With spring training reaching peak twilight and the biggest drafting weekend of the year approaching, it’s time for my final marker post column of the preseason.
We’ve been doing rankings and analysis here for the last three months and hopefully they’ve been helpful to you as you sort through all of the information that lead to your most important draft decisions. And to top it off, as we get to the endgame of draft season, it seems only natural to focus on the endgame of drafts. It’s the most interesting, and often most important segment of your draft. Sure, if you miss on your first round pick or get $5 in value from your $25 player, you’re in a hole that can be very difficult to climb out of. As I’ve said many times, closing out your draft strong is a must if you want to win your league.
So the list assembled below is not all of the players worth targeting towards the end of drafts, just the ones that I personally have my eye on. The ones who will end up in my queue once there are only around five rounds or so to go. And since we all play in different-sized leagues, these endgame targets should reflect a variety of formats, starting with your more standard 12-team mixed leagues and ending with reserve picks I like in single-league formats. Finally, there’s one important thing this list is not—and that is my picks for elite, breakout seasons. Sure, there are some players in here who may have that upside, but on the whole, these are players who could outperform their current draft spot in a meaningful way. After all, a dollar player that returns $10 of value is just as valuable as your fifth-rounder returning second round value.
So I sat down to come up with my twenty guys for this year, and this is the list that ensued. Of course, because I’m mildly sleep deprived, I miscalculated and gave you 22 players instead of the 20 I had planned. Somehow I don’t think you’ll mind. And here they are, broken out by league type:
12-TEAM MIXED LEAGUES
Yordano Ventura, SP, Kansas City Royals (ADP: 262)
The diminutive fireballer has been one of the talks of Arizona this spring, and unlike the other one (Javier Baez), Ventura will have a job with the major league club to start the season. Now, he is not on here because I think he might be the next Matt Harvey/Jose Fernandez—I don’t think Ventura will register the strikeouts requisite for that next level breakout, but he could throw 190 innings with a sub-3.50 ERA and around 150-160 strikeouts (which would be a very nice return this late your draft)
Ian Kennedy, SP, San Diego Padres (ADP: 266)
It’s a little strange being on the other side of the Ian Kennedy conversation. I was one of the very vocal anti-Kennedy crowd after his extremely impressive 2011 season in Arizona, but he’s not nearly as bad of a pitcher as he was in 2013. If you split the difference there, you get essentially what he did in 2012—15 wins, 187 strikeouts and a 101 ERA+, which in San Diego should be much better for fantasy purposes than in Arizona.
Ivan Nova, SP, New York Yankees, (ADP: 282)
Nova is one of those guys with a sexy spring training K:BB ratio (21-to-2 in 19 2/3 innings), but his rebirth started well before this. After returning from the DL in June of 2013, he managed to have a 2.70 ERA, 1.19 ERA and 90 strikeouts in just 116 2/3 innings in the Bronx. And this isn’t just a string of good luck either—Nova has essentially ditched his slider for a curveball, which has been the weapon he’s been searching for. If he can continue to limit the walks (he walked only 7.1 percent during that strong 2013 stretch, which would have been a career low), he can become a true no. 3 fantasy starter.
Dustin Ackley, 2B/OF, Seattle Mariners (ADP: 323)
Ackley’s 2013 season was shaping up as another major disappointment until the calendar flipped to August—at which point he reminded us why he was taken second overall in the TKTK draft. Over the last two months, he hit .313/.392/.456 with 13 extra-base hits in 147 at-bats. Poised to hit atop an improved Mariners’ lineup, Ackley has remained on fire throughout the spring, hitting .414 in 58 at-bats. If he can keep this up, a high average/OBP, 90 runs and a little bit everywhere else is possible. He makes for a great Jurickson Profar replacement if you’ve already drafted in your shallow mixed league.
Martin Perez, SP, Texas Rangers (ADP: 330)
Long one of my favorites, Perez gets two bad wraps that deflate his value. First, he’s a failed prospect—flaming out in Triple-A before finally having small sample sized success in the majors. Second, he’s a low strikeout pitcher, and he’s unlikely to register more than six strikeouts per nine. Those are the wraps, here’s the reality: Perez is a 23 year old pitcher with a career 104 ERA+ and better stuff than he’s shown from a strikeout perspective. He won’t be a superstar, but he’s better than this ADP/perceived value.
