“I’m not going to draft David Price, period. He’d have to cost a dollar in my AL-only, probably, to be worthwhile.”
It was that off-the-cuff comment of mine at our ESPN Fantasy Baseball summit in early March that made me take a step back and think deeply about my rankings philosophy. After all, you can plainly see that I do not rank Price outside my draft-worthy pool, and it was in part of that very discussion in which my colleagues, Eric Karabell and AJ Mass, and I raised this important debate.
Don’t consider yourself exempt from this, either. I’ve been in far too many drafts where the competition has, after the sale of an undesired player, said something akin to, “Well, I had him priced $11, but I didn’t want him.”
OK, if you didn’t want the player, then why did you price/rank him at all?
The answer is simple. We must consider the market when pricing players, in order to determine where pockets of value might lie at the draft table. We often don’t truly have an idea where these might be until we’re actually sitting in that seat, but we can estimate based upon what we think the player in question might do in the given season. The purpose of this game is discovering where our individual opinions differ from the whole, and the way we’ll win is when our differing opinions most align with the correct ones.
If we only ranked the players we wanted and excluded all the ones we didn’t, we’d just be drafting according to our whims, never, ever preparing ourselves for the unexpected values that fall directly into our laps. For example, let’s say that aforementioned $11 player was Dexter Fowler in your NL-only league. What if you played in a league full of Chicago Cubs fans who somehow wouldn’t push the bidding past $5? Had you not bothered to price him according to your genuine — even if awfully pessimistic — expectations, how could you have realized how crazy-good a value that was?
Always, always price every player at the amount you genuinely believe he’s most likely to earn, keeping you prepared for any value opportunity. In the past in this space, I’ve used the hot dog analogy: I’m the rare baseball writer who hates hot dogs, yet there are certainly situations in which I’d eat one.
Bringing it back to Price, I similarly — and quickly after my opening comment — issued a condition under which I’d still draft him despite my strong opinion: “He’d have to cost a dollar.” Price wound up costing $5 in said AL-only league, which naturally elicited my usual response: “Not on my team!”
Price is merely one of the more extreme, and injury-influenced, examples of such strong opinions of mine. Nine other much-less-scary, much-less-obvious names are among my list of players I’m avoiding in 2016, judging by their current average draft position (ADP) or simply discussing their expectations with fellow fantasy owners. Maybe I’ll land one or two of them somewhere, if that’s how values play out. In all likelihood, though, I’d be amazed if they did.
As of Tuesday morning, Bird was batting .447/.527/1.085 — yes, that is a four-digit slugging percentage — during spring training and he’s a power-oriented left-handed hitter who calls Yankee Stadium his home, so of course he’s the next Babe Ruth, right? Look, he is one of their most promising young hitters, a potential future home-run champion and the newly-crowned starter at first base, but at the same time, fantasy owners simply aren’t being realistic with their expectations from him.
Bird has already soared a good two rounds in ADP in the past week, putting him right there in Mike Napoli‘s tier at first base. The problem is that Bird seems to get a free pass in the durability column, while Napoli doesn’t. Let’s not forget that Bird missed the entirety of 2016 following surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder and is only 133 competitive plate appearances into his recovery from the procedure. He probably will need an occasional day off (hinted at by the offseason addition of Chris Carter). Bird has also exhibited a platoon split in Double-A, Triple-A and the majors and did whiff 30 percent of the time in his only 46 games in the majors in 2015.
I’ve suggested recently he might bat .235 with 25 homers rather than .270 with 30-plus homers, with many readers responding that he made better contact in the minors. While that’s true, at Bird’s best in the minors he was a .270 hitter, so I’d rather see some evidence in games that count before I’d suggest that he has fully arrived as potential superstar.
