2016 Fantasy Baseball Targets: ‘Always Sunny’ Edition

All good things in life come with an expiration date. That leftover pizza will go bad sooner or later. You’ll eventually live long enough to watch the athletes you grew up idolizing wither away and retire. When forced to keep churning out content long enough, the best TV shows will run out of ideas and fade to mediocrity.

Some shows (Breaking Bad, Parks and Recreation) have the wherewithal to quit while they’re ahead. Others are forced into early retirement, creating Netflix gems (Freaks and Greaks, Better Off Ted, Terriers) that didn’t live long enough to decline. Then there’s Arrested Development, which started as the former but is in grave danger of deteriorating into the latter.

When comedies stick around, it often tarnishes its legacy with diminishing results. See the past decade of The Simpsons and The Office post-Steve Carrell. Yet there are always exceptions to the rule.

It’s Always in Philadelphia should have run its course by now. How long can viewers enjoy watching a group of horrible human beings waste their lives and drag all bystanders down with them, all without showing any signs of growth? In any other sitcom, The Gang would have found perfect love interests and career paths by now. Not Dennis, Dee, Charlie, Mac and Frank, who up the ante on their gruesome behavior on a weekly basis.

Against all common logic, it’s still awesome. The recently concluded 11th season was as funny as sharp as any other in the FX show’s illustrious run. Already renewed for a 12th season, Always Sunny still runs circles around newer comedies desperately trying to replicate its tone while somehow making unlikeable assholes likeable.

Most baseball players follow The Office career arc, succumbing to overused tropes and rusty limbs. Injuries are always a heightened concern for older guys; Jhonny Peralta, out for two-to-three months with a thumb injury, would have received recognition if I wrote this two weeks ago.

Some, like the owners of Paddy’s Pub, simply won’t go away. These aren’t flashy, exciting picks. None of them are even champions of the sun or experts in bird law. But as drafters annually assume this is the year they bottom out, a savvy manager can snag bargains in the form of trustworthy veterans.

David Ortiz, DH, Boston Red Sox

Addressing Fenway Park after the Boston Marathon bombings, David Ortiz proudly dropped an F-bomb to gaudy cheers from parents and children alike. There’s no better representative for what Always Sunny has accomplished over the years.

Big Papi enters his final season with a No. 82 average-draft position, according to Fantasy Pros, which leaves him selected after the likes of Adam Wainwright, Ian Kinsler and Yasiel Puig. Adrian Gonzalez (60) and Prince Fielder (69) are going much higher despite offering similar, if not inferior production last year:

David Ortiz: 614 PA, .273/.360/.553, 37 HR, 108 RBI, 73 R, 138 wRC+

Adrian Gonzalez: 643 PA, .275/.360/.480, 28 HR, 90 RBI, 76 R, 129 wRC+

Prince Fielder: 692 PA, .305/.378/.463, 23 HR, 98 RBI, 78 R, 124 wRC+

Power always come at a premium, and Ortiz is one of six players to crush more than 100 homers over the last three seasons. The other guys are all grabbed inside the top 40, but not Ortiz, the only player with an active streak of three straight 30-homer, 100-RBI campaigns.

He only played nine games at first base, so most owners must employ him in a utility spot. Fine with me. Extreme shifts have reduced his average, but he routinely crushes the ball with hard-hit percentages above 40. Maybe he hits .260, but it won’t dip any lower. Again, totally fine for an elite power bat.

He gave everyone quite by a scare last season, entering the All-Star break hitting .231/.326/.435. Some drafters probably fear the 40-year-old capitulating to another funk he can’t break this time. Considering he then batted .325/.401/.701, a healthy Ortiz should close out his career strong.

Curtis Granderson, OF, New York Mets

Before upping his batting average to .257 last year, Curtis Granderson previously hit .232, .229 and .227. Those results have everyone expecting regression in 2016, but don’t discredit sizable improvements the Grandy Man made to erase a liability.

