Fantasy Baseball Mailbag: The effects of the delayed season on top prospects, Hall of Fame chances and more

There’s a lot we just don’t know about what to expect for the 2020 MLB season. We’re in totally unchartered waters here. There isn’t a precedent for this, which is why professional sports leagues are considering unprecedented measures, like playing the season in front of empty parks with expanded rosters.

We’re looking for answers just as you are, so we can hopefully provide some. We’ve received plenty of questions from our readers and Fantasy Baseball Today listeners, and Scott White and I will be doing weekly reader mailbag columns, so I thought we might as well start with the questions you have about what kind of season we might be looking at in 2020.

This is as good a place to start as any. This is pretty much an unprecedented situation, but we do have some precedent for a delayed MLB season with the strike that ended the ’94 campaign and carried over to the next season.

When the strike ended in late March of 1995, the season was already supposed to have started, and MLB teams were going through spring training without their active rosters. Spring training for the “real” players began April 5, with the season set to start April 26, leaving just three weeks to get into game shape. I think we’d likely see something similar this season. Given the uncertainty surrounding the long-term effects of the pandemic, I would imagine the league would want to get going as quickly as possible once given the go-ahead from public authorities, so expect a shorter spring training, expanded rosters (at least at the start), and possibly fewer days off and more double headers.

From Wes in OC:

Dear Lofton, Griffey & Caminiti,

With the baseball season delayed because of COVID-19, do starting pitcher values drop in your eyes? Last season Cole’s best stretch came after Game 80, and in 100 game season that value is diminished. Where as in 162 game season he’d be likely to return a 2nd round or $40 investment but now hes probably close to 4th round & $28 value. Do you guys see things the same way?

I think the biggest reason starting pitcher values might drop as a result of this is because it minimizes the gap between the haves and have-notes, at least in theory. What separates Cole isn’t just the incredible ratio stats — which I expect to be slightly worse in 2020 than 2019 even without the delay, largely due to the move to Yankee Stadium — but also the volume. He has thrown 200-plus innings in four of five seasons, including three straight, and that helped him reach the 300-strikeout mark in 2019.

If the season is shortened, his ability to extend his lead over the rest of the field at starting pitcher is lessened a bit.

Plus, if there is a condensed schedule in addition to a shorter one, it could slightly limit how often your ace pitches. Teams would have fewer opportunities to set up their rotation to skip the fifth starter with fewer off days, creating fewer opportunities for the top of the rotation guys to pitch.

Ultimately, these shouldn’t change your ranking of pitchers relative to one another, but it is an argument for moving pitchers down as a whole. Given they had to ramp up to game shape in February and March, only to have to pause, also seems like it could increase the likelihood of injuries. Add in a likely shorter spring training whenever we do start back up, and it all points to pitchers being even more volatile than normal.

From Matt from Pasadena, CA

Dear David, Edward, Alex, and Michael,

Which of these players will “hit the ground running” this season with everyday starting jobs?

Nick Madrigal, AJ Puk, Kyle Tucker, Dee Gordon, Kyle Lewis, Daniel Vogelbach, Miguel Andujar, Tommy LaStella, David Fletcher, Mark Canha, Yandy Diaz, Nate Lowe, Brandon Lowe, Alex Verdugo, Michael Chavis

That’s a whole lot of names, Matt, but I’ll try to categorize them as best as I can.

In the Opening Day Lineup:

  • Daniel Vogelbach
  • Kyle Lewis
  • Miguel Andujar
  • Tommy La Stella
  • Mark Canha
  • Yandy Diaz
  • Brandon Lowe
  • Michael Chavis
  • A.J. Puk

Of course, it’s not as simple as all that, even for these players. All should have consistent roles to begin the season, but it seems likely Andujar and La Stella will both see regular time off at first, unless they truly hit the ground running and make it hard to get them out of the lineup.

Puk figures to be the fifth starter for the A’s, however given his history with Tommy John surgery and the start-and-stop-and-start nature of the 2020 offseason, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him used as more of a swing man at first.

And, of course, it’s fair to wonder if anyone on the Rays except maybe Austin Meadows truly has an “everyday” job, especially if the rosters are expanded early. The Rays are two-or-three-deep at every position, basically, and they’ll move guys in and out of the lineup regularly to try to exploit whatever advantages they can.

That leaves Vogelbach, Lewis, Canha and possibly Michael Chavis as the most likely to be in the lineup every day to start the season. If Canha proves his 2019 was no a fluke, the A’s would be fools to take him out of the lineup at all. Chavis figures to see time at both first and second base, and if he hits, he’ll play somewhere every day. Vogelbach and Lewis similarly should have consistent roles to begin the season, but they’ll need to hit to keep them.

