2020 Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep: Biggest questions, risk factors for the top 12 players

Your first-round picks in Fantasy aren’t just your best players, though they will be that too. You’re paying for the upside of a superstar player, but you’re also paying for the certainty and peace of mind they bring as anchors to your team. Sure, Nelson Cruz could be as good as Juan Soto, or Tyler Glasnow could outpitch Gerrit Cole, but both could also totally bust out; Soto and Cole aren’t likely to.

But that doesn’t mean things couldn’t go wrong for your first-round picks. In fact, history suggests it’s going to happen for at least a few of our consensus top players; J.D. Martinez, Jose Altuve, Jose Ramirez, Manny Machado and Paul Goldschmidt were all being draft around the first round, and all were varying degrees of disappointments. At least one had a down year — Altuve — while some just weren’t consistent enough — Ramirez — but still showed signs of first-round skill.

However, Machado and Goldschmidt had already showed signs of decline even before 2019, and in retrospect, it’s hard to believe they were ever being drafted that highly. Being able to identify those risk factors all comes down to asking the right questions. So that’s what we’re going to do about this year’s first-round crop. I’ve identified the biggest question for each of the top 12 for 2020 in ADP, and tried to answer how it could go wrong.

Biggest Question: How long will he remain an elite steals source?

When it comes to young players, we tend to assume they’ll just keep getting better every season. Given that Acuña was already the No. 1 player in Fantasy in 2019, it only makes sense that he’s No. 1 in ADP entering his age-22 season. Given his age and well-rounded skill set, it’s awfully hard to actually come up with any real questions about Acuña, but that’s the point of the exercise, so let’s get on with it.

For Acuña, a lot of this comes down to stolen bases. His .280/.365/.518 line in 2019, while very good, was both a decrease from his rookie season and somewhat lackluster for an elite Fantasy option; he was 36th in the majors in wOBA and OPS. The stolen bases make up for that, as his 37 led the National League last season and proved especially valuable in a season when stolen bases were down across the majors. There’s not necessarily any reason to think Acuña won’t run as much in 2020, but when a player relies on speed, a random hamstring injury is all it could take to slow them down.

Of course, Acuña has such a well-rounded skill set that he’s almost certainly never going to be the reason you lose a league; even if he had stolen just 18 bases in 2019, he would have been the No. 13 hitter in Roto on a per-game basis. However, you see where the likes of Trout, Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger have the edge on him from a hitting standpoint — if you cut all their stolen bases totals in half, Acuña is last among the four. He needs those steals to contend for the No. 1 spot.

Biggest Question: Can he get back to stealing bases?

Here we have the opposite question from Acuña. Trout is the best hitter in the league, so he’s all but assured to be one of the five best players in Fantasy as long as he is healthy. Health has been an issue for Trout, who has missed 98 games over the past three seasons, but the bigger question surrounding his ability to get back to the No. 1 spot comes down to those steals. Trout stole just 11 bases in 2019, his fewest since 2015. He followed that up with 30 steals in 2016 and has shown no real decrease in his sprint speed as tracked by Statcast over the past five years, so it doesn’t seem to be a question of whether Trout can get back to being a plus in stolen bases. The question is whether, as he gets closer to 30 and the lineup around him gets worse, whether Trout or the Angels will want to risk him on the base paths. Worst-case scenario, he’s the fifth-best player in Fantasy.

Biggest Question: Will there be any lingering effects from the knee injury?

Acuña might have finished as the top player in Roto in 2019, but Yelich was the best player of them all. Despite missing the last month of the season, he finished with 44 homers and 30 steals while leading the NL in batting average (for the second year in a row), proving his 2018 breakout was no fluke. He combines excellent plate discipline with legitimate elite production across all five categories, and if you could guarantee me 155 games, he’d probably be the top choice in both Roto and H2H formats.

