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Tristan’s 20: Fantasy baseball value picks

Value. It’s all about value. It’s always about value.

It’s a strategy of mine that has been in place for years, and I always begin this column by explaining what I mean by it: Value is identifying where your opinions on players most differ from everyone else’s, allowing you to acquire that player at a significant discount (or scratch him off your list).

Injecting these opinions into your fantasy baseball team is what makes it yours. You are absolutely entitled to believe whatever you want about any baseball player. Just make sure it’s rooted in strong research of the player’s skills.

This column is where I share my opinions: These are my favorite value picks for 2019 — the players whom I expect to collect the most shares of in my fantasy baseball leagues. I call them “Tristan’s 20.”

These 20 names are selected after accounting for several measures: my rankings, ESPN’s rankings and ADP data, offsite ADP data, comparisons to other analysts’ rankings and industry drafts I’ve participated in or witnessed. Get a hold of as many player pricing points as you possibly can before you begin your own drafts, because it’s the best way to identify where the pockets of value might lie in your leagues.

As always, there’s the caveat: Once I reveal these picks, the odds sometimes increase that I won’t acquire a single one of these guys at what I perceive as “value.” If the attention brought to them boosts their ADPs or prices in my own drafts, they might no longer fit the definition of “values.” But we shall see how many I get!

Jose Alvarado, RP, Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay’s mix-and-match approach to pitching roles casts considerable doubt on any individual pitcher’s ability to accrue wins, quality starts and saves. That said, looking at this staff, Alvarado’s skill set stands out among the team’s short-relief corps. In his first big league season and a half, he was already a lights-out hurler against left-handed hitters, but he stepped up his game against righties after the 2018 All-Star break, limiting them to .163/.262/.233 — thanks in large part to his shifting to an almost entirely sinker/slider approach. Alvarado should be the Rays’ first read in late-and-close situations, and there should be enough of those in save situations to make him the team’s best bet in the category.

Willians Astudillo, C, Minnesota Twins

Thanks to his elite contact rate, he has one of the highest batting average floors not just among catcher-eligible players but among all players. Astudillo has had at least a 95 percent contact rate at all pro levels combined in each of the past three seasons, and his 96.8 percent mark in the majors last season was the highest by any player in his debut big league season (minimum 75 plate appearances) in 60 years. Catcher might be a wasteland of a position, but Astudillo has that can’t-hurt-you appeal that makes him my preferred choice as either a two-catcher-league No. 2 catcher option or my final pick of an ESPN standard, because his bat is good enough that the Twins should find him at-bats somewhere.

Dylan Bundy, SP, Baltimore Orioles

I generally try to avoid overlap between this list and my “Kings of Command,” but for his current price (No. 251 in overall ADP in ESPN leagues and barely top-300 on other sites), Bundy is too talented to pass up. He was obliterated by bad luck during a miserable second half of 2018, posting a 7.61 ERA in his final 15 starts — with a 61.0 percent LOB, .351 BABIP and 15.8 HR/FB percentage (all bottom-five numbers) lurking beneath. A drop in fastball velocity (which has yet to rebound this spring) could be partly to blame, but Bundy’s slider is his ticket to success anyway. The pitch recorded the majors’ fourth-highest swinging strike rate (among those who threw at least 500) last season at 26.1 percent. If you were in on Nick Pivetta at this time last year, whose 2017 performance looks eerily similar to Bundy’s 2018, you should be in on Bundy today.

Nicholas Castellanos, OF, Detroit Tigers

He’s the player I find myself drafting almost everywhere, including the recent League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) AL-only auction for $23. Castellanos was the No. 63 overall player per our Player Rater and No. 65 in fantasy points using our standard scoring system last season. Judging by ADP, though, somehow people seem to think he’s going to regress. That seems unfathomable because of his status as a .200-plus ISO, 30-plus percent line-drive and 40-plus percent hard-contact hitter. Looking back, it’s tough to see how he failed to either bat .300 or hit 25 home runs. Castellanos, incredibly, has slipped outside the top 100 in some prominent drafts that I’ve seen, but I’m prepared to select him as many as 50 spots sooner than that.

