The Saber's Edge: Early Season Stories

The Saber's Edge: Early Season Stories

This article is part of our The Saber's Edge series.

Every fantasy season is unique in some way, and this one is no different. Let's examine some of the early season storylines fantasy owners need to follow.

Home Run Spike

Last year's home run bump (4.9K to 5.6K) made sure nearly everyone with a heartbeat hit almost 20 home runs. Even Freddy Galvis hit 20. If quad-A guys like Galvis can show pop, home runs will lose their value. If the spike doesn't continue and levels fall, sluggers' values will jump. To find out which way the season might lean, follow early season Statcast average batted ball velocity and compare to last season. For reference, it was up ~1.5 mph from '15 to '16. Just make sure the comparison is April to April because the ball doesn't carry in the cold early season.

New Old Batters

Four uncertain hitters -- Kyle Schwarber, Eric Thames, A.J. Pollock and Michael Brantley -- are returning to the field after being gone for at least a season. Here is what to look for in each.

Kyle Schwarber:
His postseason performance (.412/.500/.471) removed some doubts about his health. But he did only hit one extra-base hit, so questions still remain. Assuming he's healthy, the key for fantasy owners is if/when he gets catcher eligibility. Five months as a catcher or just one will be key for his 2017 and then his 2018 value. Besides health and position-eligibility questions, his playing time could be erratic on a loaded Cubs team.

Eric Thames:

Every fantasy season is unique in some way, and this one is no different. Let's examine some of the early season storylines fantasy owners need to follow.

Home Run Spike

Last year's home run bump (4.9K to 5.6K) made sure nearly everyone with a heartbeat hit almost 20 home runs. Even Freddy Galvis hit 20. If quad-A guys like Galvis can show pop, home runs will lose their value. If the spike doesn't continue and levels fall, sluggers' values will jump. To find out which way the season might lean, follow early season Statcast average batted ball velocity and compare to last season. For reference, it was up ~1.5 mph from '15 to '16. Just make sure the comparison is April to April because the ball doesn't carry in the cold early season.

New Old Batters

Four uncertain hitters -- Kyle Schwarber, Eric Thames, A.J. Pollock and Michael Brantley -- are returning to the field after being gone for at least a season. Here is what to look for in each.

Kyle Schwarber:
His postseason performance (.412/.500/.471) removed some doubts about his health. But he did only hit one extra-base hit, so questions still remain. Assuming he's healthy, the key for fantasy owners is if/when he gets catcher eligibility. Five months as a catcher or just one will be key for his 2017 and then his 2018 value. Besides health and position-eligibility questions, his playing time could be erratic on a loaded Cubs team.

Eric Thames:
The last time Thames was in the league, he hit .232/.273/.399. Now Steamer projections have him hitting .272/.350/.515. He has struggled in spring training, hitting .244/.364/.356 while dealing with a sore knee. In my recent Tout Wars Mixed auction, he went for $9, which was between Mike Napoli ($10) and Adrian Gonzalez ($8). His cost seems correct, and he has huge upside if he lives up to those Steamer numbers.

A.J. Pollock:
The real question comes down to his legs. Is he still the guy who stole 39 bags in 2015 or the 24 bases projected for the 29-year-old? We'll soon find out.

Michael Brantley:
I have no faith he will be back to 2014 levels when he produced 20 home runs and stolen bases. I wish we had batted-ball velocity on his healthy seasons. Instead, we must rely on batted-ball info like hard-hit or line-drive rates to see he if he is back to himself. See if his historic and new batted-ball data lines up.

Cubs Playing Time Distribution

As with Schwarber, the Cubs have too many average or better players to fill a limited number of spots. Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Ben Zobrist will share time at second and short. Zobrist will join Jay, Heyward, Schwarber, Conteras and Almora in the outfield mix. The might all end up with 400 PA but with possible injuries or hitting struggles, someone(s) could pull a full-time role. It's just tough to tell who.