However, he is coming off a fractured kneecap, so there is some doubt about how he will return. He avoided surgery, which is a good sign, but we just haven’t seen him in action yet to know for sure. Will he still run? Like Trout, Yelich can still be an elite Fantasy option even if he doesn’t — he would have been the No. 1 player in Roto on a per-game basis with as few as 12 steals in 2019. But if he goes back to being more of a 35-ish homer guy that he was in 2018, that margin for error gets a bit slimmer.

Biggest Question: Can he do it again?

Through the first half of 2019, Bellinger was putting himself in the discussion for the No. 1 overall pick in Fantasy. He’s always had that combination of elite power and surprising speed, but he started making significantly more contact, to the point where he now has a below-average strikeout rate. However, a second-half slump knocked him down a bit — he hit for less power and struck out more in the second half, though it’s worth noting both were still well above his previous career norms. Bellinger seems like a safe bet for 40 homers and double-digit steals, and hitting in the Dodgers lineup should help keep the run and RBI numbers healthy, so the question comes down to how much of last year’s improvements will stick. 

Biggest Question: How will he adjust to Yankee Stadium?

Coming off a season like the one Cole just had, you’ve really got to stretch to find holes in his game. Can he sustain the gains he made with the Astros? I’d bet on it — he seemed to be all-in on the changes the Astros coaching staff instilled, and I don’t think the Yankees are going to tinker with him like they did with, say, Sonny Gray. But there is one red flag in Cole’s profile, and that is that he has become a flyball pitcher over the last two seasons. It didn’t hurt him much in 2019, because home runs don’t hurt too much when you’ve got a 0.89 WHIP. However, Yankee Stadium is a very tough place to pitch, especially for a fly ball pitcher, and you probably still have to expect some regression from where Cole was last season no matter what. Given injury concerns for Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, Cole is about as sure a thing you can find at starting pitcher, but he isn’t bullet-proof. 

Biggest Question: How much will he miss Fenway?

If Betts had to be traded, there were worse places he could have landed than in an absolutely stacked Dodgers lineup, but his Fantasy value certainly took a hit upon leaving Boston, there’s no question. Fenway is a great place to hit, especially for a hitter like Betts, who makes so much contact, because it inflates batting average more than any park besides Coors Field. Betts has hit .319 in his career at Fenway, compared to .285 everywhere else. That’s nothing to sneeze at, especially since hitters generally fare worse on the road overall, but it would be a significant hit to Betts’ value. I think you can probably still count on Betts for something around a .290 average and 30 homers, though the RBI and run opportunities should be just a bit harder to come by with the Dodgers than they were with the Red Sox, where he was regularly among the league leaders in plate appearances. It’s not enough to knock him out of the first half of the first round — and I would probably rank him ahead of Cole and possibly Bellinger as well — but it could be enough to knock him out of contention for the No. 1 spot. Also, don’t underrate the switching leagues factor — hitters fare better the more they see pitchers, so there could be an adjustment period to deal with.

Biggest Question: How will he age?

DeGrom’s upside isn’t as high as Cole’s, but he has even fewer question marks in his profile. He has been one of the best pitchers in baseball in consecutive seasons and has missed just a single start in that time; he also doesn’t have the changing-teams question Cole does. I guess you can ask if the Mets will ever help him actually win games, but it’s not like this is a hopeless team that shouldn’t be expected to win much; the Mets won 86 games in 2019 and shouldn’t be worse this season. DeGrom might not be the No. 1 pick, but he might have fewer red flags than anyone in this group.

However, it is worth noting that deGrom is about to turn 32, so it’s not out of the question that he might be about to hit his decline phase. He has shown no signs of it, but neither had Corey Kluber before last season. I wouldn’t expect deGrom to take much of step back, but we can’t entirely discount the possibility.

Biggest Question: Where will he be playing?

Lindor is a lot like deGrom, where he may not have the upside of some of the other players in this range, but there are also shockingly few ways his season could go wrong. Like Acuña, his overall production would be a bit lackluster without the steals, but if he didn’t stop running after dealing with a calf injury last season, I don’t see why he would now.

