jake-cronenworth.jpg

Sure, we put out a Waiver Wire column every day, highlighting the hottest pickups of the day. But the focus there is more on quantity than quality. It's more on availability than attainability.

These players might not be available in your league. They might if yours is shallow or not particularly active, but probably not. Still, even if they're already rostered, the possessor may not appreciate just how high their upside is or how clear the signs of them reaching it are.

Five players in particular stand out. I'm not saying you should pay for their upside — no value in that — but if the cost isn't exorbitant, it's worth making a play.

1) Jake Cronenworth, 1B/2B/SS, Padres

Full disclosure: Cronenworth is the sole inspiration for this column. I came up with a few other names to justify it, but it's really all about him.

What he's doing now boggles the mind and delights the senses. He's taking a sledgehammer to Statcast with numbers that simply don't add up. They mustn't add up, because if they did ... if they did ... 

Well, see for yourself:

SD San Diego • #9 • Age: 26
YTD Stats
BA
.347
(x)BA
.402
SLG
.627
(x)SLG
.764
wOBA
.427
(x)wOBA
.507

As unsustainable as Cronenworth's .347 batting average and .627 slugging percentage may seem at glance — law of averages and all — the data suggests he has underachieved. And not by just a little. While his .402 xBA ranks first among qualifying batters, the gap between it and his actual batting average ranks 19th. Note that there are 263 qualifying batters. 

His .764 xSLG ranks third, for what it's worth, so it's not like the data is producing the sort of mountain of outliers that would make sample size the obvious culprit. And a more granular look reveals more of the same. His average exit velocity, while good, doesn't scream regression, placing him in the 82nd percentile, with his hard-hit realistically residing in the 78th percentile. He makes tons of contact, striking out at a Jeff McNeil-like rate, and when you combine that with the sort of batted-ball profile that can deliver a .377 BABIP — again, high, but not insanely so — stardom is sure to follow. Yes, the deeper you dig on Cronenworth, the clearer it becomes that nothing he's doing is wildly unsustainable.

In which case ... he's expected to bat .402!

OK, but do I really think he's Ted Williams? Obviously, at some point, something hidden deep within the math will give out and expose him as another mere mortal. But without getting bogged down by specifics, it's safe to say that if you put a stick in this guy's hands, he'll do some special things with it. And now that he's established as an everyday player for the Padres, picking up second base eligibility to go along with first base and shortstop, there isn't a single Fantasy Baseballer who can't fit him into his lineup or his pitter-patting heart.

Excuse me while I take a second to collect myself.

OK, on to the also-rans ...

2) Framber Valdez, SP/RP, Astros

Just when you thought Framber Valdez might be showing some cracks, having allowed four earned runs through his first five innings against the Angels on Monday, he goes on to pitch another two innings, finishing with 11 strikeouts. The performance indeed raised his ERA over his past five appearances, all six-plus innings, but only to 1.85 to go along with a 1.09 WHIP and 10.1 K/9.

HOU Houston • #59 • Age: 27
YTD Stats
ERA
2.35
WHIP
1.10
IP
38.1
BB
9
K
40

And I'll be the first to admit he's not that good, but the point is that his production is backed up by an impressive skill set — one he has demonstrated off and on during previous stints in the majors but that was ultimately sabotaged by poor control.

The most notable of those skills? He puts the ball on the ground at a rate uncommonly seen for a pitcher who also contributes strikeouts. His 62.1 percent ground-ball rate last year would have been a distant first among qualifiers, as would his 16.6 percent fly-ball rate. That second number has only improved this year. He refuses to get burned by the long ball at a time when it's the most common way for teams to score runs.

It's why I'm not so concerned about his uninspiring swinging-strike rate. As long as Valdez is in control, the ERA is under control, and the strikeouts are just gravy. Not that he's ever been lacking for them, it's worth noting. Across five minor-league seasons, he had a 10.7 K/9 rate. In nearly 50 innings there last year, that rate was 14.0.

If he has genuinely figured out how to throw strikes more consistently, everything else falls into place.

3) Jesse Winker, OF, Reds

It's fair to say that Winker was only productive for a hot minute, hitting all six of his homers in a seven-game span that was interrupted by a COVID-19 quarantine for the Reds. It was especially unfortunate timing for a guy who appeared to be taking the league by storm, and who can say for sure what it did to his momentum (or, in hitting terms, timing)?