Despite a weak first year with the Mets, the right fielder was still inserted into the leadoff role. He responded with a career-high 27.0 line-drive percentage and 37.0 hard-hit rate. Even while ending 22.1 percent of his plate appearances via strikeout, he swung at less pitches outside the strike zone (O-Swing %), made more contact and whiffed far less often (SwStr %) than the previous two seasons:

2013: 31.3 O-Swing %, 69.5 Contact %, 13.6 SwStr %

2014: 26.2 O-Swing %, 76.8 Contact %, 9.7 SwStr %

2015: 20.5 O-Swing %, 81.6 Contact %, 6.9 SwStr %

If all these improvements stick, another .250-.260 average isn’t out of the question. That’s more than enough to make him a superb No. 3 outfielder in all leagues. Last year, he scored 98 runs despite playing most of the first half with Eric Campbell, John Mayberry and Kevin Plawecki in the lineup. Over the final two months, after the Mets promoted Michael Conforto, welcomed back David Wright and Travis d’Arnaud, and acquired Yoenis Cespedes, Granderson crossed home plate 45 times in 54 games.

Throw in 20 homers and 10 steals, and he makes an enticing bargain at his No. 138 going rate. He’s also easily a top 100 option in leagues substituting batting average for on-base percentage.

 

Francisco Rodriguez, RP, Detroit Tigers

Few people are afforded the same loyalty of an experienced closer. It doesn’t matter if their skills erode or younger teammates surpass their productivity, MLB managers live and die with veterans who have accumulated saves in the past.

With more ninth-inning uncertainty than ever this spring, drafters may gravitate more toward positional scarcity. Jonathan Papelbon and Huston Street are boring regression candidates, but they’re not going anywhere

Francisco Rodriguez goes in the same tier, netting a No. 124 ADP compared to Papelbon’s No. 128 and Street’s 129. Despite their tight grouping, Rodriguez is comfortably the best of the veteran trio.

For starters, gamers should desire high-strikeout relievers, especially in leagues with a tight innings cap. Nicknamed for his gaudy punchout tallies 14 years ago, K-Rod has fanned at least one batter per inning every season. Last year, he set down 62 batters in 57 innings.

He has also exhibited sharper command, issuing a career-low 11 walks to give him a 23.6 strikeout-minus-walks percentage (K-BB%). That figure ranks slightly ahead of Wade Davis.

Rodriguez benefited from a .234 BABIP, which foreshadows regression for his 2.21 ERA and 0.86 WHIP. His draft cost, however, already reflects an expected dropoff. Given his 70.7 contact percentage, 2.91 FIP and 2.42 SIERA, we’re not talking a major decline.

Anyone who misses on desirable low-level No. 1 closers (Zach Britton, Ken Giles, Cody Allen, David Robertson) can pivot to K-Rod, who offers enough security to gamble on high-upside relievers (Jake McGee, Brad Boxberger, Sean Doolittle) later.

All advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted. 

 

2016 Fantasy Baseball Targets: ‘The Leftovers’ Edition

In a positive development for pessimists, a golden age of depressing TV has unfolded. The Leftovers proudly leads the charge after a triumphant second season, but not before vanquishing memories of a disappointing debut.

As someone nicknamed “The Crown Prince of Sadness” in college, any nihilistic show typically drives right up my alley. At first, however, The Leftovers was too unbearably bleak even for my sadistic taste.

It wasn’t just the musical score compelling viewers to crawl in the fetal position. Watching an entire cast of defeated characters slowly submit to a post-departure world in a town seized by a chain-smoking cult made for a grueling hour of TV. For all the hype around an HBO show steered by the co-creator of Lost, it fell flat with unsubtle symbolism and unrelentingly grim storytelling which made it feel more like a chore than entertainment.

Then, a Miracle happened. Showrunner Damon Lindelof moved the show to a small town in Texas untouched by the Sudden Departure, effectively trimming the fat on needless characters and demoting The Guilty Remnant to looming background players. There were hints of a hit buried within the first season—the phenomenal episode centering around Nora Jamison showed its award-winning upside. In the second season, perhaps after some disgruntled viewers moved on to the next new drama, it delivered poignant, beautiful TV almost every week without sacrificing its sad underbelly.

