The following is a fantasy roundtable featuring several of BP Wrigleyville’s authors. Each was asked to focus on a Cubs player they expect to over/under perform, or one who is not on the radar, but should be.
Addison Russell – by Daniel Hodgman
Addison Russell is a breakout candidate for 2017, and with good reason: He put up 21 HR, 95 RBI, and scored 67 runs in 2016 during his age-22 season, while cutting his strikeout rate from 28.5% to 22.6% and upping his walk rate from 8 percent to 9.2. Should he continue to improve, Russell is going to make both Cub fans and fantasy owners very happy. And I’m here to throw little bit of cold water on that bonfire lest the (ir)rational exuberance for all things Cub blind fantasy owners from two inherent risks. First, in this golden age of shortstops, his HR/RBI/BA stats look merely very good rather than excellent compared to the Corey Seagers, Carlos Correas, and Xander Bogaerts of the world. Second, PECOTA thinks that 2016 represents a high-water mark for Russell, as his 90 percent 2017 projection looks a lot like his 2016 with a higher batting average.
The dour outlook likely stems from Russell’s swing rate. While he cut down his strikeouts in 2016, it looks like he did so by making more contact with pitches outside the zone. Russell’s O Swing % actually increased to 31 percent in 2016, compared to 29.8 percent in 2015, while his O Contact % rose from 48 percent to 60.6, generating an incredible and unsustainable BABIP of .358 (!!!) on those batted ball events. The BABIP gods are fickle: worship but do not trust them!
This spring gives reasons for both hope and concen. Small sample size alert! Russell leads the Cubs with five dingers, and has a solid ground ball/fly ball ratio of 0.86, both of which bode well for his power production. On the flip side, his strikeout rate and walk rate (both of which reliably predict his 2017 regular season numbers) are 23.5 percent and 8.8 percent, respectively, both slight regressions from 2016.
Is Russell a top five shortstop? Probably not unless he makes a major leap with pitch selection. Rather, Russell is probably a fringe top ten fantasy shortstop, perhaps a notch or two within the top ten if your lineup needs power from the position. Don’t overdraft him even if you’re patient zero for Cubs fever.
Javy Baez – by Larry Scott
Between his playoff heroics and headline-stealing plays at the World Baseball Classic, Javier Baez has been one of the most talked about players over the last several months. With all the noise surrounding the young, try-hard Baez, it’s really easy to get caught up in the hype and raise your expectations for a player who hasn’t really proven enough offensively to be relied upon as a starter in fantasy baseball.
While drafting Baez high could pay off, it’s better to let someone else absorb that risk and overdraft him as his bat and approach at the plate still need improvement. Last season, in 450 plate appearances, Baez slashed .273/.314/.423 with 14 home runs, 12 stolen bases and 50 runs scored. While his 24 percent K-rate was a drastic improvement for the third straight year, his walk rate decreased to a career-low 3.3 percent.
Despite the lowering K%, Baez just doesn’t make enough contact to be consistent at the plate. Out off all second and third baseman with at least 200 plate appearances last season, Baez’s 72.4 percent Contact % was fourth worst. While that isn’t necessarily a death sentence in fantasy, it means he may be a platoon player for another season, as Joe Maddon must play the matchups if Baez can’t start making more contact. Even if his glove gets him on the field as often as possible, it’s hard to see Baez playing every single day if he can’t improve his overall approach.
On the plus side, Baez seems to hustle harder than every other player on the field. This yields more infield singles and miraculous stolen bases that other players simply don’t get. His .336 BABIP last season should be repeatable because of his sterling effort, but his .273 batting average can’t be counted on because of the flukiness that comes with being that type of player.
Reasons abound for drafting Javier Baez as a potential sleeper for your fantasy team. For starters, he’s multi-position eligible and has the ability for 20+ home runs and 20+ stolen bases if everything clicks and he plays every day. But banking on him as your starter would be a mistake. Look for a safer option first and draft Baez for your bench in a 14th round or later. Anything else is too risky given what we know about the glove-first, free-swinging Cub.
Jake Arrieta – by Darius Austin
Jake Arrieta is being drafted as an ace, yet there’s a good chance he won’t be one. To dispense with the caveats early and pre-empt any immediate objections, Arrieta should still be an extremely valuable piece for the Cubs in 2017. The 31 year old is also still likely to be a fantasy number two at worst.
With that out of the way, here’s why Arrieta looks like a poor value this season. He’s essentially being taken as the seventh starting pitcher off the board in almost every major format, a third-round pick in a standard 12-team league. This is despite a season in which his strikeout rate dropped by several points, his walk rate increased to almost 10 percent, and he clearly struggled with his mechanics. That draft position is a testament to Arrieta’s quality in previous seasons, but it also means that there’s very little discount despite the dip in form.
