- Danny Duffy and Lance McCullers as fantasy aces? Gregory Polanco as a top-25 player overall? The redemption of Dee Gordon? All those predictions and more ahead as the 2017 fantasy season gets ready to kick off.
We’ve kept ourselves warm all winter with thoughts on breakouts, sleepers and busts. We ran through the nuts and bolts of all eight primary fantasy baseball positions. We kept a watchful eye on the shifting sands of the draft landscape. We ranked players, re-ranked them, and then re-ranked them once more, just for good measure.
We have now emerged from the winter, with real, meaningful baseball on the horizon. There’s just one thing left to do: It’s time for occasionally bold, always guaranteed-to-be-right* predictions.
*not actually guaranteed
Danny Duffy is a top-15 fantasy starter
What we saw from Duffy last year was not a fluke. He pitched solely out of the stretch, eliminating all the moving parts from his full windup that were nearly impossible to repeat, and with that simplified approach, he was able to stay in the zone and remain consistent. Duffy always had the stuff to dominate; now, he will do so over a full season.
Lance McCullers is, too
The only question for McCullers is health, so consider this a bet on the strength of his right arm. He was electric two years ago as a 21-year-old rookie, and while he was beset by injury last year, he still struck out 106 batters in 81 innings. When McCullers is at his best, he’s a clear frontline starter. His health and projected leap are big reasons why you'll be reading more about the Astros later in this column.
Kyle Schwarber is a better fantasy player than Buster Posey
In the fantasy world, we tend to eschew the eye test for data verified by multiple years’ worth of samples. Still, what you actually see on the field needs to matter, and the performance Schwarber put on in the World Series cannot be overstated. After missing six months, he returned on baseball’s greatest stage and immediately started spitting on Andrew Miller sliders. He was the Cubs' best weapon the first time they saw Corey Kluber. If there was a more impressive display of natural hitting ability last season, taking all factors into account, I didn’t see it. And don’t worry about playing-time concerns: Schwarber is going to play mostly every day for Chicago, even with its wealth of options. In leagues where he’s catcher eligible, Schwarber will be the top player at the position.
Gregory Polanco is a top-10 outfielder and top-25 hitter
If not for the shoulder and knee injuries that Polanco suffered during the second half last year, this likely wouldn’t seem all that bold a prediction. Remember, at the 2016 All-Star break, he was hitting .287/.362/.500 with 12 homers, nine steals and 50 RBIs; after the break, he slashed .220/.267/.414, owing largely to those twin maladies. Polanco may not have kept up the first-half slash line all season had he remained healthy, but he definitely wouldn’t have fallen as hard as he did. What’s more, he learned how to hit lefties last season, totaling a .245/.312/.469 slash against same-siders. Polanco will take his place among the league’s stars this season.
Anthony Rendon outproduces Kyle Seager, Jonathan Villar, Adrian Beltre and Todd Frazier
All Rendon has done in his last two healthy seasons was slash .279/.350/.462 with an average of 21 homers, 101 runs, 84 RBIs and 15 steals per year. Despite that, fantasy owners seem to take him purely as a fallback option, with his ADP at third base remaining just inside the top-10 deep into draft season. Never mind that he’s fully healthy or that he’s going to hit fifth every day in a lineup that includes Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner and Adam Eaton in front of him. Rendon might not hit that 101-run total because of his spot in the lineup, but all the other numbers are within his reach. There’s an established top four at third base, and no one is breaking up the Bryant-Arenado-Machado-Donaldson quartet. Rendon, however, will round out the position’s top five.
Hanley Ramirez (mostly) makes people forget about David Ortiz
Health is the biggest question for Ramirez at this stage of his career. He stayed upright for 147 games last season and hit .286/.361/.505 with 30 homers and 111 RBIs, but the year before, injuries limited him to 105 games and hobbled him, pushing his slash line down to .249/.291/.426. Ramirez has produced when healthy, and with Ortiz retired and the DH spot in Boston now in his grasp, he enters 2017 with more hope of staying injury-free all year than he has had since his days with the Marlins. Given that Ramirez qualifies at first base in fantasy leagues, he will be a top-seven player at that position.
Dee Gordon gets back in the fantasy community's good graces by leading the majors in steals
Gordon led the majors in steals in both 2014 and ’15, and despite his 80-game PED suspension limiting him to 346 plate appearances last season, he still swiped 30 bags. What’s more, his OBP dipped all the way to .305 last year, a level of ugliness we hadn’t seen from him since his second season in the league. Gordon is the league’s best bet to steal 60 bases this year, and if he plays to his career .325 OBP, it would be a shock to see him fall short of that 60-steal mark.