Michael Conforto, OF, New York Mets

Considering the severity of his shoulder injury in 2017, it’s best not to put much stock in his stats between the 2017 and 2018 All-Star breaks, when he was playing at considerably less than full strength. During the second half of last season, though, Conforto batted .273/.356/.539 with 17 home runs and 52 RBIs. That homer total was just 10 shy of his entire 2017 season tally. Best yet: He slashed .253/.344/.544 in 90 trips to the plate against left-handed pitching during that same time span, continuing to show that there are few holes in his game. This retooled Mets team has been generating a lot of playoff-contender buzz, and Conforto’s performance will have much to say about that. I think he’s a dark horse MVP contender.

Paul DeJong, SS, St. Louis Cardinals

While I wasn’t a believer in DeJong at this stage a season ago, now that the fantasy community’s opinion on him has softened, I’m on board. He made significant strides in terms of his selectivity last season, boosting his walk rate from 4.7 to 7.3 percent — his best since his first professional season of 2015 (9.9 percent combined in Rookie and Class-A ball). He also cut his chase (swings at non-strikes) rate from 29.5 to 25.3 percent. Outside of that, little changed in DeJong’s profile. He’s still the fly-ball-oriented hitter he always was, in fact posting a mere 30 percent ground ball rate after Aug. 1 last season. He also improved his hard-contact rate — despite what was widely characterized as a down year for him. He might even bat in the top third of an improved Cardinals lineup, which could fuel his run/RBI totals.

Rafael Devers, 3B, Boston Red Sox

Shoulder and hamstring injuries effectively ruined his 2018 sophomore season, but in retrospect, Devers’ performance was awfully good for a 21-year-old despite the missed time and nagging bumps and bruises. He lost only five points of isolated power, had a higher home run rate than he did as a rookie and hit 3 percent more fly balls. Devers’ issues were centered mostly on his struggles against fastballs, something that should improve with experience and better health. So far this spring, he does appear to be much improved in that regard. He’s batting third in the Red Sox’s typical spring training lineup, between Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez — an arrangement that could significantly pad his counting numbers. I’ve long felt that Devers is a future star, and things seem to be aligning in his favor entering his age-22 season.

Aaron Hicks, OF, New York Yankees

Mind the back issue that has cost him some time during the Grapefruit League season, as Hicks’ injury history has been the historical obstacle in his path to stardom. Assuming he can remain on the field, though, he’s set to lead off for the Yankees. That’s a dream scenario for a player whose on-base percentage the past two seasons was a combined .368. Hicks can slug, too, as in addition to his career highs of 27 home runs and 79 RBIs last season, he set personal bests with a .219 ISO, and 24.5 percent line-drive and 43.0 percent hard-contact rates. He’s a five-category breakthrough candidate in rotisserie leagues, but he’s even more appealing in points-based leagues thanks to his disciplined approach at the plate.

Ketel Marte, 2B/SS, Arizona Diamondbacks

The signing of Adam Jones might cause some to push Marte even further down their draft-day rankings. Still, even before that move, Marte’s ADP was simply too low, sitting outside of the top 200 overall. The Diamondbacks should still use Marte heavily, but as their probable utilityman, he’s now more likely to add outfield to his current second base and shortstop eligibility and keep all three entering the 2020 season. He set career highs with 84.8 percent contact and 36.5 percent hard-contact rates and a .177 ISO in 2018. He is also one of only 21 players who has improved his Statcast average exit velocity in both of the past two seasons (minimum 150 balls in play in each). Marte’s speed also grades as above average, so the prospects of a 15/15 season aren’t entirely out of the question.

