Breaking down who to buy, sell and hold in your fantasy league
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Way back when spring was just coming to life and we were still getting ourselves prepared for the 2016 baseball season, the Tigers’ Nick Castellanos earned the sleeper tag in our third base primer. Here’s part of what we said at that time about him:
I know many of you have given up on Castellanos, but let’s remember that he’s entering his age-24 season, and made noticeable strides last season, especially where we most wanted to see them. Castellanos slugged .419 with 15 homers, and his ISO was a still-too-low, though improved, .164. His batted-ball rates suggest more growth is coming. Last year, he had a 23.3% line-drive rate, a statistically insignificant 1.2% popup rate, and a slightly increased 9.2% HR/FB ratio. Also, he saw marked improvement in the second half last year, hitting .269/.322/.478 with nine homers after the All-Star Break, which translates to a 162-game average of 21.1 homers. That’s completely within the bounds of realism.
Through the first month and change of the season, Castellanos is making us look good. He’s hitting .361/.371/.590 with four homers, five doubles and 18 RBIs. As predicted, he’s taking advantage of the lineup around him, and that’s even with Miguel Cabrera and Justin Upton posting substandard numbers to this point of the season. His line-drive rate is a robust 30.8%, while 13.8% of the fly balls he has hit have left the yard. It would seem that Castellanos is on a linear growth pattern that began in the second half of last season and has continued unabated.
That view, unfortunately, would ignore two grossly alarming signs that part of his game is trending in the wrong direction. First, Castellanos has three walks in 89 plate appearances, which translates to a 3.4% walk rate. It’s more likely that Madison Bumgarner hits a homer than Castellanos draws a walk. Second, he’s swinging at 36.1% of pitches outside the strike zone. Those two are obviously related and could stop a potential breakout dead in its tracks.
A big factor in Castellanos’s second-half turnaround in 2015 was his selectivity, relative to his career norms. At the All-Star break last season, his O-swing rate was near 40%. After the break, it was just north of 31%. While that latter metric is still far too high, it at least signaled maturing plate discipline from a player in the first half of his 20s. He has undone nearly all that goodwill in little more than a month. Even though the results have been strong for Castellanos this year, the underlying process has been less so.
All the line drives in the world can’t possibly support the .441 BABIP that Castellanos is carrying at the moment. If he’s not getting on base via the walk, it isn’t just his batting average that will come crashing down when the BABIP fairy turns against him. So, too, will his OBP, and that means fewer runs and RBIs as well. There’s really no secret sauce here, either. When Castellanos makes contact, he does so authoritatively, and that’s great. That’s also just half of the battle for a hitter. If he keeps swinging at two-fifths of would-be balls, his numbers are going to fall off a cliff. The only hitters who can survive that sort of O-swing rate for fantasy purposes are guys like Chris Davis and vintage Josh Hamilton who can mash their way to 40-plus homers. Castellanos can be a great hitter, but not that type of hitter. With all the struggles at third base beyond the four-headed monster of Nolan Arenado, Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado and Kris Bryant, Castellanos could command quite the price on the open market. Now would be a good time to put his name out there to see what he can bring back in return.
Michael Saunders, OF, Blue Jays
Durability has never been a strong suit for Saunders, who played a combined 87 games in the two seasons preceding this one. He’s healthy now, however, and hitting quite well atop the Toronto lineup. The 29-year-old is slashing .304/.382/.557 with four homers and eight doubles and has grabbed himself a stranglehold of the leadoff spot for one of the best offenses in the majors. That’s well worth riding for any fantasy owner for as long as Saunders remains upright. The best part about buying Saunders is it will likely only cost you the worst player on your roster. He’s available in about 80% of mixed leagues. Anyone looking at help in the outfield should buy in while it’s still essentially free to do so.