Matt Shoemaker is a top-25 starter
Just like Duffy, Shoemaker made a noticeable change last season that drove his breakout. He added a splitter to his repertoire last year, first tinkering with it before mastering it, and totaled a 21.3% whiff rate and 51.5% ground-ball rate with the pitch, with hitters managing a .183 batting average and .276 slugging percentage against the offering. Now armed with one of the best splitters in the game, Shoemaker is ready to be a season-long force for the Angels and his fantasy owners.
Four shortstops will hit 30 homers in the same season for the first time ever
In 2001, Alex Rodriguez (52 homers), Rich Aurilia (37) and Miguel Tejada (31) teamed up as arguably the best trio of shortstop mashers a single season has ever seen. That’s still the only group of three shortstops to leave the yard 30 times in the same season. They’ll get some company this year, with Carlos Correa, Corey Seager and Trevor Story joining them as the second shortstop triumvirate to hit 30 dingers in the same year. The big question, though, is can a fourth step up and make them the first quartet of shortstops with 30 jacks? With Addison Russell and Aledmys Diaz still growing into their natural power, Troy Tulowitzki still lurking as a 30-homer threat, and Marcus Semien coming up just short (27) last year, I’m betting the league sees its first ever 30-homer quartet at shortstop.
Edwin Diaz will be fantasy's No. 1 reliever
Strikeouts, elite rates and saves: Whoever tops the reliever leaderboard at the end of the season will have all three, with the first and third in abundance. Diaz threw 51 2/3 innings as a rookie last year, racking up a 2.79 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 2.04 FIP and 88 strikeouts. That was good for 15.3 strikeouts per nine, the ninth-highest mark in MLB history; four of the seasons ahead of Diaz belong to Aroldis Chapman, with one apiece owned by Dellin Betances, Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen and Carlos Marmol. Diaz has the stuff to be the best closer in the majors: He’s in his age-23 season, so his arm still has plenty of life to pump 98-mph fastballs and break off impossible sliders. The Mariners will be good enough to provide Diaz with plenty of save opportunities. Everything is in place for him to be this season’s best fantasy closer.
A few final quick hitters
• Keon Broxton and Jose Peraza are return-on-investment champions, with both stealing at least 40 bases.
• The Rockies break the team record for homers in a season, held by the 1997 Mariners with 264. Nolan Arenado leads the NL in homers and RBIs for a third straight season.
• A.J. Pollock puts his elbow injury in his rear-view mirror and turns in a 20–40 season.
• Willson Contreras has a better season than Gary Sanchez.
• David Price is a fantasy disappointment, even with the expectations lowered because of his injury. Ultimately, his elbow prevents the Red Sox from realizing their championship dreams.
• Miguel Sano finds the upward path again and hits 30 homers.
• Aaron Nola is a top-20 starter.
• Devon Travis is a top-10 second baseman.
• Robbie Ray is on 75% of waiver wires by June 1.
• Jharel Cotton has more fantasy value than Jeff Samardzija, Tanner Roark, Kevin Gausman, Michael Pineda and Jake Odorizzi.
Awards season will be dominated by the West divisions
AL MVP: Mike Trout (2nd: Carlos Correa; 3rd: Manny Machado)
NL MVP: Nolan Arenado (2nd: Kris Bryant; 3rd: Corey Seager)
AL Cy Young: Yu Darvish (2nd: Chris Sale; 3rd: Danny Duffy)
NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw (2nd: Noah Syndergaard; 3rd: Stephen Strasburg)
AL Rookie of the Year: Andrew Benintendi (2nd: Yoan Moncada; 3rd: Raul Mondesi)
NL Rookie of the Year: Dansby Swanson (2nd: Tyler Glasnow; 3rd: Manuel Margot)
The postseason looks a lot like it did last year
There hasn’t been a World Series rematch since 1978, when the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the Fall Classic for the second straight season. Almost 40 years later, that streak will be broken when the Cubs and Indians give the baseball world an encore to last year’s thrilling and historic seven-game World Series. That won’t be the only resemblance to the 2016 season. The overall makeup of the playoffs will be awfully similar to what we saw one year ago.
AL East: Red Sox, Blue Jays, Rays, Yankees, Orioles
AL Central: Indians, Tigers, Royals, Twins, White Sox
AL West: Astros, Rangers, Mariners, Angels, A’s
AL Wild Cards: Rangers, Mariners
NL East: Nationals, Mets, Phillies, Braves, Marlins
NL Central: Cubs, Pirates, Cardinals, Brewers, Reds
NL West: Dodgers, Giants, Rockies, Diamondbacks, Padres
NL Wild Cards: Mets, Giants
Wild-card Games: Mariners over Rangers, Mets over Giants
Division Series: Indians over Mariners, Astros over Red Sox, Cubs over Mets, Nationals over Dodgers
Championship Series: Indians over Astros, Cubs over Nationals
World Series: Cubs over Indians
Now let’s play some baseball.