Who was the biggest bust of the 2020 Fantasy baseball season? You can make a strong case for Christian Yelich or Cody Bellinger, both of whom worked their way into the consensus top five in the rankings based on huge breakout campaigns in 2019, only to falter in a big way trying to follow them up.
A bit more skepticism about those big seasons may have been warranted, though the ways in which they struggled specifically -- Yelich with plate discipline, Bellinger with power -- were pretty hard to see coming, so they may not offer much to learn from for 2021.
However, guys like Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer had pretty significant age-related red flags we ignored; are we doing the same with Jacob deGrom and Yu Darvish this season? Keston Hiura and Matt Olson both disappointed coming off brilliant partial 2019 seasons, while Alex Bregman and Jack Flaherty failed to back up their own breakouts; could we see the same from Bo Bichette and Manny Machado?
Scott White, Frank Stampfl and Chris Towers talk through their favorite sleepers, breakouts and busts for 2021 on the Fantasy Baseball Today podcast embedded below, and make sure you subscribe at Apple, Spotify or anywhere else you get your podcasts for more of our comprehensive draft prep coverage:
The risk of any player busting in 2021 is higher than ever, given the small sample sizes we're dealing with from 2020's shortened season, so there may be no avoiding some land mines. But here are the players we're trying to steer clear of:
Trevor Bauer SP
LAD L.A. Dodgers • #27 • Age: 30
Look, maybe Bauer lands in a spot where they let him pitch every fourth day, he sustains his 2020 gains and is by far the best pitcher in Fantasy. It's possible. But we just did this with Bauer in 2019 and he was a big disappointment. He's almost always a lock for good volume, which gives him a pretty high floor, but you're also paying full freight for a small sample size where he outpitched his peripherals by a significant amount. Haven't we seen things go wrong enough to be a bit more cautious?
Jose Abreu 1B
CHW Chi. White Sox • #79 • Age: 34
I called Abreu a bust last season too, and he went out and won MVP, so maybe just skip ahead. If you're hanging around, however, I'll point out he's a soon-to-be 34-year-old who had an .843 OPS in five seasons before 2020. Abreu has been a good-not-great hitter outside of that 60-game season, and you're paying for great now. He'll drive in a bunch of runs in that lineup, but that's probably the only place he'll really stand out, and the downside risk is real.
I never make a "Do-Not-Draft" list, because there's no such thing as a player I wouldn't draft if the price was right, but Lamet is an easy avoid for me. He's coming back from a biceps injury that ended his 2020 campaign and the Padres have spent all offseason adding starting pitcher depth. Those two things may not be related, but it's a red flag on top of what I think are reasonable concerns about how good we can expect even a healthy Lamet to be. He's a two-pitch pitcher who has had massive home run issues consistently with the exception of 2020. There are too many ways this can go wrong.
Zach Plesac SP
CLE Cleveland • #34 • Age: 26
You'll find no shortage of arguments for why what Plesac did last season was real, and it very well may have been. But let's acknowledge that you're paying top-20 pitcher price based on eight starts. Yes, Cleveland has a good track record of doing exactly this kind of thing, and there were noteworthy changes to his arsenal, so I don't want to be entirely dismissive. But this is exactly the kind of situation you should be fading from 2020 -- a total outlier in a tiny sample size. Maybe it works out in Plesac's case, but you'll never go broke in the long run betting against this kind of profile.
I'm even more pessimistic about Hernandez than Plesac, because at least the latter had real changes in his approach. Did we really learn anything new about Hernandez in 2020? We always knew he was athletic; we always knew he could hit the ball hard; we never really cared before this. And, despite an improvement in his strikeout rate, Hernandez actually had a slightly higher swing-and-miss and slightly lower contact rate than in 2019, suggesting there's some fool's gold in the lower strikeouts. Why draft Hernandez in the fourth or fifth round when you can get Austin Meadows four rounds later?
LAD L.A. Dodgers • #21 • Age: 26
My beef with Buehler has nothing to do with his skills, which are plentiful, well-established and, as best I can tell, intact. But I'm skeptical he'll get to them enough to justify his second-round cost. The Dodgers have always prioritized preservation with him, having him build up in-season the past two years rather than wasting his bullets on spring training, and the buildup was so slow last year that he made only one six-inning start during the regular season. So how careful do they figure to be with him after a year in which he threw about 60 innings, regular and postseason combined? He'll be an asset for your Fantasy team, sure, but at the cost, you need him to be a horse, too.
As skeptical as Fantasy Baseballers normally are of the mid-career breakout with a track record of mediocrity, it's stunning how they've made an exception of Hernandez, whose turn for the studly came during a pint-sized season in which his plate discipline was as abysmal as ever. It takes a special hitter to succeed in spite of a 30.4 percent strikeout rate, and while Hernandez did stand out for his average exit velocity and hard-hit rate in 2020, it was only a modest jump from his career baseline -- the kind you'd expect for a guy on a hot streak (which may have been all it was considering the small sample). He delivered the best-case outcome for an already existing profile, in other words, rather than improving the profile itself, so I suspect that with increased exposure, he's probably closer to the guy who hit .235 with a .774 OPS between 2018 and 2019.
