The SI.com Debate Series pits two of our writers against one another on opposing sides of a decision many fantasy owners will face during their drafts. In this installment, Michael Beller and Kaelen Jones go head to head over two of MLB’s elite hitters: Nolan Arenado and Jose Ramirez.
Michael Beller makes the case for Arenado over Ramirez…
There’s an old adage in the fantasy sports world that says you can’t win your league in the first round of your draft, but you can lose it. It’s a little lazy for my tastes, sort of like responding to a tweet with a GIF we’ve all seen one thousand times. Be original, you know? But the lesson is well taken. The surest way to lose a fantasy league is to whiff on your first-round pick. In my estimation, there are four players with average draft positions in the first round who are absolutely, unquestionably whiff-proof: Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez and Nolan Arenado. And that’s why I ride with Arenado in this debate.
This is a painful one for me, certainly tougher than any debate I’ve been a part of this season. You see, these two players are both near and dear to my heart. Arenado is the centerpiece of my home league team, a long-term keeper league. That team’s name? Rollin’ With Nolan. Ramirez, meanwhile, nearly carried me to my first ever Tout Wars championship last year. If you’re unfamiliar with Tout Wars, it’s a series of industry leagues featuring a bunch of people who can quote HR/FB ratios and strikeout rates off the top of their head. It’s very prestigious and we’re all obviously very, very cool. Anyway, the point here is that these two guys can count on my unceasing loyalty. Yet, only one of them is a sure thing. Death, taxes, and Nolan Arenado putting up 40-homer, 130-RBI seasons.
Arenado became one of the league’s true superstars back in 2015, the third year of his career. He hit .287/.323/.575 with 42 homers and 130 RBI last year. He was even better the following season, slashing .294/.362/.570 with 41 bombs and 133 RBI. Now, to be fair, he has taken a step back in the homer department the last two seasons. I mean, the guy hit just 37 homers in 2017 and 38 last year. What’s more, for the first time since 2014, he didn’t even drive in 130 runs last season. His owners had to settle for a measly 110. What’s the point, right?
Of course, I’m being sarcastic. Arenado’s OPS+ has increased every single year he has been in the majors. He started at 81 in his rookie year, jumped to 115 in his second season, and has since climbed to 124, 129, 130 and 133 last season. Over the last four seasons combined, Arenado has slashed .297/.358/.573 with a 129 OPS+ and yearly averages of 40 homers, 40 doubles, 126 RBI and 104 runs. Among players who have played full seasons in all four of those years, Arenado ranks seventh in wOBA, third in slugging, fifth in isolated slugging, third in homers, first in RBI and fifth in runs. Guess how many other players are in the top seven of all of those? No, don’t bother, I’ll just tell you. It’s zero.
You don’t think we’re done stacking bricks here, do you? Far from it. We’re building a house, my friends. A sturdy, reliable, rock-solid house. Look back at this OPS+ numbers. Arenado is one of six players who an OPS+ of 124 or better in each of the last four seasons. The others are Mike Trout, Jose Altuve, Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto and Nelson Cruz. Now take another look at Arenado’s counting stats. It would be pretty hard to hit at least 37 homers and drive in at least 110 runs in four straight seasons if you spent any time on the DL, right? Right. Arenado has played at least 156 games in each of those seasons. There’s no such thing as a player completely without injury risk, but Arenado comes as close as is realistically possible.
So, Arenado is the league’s best bet for 40 homers and 130 RBI, he has realistic floors of 35 homers, 110 RBI and 100 runs, he never gets hurt, and he posts sterling rates. Yeah, if I can’t get Trout or Mookie Betts, that’s who I want as the centerpiece of my team. It’s who you should want, too.
Kaelen Jones makes the case for Ramirez over Arenado…
Jeez, Beller, again with the track record? We get it, you like strong track records and think we all should, too. Arenado’s track record just helped him earn the richest contract in terms of average annual value in MLB history. That means he’s a pretty good fantasy option, too, right? Of course. But better than Ramirez? Let’s pause for a second.
This is tough for some folks out there to realize, but fantasy teams are not MLB franchises. While pro teams dole out big bucks, fantasy owners should focus on maximizing the value of their draft capital. Sure, Arenado is probably worth the $260 million deal he’ll earn in real life. But Ramirez provides more total value when as a fantasy team’s cornerstone.
Arenado is a phenomenal third baseman with the bat and the glove. Ramirez is, too, and he also qualifies at second base in fantasy leagues. That’s huge for his value, especially on draft day. You’re going to use your first-round pick on either of these guys. Take Arenado, and he’s locked in at third. Ramirez gives you the flexibility to go after another third baseman later in the draft, if you so choose.
Let’s go back to the mock draft we conducted for our special fantasy baseball draft magazine (on newsstands now!). Below are the players who qualify at one or both of second or third base selected inside the top-50 picks.
Nolan Arenado, 3B: 3rd overall
José Ramirez, 2B/3B: 4th overall
Manny Machado, 3B/SS: 8th overall
Alex Bregman 3B/SS: 11th overall
José Altuve, 2B: 14th overall
Javier Báez, 2B/3B/SS: 16th overall
Kris Bryant, 3B/OF: 25th overall
Anthony Rendon, 3B: 37th overall
Eugenio Suárez, 3B: 48th overall
Matt Carpenter, 3B/2B: 50th overall
Nine of these 10 players qualify at third base. Four qualify at second. That would suggest there’s more top-50 talent at third base, meaning it’s wiser to invest in a top-tier second-base eligible player.
In fact, I’d like to point out that you recently wrote an article on SI.com titled “Nolan Arenado Leads a Deep, Star-Studded Third Base Position.” Considering the plethora of good options at third, why not select the player who can provide huge production at a thinner position, such as, I don’t know, second base?
I admit, Arenado is one of the surest bets in baseball. Ramirez, however, isn’t far behind in terms of floor, and has the higher ceiling. He’s finished third in AL MVP voting both of the last two seasons, and is just entering his age-26 season. Arenado derives a ton of value from his bankable power, and, indeed, hit 38 homers and drove in 110 runs last year. Ramirez knocked 39 dingers and racked up 105 RBI. Arenado slashed .297/.374/.561. Ramirez slashed .270/.387/.552. Ramirez had a higher walk rate (15.2% to 10.8%) and lower strikeout rate (11.5% to 18.1%) last year. Pretty even so far, right? Here’s where Ramirez draws ahead. He swiped 34 bags last year, and has had at least 17 steals in each of the last three seasons. Arenado has 13 steals for his entire career. Ramirez is a 30-30 threat. Arenado, meanwhile, immediately puts you at a disadvantage in steals.
Any time you debate two superstars, you’re going to split hairs. And yet, I look at these two and see Ramirez as clearly the better option. He’s a nearly equal or superior to Arenado in four out of five standard categories, and completely blows him away in the fifth. He provides positional flexibility, whereas Arenado is stuck at one position. Arenado may be safer, but it’s not like Ramirez is still trying to prove himself after one big year. Remember those consecutive top-three MVP finishes? Arenado has finished in the top three in MVP voting once in his career. With all due respect to MLB’s richest man, Ramirez is the play here.