Baseball slows down this week with the All-Star festivities in San Diego, giving us a good opportunity to reflect on what we saw during the first half before getting ready for the playoff push, both in real life and fantasy.
From a team perspective, the first half mostly followed the script. The Cubs, Nationals and Giants were all preseason favorites to win their divisions, and all three hold comfortable leads. The Rangers were viewed as co-favorites with the Astros in the AL West, while the only surprise with the Indians atop the AL Central is how wide of a gap they’ve put between themselves and the rest of the division. The only unlikely division leader is in the AL East, where the Orioles hold a two-game advantage over the Red Sox and Blue Jays.
There are plenty of surprises on the individual level. Mark Trumbo leads the majors in homers. Daniel Murphy has the best batting average in the league and is a legitimate NL MVP candidate. The top-five in ERA in the AL are, in order, Steven Wright, Danny Salazar, Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez and Jose Quintana. Baseball’s weirdness might not show up in the standings, but it is all over the statistics leaderboards.
With that in mind, let’s look back on the first three-plus months of the season and highlight the players who most surpassed our expectations. I present to you the Surprise All-Star Team, selected by a committee of one to avoid the shenanigans that got Addison Russell a starting nod over Corey Seager in the real thing.
One quick note before we get going. Even though this is a fantasy All-Star Team, we wanted it to resemble a team you could actually see on an MLB field. Therefore, players were only eligible for inclusion at the primary positions they’ve played this season. That means no Ian Desmond at shortstop, for example.
Catcher: Wilson Ramos, Nationals
We kick things off with one of the lighter surprises at any position, which only goes further to show how much of a disaster the catcher position has been this season. Ramos has managed to stay healthy this season, which played a large part in securing his first trip to the All-Star Game. Ramos’s .330 batting average is good for third in the NL and fifth in the majors, and he’s first among catchers in batting average, OBP (.382), slugging percentage (.536), RBI (48), wOBA (.390), wRC+ (143) and offensive bWAR (2.5). Bryce Harper and Murphy get more attention, but Ramos has been nearly as important to the Nationals getting to the top of the AL East as those two. He also stands as one of the best draft-day values in the fantasy world.
First base: Wil Myers, Padres
This is the player Myers was always supposed to be. It just took a couple of dud seasons for the 2013 AL Rookie of the Year to figure it out. After looking like he’d never reach his full potential, Myers is in the midst of a breakout season, slashing .286/.351/.522 with 19 homers, 60 RBI, 61 runs and 15 steals, making him a true five-category player. He is, in fact, the only player in the majors with at least 19 homers, 60 RBI, 61 runs and 15 steals. He’s one of three players to both drive in and score 60 runs in the first half, with Nolan Arenado and Josh Donaldson the other two. Myers wasn’t even a blip on the draft-day radar, and is now the No. 4 first baseman in standard 5x5 leagues, trailing only Paul Goldschmidt, Edwin Encarnacion and Anthony Rizzo.
Second base: Daniel Murphy, Nationals
With apologies to Ben Zobrist, Murphy is the only appropriate answer here. Remember last winter when the Mets couldn’t justify to themselves spending what Washington was willing to pay for Murphy’s services? They might want to take that back now, given Murphy’s 3.7 fWAR compared to the 2.3 fWAR of the players, mostly Neil Walker, who have replaced him in Queens. Murphy’s slashing .348/.387/.598 with 17 homers, 25 doubles, 66 RBI and 53 runs this season. He has been the Nationals’ best hitter this year, and we don’t need to include any “other than Bryce Harper” qualifiers to make that statement true. Not only is Murphy a worthy real-life All-Star, fantasy All-Star and surprise All-Star, he may have been the best acquisition of the offseason.
Third base: Jake Lamb, Diamondbacks
I dove deep into Lamb’s first half, one that should have earned him an All-Star bid, last week. I’ll give you the abridged version of that column here. Lamb entered this season as a platoon player who could mash righties, but was useless against lefties. He ended the first half with the highest slugging percentage in the NL at .612, and was one of the best left-handed hitters against right-handed pitching in the league. Lamb crushed righties to the tune of .314/.385/.655, and his overall line of .291/.371/.612 wasn’t too shabby, either. On a team that includes Paul Goldschmidt, Lamb is the Diamondbacks’ leader in offensive WAR.
