Alas, Baseball is back, everyone!! The days are getting longer, the weather is getting warmer, and the path to Opening Night is getting shorter. While March is otherwise known for being Winter’s last hurrah, the rest of us are well aware that it’s only a matter of time before the coats get hung back up and the grass grows green. Spring is fast approaching, and the advent of America’s Pastime looms anxiously.
With that in mind, I plan to make the month an exciting one by taking a brief look at each of the 30 Major League Ballclubs until the end of the month. This should be of great use for those in deeper league formats because it exposes the potential gems the fantasy waiver wire might have to offer over the course of the season. Also, though: you get a crystal clear overview of the fantasy landscape that sort of puts a value tag on each individual player who’s bound to conjure up at least a modicum of playing time.
I’ll be covering both the American and National Leagues alphabetically, with today’s discussion focusing squarely on the Baltimore Orioles – a ballclub that somewhat defines the very nature of this topic piece.
BALTIMORE ORIOLES INFIELD
Anyone who’s new to baseball, yet keen enough to comprehend the importance of a ballclub’s various attributes will find the Orioles’ infield an immediate strength. Chris Davis totally rebounded from his pedestrian 2014 with a 47-homer, 117 RBI campaign that saw him sitting among the very top of all fantasy first baseman rankings. Without going into too much detail explaining how he managed to pull it off; research suggests that he altered his approach to his strengths, pulling more flyballs and making harder contact than ever before. He still strikes out way too much, but considering the overall wealth of power he’s provided the last four seasons combined (coupled with the fact that he did have one of the worst single-season BABIP marks I’ve ever seen back in that disastrous 2014 season), I wouldn’t be surprised if he was taken off most standard draft boards within the first 2-3 rounds.
Manny Machado‘s supposed gap power mutated into systematic wall-scraping almost overnight, as the now 23-year old superstar third baseman saw a 22-homer jump prior to playing just over a half season’s worth of games in his 2014 debut. Even scarier is how much more aggressive he got on the base paths, as the young stud managed to pull off an immensely impressive 20 steals on the side. These things, however, do little to describe just how ridiculously impressive Manny Machado’s entire skillset truly is. He has an amazing eye for the plate (25.7% O-swing rate), makes a ton of contact (6.8% swinging strike rate, 91.1 F-Strike Contact rate), and is one of the game’s most disciplined at-bats (9.8% BB rate and 15.6% K rate). All of these things come together to define an elite ballplayer who has the potential of finishing the next 7-8 years as one of the top-5 best hitters in the game. Given all the upside he already carries, Machado absolutely needs to be an early-round priority in any league.
Very few positions in baseball offer as many impact sleepers as second base, and Jonathan Schoop lends heavily to that philosophy. Behind the terrible plate discipline (0.11 BB/K ratio) and insanely aggressive approach (61% swing rate), lies an improving product with the ability to leapfrog over the best in the Bigs in a fortnight. In just 86 games played and 321 plate appearances, Schoop nearly matched his previous career-high in home runs with 15, and notched 73 R+RBI with a .279/.306/.482 slash line (good for a 112 wRC+). Had his knees been under him all season long and was capable of collecting over 150 games of playing time in 2015, there’s a decent chance he’d be labeled in many people’s current discussions as pre-Atlanta Dan Uggla’s second coming. Other awesome numbers to consider come in the form of his batted ball profile, as he’s greatly increased his opposite field% (a big reason why his 2015 BABIP was so goddamn high) and jettisoned his hard hit rate by well over eight percent (which, in other words, meant that his rate of hard contact was less like Stephen Drew‘s and more like Robinson Cano‘s). Somehow, he’s only projected to be the 20th best second baseman according to ESPN, and I’d be lying if I told you they weren’t being excessively conservative here.
Unlike his constituents, there really isn’t much to see here with J.J. Hardy. He hasn’t hit 20 or more homers or slugged over .400 since 2013, and although that’s not too long ago it’s important to consider he’s also 33 with dwindling contact rates and increasing strikeout totals. His notoriously pedestrian batting average clips offer little to no compensation, and since we ALL know this mo-fo doesn’t steal bases we’re pretty much left with a 39-year old Derek Jeter doppleganger. I guess the best way for me to sum up J.J. Hardy at this stage in his career is: do you really want this on your fantasy team?
Ditto for Ryan Flaherty, who’s only real staying power is his pop (9 homers in 301 plate appearances in 2015). Since he makes minimal contact at the plate and doesn’t run at all, it’s impossible for me to imagine – barring injury – him getting any regular playing time in Baltimore – let alone the deepest of fantasy leagues.
Jimmy Paredes qualifies as more of an outfield option than an infield one, Christian Walker‘s an unproven first base prospect with no where to go even if disaster strikes, and Hyun Soo Kim will probably patrol left field. So, with that in mind, Baltimore features only one other decent infield option: Mark Trumbo. And, to make things clear here, 2016 will perhaps be the last time he ever qualifies at first base or the outfield, ever. So, for Trumbo, he needs a renaissance now – especially if fantasy owners are going to trust him. Truthfully, though, he should be trusted as an asset in most leagues anyway, since I’m assuming Baltimore will be wise enough to stick him into their DH spot a la David Ortiz, and his foot problems are finally in the rear-view mirror. Last season was a pretty good indicator of the latter, as the 30-year old picked things up a bit during the second-half of 2015: .282 batting average, 11 homers and 32 RBI in 66 games played. Let’s not also forget that Trumbo was on track to becoming one of the more revered power hitters in the game before he was shipped off to Arizona in ’14, and from there we’ve got ourselves a pretty damn fine end-of-draft buy. Just remember that he’s not exactly a .300 hitter or anything like that.
Matt Wieters rounds out the Orioles’ projected starting infield, and despite all the injury woes that have put severe clamps on his playing time the last couple of seasons he comes into Spring Training with a full bill of health. All you need to know about Wieters, given that he’s a catcher and the catcher position’s always unpredictable, is that he was one of the rare fantasy gems behind the plate before the injury bugs came into play. From 2011-2013, he launched 78 dingers and averaged 71 RBI, with a passable batting average. His game solely depends on leaving the yard and driving home a respectable amount of men on base, and nothing statistically suggests that’ll change in 2016 – barring any significant collapses. Since he missed so much time last season, he comes off as more of an end-of-draft pick you could sneak in at a crazy-low price – you’ve just gotta remember that he’s down there somewhere.
If, in any event, Wieters spends most of his 2016 the same way he spent most of his 2015 campaign, the Orioles are lucky enough to have a backup as capable as Caleb Joseph. He’s got particularly good pop against righties, and thrived with runners in scoring position last season in the wake of Wieters’s injury. The wealth of playing time he had in 2015 proved that he’s a Major League catcher with upside. The problem with Joseph, however, is that he’s still slightly more upside than current production. He’ll need to cut down on his strikeouts (20.3% K rate in 2015) a bit and make harder contact (30.6% clip) if he’s to be considered a guaranteed solid option both in fantasy and real life, because he’s struggled to carry even a decent batting average through either of his first two Major League campaigns. He is getting better (he sprayed the ball way more often in ’15 than in ’14, helping lead to a near-30 point boost in batting average) and his defense behind the plate is plenty serviceable, so at the very least he’s worth keeping an eye on in AL-only leagues.