The Next Fantasy Stars
Rick Wolf gives his take on the future stars of fantasy baseball that are must-targets in this year's drafts.
BULL DURHAM: FINDING THE STARS OF TOMORROW TODAY
Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it's also a job.
In the 1988 classic movie Bull Durham about the trials and tribulations of getting to “the show”, pitcher Nuke LaLoosh, played by Tim Robbins, is going to the bigs as soon as he is mentally “mature”. He has the talent. The big-league club has a rotation spot for him, but he simply doesn’t have experience. The Durham Bulls bring in career minor leaguer catcher Crash Davis, played by Kevin Costner, to help teach Nuke the ropes so he can make it in the show. All hell breaks loose when a super fan, Annie, played by Susan Sarandon, picks Nuke over Crash despite her clear feelings for the slugging catcher.
“I hook up with one guy a season. Usually takes me a couple weeks to pick the guy - kinda my own spring training. And, well, you two are the most promising prospects of the season so far…”
Over the last five years, Glenn Colton and I have looked at determining how to find breakout candidates. For hitters, our rule is the player must be 23-26 years old with 800 or more at-bats in the major leagues and a trend that shows some growth with the potential for a lot more. For pitchers, the player must be 26-30 having had a track record with the right skills and be in position to take that huge step up. That means the player must throw hard, have command of the strike zone and be with a team and situation where he can succeed with opportunity, run support and even the right pitching coach. We then apply the SMART system rules to players to make sure these are safe break out candidates. The purpose of this is to find players that will be undervalued. All these names you will know well, but none of these players are in the Top-100 Average Draft Position (ADP – thanks to the NFBC as of the end of January), their floors are high and their ceilings are in the stratosphere.
Jorge Soler - Royals - OF - Bats: R Age: 25 ADP: 279
Soler is chiseled like few athletes and is enormously talented. Although he spent 56 days on the DL last year, he is turning 25 years old during this MLB season. He homered about once per 18 at-bats last season and the power is real. He was surrounded by a lot of talented young players in Chicago and will now be in Kansas City where he will play every day and even get his rest at designated hitter instead of on the bench. At one home run each eighteen at-bats, a 550 at-bat season would equate to 30 jacks. His contact rate was up. His strikeout rate was down. His walk rate increased by four percent. His batting average balls in play was 80 points lower than in 2015 suggesting that he was slighty unlucky and the batting average should go at least into the .260s. He has raw power, is young, ripped, talented with a ceiling much higher than 30 bombs and a .260 average. Here is the kicker. His ADP is 289 which means in a 12-team mixed league, he is being drafted in the 24th round. Are you kidding me?
Javier Baez - Cubs – 2B/SS/3B - Bats: R Age: 24 ADP: 112
Baez hit more than 30 home runs in the minor leagues in 2013 and 2014. When he reached the majors, he lost a little of that power, but it was because there was so much more to do. He played three positions. Sometimes he started. Sometimes he came off the bench. He pinch hit eighteen times. All this moving around can keep a player from finding his groove. He will play three positions again, but he will play every single day. Getting more comfortable in the friendly confines and his age say that the power will surge. Don’t expect the batting average to drop even though he had a ridiculous batting average balls in play. He also dropped his strikeout percentage by six percent. His upside is 35 home runs. Javier Baez is possibly the most talented young player in baseball. Talent usually needs opportunity and experience. Baez is ready in 2017.
Odubel Herrera – Phillies - OF - Bats: L Age: 25 ADP: 121
Herrera has been on fantasy baseball players’ lists for years because of his speed, but here are some indicators that say the breakout in power is coming. His contact rate is up more than three percent to 77.2. His walk rate is way up to almost double from 5.2 percent to 9.6. His batting average went down, but his OBP and OPS both went up. His strikeout rate is down four percent from 2015 to 20 percent. That is still a bit high, but you can see that he is getting better pitches to hit by being patient. These are all great indicators, but we need to be sure so here is a couple more points in his favor. This is his 7th pro season with two full seasons in the majors. That makes him the poster child for the SMART System break out candidate. His home runs doubled and he is at the age to begin a power burst so he will go over 20 home runs this season. He stole nine more bases last year than in 2015 in only 90 more at-bats so he will likely steal a few more there too making a potential 20 home run and 30 stolen base season within range. Now add that he signed a five-year deal so he won’t feel pressure from prospects and Odubel is ready to break out in a big way.
J.T. Realmuto – Marlins – C – Bats: R Age: 26 ADP: 101
Realmuto is likely to have more than a dozen stolen bases again this year from the catcher position. That should make him a Top-100 ADP for scarcity of position and category. There are less than half as many stolen bases as there are home runs in the majors. Only a handful of catchers have the potential to outperform him, Buster Posey being one of those fellas. Only Gary Sanchez might be the real deal and can provide the power, a little speed and the only reason he doesn’t make this list is that he has less major league experience with only 229 at-bats while Realmuto has over 900. Realmuto is now only 25 which is the time when players power starts to pop. It would not surprise me if he hit 20 home runs and had 15 stolen bases from the catcher position. Invest with confidence.
