Reports surfaced recently that MLB is changing the composition of the ball used in play, with the intended effect of deadening a ball that has soared out of the park at record numbers in recent years. The impact may not be massive, but small differences can make a significant impact for Fantasy value, and that might be more true of second base than any other position. Because second base might be the single position that has benefited most from the power surge.
Second base was long the weakest non-catcher position in Fantasy, but the emergence of more power hitters has helped flatten the differences. In 2019, four second-base eligible players hit at least 30 homers, and seven more had at least 20; in 2018, there were zero 30-homer guys at the position and only seven reached 20.
All of a sudden, guys who were maxing out in the mid-teens in homers like DJ LeMahieu and Ketel Marte were elite Fantasy options with homer totals in the mid-to-high 20s. It's not that LeMahieu, Marte, and the rest were suddenly bulking up and muscling more balls out of the park; their balls were just traveling further. Second base has no shortage of strong contact hitters who have benefited from that change, but if the ball is even just a little less bouncy, we could see those homers turning into doubles or even harmless fly outs.
LeMahieu had the third-lowest average home run distance in baseball in 2020, and Cavan Biggio was 10th. We're talking about pretty fringey power here, is the point, and Scott White mentioned both players as two of the five hitters who could have the biggest change in value as a result of the ball change, but they won't be alone. If there's a change in the offensive environment that leads to less power, second base could be hit hard. It's all largely speculative, but it's something to keep in mind as you prep for the season.
Second Base Preview
DJ LeMahieu 2B
NYY N.Y. Yankees • #26 • Age: 32
With LeMahieu returning to the Yankees, any concerns about significant regression can be tabled. He's an elite source of average, he'll produce a ton of runs in that lineup and Yankee Stadium is ideal for maximizing his power output. Triple eligibility is always a nice bonus, too.
KC Kansas City • #15 • Age: 32
The big question going into 2020 was whether Merrifield would get back to running after he stole just 20 bases in 2019, and there was good news on that front. Merrifield swiped 12 bags last season, a 30-steal pace over 150-games. With his always strong batting average and run production and around 15 homers, Merrifield is a high-end option who can sometimes slide down draft boards more than he should.
Ozzie Albies 2B
ATL Atlanta • #1 • Age: 24
Albies is sort of a jack of all trades, master of none guy, though that description doesn't quite capture how inconsistent he's been. At times, Albies looks like an absolute superstar; at others, he looks overmatched. Part of that is that he's simply not a great hitter from the right side of the plate. Still, you should be confident you'll get solid five-category production from him, with potentially elite run and RBI production, so maybe he's a "sum is better than the parts" guy.
Ketel Marte 2B
ARI Arizona • #4 • Age: 27
Marte followed up his big power breakout with … two homers in 2020. Yikes. Marte's underlying batted ball metrics didn't change all that much -- a slight dip in average exit velocity, an uptick in groundball rate -- but that might just illustrate how slim the margins are for him. Still, he's an elite contact hitter who should be good for 20 or so home runs, even if he may not be the elite hitter he looked like in 2019.
Concerns about Biggio's game aren't unfair -- keep reading for more -- but we've seen him play 159 games in the majors and he has 107 runs, 24 homers, 76 RBI and 20 steals -- without being caught stealing. He'll probably always be a batting average liability, but his upside otherwise makes him a terrific option in any format.
The tricky thing with players who were called up midway through the 2019 season is, we're heading into Hiura's third season and we don't have a full season of data to go on. Strikeouts have been a consistent part of his game, but after being an elite power hitter as a rookie, he took a big step back last season. It's a risky profile, but Hiura still has star potential that's worth paying up for.
Jose Altuve 2B
HOU Houston • #27 • Age: 30
Chalk one up for the skeptics because Altuve struggled through his worst season following the Astros sign-stealing scandal. Coincidence? Altuve was in his age-30 season, so it wouldn't be a surprise if the skill set is starting to slip, especially as he has struggled with injuries in recent years. I'm not convinced Altuve is just finished, but now that he doesn't have stolen bases to fall back on -- eight over 172 games the past two seasons -- it makes his Fantasy profile a lot less interesting even if he does bounce back.
Brandon Lowe 2B
TB Tampa Bay • #8 • Age: 26
Lowe has improved in each of his three seasons, and he emerged as one of the rare everyday players for the Rays in 2020, starting 67 of 80 games, including each playoff game. He's hit .270/.347/.530 with 31 homers, 88 RBI, 78 runs and eight SB in 138 games over the past two seasons, and with no real platoon split concerns at this point, playing time shouldn't be an issue.
Jeff McNeil LF
NYM N.Y. Mets • #6 • Age: 28
The concern with McNeil at this point is that he'll be a relative zero in both home runs and steals, which makes him a lot less interesting. He was a star in 2019, but 16 of his 23 homers came after the All-Star break, and he followed that up with just four in 2020 -- all of which came in consecutive days in early September. McNeil is about as sure a bet as you'll find for an elite average, but it's fair to wonder if that's all he'll give you.
