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NL-Only Deep Dive (2021 Fantasy Baseball)

NL-Only Deep Dive (2021 Fantasy Baseball)
cameraNL-Only Deep Dive (2021 Fantasy Baseball)

For the more advanced fantasy players out there, or those just looking for an extra challenge, single leagues offer a much deeper competition. Vast knowledge of teams’ depth and possible breakouts is not only necessary but needed. It’s not exactly for the casual fan, as every starter on every team, including many of the teams’ reserves, will be drafted. And while choosing the right stars early is paramount, grabbing those deep sleepers with hidden potential late can help make or break your season. The waiver wire is typically extremely thin as well, putting even more importance on the draft.

The NL this season is full of many of fantasy’s top stars, so over the first few rounds, you’ll have your pick of the bunch. 22 players out of the top 30 with respect to overall ADP are in the NL. They fall off dramatically after that, however, so careful planning and attention to detail will be of the utmost importance. You really can’t make a bad pick in the first couple of rounds. It’s just after when the talent becomes less abundant that careful selections need to be made.

Ideally, you’ll draft a balanced team, focusing on hitters early that will fill all 5 categories while grabbing a stud ace or two in the first 6 or 7 rounds. Easier said than done, of course, so be ready for the ebbs and flows of the draft with these targeted players. I’ve broken down a few top guys starting in round 3 and several mid-to-late round sleepers to help you navigate this year’s NL-Only draft.

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Early Targets:

Corbin Burnes (SP/RP – MIL): ADP 33

Burnes is an intriguing player who seemed to come out of nowhere last season. After such an atrocious 2019, where he gave up over 3 HR/9, pretty much no one was looking to draft Mr. Burnes. However, his peripherals did tell another story judging by the enormous difference between his 8.82 ERA and 3.37 xFIP, not to mention his colossal .414 BABIP, and his impressive 17.2% SwStr (swinging-strike rate). Not surprisingly, his Statcast numbers also didn’t line up with his results. His break on his slider was devastating, while his velo and spin rate were both above the 90% percentile on his fastball (his fastball spin ranked in the 99th percentile). The problem was his high-spin fastball didn’t create much movement or “rise” and resulted in an extremely high opponent barrel percentage (and thus, many home runs).

After a deep overhaul in the offseason, Burnes all but ditched his straight heater, adopting both a 2-seamer and a new cutting fastball. He threw his slider a lot less and even increased his usage on his changeup and curveball. The results? He went from virtually a two-pitch pitcher (with an occasional changeup), where one of his main two offerings was getting hammered consistently for home runs, to a 6 pitch pitcher who dominated hitters and earned positive marks on everything he threw. He even included his old go-to, on occasion, throwing his 96 mph 4-seamer right by guys when they least expected it. With his new repertoire of stuff, Burnes continued missing bats at a high rate but was now inducing much weaker contact (hard-hit rate went down almost a full 12%), as well.

A left oblique strain ended his season a week early, but all in all, Burnes’ impressive numbers, 4 wins, 88 K’s, 2.11 ERA, and a 1.01 WHIP had him in the Cy Young conversation as one of the NL’s top pitchers. Expected to make a full recovery without surgery, Burnes and his 2.04 FIP and 13.27 K/9 deserve to be going much earlier than 33rd in NL-Only leagues (59th overall). Plus, having the best backend of the bullpen will only help his win total. Ignore the naysayers, and target him in round three.

Michael Conforto (LF/CF/RF – NYM): ADP 39

Conforto is a relatively safe choice, but because some view his production as “boring,” he tends to fall in drafts, resulting in a great value pick. He won’t blow you away in any category, but surrounded by good hitters and hitting in the middle of the Mets order, Conforto should flirt with a 100 runs/100+ RBI season, to go along with a good BA, and 30 or possibly more home runs. Last year’s .322 BA was a bit inflated by his unsustainable .412 BABIP, but a .290 to .300 BA for the 2021 season is not out of the question. A player who puts a heavy focus on using the entire field, Conforto loves to go oppo, and it finally showed in his play. Between 2018 and 2019, Conforto averaged just above a 42% pull rate, which dropped off to 32.4% last year. He’s always hit the ball well to left field (he bats left-handed), but in 2020, many balls he used to pull, he now drove up the middle. His power numbers may take a slight dip, but fantasy owners will gladly exchange 5 home runs for 50 points in batting average. His floor is very high and has been durable over the last three seasons. He also walks a lot for those in leagues that count OBP, and he’ll even get you a handful of stolen bases. Don’t skip Conforto because he’s not very exciting. Draft him in the early 4th.

