With Spring Training well underway, and another fantasy season is upon us, fans are getting antsy. As with any fantasy sport, fantasy baseball is a matter of finding value in the middle-to-later rounds of your draft and avoiding busts in the earlier portions.
All rankings discussed in this article are from ESPN’s top 300 for head-to-head categories leagues. Other sites’ rankings may vary in different aspects, however, any drastic variance is unlikely.
1. Don’t Reach for Him
“There are better players behind these guys.”
Outfielder Charlie Blackmon
The 30-year-old Colorado outfielder had a career year in 2016, finally reaching the potential some believed he always had. This also has catapulted Blackmon up the draft boards for 2017 with a unique combination of speed, power, and contact. However, currently ranked 12th overall, and as the 5th-best outfielder, Blackmon has a lot more room for regression than progression. A replica season may be a tough ask and at the deepest offensive position do not hesitate to reach for others at the back-end of the first round. It would be foolish to avoid Blackmon altogether, but there is plenty of outfield value to go around across all parts of the draft.
Starting Pitchers Jon Lester/Kyle Hendricks
Both Cubs’ starters had fielding independent pitching marks about one whole point higher than their earned run average. While this could be attributed to many factors other than regression, more than likely luck was involved. What this points to is some amount of backslide for both pitchers. Lester having back-to-back career seasons at 32 and 33 would be something out of a fairy tale, and 2.13-earned-run-average Kyle Hendricks is a myth that will not continue. Similarly to the outfield, pitching is eternally deep and feel free to reach rather than drafting either of these two.
Third Baseman/Shortstop Jonathan Villar
The ability to steal 50+ bases keeps Villar’s value somewhat high. However, the question of whether or not he is skilled enough to hit .280 with 19 homers again is why he makes this list. The Milwaukee shortstop was fourth in the MLB in batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and fourteenth in strikeout percentage, two indicators that scream regression. In a categories league Villar still provides much value through stolen bases, but to count on him for average and power may be a bit too risky for 2017.
2. A Steal for Where He’s Going
Catcher Gary Sanchez
The only players to have as many home runs per plate appearance (min 200 PA) in the history of baseball: Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Maris, Babe Ruth, and Matt Williams. It is rather absurd to expect Sanchez to maintain this pace over the course of a full season, but 25+ home runs from a catcher is a worthy pick in just about any round.
Starting Pitcher Matt Harvey
This is not a proclamation that Matt Harvey is back to his old self. But currently ranked as the 33rd-best pitcher in ESPN leagues, it’s not hard to foresee Harvey being half of his old self and making that ranking look silly. DO NOT reach into the top seven rounds for the Met righty, but anything beyond that is worth the risk, considering his upside if he is any semblance of the pitcher he once was just a year and a half ago.
Outfielder Bryce Harper
In 2015 Harper had arguably the best hitting season for any player since Barry Bonds. 2016 was much different. A .243/.373/.441 slash is harshly mediocre for the outfield. However, with only two seasons until free agency and $500 million on the mind, Harper needs and likely will bounce back in a big way. Do not, I repeat, do not hesitate to take Harper if he is on the board beyond the third pick. The reward associated with him far outweighs whatever risk he has.
Outfielder Andrew McCutchen
After a down and injury-fought 2016, McCutchen was the subject of numerous trade speculation over the offseason. Ultimatelty kept by the Pirates and making the transition to right field, Cutch is primed to return to some form of his old self. A .284/.381/.471 line from August onward bodes well for a strong 2017 campaign. The 18th ranked outfielder coming into this year should crack the top ten of this position with a healthy season.
Starting Pitcher Gerrit Cole
Cole was a high fantasy draft choice last year after coming off of a 2.60 earned run average in 32 starts in 2016. ESPN has him ranked as the 21st-best starting pitcher and 87th overall player. Expected to have a much healthier 2017, Cole has the upside of a top-10 pitcher garnering strikeouts and wins on a good Pirates team.
Starting Pitcher Danny Salazar
Another case of a player with high upside who had injuries cut his seaosn short in 2016. 2015 was a breakout year for Salazar, as he finally refined his game and consistently brought some of the best stuff across all of baseball. The Dominican-native, Salazar has never posted a K/9 below nine in any of his first four seasons, and will be pitching for an Indian team that will win and hit plenty. If the righty can keep injuries and control issues at bay, he can provide high value across all categories for starting pitchers.
