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3 TO CATCH
Players to be picked up; available in most standard leagues
Tyler Naquin | Cleveland Indians | OF
I don’t do a lot of blind resumes here, but please, indulge me for a moment.
One of those players is Mike Trout, the other is Tyler Naquin. With that level of production from both, does it really matter which is which?
(Trout is A and Naquin is B, for the record)
How on earth is a player who’s undeniably performed at a comparable level to the best player in the game for a solid month still available in almost 80% of leagues? Naquin’s case is especially odd because his team has been the talk of baseball for most of June, running off a record 14-game winning streak and continuing to put my beloved Tigers in a crossface chicken wing.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that Naquin is widely available. There are sensible reasons for that, chief of which being that the MLB version of Naquin looks very little like the best of his minor league self. Constraining his MLB stats to only the time since his most recent call-up, Naquin’s .380 ISO nearly triples his previous MiLB best (.167 at Triple-A last season).
That kind of power is unprecedented for him, but I’m not ready to dismiss it as a total fluke. His home run chart is neither particularly impressive nor concerning, with a couple of lucky pops down the line balanced out by a few truly prodigious blasts. His overall spray chart is what really tells the story.
In addition to the home runs he’s popped, Naquin has hit plenty of deep flies that didn’t leave the yard. Although the astronomical 32.0% HR/FB rate he’s posted over the last month is unsustainable over the long run, Naquin isn’t just getting lucky.
He won’t keep hitting like this, but the chance that even 80% of this version of Naquin can hang around makes him worth a pickup in mixed leagues. Michael Brantley is on the comeback trail, but I’d expect his return to push Jose Ramirez to third base and Juan Uribe to the bench before it shoves Naquin out of the lineup.
Koji Uehara | Boston Red Sox | RP
“Koji’s our closer,” Farrell said after Saturday’s win over the Tampa Bay Rays.
John Farrell made all our lives easier with that statement, confirming to MassLive.com that Koji Uehara will be Boston’s first option in the ninth inning.
Despite his ugly ERA, this should come as no surprise. Uehara has been sneakily dominant this season, striking out 34.8% of hitters he’s faced while walking just 6.5%. He’s become a heavy fly ball pitcher, which has come alongside a huge leap in home run rate. But I don’t expect that trend to continue. Of the eight home runs Uehara has allowed, only two have traveled more than 400 feet, per ESPN’s Home Run Tracker. Though his pop-up rate isn’t all that high, most of the fly balls that Uehara’s allowed have been less than threatening.
Down the stretch, a home run rate around average seems much more likely.
Even with Tyler Clippard emerging as another widely available clear-cut closer, Uehara is by far the top option on the waiver wire this week (assuming Kelvin Herrera is already owned in your league). He’s got the job locked down for at least a month, which may well turn out to be a longer stretch than Clippard. Arizona has already flipped one closer in Brad Ziegler and with Clippard on a short, cheap contract, he’s prime trade bait as well, especially with Daniel Hudson providing a capable replacement behind him.
Zach Eflin | Philadelphia Phillies | SP
After four largely unimpressive starts this season, Zach Eflin actually paid off on his prospect hype early last week in a complete game mow-down of the Atlanta Braves. He surrendered just six hits and one solo home run, racking up six strikeouts against zero walks. Eflin flashed an elite swinging strike rate, more than double his season average, matching on-target heat with a dynamite slider.
Along the way, he made a critical change in his approach, scrapping his changeup, which had been a go-to pitch against lefties.
Instead, he attacked lefties with inside heat and backdoor sliders, which, aside from a frozen rope hit by Freddie Freeman (and subsequently snagged by a leaping Cesar Hernandez), was quite a successful approach. I don’t have the pitch mix data from Sunday’s start, but it’s really encouraging to see Eflin hold his own against the Rockies at Coors, particularly against lefties Charlie Blackmon and Carlos Gonzalez.
Eflin is a deeper league play at this point, he’ll never be an elite strikeout artist, but he has the stuff to be a solid week-to-week starter.
3 TO CUT
Players to be traded or dropped, depending on the depth of your league
Lucas Giolito | Washington Nationals | SP
Overreading short samples can be dangerous, especially for young players, but in the short term, the short MLB sample and long term projections agree on Lucas Giolito. He’s not ready to be a productive major league starter.
The Nationals sent him down on Friday and although his time in Triple-A may be short-lived, it’s still not a positive to see an organization’s unquestioned top prospect demoted after getting banged around in his first two starts, especially when one of his team’s rotation slots remains unspoken for.
The most troubling thing is that Giolito’s biggest weakness through the minors proved to be his undoing as a big leaguer. An elevated walk rate was the fly backstroking in an otherwise tasty soup of MiLBproduction this season, Giolito walked 10.9% of the batters he faced in Triple-A and maintained a career-worst 1.42 WHIP. Striking out a batter per inning allowed him to pitch to a 3.17 ERA and 3.32 FIP, but major league hitters have a way of pushing minor league strikeout and walk rates in negative directions.
Giolito neither missed bats nor challenged hitters in his two starts. His 8.2% swinging strike rate is well below average and if he had enough innings to qualify, his 40% zone percentage would be the fourth-worst in baseball, per FanGraphs. When he did allow a ball in play, 40% of them were smoked.
So he’ll head back to Syracuse to work some things out and probably be back up later in the year as a better version of himself. But that’ll be at least a few weeks and in mixed leagues, his delayed upside isn’t worth the roster spot.
Jose Reyes | New York Mets | SS
Regardless of whether you agree with the circumstances of Jose Reyes’ return, he’s back, and we have to address whether that means anything for fantasy players.
