Fantasy Baseball: End-of-season observations, from Adalberto Mondesi to David Dahl and everything in between
If you blinked in September, you missed quite a bit. Scott White gives you the rundown, already looking ahead to 2019.
Much falls by the wayside in September. Too much, one could argue.
Not that it's anyone's fault, really. Interest naturally wanes that time of year. Many owners have already fallen out of the race, and football is just getting started. It's when the long slog begins to feel particularly sloggy.
Meanwhile, rosters have expanded. New faces are appearing everywhere. Lineups are changing constantly. Starting pitchers are pulled on a whim as managers flaunt their bullpen excess. Crowds are either unusually small or large. Umpires becomes particularly cantakerous. The moon turns a yellowy pink. Grass grows under tree branches like armpit hair, and your dog constantly behaves like there's a stranger in the room.
It's a lot to keep up with. It feels less like the game you've been following for five months and more like a modified spring training, where everything that happens is peripheral and surreal.
But it's real — all too real. And if you miss it, you're liable to be blindsided by the valuation of certain players next March.
So how about a quick recap to bring you up to speed?
Christian Yelich's old career high in home runs was 21. He hit that many in August and September of this year. Crazy part is he had great numbers even before then, making the expected gains with his transition from a pitcher's park in Miami to a hitter's park in Milwaukee, but his storybook finish makes him the runaway favorite for NL MVP. It also gives him a home run-to-fly ball rate that's in a different stratosphere from everyone else, which is why you maybe shouldn't get attached to quite these numbers.
Make no mistake: Walker Buehler pitched well from the get-go, but for the first couple months, he did it with a curiously low swinging-strike rate that made it all seem a little too good to be true. The only stat that actually regressed, though, was the swinging-strike rate itself, becoming as overpowering as the stuff. And what followed was a 1.55 ERA, 0.85 WHIP and 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings in his final 12 starts. How's that for too good to be true? If not for the 40-inning jump in his second year back from Tommy John surgery (with more to come in the postseason), there'd be little doubting Buehler's ascension to Fantasy acedom.
Trevor Story had a scare in mid-September involving the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow — i.e., the one linked to Tommy John surgery. Even when he was cleared to play again, I was concerned this injury would rear its ugly head again, potentially with catastrophic results, sort of like what happened to Corey Seager after his own late-season elbow scare a year ago. But Seager didn't produce after the elbow went wrong. Story returned to go 10 for 29 with four home runs. Methinks he's OK.
The top catcher in September wasn't Gary Sanchez or J.T. Realmuto. It was a 26-year-old rookie who was passed over by three organizations already and only got a chance with his current one because Mitch Garver suffered a concussion. That catcher is Willians Astudillo, who started about two of every three games down the stretch and achieved the remarkable feat of striking out just three times in 93 at-bats. It was no fluke. He struck out 81 times in 2,265 minor-league at-bats, which is an impossible number in today's MLB. It almost doesn't matter what else he does at the plate — with catcher being so weak, he'll matter in Fantasy — but whether he ingratiated himself to the Twins with those numbers remains to be seen.
David Dahl took a five-game homer streak into the season's final weekend and ended up homering once more for good measure. It was exactly the kind of performance he needed to assure us not only that he'll have the inside track on a starting job next spring, but also that he's still deserving of our attention. Of course, the latter probably shouldn't have been in doubt. Even before the power binge, his batted-ball profile was virtually the same as during his rookie 2016, when everyone went crazy for him. The biggest difference was he had an absurdly high BABIP back then.
Adalberto Mondesi, who was long regarded as a top prospect in the Royals system but failed deliver numbers befitting of one even in the minors, finally came into his own down the stretch, batting .312 with 10 homers over his final 30 games. The plate discipline was still subpar and the BABIP a little on the high side, but it's a performance to take seriously, given his pedigree. And the best part of all: He stole 14 bases in September alone. If he's allowed to run that way again, it almost doesn't matter what he does with the bat.
But Mondesi didn't lead the Royals in stolen bases in September, if you can believe it. No, Whit Merrifield, AL leader last year with 34 steals, ended up overtaking Trea Turner for the major-league lead this year with 45 steals, including 16 in September and seven in his final six games. He was among the league leaders before then and having a perfectly satisfactory follow-up to his breakout 2017, even if the power numbers lagged a bit. But he ended up placing third among second basemen in Rotisserie leagues and second in points. And among those ahead of them in either format, only Javier Baez will retain second base eligibility next year.