Willson Contreras, C/OF, Chicago Cubs
No one seems to raise a playing-time concern with Contreras, but his manager, Joe Maddon, historically likes positional versatility and mixing and matching his lineup. The former benefits Contreras, who possesses the ability to play left field, but that’s a position where Kyle Schwarber (also a catcher candidate himself) and Ben Zobrist figure to see time. The latter is a concern, because presumed backup Miguel Montero, a left-hander, sits on the more favorable side of a possible platoon, not to mention had better pitch-framing numbers in 2016, which might tempt Maddon to start him (or call upon him for late-inning defensive purposes) more often than most presume.
If one of the reasons you’re considering Contreras in or before his current ADP (Round 13) — or arguably Round 8 in a 12-team, two-catcher league — is that he fits the age-old “catcher-eligible player destined for near-everyday plate appearances by accruing significant time at another position,” be realistic. Contreras had 326 plate appearances, compared to Montero’s 170, after the former’s recall (playoffs included), for a full-season pace of 459. That would have been 12th-most among catcher-eligibles in 2016, and while David Ross’ retirement might bump Contreras’ PAs up a bit, Schwarber’s return to the catcher/left field mix might entirely account for the difference.
Let’s also not overlook the skills worries that hint 2018 is the wiser time to invest in Contreras. Among 307 players with at least 250 PAs in 2016, his 55.4 percent ground-ball rate was 26th-highest, capping his power upside. His 14.9 percent swinging-strike rate was 36th-highest, showing that he has some work to do before recapturing his high-contact, high-average minor league form.
Cole Hamels, SP, Texas Rangers
Hamels is being treated like a top-25 fantasy starting pitcher by ADP, and he’s arguably worth being ranked within range of that group, but every time we arrive at that point in the draft, I find myself passing on him. He’s one of the most consistently productive pitchers out there, but in 2016, his rising walk rate — a career-high 9.1 percent, mainly a result of poor location of his signature changeup — was of concern, especially for a pitcher with this much mileage on his arm.
Hamels’ margin for error is slim in Texas’ Globe Life Park, and much of the reason for his generous draft-day valuation is the fact that so many of the pitchers in the tiers above, around and just beneath him face durability questions that he hasn’t yet. Given the choice, I’d rather take my chances on the fantasy likes of Gerrit Cole, Marcus Stroman and Danny Salazar.
Jose Peraza, SS/OF, Cincinnati Reds
To be clear, Peraza is an exceptional source of speed, averaging 67 stolen bases per 162 games played in the minors, then swiping 21 bags in 72 games for the 2016 Reds. The problem is that every other facet of his offensive game requires polish. His 2.7 percent walk rate in the majors last year (and 5.0 percent during his minor league career) is precariously low for a speedster. He also made especially weak contact for the Reds, as both his .119 well-hit and .439 soft-hit averages ranked 39th-worst of 307 hitters with at least 250 PAs, taking some of the luster off what was an impressive 28 percent line-drive rate.
Peraza has the look of a clear one-category contributor, which is valuable in an era where speed is so scarce, and it’s a concern that he was just 21-for-31 in that category last year, and only 4-for-7 this spring. He’s also going in the 17th round in ESPN leagues and as many as six rounds higher offsite, which is too optimistic.
A.J. Ramos, RP, Miami Marlins
How quickly we forget that, one year and one month ago, the Marlins were going out of their way to suggest that they preferred Ramos in a “dynamo”/Dellin Betances-esque multi-inning workhorse setup role, hailing Carter Capps a contender for closer duties. Today, Ramos might no longer be openly discussed as a better choice to set up, but the Marlins offseason moves suggest they’re measuring their closer contingencies. Besides holdover closer-caliber arms Kyle Barraclough and David Phelps, the team added former closer Brad Ziegler to their relief mix, giving Ramos arguably the most competition of any current finisher.
Ramos also has control concerns — his 12.6 percent walk rate last season sixth-highest among qualified relievers — and his stuff wasn’t nearly as sharp in his final 20 games after he returned from a fractured finger. He’s being drafted as a 16th-rounder, which isn’t excessive, but it’s also a difficult investment to make considering the possible need to handcuff him to another reliever, as well as trying to figure out who that reliever is. It also makes him a dangerous candidate to be selected slightly sooner in the event of a position run. Resist at all costs!