There’s a valuable takeaway here for fantasy baseball drafters. (Yes, this is a fantasy baseball article without any mention of it until the fifth graph. Props to the two of you still reading!) Not every TV show or baseball player is going to immediately emerge a finished product. It takes adjustments, maturation and patience, but a disappointing trial run isn’t the end of the world.

Strip away the The Leftovers lede, and this is a piece about post-hype breakout candidates. These rookies entered 2015 as shiny new objects, and drafters filled in the unknown blanks with endless possibilities. Instead of meeting those expectations, they proved fallible novices with middling short-term value. They also, however, offered visions of future stardom they can realize as soon as 2016. Now seen as the flawed humans they are, they’re no longer the shiny new commodities everyone wants.

By stubbornly honoring the concept of second-season breakouts I left out several post-hype candidates (Rougned Odor, Nick Castellanos, Wil Myers, Travis d’Arnaud, Kevin Gausman) entering their third or fourth year. Perhaps another post will follow. For now, let’s focus on a trio of sophomores looking to escape Mapleton and find sanctuary as fantasy studs elsewhere.

Addison Russell, 2B/SS, Chicago Cubs

It’s hard to complain about a middle infielder who clubbed 13 homers during his rookie campaign, but a .242/.307/.389 slash line won’t whip anyone into a frenzy. While Addison Russell’s glove provided the Chicago Cubs terrific value, those defensive gains didn’t translate to fantasy investors.

Several factors have curtailed any buzz around Russell heading into his sophomore season. A 28.5 strikeout percentage and 13.7 whiff rate caused his poor average, and he only swiped four bags in seven opportunities. Ever since accruing 26 steals in 2013, he hasn’t tested his luck much on the basepaths.

There’s also the lingering threat of Cubs manager Joe Maddon continuing to bat the young talent in the No. 9 hole. In a loaded lineup now featuring on-base fiends Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, Russell will have to hit his way out of that unappealing spot, which stifles his plate appearances and run-producing opportunities.

All perfectly rational reasons not to chase Russell, and drafters definitely shouldn’t extend their reach too high in re-draft formats. On the other hand, he’s a 22-year-old with power and duel eligibility at second base and shortstop. His defense doesn’t directly help fantasy owners, but it assures regular playing time through any growing pains.

He also improved throughout his first go-around, batting .259/.318/.427 with eight dingers after the All-Star break. Along with slicing his strikeout rate from 31.1 to 25.8 percent, he upped his hard-hit rate from 23.8 to 30.2. If those developments stick, he’ll have no trouble comfortably finishing 2016 as a top-10 shortstop.

Perhaps Russell would receive more recognition in another year, but he happened to have debuted months before Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Corey Seager. These guys join Xander Bogaerts and other premier shortstop prospects (J.P. Crawford, Dansby Swanson, Brendan Rodgers, Alex Bregman) in what could become a renaissance for the maligned position. But just as The Leftovers has struggled to match the popularity of Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and other mainstream hits, Russell is getting lost in the shuffle of an expanding crop.

Taijuan Walker, SP, Seattle Mariners

The other guys on this list followed a more conventional blueprint to post-hype candidacy. After looking overmatched at the onset, they made improvements and inspired confidence with strong finishes.

Taijuan Walker had his moment. A moment where he seemingly figured it all out and was ready to steal Felix Hernandez’s crown. Instead of a September surge leaving everyone eager to renew him for one more season, his glory got tucked in the middle of an erratic year.

First, let’s not forget how ridiculously bad Walker looked to start the season. The Seattle Mariners’ neophyte surrendered 37 runs (35 earned) during his first 50 innings, issuing 23 walks and eight home runs before fantasy investors issued him a pink slip to the waiver wire.

Let’s also not forget how ridiculously good Walker then looked over the next two months. Over June and July the righty garnered 74 strikeouts to eight walks. It only resulted in a 3.69 ERA, but an astute gamer takes notice of a highly regarded prospect posting Kershaw-ian strikeout-walk rates.