Leonys Martin, OF, Cleveland Indians

With the life-threatening bacterial infection that prematurely ended his 2018 now behind him, Martin hopes to pick up the improved pace he was showing shortly beforehand. Last season, he significantly increased his launch angle, boosting it to 16.2 degrees (compared to 10.9 degrees from 2015-2017 combined), and improved his hard-contact rate to 38.7 percent with absolutely no drop to his contact rate. Throw in the fact that he posted the lowest chase rate of his career and Martin looked like a completely different hitter: a more disciplined, power-oriented hitter who could obliterate his personal bests in home runs (15, 2016) and RBIs (49, 2013). He’s the Indians’ likely starter in center field, at least against right-handers, and considering the lack of competition, he should get a lengthy look in the role.

A.J. Minter, RP, Atlanta Braves

He’s a work in progress, but his slider is a thing to behold. It ranked among the game’s top 10 with a 91.7 mph average velocity and generated a 21.1 percent swinging-strike rate in 2018. While Minter could stand to rein in the walks, his stuff has the look of a closer — and his primary competition for saves is a pitcher with an extensive injury history in Arodys Vizcaino. Braves manager Brian Snitker is already pondering a co-closer arrangement that includes both men, but if Minter’s control comes around or he finds an improved pitch to use against right-handed hitters, he should run away with the role. At his current price point, he’s the one I’d want.

Joe Musgrove, SP, Pittsburgh Pirates

When scouting undervalued pitchers, one thing I do is compare a pitcher’s swinging-strike rate (the percentage of swings and misses he generates on all pitches thrown) to his strikeout rate (the percentage of the batters he faces who strike out). Musgrove was one of 2018’s biggest outliers. He had a 12.7 percent swinging-strike rate, which ranked 32nd out of 140 pitchers who worked at least 100 innings, but only a 20.6 percent strikeout rate, which was 77th. Typically, pitchers with gaps like this were either unlucky or merely need to get more aggressive with two strikes. Toss in the fact that Musgrove stranded only 69.2 percent of the baserunners he let on and he has quite a bit of rebound potential. Musgrove met all the qualifications for my aforementioned “Kings of Command” column, but he’s going as a mere top-60 starter/top-225 player overall.

Matt Olson, 1B, Oakland Athletics

Regression to the mean struck Olson’s power numbers last season, perhaps tempering fantasy managers’ future expectations of him. But beneath the surface, he showed plenty of signs of growth. He made contact nearly 4 percent more often, finished fifth in the majors with a 51.8 percent Statcast hard-contact rate and hit nearly 4 percent fewer ground balls to signal more of a power-oriented swing. Players of this ilk generally fare better in their percentage of fly balls that clear the fence, but Olson’s 11.3 percent rate only narrowly exceeded the major league average of 10.6. He’s a genuine 30-homer candidate, has enough upside to challenge for a home run crown in a best-case scenario, and best yet, he’s disciplined enough at the plate to be an even more attractive pick in points-based leagues compared with rotisserie formats.

Chris Paddack, SP, San Diego Padres

Rookies — especially pitchers — can be risky investments, but Paddack is one of the few for whom I’m willing to pay a premium. His control is pinpoint, as he has walked just 3.0 percent of the batters he has faced during his professional career. That’s a rate that brings to mind Shane Bieber and his ascent to the majors in 2018. Paddack already possesses a major-league-quality fastball and changeup, which he can use to fluster opposing hitters even as he adapts to a two-level jump to the game’s top level. If you’ve been watching him at all this spring, you know his stuff has already flummoxed many batters. If I pass on him, it’s more a question about his Opening Day roster status or a possible innings cap in what’s only his second season since Tommy John surgery, but I’d invest whatever it takes to get him the moment it seems like his time has arrived. Remember, the Padres do have a decent offense, and if they find themselves as a fringe wild-card contender, they’re going to need high-impact arms like this.

Anthony Rendon, 3B, Washington Nationals

Rendon joined the aforementioned Castellanos as baseball’s only players with at least a .200 ISO, 30 percent line-drive and 40 percent Statcast hard-contact rates in 2018. The latter two numbers (30.8 and 44.4 percent, respectively) represented career bests for Rendon, building one of the game’s strongest foundations of batting average and home run ability. Perhaps most important, though, he has appeared in at least 136 games in each of the past three seasons while averaging 146 during that span, so he appears to have put behind him the injury issues that plagued him before, from around and shortly after he was selected No. 6 overall in the 2011 draft. Rendon isn’t far from being a first-round talent, and since he’s still 28 years old, it’s not unthinkable that he could take another step forward.

