AL-Only Deep Dive (2021 Fantasy Baseball)
Single-league formats appeal to advanced fantasy players — and those looking for more of a challenge. They require a greater knowledge of all the players, their potential, and each teams’ depth chart. The top guys fly off the boards quickly, and soon enough, you’ll find yourself hunting for sleepers. This year is no exception, especially in the American League. Through the top 100 ADP, only 44 of the players are from the AL, and more drastically, only eight of them are in the top 30 (29 if you don’t count Trevor Bauer, who remains unsigned). That is why it’s even more important to make the correct choices early and grab the best, high-ceiling guys late.
I tend to load up early on as many five-tool hitters as I can, and after grabbing at least one ace (hopefully two), I like to wait on starting pitching. Pitching is a revolving door, and starters can always be found off the wire based on matchups, but hitters are notoriously tough to come by. Of course, if a starter falls to you, don’t hesitate to grab him. I’ve put together a few players you should target early and a few sleepers you should look to grab late.
Early Targets (Top-50 ADP)
Adalberto Mondesi (SS – KC): ADP 8
With the American League only retaining five players who posted double-digit steals last year, you have to know that Mondesi and his incredible 24 stolen bags will be a hot commodity, especially. Currently going eighth overall, I’d move him as high as fifth — once you draft Mondesi, you know you’ve basically won the entire steals category.
He’s still only 25 years old after five years in the league, and the biggest drawback on drafting the electric shortstop is that he has yet to play more than 102 MLB games in a single season. If he could ever stay healthy, you could be looking at upwards of 70 steals. He plays so aggressively that it may be impossible, unfortunately, but his upside is through the roof is worth the gamble — especially after what he did at the end of last season and the fact that he played in 59 out of the possible 60 games.
After an exceptionally slow start, Mondesi turned it around in September and hit .356, with six doubles, two triples, six home runs, and a remarkable 16 stolen bases. That was over 24 games! He has 67 steals over the last two seasons (161 games), he won’t kill you in any other category, and the Royals’ lineup has improved, which should up his run total.
I like him more than a couple of players going ahead of him, and I like him even more than Bo Bichette (but it’s close). With Mondesi, it’s all about risk versus reward, but if you want to forget about steals until the late rounds, grab him after the top-four in the first round.
Randy Arozarena (LF, RF, DH – TB): ADP 27
Being drafted 29th overall in AL-only leagues may seem high for a player without much of a track record. For anyone who saw him in the playoffs last season (or in the minors), however, it should come as no surprise. Even before his record-setting playoff run, I had him high in this year’s rankings due to his five-category potential. After setting the record for postseason home runs, Arozarena got on everyone’s radar, and now you’ll have to spend a third round pick to get him. That said, I still love him at 29th. I even believe he’ll outperform fellow Cuban star, Luis Robert. Pencil him in for a 25+/20 season with a BA around .280. His ceiling is much higher, though, so target him in the third round.
Yordan Alvarez (LF, DH – HOU): ADP 31
The fact that Alvarez had to have surgery on both knees in the offseason is scaring many owners away, causing him to fall in drafts. He’s down to 31st in the AL and 76th overall, which makes him an absolute steal. The Astros GM said over a week ago that Alvarez had fully recovered from surgery and that he absolutely expects the slugger to be ready for the opening of Spring Training.
If this guy is indeed in the Opening Day lineup for the Astros, he could put up Jose Abreu-type numbers. That’s how good Alvarez is with the bat. In 2019, the unanimous AL Rookie of the Year produced a 178 wRC+, a .432 wOBP, a 16.3 barrel %, a 1.067 OPS… the list goes on and on. If you’re not a fan of advanced metrics, just know that his hitting went down as the seventh-best season of all time at age 22 or younger, just behind Stan Musial. He hits the ball with extremely high velocity to all fields, doesn’t strike out much for a slugger, and even takes his walks. If he stays healthy, which is the only real question, he will likely be a top-20 pick next year. Take the risk of drafting Alvarez, and do it in the early third round.