3. Breakout Candidates
Shortstop Addison Russell
It’s always key to get good production from postions dearth of offense. Russell is coming into the seaosn as the ninth-best shortstop and 123rd overall player and can prove to be a nice coup for your fantasy squad. 49 extra-base hits would rank him twelfth amongst shortstops in 2016, but expect that number to rise as Russell refines his hit-tool coming into his age-23 season. There are only a couple of shortstops Russell can potentially jump in terms of fantasy rankings, but going near the 10th round, he could be a steal and solidify himself with the likes of Bogaerts, Correa, and others as a top fantasy shortstop.
Outfielder Byron Buxton
I have to admit, Buxton would have made this write-up each year for the past 2 years. Both instances I would have been awfully wrong. But one of these days the guy is going to figure it out, I promise you. 2016 was mostly a struggle once again, however the 23-year-old center fielder slashed .287/.357/.653 with 17 extra-base hits over the final month of the seaoson. If he can extrapolate that over the course of a full year, we’re looking at a potential top-15 outfielder. Buxton is the 186th-ranked player by ESPN and I will be gladly considering him with any pick beyond round 12.
Starting Pitcher Danny Duffy
Duffy is not the safest of all breakout candidates, but after being locked up by the Royals this past offseason it’ll be interesting to see what the lefty can do across 30+ starts. His upside may be slightly limited, but on a good Royals club he may be able to build on his 12-win season from a year ago.
Third Baseman Maikel Franco
A down 2016 may have tempered expectations for some of Franco, but the potential to be a top-five fantasy third baseman is still there. A big bopper across the minor leagues, Franco once totaled 31 home runs across Single-A and Double-A in a single year. The big power is still there and if he can learn to utilize more patience at the plate, Franco could see more success in Citizen’s Bank sooner rather than later. The righty is currently ranked 19th at the hot corner, but with even moderate imporovements at the plate can easily solidify himself as top-10 at the position this upcoming season.
4. Rookies Primed for an Impact Season
Starting Pitcher Robert Gsellman
Be sure to keep track of Gsellman’s status as a full-time player before your draft. If awarded the Mets’ fifth-starter job, Gsellman can make an impact right away across all categories. Later in your draft if Gsellman is on the board and you’re looking to add some pitching depth don’t let the opportunity to add a starter with number-three upside to your fantasy squad.
Outfielder Andrew Benintendi
A consensus top prospect across all of baseball, saying Benintendi is primed to have an impact is no crazy statement. Ranked as the 119th-best player by ESPN, there is no need to reach far ahead to draft the young lefty. Outfield depth is abundant and there may be some adjustments for the rookie, but if Benintendi is on the board beyond round nine he is safe pick and should have an impact across all fantasy categories.
Starting Pitcher Lucas Giolito
Some analysts are down on Giolito after a rough first stretch in the majors in 2016. The righty received a change of scenery to a team with much lower expectations than the Nats. If not at the start of the season, Giolito will at some point crack the White Sox rotation. Nobody in all of baseball quite possibly looks the part of frontline starter more than the six-foot-six, 255-pound California-native, and I firmly believe with increased experience he will resemble an ace sooner rather than later
Outfielder Manny Margot
The headliner of the Craig Kimbrel trade a couple years back, Manny Margot is going to have the opportunity to entrench himself as an everyday player for the depthless Padres. Check the latest Padres news before your draft to see if it had been announced yet whether or not Margot is expected to be a full-time player, but after performing admirably in Triple-A last year he should crack the Pads’ lineup reguarly rather soon. Ranked currently as the 240th-best player and 66th-best outfielder, Margot will shatter these rankings with a full season in the majors. Keep him in your queue and dont be afraid to reach a bit for the righty in the later rounds as he has the potential to be an impact basestealer, along with providing solid pop and average at the major-league level
Outfielder Michael Conforto
The contingency here is if the Mets have to get him enough at-bats. 2016 was brutal for the corner outfielder, but with consistent plate appearances, the talent is there for a strong bounce-back season. Jay Bruce, Yoenis Cespedes, Curtis Granderson, and Lucas Duda may all be ahead of Conforto on the depth chart, but it will only take one instance of the injury bug to guarantee playing time for the 24-year-old. If you want to take a bet on either Conforto hitting the cover off of the ball, or the Mets dealing with injuries I would say to take it as there are not many safer wagers you could find.