A true Mr. Wizard of the current starting pitching pool, Roark has not posted an ERA within even 30 percentage points of his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching score) in any of his four big-league seasons to date. Plus, his career ERA (3.01) is 72 points lower than his FIP (3.73), which is the second-largest differential in that direction among the 89 pitchers with at least 500 innings pitched during that time span, behind only Hector Santiago‘s minus-0.82.
Just to give you an idea of Roark’s sorcery, during the second half of 2016, he managed a 10.0 percent walk rate (fourth-highest among 75 qualifiers during that time span), 18.7 percent strikeout rate (21st-lowest), .230 BABIP (third-lowest), 4.50 FIP (17th-worst) and .143 well-hit average (a middling 35th) in 15 starts. He squeezed out 10 quality starts, eight wins, a 2.60 ERA and 1.14 WHIP out of those stats. Huh?!?!
Having quality pitch framer Wilson Ramos as his catcher contributed, as did his facing the game’s third-easiest schedule among ERA qualifiers. Ramos is now in Tampa Bay, however, and the National League East, offensively speaking, should be at least slightly improved. Roark is the kind of pitcher I’d leave out there a good 2-3 rounds beyond his ADP.
Gary Sanchez, C, New York Yankees
As with Contreras, with Sanchez it’s a matter of our being too excited too quickly about a young player. Surely you’ve heard this stat: Sanchez tied Wally Berger’s all-time record for the fewest big league games needed to hit 20 home runs, doing so in his 51st contest. Sanchez also required a whopping 40 percent home run/fly ball rate (using the FanGraphs number here for a larger all-time sample) to do it — the second-highest such rate in the 15 seasons for which that data is available.
He also posted a ghastly 65.7 percent contact rate in 28 September games, resulting in a .225 batting average, showing he’s subject to streakiness and batting-average risk. Sanchez is a great up-and-coming power source, but he’s being drafted in the eighth round in ESPN standard (10-team, one-catcher) leagues, which is too soon. In a deeper league — an AL-only or a 14-plus-team mixed with two catchers — he’s a more sensible selection, but even there he’s being regarded an all-too-soon fourth/fifth rounder.
This one could completely blow up in my face, as a healthy Springer, especially one who has shown more aggressiveness on the basepaths this spring — he’s 3-for-4 in stolen-base opportunities — could make a charge at the top-25 names on the final Player Rater. That said, such a valuation touches the very ceiling of his fantasy potential, and he’s actually being drafted that way in some leagues, though more so offsite.
Springer had so much go right in 2016. He led the majors with 744 plate appearances, tied for the lead with 162 games played and scored a whopping 116 runs, thanks in large part to his leadoff role, yet despite that finished a shockingly low 78th on the 2016 Player Rater. Why? Springer exhibited a wide platoon split, struggled against sliders, was caught stealing on 10 of his 19 attempts and had a 49 percent ground-ball rate, all-too-high for a power hitter.
In short, his floor is so much lower than people perceive it to be. I do rank Springer generously enough because I believe in his overall athleticism, but I haven’t even come close to landing him in a single draft so far (nor anticipate that I will in the ones remaining).
Watson is another “trusted” closer — he’s being consistently selected top-20 at his position — that I think is at significant risk of quickly losing his job. Though the Pirates will have at least two other left-handers in their Opening Day bullpen (Antonio Bastardo and Felipe Rivero), manager Clint Hurdle might still find Watson more valuable as a lefty specialist within time, especially since right-handers Daniel Hudson and Juan Nicasio have closer-quality stuff and Rivero has more balanced splits.
Righties slugged .421 with an 8.7 percent walk rate against Watson in 2016, which partly explains how he had so much higher a FIP (4.37) than ERA (3.06). Watson is simply a better pitcher when Hurdle can deploy him at precise moments of the game, rather than being locked into the “ninth inning only” role of a traditional closer.