Ranking players for Fantasy Baseball in the preseason isn't an easy process, but it's a lot easier than doing it once the season starts and you actually start to get new information. How much should you react to the early-season results? How much should you anchor your opinion on a player to what you thought they would be coming into the season? There's no easy answer.
I've especially struggled with this at starting pitcher this season, where a shifting league landscape seems to have created an inordinate number of starting pitcher breakouts, while some big names have really disappointed. Figuring out how to value them all has been incredibly difficult, especially when we still have so many unanswered questions about workloads.
I recently moved Luis Castillo down significantly after keeping the faith in him, but it was an agonizing choice, one I could very easily see ending up a mistake very quickly. I wrote about the process that went into that decision earlier in the week, but Castillo definitely isn't the only player whose value is hard to suss out at this point.
I've gone through each position to highlight the 10 hardest players to figure out how to rank right now. Whether it's because they are underperforming expectations, coming off injuries, or giving conflicting signals, these players are the toughest to get a grip on right now:
C: Yasmani Grandal (White Sox)
Grandal is eighth among catchers in Fantasy points, largely thanks to a whopping 37 walks. He's hitting .138 with a .394 OBP, and on the one hand, it's hard to see him continuing to hit this poorly all season long; Grandal hasn't had an average below .230 since 2016. On the other hand .. he's got a .183 expected batting average despite impressive hard-hit numbers, largely due to a career-high pull rate and a career-low line drive. I could see it going either way, and I've moved Grandal down to the No. 8 catcher in points and No. 9 in Roto at this point.
1B - Andrew Vaughn (White Sox)
Vaugh didn't homer in his first 23 major-league games, and he arguably hasn't even been any better since then. Despite homering Monday for the second straight game, he is still hitting just .190/.271/.524 over his last 13 games, with a 31.3% strikeout rate. The power has been a welcome addition after the slow start in that regard, but if it is coming at the expense of his plate discipline is that a trade worth making? Vaughn is still very young, and there are still some things to really like about his game even amid some of these struggles -- he's hitting the ball quite hard consistently -- but he just hasn't been able to put it together. I've got him ranked right around 20th in both formats, but it's hard to tell whether I should be encouraged by his play so far.
2B -- DJ LeMahieu (Yankees)
Avoiding confirmation bias is important, and LeMahieu's start to the season has been a real test for me. I thought he might have been overvalued coming into the season and I identified him as one player who may be especially impacted by a new baseball that doesn't fly quite as far when hit, and it sure looks like that's been the case so far, as LeMahieu has just three home runs that have traveled an average of 365 feet -- the shortest average HR distance in baseball. I've moved LeMahieu down just a bit, from No. 2 at 2B to No. 5 in both formats, and it would be lower if I had much confidence in the rest of the position. LeMahieu should still, at the very least, be good for a higher average moving forward than we've seen so far.
3B - Ryan McMahon (Rockies)
McMahon finally looked like he was living up to expectations in April, as he sported a .273/.308/.556 line with eight homers in his first 26 games, and he still ranks in the 81st percentile or better in average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, expected batting average, and expected slugging percentage for the season as a whole. However, he's hitting .237/.298/.434 in the month of May -- and it was even worse than that before a two-homer game Friday and another homer Monday -- and looks a lot more like the underwhelming guy he'd been in previous seasons of late. The good news is, McMahon is still maintaining his improved strikeout rate and still has the aforementioned batted-ball numbers to build on. I've moved him ahead of Eugenio Suarez and Matt Chapman at third base and into the top 12, but I'd like to see him get hot again to feel better about it. And I'm not opposed to moving him up further if he manages that.