Eduardo Rodriguez, SP, Boston Red Sox

Injuries have held him back the past two seasons, but Rodriguez has had the good fortune (thus far) of entering this spring completely healthy. Despite the missed time, he has continued to show incremental growth, boosting his ground ball rate in each of his four big league seasons while setting new personal bests with his 3.65 FIP and 26.4 percent strikeout rate. What’s more, Rodriguez has some of the most balanced splits of any pitcher in baseball, holding righties (.302) to a wOBA 29 points lower than lefties (.331) for his career. I generally like younger players — he’s 25 — who show incremental gains yet haven’t garnered headlines. That is certainly the case here, especially considering that he somehow found himself bumped to the Red Sox bullpen last postseason. Rodriguez could finally be ready to take on a full-time starter’s workload, and with it, he might be ready to leap into the top 25 at his position.

Andrelton Simmons, SS, Los Angeles Angels

In fantasy baseball, few people seem to appreciate the value of playing time — especially defense’s influence on it. Simmons is one of the game’s premier defenders at the tough-to-fill position of shortstop, which is a big reason he has been able to accrue 600-plus plate appearances in each of the past two seasons. He’s not just a gloveman, though: He’s one of the game’s best contact hitters, with a 90.3 percent career rate, and he has chipped in double-digit steals in each of the past three seasons and double-digit homers in both of the past two campaigns. Simmons is a near lock to bat at least .280, and if he can merely up his game to 15 homers and/or 15 steals in 2019, he’d be almost guaranteed a third consecutive season within both the top 110 overall on our Player Rater and the top 75 scorers overall in terms of fantasy points.

Jameson Taillon, SP, Pittsburgh Pirates

You’ll have to pay to get him, as Taillon’s ADP is currently No. 72 overall in ESPN leagues, but it’s a price I strongly urge you pay. He was one of the game’s most effective starters during the final four months of 2018, going 16-of-21 in quality starts with a 2.63 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. That surge in performance comes with an explanation. He significantly increased the usage of his slider, throwing it roughly 25 percent of the time during that time span after scarcely using it before then. Taillon also became far more effective against left-handed hitters in the process, limiting them to .259/.313/.381 during that time, significantly improving what was formerly a big weakness. He’s not far off from being a legitimate Cy Young candidate, given the skills growth.

Jesse Winker, OF, Cincinnati Reds

I’ll admit up front that I might have such a favorable opinion of him because many of my leagues have migrated to scoring systems that better reward a player’s plate discipline. Winker’s strike zone judgment is already among the game’s best after parts of two big-league seasons totaling 136 games. His 18 percent chase rate was ninth best among players who had at least as many as his 334 plate appearances last season. He was also just starting to break out at the time of his shoulder injury last season, posting .473 on-base and .571 slugging percentages in his final 39 games. Winker might suffer from the perception of a crowded Reds outfield potentially limiting his playing time, but he’s their best option to lead off daily. Plus, the team’s offensive improvements will only help his counting numbers batting from that spot. In anything other than standard rotisserie 5×5, he’s a player I’m aggressively targeting — but even in that format I think he’s being drafted too late.

Brandon Woodruff, RP, Milwaukee Brewers

It might say “RP” next to his name, but Woodruff has an outside chance of capturing a rotation spot with the Brewers this spring. It’s a role in which he’d probably thrive. He was the minor league leader in strikeouts as recently as 2016 (173), and he finally unlocked his full swing-and-miss potential at the big league level only after his move to the bullpen for the final two months of last season. During that time he had a 37.5 percent strikeout rate. Woodruff is capable of hitting 95 mph with his fastball and has an above-average slider. If he can cut down on his walks, he could quickly capture the throne as Milwaukee’s best starting pitcher. There’s a lot of risk here, but it also comes at a discount price — that of a final-rounder in ESPN leagues.

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