Framber Valdez (SP, RP – HOU): ADP 38
Valdez all but ditched his fastball in 2020 and stuck to a devastating sinker/curveball combination. It resulted in a better than 3/1 GB/FB ratio, 9.68 K/9, and only 5 long balls given up in over 70-plus innings. He pitches deep into games, averages close to seven innings a start, and doesn’t hand out free passes, either, allowing 2.04 BB/9. His resulting ERA (3.57) was solid, if a bit inflated, and it could have easily been lower (he had a 2.85 FIP). That’s encroaching upon Zack Greinke country (his teammate), who similarly limits walks and home runs. It’s hard to trust Valdez with his success coming over the shortened season, but his diving sinker and filthy curveball are here to stay, and the last time I checked, the ‘Stros infield was pretty good at fielding ground balls. I like the entire starting unit in Houston, and I believe that they’re vastly underrated. I’d target any of the five, but Valdez may prove the most valuable. Plus, he qualifies as both a starting pitcher and a relief pitcher in most leagues. You should draft Valdez at the end of the fourth round.
Austin Meadows (LF, RF, DH – TB): ADP 39
Meadows never fully returned to form after coming off the COVID list. He missed the final two weeks of summer workouts and almost a full month of the regular season. Although details about his illness were never disclosed, the fact that he was out for a full six weeks tells you that it likely wasn’t an easy battle. Like Yoan Moncada, who I almost included on this list (but his 2019 metrics weren’t as high), they both admittedly never recovered their full strength, and their production suffered. Going by what Meadows is capable of, however, with a full six months of recovery time and Spring Training to prepare, you have to like Meadows’ chances of returning to his 2019 form.
He was a monster in 2019. He ranked in the 92nd percentile in xSLG, 90% in Brl (barrels), 89% in xISO, and 88% in xwOBA. In simpler terms, he had an OPS of over .900 to go along with 33 home runs and 12 steals in only 138 games. If he can even come close to reproducing those numbers, you have to love Meadows in the middle of the fourth.
James Karinchak (RP – CLE): ADP 50
Karinchak is the fourth closer off the board in AL-only leagues, and for good reason. The Indians may not win a ton of games this season, but when they do, they are likely to be low-scoring affairs decided by a run or two. And that’s where Karinchak steps in. There’s a reason Brad Hand led the league in saves last year. Not only was he great, but he was handed (pun intended) more save opportunities than any other closer in the AL, and in my opinion, Karinchak is better. Have you ever seen this kid pitch? His overhand delivery combined with his high velocity and 12-6 curve is basically unhittable. He’s a bit wild but will easily get you 100 Ks if he stays healthy, and he should earn close to 35 saves, if not more.
Sleepers and Late Round Targets (ECR 170+)
Tarik Skubal (SP – DET): ECR 171
When looking for a sleeper with huge potential, look no further than Tarik Skubal. Any time a player can put up the type of numbers Skubal did in the minor leagues, all fantasy owners should take notice. In 2019, Skubal put together an off the charts season, including an outstanding 17.43 Ks/9 in AA. He has never averaged fewer than 10.4 Ks/9 at any stop along the way of his professional career, including his seven major-league starts last year.
The main argument against the 24-year-old lefty is that he gave up the long ball at an ugly mark of 2.53/9. He’d never averaged more than 0.56 HR/9 in the minors, however, so logically (hopefully) he can adjust. His mid 90’s fastball does exhibit elite spin rate, but unfortunately, he just left it over the heart of the plate too often. Of the nine home runs he allowed, six came on fastballs in the zone. If he can work the corners and utilize the top of the zone more often, look for Skubal to vastly improve his overall numbers. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but that’s why he’s a sleeper going near the end of drafts. He doesn’t issue a lot of free passes, backed up by his 19.4 K-BB%, and even though his ERA was 5.63, SIERA seems to agree with me that he was a bit unlucky, equating him with a reasonable 4.12.
One other positive to take away from Skubal’s seven starts was that he only threw his best pitch (his slider) 15% of the time. His slider produced a fine .277 wOBA, with a low average exit velocity of just 82 mph. Expect him to increase his slider usage, and if he can improve upon his fastball placement, look for the prospect to better his already impressive 12.9% whiff rate. Don’t miss out on Skubal as the draft starts to wind down; he’ll give fantasy managers, particularly in AL Only leagues, a nice back of the rotation piece.
Yusei Kikuchi (SP – SEA): ECR 185
I know, I know, no one wants to hear about Kikuchi again after two disappointing seasons. Most fantasy managers are ready to give up on the former Seibu Lion, but just hear me out. The underlying metrics coupled with a full season with Seattle’s great pitching coach could produce positive results.
