2019 draft bargains: Boring picks can be good in fantasy baseball
A fresh fantasy draft is a holiday present for all. And everyone wants those shiny new toys.
Hey, I like new toys, too. I’m sure Kid Guerrero is going to be a fun player. I’d like to get on that Blake Snell train, too. Walker Buehler looks like one of the next big things. There’s a reason these guys have high tickets attached to them. Fun players are expensive players.
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But there’s something to be said for the value hunt later in a draft, the joy of reliable names who come at a modest discount simply because they’re no longer exciting. Maybe they’re old, maybe they’re in the mild decline years, maybe they’re good at something that isn’t overly sexy, maybe they’re on a low-profile team.
It doesn’t mean we can’t make a nifty profit on them.
Sometime in the mid-2000s, I named this player type The Raul Ibanez All-Stars. It’s a homage to Ibanez, an inconsequential journeyman through his 20s who became a reliable (yet consistently affordable) fantasy performer in his 30s. Ibanez was generally underpriced because of his age, his good-not-dominant stats, and some of the anonymous teams he played on. He seldom let us down through the remainder of the decade.
Who are some of the possible Ibanez All-Stars for 2019? Here’s a bunch of names to consider. (All player ages will reflect how old they’ll be on June 30, the seasonal tag for their year.)
Lorenzo Cain, 33, Outfield
Ibanez Rationale: Age; broad base of skills; screened by OF teammate who won MVP, career spent in middle-America cities
Cain is one of those players you need to watch on a near-daily basis to appreciate. He’s coming off a career-high in walks; he plays quality defense and runs the bases well, but will never lead the league in bags. Those are all lovely things, but it doesn’t mesh with “Chicks dig the long ball” either.
Cain isn’t the ADP bargain of the century at 53.4 in Yahoo drafts, but I’d have no problem pushing him up a round or a half-round. And if that price sticks, I’ll own a bunch of him in 2019.
Nelson Cruz, 38, Utility
Ibanez Rationale: Late 30s in age; DH-lock up; misunderstandings about new park; average dip in 2018
It’s common to hear fantasy owners muse that they’d rather be a year early than a year late on a declining asset, and with that, Cruz is someone who might be shunned in a few draft rooms. He’s had a career similar to Ibanez; a late-bloomer — Cruz didn’t do a thing of note until his age-28 season, and five of his six all-star appearances came from age-32 and after.
The Mariners were panned for Cruz’s four-year, $57 million deal before the 2015 season, and the Safeco Park environment worried some owners. But Cruz was worth the dough, slashing .284/.362/.546 as a Mariner and conking 163 home runs. His average did drop to .256 last year, but 37 homers and 97 RBIs will play in any format.
Target Field is sometimes shaped as a graveyard for hitters, but Cruz should fit nicely. The park has boosted right-handed power by six percent— maybe that’s an insignificant number to you, but just know Cruz isn’t moving to Yellowstone Park. His lack of a position — he’s only utility eligible in Yahoo — is a pain in the neck, and obviously he’s not going to be an infinite power source. But at an ADP of 73, you’re getting a cushy price for the modest risk you accept here.
Jean Segura, 29, Shortstop
Ibanez Rationale: Broad contributor; strong in unsexy categories
You don’t have to be a graybeard to qualify for the Ibanez All-Stars — Segura won’t see his age-30 season until next year. But Segura’s price stays grounded because his strongest skills are the things fantasy owners are least likely to covet.
Home runs are the flashiest of the 5×5 offensive stats, and for some reason I’ve never understood, RBIs are more user-friendly than runs, at least to the common player. Batting average is generally taken with a grain of salt unless someone is competing for batting titles — Segura’s been over .300 for three straight years, but it’s not exorbitantly baked into his cost. And because Segura has a good-not-great 42 steals over the last two years, he’s not dominating the steals category, although you can certainly count on help in that column.
Segura will never be in the Home Run Derby, but he’s whacked 41 over the last three years — you’re not taking a bagel there. He’s moving to a Philadelphia lineup that looks stacked, top to bottom. If Yahoo ADP is going to keep Segura in the mid-60s, where he is now, I’m going to be a strong investor.
