Helium is fantastic for balloons, terrible for prospects. When a promising hitter or pitcher with more tools than your local hardware store makes it to The Show, it’s easy to envision greatness almost solely because we haven’t seen them fail. Some don’t immediately justify the hype from fantasy owners, who have become borderline obsessed with finding “the next breakout.” It’s players that have failed to live up to the expectations (no matter how big or small) that become post-hype targets for savvy fantasy owners, who scoop them up at a reduced draft day price tag and reap the rewards. While my colleague Greg Wellemeyer tackles the compelling names on the AL side of the ledger today, here are a few prominent targets entering the 2016 campaign on the senior circuit.
Christian Yelich, OF, Marlins
Coming off an impressive full-season debut, in which he slashed .284/.362/.402 with 94 runs scored, nine home runs, 54 RBI, and 21 stolen bases over 660 plate appearances in 2014, it was easy for fantasy owners to envision Yelich blossoming into a complete five-category monster entering last season. Unfortunately, a pair of disabled-list stints as a result of separate back and knee injuries derailed the early part of his 2015 campaign. On June 26th, he was hitting .227/.295/.319 over 55 games. The next night, Yelich went 4-for-4 against the Dodgers and finished the remainder of the season on an absolute tear offensively, slashing .357/.419/.491 with 29 extra-base hits and 11 steals over his final 298 plate appearances (71 games).
A 62 percent groundball rate, the highest mark of any major-league hitter last season, caps his power upside, but there is always the possibility that Yelich begins to hit more flyballs and morphs into a decade-younger version of Shin-Soo Choo (the good version). Currently the 27th outfielder (103rd overall) being selected on average in NFBC drafts, Yelich is looking like a much better value now that the hype has dissipated than he was a year ago when his ADP was in the mid-70s.
Vincent Velasquez, SP, Phillies
A much more compelling prospect for keeper and dynasty formats, Velasquez has the raw strikeout stuff to excel as a fantasy starter. He generated a healthy amount of buzz when he jumped directly from Double-A into the major-league rotation without skipping a beat last summer. After he was jettisoned to the bullpen down the stretch, left off the postseason roster, and shipped to the NL East cellar-dwellers in November, the hype surrounding the 23-year-old has cooled off considerably this offseason.
The question is less about whether or not he will get an opportunity, but rather, how soon it will come in Philadelphia? The stuff is excellent. Velasquez, whose average fastball velocity eclipsed 95 mph, fanned over a batter per inning during a 19-appearance (seven-start) stint with Houston. Unfortunately, he became a victim of the Astros numbers crunch given their considerable rotation depth this offseason. Velasquez was unlikely to get a real opportunity (barring major injury) in the Lone Star State, but the rotation is a bit more unsettled for the Phillies. Granted they have a plethora of options, but few have the youth and upside of Velasquez. Currently being selected outside the top 90 starting pitchers, he’s worth a gamble in the late rounds.
Javier Baez, 2B/SS, Cubs
If you look up “post-hype sleeper” in the 2016 edition of the fantasy owner’s dictionary, you will undoubtedly find Baez picture staring back at you. A classic example of an uber-talented, insanely young middle infielder with serious swing-and-miss potential, Baez crashed and burned (striking out in 41 percent of his plate appearances) upon his first exposure to major-league pitching in 2014. He did make noticeable progress with his plate discipline in the minors last year, hitting .324/.385/.527 (.203 ISO) with 13 home runs in 313 plate appearances at Triple-A Iowa before making it back to Chicago, where he hit .289/.325/.408 (.268 TAv) with seven extra-base hits and one stolen base over 80 plate appearance in September. The most encouraging sign was the increase in his contact rate, which soared from 59 percent in his rookie year to 68 percent in 2015.
He’s always going to be a hitter who strikes out a lot, but the fact that he was able to make adjustments is extremely encouraging going forward. He’s still only 23 years old. With entrenched starters at virtually every position across the diamond in Chicago, Baez is expected to play a number of positions as manager Joe Maddon’s super-utility option. The versatility will be coveted, no doubt, and given his current ADP (292nd) there is virtually no risk in taking a chance on Baez in re-draft formats.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pirates
It feels like cheating to put an established major-league hitter like Polanco on this list, but given that he hasn’t developed into a bona fide fantasy superstar, some fantasy owners have soured on his long-term outlook. Development isn’t linear and expecting him to become an immediate five-category impact producer probably wasn’t realistic. In 652 plate appearances, Polanco hit .256/.320/.381 with 83 runs scored, nine home runs, 52 RBI, and 27 steals last season. Those numbers don’t stand out, but the impact he provides across the board, especially in stolen bases, has the potential to propel him into the upper echelon of fantasy outfielders as quickly as 2016. Don’t sleep on Polanco, who is currently going as the 25th outfielder (90th overall) off the board in NFBC leagues. Savvy fantasy owners, who have recognized the increased value of stolen bases are sure to be all over the 24-year-old this spring.
Kolten Wong, 2B, Cardinals
The 25-year-old was on pace for a monster campaign, hitting .281/.339/.444 with nine home runs and eight stolen bases over his first 333 plate appearances (81 games) before suffering a concussion on July 7th. He didn’t go on the DL, but the head injury coincided with a major decline in production at the plate over the remainder of the season. Granted we are using arbitrary endpoints to fit a narrative, but it’s almost impossible to deny the connection. Over his final 280 plate appearances (69 games) Wong hit .239/.300/.318 with just two home runs and seven steals. He also failed to hit a home run over his final 54 games to close out the season, which almost defies logic. Given how much he struggled down the stretch, some fantasy owners have shied away from Wong this spring, which may end up being a huge mistake. Assuming he’s healthy, there’s huge bounce-back potential in 2016.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now