What’s new for 2021, you wonder? What developments and concerns should be consuming the mind of every Fantasy Baseballer? 

It’s an inexhaustible list, of course, but here are 25 of the biggest.

1) Is the pandemic still calling the shots?

Baseball took its lumps while adapting to the new reality last year, playing out a 60-game season in empty stadiums while constantly reworking the schedule to address outbreaks. But it became more routine as the weeks went by, and by now, we should all have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Those who stuck it out, anyway. For those who checked out of Fantasy Baseball, planning to hop back in once things were “back to normal” in 2021, there’s some catching up to do.

You can expect teams to shut down for at least five days when an outbreak inevitably occurs, but seven-inning doubleheaders allow for easy makeup games. Rotation alignments will be fluid on account of the malleable schedule. The runner-on-second-in-extra-innings rule will continue, preventing the unnecessary strain of all-night marathons. The universal DH, however, is gone, renewing the disparity between AL and NL pitchers while offering fewer at-bats to deserving NL hitters. Minor-league play is expected to resume, allowing us to keep tabs on player development and better anticipate prospect call-ups.

The stadiums may not be empty for long either, with crowds expected to increase as the vaccine becomes more widely distributed. In fact, the chaos in general figures to decrease as the vaccine begins making its way through the player ranks, with all aspects of the sport creeping closer to normal over the course of six months. And best of all, it’ll actually be six months this year. 

2) Will SPs see their workloads reduced?

We’ve never seen a season like the one we just had, with the schedule being reduced by almost two-thirds and the league leader (Lance Lynn) having thrown just 84 innings. It’s especially daunting in an era when arms are so carefully preserved, rarely permitted an increase of more than 30-40 innings from one year to the next.

So is no one going to make it 120 innings this year, much less 150, 180 or 200? Those innings obviously need to be filled somehow. Since we don’t have a blueprint for this sort of follow-up campaign, though, we can only speculate as to which pitchers will take the biggest hit and which will be treated as usual. We don’t know which teams will be the most stringent with their guidelines or how widely or consistently they’ll apply them. It’s an unfamiliar, potentially devastating variable at what has become the most sought-after position in Fantasy Baseball.

3) How hard should we be going after SPs in general?

I say starting pitcher is the most sought-after position in Fantasy Baseball because that’s exactly what it’s become. You may have thought it crescendoed last season after years of trending that direction, but it turns out people are leaning even harder into it now, taking starting pitchers with 12 of the first 31 picks on average. And as I’ve outlined elsewhere, I’m right there with them.

It’s not just that high-end starting pitchers have become the most impactful and irreplaceable assets in an era with such disparate outcomes at the position but also that those outcomes only figure to widen with stricter innings limits being enforced this year. While up-and-comers like Corbin Burnes, Max Fried and Ian Anderson might have come within 30 innings of the more established arms in years past, they could end up trailing Carlos Carrasco, Lance Lynn or Zack Greinke by 50 or as many as 80 innings a year.

I’m reluctant to single out specific pitchers as fitting into one category or another because, again, there won’t be consistent standards applied by all teams, but it stands to reason that some of the hurlers that could make an actual difference will be impacted, reducing them further in number. To me, that’s justification to hedge my bet and grab even more of them, potentially as many as five of my top 35. 

4) What sort of impact will the ‘deadened’ balls have?

If the past five years have taught us anything, it’s that small, near imperceptible changes to the baseball can make a big difference in the way it plays. Studies have shown that the coefficient of restitution (or bounciness, basically) has increased during that time, resulting in a home run spike late in 2016 and then another in 2019. The impact on the game has been dramatic, leading to greater disparity in the pitcher ranks and less in the hitter ranks, with even smallish middle infielders capable of putting the ball over the fence regularly.

With MLB’s guidance, Rawlings is making changes to its manufacturing process to achieve a more consistent bounciness — and a lower one, it turns out. A side effect is that the balls will be smaller, thereby reducing drag. The impact is expected to be minimal, but particularly because there are conflicting variables (reduced bounciness and reduced drag), it’s difficult to predict whether the ball plays mostly the same, goes back to what it was with the first home run spike in 2016 or goes back to what it was in 2014, when only 11 players hit 30 or more home runs.