Yasmany Tomas – Diamondbacks – OF – Bats: R Age: 26 ADP: 148
There was so much fanfare for the talented Cuban defector when he arrived in America in 2014 signing a six-year deal worth more than $68M. Is it fair to say that he broke out last year? He did hit 31 home runs so why call for a breakout from a player like that? He can go a lot further and 2016 is likely to be his floor. The key to his power has been his ability to take more pitches and more walks. His strikeout rate is slightly down while maintaining his contact rate. All these things should take a nice leap and the power should go up believe it or not. With a better lineup position, he will also score more runs and possibly drive in 100.
Michael Fulmer – Tigers – RHP Age: 24 ADP: 140
Can you really call him a break out candidate when he won AL Rookie of the Year? Well, when you can get a pitcher who will take the next step in the 10th round or after, it qualifies. Fulmer had a rough start to the season, but settled into a rhythm in June when he went 3-1 in five starts with a minuscule 0.61 ERA which saved his season as August and September were league average. So why bank a breakout on a guy that was league average? He throws gas with 94.8 MPH average fastball and a more than 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio. When Fulmer pitches in the day time, he had a 1968 Denny McLain like ERA of 1.78 so expect to see him more in the daylight. He will learn pitch selection and to throw that nasty change up in the counts where hitters are crushing him. Hitters bat .412 on 1-1 counts and an unconscious .455 on 2-0. Coaches will teach this and his 95 mph fastball and changeup in all counts will propel him to the top.
Vince Velasquez – Phillies – RHP Age: 25 ADP: 153
He was virtually unhittable in the minors and it is taking him some time to adjust. He throws 94 mph and can pitch. His team is not good so maybe he should not be here, but his ADP has him being selected in the 16th round in a 12-team mixed. He strikes out more than one per inning, has the poise of a seasoned veteran and is ready to burst out in the NL East. His year ended early because of injury and the Phillies were playing it safe. He flashed brilliance in almost every game. When behind in counts early, he relied on gas to try to get him out of it and that doesn’t work in the bigs. A couple of indicators that this will be his season besides his age are that his batting average balls in play was elevated meaning he was unlucky. His ground ball to fly ball ratio normalized so that fly balls would only account for 43 percent of batted balls. His walks should go down and therefore send the whip and ERA down to levels that make him worth the pick.
Jameson Taillon– Pirates – RHP Age: 25 ADP: 152
On a June day at CitiField, James Taillon took his second start of the season and was simply unhittable. The FSTA conference crew was there and until a Curtis Granderson single in the 7th inning, Taillon was perfect. He ended up throwing eight innings of two hit ball with one walk. To be fair, he does not fit the SMART System as he does not have a full season of experience. However, his stuff is nasty and just needs to be harnessed. He also has the secret weapon in pitching whisperer, Ray Searage. Coaching pitchers is emotional, physical, analytical and nutritional. Searage uses nutrition to help focus pitchers. It is a bit mysterious, but I started eating beets to see if it works. Some indicators are a good team to get wins, an extremely low walk rate that is less than 1.5 per 9 innings. He also carries a 55 percent ground ball rate and less than half that for fly balls. His strand rate is about 75 percent and his whip in 108 innings last year was 1.12. If he extends on all this work, the ceiling is enormous. The floor is high too so it is a very safe pick for fantasy players in their 13th round.
Kevin Gausman – Orioles – RHP Age: 26 ADP: 151
Another potential favorite of mine, Gausman is incredibly talented. He does break one of the SMART System rules of engagement. Player who get hurt tend to get hurt again, and Gausman spent 43 days on the DL last season. If you can get past that, the upside is magnificent. Let’s check some boxes. He throws gas averaging a touch below 95 mph last season. He strikes out about a batter an inning. His main problem was control which has gotten down to 2.35 walks per nine innings. He has a presence and one thing that no one talks about when rating starting pitchers is that the bullpen is elite and that preserves many of his wins. His curveball has improved and the fact that hitters knock him around for an unconscious .471 when the count is 2-0 means the coaches need to get him to throw breaking stuff for strikes in that count. His 3.10 ERA in his last 15 starts is who Gausman is.
Robbie Ray – Diamondbacks – LHP Age: 25 ADP: 218
Ok. So, this is another player from a not so great team. He is so talented that he cannot be ignored. At only 24 years old he has almost two full seasons in the majors with extreme growth showing itself. Here are some interesting facts. He struck out 218 hitters in less than 175 innings. His average velocity has been higher each year that he pitches. He is getting stronger every year. He is a lock in the rotation and is left-handed. So now the bad news, his walk rate was bad at 3.67 per nine innings. He allowed a lot of hits. His strand rate was down at 68.7 percent, about five percent below his 2015 mark. So why am I optimistic? One metric. His BABIP was an unsustainable .371 when the league average is .298. This should be worth at least a run on the ERA and maybe more making him a great risk especially if you have protected your ERA with your first three to four pitchers. The value is amazing as a 19th rounder. This makes him on my breakout list for 2017.
Hopefully this list helps you examine players. For hitters, find success and a trend to catch the wave. For pitchers, make sure you find hard throwers with great stable situations and trending information to see the huge value and in some cases a breakout. These are the things that I believe in and if you don’t believe in them maybe you prefer what Crash Davis believes in…
“Well, I believe in the soul, the c^&*, the pu*&^, the small of a woman's back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.”