Nick Castellanos (LF/RF – CIN): ADP 47

No one should judge Castellanos by the second month of last year’s shortened season, where he, and basically all of the NL Central, forgot how to hit. He started the year off hot, blasting 9 home runs over his first 22 games, but then fell into a slump, along with the rest of the team, and didn’t do a lot. Much to the chagrin of fantasy owners, especially those who traded for him after his blistering start, Castellanos hit a measly 5 home runs over the next 38 games (he played in all 60), and his BA hovered just over .200. The Reds lineup suffered together as a whole, but as the old saying goes, hitting is contagious, and as history has shown us, teams eventually make the adjustments to get the bats going again. The 35 game downturn wasn’t all bad, but it was likely just a team going through a typically slow month or slumping period that wouldn’t be so magnified over a full season.

It just takes one glance at Castellanos’ monstrous 2019 season to see what he is actually capable of achieving. While I don’t expect a return to the astronomical numbers he produced in Chicago, I do think throughout a full season, including half his games inside of Cincinnati’s bandbox, he should return to his career norms. His BA should increase to at least.265, if not much higher, and he’ll more than likely crush at least 25 home runs, to go along with 100 runs and (depending on where he hits in the lineup) 85+ RBI. His 2020 Statcast numbers are extremely high, primarily his 95% barrel rate and his 92% xSLUG, suggesting he did get a bit unlucky. His BABIP was also about 80 points below his norm, sitting at a low .257. He’s always K’d a lot, but that’s never really been a huge deterrent from his other numbers, because obviously when he hits the ball, it screams off his bat. I’m not alone in thinking Castellanos will bounce back this season, but he has fallen to 47th in NL-Only leagues. He’s more than valuable at that pick, so don’t forget about the Reds slugger in round 4 or 5.

Edwin Diaz (RP – NYM): ADP 48 

The dynamic closer’s struggles were well documented in his first year in Queens. After a season where he gave up a ton of home runs and blew seven saves, management still maintained he would be their closer in 2020, and he did not disappoint. Diaz was not only lights out; he was arguably the best closer in all of baseball over the final month of the season.

In 2020, Diaz averaged just over 17.5 K/9 while lowering his ERA back down to 1.75, with an average EV of only 86.6 mph. And even with a high.381 BABIP against him, he still limited base runners. If you throw out his first three games (2 runs allowed), Diaz gave up a total of three earned runs the rest of the season while racking up 50 K’s. These extraordinary numbers were even better than his 2018 All-Star season (1.96 ERA, 15.36 K/9) with the Mariners. He was so good that year, the Mets gave up two of their top prospects to get him after the season (including a package with three other players for Robinson Cano).

He looks to be fully over the yips and loss of confidence that plagued him in 2019. And with the Mets’ improved pitching staff, he should be presented with even more save opportunities this season. He could even end up with better numbers than Josh Hader. Diaz is a steal at the 48th. Grab him as your top closer at the end of the 4th round.

Wil Myers (1B/LF/CF/RF – SD): ADP 72

Wil Myers is currently being drafted outside the top 50 ADP but is someone I am absolutely targeting earlier than 72nd. And not just because his numbers were tremendous and actually line up with his metrics (and seem to be sustainable), but because there was a real basis behind the change. Padres’ new hitting coach, Damion Easley, quickly became a favorite among the San Diego hitters. Numerous players have stated they love working with and greatly respect Easley as someone who actually played the game and quietly did so at a high-level. That feeling of comfort and camaraderie really made a huge difference, as many of his players saw an uptick in production buying into the new approach, but none more so than Wil Myers. Going into the season, Easley publicly proclaimed, a big project for him was helping Myers maximize his potential, and the results were astonishing. Whatever they discussed, it worked flawlessly, as it did for nearly every other player on the roster.

Myers struck out less, hit nearly 50 points higher in batting average (even with a lower BABIP than last year), and finished the season with a 154 wRC+ (100 is average). He had a 14.8% barrel rate (ranked 93% in MLB), decreased his soft contact by over 6%, and drove the ball in the air more often with increased exit velocity. His infield fly balls dropped to nearly 5%, and he even laid down the occasional bunt for a hit. However, the biggest and most significant change of all was his ability to crush the offspeed pitches that gave him so much trouble in the past. In 2019, he hit for a .165 BA/.205 wOBA/.287 SLG (.221 xwOBA/.305 xSLG) against breaking pitches. And in 2020, he hit them for a .308 BA/.442 wOBA/.723 SLG (.403xwOBA/.672xSLG). It’s like two completely different hitters. The change in approach not only led to a massive increase in production on breaking pitches but overall, Myers increased his exit velocity from 86.4 mph to 92.3 mph. He also cut down on the swings and misses by over 8%.