Unless he gets traded somewhere that doesn’t want him running. Or to a park that wouldn’t be quite as conducive to his fly-ball oriented swing. Such as San Diego, say. You already know what Petco Park does to power numbers, but also consider that Manny Machado’s stolen base attempts were cut in half upon joining the Padres. A midseason trade of Lindor seems all but inevitable at this point, and that adds unwelcome uncertainty at this cost.

Biggest Question: What will the Rockies lineup look like?

I get the feeling there are still plenty of Fantasy players who don’t quite buy Story as a first-round caliber hitter, but there really isn’t much reason to doubt it. His strikeout rate remains a bit higher than you’d want, but the BABIP-inflating benefits of Coors Field make his batting average look plenty sustainable. We know he can hit for power, and I don’t see any reason the steals will go anywhere — though if the Rockies decide they can’t compete and opt to trade Nolan Arenado, it’s fair to ask whether Story might be less inclined to risk his body on the base paths.

The bigger issue, of course, would be whether the lineup around him might hold him back. In 2019, Story, Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, and David Dahl were the only above-average hitters in the Rockies lineup. Dahl has had trouble staying healthy, Blackmon will be 33 this year and showed signs of decline in 2018 and Arenado may be on the trade block …  which could leave Story as a bit of one-man show in Colorado, and that’s a tough place to be.

Biggest Question: Where does he finish the season?

Speaking of Arenado, there was a bit of panic around him in January when reports started coming in that the Rockies might trade him, and he briefly started slipping into the second or even third round in some drafts; at the Fantasy Sports and Gaming Association conference in January, Arenado slipped to 21st overall in our expert draft. That was an overreaction, because Arenado isn’t just a product of Coors Field — his home/road splits don’t tell the whole story, given that there is evidence that hitters perform worse in series after playing at Coors Field. Still, there is some risk there — his batting average wouldn’t be as safe a bet without Coors, and for all of the Rockies’ issues in 2019, they still ranked fourth in the NL in runs scored. A move to the American League midseason could also introduce complications. Arenado is a fantastic hitter, but one of his biggest strengths is his incredibly high floor, and the possibility of a midseason trade just adds uncertainty.

Biggest Question: Will he hit 3rd and run?

Turner is my favorite pick in the first round, but a lot of his value could come down to where he hits in the Nationals order. For his career, Turner has averaged 67.2 stolen base attempts per-150 games started out of the leadoff spot; he has averaged 43.9 per-150 in all other lineup spots. There would be other benefits to hitting third, if he did, as he could likely challenge for 100 RBI and 100 runs, but his overall profile looks less impressive if he’s swiping 35 bases instead of 50-plus. Before spring training, it seemed like manager Davey Martinez was moving away from the idea of having Turner bat third, which makes Turner seem like one of the safest bets for elite steal totals in the game, and that’s great news.

Biggest Question: Will he take the next step?

It’s probably a smart idea to bet on Juan Soto continuing to improve. After all, he won’t be 22 until late October, and he’s already one of the best young players in MLB history; only Mel Ott and Tony Conigliaro had as many home runs as Soto before turning 21. But the key is this; Does he have to improve to be worth this price. Even though he took a step forward in both the power and speed departments in 2019, Soto wasn’t quite good enough to justify this price, ranking 19th in H2H scoring and 16th in Roto; he was 27th in per-game value. I don’t want to bet against Soto taking another step forward, but it’s no guarantee — Ott hit 42 homers in his age-20 season and then followed that up with 25 and 29 in the next two seasons, while Conigliaro saw his OPS dip nearly 50 points from his first two seasons to his age-21 season. That’s not to say the same will happen to Soto, but it is to say that progress isn’t always linear. Soto is such a great hitter that the floor is always going to be pretty high — at least for the next decade or so — but the 12 steals (and near-perfect success rate, being caught just once) were an outlier for his career, and may not be there in 2020. Soto is just the tiniest of reaches — I think he’s probably closer to Freddie Freeman. 

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