Justin Upton, 31, Outfield
Ibanez Rationale: Projected to be a star, he settled in as merely a good player; well-traveled
When Upton was just a pup, he was projected to be one of the future stars of the league. Baseball America tabbed him the No. 2 prospect prior to 2006. Upton made his MLB debut at age 19.
Now we’re 12 years into the dance, and while Upton hasn’t been a flop by any means, he’s just a good player. He’s made four All-Star teams. He’s been inside the Top 15 on an MVP ballot just once. He was plunked 19 times back in 2011 — that’s the only time he’s led the league in anything. His baseball reference page is a sea of non-black ink.
Look at some of the career comps for Upton — Raul Mondesi, Kirk Gibson, Reggie Sanders, Ray Lankford. Guys like that were always welcome on our fantasy teams. They rarely smashed the stat sheet. And it’s not like Upton raises his profile in the playoffs — he hasn’t seen October baseball since 2013. That’s unlikely to change with the Angels this year.
The price can vary with Upton — his NFBC ADP is in the mid-90s, while Yahoo leagues are selecting him 2-3 rounds earlier. Season to taste.
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Kevin Pillar, 30, Outfield
Ibanez Rationale: Not SABR-friendly; broad skills; good-not-great in his best categories
The best thing about Pillar — his amazing defense — doesn’t do much for fantasy owner. Oh, it protects Pillar’s slot in the lineup, but that’s about it. But he’s quietly posted 31 homers and 29 steals the last two years, with an average that won’t sink you. That’s a handy pick around Yahoo ADP 236.
Pillar rarely walks and his OBP is under .300 for his career. It’s a good thing he plays sublime defense. But OBP is not a regular fantasy category, and Pillar’s .261 career average is acceptable for what we need him to be. He was an OF4 or OF5 in most leagues last year and should be again, at that cushy Round 19 or Round 20 ticket.
Kyle Hendricks, 29, Starting Pitcher
Rick Porcello, 30, Starting Pitcher
Ibanez Rationale: Not strikeout dominant; strong in a non-sexy category
There are plenty of reasons to link these two guys together. They both play on glamour teams and recently won a ring. They both support strong pitching staffs but will never be at the front of them. Neither guy will ever challenge for the league strikeout crown. And both pitchers can be sneaky sources of value as durable horses on winning teams (sure, wins are random, but I still want my pitcher supported by the best possible stuff).
I’m also linking Hendricks and Porcello because I missed both of them by one pick in the recent LABR Mixed Draft. Jeff Erickson, let me tell you, is a bad person. I didn’t attack pitching early in the draft, so I decided I would instead pivot to boring-but-solid arms who are likely to be strong in the unsexiest of 5×5 pitching stats — WHIP. Both Hendricks and Porcello fit that strategy nicely (as does my de-facto staff ace, Miles Mikolas).
Jake Arrieta, 33, Starting Pitcher
Ibanez Rationale: Hate might have gone too far; ascents and declines are not always linear
You don’t need an MIT degree to see the worrisome path of Arrieta’s career. He rolled to the Cy Young Award in 2015 with a tidy 1.77 ERA and 0.87 WHIP. No one expected him to ever duplicate that season, but he’s gotten worse in each of the three subsequent years, losing ground in ERA and WHIP every campaign. His strikeout numbers collapsed last year, too.
The Yahoo drafting crew is not pushing after Arrieta. Based on early returns, he’s the 47th pitcher off the starting board.
I wonder if the fade is too sharp on Arrieta. He keeps himself in excellent shape and has made 30 or more starts four straight years. His fastball velocity actually went up in 2018, to a respectable 93 mph. I always like to target NL pitchers for my staff, especially after the elite pitchers are gone, and I expect Philadelphia to be a strong contender. Getting regular exposure to the horrendous Marlins doesn’t hurt, either.
Arrieta obviously isn’t the same guy that smashed with the Cubs, but he doesn’t have to be. There’s no guarantee the dismount of his career has to be linear. You’re getting a coupon here; be open minded in those middle rounds.
Other candidates for Ibanez Membership: Jose Abreu, Brian Anderson, Jed Lowrie, Robinson Cano, Shin Soo-Choo, Nick Markakis, Andrew McCutchen (anything for the Chesterfield Club), any closer on a bad team, any veteran I draft and want to talk myself into.