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. 

 

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