Injuries have a way of making us forget about a player, especially if he isn’t a superstar. While you can’t blame a fantasy owner for cutting a player who missed most of the first three months of the season due to injury, you also shouldn’t give a pass to everyone who ignored that player as he made his way back to the field. All too often, that leads to missed opportunity, and at this stage of the baseball season, when there really aren’t any further secrets to uncover, you might not get more than one opportunity to add an impact bat.
With that in mind, see if you can guess the identity of this player who has spent much of 2016 on the shelf. He’s a well-known commodity in the fantasy baseball world, having been part of its consciousness since 2008. From that season through ’15, he hit .282/.384/.457 with a 162-game average of 21 homers, 37 doubles, 17 steals, 95 runs and 80 RBI. There were a few bad seasons mixed into that eight-year window, but more often than not he turned a profit for his fantasy owners. He hit .300 in two seasons, belted at least 20 homers four times, and was a 20-20 player three times across those eight years. He was undoubtedly drafted in every fantasy league this spring, but injuries forced him back onto the free agent pile in too many of those leagues. He’s back on the field now, but the fantasy community has been all too slow in welcoming his return, evidenced by an ownership rate that has barely ticked up.
Have you uncovered the identity of our mystery player? If you have, I hope you paused reading this for a second and went to see if he is available in your league. The player in question is Shin-Soo Choo, and the fact that you can still get him for free in about four of every 10 leagues is incredible. Not only would I scoop him, even if it meant dropping someone I thought was a lock for my roster, I’d be trying to trade for him everywhere before he really starts hitting.
The breaking point for most previous Choo owners likely came on May 23. Just three days earlier, he played his first game after spending six weeks on the DL with a calf strain on his left leg. Whether or not he returned too early or didn’t trust the calf is unclear, but he strained his hamstring on the same leg in that first game back, and landed on the DL yet again. Two injuries to the same leg for a 33-year-old outfielder is always a red flag. It’s hard to fault Choo’s owners who decided to cut bait at that time.
Choo made his second return to the Rangers on June 13, hitting his first home run of the season in a 14-5 loss to the A’s. Two days later, he notched his first multi-hit game of the year, and picked up his second three days after that. In 14 games since coming back from the hamstring injury, Choo is 16-for-56 with three homers, three doubles, nine RBI, 10 runs, three steals and seven walks. Outside of the obvious—hey, a .286 batting average with six extra-base hits, including three homers, in 56 at-bats is great—there’s something lurking in those numbers that should have Choo backers rather excited.
Whenever a player returns from injury, especially his second of an individual season, you want to see him doing what he does—being himself—as soon as possible. It stands to reason that there’s some rust to shake off, but when a player gets back to doing the things that make him successful, you can rest assured that he’s right. For Choo, that means working counts, taking walks, ambushing pitchers when they come in the zone and running when the opportunity presents itself. We have seen all of that from him over the last two-plus weeks.
Some of that is obvious from a quick reading of the numbers, like the seven walks and the three steals. Choo has drawn a free pass in 10.9% of his plate appearances since his return. In addition to the three steals, he has been caught twice. Four of those five attempts have come in his last four games, a signal that he’s starting to get his legs underneath him.
Then there’s the matter of ambushing pitchers when the time is right. Let’s take a quick look at all of Choo’s homers this year.
Notice anything? First of all, they’ve all come off lefties, a likely coincidental, but still noteworthy fact for a guy with a career .243/.339/.354 slash line against same-siders. More importantly, though, look at the counts. Two were 3–2 with no one on base, an obvious fastball situation. That’s exactly what Choo got from both Sean Manaea and Tony Cingrani, and he didn’t miss. The third was a 1–1 count against David Price. That’s not a clear fastball count, but at the same time it was the first batter of the game, and Price trusts his fastball, as he should. Choo was likely sitting fastball in all of these counts, and he jumped on the pitch when he got it.