His 4.56 ERA won’t make him a hot 2016 draft commodity, but this is the year to invest before his price skyrockets. Walker’s 16.1 strikeout-minus-walks percentage ranked No. 23 among qualified starters, ahead of Hernandez, Jordan Zimmermann, Johnny Cueto and Sonny Gray.  As a result, his 3.69 skill-interactive ERA (SIERA) points to positive gains, and the Seattle Mariners won’t coddle the 23-year-old during his second full season.

Everyone loves a bold prediction, including the writers not held accountable for them going wrong. Here’s one: Walker finishes 2016 as Seattle’s most valuable fantasy pitcher. Only remember this on the 10 percent chance of it coming true.

Carlos Rodon, SP, Chicago White Sox

Carlos Rodon strutted into the majors with boundless expectations. The 2014 No. 3 amateur draft pick had scouts drooling over his 6’3″, 234-pound frame and nasty slider. On paper, he was a sure thing.

Initially, however, the Chicago White Sox southpaw proved as unwatchable as any scene with Jill Garvey’s insufferable friends. (What was the point to those twins?) Throwing hard and striking out guys is great, but simply throwing strikes is also nice. He struggled to do so, relinquishing 41 walks through his first 66.1 innings. Fanning over a batter per inning couldn’t save him from entering the break muzzled by a 1.61 WHIP.

Rodon’s ensuing 9.7 walk percentage (30 in 73 innings) isn’t particularly good, but it’s progress. He’s never going to wield pinpoint command like Bartolo Colon, and that’s fine. Better comparisons are Tyson Ross, Francisco Liriano and Gio Gonzalez, all southpaws with strong sliders who have overcome below-average walk rates with fistfuls of strikeouts and weak contact. If he can get a smidge stingier on free passes and boost his 46.8 ground-ball rate over 50 percent, Rodon can follow their example and morph into a major ERA and strikeout asset for anyone who can tolerate his lackluster WHIP.

Rodon also concluded his rookie season with his Nora episode. From Aug. 1 onward, he compiled a 2.28 ERA, and he also flashed his ace upside with two double-digit strikeout tallies in 23 starts. According to FantasyPros, early ADPs have him selected barely outside the top-50 starting pitchers. Just as The Leftovers leaped into most “TV’s Best of 2015” lists, Rodon could wrap up his second year as a top-20 hurler.

Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted. 

 

Rebuilding a Fantasy Baseball Dynasty Disaster

There comes a pivotal point in everyone’s life where one must undergo deep introspection and admit things can’t stay the way they are. This applies to my uncertain career path and complete lack of social life, but I’m talking specifically about a fantasy baseball dynasty squad in desperate need of a complete rebuild.

Apathy is a fantasy baseball manger’s greatest detriment, and I let it bog me down for years. That, however, was when I actually had stuff to do in college. Now I’m home watching Netflix, twiddling my thumbs and staring into the abyss of a barren roster that bottomed out.

I don’t have many talents. Maybe this isn’t one of them either, but I know I’m not terrible at fantasy baseball. In this 18-team head-to-head league, missing the eight-team playoffs constitutes my idea of failure. So when I finished the 2015 season stuck in dead last—I can’t remember finishing last in any league since I joined my dad’s annual re-draft league in middle school—I was smacked in the face with a call to action. It’s time to turn this sucker around.

I also, however, don’t want to make quick, dirty fixes to instead place 12th, so patience is necessary. If I’m going to suck, I’m going to suck while blooming a future winner. After idly watching my roster age for years, it’s time for change. Other than Paul Goldschmidt and Madison Bumgarner, young stars in their prime who will take Godfather offers to move, anyone is fair game.

To show I mean business, I already executed three deals with Opening Day two months away. Here’s my thought process behind each maneuver.

 

Trade 1

I Give: Starlin Castro and Hunter Strickland

I Get: Steven Souza, Mat Latos, Carson Smith, Miguel Castro, Matt Boyd and 5th-round prospect pick

I opened the offseason by rearranging seats rather than burning the building for insurance money. This isn’t necessarily a rebuilding move, as Starlin Castro and Hunter Strickland will be 26 and 27, respectively, on Opening Day, but I landed 20-something talents at positions of grave need.