I’ve written about the sort of players who could be impacted most, on both the pitching and hitting end, but my preferred approach is to stay the course and adjust as new data becomes available rather than play to a hypothetical.

5) How legit was anything we saw in 2020?

We saw a 33-year-old Jose Abreu put up career-best numbers en route to MVP honors. We saw a 30-year-old Salvador Perez hit nearly 100 points higher than in his last full-length season. We saw Teoscar Hernandez deliver stud numbers despite the same ghastly plate discipline that heretofore made him a fourth outfielder. We saw Christian Yelich, Josh Bell, and Gary Sanchez suffer from strikeout rates far exceeding their previous highs. We saw Gleyber Torres, Javier Baez and Carlos Correa, all MVP-caliber shortstops still in the prime of their careers, nerfed, basically. We saw Austin Meadows, Joey Gallo and Mitch Garver descend from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.

There’s a rhythm to a season. A player’s production doesn’t hold steady from month to month. It comes in spurts, only normalizing through the passage of time — specifically, six months of time. As I’ve written elsewhere, two months wasn’t enough time to reflect accurately on anyone. It doesn’t mean all of the changes we saw in 2020 were illegitimate, but it does reduce us to guessing which ones were. And amid that uncertainty, it’s hard not to see the value in whatever players are being pushed down.

6) Where can we turn for saves?

As the game has moved away from dedicated bullpen roles, the chase for saves has become an especially tiresome one. But the truth is that the vast majority of managers still ultimately settle on a closer even if they refuse to label him as such and are quick to swap him out when the going gets tough. The club I’m most confident won’t have one is the Rays, followed closely by the Giants and Twins. And maybe not the Cardinals or Orioles. But the 25 others should eventually single out a preferred ninth-inning option. It just may not happen in time for your draft or even opening day.

Among the other teams that still don’t have a surefire closer are the Red Sox, Royals, Tigers, Rangers, Diamondbacks, Braves, Reds, Marlins, Phillies and Padres. Some of those have stronger leanings than others, but no one you can draft with a great deal of confidence. It makes for only 15 surefire closers heading into the season. So, uh, how many teams are in your league again?

You’ll probably have to overpay for most of those 15 because of the perceived scarcity, but if you can take a deep breath, trust in the remaining closers to reveal themselves in time and stock up on low-dollar possibilities in the meantime, you can save your draft capital for players at other positions who’ll prove to be more impactful in the long run. You still don’t have to pay for saves, in other words.

7) Are six-man rotations about to become the norm?

We saw the Mariners go this route last year, and we know the Angels are likely to do the same with Shohei Ohtani back in the mix. Organizations like the Tigers, Giants, Orioles, Royals and Marlins all at least paid lip service to it upon reporting for spring training. Doubtful that’s an exhaustive list either. The six-man rotation is viewed as a way to manage every pitcher’s workload after a year in which none of them got their usual allotment of innings, but it would have some unfortunate side effects for Fantasy Baseball, such as reducing the number of two-start pitchers every week and reducing the number of appearances for studs.

It sounds like the teams most interested in exploring a six-man rotation, though, are the ones without the sort of high-impact hurlers that would go for a premium on Draft Day. And while it may be a tool that every team implements at some point during the regular season, most would do so sparingly, typically by calling up an extra starter to space out starts as needed. It may even be that certain starters, the more established and impactful ones, stay on regular rest while the others get spaced out more. Teams are still interested in winning games, after all.

8) Will renewed video access put spiraling hitters back on track?

Before the COVID-19 shutdown even became a reality, J.D. Martinez was already complaining about a lack of in-game video access, which was first brought about by the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal but was later broadened due to health and safety protocols. So perhaps it’s no surprise he struggled after three straight years of first or second round-type numbers. Others like Javier Baez and Josh Bell blamed their struggles at least in part on that disruption to their routine, and for as many who voiced a complaint, there were probably dozens who didn’t.