Choo’s back in the leadoff spot for the Rangers, a team that is 11th in wOBA and sixth in runs this season. That makes him a weapon in the runs category. His skill set makes him a weapon everywhere else. It’s time for Choo to be back where he belongs, in the 90% ownership rate neighborhood. If you’re in a league where he’s already owned, check in on his price before it’s too late.
Raisel Iglesias, RP, Reds
Iglesias returned from the DL last week and began his new life as a reliever. The Reds have assembled arguably the worst bullpen in MLB history this season, with issues from middle relief all the way through the closer spot. Cingrani has finally brought a bit of stability to the ninth inning, but there’s no question that the Reds will use the rest of this season as a tryout of sorts to see if Iglesias can transition to the closer’s role. They’re not going to put him back there immediately, but once he gets a handful of positive appearances under his belt, you can bet that you’ll see him in the ninth-inning mix. Now would be a good time to try to buy him on the cheap.
Travis d’Arnaud, C, Mets
The Mets starting catcher returned last week after spending two months on the DL with a strained rotator cuff. Now that he’s back and starting mostly every day, d’Arnaud should be owned in all fantasy formats. Injury cut short his 2015 season, as well, but he was headed toward a breakout, slashing .268/.340/.485 with 12 homers and 14 doubles in 268 plate appearances. That’s about half a season’s worth of trips to the plate for a regular catcher, and even if he came off that pace a bit, he would have been in line for an excellent campaign. D’Arnaud went 0-for-7 in his first two games back, but has five hits in four games since. Given the state of the catcher position this year, there’s no way d’Arnaud should still be a free agent in any league.
Closers on non-contending teams
We’ve discussed this over the last few weeks, using Fernando Rodney as our exemplar. The thinking goes that the Padres are hurtling toward another season where they’ll watch the playoffs from home. They have little use for Rodney, but a contending team would likely love adding him to their bullpen. That logic holds for essentially all non-contending teams. That means the likes of Rodney, Arodys Vizcaino, Jeanmar Gomez, Jeremy Jeffress, Ryan Madson and the like aren’t safe in their current roles. It’s unlikely that all will be traded—especially those with team-friendly contract situations—and it’s possible that a few, most likely Vizcaino and Jeffress, could remain closers depending on the team that acquired them. Still, all of these guys are at risk of losing all their fantasy value in the next month. Now is likely your best chance to trade them at full value, with the trade deadline still looming far enough in the offing.
Trevor Bauer, SP, Indians
The love for Bauer in the Buy, Sell or Hold Committee should not be in question. Just a few weeks ago, we also recommended him as a must-add pitcher, and he has done nothing but throw the ball well since then. At the same time, making trades in fantasy leagues is necessarily a practice in turning a profit on the deal at hand. The best way to do that is to move a legitimate, attractive asset at its highest price. It’s entirely likely that Bauer has reached that ceiling. There’s nothing wrong with his production, and he could continue on this trajectory all season. The reason selling make sense, however, is because you can lock in his full present-day value by trading him for a more bankable asset right now.
Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pirates
If you’re a potential McCutchen seller, you would have to resign yourself to the fact that you aren’t getting anywhere near his draft-day price. If you’re a McCutchen buyer, you’d have to understand the fact that you can’t bet on him being a first-round talent for the remainder of the season. That’s an awfully hard target for two owners to hit. If I’m on the former side, I’d rather trust McCutchen to at least net me third-round value for the rest of the season than sell him for 75 or 80 cents on the dollar. If I’m on the latter side, I don’t think I’d be comfortable meeting his owner’s asking price. That’s a textbook hold situation.
Noah Syndergaard, SP, Mets
Mets GM Sandy Alderson announced on Tuesday that Syndergaard is dealing with a bone spur in his right elbow. It’s an injury pitchers can play through, but Syndergaard has had to leave both of his last two starts abruptly because of elbow soreness. That certainly does not bode well for his immediate future. Right now, his fantasy owners really can’t do anything other than hold onto him and hope for the best.