This article is part of our Baseball Draft Kit series.
For a variety of reasons, the 2017-18 Hot Stove season started very slowly. Some teams were managing around the luxury tax, while others were waiting to see if they could get their hands on Shohei Ohtani or Giancarlo Stanton. When the Angels and Yankees scooped up those stars, just in front of the Winter Meetings, things opened up a bit, but as of early January, all the top free agents were still in play.
This puts a burden on looking for opportunity plays, which is usually my emphasis in writing this piece each year. With so many teams' rosters unsettled, though, it's hard to find the spot where a breakout closer or a minor-league veteran will emerge. Be extra careful to check the status of these players when you sit down at the draft table in February and March.
Albert Almora, OF, Cubs
The only true center fielder the Cubs have, Almora hit .326 and slugged .519 after the All-Star break. He's still a work in progress against right-handed pitching, but you can make the case that his 2017 line against them – .271/.291/.420 – along with his plus defense warrants everyday work. His 2018 playing time is contingent on the Cubs clearing up their roster logjam by trading Kyle Schwarber or Javier Baez. If they leave him alone, he can hit .290 with 15 homers and solid context stats. The NL Kevin Pillar, but better.
Orlando Arcia, SS, Brewers
Arcia's plus defense kept him in the lineup through early-season struggles. He rewarded Craig Counsell's faith by hitting .290/.340/.427 from the start of June through the end of the season, quietly putting up 15 homers and 14 steals. Arcia pounded the ball into the ground last year and still hit 15 bombs; 25 or more are coming once he joins the flyball revolution.
Trevor Bauer, SP, Indians
The quirky righty seems to have settled in as a No. 3 starter, with ERAs of 4.18 to 4.55, in 150-190 innings a year, the past four years. Those numbers hide progress; Bauer had the highest strikeout rate and best K/BB of his career last season. He used his curve more than ever before, lighting up the AL in the second half with a 3.01 ERA and a 27% strikeout rate. He's still just 27, and he's about to take another big step forward. Get him.
Mookie Betts, OF, Red Sox
New Red Sox manager Alex Cora was explicit about his plans for Betts, who he wants batting leadoff and putting pressure on the other team. The Astros were fourth in the AL in steals with Cora as the bench coach, so it's almost certain that Betts will be running again. As for hitting, well, a strange spate of pop-ups ruined Betts' 2017 season, and he was still one of the six or seven best players in the league. When your off years are this good, you're a superstar.
Jon Gray, SP, Rockies
Take advantage of the foot injury that knocked Gray off many radars to pick up the rare good Rockies starter. After coming off the DL, Gray had a 3.58 ERA and a 103:23 K:BB in 17 starts. The stuff is spectacular, and now that he's 26, the Rockies can take the spoilers off Gray and give him a full season of work.
Keone Kela, RP, Rangers
Kela might have snagged the closer role in April but for an end-of-spring disciplinary issue that got him sent to the minors. He ended up with two saves for a Rangers team that used everyone but Jim Kern in the ninth inning. With Matt Bush getting a chance to start, Kela and his nasty stuff will be first in line for the closer role barring a major addition to the bullpen.
Raul Mondesi, SS, Royals
The Royals are moving on from their 2015 championship team, with Alcides Escobar among the players departing via free agency. Mondesi probably wasn't ready to play in the majors a year ago, but even in failing (.170/.214/.245), he ran wild on the bases: five steals in seven attempts in just 25 games played, 60 plate appearances and 11 times on base. The return of Alcides Escobar could steer Mondesi to second base if Whit Merrifield ends up moving to third, but if Mondesi finds regular playing time, it's cheap speed all day.
Brandon Nimmo, OF, Mets
With Yoenis Cespedes 32 years old and coming off a year lost to leg injuries, it's not going to be him patrolling center any longer. Juan Lagares has lost most of the speed that made him a plus defender, and he can't stay healthy in consecutive weeks. Nimmo, a former first-round pick, is stretched in center, but he brings a .367 career OBP in about half a season of playing time, and he works cheap – always a plus for the small-market Mets. Nimmo could score 90 runs, hit 12 homers and steal 10 bags for very little investment.
Hector Rondon, RP, Astros
Rondon had a nightmare year in which nearly 20 percent of the flyballs he allowed left the yard. He's not that far removed, by talent and stuff, from the pitcher who saved 59 games in 2014 and 2015: same velocity, similar xFIP. He's just had terrible HR/FB results the past two years. Rondon is better than a third of the guys who will start the season as closers, and given the chance he will save 20 games.
Jesse Winker, OF, Reds
The Reds were working hard in December to clear space for Winker, who hit .298/.375/.529 as a rookie. Winker is already one of the Reds' best hitters, maybe second only to Joey Votto, so whether Adam Duvall and Scott Schebler are around or not, Winker is going to play. There's some Brian Giles to Winker, right down to coming up with an Ohio team. (Let's hope the Reds don't trade him straight up for a lefty reliever.)
Wade Davis, RP, Rockies
Davis is the one player who is an absolute hard pass for me. I would not have signed him with Bea Arthur's money. He's had an elbow scare, his velocity is way down from his peak and his walk rate spiked last year. Don't go near him, especially now that he's in Colorado. If he had landed anywhere else, I would have targeted the secondary options in the bullpen behind him.
Dee Gordon, 2B/OF, Mariners
The M's are taking the Marlins' second baseman and making him their center fielder. The track record of these moves is mixed at best; Gordon has speed and no reps, and at 30, the speed is only going to be there so much longer. Stealing bases is a young man's game. Just six players this decade have had a 40-steal campaign at 30 or older. Everything points to a sharp drop in Gordon's attempts, so let someone else pay for the 60-steal guy who is gone.
J.D. Martinez, OF, Free Agent
If Martinez signs with the Diamondbacks, I'll wear this, but his value last year was irreparably tied to half a season in Chase Field. He hit .373/.448/.891 in 30 games there, with 16 of his 45 homers in just 125 PA. Martinez is a good power source whose body generally limits him to 125 games – and therefore 25 homers – a year. The extra 20 he hit last year will cost some GM his job and make him an overbid in your league.
Whit Merrifield, 2B, Royals
After not being on the Opening Day roster, Merrifield went on to lead the AL in steals while playing great defense at second base and adding 19 homers to the mix. It was a better performance than he'd ever put up at Triple-A. He'll be 29 this year, and I'm betting he's the evolutionary Bob Hamelin rather than a true breakout.
Carlos Santana, 1B, Phillies
Santana carried the threat of falling into catcher or third-base eligibility for years. That's gone, and what's left is a first baseman who doesn't hit for average, doesn't hit 30 home runs and doesn't run much. Walks and a sharp improvement on defense make him a fine baseball player, but unless you're in an OBP league, he's kind of a two-category guy in fantasy.
Christian Yelich, OF, Brewers
The last man standing in Miami as we went to print, Yelich followed Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna out of town when the Brewers acquired him in January. Don't chase him. Yelich hits the ball on the ground more than half the time, which is why he's never slugged .500 or hit 25 homers or 40 doubles. Like Jason Heyward and Eric Hosmer, Yelich's groundball tendencies make him one of the more frustrating players in both real and fantasy baseball. Plus, the price will jump in most drafts with the move to a much more hitter-friendly environment.
This article appears in the 2018 RotoWire Fantasy Baseball Guide. You can order a copy here.