The fantasy baseball draft season is the most exciting time of the year. It is when we get to prove we are the smartest person in the room with the best research and best strategy to identify and select “upside targets” and “my guys.” In other words, be the best at drafting the players that will outperform their statistical projections and the relative cost of their draft position on the way to a championship season.
In the endless pursuit of being the fantasy baseball equivalent of Albert Einstein, or maybe more appropriately, the fantasy equivalent of Theo Epstein, I have embarked on an exercise to identify the one guy on each MLB roster who is the MOST VALUABLE UNDERVALUED PLAYER for his team.
Looking for value team-by-team is like adding a third dimension to the positional and overall rankings lists. It provides depth into a player’s hidden potential due to team construct, role, and opportunity. Statistical projection systems can take these “intangibles” into account to some degree, but I have found this process to be very beneficial in building a narrative about each team and to see each player as an integrated part of that system, not just a faceless, independent compiler of numbers.
I am basing my criteria for identifying the player on each team with the BEST chance of returning meaningful draft day profit on the likelihood of the reward outweighing the risk, relative to draft position. A safer floor and risk aversion being primary earlier in the draft and more boom or bust risk tolerance accepted as the draft moves into the later rounds.
Each undervalued player has been given a grade to help prioritize and establish a confidence level in his selection.
A – high floor, low risk, strong potential for significant return on value based on current ADP
B – solid floor, some risk, likely potential for moderate return on value based on current ADP
C – higher risk, elevated uncertainty, but high upside is worth the bust risk at the current ADP
National League East
Value Grade: B
Role: solid Middle Infielder or back-end SS in roto and deeper leagues
Current ADP: 171
Swanson’s value is a combination of what can be considered a safe floor relative to his small sample of MLB at-bats, and three other things… location, location, location! It’s difficult to believe, but the Braves were a top 10 offense in all of baseball for the 2nd half of 2016. Swanson will now slot into the two spot in the batting order right behind table setter Ender Inciarte and ahead of Freeman and Kemp. Even if the Braves offense regresses a little from the end of last year, they are still not as bad as the perception. The volume of opportunities lead to counting stats, and here are a couple of key facts to think about as to why Swanson can thrive:
- Ender Inciarte scored 85 runs last year in only 131 games, including 59 runs in the 2nd half
- Freddie Freeman totaled 693 plate appearances in 158 games
Entrenched at the top of the batting order every day, it isn’t unrealistic to project Swanson to score 90+ runs, and with the additional 75-100 plate appearances beyond pre-season projections, the other counting stats will tick up as well. A 15 HR, 15 SB season is very realistic and very useful as a solid middle infielder in roto or deep leagues.
Runner-up: Mike Foltynewicz (Current ADP: 337) High risk, but worth the gamble if he can refine his control. It’s a free roll of the dice at the ADP.
VALUE GRADE: A-
Role: solid Corner Infielder or back-end 1B in roto and deeper leagues
Current ADP: 331
Bour’s upside, like Swanson, is also linked to a likely increase in volume based on reports that Bour will be given every day at bats this season instead of just being the left-handed side of a platoon. The stigma on Bour is that he can’t hit lefties, but that may not be true. He is a .223 hitter in 103 career at bats against southpaws with 6 doubles and 13 RBI, which looks underwhelming on the surface, but he’s not miserably lost. Bour also shows an increase in line drive rate and lower fly ball rate with no real change to his ground ball rate or soft contact rate vs. lefties as opposed to his splits versus righties.
It’s a small sample, but he appears to have a strategic approach, and given time, reasonably can have improved results vs. lefties. Considering Bour was on a 30 HR, 90+ RBI pace before a bad ankle injury derailed his 2016 season, and the strong possibility of an extra 10 runs scored and 12-15 RBI in his additional at bats against lefties, and you have big profit and Top 20 first base potential coming from a guy being drafted past pick 300. Manager Don Mattingly is a believer, and so should you.
Runner-up: Marcell Ozuna (ADP: 182) – Very likely 25 HR, 80 RBI production, ranked as the 49th OF pre-season, but a solid chance to be a top 30 OF by season’s end.