The good news is that MLB is restoring in-game video access via iPads in the dugout, allowing players to make the necessary adjustments from at-bat to at-bat again. It’s possible some were making a scapegoat of the issue and are in actual decline, but for hitters who suddenly struggled after a long track record of success, there’s reason for optimism beyond just the sample size excuse.

9) How good is Randy Arozarena really?

Between the regular season and playoffs, the (still technically a) rookie hit .333 with a 1.158 OPS, homering 17 times in 141 at-bats. That’s as many home runs as Mike Trout hit in 2020, but in 58 fewer at-bats. Normally, when one of these fresh faces goes on an unexpected power binge that then peters out, never to be reached again, it doesn’t make it all the way to 17 home runs, and it doesn’t come against the stiffest competition on the biggest stage. But it’s still hard to shake Arozarena’s characterization as a fourth-outfielder type back when the Rays acquired him from the Cardinals last offseason. I’d be more inclined to buy in if no one else was, but there’s too much assured production to be had in Round 5, where he tends to be drafted.

10) How will the Dodgers handle their staff?

Would the Dodgers be one of the teams tempted to use a six-man rotation? They certainly have the personnel for it, leaving room for only one of Julio Urias, Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May after the acquisition of Trevor Bauer and the return of David Price. But Bauer would never go for it, and Clayton Kershaw probably wouldn’t either. Walker Buehler is also the caliber of pitcher who should be starting every fifth day, but the Dodgers have always handled him with kid gloves.

Urias, Gonsolin and May are all deserving of starts, but none has had an opportunity to take on a big workload yet. Overloading their rotation allows the Dodgers to cycle all three in and out of it, preserving their innings along the way, so I doubt any of them gets relegated to the bullpen for long. Of course, it makes all three unreliable choices in Fantasy even if they’re likely to dominate inning for inning. Urias would seem the most likely choice for a bigger workload, but then again, he’s also the most proven bullpen weapon of the three.

11) Are we doing this again with Astros hitters?

Remember how at this time last year, before all the pandemic stuff, the Astros’ cheating scandal was the talk of baseball and their hitters were all sliding in drafts, whether out of genuine fear they would struggle or in an ill-conceived attempt to dunk on them? Turns out three of their biggest hitters — Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa — actually did struggle. Of course, Altuve and Correa rebounded so well in the playoffs, the former hitting .375 with five home runs and the latter hitting .362 with six home runs, that it kind of squashed the narrative. Combine their regular season numbers with their playoff numbers, and the end result isn’t half bad.

Then you factor in the injuries for both Bregman and Altuve, the stable underlying data for all three and, of course, the usual caveats that come with a small sample, and I’m inclined to believe they’re all the same hitters coming out of 2020 that they were going in. But you wouldn’t know it by where they’re being drafted. Bregman, Altuve and Correa, who have all been first-rounders in Fantasy for the majority of their careers, are going 37th, 96th and 127th, respectively. It looks to me like the masses are again delighting in seeing them fall, and I’m happy to take advantage in all three instances.

12) How will Nolan Arenado hold up outside of Coors Field?

It’s a question that has to be asked anytime a star hitter leaves the incomparably hitter-friendly environment of the Rocky Mountains, where batted balls face far less air resistance. For his career, Arenado hit .322 with a .985 OPS there vs. .263 with a .793 OPS everywhere else, and while presuming “everything else” to be the new standard is always a mistake, it’s hard to imagine Arenado won’t experience some dip statistically, particularly with regard to batting average. Factor in his shoulder troubles from last year, and I’m inclined to drop him not just behind Alex Bregman and Anthony Rendon but also Rafael Devers.

13) Which version of Trevor Bauer will show up?

