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What if I told you there's a player in the 2019 draft pool who could ...
- Single-handedly free you from the miserable pursuit of stolen bases
- Do so without compromising your team's home run output
- Do so without costing you a first- or even second-round pick
It's too good to be true, right?
Well, it may be depending on your aversion to risk, because there's no doubt this player carries his share. In fact, you may have seen his name show up in several bust lists already this draft prep season.
The player is Adalberto Mondesi, and he's an absolute must-have for me in standard 5x5 leagues.
That's a tough pill to swallow for some. It was for me just a few short months ago. When I first started putting together my rankings in October, assessing every position independently from the others, I thought ... Adalberto Mondesi ... interesting player ... strong finish ... but largely unproven. And hey, look at all these other big-name shortstops.
It's a deep position now,.
But again, I was assessing every position independently from the others. Only when I combined them did I come to understand the full extent of the stolen base scarcity. And it's dire indeed.
Granted, it's been bad for a while now. League-wide totals plummeted in 2013 and have continued to dwindle from there, leaving us with maybe 12-15 players we can bank on for even 20 steals. While on the one hand, it means fewer steals are needed to compete in the category, it also means there are fewer opportunities just to make a dent in it — and with a smaller margin for error.
Stolen bases aren't the most predictable contribution, you see. Unlike most numbers a hitter puts up, they don't come about by happenstance. He needs to have the ability, yes, but just as critical are the directive, the opportunity and the ambition. Players choose to steal, weighing all of those factors, and sometimes they make different choices from one year to the next. It's how Manny Machado can go from stealing 20 bases in 2015 to zero in 2016.
And therein lies the danger in cobbling together a lineup of 20-steals guys to sustain you in the category. If circumstances change for them, it doesn't take much to render them no help at all. The difference between the downside and the upside is too small to put your faith in.
|Top base stealers for 2018|
Or ... that's what we might have said before last year, when they stole 34 and 30 bases, respectively. I guess it sort of proves my point about the relative downside of true speedsters vs. 20-steal types — we're sitting here complaining about 30 steals, after all — but considering Hamilton's and Gordon's limitations, the fact they provide virtually no power, they need to carry you in steals to justify the lineup spot.
Yeah, that's one aspect of the steals scarcity that's often overlooked. Lineup space is limited, particularly in Head-to-Head categories leagues that don't offer the extra middle infield, corner infield and outfield slots, which means there's an opportunity cost for every spot that's devoted to a player. Investing one in a premier steals source like a Hamilton and Gordon will cost you significantly in home runs. And while it doesn't take as many stolen bases to keep pace in today's three-true-outcomes game, it takes a concerted, unrelenting effort to measure up in home runs. Too many departures could be crippling.
Which is why the first round-caliber bats who don't contribute in stolen bases have a tendency to slip in 5x5 drafts. Why extend yourself for Nolan Arenado or J.D. Martinez when now may be your only shot at securing steals with something else? Better to roll the dice on a Jose Altuve bounce-back or hope that Christian Yelich or Ronald Acuna are the real deal. Shoot, even Trea Turner's 19 homers are at least something worthwhile in that category.
It's just another one of the hoops so many choose to jump through to meet their steals needs. You either play the scarcity game way too early, accept major category losses elsewhere or go the piecemeal route.
Or ... there's Mondesi.
It's not a perfect solution, I'll be the first to admit, but it's a potentially miraculous one — the kind that would address all of those issues and more if he could just come two-thirds of the way to matching last year's pace.
Last year's pace being ...?
Well, you see those numbers next his smiling mug above? Those came in 75 games. Double them, and you get 28 homers, 64 steals and millions upon millions of smiles.
Clearly, those would be first round-caliber numbers. Shoot, they'd give Trout and Betts a run in terms of overall impact. They're 50 percent more than what Turner just delivered in those categories -- with a similar batting average, mind you -- and no one's questioning his legitimacy as a first-rounder.
So in terms of upside, there's little doubt that what Mondesi brings to the table is enormous. It's just a question of how likely he is to meet that upside.
Guess what? He's not getting drafted in the first round, so already he doesn't have to live up to the 28 homers and 64 steals. No, he's going 42nd overall on average, which is about midway through the fourth round in a 12-team league, a little behind the power-challenged Whit Merrifield and the batting average-challenged Khris Davis.
So clearly, we're working with flawed players at this stage of the draft, which is encouraging because it's possible Mondesi himself is one.
The biggest issue is he doesn't draw walks. His rate of 3.8 percent would have been fourth-worst among qualifiers, and that's a liability if pitchers figure out it's something to exploit. But walks have no direct value in standard 5x5 leagues — which reward batting average, not OBP — and some of the worst walkers like Dee Gordon, Adam Jones, Corey Dickerson and Yuli Gurriel also make for some of the most reliable sources of batting average.
Yeah, but Mondesi also strikes out too much. OK, but it's not Joey Gallo-like, right? He's not exactly Aaron Judge. His rate would have put him more alongside Javier Baez and Trevor Story if he had the at-bats to qualify, which isn't considered too debilitating in today's game. Yes, it meant Mondesi needed a fairly high BABIP just to hit .276, but .335 isn't outlandish, particularly for a speedster with average line-drive and fly-ball tendencies.
Fine, but where'd the power come from? He wasn't doing that sort of thing in the minors. In fact, he was pretty awful. He was also rated a top prospect in spite of his awfulness, which meant the scouts suspected he had this kind of potential in him. And over his final 114 minor-league games, spanning two seasons, he in fact hit 18 homers while stealing 31 bases in 34 attempts. Pretty much spot on, right?
Let's normalize the BABIP and assume the larger sample brings that home run and steals pace down to size. If he hits .250 with 20 homers and 50 steals, he's still the answer to your prayers. He's still combining a potentially league-leading, carry-you-in-the-category steals total with power that would rate alongside some of the top options at the position. And honestly, how wrong could it go for a player whose building-block status and top-notch defense give him considerable job security? Say the strikeouts escalate or he has bad BABIP luck and winds up hitting only .220. Maybe it brings his other numbers down 10 homers and 30 steals. It's not fourth round-caliber, but you're probably not taking that guy out of a standard Rotisserie lineup.
|Projected top base stealers for 2019, via SportsLine|
There are risks, clearly, and Mondesi isn't as proven as I'd prefer to take in the fourth round (or let's say the third just to ensure I get him). But the risks aren't as great as they're often made out to be, and when you consider the rewards, the fact he's so perfectly suited for today's game, bringing the one-of-a-kind quality of carrying you in the scarcest category without holding you back in the most necessary, you have to take the chance.
In Round 1 or 2, maybe not, but in Round 4, it's more likely to make you than break you, and just to relieve myself of the pressure of finding stolen bases, it's a pick I aim to make in every one of my 5x5 drafts.
Points leagues are a different story. Take the steals scarcity out of the equation, and the reward no longer justifies the risk so early. But even then, you're talking a high-upside play once the Xander Bogaerts and Corey Seager types are off the board.