NEW YORK METS
VALUE GRADE: C+
Role: back of the rotation starter in deeper leagues
Current ADP: 315
There is a plethora of potential upside up and down the Mets’ roster, but most of it is tied to checkered injury history and uncertainty of playing time. Duda, d’Arnaud, Harvey, and Matz are all just as likely to spend significant time on the DL as they are to compile enough playing time to return significant value. And even if Michael Conforto is given a role, it will likely be as the strong side of a platoon, limiting his upside for this season.
Ironically, the guy who seemingly has the clearest path to a full season of production is a pitcher who was practically unknown before last August. Coming off an impressive late season debut (2.42 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 42 K/44 IP), Gsellman has now practically locked up the 5th starter role for the Mets as Zack Wheeler has suffered another setback. Considering the unlikelihood of Wheeler coming back as an effective starter, AND all other Mets starters remaining healthy throughout the season, it is very easy to predict Gsellman for 30 starts.
The Mets like him, and their track record for developing pitchers is excellent. His stock will rise a bit before the season starts, but the draft cost is still very low. If he fails, you haven’t lost much on a late round pick, but there is a reasonable chance he ends the year as a top-40 pitcher.
Runner-up: Michael Conforto (ADP: 297) – I gave the edge to Gsellman because I am more confident in his job security, but if Conforto gets an everyday chance and runs away with the job, we might be looking at a Top-100 pick or better next year.
VALUE GRADE: A
Role: solid Corner Infielder or back-end 3B in roto and deeper leagues
Current ADP: 139
In 2016, Maikel Franco hit 18 HR and had 52 RBI… in the 1st half. From his call-up in May 2015 to the All-Star Break of 2016, he amassed 39 HR and 117 RBI in 651 AB’s. The only thing standing in the way of Franco being easily considered a Top-10 third baseman or better is some bad luck. He fractured his wrist after being hit by a pitch in September 2015 and was hit again on that wrist in July 2016. It was at that point in July last year when Franco’s power and batting average uncharacteristically declined. He played through the injury (it wasn’t fractured this time) and only hit 7 more HR the rest of the way.
His line drive rate increased and his fly ball rate decreased. Wrist injuries tend to linger and are known to sap power. It’s very likely that Franco was never 100% after being hit on the wrist and the change in batted ball rates was a reflection of the injury affecting his ability to generate power, or a calculated shift in approach to compensate for the ailing wrist.
Spring Training stats are not overly useful, but in some cases, as in a player coming back from injury and a sharp decline in production, they can help tell a story and predict future outcomes. Franco already has three Grapefruit League homers. It appears that the off-season has given Franco time to completely heal, and barring another fastball to the wrist, he is primed for a 30-35 HR, 100 RBI season hitting in the heart of a somewhat improved Phillies offense.
Runner-up: Jared Eickhoff (ADP:224) – By default, his safe floor going 50 picks after injury question mark Aaron Nola and wildcard Vincent Velasquez is a non-exciting, but rational call. Hey, what do you expect? It’s the Phillies.
Honorable Mention: Tommy Joseph (ADP: 275) – Being drafted in the later rounds, he might run into 25 HR’s. Again, it’s the Phillies.
VALUE GRADE: B-
Role: Starting catcher in 12+ team leagues
Current ADP: 222
It’s not easy to find untapped draft value on a team that has five players being taken in the top-50, so the Nationals newest member gets the nod here. With the Nats seemingly quick to move on from Derek Norris, Wieters is in line for a solid workload in 2017. Health is a bit of a concern for Wieters, but almost all backstops carry that risk. There is also a reasonable chance that he sees some right-side platoon at-bats at 1B once Ryan Zimmerman inevitably hits the DL. Add in the additional opportunities provided by hitting in a very formidable lineup and Wieters will have no problem eclipsing 20 HR and 70 RBI, which will do quite nicely for a catcher being drafted around pick 220.
Runner up: Bryce Harper (ADP: 9) – This is my way of asking, would you be surprised if next year at this time we are again debating Trout or Harper #1? If you are drafting in the back half of Round 1 and can land Harper, be thrilled.
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