Sophomore Slump or Continued Success

Trea Turner:
Many owners have the "Fear Of Missing Out" when it comes to prospects. I think owners are afraid they will look back at their auctions or drafts, see they passed on Turner and regret it. They should be more afraid of missing out on Bryce Harper, who is being picked at the same time as Turner. Projections have Turner near the 20th pick. I will pass on Turner and pick up last season's hot second-year player, Carlos Correa, in the early second round.

Gary Sanchez:
Owners seem less willing to take a shot on Sanchez. Maybe they are following their projections with a limited number of plate appearances. Or they think the catcher is an injury risk. Truthfully, his current ADP may make him a decent buy.

No Rookie Targets

The lead is a little misleading. Some rookie will get called up and perform remarkably. The problem with 2017 is the number of top players graduating to the majors (eight of the top 10 in '16 while it was only four in 2015). Additionally, top-end pitching prospects are almost non-existent. Here's the number pitchers in Baseball America's top 20 over the past six rankings.

2012: 10
2013: 9
2014: 7
2015: 6
2016: 8
2017: 2

The erratic production from pitchers has kept Baseball America from ranking pitchers as high. This year only two, Alex Reyes and Francis Martes, got a top-20 ranking with Reyes already lost for the season after needing Tommy John surgery.

Even with the lack of talent, here are the only two prospects I think it's worth targeting before the season starts.

Yoan Moncada:
Toolsy Moncada is considered the top rookie prospect. I have my reservations with him. I see too much of Byron Buxton in his profile. Both are above average in four of the prospect grades: Power, Arm, Speed and Defense. My reservations are if both can "Hit" enough to be productive. Buxton has struggled with a 35 percent K%. Moncada posted a 31 percent K% in Double-A and 60 percent in the majors. I'll monitor closely Moncada's minor league plate discipline to see how much it will limit his major league potential.

Cody Bellinger:
Bellinger swings with authority and if he makes contact, the ball is going to fly. The one complaint against Bellinger is his swing-and-miss nature. Here is how Bellinger compared to Moncada in strikeout rate in 2016:

Moncada: 31 percent
Bellinger: 20 percent (21 percent in AFL)

After personally seeing Bellinger tear up the Arizona Fall League (.424 OBP and .243 ISO), I am all in with him. One item to watch is his minor league position. If he plays quite a bit in the outfield, it will open up his major league options. Watch for a potential callup in mid-June. The Dodgers start interleague play at Cleveland (DH) and the Super Two deadline will have passed.

Pitching Breakouts

I believe the best pitching bargains exist in the 160 to 240 NFBC ADP range. All these guys have some warts, like injury (Aaron Nola), inflated ERA (Michael Pineda), inconsistency (Matt Shoemaker) and/or young (Blake Snell). I would not be surprised if four to five of these arms end up in the top-20 starting pitchers at season's end.

Four and Fifth Starters

Good news can be hard to get during spring training. Few facilities have Pitchf/x installed. Few games are on TV. Players don't play the whole game. Therefore, we have no idea if popup prospects Sal Romano or Jordan Montgomery are any good. Use the early season to check on your regular starters (mainly velocity) but watch a few games to see if any of the new names are good. Once rotations are set, see if any pitcher needs to be examined in a little more detail.

Bullpen Shakeups

Looking over the bullpens, about half the teams have a reliable to semi-reliable closer and the league's other half is basically a dumpster fire. I believe owners, even those who have decent closers, need to be active targeting saves. Don't let teams assume they can create a bullpen off the waiver wire. At least make them achieve it with trades or heavily spending their FAAB dollars.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeff Zimmerman
Zimmerman writes analytics-focused baseball and football articles for RotoWire. He is a three-time FSWA award winner, including the Football Writer of the Year and Best Football Print Article awards in 2016. The 2017 Tout Wars Mixed Auction champion and 2016 Tout Wars Head-to-Head champ, Zimmerman also contributes to FanGraphs.com, BaseballHQ and Baseball America.
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