Let’s start by saying Kikuchi’s cutter is nasty. A new pitch for him in 2020, Kikuchi threw it 40% of the time, resulting in a .288 xwOBA, .301 xSLG, while only giving up one home run. Overall, his revamped arsenal averaged a K an inning, 0.57 HR/9, induced weak contact with a very low 3.9 Barrel %, his FIP finished at 3.30, and his fastball increased in velocity over two miles per hour. His slider was also exceptional, leading to a .167 opponent BA and a 39% whiff rate. Even his BABIP was on par with the league average (so it’s not like he got lucky), and his GB/FB rate was an outstanding 2.06.
We can blame his inflated ERA on an awful strand rate. He allowed more than 40% of his base runners to score, which would’ve balanced out over a longer season. He also walked a few more than he would have liked. Seattle’s pitching coach, Pete Woodworth, was named Texas League Coach of the Year before joining the Mariners and is the real deal. You saw the impact he had on teammates Marco Gonzales and Justus Sheffield. If he can continue to tweak Kikuchi just a bit, you have to love the potential in the 19th round of AL Only leagues. With a little luck, Kikuchi could give you a decent ERA, a decent WHIP, and plenty of strikeouts.
Myles Straw (SS, CF, RF – HOU): ECR 216
If the Astros do indeed open the season with Straw as their starting center fielder, he’s going to blow away his ADP. Straw stole six bases over 88 at-bats last season, but he only got on base 24% of the time. If he can get back to his career norms (mostly in the minor leagues, but he did have a .345 OBP in 2019 over 128 PAs), then stolen base opportunities should come in abundance. He’s stolen 16 bags in under 200 MLB at-bats so far, and he even had 70 in 2018 in the minors. He won’t help at all in the power categories, but he should hit for a decent average (he hit well over .300 in the minors), and while he hit righties very well last season and struggled against lefties, the exact opposite was true in 2019, so he isn’t a prime platoon candidate.
Even if he doesn’t play every day, Straw could end up like a Jarrod Dyson-type. He may not be a game-changer, but if you’re lacking steals, he’s not a horrible flier. The Astros roster doesn’t offer much in the way of competition at the current moment, either, so grab him at the end of drafts and hope for semi-regular at-bats.
Dean Kremer (SP – BAL): ECR 225
The tall righty, who came over as part of the Manny Machado trade from the Dodgers in 2018, got his first taste of MLB action last season when he started four games for the O’s. They didn’t all go as planned, but his underlying numbers were actually terrific. In four starts, Kremer gave up no home runs, averaged 10.61 K/9, and only allowed a .206 BA, despite a .306 BABIP. He used all four of his pitches to generate weak contact and a lot of medium-range fly balls. His 10% SwStr was also a welcome number. If there’s one thing AL East pitchers need to do, it’s to reduce the number of long balls they give up, and that’s exactly what Kremer has done so far. Target him in the final rounds.
Franchy Cordero (CF/RF/LF – KC): ECR 256
Cordero is one of my favorite sleepers for the 2021 season. After a two-month breakout with the Padres in 2018, the young slugger suffered a series of injuries and hasn’t played much since. Now part of the Royals, Cordero will likely platoon to start the season, but he’s worth a roster spot even if he plays just two out of every three days (which could change).
In the nine games that Cordero did get to start (16 total) last season for the Royals, he reminded fans what all the original buzz was about. He hit two home runs, three doubles, stole a base, and walked as much as he struck out (four times) over his 38 at-bats. He made contact over 93% of the time on swings in the zone and had an 81% overall contact rate. Now obviously 38 at-bats is a very small sample size, but these numbers are unheard of for power hitters.
In 2018, prospect reports graded him as possessing 70 speed and 70 raw power, which are extremely high projections that rarely get assigned. Finally healthy, that power-speed combo should be on display, and everyone knows that the Royals love to run. Depending on how often Cordero starts (largely depending on if he can stay on the field), and if he continues to make contact at such a high rate, it’s not unreasonable to expect 20 home runs and 10-plus stolen bases. Many owners have forgotten about him and his potential because he’s been out so long. That makes him perfect for the savvy owner to take advantage of and grab him in the final rounds. Mark my words, Cordero will even have some mixed-league value as well.
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Austin Lowell is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Austin, check out his archive.