Chris Owings, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks (ADP: 346)
With Didi Gregorius looking more and more like trade bait, Owings looks poised to take the starting job in Arizona and run with it. And the great thing about taking him in 12-team leagues is that if he doesn’t work out, there are more middle infielders available on the wire. He’s capable of hitting .270 with double-digits in both power and speed, which would almost immediately make him a near top-10 option at the position.
16-TEAM MIXED LEAGUES
Hector Santiago, SP, Los Angeles Angels (ADP: 350)
What do you get when you take a 26-year-old starter with a career 126 ERA+ and 37.5 percent ground-ball rate out of the homer-happy U.S. Cellular Field and into one of the most home-run-suppressing parks in the American League? You get a lot of happy fantasy owners. Santiago may never have a sparkling WHIP, but he should be able to keep a low ERA and maintain his rising strikeout rate from his continued transition from reliever to starter. Gee, that doesn’t sound anything like one of his new rotation mates, does it?
Ike Davis, 1B, New York Mets (ADP: 352)
At this point in the draft, you’re not going to find very many hitters who are 27 years old and have a 30 home run season on their resume within the last two seasons. Of course, there’s also plenty of risk here, which is why he’s available at this point in drafts. But hidden in his terrible 2013 season was the 170 plate appearances between his demotion and his season-ending injury, when he hit .267/.429/.443 with 38 walks and 35 strikeouts. If he can somehow match that approach with the power that’s in there, there could be a big rebound in store for Davis.
Jesse Crain, RP, Houston Astros (ADP: 361)
It’s always a good sign when a team goes to the vaunted closer-by-committee before they even give one of their own guys a chance to fail in the role. This is the track the Astros are on, but fortunately they have a pitcher coming fresh off a season with a 0.74 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 46 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings. Crain should be ready to roll before the end of April, and his skill level is a huge separator from the bulk in the Houston bullpen.
Tyler Skaggs, SP, Los Angeles Angels (ADP: 389)
After averaging less than 91 MPH on his fastball in all of the first three seasons of his career, this spring Skaggs has seen a huge jump to 93.6 MPH. And while that type of velocity jump may be dangerous in the long-term, it looks awfully attractive this year. The stats this spring have not been as rosy as the radar guns, but that remains almost entirely unimportant. The combination of the park and defense behind him could turn him into a breakout star if he does a better job of making sure he’s not sacrificing too much control/command for velocity.
Corey Dickerson, OF, Colorado Rockies (ADP: 399)
A 24-year-old with a career .321/.379/.601 line in the minor leagues sitting atop the Rockies’ lineup and nearly outside the top 400 picks in drafts? Yes, please. Dickerson will likely sit against lefties, but the upside here is that of a top-30 outfielder. And with his competition coming from Drew Stubbs, Brandon Barnes and Charlie Blackmon—a ragtag bunch of misfits worthy of being called that—Dickerson won’t have to hit much to justify his playing time. This is not another #Buttledge, Dickerson can hit.
TWO-CATCHER MIXED LEAGUES
Derek Norris, C, Oakland Athletics (ADP: 378)
The news coming out of A’s camp this week that Norris will once again platoon at catcher with John Jaso is disappointing in the short term but a good thing for his draft price if you’re drafting this week/weekend. I still don’t believe that the Athletics will either put up with Jaso’s below average defense (both traditional and framing—he showed up a few times here for the wrong reasons) or Stephen Vogt’s offense for an extended period of time. Norris combines both skills better than anyone in the organization and could hit nearly 20 homers and steal 10 bases given a full season’s worth of at bats.
Jonathan Schoop, 2B, Baltimore Orioles (ADP: 482)
It was thought that the competition was between Ryan Flaherty and Jemile Weeks to determine who would hold the fort down until Schoop was ready around mid-season. However, Schoop apparently has other plans. Hitting .400 with a pair of homers in 35 at-bats this spring, the Orioles may just give him the job outright out of Spring Training. He could be a potential .260 hitter with 20 homers—especially playing in that park.
Drew Hutchison, SP, Toronto Blue Jays (ADP: 503)
The winner of the fourth starter competition in Toronto, Hutchison is trying to reclaim the magic of his former prospect days, despite only being 23 years old. After a very strong 2011 minor-league season, Hutchison was one of the 500,000 players claimed to injury in the 2012 Blue Jays campaign—requiring Tommy John surgery. Now back, Hutchison has impressed in camp and is capable of adding some strikeouts to your AL-only team without destroying its ratios.