Something left to prove:

  • Kyle Tucker
  • Nick Madrigal
  • Alex Verdugo
  • Nate Lowe

This is a very interesting list of players for Fantasy, and I still view Tucker especially as someone who could be an early-round pick as soon as next year. There is 30-30 potential here and not too much swing-and-miss in the profile, so it comes down to whether he can push Josh Reddick to the bench. I would expect they split time early on in the season, though Tucker also did some work at first base this offseason, so I would hope they’ll find ways to get his bat in the lineup if he hits to his potential. He is one of my absolutely favorite mid-round targets for 2020.

Verdugo similarly has tremendous upside as a high-average option playing in Fenway Park. I think he could be a .300-100-20-90-10 guy, and his value is probably improved by the delayed season. Verdugo has been dealing with a back injury that had kept him from even swinging a bat until the past few days of spring training, but this certainly gives him more time to get ready. If Verdugo is healthy by Opening Day, I expect him to be in the lineup, and he could be one of the biggest steals in Fantasy.

Lowe was already optioned to Triple-A, though it’s hard to tell whether it was just a procedural move after spring training was shut down, or if it’s indicative of his role to begin the season. If the rosters expand, I would imagine he’ll be with the Rays on opening day, though an everyday job seems unlikely.

As for Madrigal, his skill set could be incredibly valuable in today’s Fantasy climate, as he figures to excel in average and stolen bases, the two scarcest commodities among hitters. He still has to win that job, and the abbreviated spring training could hamper his chances.

From Ryan,

With the possible shortened season, I was wondering what minor league prospects you think will be called up sooner than normal? For example, there are rumors Spencer Howard might start the season in the Phillies rotation because his innings limit wouldn’t be as big of a deal with a shorter season.

And inversely, which prospects have a slimmer chance of making an MLB impact with a shortened season? Kelenic? Julio Rodriguez?

Howard seems like an obvious example, given that Phillies GM talked about him as an expected contributor in the second half of the season — if the season is shortened, it will be easier to manage his innings.

However, that is ultimately going to come down to organizational philosophy. I wouldn’t expect non-contending teams to be more aggressive than normal, however a truncated season could also create less separation in the standings, convincing more teams than normal they have a shot. I think we could see more pitching prospects get a chance this season, given the expanded rosters and likelihood of fewer off days and more doubleheaders.

But I wouldn’t necessarily be aggressive about drafting them earlier in drafts unless and until we get something concrete about their team’s intentions. If the Angels do decide, for instances, that they want Jo Adell to spend additional time in Triple-A, a shortened season means every game he misses takes up a larger percentage of the overall season.

One additional wrinkle to consider: Given that it might be even trickier to play a full minor-league season, teams might be more aggressive overall about promoting their closer-to-the-majors players, rather than letting them sit on the sidelines. That is a significant hypothetical, but we’re still a long way from having anything like concrete answers on that.  

Ed from Jacksonville,

Fearing the worst, I’m beginning to believe there will be NO 2020 season.  In that instance, who are the most likely players to call it quits?   Just curious re: keeper leagues.   

Boy, this isn’t one I want to consider for a couple of reasons, but it probably makes the most sense to look at older players with expiring contracts, which doesn’t include many Fantasy relevant players; Maybe Yoenis Cespedes, Shin-Soo Choo, Yadier Molina, Mark Melancon, Cole Hamels, Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Gardner. It’s not a lot of names you should be worried about, though Nelson Cruz is 40, so he’s a possibility, though an unlikely one considering he was as good as ever in 2019.

From Chad,

If there is a shorter or cancelled season whose HOF chances are hurt the most? Does it potentially impact some others in the “top 10 ever” lists like Scherzer and Trout?

The biggest risks aren’t guys like Scherzer or Verlander, who are sure-fire Hall of Famers right now as is, nor Trout, who has several peak seasons left. One missed season isn’t likely to impact either’s chances.

The risk comes in with perhaps fringier players closer to the end of their primes. I would vote for Zack Greinke for the Hall if I had a vote and he retired right now, but he might not be close enough for some. Can we really expect him to add much more career value in 2021 and beyond? It’s possible 2020 is the last season at or near his peak. Similarly, a bounce-back season from someone like Felix Hernandez would help his chances.

On the hitting side, Andrew McCutchen and Paul Goldschmidt probably have outside shots at the Hall if they close their careers strong, so losing a year costs them more. A lost season also makes it much less likely Miguel Cabrera gets to 500 home runs or 3,000 hits for his career — he is at 477 and 2,815. Nelson Cruz needs 99 homers to get to 500, and Edwin Encarnacion needs 86, so both are pretty long shots to get there even with a full 2020, but losing the season probably ensures they won’t.

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