Max Muncy 1B
LAD L.A. Dodgers • #13 • Age: 30
Muncy is 30 and coming off a disappointing 2020, so maybe you're scared off a bit. Don't be. His underlying numbers all look solid, and he bounced back in the playoffs with three homers in 18 games, while walking 20 times to 21 strikeouts. He's still triple-eligible, but second base is probably the best place to use him.
CIN Cincinnati • #9 • Age: 32
Moustakas is always the guy you settle for, whether he's at first, second or third. However, his power definitely stands out more here, as he hit at least 28 homers in three straight seasons before 2020. You'll never be thrilled to draft Moustakas, but at least you won't have to worry about him.
You're hoping for Madrigal to be a three-category stud, with little run production and almost no power, but very strong numbers in the other three. And his elite strikeout avoidance makes him a solid points option, too, especially if he can work his way up the lineup with a strong start.
Don't forget about ...
Dylan Moore LF
SEA Seattle • #25 • Age: 28
If you're looking for a cheap power-speed option, Moore is usually available late. In just 441 plate appearances in the majors, he has 17 homers and 23 steals, so if he wins the everyday second base job for the Mariners, he could be a must-start option in Roto leagues. Or he could hit .200 and lose the job. You shouldn't target Moore as a starter, but as a MI option or bench bat, he makes a lot of sense.
NYM N.Y. Mets • #20 • Age: 29
Villar was definitely a more intriguing option when we thought he was signing with the Reds, because the Mets don't have a clear spot for him in the lineup. However, they do have a pretty flexible group of players, so they could probably find a spot for Villar if it comes to it, and he'll see opportunities as a super-sub as well. You're drafting him exclusively for steals, but if he plays everyday, he's the best bet outside of Adalberto Mondesi for that category.
SF San Francisco • #3 • Age: 32
La Stella may end up stuck in a platoon, but if not, he's got a pretty intriguing opportunity in front of him. The Giants don't have many big names, but they have a surprisingly deep lineup, and La Stella could find himself at the top of it. He's made improvements as a hitter over the past few seasons, tapping into more power while maintaining an elite strikeout rate, and is hitting .289/.356/.471 with 21 homers in 135 games over the last two seasons with more walks (47) than strikeouts (40).
Kolten Wong 2B
MIL Milwaukee • Age: 30
Wong might find himself a the top of the Brewers lineup this season, and that could be a very valuable spot for him. He's not a great hitter, but he's an underrated one, hitting .285 in two of the past four seasons, and he consistently puts up OBP in the .350 or better range. In 2019 he turned that into 24 steals, and the Brewers have been comfortable letting their players run in recent years, so a return to that level could be possible. He's not terribly exciting, but he finished as the No. 10 2B that season despite a significant playing time disadvantage.
Second Base Sleeper, Breakout, & Bust
Madrigal is an anachronism in today's game. He struck out just seven times in 109 plate appearances in 2020 and has a 3.4% strikeout rate as a professional going back to the minors. For comparison's sake, Tony Gwynn's career strikeout rate was 4.2% in a context where strikeouts were far less prevalent. Of course, there are tradeoffs to that approach because Madrigal has just four home runs as a professional and averaged 84.0 mph in exit velocity as a rookie. The approach should lead to a very good batting average and pretty good run totals in this White Sox lineup, but the real value will come from steals, and that's where the questions come in. Ideally, Madrigal is a Juan Pierre clone, who had a four-year peak where he hit .300/.347/.374 while averaging 50 steals per season. However, Madrigal attempted just three steals on 52 stolen base opportunities in 2020. The White Sox have been around league average in stolen base attempts over the past three seasons, which doesn't sound so bad, except that they've had the likes of Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson and Luis Robert, among others. Anderson has attempted 23.9 steals per 150 games in the majors, compared to 53.6 in the minors; Robert's 150-game pace as a rookie was 29.5 attempts, compared to 60.8 in the minors. Madrigal probably doesn't have 40-steal upside, but I'm still willing to bet he can get to 25 while being an elite source of average, making him a viable starter in both H2H and Roto.
So the breakout season didn't come for Hiura, whose plate-discipline issues as a rookie only got worse. He struck out a whopping 34.6% of the time, which combined with a low BABIP led to his batting average cratering. He still hit for solid power, but he didn't quite stand out in average exit velocity or hard-hit rate the way he did as a rookie. If all Hiura does is what he's done in his major-league career -- .266 average, 32 homers, 12 steals, 162 combined runs and RBI -- he's a must-start Fantasy option in all formats, though obviously 2020 showed us the floor might be lower than we hoped. However, 2019 also showed us how high the ceiling can be, and his minor-league track record still provides some hope that he'll cut the strikeout rate and turn into a superstar. The skills are still there, and it's worth betting on. The fact that he figures to be the starting first baseman means he might have even more value, both due to the added flexibility of multi-eligibility and as a rare source or stolen bases at the first base position. I'm still buying the tools.