Trevor Bauer, who was no lock to return at all after breaking his leg, managed to throw 9 1/3 innings across three appearances in September, allowing just two runs. His velocity wasn't quite back to midseason form, though, making him someone to monitor particularly closely this postseason. He might have been the AL Cy Young leader if not for the injury, having put together a 1.74 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 12.0 strikeouts per nine innings in the 13 starts leading up to it.
If you tuned out in September, you probably remember Chris Archer as a disappointment for the Rays and a straight-up disaster as a blockbuster acquisition for the Pirates. But he was pretty much back to normal for the season's final month — and by normal, I mean like the top-15 starting pitcher everyone drafted him to be. Four of the five starts that month were quality starts (compared to just eight the rest of the season), and he struck out 36 in 30 innings. It was slow to develop, I'll grant you, but also inevitable considering his velocity this whole time was the same as always and his swinging-strike rate as elite as ever.
It was a bumpy ending for Jon Gray, who appeared to right the ship after a brief stint minors, looking like an ace for about seven starts thereafter. But he had no consistency with his slider to close out the season, resulting in a 7.11 ERA over his final seven starts, including four in which he recorded just one strikeout. There's ace potential here, but he's approaching Dylan Bundy levels of inconsistency.
Luis Castillo, meanwhile, came up aces in the end, putting together a 1.09 ERA across five September starts. And actually, the final three months were great. He had a 2.63 ERA in 14 starts, as always fueled by his excellent, possibly best-in-baseball changeup. He'll be much more affordable next year, but the potential remains as high as ever.
I wasn't sure how Michael Conforto would bounce back from last season's shoulder capsule surgery. I had only known pitchers to have it, and those pitchers — Mark Prior, Johan Santana, John Danks, Sean Marshall and Dallas Braden — all saw their careers derailed. So when Conforto hit .216 with a .710 OPS in the first half, I couldn't just give him the benefit of the doubt. Apparently, all he needed was a little more time. In September, he hit .286 with nine homers and a .981 OPS, giving him a .273 batting average, 17 homers and .895 OPS for the second half and me plenty of reason to target him as a top-30 outfielder next year.
Victor Robles, a prospect long mentioned in the same breath as Ronald Acuna, got a chance to play close to regularly over the final two weeks with Adam Eaton nursing a knee injury, and it went better than I would have expected given how he performed in the minors this year. The 21-year-old hyperextended his elbow in April and wound up missing three months, then hit only two homers in 48 games before getting the call. He homered three times down the stretch for the big club, though, maintaining a low strikeout rate and only falling short in the category where he figures to contribute the most: stolen bases. If he indeed has the inside track on replacing Bryce Harper next season, there's a good chance he's one of the first 40 outfielders drafted.
If I asked you to guess which starting pitchers scored the most Fantasy points in the second half, you probably would come up with Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer. But you might not guess the guy who placed directly in between them — one who finished the year with an unassuming 3.77 ERA. Yes, German Marquez transformed himself into an ace during that time, perhaps the best the Rockies have ever had, recording double-digit strikeouts in five of his final seven starts to give him a 2.61 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 12.0 strikeouts per nine innings in the second half. The stuff was always there, but the swings-and-misses have spiked on his offspeed pitches, apparently because he's no longer telegraphing them like before. He's a top-25 pitcher heading into next year.
Luke Voit never did slow down as the Yankees Plan B for Greg Bird, making him Plan A heading into the postseason. He homered 14 times in 39 games after coming over from the Cardinals, including seven times in his final 11 and once in each of his final three. It's a pace he can't sustain, clearly, but with a swing geared for line drives and penchant for hard contact (even going by last year's numbers with the Cardinals), you can see how he might not be a total fluke. I'm still skeptical the Yankees, with their many resources, would put all their eggs in his basket next year, so we'll need to see some postseason heroics.
I don't know what got into Ryan Braun during the final week, but the 34-year-old who mostly just seemed like he was in everybody's way all season delivered two two-homer games, hitting five home runs overall. He started each of the Brewers' final seven games, his longest uninterrupted stretch of the season, which may have had a little something to do with it, and he may get to play more regularly during the postseason with all the built-in off days. But the Brewers have been so careful about managing his aches and pains over the past couple years that I don't see his usage changing when he's a year older next year. He's pretty much kaput as a mixed-league option.
Speaking of old guys doing young things, Adam Wainwright struck out 22 in 17 1/3 innings over his final three starts. They weren't his only three starts, mind you, following a four-month absence for elbow inflammation, but they were three consecutive in which his curveball baffled hitters as we haven't seen since 2014, when he won 20 games with a 2.38 ERA. And honestly, his fastball isn't much less than it was then. I'm not counting on any miracles for the 37-year-old, especially since he's not under contract for next season, but it's a noteworthy development nonetheless.
Carlos Martinez performed well enough as a closer down the stretch, compiling a 1.47 ERA in 15 relief appearances while picking up each of the Cardinals' last five saves. It won't be his permanent gig or anything, though. They moved him to the bullpen after his latest shoulder issue so they could get some use out of him rather than waste what little time remained building up his innings. Maybe they'll introduce Jordan Hicks to the role next year. Maybe they'll bring in someone from outside the organization. But with Wainwright expected to walk and Luke Weaver failing to live up to his potential, there's no reason to confine Martinez's talents to the bullpen long-term. For points leagues, though, he'll be the best SPARP we've seen in years.
Over his first 10 starts this year, Reynaldo Lopez compiled a 2.93 ERA that was too good to believe, and sure enough, he crashed hard. But then over his final six starts, he compiled a 1.13 ERA that I'm rather compelled to believe. True, no 1.13 ERA is actually believable, but the point is he genuinely pitched well during that stretch, recording more than a strikeout per inning with greatly improved whiff and walk rates. It was the strikeout-to-walk ratio that tipped off his downfall earlier, but by making better use of his secondary arsenal down the stretch, he's getting better results across the board and is back in the sleeper discussion for 2019.
You had to figure correction was coming for Carlos Rodon when he was sacrificing swings and misses for efficiency in July in August. It led to a 1.84 ERA in nine starts then, but it ended with a 9.22 ERA in six September starts. There's correction, and then there's ... whatever that was. His velocity was fine throughout, which wasn't a given coming off shoulder surgery, but his slider didn't have its usual bite in September or really all season. An offfseason of rest should do him some good, but he won't be the most sought-after sleeper next year.
Speaking of pitchers due for regression, Dereck Rodriguez may have finally gotten some of his own in his final start Sept. 29 against the Dodgers, allowing five earned runs in three innings. It was the second straight start in which he allowed four earned runs or more but just the third overall. For a brief stretch just after the All-Star break, he looked like he might be developing into something of a bat-misser, but it ended just as quickly, resulting in 5.6 strikeouts per nine innings compared to 3.6 walks per nine innings over his final eight starts. That's not a formula for success, particularly for a pitcher who isn't any sort of outlier in terms of generating ground balls or weak contact.
So Jeremy Jeffress ended up recording three of the Brewers' final four saves, being used as a closer basically whenever he was available. But their stud closer coming into the year, Corey Knebel, looked as studly as ever after a make-good trip to the minors, returning to strike out 33 while allowing eight total baserunners in 16 1/3 September innings. And by the way, neither is as good as Josh Hader, who will always pilfer saves here and there. Sounds like a full-blown closer controversy heading into next season.
Jonathan Loaisiga made his fifth relief appearance (vs. four starts) on the final day of the season, ensuring he'll be strictly RP-eligible at the start of next season. It's important because I suspect he'll be in the Yankees starting rotation then, what with J.A. Happ, Lance Lynn and CC Sabathia all destined for free agency, and the opportunity to use an SP in an RP slot will only enhance his appeal in points leagues. I recognize the final numbers aren't great, but he surged up prospect rankings with an outrageous strikeout-to-walk ratio in the minors this year and has a 70-grade fastball, according to Baseball America. The upside is real.
You may recall Julio Urias was among the most highly regarded pitching prospects when he made his debut as a 19-year-old in 2016. You may also recall he had surgery to repair a torn shoulder capsule the following year. That's the doomsday injury I mentioned earlier — the one that basically ended the careers of Mark Prior and Johan Santana. So was Urias' done before his 21st birthday? Apparently not, judging by his three relief appearances in September. Obviously, it wasn't the most comprehensive test of his capabilities, but his velocity peaked at the same place it did prior to the surgery. He also had six strikeouts in 3 1/3 innings — or 25 in 15 if you include his minor-league rehab assignment — so he had no trouble deceiving hitters. Whether or not he has the inside track on a starting job next spring will go along way toward determining his draft value.
Taylor Ward generated plenty of excitement leading up to his promotion with a .349 batting average, 14 homers, 18 steals and .977 OPS between two minor-league stops, but his big-league debut went busto. It did end on a high note with three homers in his final four games, so not all hope is lost. You have to think, though, he won't be any sort of favorite for a job next spring, and considering he'll no longer be catcher-eligible in Fantasy, you won't have much reason to root for him either.
The Twins have traditionally looked outside the organization to fill their closer need, but they uncovered a worthy in-house candidate in Trevor May courtesy of Trevor Hildenberger's September implosion. Making his return from Tommy John surgery, May recorded 36 strikeouts to just five walks in 25 /13 innings — an overwhelming ratio that compelled the Twins to turn their final three save chances over to him. He always had the velocity to close, but command was an issue. He seems well suited for the role now.
Marlins right-hander Sandy Alcantara, who was considered the prize of the Marcell Ozuna deal this offseason, struck out 10 over seven innings in the season finale against the Mets. But while he throws plenty hard, the strikeouts were a departure from his other major-league outings and the entirety of his minor-league career. Maybe he eventually figures it out the way Mike Foltynewicz has, but combined with the control issues, there isn't much reason for optimism right now.
Trevor Richards, conversely, was not a celebrated member of the Marlins farm system entering 2018, but he may have emerged as their best pitcher. There were flashes, anyway, including his final two starts when he struck out 17 over 13 2/3 shutout innings. He lacks the big fastball that's ubiquitous in today's game, but his changeup is Luis Castillo levels of deadly. Throw in a deceptive delivery, and there's strikeout potential here.
Well, what do you know? The change-of-scenery narrative sometimes comes through, and it couldn't have any bigger for Tommy Pham, whose batted-ball profile suggested not all was as it seemed for him in St. Louis. He wasn't on the best terms with management either, which may have contributed to his first-half skid. But with the Rays, he got back to being the MVP-caliber performer he was in 2017, batting .343 with seven homers, five steals and a 1.071 OPS in 39 games. You bet he's back to being a top-25 outfielder for me.
Max Muncy may have been the most unfairly treated player in 2018. He was the Dodgers' best hitter in the first half — or really all season given the way Manny Machado performed after coming over from Baltimore — but they reduced him to a platoon role after acquiring Machado and Brian Dozier at the trade deadline. Why, because he bats left-handed? His numbers were nearly as good against lefties as righties. Because he's limited defensively? Stick him at first base and Cody Bellinger in the outfield — problem solved. He continued to crush it whenever the Dodgers gave him a chance, even homering in back-to-back games to end the season, so I remain hopeful once Machado and Dozier sign elsewhere that Muncy is back to playing every day next year.
Josh Donaldson's final few months with the Blue Jays may have been derailed by a calf injury that wouldn't go away, but his brief time with the Indians showed he isn't just going to fade into obscurity at age 32. He homered three times in 50 at-bats, collecting as many walks (10) as he had strikeouts for a .920 OPS. A strong postseason showing puts him back in the top-10 discussion at third base next year.
Josh James is not a pitcher to overlook next year. A big jump in velocity this year — like, up to triple digits — made the 26-year-old one of the top bat-missers in the minors, and that skill wasn't diminished during his September trial run. Over 15 1/3 innings across three starts, he recorded 19 strikeouts. The Astros could always try their hand with Collin McHugh or Brad Peacock instead, but for now, I'm calling James the front-runner to replace impending free agent Dallas Keuchel.
Amed Rosario didn't hit well enough in the second half to crack my top 20 at shortstop for next season, but he did run considerably more, swiping eight of nine bags in September alone. He won't be a Fantasy standout unless he develops more pop, but certainly in Rotisserie leagues, with their expanded lineups and emphasis on the stolen base, he'll be worth selecting late next year.
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