The mechanics are obviously something Arrieta is working on, although the fact that he felt like he “was left-handed” for eight pitches in one of his spring starts is not encouraging. It’s unreasonable to expect him to back to the command he displayed in 2015. Arrieta’s ability to run a BABIP well below .300 should probably not be doubted at this stage, but a .241 mark is still incredibly low even in that context, and his strikeout rate is not likely to match the elite tier ahead of him. Even the most optimistic projections, from ZiPS, wouldn’t make Arrieta outperform his draft slot.
Arrieta as a poor value proposition also relates to the group of starters going behind him. That includes Justin Verlander a round later, who already struggled with his own physical issues in his early 30s and overcame them to return to number one starter form. Johnny Cueto, drafted just after Verlander, could easily strike out close to as many hitters as Arrieta with better control, in a better park. Jacob deGrom is available almost a full three rounds later, admittedly with more injury concerns from 2016, but also with peripherals just as good as Arrieta’s in 2015.
Arrieta is a tremendous athlete who could overcome his mechanical issues, return to his 2015 form and make all of this look silly. Betting on him to come close to that is another matter entirely and owners should avoid it.
Willson Contreras – by Randy Holt
It’s hard not to love Willson Contreras going into 2017, in just about every way. What got him to the majors, though, was his offense, and that’s where the excitement really comes in. While he didn’t have enough at-bats to qualify among backstops in 2016, he outperformed most of those who did in virtually every facet.
Among catchers with at least 280 plate appearances, he finished seventh in average (.282) and sixth in on-base percentage (.357). He possesses as much potential for power as any player at the position, with a .206 ISO that trailed only Yasmani Grandal and Jonathan Lucroy last year. He’s always maintained a quality approach and good contact skills, something that should become extremely apparent in his first full season at the big league level. With that time to adjust to big league pitching, he should see a decrease in his strikeout numbers, as a 23.7 percent punchout rate and a 31.3 percent swinging strike rate are obviously quite a bit higher than where they should be.
But his minor league whiff and strikeout figures indicate that with more time to adjust, that should improve. With as much power as he possesses from the catcher position, an increase in contact should be a terrifying thought for opposing teams.
When you take his athleticism into account, he has the ability to add a few swipes to the mix as well. The entire skill set should translate to Contreras establishing himself as one of the top two or three offensive players at the position.
It really comes down to the fact that this dude is an absolute workhorse and there’s very little that’s going to prevent him from being enormously successful. A player currently going 90th overall on average, and as low as 128th, according to STATS, could end up providing far more value than that ADP indicates. With the sample we saw last year, the time to adjust, and the work he’s put in the offseason, there’s almost no reason to be bullish on Contreras in 2017.
Carl Edwards, Jr. – by Kazuto Yamazaki
As of this writing, Dellin Betances is owned in 89 percent of the leagues on Yahoo and 54 percent of the leagues on CBS. Neither of these rates are exorbitant given the fact that the tall Yankees righty is one of the most dominant relievers in baseball, albeit without a closer status.
As of this writing, Carl Edwards Jr. is owned around 10 percent in both Yahoo and CBS leagues, which makes sense given his lack of track record—he has logged just 40.2 innings in his career—and because he is in the middle of the Cubs’ bullpen depth. But in those 40.2 innings, he’s shown flashes of eliteness that may put him not far behind Betances.
In 2016, which accounts for 89 percent of his career innings to date, the former 48th round pick recorded a staggering K% of 37.7, good for the 7th-best mark among pitchers who tossed at least 30 innings. He did so by throwing his four-seam fastball about 70 percent of the time. The offering had an average spin rate of 2659, the second-highest mark among four-seamers thrown at least 200 times last year, behind only Andrew Bailey’s. Batters whiffed on the pitch 34.06 percent of the time, which mark also ranked second-highest among pitchers who threw at least 200 four-seamers, behind only none other than Nick Vincent. So, he has the weapon to excel.
His peripherals, such as a 2.40 DRA and 70 cFIP, ranked 14th and 13th-best among pitchers with at least 30 innings, respectively, support him accordingly. He may not come with a sexy save total, but he could be a reliable source of strikeouts in your bullpen. And if you’re in a dynasty league, he may start closing games as soon as 2018.
There are concerns, namely his command, with which he performed to a 10.1 percent walk rate last year in the bigs and 17.0 percent throughout his time as a reliever in the minors. But Edwards, who turned just 25 last September, still has room to improve and the athleticism to do so. You don’t want to miss out the chance to stash a potential top five reliever this spring.