But even though it was short-lived, there were some long-term gains. For one, it established Winker as a fixture in the Reds lineup, ending his timeshare with Shogo Akiyama and putting to rest any ideas of a lefty/righty platoon. That's a significant development in its own right because, short of talent, playing time is the biggest impediment to Fantasy relevance. Part-timers rarely make the cut.

CIN Cincinnati • #33 • Age: 27
YTD Stats
BA
.315
HR
6
OBP
.444
AB
73
BB
13
K
21

The other thing it accomplished is remind us — and especially me — what a good Jesse WInker looks like, and it's something to behold. This, remember, was my greatest obsession heading into 2019 — a tantalizing package of plate discipline and bat skill that should easily lead to him hitting .300 while reaching base at a .400 clip. Back then, he was coming off a ridiculous finish in 2018 that saw him hit .372 (42 for 113) with six home runs in his final 36 games. If power were to become a part of his skill set, he'd be the second coming of Joey Votto, back when that comparison still meant something.

Turns out, though, Winker was also coming off shoulder surgery, and maybe he deserved a pass for it last year, when his skills eroded across the board. We may have been prepared for the power to decline, but when the plate discipline and bat skills did too, well, what reason was there for the Reds to keep playing him?

He has given them one again.

Also, just because his production this year has been bunchy doesn't mean he isn't legitimately changed at the plate. His .327 xBA ranks 13th among qualifiers, up there with Charlie Blackmon and Freddie Freeman, and his xSLG ranks 12th, between Fernando Tatis and Nick Castellanos. His xwOBA, meanwhile, ranks fifth, his name standing out on those leaderboards by nearly as much Cronenworth. 

At this point, I'm ready to predict a .300/.400/.500 line and wouldn't be surprised if Winker surpasses it. 

4) Corbin Burnes, RP, Brewers

Control has been an issue for Burnes so far this year, but the stuff has been so overwhelming that you probably haven't noticed.

See that WHIP? It's in spite of him issuing 5.5 BB/9. He has been unhittable so far, allowing just a .165 batting average, and while that's probably unsustainable over a full season, the .259 BABIP that's contributing to it isn't so outlandish.

MIL Milwaukee • #39 • Age: 26
YTD Stats
ERA
3.42
WHIP
1.18
IP
26.1
BB
16
K
36

Whatever regression comes there might be neutralized by reducing the walks themselves, which may be possible if Burnes leans on his cutter like in his most recent start at the Pirates, throwing it 41 percent of the time. It's arguably his best pitch, yielding more ground balls, more whiffs and more strikes overall. He issued two walks over 5 1/3 innings by emphasizing it in that start, throwing 62 percent of his pitches for strikes.

Either way, it's likely the walk rate improves given that nothing in Burnes' track record suggests it should be this bad. Meanwhile, his 14.5 percent swinging-strike rate is 10th in all of baseball, just between Dinelson Lamet and Lucas Giolito, and would have ranked seventh among qualifiers last year. His pitch count is steadily climbing, to the point we should see him start going six-plus occasionally, and once that happens, he's probably about on the same level as Lamet skill-wise.

Bottom line is that, at 63 percent rostership, Burnes remains far too available for someone with a must-start profile.

5) Giovanny Gallegos, RP, Cardinals

Most of us have been hoping for Gallegos to assume the closer role all along, but the Cardinals' farcical attempts to keep him out of it may have obscured just how deserving he is.

STL St. Louis • #65 • Age: 29
YTD Stats
SV
1
IP
4.2
H
1
ER
0
BB
0
K
7

He has allowed one base runner in his his 4 2/3 innings of work this year. One. He has struck out seven. This after, because of a travel issue, only arriving to camp when it was almost over, then having to shut down for two weeks in early August because of the Cardinals' COVID-19 outbreak.

The world has been crumbling around him, and he has been near flawless throughout, picking up right where he left off last year with a 2.31 ERA, 0.81 WHIP and 11.3 K/9 in 74 innings.

After their latest flirtation with Andrew Miller in the role ended in heartbreak, the Cardinals finally seem intent to turn over the reins to their most effective reliever, having him handle their most recent save chance — one of the four-out variety — Saturday. If the job is legitimately Gallegos' going forward, he could climb to second in the relief pitcher rankings, behind only Josh Hader. Think Roberto Osuna, but with more strikeouts.