I’m also getting a lot of spare parts at the tail end. A Round 5 pick in a five-round draft is virtually a scratch-off ticket, but one I can use on a high-upside prospect a year or two away from rising up the rankings as someone a year or two away from making an impact. It’s no guarantee Miguel Castro and/or Matt Boyd make the final cut, but they definitely weren’t making the other guy’s final cut. I didn’t give anything extra to seize them.

A bit early to give up on Starlin Castro in a dynasty? Perhaps, but his value relies heavily on name recognition and a move to the Big Apple. Even after a late surge last summer, he hit a paltry .265/.296/.375 with 11 long balls and five steals. After stealing 25 bags in 2012, he has poached 18 bases in three combined seasons. Sorry if I’m not excited about a guy who can record 13 homers and seven steals.

As for Yankee Stadium fixing him, there’s only so much a small ballpark can do. Playing on a little-league field won’t cure last season’s 54.1 ground-ball percentage and 11.3 pop-up rate. He’s not going to exploit Yankee Stadium’s short porch if he can’t direct the ball beyond the infield.

Besides, I’m not quitting on him as much as investing in other guys I like. I ended the season with Joc Pederson, Nick Markakis, Ben Paulsen and Chris Coghlan as my outfielders, so Steven Souza offers an immediate upgrade with 20-20 upside. If he can fake his way to a .240 average and stay on the field in light of the Tampa Bay Rays acquiring Corey Dickerson—which happened after I got Souza—he’ll match or exceed Castro’s value.

Strickland has a clearer path to a closer’s role than Carson Smith, but Smith sported a 2.31 ERA, 11.81 K/9 and 64.8 ground-ball percentage. He’ll help out my ratios as an elite middle reliever as I cross my fingers for him somehow, somewhere finding his way back into the ninth inning.

Don’t sleep on Mat Latos. I got him as a throw-in, but I’m hoping he makes this exchange worthwhile. The 28-year-old’s stock is way down after accruing a 4.95 ERA and 1.31 ERA in 2015. In a free-agent market where Ian Kennedy netted a $70-million deal, the righty hasn’t found a new home.

He’s an ideal low-risk gamble for fantasy and MLB franchises alike. Despite the down year, he recorded a 3.72 FIP while masking red flags from 2014. While he wasn’t the ace of old, he upticked his average fastball velocity, strikeout percentage and swinging-strike percentage after enduring career lows in all categories the previous years:

  • 2014: 90.7 MPH FB, 17.6 K %, 8.1 SwSt %
  • 2015: 91.5 MPH FB, 20.2 K %, 9.9 SwSt %

I don’t have much in my rotation beyond Bumgarner, Taijuan Walker and Rick Porcello. (At least I’ll get another few months of Bartolo Colon on the Mets.) In the right environment, Latos can make a solid No. 4 or 5 starter in an 18-team league. Just keep him away from the Braves.

 

Trade 2

I Give: Brandon Phillips

I Get: 2016 3rd round pick (No. 52 Overall) and 2017 4th

A successful fantasy manager weeds out personal biases, operating as a cold-calculated machine rather than an irrational fool.  Then again, fantasy baseball is a silly game. It’s supposed to be fun, and rooting for people whom you don’t like is no fun.

I don’t like Brandon Phillips.

It’s baffling to see a professional baseball hitter—albeit a successful one—say he doesn’t pay attention to on-base percentage. This is no longer an advanced stat for Moneyball nerds blogging in their mom’s basement—I have my own room upstairs, thank you very much. It’s a rudimentary stat included in TV broadcasts and traditional box scores.

My league uses the traditional five-by-five categories, but reaching base more means more base-stealing and run-scoring opportunities. Phillips drew walks in 4.3 percent of his plate appearances. Then there was callously cursing out a Cincinnati Reds reporter doing his job by pointing out the veteran’s his indifference to plate discipline. What a class act that Brandon is.

Phillips’ .315 weighted on-base average (wOBA) and 96 weighted runs-created plus (wRC+) both depict his 2015 campaign as slightly below average at the plate. From a fantasy perspective, however, he provided considerable value by hitting .294 with 12 homers and 23 steals.

