KEEPERS: Playing for 2018

You know who you are, the rebuilder who won't be competitive in 2017 even if everything breaks right. So immediately, you're tasked with determining how to best fill your available positions with future valueboth active and reserve, depending on your league's rules. Obviously the relative uncertainty of pitching suggests that you target hitters early and often. But if they aren't already on your roster, you aren't likely able to acquire potential keeper cornerstones like Victor Robles or Eloy Jimenez without offering up a piece of your own envisioned down-the-road winner. So you wait for the next potentially elite breakout / pop-up prospectssometimes until June, when the rookie leagues beginand hope that you're the first to put in a free agent claim or highest FAAB bid.

But depending on your league's depth and knowledge, plenty of future MLBers and potentially underrated current MLBers can still be found on your league's free agent list. And of the prospects that are already rostered, at least some of these will be under-appreciated / underrated or questioned by their owners at given points in time, making them relatively easy to acquire. Some of these names are very likely to provide at least partial-season value in 2018, perhaps more, and perhaps even sooner than this.

Rightly or wrongly, most fantasy owners use pre-season Top 100 (or whatever) lists to as a beginning or partial benchmark in evaluating their prospect collections. Our objective here isn't to offer a point-in-time analysis of the very best prospects that fantasy owners are already on, but more to examine positions and situations where bargains might lie beyond the Top 50, particularly with an eye out for unappreciated potential 2018 value.

​Catcher is typically a difficult position at which to identify offense--particularly in two-slot leagues--but opportunities can be found. Carson Kelly (C, STL) was unranked on the 2017 HQ100, largely because of an unexceptional overall bat to date. Not so on other prospect lists, thanks to MLB-ready defensive/receiving skills, consistent contact, and what some analysts and scouts believe is at least a little power on the cusp. Kelly posted a career-best .289/.343/.395 composite line in 2016 (329 AB) while jumping to AA/AAA at age 21, and hinted at more with an intriguing Arizona Fall League performance (13/4 BB/K, .455 Slg in 77 AB). But now Yadier Molina's pending three-deal effectively blocks him in STL and depresses Kelly's fantasy value for owners needing 2017 help. Entering his first full Triple-A season, Carson is a fine STL trade-chip, and a breakout of sorts here wouldn't surprise.

Last year a consensus Top-30 guy, Dominic Smith (1B, NYY) has dropped off most Top 50 lists (#68 on the HQ100) for several reasons—primarily long-projected power that has yet to blossom, but also for what is also perceived as an aversion to conditioning. And for owners watching these things, Smith's 6-for-36 spring training performance (1 xBH, 13 Ks) didn't help his stock. But Smith just turned 21 last June during his first full Double-A season, which he finished with a .302 BA, career-high 14 HR and a 50/74 BB/K in 484 AB. After playing most of 2016 at almost 250 pounds, the 6 ft. Smith's reporting to camp 24 pounds lighter was another encouraging sign. He's a pure left-handed hitter with batting championship upside, a plus defender, and those of us able to watch his batting practice at the 2016 Futures Game will attest to Smith's power potential. He's unlikely to be blocked by oft-injured 31-year-old Lucas Duda (1B, NYM), a career .246 hitter now in his walk year. Now beginning his first Triple-A season and particularly at a time when legit 1B prospects are few and far between, we'll take this profile and opportunity any time.

Tabbing legit second-base prospects is difficult, simply because many of these nowadays are minor league shortstops who have moved off the position. Ozzie Albies (2B/SS, ATL) of the Braves is now projected to be one of these. Franklin Barreto (SS/2B, OAK) is likely another later this season—though both are elite prospects with stocks that remain relatively high. But there are also some high-minors 2Bs with less upside who are at least ready for extended MLB AB. Bat-first Dilson Herrera (2B, CIN) is one of these, though his shoulder prevented him from throwing this spring and was partly a factor in his Triple-A demotion. Gavin Cecchini's (SS/2B, NYM) is another,  and his advanced hit tool would have already found an MLB opportunity somewhere were it not for his throwing issues, first at SS and now more recently at second. Cuban import Andy Ibanez (2B, TEX) is blocked by Rougned Odor and will get his first taste of Triple-A this year. But the just-turned-24 Ibanez is coming off a .285/.355/.449 season (13 HR, 15 SB) between A+/AA in his first professional season in the U.S., and has drawn comps to Howie Kendrick. An obvious trade-chip for a post-season contender, Ibanez profiles as a 2B regular somewhere. 