Starting Pitcher James Paxton
Yankee fans are familiar with the cautionary tale of Nathan Eovaldi. He had electric stuff, but hitters constantly found ways to square him up. James Paxton is the left-handed version of this story. Paxton was fourth in all of baseball in fielding independent pitching, and second in batting average on balls in play against (min. 120 IP), two metrics that point to some bad luck for the lefty. There is the possibility that Paxton’s favorable metrics were anomalies themselves and he truly is a mediocre pitcher, but if searching for depth in the later rounds there’s nothing wrong with betting on a 97-mph-throwing southpaw.
Outfielder Keon Broxton
Who is Keon Broxton? To ESPN he is 221st-best player, and 61st-best outfielder. To many, he is a potential five-tool breakout candidate for the Milwaukee Brewers. A full season for the Brew Crew in what will be his age-27 season, Broxton could pay big dividends to your fantasy team if he can figure things out with regularity. It is not hard to imagine a 20-homer, 30-stolen-base season for the center fielder with possible potential for even more.
Starting Pitcher Robbie Ray
Ray falls under a similar category to Paxton. A hard-throwing lefty with propensity to miss bats, Ray was the only pitcher in baseball last year to have a higher batting average on balls in play against than Paxton (min. 120 IP). Ray is in one of the least favorable ballparks for pitchers out in Arizona, but 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings is phenomenal and other statistics may play up with more polish in Ray’s age-25 season.
Second Baseman Logan Forsythe
Forsythe had a quietly great 2016 especially for a second baseman. Dealt from the Rays to the Dodgers this offseason, another year of 20+ doubles and 20+ homers is very much in play for the 30-year-old. Power like this at one of the most offensively shallow positions in fantasy, Forsythe as the 164th-ranked player is a nice coup if you miss out on one of the top second basemen in the early rounds.
6. Deep Sleepers
First Baseman Greg Bird
Yankee fans know who Greg Bird is. Many others do not. Bird missed all of 2016, but returns this year as the likely left-handed platoon at first base for the pinstripes. A left-handed swing with propensity to pull the ball in the air at Yankee Stadium sounds like a fairy tale almost too good to be true. Not even ranked by ESPN overall, and the 30th-best first basemen, Bird may make one of the biggest jumps of any player by year’s end. First base is a deep position for offense and do not be afraid to sit on Bird into the later rounds as he may very well end up top-ten at his position.
Starting Pitcher Tyler Glasnow
Glasnow will likely get a shot at the Bucs’ rotation and to showcase some of the most dynamic stuff in all of baseball. Year after year throughout the minors, the towering righty put up absurd hits per nine and strikeouts per nine numbers. He battles with walks at times, but a starter with the potential to put up Aroldis Chapman-like numbers across 150+ innings is worth a depth pick for your squad in the later rounds.
Outfielder Jorge Soler
Soler, similarly to Glasnow, has the potential to be an elite performer in a category or two. It’s all about putting everything together. That category for Soler is home runs, and he will likely get a shot at showcasing what he can do over a full season with the Royals. A true boom-or-bust draft choice, the 71-ranked outfielder may tickle your fancy in the later rounds if you are looking for outfield depth, or if you simply want to bet on a guy finally finding his 30-homer potential.
Cather Jorge Alfaro
Alfaro may not crack the big leagues out of camp, but monitor his situation as he should be ready soon. Beyond the top few players there is not much upside at catcher, but the Phillie prospect has one of the highest potential bats outside of the positional top-ten. Currently the 33rd-ranked backstop, Alfaro serves as a good stash candidate to help out later in the season in most offensive categories.
7. Relievers to Keep an Eye on
A.J. Ramos is the current closer in Miami, but Barraclough has the highest upside of anyone in that ‘pen. Dellin Betances-like numbers in a similar role, Barraclough may not record many saves this year, but will put up eye-popping strikeout rates with a chance to work the ninth with injuries or poor performance from others.
Devenski is the best pitcher you’ve never heard of. ESPN doesn’t list him anywhere in their top 300 or for either pitching role. However, as a flier in the last few rounds he is worth your pick. Devenski saw limited exposure as a starter in 2016, but thrived out of the bullpen for the Astros. His 2017 role is undetermined, but his upside is worth taking a chance on either way.
Shawn Kelley/Blake Treinen/Koda Glover And Everyone Else In The Nats’ Bullpen
Alright, maybe not everyone. The Nationals’ bullpen is somewhat of a mess. Follow the news to see who wins the closer job out of camp, but this might end up being a revolving door until one pitcher truly stands out. Kelley, Treinen, and Glover all have upside and one likely does become a good closer for the 2017 season. Keep an eye on the situation closely, as whoever wins the job will have plenty of opportunities for saves for a club like the Nats.