I’m not buying it. Don’t think a career .274 hitter flirts with .300 again. Can’t see him sniffing 20 steals again during a season in which he turns 35. He poached seven combined bags in 2013 and 2014 and averaged 15 from 2010-2012.

How did I end up with a guy I obviously dislike? He was part of a convoluted trade last July where I parted with a few veterans (Matt Holliday and Dan Haren among others). He wasn’t the key return, and I planned to flip him all along. So I shipped him out to the first willing buyer, acquiring two picks in our five-round prospect draft. (Available MLB players are also on the table. Other than a reliever stumbling into a closer’s gig, there’s usually no veterans of significant interest.)

Neither the No. 52 pick this year nor a fourth-rounder next year is much of a loss for a contender looking for a stop-gap upgrade. Yet I have nothing better to do than copiously research prospects in hopes of hitting the jackpot late. Some names taken outside the top 50 last year: Alex Reyes, Brett Phillips, Manuel Margot, Gleyber Torres and Orlando Arcia.

In retrospect, I’m worried I might have made this trade just for the sake of doing something. When you know something needs fixing, taking any action feels better than remaining a hopeless spectator. Of course, not every move is for the better.

Yet inaction has put me in this pickle. If I held out and didn’t receive a suitable offer, a .265, 12-12 season would rob the veteran of any remaining luster. On the other hand, I mistakenly thought Ketel Marte or Asdrubal Cabrera still had second-base eligibility, and I also sent Castro packing. Looks like I may open the season with Wilmer Flores (part of the trade where I acquired Phillips) as my starting second baseman. Whoops. This was my most Sam Hinkie move of the trio. Trust the process.

 

Trade 3:

I Give: Adrian Beltre

I Get: Jorge Soler

*I also give a conditional 2017 3rd round pick if Soler hits more than 22 home runs this season

From both a real-life and fantasy perspective, Adrian Beltre rarely receives the respect he deserved. A career .285/.377/.477 hitter with a stellar glove at the hot corner, he’s a deserving Hall of Famer who found new life as a top-shelf fantasy third baseman from 2010 onward. He spent all those years raking for my club, and for that I am truly grateful.

He’s also an old man. Beltre will turn 37 in early April, and I’m not contending any time soon. His slugging percentage and home-run tallies have dipped each of the past three years, and he hit below .295 (only .287) for the first time since 2009. As a productive veteran with existing, yet gradually diminishing value, he had to go. Given my lack of marketable veterans, getting a significant return for him was crucial to my rebuild. I hope to have found my man in Jorge Soler.

The Chicago Cubs outfielder likely wouldn’t have been available last year after generating a .573 slugging percentage in 97 rookie plate appearances. Yet in a larger sample size, he clubbed a tame .262/.324/.399, hitting 10 homers in 101 games with an alarming 30.0 strikeout percentage.

I used those season setbacks as a buying opportunity. A small sample size tricked re-drafters into overpaying last year, so they’ll treat his postseason dominance (9-for-19, 3 2Bs, 3 HRs, 6 BBs) with skepticism. But hey, it happened. Blend those stats with his 404 regular-season plate appearances, and his slash line soars to .273/.340/.434.

He doesn’t get cheated at the plate, belting a 27.8 line-drive percentage and 35.9 hard-hit percentage during the regular season. Although he won’t hit for a high average without fixing his strikeout woes, he’ll make the most of his batted balls, which puts him in line to hit around .270-.280.

That conditional third-round pick—an interesting idea issued by my trade partner—is no mere throw-in. The first two deals demonstrated my desire for accumulating assets, and another horrid season will make that an early third. Joe Ross and Raisel Iglesias were among two of the last winter’s opening third-round selections. Then again, if Soler smashes 23 or more dingers, I’ll be too ecstatic about landing a young building block to mind the loss.

So long, old friend. Hello, new pal. Hopefully we form a strong bond over the years as you one day lead a new battalion back to the Promised Land. Or at least the playoffs.

Note: Advanced stats courtesy of FanGraphs 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: