Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Javier Baez Are Among The Biggest Risk/Reward Players of 2019
Last year, fantasy baseball owners had to consider whether Rhys Hoskins was worth a top-50 pick. After a stunning 50-game debut in 2017, during which he hit .259/.396/.618 with 18 homers, Hoskins shot up draft boards to an average draft position just outside the top 40, making him a prototypical high-risk, high-reward player. His ceiling was obvious, but could he be trusted to reach it based on a 50-game sample?
Joining Hoskins was Robbie Ray, whose ADP was just a few slots below Hoskins’ after logging 12.1 K/9 and a 2.89 ERA over 28 starts. Ray’s season was such a dramatic divergence from his first 64 starts in the league that there was reason to question if he could do it again.
We now know how those bets turned out. Owners who bought into Hoskins were rewarded with a season that made him the 28th-ranked player, and 18th-ranked hitter, in standard 5x5 leagues. Those who took the risk on Ray ended up paying a significant price, with the Diamondbacks lefty pitching to a 3.93 ERA and 1.35 WHIP across 24 starts. Such is the nature of high-risk, high-reward players.
Identifying high-risk, high-reward players in advance of your drafts and auctions, and formulations your opinions of them, is a key step in any draft-prep process. Here are five such players who could partially make or break your fantasy teams this season.
Javier Baez, 2B/3B/SS, Cubs
It may be hard to remember that Baez was the prospect who was promised on the North Side of Chicago long before anyone else. Baez was the ninth overall pick in 2011, predating Kris Bryant’s arrival in the Cubs organization by two years, and Anthony Rizzo’s by one. Yet Baez was the last to realize his potential for the team. When he finally did, however, it was everything the Cubs envisioned. Baez hit .290/.326/.554 with 34 homers, 111 RBI, 101 runs and 21 steals last season, finishing second in NL MVP voting. He was one of three players in the league to clear the 30-100-100-20 thresholds, along with Christian Yelich and Jose Ramirez. Now entering his age-26 season, Baez seems poised to become the perennial MVP candidate the Cubs imagined on draft day in 2011. As such, his ADP has shot up to 15.64, placing him just outside the first round in a typical fantasy baseball draft.
All of the issues that prevented Baez from reaching his potential previously—most notably his lack of plate discipline and proclivity to whiff—were all still present last year. Baez struck out in more than one-quarter of his plate appearances. His 18.2% whiff rate was second-highest in the majors, behind only Joey Gallo. He chased 43.8% of pitches outside the strike zone he saw, the third-highest rate in the league. His walk rate was 4.5%, 10th-lowest in the majors.
Baez deserves credit for two things. First, he was more aggressive on pitches in the strike zone, with his 76.5% swing rate on strikes ranking second to Freddie Freeman. Second, he capitalized on those swings, hitting .368 with a .778 slugging percentage on pitches in the zone. The big questions for Baez is whether he finally limit his whiffs and, perhaps more importantly, if he can be just as lethal on pitches in the strike zone as he was last year? The question for fantasy owners is whether to bet that he does one or both of those, knowing that answering in the affirmative likely means passing on players like Chris Sale, Bryce Harper, Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge?
Adalberto Mondesi, SS, Royals
You don’t have to be a grizzled scout to see the superstar potential in Adalberto Mondesi. The son of long-time MLB’er Raul Mondesi, the second-generation Mondesi showed off his tools across 75 games and 291 plate appearances last year. He hit .276/.306./.498 with 14 homers, 13 doubles and 32 steals in what was his age-22 season. Expand that over a full campaign, and you get a 162-game pace of 30.2 homers, 28.1 doubles and 69.1 steals. You could probably have guessed this, but MLB has never had a 30-60 player.
The downside here is just as easy to identify. For one thing, Mondesi has spent parts of the last three seasons in the majors, but has still yet to rack up a full season’s worth of games. Before last year, he was worse than a replacement-level hitter, though we shouldn’t put much stock into 188 plate appearances across his age-20 and age-21 seasons.
Even last year, though, there were red flags in Mondesi’s profile. His strikeout rate was 26.5%, while his walk rate was 3.8%. He didn’t have enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title, but if he did he would’ve had the second-worst walk-to-strikeout ratio in the majors, behind only Dee Gordon. His whiff rate was 18.2% and his chase rate was 38.4%, tendencies pitchers will exploit. If he isn’t getting on base, he can’t use his speed, which is his best asset as a fantasy player.
Despite the risks associated with Mondesi, the fantasy community is already all-in on the possible star. His ADP is 45.6, which places him just ahead of Anthony Rendon, Ozzie Albies and Xander Bogaerts. Carlos Correa, who struggled through injuries last year, but was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2015 and could have been the 2017 AL MVP if not for an injury, has an ADP of 44.87. If you’re buying into Mondesi, you have to believe that he will be an instant superstar.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 3B, Blue Jays
At least Mondesi has offered fans some track record to evaluate for the 2019 season. Vlad Guerrero Jr.’s (“Guerrero” from now on) ADP is actually a few notches higher at 43.64, and we’ve yet to see him take his first MLB plate appearance. When he finally steps to the plate in the bigs for the first time, it will be one of the most anticipated debuts in recent memory.