I hit big on Bundy as a sleeper pick a year ago and would prefer simply to stay the course, but I do think there's an alternate world where his 2020 plays out differently and am wary of his 2021 playing out in that way. The sticking point is whether he's genuinely whipped the home run issue that plagued his time in Baltimore, and since most of the improvement can be attributed to him cutting his home run-to-fly ball rate in half, it may have simply been a byproduct of him making all 11 of his starts at pitcher's parks during a wacky season. True, he'll encounter more of those in the AL West than he did in the AL East, but he's looking at a more diverse schedule in 2021 and would have a hard time repeating that home run-to-fly ball rate even if he wasn't. Maybe he'll be fine, but an ERA over 4.00 is still possible.
Aaron Civale SP
CLE Cleveland • #43 • Age: 25
The fascination with Civale among some Fantasy Baseball analysts really needs to stop now. He may have a high-spin curveball, but the fact is it's not translating to whiffs or ground balls, making him primed for a pummeling in today's homer-happy game. It all came to a head in his final six starts of 2020, when a 6.62 ERA brought his season mark from 3.15 to 4.74. His 4.39 xERA doesn't paint a rosier picture. Yes, Cleveland has a tendency to get the most out of its pitchers, and Civale does have that one noteworthy pitch to go along with plus control. I'm not saying his case is a hopeless one. But the enthusiasm for him is disproportionate to the likelihood he develops into an actual game-changer.
HOU Houston • #53 • Age: 23
There is no comp, really, for Javier, who first made himself known to Fantasy players with an unreal 1.74 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 13.5 K/9 between three minor-league stops in 2019. He did it without much in the way of an arsenal -- really just a fastball that he disguises and manipulates well -- and so he didn't place particularly high in the prospect rankings. He deserves credit for not getting pummeled in his first year in the majors, but he wasn't exactly fooling hitters either, delivering a swinging-strike rate (8.7 percent) that looked a lot like Kyle Freeland's and a fly-ball rate (52.2 percent) that would have been the highest among qualifiers. Maybe he really is a unicorn whose oddities allow him to break all the rules, but with less than 60 innings to his name, I'm fading the guy with a 4.86 xFIP.
Max Scherzer SP
WAS Washington • #31 • Age: 36
Maybe Max Scherzer does it again and makes me look foolish, but at 36 years old and an ADP of 27, I'll bet against it. Over the past two seasons, Scherzer's batting average against has been on the rise thanks in large part to the two highest hard-hit rates of his career. Also, I'm not sure how much you want to take away from his 12 starts in 2020, but Scherzer's 3.07 BB/9 were his highest since 2010 and his 14.7% swinging strike rate (still very good compared to league average) was his lowest since 2014. Neck and back injuries coupled with the skills decline is enough for me to pass.
Aaron Judge RF
NYY N.Y. Yankees • #99 • Age: 28
Here's another one that could backfire but I had him as a bust last year and I'm going back to the well. Aaron Judge is a spectacle. He's super fun to watch and is one of maybe five players who can hit a ball 500 feet. He's also missed 37% of his games over the past three seasons due to lingering oblique and calf injuries. Judge might just be too big for his own good. I'm not sure how much you want to put into 28 games played in 2020 but it's worth noting he posted career-lows in barrel rate, average exit velocity, hard hit rate and walk rate. If you want a shot at 40+ home runs, take Giancarlo Stanton 50+ picks later.
Dinelson Lamet just finished as a top-10 starting pitcher in both H2H points and rotisserie leagues yet his ADP sees him as SP20 off the board. Why's that? Lamet's season was cut short in 2020 because of a biceps issue, which is especially concerning for a pitcher who has already had Tommy John surgery. Padres GM A.J. Preller has continuously said Lamet is healthy all offseason yet has added three good to great starting pitchers in Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove. If Lamet is fine, he's potentially a steal at his 58.3 ADP. I just can't shake the injury concern.
Keston Hiura 2B
MIL Milwaukee • #18 • Age: 24
I'm not giving up on Keston Hiura yet, but I need to see him bounce back before re-investing. One season after batting .303 while striking out in 30.7% plate appearances, Hiura followed that with a .212 batting average and a whopping 34.6% strikeout rate. He led the National League with 85 strikeouts thanks to a 20.3% swinging strike rate that was second to only Luis Robert. Even worse was that his quality of contact declined precipitously when he actually got the bat on the ball. His average exit velocity dropped from 91.4 MPH in 2019 all the way down to 87.4 MPH in 2020. I still believe there is talent but I'll pass in the first six rounds or so.
Dylan Bundy finally broke out in 2020! Well, for a third of the season. Through Bundy's first four starts, he was riding high with a 1.57 ERA, leaning hard on that slider like we always wanted him to. And then the final eight starts happened. During that span, Bundy pitched to a 4.62 ERA supported by a 4.39 xFIP. Compared to his first four starts, his slider usage went down 8% while he went back to using his 90 MPH fastball more. I think Bundy has talent but he seems to fall apart in games where he doesn't have a good feel for his slider. Bundy was fun to draft in 2020 when his ADP was outside the top 200 and less in 2021 when he's being selected around pick 100.