Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds
While not a total bust, Castillo was one of the more disappointing fantasy players last season, but he’s more than living up to the hype now, when his draft price was much cheaper. After posting a 5.49 ERA and 1.38 WHIP before the All-Star break last season, Castillo finished the year with a 2.44 ERA and 0.96 WHIP afterward. He’s carried that momentum into 2019 (1.47 ERA, 0.88 WHIP). His walks are up, but that’s an acceptable tradeoff when it comes with 41 strikeouts over 30.2 innings. Castillo has no doubt experienced some good fortune, as his HR/FB% (5.3) is well below his career mark (16.7%), which is going to be especially difficult to maintain while calling home to one of the best hitter’s parks for long balls (Great American Ballpark has increased HR by 20% over the last three seasons).
But it’s impossible to produce a 1.47 ERA without those type of underlying stats (Castillo also sports a .197 BABIP that’s the third-lowest among starters), and his 2.50 accompanying FIP suggests his terrific start is certainly for real. Castillo’s changeup has been the best in baseball by a wide margin this season, so it certainly seems like a smart strategy he’s throwing it more than ever (helping lead to a career-high 15.1 SwStr%). Batters have an expected slugging percentage of just .194 against him, which ranks in the top 1% of the league. He’s also been among the best at limiting exit velocity. Given the current state of the rest of starting pitchers around baseball, it’s hard not to consider Castillo as a top-10 option moving forward.
Cole Tucker, Pittsburgh Pirates
With Erik Gonzalez hitting the 60-day IL with a fractured clavicle, Pittsburgh has called up one of their top prospects in Tucker and immediately inserted him into their leadoff spot. A first-round pick, Tucker is strong defensively (huge arm at shortstop) and a switch-hitter who showed up this spring looking noticeably stronger. Most important to fantasy owners, the middle infielder swiped 35 bases last year in Double-A (he had 47 the year before) and he had already racked up five steals in Triple-A this year before getting the call. Obviously, there’s risk with rookies (BA could be a problem), and PNC Park won’t do him any favors, but Tucker is capable of something like 10-15 homers and 25-30 steals, so there’s good reason why he was the most sought-after free agent in fantasy leagues over the weekend.
Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
I wanted no part of Kershaw this year and own him nowhere, but it’s been an encouraging first two starts (2.77 ERA and 0.85 WHIP). His velocity remains down and sits at a career-low (90.1 mph) in the early going, but he’s inducing more ground balls, and if this version of Kershaw results in better health, it’s a tradeoff fantasy owners would make every single time. Durability concerns remain, but Kershaw has returned and looked good doing so earlier than expected, and it’s hard not to be excited if you gambled on this generation’s best pitcher at a discounted price tag on draft day.
Marcell Ozuna, St. Louis Cardinals
His down first season in St. Louis could be attributed to his shoulder injury that he had surgery on during the offseason. While some effects may still be lingering on defense, any at the plate have certainly been eliminated. Ozuna already has eight homers, posting a .271/.363/.671 line while also matching last year’s total with three steals (and just two off from his career high). Batting cleanup (with OBP guys like Paul Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter ahead of him) is another plus, and Ozuna’s expected slugging (.662) is in the top 3% of the league.
Jason Heyward, Chicago Cubs
Sometimes players change even in the middle of careers, and as easy as it was to write off Heyward’s hot start, it appears he’s made some real changes at the plate. He’s more than doubled his career walk rate, as both his K% (11.1) and BB% (16.7) rank in the top 6% of the league. Heyward’s exit velocity (90.5 mph) is easily a career high, and he’s increased his launch angle dramatically (it’s gone from 9.4 degrees last season up to 14.2 this year, so it’s no fluke he's hitting fewer ground balls than ever). The former top prospect has added three steals and is still young enough (29) to finally have the breakout season we’ve been waiting for.
Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres
While it was nice to see San Diego be aggressive promoting its prospects entering the season, I remained skeptical the 20-year-old was ready to be a big fantasy asset, especially with Petco Park against him. But Tatis Jr. has certainly been just that, racking up six homers to go along with a recent three-steal game (he’s up to four on the year), giving him third-round fantasy value so far. However, the rookie is striking out a ton (28.1 K%), so his expected batting average is just .238. Given the hype and hot start, Tatis Jr. is an ideal player to shop and attempt to sell high right now.
Christian Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers
There was some concern spending an early pick on Yelich coming off a career-year in which he led MLB in HR/FB% (48.1% after the All-Star break!) and having never reached 25 steals in a season, but so far, fantasy owners have to be content with him leading the world in homers (13) and RBI (31) while batting .353. Yelich’s HR/FB% (40.6) ranks third in MLB this year, as it sure has helped going from one of the toughest parks to hit homers in Miami to one that’s favorable for them in Milwaukee. He currently ranks in the top 3% of the league in Barrel%, exit velocity, xwOBA and Hard Hit%. That’ll do.
Jordan Lyles, Pittsburgh Pirates
He’s dealing with a minor hand injury but is expected to make his next start, which is good news because Lyles has been a revelation so far, allowing just one run with an 18:5 K:BB ratio over three starts (17.0 innings). He was a sneaky addition by the Pirates during the offseason, as Lyles ditched his two-seam fastball for a four-seamer (while adding depth to his curve), which is exactly what pitchers should be doing in this uppercut-swinging environment. With the benefit of pitching in the NL and PNC Park, Lyles should be owned in more than 37% of leagues.
Travis Shaw, Milwaukee Brewers
He’s followed up a 25:0 K:BB ratio during spring with a 31.3 K% that’s in the bottom 8% of the league to open the season, so it’s no surprise that also comes with an ugly expected batting average (.200). Shaw is actually hitting the ball harder than ever (his Hard Hit% is a career high), but he needs to show at least modest improvement in contact, and he’s especially helpless against southpaws (.358 OPS this year). Shaw will get better, but it’s been a brutal start to the season that’s dated back to spring.
Kyle Schwarber, Chicago Cubs
Another power-hitting lefty who strikes out frequently and off to a slow start, Schwarber is getting dropped in some leagues after opening the year with a .194/.265/.355 line. His BB% has been cut nearly in half compared to last season, and his launch angle has dropped too, so there’s some cause for concern here.
Cody Allen, Los Angeles Angels
He’s allowed at least one run during each of his past four appearances, even failing to record an out during his last two (when he’s served up three homers). Allen was pitching well before this stretch, and he’s been a streaky pitcher throughout his career. Still, he’s up to six walks over 7.1 innings this season, and his velocity (92.3 mph) is a career low, while his SwStr% (11.0) is his worst since his rookie campaign in 2012. Allen’s Barrel% and expected slugging are both in the bottom 3% of the league, so fantasy owners are hoping for a quick turnaround before he loses the closer’s job. Ty Buttrey is firmly on the fantasy radar (and still available in more than 85% of Yahoo leagues).
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