The short answer is no. Reyes’ batting average and OBP have been in decline for three straight seasons. Despite relatively minimal injuries (for him), he hasn’t reached double-digit home runs since 2013 and hasn’t scored 100 runs since 2011. Even ZiPS’ rosy projection has Reyes failing to score or drive in 20 runs with an OBP just a hair over .300.
He’ll still swipe a few bags, but empty speed isn’t hard to find. ZiPS projects 19 shortstops to steal at least as many bases as Reyes and nine of those players to post a better OBP. Even judging purely on speed, he’s at best the 10th-best option available.
And in the same way that it’s really fun to own Trevor Story when he’s breaking home run records or Steven Wright when he’s befuddling his way to shutouts, it really sucks to own Reyes. Whether you choose to own a particular player on your fantasy team certainly isn’t a stamp of approval on that player’s actions off the field, but however meaningless it may be, giving any measure of endorsement to a person like Reyes just feels icky. There are better players to root for, and better ones to roster on your fantasy team as well.
Tyler Chatwood | Colorado Rockies | SP
Assuming that high home run rates, elevated BABIPs, and ineffective breaking balls are all unavoidable symptoms of pitching at Coors Field, the formula for success as a Rockies starter usually means doing as many of the following as possible.
- Throw really hard.
- Strike out everybody.
- Don’t walk anybody.
- Keep the ball on the ground.
Jon Gray, who’s been Colorado’s most fantasy relevant starter this season, has checked between three and four of those boxes, depending on your opinion of his 7.9% walk rate, which is just slightly better than average. He chucks 95-mph gas, whiffs more than a quarter of the batters he faces, and generates a ground ball rate near 50%. So despite his 4.67 ERA, I’m quite optimistic about his second half prospects.
Tyler Chatwood, on the other hand, goes 1-for-4 at best. His near-60% ground ball rate is fantastic, but with below average walk and strikeout rates and an electric blanket fastball that sits below 92 mph, he’s leaving too much to chance. His .267 BABIP is primed for regression, sitting nearly 50 points below the .314 BABIP he maintained in his last long stretch as a Rockies starter. With runners in scoring position, his BABIP is an outrageous .172. Laughably, Chatwood hasn’t given up a home run since May 15.
No matter the circumstances, the fact that he’s posted a 3.08 ERA over 15 starts is impressive, but with BABIP and home run rate regression looming, Chatwood’s future does not look bright.
I’d trade/drop him for: Gray, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Jimmy Nelson
3 TO KEEP
Players to hold or trade for; owned in most standard leagues
Kendrys Morales | Kansas City Royals | DH
Events like Kendrys Morales hitting .402 in June are the reason that the gambler’s fallacy exists. After ranking among the league leaders in hard hit rate and along the league trailers in BABIP through the season’s first two months, it seemed like Morales was due. He deserved to have a few balls drop in for him.
We know that’s not really what happened, but man, does that narrative fit well…
In reality, Morales had a great June because he continues to rank among the best in baseball in average batted ball exit velocity, per Statcast, which is nothing new for this season. His production against heaters has dipped through the first few days of July, but he’s balanced that out by absolutely smashing offspeed stuff.
The eye test backs up what the data says. Both of these bombs left the yard in a hurry.
It’s highly unlikely that he’ll hit .400 in another month this season, but he’s not due for a downturn either. Odds are his aggregate production will continue to be more than solid.
Kevin Gausman | Baltimore Orioles | SP
“Sent to the bullpen” is a bit of a strong phrase for Kevin Gausman’s situation. The fact that he was available in relief on Sunday says more about Buck Showalter’s shrewd roster management than it does about the team’s faith in Gausman’s ability as a starter.
His fastball still sits in the mid to upper 90s and he’s held on to the gains in fourseam whiff rate that he made last season. He still features an arsenal of excellent breaking pitches; the numbers against them perfectly illustrate Gausman’s frustrating combination of upside and inconsistency. His slider and splitter both have well above average whiff rates… and well above average home run rates.
It’s been more of the latter lately. Gausman’s been knocked around in four of his last five starts, but all four of those rough outings came in difficult road environments, including dates against two of the four best offenses in baseball. His hard contact rate has ticked up recently, showing that high BABIPs in those outings weren’t all bad luck. But still… that juicy 17.0% K%-BB% is just too good to give up on.
You won’t get much in a trade for him and this kind of arm isn’t widely available on the wire. Hang on and hope BABIP and HR/9 regression sort things out.
Chris Sale | Chicago White Sox | SP
Chris Sale isn’t CHRIS SALE this season, but even the lowercase version of him is still a damn good pitcher.
Per Brooks Baseball, the velocity on his fastballs and slider are down and the gap between his heater and change has narrowed. He’s quite literally become a different pitcher, eschewing changeups for more fourseamers and sliders.
I can’t explain why he’s throwing fewer changeups; it’s been a reliable whiff generator throughout Sale’s career and it’s murder on right-handed hitters. But the even stranger bit is his over-reliance on a fourseam fastball that’s clearly regressed this season. Hitters are crushing his fastball in ways we haven’t seen since 2011, though we actually saw the beginnings of last year. That fact could be a concern, but I’ve somehow decided to find that comforting.
I think Sale realized last season that his gas tank wouldn’t last forever. What we’re seeing this season is a marionnette of a man, who surprised everyone by making it through over 1,000 MLB innings without a major arm injury, safely transitioning to the next phase of his career. He’s only 27, but this is his fifth season as a full-time big leaguer; maybe he just knows.
For fantasy owners, this change is cause for mild concern, but not panic. He probably won’t earn what you paid for him on draft day, but coming off a month in which he logged a 3.93 ERA and 4.69 FIP, you’d probably have to trade him at a… wait for it… sale price!
So yeah, probably best to just ride it out.