Kelvin Herrera, RP, Kansas City Royals (ADP: 518)
Herrera was not only dominant, but was one of the best relievers in the game during his 2012 season—but with some poor home run luck, he struggled to maintain that level of success last season. Well, to be fair, he struggled to do that only prior to his demotion on May 22. Before that date, he had given up nine homers in just 20 2/3 innings and once back, that number dropped to one in 38 1/3 innings. He’s not likely to rack up saves with Greg Holland in front of him, but he doesn’t need them to return $8-10 in AL-only formats this season.
Mike Olt, 3B, Chicago Cubs (ADP: 479)
We can only hope the vision problems are behind him at this point, but with a good chance at the starting third-base gig out of spring training, Olt can take the first step in proving that his days of disappointment are over. After all, is Luis Valbuena really going to get in his way?
Edwin Jackson, SP, Chicago Cubs (ADP: 489)
Do I even need to qualify this anymore? E-Jax gets the short end of the stick because he’s constantly moving organizations and can be somewhat painful to watch, but he’s so much more consistent than you think. His FIPs over the last four seasons have been 3.86, 3.55, 3.85, and 3.79. He’s also coming off his second best year in ground-ball rate at 51.3 percent. You can do it. You can believe in E-Jax, too.
Danny Espinosa, 2B, Washington Nationals (ADP: 514)
Espinosa has really done nothing to prove that he should be a starter for the Nationals, but playing behind a rather injury-prone infield should find him plenty of playing time this season. Whether it’s Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Anthony Rendon or potentially even Adam LaRoche going to the DL, Espinosa would play regularly should injury strike. He still carries the same huge batting average risk, but near 20/20 potential to pair it with.
AL-ONLY FORMAT, RESERVE PICKS
Kyle Gibson, SP, Minnesota Twins (ADP: 653)
With a rotation spot in hand for the Twins, Gibson will look to bounce back to the mid-rotation sinkerballer he projected to be both coming out of the University of Missouri and off his strong AFL campaign in 2012. If he’s right, he can put up a sub-4.00 ERA with 140-150 strikeouts—just don’t expect many wins. He went in the reserve round of AL Tout Wars this past Sunday.
Brian Matusz, RP, Baltimore Orioles (ADP: 732)
There are few players I have less confidence in this season than Tommy Hunter. Of course, it’s not like Matusz has been a superstar out of the bullpen, but with Buck Showalter having a history of using non-traditional closers in the role (hello Jim Johnson and your very low strikeout rate), Matusz could find his way into 8-10 saves even if he’s just part of a committee. Plus, with Zach Britton (another one of my favorites and good AL-only reserve pick in his own right) showing his best side this spring, he could give Showalter the flexibility to carry a lefty closer.
NL-ONLY FORMAT, RESERVE PICKS
Andrew Heaney, SP, Miami Marlins (ADP: 483)
I wrote extensively about Heaney here last week, so I’ll keep it brief. I think he’s just about major league ready and the Marlins have shown a strong willingness to bring players up early. I would not be surprised if Heaney threw 140 innings at the major-league level this year.
Taylor Jordan, SP, Washington Nationals (ADP: 568)
What the Nationals are doing with Tanner Roark, I have no idea. Honestly, he’s probably the third-best option for the fifth spot in Washington, but with Ross Detwiler already languishing in the bullpen, it looks like Jordan may be the guy to supplant him. In 52 innings last season, Jordan had a miniscule five percent walk rate and huge 57.5 ground-ball rate. The only hiccup for value here was his 13.2 percent strikeout rate, but his 10.2 percent swinging-strike rate was higher than league average and could potentially make him a Holy Trinity sleeper candidate. I really like Jordan if he gets this job, and here’s hoping that happens.
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Tyson Ross first: San Diego and strong breakout
Miller next: strong lineup should maintain win totals even if he has a bit of a sophomore slump
Wheeler: maybe a year away from breakout. Plus weak team behind him and at plate. Too much uncertainty for me.
Caveat: as a Mets fan I am prone to the classic Mets fan self-loathing reflex, especially in the spring. These are all pretty good options. Ross is probably the least injury-vulnerable, being the oldest of the three. That would also support that.