Shortstop: Aledmys Diaz, Cardinals
This was the hardest decision for the committee to make. Jonathan Villar, Eduardo Nunez and Trevor Story could all rightfully be the starting shortstop on the Surprise All-Star Team. Villar leads the majors with 31 steals, Nunez is second among shortstops with a .321 batting average to go along with 12 homers and 22 steals, and Story leads all shortstops with 21 jacks. At least they were all supposed to be their team’s starting shortstop, though. Diaz needed two injuries and a quick abandonment of the “Jedd Gyorko, Starting Shortstop” experiment to get a shot at the job in St. Louis. All he has done since then is hit .315/.380/.536 with 13 homers and 48 RBI, making himself the No. 1a to Corey Seager’s No. 1 in the NL Rookie of the Year race.
Outfield: Ian Desmond, Rangers; Jackie Bradley Jr., Red Sox; Mark Trumbo, Orioles
Desmond errored his way out of Washington and into the outfield in Texas. Bradley was starting to get the post-hype tag at the start of this season. Trumbo has never been more than an all-or-nothing power hitter who too often came up with more of the latter than the former. All three made the real All-Star Game this season and are among the biggest surprises in the fantasy game. Not only has Desmond reinvented himself as an outfielder, he’s on track to have the best offensive season of his career. The 30-year-old, who was one of the last free agents to sign last winter, is hitting .322/.375/.524 with 15 homers, 55 RBI, 65 runs and 15 steals. He’s the No. 14 overall player and No. 6 outfielder in standard 5x5 leagues, and two of the outfielders ahead of him—Kris Bryant and Wil Myers—primarily play elsewhere in real life.
Bradley caught the attention of the baseball world with a 29-game hitting streak that began on April 24 and ended on May 26. He hit .415/.488/.783 during the streak and rode that to a .296/.378/.548 slash line over the first half. He has already set new career highs in hits (89), homers (14), doubles (22), triples (six), RBI (55) and runs (51). Bradley was only drafted in the deepest of leagues back in March, but he’s now the No. 42 overall player and No. 12 outfielder in standard 5x5 leagues.
Finally comes Trumbo, who was such a hot commodity last winter that the Orioles were able to acquire him from Seattle for catcher Steve Clevenger. Clevenger racked up all of 76 plate appearances in the first half, hitting .221/.303/.309, and suffered a broken hand two weeks before the All-Star break. Trumbo, on the other hand, leads the majors with 28 homers, and is hitting .288/.341/.582 while appearing in all of the first-place Orioles 87 games. Like Bradley, he was barely on draft boards this season, and the Orioles may not have even traded for him if they knew they would be able to bring back Chris Davis in free agency. He’s the No. 25 overall player and No. 8 outfielder in standard 5x5 leagues, and is on pace for 52 home runs this season.
Hitters to watch this week(end)
Michael Brantley, OF, Indians: Brantley is the only player on this list who is injured, and also the only one who will actually be playing baseball most of the week. The Indians sent their injured star out on a rehab assignment Monday starting at Low A Mahoning Valley. The idea is for him to progress to High A Lake County and, if all goes well, Double A Akron by the weekend. Brantley has played just 11 games because of a nagging shoulder injury first suffered last season, but his return could be on the horizon. If all goes well during his rehab assignment, we’ll see him in Cleveland shortly after the All-Star break. The payoff may finally arrive for owners who have had him stashed on the DL all season.
Maikel Franco, 3B, Phillies: Franco hasn’t enjoyed the true breakout season many thought was in the cards for him, but there has still been plenty to like about his first full year in the majors. The 23-year-old is hitting .269/.323/.491 with 18 homers and 52 RBI in 347 plate appearances. His strikeout rate has crept up a bit to 18.2%, but that’s still a manageable number for a guy with his power. He finished the first half on one of his best stretches of the season, going 22-for-54 with six homers and 15 RBI over the last two weeks. The Phillies may not be anywhere near the playoff race, but this is an important second half for him. He has already played more games in the majors this year (84) than he did last year (80), making the next two-plus months a test of his full-season stamina.