SS - Wander Franco (Rays)
I've had Franco stuck around 20th at shortstop since the start of the season, but I'll be honest: I thought I would have been able to move him a lot higher than that by now. And I'm not sure we should even be so confident Franco will be getting an early enough call up to justify stashing him. The Rays moved starting shortstop Willy Adames in a trade over the weekend and called up … Taylor Walls. He's not a bad prospect, but he's not Franco, and I would imagine the Rays are simply giving him an audition to see what they have before moving on to their more heralded middle infield prospects. The problem is, Vidal Brujan is on the 40-man roster and is off to a blistering start at Triple-A -- Brujan is hitting .319/.405/.638, compared to a .268/.329/.507 line for Franco. If Franco didn't get the call when the Rays traded Adames, should we necessarily assume he's next in line when another call comes? At this point, I'm a lot less convinced of that than I was even a few weeks ago. It doesn't help that
OF - Christian Yelich (Brewers)
Yelich is probably actually the toughest player to rank right now. It might be impossible to put him anywhere with any confidence. From a performance standpoint, I'm still pretty confident Yelich will be good. His numbers aren't terribly impressive -- a .784 OPS in 60 plate appearances, nearly in line with his disappointing 2020 -- but he's still hitting the ball extremely hard, with an average exit velocity of 93.2 mph, right in line with what he managed in 2019. He's striking out way too much, but his whiff rate isn't that much higher than it was in 2019, either -- 28.2% then to 31.8% now. All in all, I think the production will be there … the question is whether Yelich will be. He started dealing with a back injury in mid-April, and while we've never really gotten a diagnosis that indicates it's a serious issue, Yelich has appeared in just six of the team's last 38 games. He came back from the IL first in early May for one day before going back, and he has started just four of the team's last six games -- twice at DH -- since making his latest return. The injury could be past him, in which case I still view Yelich as a top-25 type player overall. Or this could continue to nag all season -- back injuries have a habit of doing that. There's obviously tremendous upside with Yelich, but it's just as obvious that you can't rely on him right now. I've got him at OF16, but that's as much about a lack of players I can convincingly move ahead of him as any vote of confidence in Yelich at this point.
OF - Cavan Biggio (Blue Jays)
Biggio is in a similar spot as LeMahieu for me as a player I was concerned would be especially impacted by the new baseball, something that has come to pass. Biggio has made up for a lack of raw power with an approach designed to sneak homers just over the wall, but with the ball not traveling as far, it's made that approach much more difficult to sustain. Biggio strikes out a ton -- a byproduct of his patience at the plate as much as anything -- and that combined with his swing profile made him a poor bet for batting average even without those changes, but … he can't be this bad, can he? Even as a pronounced skeptic, I think Biggio figures to play better than this, and I have to think he'll run more than he has so far. I've kept him ranked 40th at outfield, which is kind of a no-man's land at the position, given how many players have struggled so far. But my intuition is he should be even lower because I'm not sure he's even a starting-caliber option in this environment even given his multi-position eligibility.
SP - Stephen Strasburg (Nationals)
I threw Strasburg in as SP30 when he came back from his shoulder injury as a vote of confidence in a pitcher with a long track record of being an ace when healthy. However, I am in no way confident in Strasburg's ability to pitch right now, without even considering the injury risk. His fastball velocity is down nearly two mph since 2019, and while Strasburg hasn't pitched enough to say what the impact of that is on his repertoire overall, it's hard to expect dominance. Maybe he'll surprise, or maybe the velocity will improve as he gets further removed from the injury, but right now, I don't expect either. He's ranked this highly in deference to his track record, but I'm not particularly hopeful about Strasburg at this point.
SP - Carlos Rodón (White Sox)
Rodón looks incredible right now. You remember the no-hitter, but he has six starts with two or fewer earned runs allowed out of seven, with more strikeouts than innings pitched in five of seven. He's throwing his fastball harder than ever before, his slider is as good as ever, and he's throwing his changeup more than ever and getting more whiffs with it than ever. This is the version of Rodón we've been hoping to see since he was drafted, and I don't really have any reason to think his performance is really a fluke -- he's combining an elite strikeout rate with elite quality of contact suppression. He looks like a bona fide ace right now. Of course, we've never seen him do anything like this for a full season, so it may prove unsustainable. But that's not why I'm having trouble ranking him. I'm having trouble because of his extensive injury history and because I'm just not sure how much he's going to pitch. Rodón isn't pitching on an every-fifth-day schedule -- there have been at least five days off between each of his starts, including at least seven days off four times -- and I'm not sure when that figures to change because the White Sox have to be cognizant of limiting his innings. Rodón threw just 41.2 innings between 2019 and 2020 combined and hasn't thrown more than 138.1 since 2016. What's the ceiling here? 130 innings? 150? Either way, it's lower than for most pitchers, and whether that means they continue to skip him in the rotation or find other ways to limit his exposure, it puts a cap on Rodón's ceiling. I've got him as SP31, but he might just be a top-10 SP on a per-start basis. I just can't rank him much higher than this right now.
RP - Emmanuel Clase (Indians)
Clase has the distinction of being an elite reliever who might not even be the best reliever on his own team. Clase has a 1.60 ERA in 45 career innings, and while he may not have an elite strikeout rate, he's one of the absolute best pitchers in the game at limiting damage on contact. He should be a very good closer, I'm just not sure how secure his hold on the job is. He's been a bit shaky lately, and James Karinchak actually got consecutive saves last week, not what you want to see. My sense is Cleveland prefers to have Karinchak in a more flexible role rather than saving him for the ninth, which is why I think Clase is still the closer and why I rank him as high as 14th. But the margin for error might be extremely slim for him at this point. He may not be able to afford even a brief slump.