Shortstop is currently a prospect goldmine that can occasionally result in some overlooked or underrated names. Kevin Newman (SS, PIT) generates plenty of disagreement as to his upside among analysts due to his lack of HR power. But no one doubts his elite plate skills and .300 BA upside at the MLB level, and his defense is improving. Following a 7-for-18 spring training, Newman will begin 2017 at Triple-A, with only arb-eligible Jordy Mercer in front of him at SS in PIT. Currently blocked by a Troy Tulowitzki contract that runs through  2020, Richard Urena (SS, TOR) would appear to have a tougher road ahead. But he's another youngster who just finished a successful A+/AA season—.295/.335/.434 over 518 AB—at age 20, and projects to offer above-average offense at the MLB level. Still not as well-recognized as many SS prospects, Urena made his HQ100 debut at #97 this year.  

Christian Arroyo (3B, SF) plays all over the infield but profiles best defensively at 3B. On most 2016 top prospect lists in 2016, Arroyo's luster has dimmed (nowhere to be found on the HQ100) following a non-descript .274/.316/.373, three HR season at AA-Richmond. But like a few of the other 20/21-year-olds noted here, Arroyo has been aggressively promoted, and was hitting in one of the most extreme pitchers parks in the minors last year. He's unlikely to be a perennial All-Star, but Arroyo offers versatility and enough bat-to-ball skills and potential pop to get significant MLB playing time as early as 2018 if not sooner. Ditto for both Jeimer Candelario (3B/1B, CHC) and Hunter Dozier (3B/OF, KC), currently blocked in CHC and KC respectively, i.e., not stars but with viable everyday upside who shouldn't be untouchables in any format. Both appear to be MLB-ready now (though Dozier will be slowed by an early-season oblique injury).

Disappointment-to-date Jorge Soler (OF, KC) is an example of an MLB OF with upside who might be readily available in your league following a shaky spring. We've touted Jake Bauers (TAM, OF) repeatedly here in this space before his spring rampage (13-for-35, 4 HR, 7/4 BB/K) began. And while we're obviously not claiming now that his small-sample is completely legit, Bauer's age, plate skills and particularly his patience have long suggested a power-uptick was in the offing—and the TAM corner outfield and 1B spots look very winnable between now and 2018. Derek Fisher (OF, HOU) fell down the HQ100 (#87) this season and he still needs to work on his contact.  But he's always possessed the tools, and Fisher's 2 HR, 9 BB, 11/0 SB/CS this past spring was a revelation. Harrison Bader (blocked in STL), Juan Soto (potentially elite upside just outside the Top 100), Nick Williams (pitch-selection-challenged but still toolsy and AAA-experienced) and Alex Kiriloff (top MIN offensive prospect now out for the year with TJS) are all attractive OF names with varying MLB ETA timelines that could still be readily available.

And if you must speculate on starting pitching (as sometimes we all must), there are speculation situations and opportunities that make more sense than others. With an open reserve spot, sometimes it makes sense to roster (or at least target-watch) elite names coming off injuries who have been impressive early in their returns from the DL and could be poised for breakthroughs, like Dylan Cease (CHC) and Walker Buehler (LA). Staying on top of less-touted but talented names like Brock Stewart (LA), Anthony Banda (ARI), Jorge Lopez (MIL), and Tyler Beede (SF)—all NL names; see a pattern?—that are closer to the majors and are likely to get 2017 opportunity can occasionally pay immediate dividends. And if not, your risk (other than the opportunity cost of using the roster spot) is limited, since you aren't competing this year anyways.

Tabbing relief help, particularly closers-of-the-future, is timing-and-luck dependent, as noted by last year's breakthroughs, not to mention the volatility of relievers in general. Anyone who tells you they saw Seung-Hwan Oh or Edwin Diaz coming isn't telling the truth. Obviously the best advice for rebuilders is to target hard-throwers with plenty of swing-and-miss and an ability to avoid HRs. Again obviously, pay some serious attention to those RPs getting multi-inning stints, since the best of these can do wonders for your ERA and WHIP--and even pick up wins in shaky rotations backed by decent offenses.

One bullpen that looks ripe for opportunity is in Arizona, where volatile Fernando Rodney currently owns the closer job backed up by unproven power arms like Archie Bradley (RHP, ARI), Rubby de la Rosa (RHP, ARI) and others. And if you missed out on pre-season target Koda Glover, an equally-interesting name perhaps below the radar following his expected Triple-A demotion is Zack Burdi (RHP, CHW), who could be in the saves mix for rebuilding CHW sometime this year or next.     

​Play ball, and good luck with your 2017 rebuild! 

 


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.