Luis Valbuena, 3B/1B, Astros: Valbuena really isn’t of much note in fantasy leagues, putting together a first half in which he hit .269/.364/.474 with 12 homers and 37 RBI in 297 plate appearances, and that’s not likely to change in the second half. But he finished the first half on surge, going 15-for-44 with four bombs and 12 RBI over the final two weeks before the break. While Valbuena’s hot streak isn’t going to get him on more fantasy teams, it could delay the promotion of shortstop prospect Alex Bregman. The Astros recently bumped the 22-year-old up to Triple A Fresno where he has gone 14-for-36 with five homers and three doubles in his first eight games. With Carlos Correa entrenched at short, his most likely path to the majors this season is to take over as the Astros everyday third baseman. If and when that happens, he’ll be immediately relevant in all fantasy leagues. Valbuena’s performance, however, will have a significant bearing on Bregman’s potential callup, and that’s what makes the veteran a noteworthy player in fantasy leagues over the next few weeks.
Didi Gregorius, SS, Yankees: The Yankees are inching ever closer to embracing their status as a seller in 2016, and are already dangling their three elite relievers. One player who could be part of the next playoff contender in the Bronx has emerged this season in the form of the guy who had the unenviable task of replacing a legend. Gregorius took the reins from Derek Jeter last year and has turned into one of the team’s best offensive players. The 26-year-old is hitting .298/.328/.468 with 11 homers, 16 doubles and 41 RBI, while starting all but five of the Yankees 88 games. This is by far the best offensive season of Gregorius’s career, so, as is the case with Franco, this is a crucial second half for him even with his team likely to fall out of the playoff hunt.
Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs: When Rizzo steps to the plate at Wrigley Field on Friday for his first plate appearance of the second half, he’ll be attempting to take the initial step toward his third straight four-hit game. Rizzo went 8-for-10 with four doubles and a triple in the Cubs final two games of the first half, raising his slash line to .299/.416/.591. The All-Star starter is riding a nine-game hitting streak, during which he has gone 16-for-36, adding two homers to his extra-base-hit binge of the team’s final two games. The first baseman is firmly entrenched in the NL MVP race, and is a huge reason why the Cubs are favorites to win their first NL Central crown since 2008.
Yoan Moncada, 2B, Red Sox: There’s precious little time for prospects to come up and make an impact in fantasy leagues. That gives us a little freedom to take a look at prospects who could arrive in a big way in 2017, and one of those delivered on a big stage over the weekend.
Moncada isn’t a secret in prospect circles. The 21-year-old was a consensus top-seven prospect according to the three major prospect ratings services entering this season, reaching a high watermark of No. 3 from Baseball America. He spent most of the first half of the year at High A Salem where he hit .307/.427/.496 with four homers, 25 doubles and 36 steals in 61 games. The Red Sox moved him up to Double A Portland about three weeks ago, and the jump in levels hasn’t stopped him from swinging the bat. If anything, the improved competition has brought out the best in Moncada. He’s hitting .328/.366/.657 with five jacks, three doubles and four steals in 16 games, averaging just shy of three total bases per game. He capped off his first half by winning the MVP of the Futures Game, hitting an eventual game-winning two-run homer to snap the World team’s six-game losing streak.
We’re not going to see Moncada in the majors this year. He still needs plenty of seasoning, and the Red Sox aren’t likely to inject him into a playoff race when he hasn’t even appeared above Double A. Still, he has showed all the development you’d expect to see from a star-in-the-making. It’s never too early to think about next year, and Moncada is going to be someone you’ll want to have on your mind when the 2017 baseball season is upon us.
GIF of the Week
Billy Hamilton’s speed allows him to do things that likely wouldn’t even occur to most other players. Like score from second base on a passed ball, as he did against the Cubs last week, taking advantage of David Ross and John Lackey.