12-Team Mixed Leagues
Cron’s ability to hit for power hasn’t really ever been in question, and he’s displayed that prominently over his last 29 plate appearances, smacking five of his 11 home runs on the season. I’ve always viewed Cron ultimately as sort of a Diet Trumbo thanks to his low-OBP/big-time-power combo, but what has caught my eye with Cron this season is that he’s increased his walk rate and lowered his strikeout rate in each of his three big-league campaigns. Cron’s walk rate has hovered around four percent in each of his first two partial big league seasons, and is up to just over six percent this season, and his strikeout rate, which was 24 percent in 2014 and 20 percent in 2015, is checking in at 14 percent in 75 games this season, making him a much more viable option in OBP leagues, and his .336 OBP this season places him inside the top-20 among first basemen.
If you’ve been relying on the recently injured Brandon Moss or Justin Bour at first base, the 26-year-old Cron is more than capable of filling in with some pop, and I’d probably count on him to provide more production over the season’s second-half that several options currently ahead of him on ESPN’s Player Rater, including Mike Napoli and Travis Shaw, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he also returned more value than Brandon Belt and Freddie Freeman as well.
Gordon is eligible to return from his PED suspension on July 28th, which means he can start playing in minor league games on July 18th. Let’s not overthink this from a fantasy standpoint; the number one overall hitter from last season according to ESPN’s Player Rater should be owned in leagues of all sizes. If he’s available for free, find a spot for him, and do it now. If he’s not available, I’d certainly be kicking the tires and looking to buy. Xander Bogaerts, Paul Goldschmidt, Bryce Harper, and Alcides Escobar have all stolen 11 bases this year, which places them inside the top-25 among base thieves this season. Dee Gordon stole 11 or more bases in three different months last season. — J.J. Jansons
Lance McCullers, SP, Houston (Available in 48% of ESPN.com leagues)
The 22-year-old’s relatively low ownership rate could be attributed to a stint on the disabled list to open the 2016 campaign and a slew of rocky outings command-wise (5.1 BB/9) upon his mid-May return. By punching out at least six batters in eight of his nine starts this season, the strikeouts (11.2 K/9) have remained a constant for McCullers and his control has rounded into (better) shape over the last month. He’s done a fantastic job limiting home runs, giving up just one in 53 innings of work and he’s kept the ball on the ground at a much higher rate (59 percent, up from 48 percent a year ago) this season. Unfortunately, he’s been victimized by an absurd .382 BABIP, which is nearly 100 points above league-average. Even a modest regression in that department would vastly improve his overall rates. Given the floor that his lofty strikeout rate offers, if the command continues to improve and he is able to work deeper into games, McCullers has a chance to produce like an ace. There’s no way he should be available in competitive leagues right now.
Anthony DeSclafani, SP, Cincinnati (Available in 58% of ESPN.com leagues)
The statistics speak for themselves when it comes to DeSclafani’s performance since coming off the disabled list last month. In six starts, he’s posted a 2.23 ERA (1.29 WHIP) with just nine walks and 29 strikeouts over 36 1/3 innings. In addition to blanking the Padres at home, the 26-year-old right-hander has also shut down the Rangers, Nationals and Cubs (all on the road), firing six innings in each start, since June 21. Obviously wins will be difficult to come by in Cincinnati, but he’s clearly emerged as the “ace” of their rotation. Even in shallow mixed leagues, DeSclafani is a valuable back-end fantasy rotation anchor who could play a huge role in the second half of the season. –George Bissell
15-Team Mixed Leagues
Kepler has seemingly improved each week that he’s spent in the big leagues, and it now looks like he’ll be the regular right fielder in Minnesota for the remainder of the season, with Miguel Sano moving back to third base. I’ll admit to some bias regarding Kepler, but last year’s Southern League MVP has been productive since nabbing the starting job in right field in early-June, appearing as the 15th-best outfielder over the last 30 days, just ahead of some big-time fantasy options at the position in Bryce Harper, Starling Marte, Nelson Cruz, and Giancarlo Stanton. Kepler hit for a just-below league average (.255/.324/.447) line in June, his first full-month as a starting big-leaguer, which included three home runs and two stolen bases, and he’s clubbed three more home runs in his first 25 July plate appearances. Obviously we have a less-than-ideal sample size to work with this season with Kepler, but he’s hitting the ball very hard early in his career, as his average exit velocity of 91.9 MPH (per Baseball Savant) places him inside the top-50 among all hitters this season (min. 80 batted ball events).
