March is just one short month away, which means it's almost time to start drafting your fantasy baseball teams. The 2015 RotoWire Fantasy Baseball Guide is getting sent out in the coming days and it includes everything necessary to prepare for draft season. Prospect rankings are flooding the internet as well, making this one of the more enjoyable times of the year.
I was lucky enough to be asked to contribute to the RotoWire Roundtable this year, where five of our best baseball minds rank their top 350 players for 2015, with the five lists then getting compiled into one master list. This is a big hit on the website, as it represents the opinions of five baseball experts, with checks and balances built in. For instance, I think Mookie Betts is a top 60 player this year, but such a stance will get reeled in because my colleagues will (presumably) be less bullish on Betts, and he will probably settle in somewhere in the 75-100 range in the composite rankings. This is more useful to the user, because it offers a realistic range where a player will get drafted in most leagues, and biases in every direction get muffled in favor of a clearer picture.
I might write about Betts sometime in this space before the season, but it was easy to rank him where I did. Right now, however, I want to focus on Freddie Freeman, who has been a nightmare for me to rank.
We have the Braves' first baseman ranked sixth at his position, and his current NFBC ADP is 37.
What kind of player will you get if you take Freeman at the end of the third round or the beginning of the fourth round? Three prominent projection systems weigh in:
PECOTA: .278 BA, 20 HR, 75 runs, 82 RBI, two steals, 636 plate appearances
STEAMER: .284 BA, 24 HR, 80 runs, 83 RBI, three steals, 650 plate appearances
ZiPS: .286 BA, 22 HR, 97 runs, 91 RBI, three steals, 669 plate appearances
If he does what STEAMER and ZiPS project, then he is worth a top-40 pick. However, if he does what PECOTA projects, then it is a slightly less appealing proposition. But what if he falls short of even PECOTA's projections? Suppose Freeman hits third in a Braves lineup where B.J. Upton is hitting second and Jonny Gomes is hitting fourth. Those projected runs and RBI are starting to look a little less achievable. After Atlanta got rid of three of their four best hitters, leaving Freeman to sit unprotected in one of the worst lineups in baseball, why would any pitcher give him anything to hit? Of course lineup protection is a bit of a myth, but in my eyes Freeman looks less appealing than Albert Pujols (NFBC ADP: 52) or Adrian Gonzalez (NFBC ADP: 53), both of whom hit in the middle of a couple of the most potent lineups in baseball.
Here are the projections for Pujols and Gonzalez:
PECOTA: .272 BA, 26 HR, 79 runs, 89 RBI, five steals, 625 plate appearances
STEAMER: .269 BA, 26 HR, 78 runs, 87 RBI, four steals, 613 plate appearances
ZiPS: .274 BA, 26 HR, 77 runs, 97 RBI, six steals, 630 plate appearances
PECOTA: .284 BA, 22 HR, 74 runs, 85 RBI, one steal, 640 plate appearances
STEAMER: .280 BA, 24 HR, 77 runs, 85 RBI, two steals, 642 plate appearances
ZiPS: .278 BA, 22 HR, 76 runs, 111 RBI, one steal, 642 plate appearances
Freeman appears to have the slightest of edges in projected batting average and runs for the most part, but he falls short in the power categories. Given team context, and past performance in the home run department, Freeman actually feels like the riskiest of the three. He hit 18 homers in 162 games last season and has never topped 23 in a season. The fact that he is just 25 may suggest he has not peaked yet as a power hitter, but it would also not feel like much of a surprise at this point if he hit less than 20 homers for a second year in a row, and that's just not cutting it for a first baseman going in the first 40 picks. Last season Freeman earned $21 in standard auction leagues, while Pujols earned $26 and Gonzalez earned $27. Hardly anything has changed from then until now, except everyone is one year older and Freeman's teammates are a whole lot worse. I fully anticipate being the low man on Freeman for our Roundtable exercise, and I am all too happy to weigh down his composite ranking.
Steve Pearce and the Orioles agreed on a one-year, $3.7 million deal to avoid arbitration, and he should have the first crack at seeing most of the starts at designated hitter for Baltimore this season. It is really hard to evaluate a 31-year-old breakout player like Pearce, but it seems that at least some of his power from last season will be repeatable. He hit a whopping 21 long balls in 383 plate appearances, so even with some anticipated regression, he should be able to hit 20-plus homers again if he gets 500 plate appearances. Delmon Young poses the biggest threat for at-bats at DH, with Christian Walker also potentially getting in the mix later this season. However, Pearce is capable of playing left or right field if Alejandro De Aza or Travis Snider get hurt or under-perform, so the at-bats should be there if he is hitting.
I already touched on how bad the Braves' lineup will be, but at least the rotation should be about league average. That said, Mike Folynewiczis the early favorite to be the No. 5 starter, which leaves significant questions as to how much production they will get from that spot in the rotation. Atlanta signed Eric Stults on Thursday in an effort to find someone who could step in if Folty does not appear up to the task, but from a fantasy perspective, we would at least like to see what the big righthander can bring to the table as a starter. His fastball is an 80-grade weapon that can touch triple digits, but that is where the certainties end. In 102.2 innings at Triple-A with the Astros last season he had a 5.08 ERA, 1.46 WHIP and 102 strikeouts and he was even worse (5.30 ERA) in 16 relief appearances in the big leagues. His curveball has a chance to be a second plus pitch, but the changeup still lags behind. He discovered last season that big leaguers can rip a fastball if they know it's coming, no matter how fast it is, so 2015 will be a season of adjustments for Folty. It's not worth using a pick on him in 14-team or shallower mixed leagues, as there is plenty of flame out potential here, but he will definitely be one of the more intriguing pitchers to watch this spring.