In the late television show "Community," they coined the term "complisult" -- "part compliment, part insult" -- and here's the best Fantasy baseball version I can come up with: Cavan Biggio, more than maybe any other player in baseball, gets the most out of his limited physical tools. There's a lot to like about his profile from a Fantasy perspective: In 159 career games, he has 24 homers, 20 steals, 107 runs and 76 RBI. That's pretty studly, even with a .240 average. However, that .240 average highlights how much he's pushing his skill set to the limit: Biggio has to sell out to hit for that kind of power, because he's a pretty middling hitter overall. His raw power probably tops out at average, maybe a touch below, but he can hit 20-plus homers thanks to an extreme flyball profile that will naturally lead to lower averages. And, while he does walk a ton, he straddles the line between "patient" and "passive," sporting the lowest swing rate on pitches outside of the strike zone over the past two seasons but also a well below average swing rate on pitches in the zone. That's not an inherently bad thing -- it's a profile similar to Alex Bregman and Mike Trout -- but Biggio has a lesser contact rate, so strikeouts are always going to be an issue with this approach. As long as the ball is clearing the fence, the profile will play, but he had one of the lowest average home run distances in the league in 2020, so he could be the poster child for what even a slightly deadened ball could cost hitters.
Second base Top Prospects
Age (on opening day): 24
Where he played in 2019: high Class A, Double-A, Triple-A
2019 minors: .311 BA (473 AB), 4 HR, 35 SB, .792 OPS, 44 BB, 16 K
2020 majors: .340 BA (103 AB), 3 2B, 2 SB, .745 OPS, 4 BB, 7 K
Madrigal's contact skills are unmatched among prospects and will ultimately be his carrying tool even if the White Sox free him up to run more. This ranking presumes that they do, which would make him an exciting Rotisserie target, but if not, his lack of power puts his upside somewhere in the David Fletcher range.
Scott's 2021 Fantasy impact: pencil him in
2. Vidal Brujan, Rays
Age (on opening day): 23
Where he played in 2019: high Class A, Double-A
2019 minors: .277 BA (429 AB), 4 HR, 48 SB, .735 OPS, 37 BB, 61 K
Brujan is kind of the go-to prospect for stolen bases, which are normally difficult to project for a minor-leaguer, but his 80-grade speed makes them a foregone conclusion. A switch-hitter who mostly aims to put the ball in play, Brujan has shown enough pop from the left side of the plate to make a Rafael Furcal-like 15-homer ceiling possible.
Scott's 2021 Fantasy impact: midseason hopeful
3. Jazz Chisholm, Marlins
Age (on opening day): 23
Where he played in 2019: Double-A
2019 minors: .220 BA (395 AB), 21 HR, 16 SB, .761 OPS, 52 BB, 147 K
2020 majors: .161 BA (56 AB), 2 HR, 2 SB, .563 OPS, 5 BB, 19 K
Chisholm is the ultimate boom-or-bust prospect, and the Marlins didn't do him any favors by rushing him to the big leagues to provide a playoff spark. He may never develop an approach that allows him to get the most out of his tools, but if he does, his power/speed combo is exactly the kind that Rotisserie players long for.
Scott's 2021 Fantasy impact: fighting this spring
4. Xavier Edwards, Rays
Age (on opening day): 21
Where he played in 2019: low Class A, high Class A
2019 minors: .322 BA (503 AB), 1 HR, 34 SB, .771 OPS, 44 BB, 54 K
Having come over from the Padres in the Tommy Pham deal last year, Edwards is so much of a Vidal Brujan redundancy that it's unlikely the Rays commit to both. But provided he plays enough, whether in Tampa Bay or elsewhere, he could win you the stolen base category while also reaching base at a good clip.
Scott's 2021 Fantasy impact: midseason hopeful
Age (on opening day): 23
Where he played in 2019: Rookie, low Class A
2019 minors: .125 BA (24 AB), .496 OPS, 7 BB, 5 K
Busch is exactly the sort of player Billy Beane would have gone after in Moneyball, not really caring how his glove played as long as he got on base. Changing priorities make Busch less of a shoo-in, but if all breaks right, he gives the Dodgers another Max Muncy in waiting.
Scott's 2021 Fantasy impact: midseason hopeful
So which 2021 Fantasy baseball sleepers should you snatch in your draft? And which undervalued first baseman can help you win a championship? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy baseball rankings for every single position, all from the model that called Will Smith's huge breakout last season, and find out.