Guerrero was ranked the No. 3 prospect in baseball by Baseball America and MLB.com last year, and fourth by Baseball Prospectus. This year, all three ratings services have him atop their list. He split his time between Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Buffalo last season, and neither level proved much of a challenge. In 408 plate appearances, Guerrero hit .381/.437/.636 with 20 homers, 29 doubles and 78 RBI. He struck out 38 times and drew 37 walks. Looking just at his Triple-A numbers, he hit .336/.414/.564 with six homers and 15 walks against 10 strikeouts in 128 plate appearances. Oh, and we should probably mention he did all this at 19 years old. Juan Soto may not be impressed, but the rest of us are.
Still, are you really going to take a guy who has yet to step foot in the majors over players like Correa, Rendon, Albies and Bogaerts? That’s what you’re going to have to do to get him. Even if you grant that Guerrero has a higher ceiling than all of those players (as well as Patrick Corbin, Edwin Diaz, Gleyber Torres, James Paxton, Eugenio Suarez and George Springer, all of whom are also going after him in a typical draft), can you ignore their floors this early in a draft? We just discussed Correa’s particulars with respect to Mondesi above. Rendon has a .305/.389/.534 slash line with averages of 24 homers, 96 RBI and 84 runs over the last two seasons. Albies cratered in the second half last year, but still hit 24 homers and 40 doubles while stealing 14 bags in his age-21 season. Bogaerts is coming off a career year in which he hit .288/.360/.522 with 23 homers, and he hits in the middle of one of the league’s best lineups. There is as close to zero risk as is realistically possible with Correa, Rendon and Bogaerts, especially at these ADPs. Chasing Guerrero’s ceiling is possibly the greatest risk/reward proposition this season.
Stephen Strasburg, SP, Nationals
This is an impressive, if unofficial streak for Stephen Strasburg, a high risk/reward player since his rookie season ended with Tommy John surgery in 2010. Since then, little has changed in terms of Strasburg’s realistic range of outcomes. At one end, he has the stuff to be the best pitcher in the majors. At the other, the near-guarantee of some time spent on the DL calls into question not only how many innings fantasy owners will get out of him, but how effective he will be if he ends up pitching some of the year at less than 100%.
We won’t spend too much time on Strasburg because his risk/reward case is obvious. Going back to 2012, his first full MLB season, he ranks eighth among starters in fWAR. Among pitchers who have thrown at least 600 innings in that time, he ranks 10th in ERA, third in xFIP, ninth in WHIP, fourth in strikeout rate, and fourth in strikeout rate minus walk rate. In other words, when Strasburg is on the mound, he delivers. “When Strasbug is on the mound,” however, is the sentence’s operative phrase. He has made 30 starts in two seasons, the last of which was 2014. He has made fewer than 25 starts in three of the last four seasons, including a career-low (since his Tommy John surgery) 22 last year. The injuries also took their greatest toll on his performance last year, as he had his worst ever ERA (3.74), xFIP (3.28) and WHIP (1.20), and his third-worst strikeout rate (28.7%).
Now in his age-30 season, the chances of Strasburg compiling a 30-start season is slim. Assuming a best-case scenario of 28 starts, is he worth grabbing at his 62.25 ADP, ahead of starters like Jack Flaherty, Mike Clevinger, Zack Greinke and Jameson Taillon? That’s the risk/reward valuation you have to square before drafting Strasburg this season.
Gary Sanchez, C, Yankees
In 2016, Gary Sanchez burst onto the scene with an incredible, if unsustainable 53-game debut, during which he slashed .299/.376/.657 with 20 homers, nearly mashing his way to the AL Rookie of the Year Award despite spending just one-third of the year in the majors. He hit .278/.345/.531 with 33 homers and 90 RBI in 122 games and 525 plate appearances that year, a realistic full workload for a primary catcher. That gave us an idea of what a typical full season from Sanchez would look like. Or so we thought. In 2018, the wheels fell off.
Sanchez hit an ugly .186/.291/.406 with 18 homers. A groin injury cost him eight weeks and he was never quite right in the second half, but that doesn’t explain away all his struggles. When he first went on the DL in late June, he was hitting .190/.291/.433 with 14 homers in 265 plate appearances. Despite that dreadful campaign, Sanchez hasn’t paid much of a price in terms of draft-day price. He has a 60.05 ADP, which places him in the same neighborhood as Strasburg, surrounded by hitters like Eugenio Suarez, George Springer, Tommy Pham, Matt Carpenter and fellow catcher J.T. Realmuto.
Sanchez isn’t working against some of the same deficiencies we’ve discussed with other hitters in this column. He has a manageable 24.1% career strikeout rate and has always been willing to take a free pass, evidenced by a career 9.7% walk rate. His power is proven, with a career .263 isolated slugging percentage. Even last year he had a .220 ISO, which typically ranks among the top-30 in the league. Still, it’s hard to shake the specter of his 2018 season, especially considering how bad he was before the groin was a problem.
It wouldn’t be hard to assume the risk associated with Sanchez if he were coming at a significant discount, but the fantasy community already seems willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. There’s a significant opportunity cost at retail value that could hamstring fantasy owners if Sanchez is little more than Joey Gallo, but at catcher. If his on-base skills rebound, though, he’ll prove one of this season’s biggest draft-day bargains.