Kepler also hasn’t looked overmatched against left-handed pitching to this point, hitting for a .739 OPS against southpaws (with two HR) in 54 PA, after hitting them well (.869 OPS) last season at Double-A, which could ensure everyday playing time going forward. Kepler stole 18 bases at the Double-A level last season while walking more than he punched out, and it looks like the power is coming along nicely at the major-league level to this point. It appears “Mr. Oktoberfest” has a clear path to playing time over the season’s second-half, and I feel the 23-year-old’s bat is advanced enough to be an asset in deeper leagues over the remainder of the season, and Twins skipper Paul Molitor has moved him up to fifth in the Minnesota order in recent days. — J.J. Jansons
If you don’t believe middle relievers can make a tangible impact in fantasy baseball, allow me to direct your attention to Mike Gianella’s latest in-season valuations, where Bundy’s teammate Brad Brach ranks among the top 10 pitchers in the AL this season. Which brings us back to Bundy, who is not only racking up strikeouts at a prodigious pace, but also hasn’t given up an earned run in over a month. Since June 9, Bundy has worked 14 1/3 scoreless innings while striking out 19 batters. The 23-year-old right-hander may ultimately go down as a colossal bust (due to injuries) for failing to become a frontline starter, but he’s excelled in long relief this season and fantasy owners should start to take notice.
Zach Eflin, SP, Philadelphia (Available in 95% of ESPN.com leagues)
Fantasy owners may remember Eflin as the “guy who got lit up by Toronto in his major-league debut.” That’s true, but in four starts since, the 22-year-old right-hander has allowed just six earned runs total (2.03 ERA). He’s exhibited superb control, issuing just one walk over his last 26 2/3 innings of work, while striking out 13. Given the underwhelming strikeout rate (4.6 K/9) there isn’t a ton of upside here with Eflin, but given how well he has performed in recent outings, he’s a viable streaming option capable of insulating fantasy owners ratios in deeper mixed leagues. It’s impossible to recommend him this weekend against Colorado in Coors Field, but if he survives that outing, he will return to facing NL East lineups in more favorable settings after the All-Star break. –George Bissell
Avoiding Green’s impending matchup (tonight) against Cleveland’s scorching-hot offense is advisable. However, if he succeeds in shutting down the Indians blistering bats and continues to hold down a rotation spot over Nathan Eovaldi, he’s not going to be available on the waiver wire in AL-only formats after the All-Star break. The 25-year-old right-hander limited the lowly Padres offense to just one run on three hits, while striking out eight over six innings in his last outing and was impressive in 14 starts at Triple-A (1.54 ERA with 82 strikeouts and just 19 walks in 81 2/3 innings) prior to his latest promotion. Green isn’t a budding superstar, but if he can lock down a spot in the Yankees rotation, he has legitimate value in AL-only formats over the remainder of the 2016 campaign. –George Bissell
Milwaukee’s Wednesday trade sending 3B Aaron Hill to the Red Sox opens the door for Middlebrooks to play at the hot corner regularly for the Brewers. Whether or not Middlebrooks, who was walking in just over three percent of his plate appearances at Triple-A Colorado Springs, can take the job and run with it is in question, but in NL-only formats he’s worth grabbing. Middlebrooks is capable of providing 8-12 home runs with an average in the .250-.260 range if he does play regularly in Milwaukee over the rest of the season, and he appeared to be gearing his swing for power in my viewings while in Colorado Springs, hitting 10 home runs in 68 Pacific Coast League games. — J.J. Jansons