Bauer’s 2020 performance, which earned him a Cy Young, was obviously absurd, but what people forget is that he was also the best pitcher in his league in 2018 — one could argue, anyway, seeing as he went 12-6 with a 2.21 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 11.3 K/9 for Cleveland. If not for a fractured leg late in the year, he might have taken home the hardware then, too. Of course, in between 2018 and 2020 was 2019, when he had a 4.48 ERA

A key to his success last year was a greatly improved spin rate on virtually all of his pitches, and some of his Twitter commentary on the matter has led some to wonder if the improvement was entirely on the up-and-up. It was conveniently timed, after all, scoring him arguably the most player-friendly contract in history. He’s clearly a talented guy, though, and the Dodgers certainly know what they’re doing. I’m inclined to make Bauer the fourth starting pitcher off the board, after Shane Bieber, Jacob deGrom and Gerrit Cole.

14) Are we sure Cody Bellinger is OK?

It all started in the buildup to the 2020 season when the, ahem, reigning MVP announced he was changing his swing. As the Ryan Reynolds GIF would say, “but why?” The results last year were probably enough to set Bellinger back on the right path, but now there’s the added complication of shoulder surgery to correct a dislocation suffered last postseason. He’s expected to be ready for the start of the season but isn’t even back to swinging in full yet. It has all the makings for another mechanical mess, presuming he’s even feeling 100 percent at the start of things. Maybe think twice before drafting him in Round 2?

15) Is this the year Vladimir Guerrero takes off?

I hope it is just so we can stop asking the question. In back-to-back years now, Guerrero has underachieved, putting the ball on the ground too often to make the most of his double-plus hit tool, but Fantasy Baseballers are going back to the well, still drafting him in the fifth round on average. At 21, his future remains bright, and he could conceivably breakthrough any year. But at this point, I need to see some evidence of him elevating the ball to pass up the more proven options available in the same range.

16) What’s going on with Yordan Alvarez’s knees?

Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I feel like the situation is more promising than last spring when Alvarez’s knee issues were described as “chronic” and his timetable was unknown. It seemed like a specter that might come to haunt the rest of the career, so the fact there turned out to be a surgical remedy last summer is a relief, quite frankly. Sure, double knee surgery is normally a bad omen for a 23-year-old, but as a full-time DH, he doesn’t need to be particularly spry. Between his time at the alternate training site and the little bit we saw of him in the majors last year, prior to being shut down, he still crushed the ball. The possibility of him picking up where he left off as a rookie, when he hit .313 with a 1.067 OPS, makes him well worth drafting just outside the top 75.

17) Can we trust Dinelson Lamet’s elbow to hold up?

The Padres say he’s in a good place, but we’ve seen this movie enough times to know how futile their well wishes are. The fact is that only 26 starts after Tommy John surgery, Lamet’s elbow was flaring up again, knocking him out for the postseason. And while maybe his PRP injection this offseason was enough to relieve the issue, it wouldn’t at all be surprising if more drastic action is needed as he ramps up for the start of the season. There was a point last spring when Luis Severino’s and Chris Sale’s achy elbows looked like something their teams could manage, let’s not forget. Draft Lamet with extreme caution.

18) Are we about done with the Shohei Ohtani experiment?

His struggles as a pitcher last year were understandable given that he was making his way back from Tommy John surgery, but given that the Angels yanked him from the rotation after only a couple of turns, Ohtani should have been able to muster more at the plate. He hit .286 with a .848 OPS in 2019, after all, and had already had the surgery at that point. But see, he wasn’t having to divide his attention between hitting and pitching at the time. It’s to the point where I’m wondering if his attempts to do both are robbing from his potential to do either. It doesn’t sound like the Angels are ready to give up on it, and speaking as a baseball fan, I’d rather they not. But from a Fantasy standpoint, I’m no longer confident Ohtani’s contributions in either area will be worth all the complications.

19) When is Wander Franco coming up?

Used to be the top prospect in baseball would be at least a middle-round pick if he looked like he was on the verge of a big-league promotion heading into the season, but Franco is being drafted outside the top 300 right now. True, he’s only 20 and has yet to get an at-bat at Double-A, but the Rays had him on hand at the World Series in case the need for him arose. Clearly, they think he’s on the verge and given his premium plate discipline, his lofty ceiling and the ease with which he has handled every level so far, you should be willing to hold out 6-8 weeks for his services.

