As the curtain rises on another baseball season, it’s worth celebrating the fact that something we tend to take for granted every spring has, in fact, arrived. Going an additional three months without baseball, as we did last year, was not something any of us would like to repeat.
(Hint, hint, MLB and MLB Players Association officials …)
We’re coming off a season in which the designated hitter was used in every game, three starting pitchers still finished with ERAs under 2.00 and Luke Voit won the home run title with 22.
But spending so much time and effort trying to get back to a “normal” season shouldn’t blind us to the fact that part of the reason we love this game is because it rarely is normal.
In fantasy baseball, we try to figure out what’s most likely to happen over 162 games and construct our teams around that concept. But winning a fantasy league can often be a matter of finding a little nugget of truth that can lead us to the possibility of what might happen.
So instead of trying to make absolute sense of everything, why not allow our minds to go out on a limb a little and consider these (admittedly unlikely) possibilities that could define the 2021 season?
Finally healthy after a series of setbacks, Shohei Ohtani is set to be a full-time pitcher and hitter for the Angels this season. (Photo: Joe Camporeale, USA TODAY Sports)
Ohtani becomes a fantasy treasure, not a fantasy headache.
He’s a baseball unicorn. Unfortunately, the way most fantasy leagues are set up, it’s almost impossible to duplicate the impact Shohei Ohtani can make on the real game. The computer programs that run leagues can’t classify him as a pitcher and a hitter at the same time – so fantasy managers must choose one or the other … or he becomes two separate players taking up two roster spots.
Although he hardly pitched at all last season due to a forearm strain, the headache Ohtani routinely gave fantasy managers in the past came when he would have a good week hitting and a poor week pitching. Or vice versa. It was incredibly frustrating trying to predict which Ohtani to start and which one to sit.
However, he’s been lighting up radar guns and home run distance calculators with equally impressive readings this spring. If he stays healthy (a big if, of course), it might not matter which of Ohtani’s talents you choose every week. You’ll be rewarded either way. He could be a 25-homer hitter who also steals double-digit bases. He could also be a 15-win pitcher with 180 strikeouts.
And if your format allows daily lineup changes, which can give you the best of both worlds, Ohtani could be your league MVP.
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Cron and Chapman lead their leagues in home runs.
There’s plenty of preseason excitement for C.J. Cron, partly because he has been blistering the ball this spring. Cron finished the exhibition season with five homers and a 1.186 OPS in 48 at-bats. It’s a welcome indication that he’s completely recovered from the knee injury that led to season-ending surgery after only 13 games with the Detroit Tigers.
There’s also the fact that he’s likely to be the everyday first baseman for the Colorado Rockies this season. It’ll be the first time in his eight-year career that he’ll be playing home games in a hitter-friendly park. The only other time Cron had a season’s worth of full-time at-bats was in 2018 with Tampa Bay, when he mashed 30 home runs. A healthy Cron could be a very productive Cron.
Do a Statcast search of the players who barreled the ball most often last season and Matt Chapman’s name won’t be among the leaders. That’s because he missed time with a hip injury and just barely missed the minimum number of plate appearances to qualify.
Relax the filters a little (Chapman played in 37 games and had 152 PA), and suddenly he appears in the top 10 in barrels per plate appearance (10.5%) and per batted ball (18.0%). He’s also in the top 20 in hard-hit percentage.
Altuve will be 2021’s most valuable second baseman.
No one really seems to want Jose Altuve in this year’s drafts. He’s more like a fallback choice when all the good second basemen are gone.
Certainly, there’s a lot to like about Ozzie Albies, DJ LeMahieu and Whit Merrifield. And Altuve did hit a putrid .219 last year … but that’s not who he is. We’re talking about a .311 career hitter who completely turned things around in the playoffs, when he hit as many home runs (five) as he did during the regular season.
Of course we are talking about someone who turns 31 in May. And he hasn’t been a 30-steal guy since 2017. But if you’re reflexively blaming his struggles last year on no longer knowing what pitches were coming, please reread the SABR-award winning report by Tony Adams (signstealingscandal.com). Altuve received the least “banging” information of any Astros regular in 2017.
Rookie Dylan Carlson hit .200 during the 2020 regular season, but started all three of the Cardinals' playoff games. (Photo: Lynne Sladky, AP)
Carlson is this season’s Tucker.
Where have we heard this before? (And no, it's not a Fox News reference.) A highly regarded prospect tears up the upper levels of the minor leagues with an average around .300, showing both 25-homer power and 20-steal speed. But his organization doesn’t give him much of a chance in his first appearance in the majors – and his overall numbers don’t reflect his true talent level.
That describes Dylan Carlson in 2019-20 and Kyle Tucker in 2018. (Except the Astros made Tucker prove himself all over again in 2019 before finally giving him a full-time spot last year.) The Cardinals are now fully invested in Carlson’s success. And you should be as well.
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Bass becomes a top-five closer.
The Miami Marlins, with their excellent young rotation and below-average offense, will be playing a ton of close, low-scoring games this season. And unlike many teams these days, the Marlins don’t have a closer committee entering the season. That should provide plenty of opportunities for Anthony Bass to reel in saves.
He may not blow hitters away, but Bass does have three quality pitches and he’s held opponents to a .175 and .187 batting average the past two seasons. Statcast numbers back those skills up, too.
Maeda will be the only pitcher to win 20 games.
Kenta Maeda had a fantastic first season in Minnesota, posting a 2.70 ERA and leading the majors with a 0.75 WHIP. He’s been even more dominant this spring, allowing just one run in 18 1/3 innings. Yes, spring training stats don’t always tell the full story, but Maeda’s 22 strikeouts and only one walk show he’s more than ready for his opening-day start.
Pitchers aren’t going as deep into games these days, so starting pitcher wins are becoming more elusive. Maeda has one of the AL’s best offenses behind him. With the addition of Andrelton Simmons at shortstop, he also has one of the best defenses too. That’s a winning combination.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Steve Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner
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