances last year, a rate of 35.5%. It’s way too early to be concerned, but that he seemingly hasn’t addressed his swing-and-miss tendency could turn into a troubling issue.

Gregory Polanco, OF, Pirates

Polanco, meanwhile, is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Sano. Polanco struck out in 18.4% of his plate appearances last year, while walking in a respectable 8.4%. In 32 plate appearances through Monday, Polanco has nine walks and four strikeouts. Unsurprisingly, he’s hitting .381 (8-for-21) with a .531 OBP. Polanco was one of our breakout picks for the 2016 campaign, and everything he has done in the first seven games of the year suggests he is indeed on that path.

Polanco has taken well to hitting in the No. 6 spot in the Pittsburgh order, but he likely won’t stay there if he continues to hit like this, especially if his newfound plate discipline is more than a short-term anomaly. That, combined with his speed, would almost certainly push him back to the top of Clint Hurdle’s lineup. No matter where he’s hitting, though, he has been a joy to watch this year.

Nomar Mazara, OF, Rangers

Nomar Mazara’s stellar debut is bright spot for Rangers amid injuries

​Mazara made his major league debut on Sunday, going 3-for-4 with a home run. It wasn’t quite Story-esque, but Mazara probably wasn’t hanging his head in the clubhouse after the game. He’s expected to play every day while Shin-soo Choo (hamstring) is on the DL, and that could mean a full six weeks in the starting lineup. That could be plenty of time for Mazara to prove that he deserves a full-time spot in the lineup, even when Choo returns. That would likely come at the expense of Delino DeShields, but that’s a bridge we’ll potentially cross six weeks from now. For the time being, let’s simply watch how Mazara, who won’t be able to legally celebrate his promotion with a beer until the end of April, adjusts to life as a big leaguer. 

Randal Grichuk, OF, Cardinals

Grichuk got off to a disastrous start this season, striking out three times on Opening Day, and eight times in his first 14 plate appearances. That earned him a couple days off in a row in the Cardinals’ weekend series with the Braves. With his team leading big on Sunday, however, Mike Matheny inserted Grichuk in the sixth inning, and he walked in all three of his plate appearances and scored two runs. He was back in the starting lineup on Monday, going 2-for-3 with a double and two walks.

Even though Jeremy Hazelbaker had an excellent first week, the Cardinals are undoubtedly a better team if Grichuk can earn his spot in the lineup. We haven’t seen it yet this season, but the power is absolutely for real, and will eventually make him the most feared hitter in the Cardinals lineup with runners on base. St. Louis plays five more games this week, drawing right-handed starters in four of them. That will be a good test for Grichuk, as well as a chance for him to prove that he has pulled out of his mini-slump to start the season. 

Prospect watch

J.P. Crawford, SS, Phillies

We’ve already seen a few prospects make their debuts this season, with Mallex Smith of the Braves joining Mazara. Crawford, the top-rated shortstop in the minors, will likely join them at some point this summer. The 21-year-old is off to a slow start with Double-A Reading, going 4-for-17 with four strikeouts in his first four games. There’s no doubt that Crawford’s glove and speed will play at the next level, but there’s a questions as to how ready his bat will be after some seasoning at the Triple-A level. He spent most of 2015 at Reading, hitting .265/.354/.407 in 405 plate appearances. Even though the Phillies aren’t going anywhere this season, they’re going to want to see more from him at the plate before they bring him to the majors. If and when he arrives, he will be an immediate fantasy option, due mainly to his speed, presence at a shallow position, and growth potential. Don’t expect anything like what we’ve seen from Carlos Correa or Corey Seager, however. Crawford is much more of a project at the plate than either of them were by time they reached the majors. 

GIF of the week 

No matter how good a pitcher is, he can’t just pump a fastball right down the middle of the plate and get away with it. Craig Kimbrel dealt with that reality on Monday, serving up a three-run homer to Chris Davis in the ninth inning of a tie game. The pitch may have been 97 mph, but it was center cut and straight as an arrow. Pay particular attention to Kimbrel’s reaction in the following GIF.

Location, kids. The most important thing in real estate and pitching.

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