Jason Heyward, OF, Cubs
Sometimes if you want to buy a potential star, you have to take a calculated risk. Heyward missed the Cubs’ entire series with the Pirates because of a wrist injury, and he’s expected to be out for at least a few more days. The outfielder suffered the injury during the first week of the season, though it didn’t bother him enough to miss time until recently. Add that to his slow start, and it wouldn’t be surprising if his current owner was a little trigger-happy. Remember, Heyward got off to a terrible start in 2015, slashing .217/.261/.349 in April. He hit no worse than .284 and had OBPs of .340 or better in every month for the rest of the season. When Heyward returns, he’ll be right back in the No. 2 hole for one of the best offenses in baseball. Now’s a great time to take a chance on him.
Odubel Herrera, OF, Phillies
The answer to the question, “Did Herrera walk yesterday?” has basically become the same as the one for, “Did the Phillies play yesterday?” If they did, it’s likely Herrera drew at least one free pass. Herrera now has 23 walks on the season, helping the Phillies leadoff man to a .450 OBP. Lest those of you in batting average leagues (why are you in a batting average league?) think Herrera can’t offer you anything, he’s hitting .310 with 16 runs and four steals. He’s an on-base machine with solid base-running chops—he has been caught stealing just once—and an everyday leadoff man can’t help but score 80 runs in a full season. Herrera isn’t quite as available as Saunders, but you can still simply add him off the waiver wire in far too many leagues.
Edwin Encarnacion, 1B, Blue Jays
We discussed Encarancion’s under-the-radar struggles in this week’s Hitting Report, pointing to the fact that his strikeout and walk rates are uncharacteristically bad and helping to drive his early-season issues. Even during last year’s slow start, his strikeout and walk rates were mostly in line with career averages. The fact that he’s striking out more and walking less than ever could point to the beginning of a skills decline. The 33-year-old has mashed at least 34 homers in each of the last three seasons, and he hits at the heart of one of the most dangerous lineups in baseball. That guarantees that his price on the open market will still be high, but there’s no telling when that might turn. If Encarnacion continues to struggle for another two weeks or so, the selling window could slam shut. His track record can still net you top-20 value if you make him available right now.
Jordan Zimmermann, SP, Tigers
Low strikeout rates are your enemy, no matter how strong the rest of a pitcher’s performance. Zimmermann has been nothing short of excellent this year, but he has a 17.4% strikeout rate in 33 innings. Last year, seven pitchers posted K-rates between 17% and 17.9%. They were Jeff Samardzija, Wade Miley, Kyle Gibson, Jeff Locke, Alex Wood, Dan Haren and Tom Koehler. There were three pitchers—Marco Estrada, John Lackey and Jaime Garcia—inside the top 25 in standard fantasy leagues with strikeout rates south of 20%, but none fanned fewer than 18% of the batters he faced. It’s incredibly hard to keep your fantasy value high while striking out so small a sliver of batters. For one thing, strikeouts matter in all fantasy leagues, whether yours measures raw totals, K-rate or K/9. For another, more will end up going for cheap hits. All those balls in play are going to catch up with Zimmermann in some way sooner or later.
Shin-Soo Choo, OF, Rangers
Choo is slowly but surely making his way back from a calf injury. He got some running in last week, and has started taking batting practice this week. If all goes well, he’ll begin a rehab assignment within the next two weeks, and he likely wouldn’t need to play too many games in the minors before he could rejoin the Rangers. A return sometime during the third week of May is plausible, and there’s no reason to expect him to be the odd man out of the Texas outfield when he does come off the DL. Instead, it looks like Delino DeShields could feel the squeeze, with the Rangers regularly starting Choo, Ian Desmond and Nomar Mazara.
All your Rays starting pitchers
Seriously, all of them. Chris Archer is turning it around. Drew Smyly is not a sell high. Matt Moore is not a sell high. Jake Odorizzi is not a sell high. All of them, Smyly included, can be expected to maintain the pace they set in April, while Archer proved himself a real-life and fantasy ace last year. With all due respect to the Mets, Cubs, Indians, Nationals and White Sox, the Rays may boast the best rotation in baseball. You should always be open to making deals, but don’t assume that we’ve already seen the best from the members of Tampa Bay’s rotation this year. These guys, one through four, are all legitimate.