20) Is it possible this Dylan Moore guy was legit?

I’ll call him the most interesting player in Fantasy Baseball for 2021. Few are prepared to believe in him, but the rewards could be substantial for those who take that leap. Stolen bases make up scarcest category, after all, and if you project out Moore’s 2020 numbers, he looks to be a significant contributor to it. And even for points leagues, that power/speed combo made him the second-best second baseman on a per-game basis, behind only DJ LeMahieu.

Still, the 28-year-old was heretofore a minor-league journeyman, failing to gain a foothold in three different organizations. Is an impressive 38-game stretch enough to change the rap on him? I’d like to see him drop outside the top 150 before taking the chance, personally.

21) How committed are the Mets to playing Dominic Smith?

The former top prospect had his long-awaited breakout last year with the DH coming to the NL, but the DH is gone now, leaving the first baseman with little choice but to play out of position again. He’s not a good fit in left field, but he’s a better fit there than Pete Alonso is. The Mets’ left side is already weak with J.D. Davis projected to play third base. Are they committed enough to Smith’s bat to suffer the defensive tribulations day after day? His 108 ADP would suggest that none of us are too sure.

22) Will the Padres handle Blake Snell any differently?

Snell made 17 starts between the regular season and playoffs last year. In precisely zero of them did he go six innings, the minimum required for a quality start. The Rays have long handled the 2018 Cy Young winner with kid gloves, leading to a historically-low innings total even in the year he took home the hardware, and it all came to a head in Game 6 of the World Series last year. Manager Kevin Cash’s decision to take Snell out after only 5 1/3 innings has been partly blamed for the Rays’ defeat. Snell himself has voiced disappointment with the decision, so will his new team be more receptive to his wishes? And will he hold up if they are? He’ll have a hard time performing up to his ADP if he’s again just a five-inning pitcher.

23) Are the White Sox serious about Andrew Vaughn?

From general manager Rick Hahn down, virtually every high-ranking member of the White Sox front office has talked up the possibility of their top prospect claiming the DH job in spring training, but we haven’t seen it reflected in the draft data yet. It reminds me of how cautiously Fantasy Baseballers responded to the Mets’ Pete Alonso overtures two years ago, which made for a mighty fine bargain late in drafts. It’s possible the White Sox still play the service-time game with Vaughn and send him down for the start of the season, but it should be obvious by now that they intend to make him a big part of the team. If the worst we’re talking about is a two-week wait, anything beyond Round 15 is money for what’s likely a middle-of-the-order bat.

24) Can we trust in Stephen Strasburg’s recovery?

Coming off a 2019 season that was arguably his best ever, Strasburg’s velocity was down to begin 2020, and he was quickly ruled out due to carpal tunnel syndrome in his right hand. The surgery he underwent is largely untested in a baseball context, so we can’t say for sure if he’ll return to his former ace standing. It sounds more promising than an elbow or shoulder condition, though, and an ADP of 66 would suggest a guarded optimism that I happen to share.

25) How wild is that Yankees rotation?

Between two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, who has barely pitched the past two years, two-time Tommy John recoveree Jameson Taillon, who may prove to be yet another great pitching talent that was stifled in Pittsburgh, former 18-game winner Domingo German, who sat out all of last season due to a domestic violence suspension and talked like he might retire at one point, and prospect Deivi Garcia, who may be on the outside looking in after an impressive showing down the stretch last year, the rotation has serious boom-or-bust potential. And I haven’t even mentioned one-time ace Luis Severino, still only 27, who’s in line to return from Tommy John surgery midseason.

So which 2021 Fantasy baseball sleepers should you snatch in your draft? And which undervalued first baseman can help you win a championship? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy baseball rankings for every single position, all from the model that called Will Smith’s huge breakout last season, and find out.

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