With all this in mind, it’s no wonder he hit 15 home runs, to go along with 14 doubles and two triples in less than 200 at-bats. He also had an impressive 40 RBI and 34 runs scored (over 55 games), translating to 109 RBI and 93 R’s over 150 games. He did only steal two bases, not a great sign for someone who was an annual 20/20 threat. But given all his extra-base hits and the bases in front of him continuously being occupied by his teammates, his stealing opportunities were limited. He still ranked in the 85th percentile of sprint speed in the league, so it’s not as if he suddenly lost his ability to run. Over the long haul of a full season, I fully expect Myers to reach at least 10 steals again.

I’m going all-in on the Padres’ right fielder once again this year, and I highly anticipate he will pick up right where he left off. Even if Myers drops off a bit, the numbers will still be impressive. The sky is the limit as to what he can accomplish over a full season with his new approach, and with the spotlight on so many of his teammates, look for Myers to quietly continue his hitting barrage. Draft him before his 72nd ADP, possibly even before his 59th ECR.

Sleepers and Late Round Targets:

Carson Kelly (C – ARZ): ADP 139

Kelly is going more in the middle rounds, but I feel like he’s a must to include on this target list. After looking into his overall numbers and splits, it’s revealed Kelly is quite the polarizing player. In 2019, he absolutely crushed lefties (1.128 OPS), while in the shortened 2020 season, he struggled mightily against them (.466 OPS). It was only over 49 PAs, but while trying to seemingly hit everything out of the park, he only produced 6 hits. What’s even odder is that the exact opposite occurred against right-handed pitching. While he hit below average in 2019 (BA just above .200), he followed it up with a solid .276 BA and a .447 SLG in 2020. It’s almost like he spent the offseason working on his approach vs. righties and took his production against southpaws for granted. Now, if he can combine what he did last year, with his history of crushing left-handed pitching, you’ve got yourself a top 8 possibly, top 5 catcher.

His walk rate steeply declined as well, which can be attributed to the pitcher no longer batting behind him. In 2019, Kelly took a free pass an impressive 13.2% of the time (aided by a whopping 10 intentional passes), while in 2020 with the NL DH, opposing teams stopped pitching around him, and his walk rate dropped to a low 4.7%. This may not necessarily be a bad thing (for fantasy purposes). If he continues to be pitched to, you have to like his chances at hitting a fair share of home runs and adding to his RBI total over a full season. (At this point, it’s completely unknown, but I believe a deal will get done, and the NL DH will return). Kelly has already shown he can hit the long ball, and while he only swatted 5 last year, I project him to hit close to 20+ this season. His BABIP was well below league average at .250, so ideally, his BA should bounce back as well, and while his hard-hit rate did decrease, so did his soft contact.

One other noteworthy stat is that the pitches he handled the best (fastballs and changeups) in 2019 resulted in his weakest contact in 2020.  And while in 2019, he struggled against the breaking stuff (sliders in particular), it was his favorite pitch to hit in 2020. Once again, fueling the theory that he worked mostly in the offseason on parts of his game he struggled within 2019 while not focusing enough on what he had already done well.

Now, what can we make of all this? Will Kelly and the coaching staff have the wherewithal to see these patterns and somehow put together an off-season plan and preparation that will allow him to fully thrive, or will he continue to struggle in some areas while focusing on others? I think he gets it done. Turning 27 this season, an age where many players start to peak and mature, and with over 200 games under his belt at the major league level, I have to conclude he’ll make the necessary adjustments to put it all together and have the breakout season many were hoping for last year. You also have to believe the Diamondbacks’ coaching staff will do all that it can to bring back the long ball (something most of the team failed to produce) to its starting lineup, further aiding Kelly’s projections. Target Kelly (the once top prospect who was the heir apparent to Yadier Molina a couple of years ago in St. Louis), in the 13th round of 10 team leagues, preserving those precious first 12 picks for something other than a catcher.

Brandon Belt (1B/LF – SF): ADP 149

Brandon Belt is another player you don’t want to miss. Similar to Wil Myers, Belt’s increase in production was caused by a drastic change in management and approach. An increase that I am completely buying in on as real, and not the result of a shortened season or just dumb luck.

His team, comparable in theory to the Padres, vastly improved their hitting due largely to the change at hitting coach. Donnie Ecker (one of two new hitting coaches for the Giants), before the 2020 season, described a whole elaborate plan about using biomechanics and studying how the body moved to somehow reverse engineer players’ swings. He wanted to “create solutions for players, and add value to their lives.” Whatever all that means, it absolutely worked because the Giants hadn’t seen the type of offensive outburst they had this past season since their days of winning the World Series.

Belt slashed a .309/.425/.591 stat line through 179 PA’s, and his advanced metrics were just as impressive. He connected with a 16.8 barrel percentage rate (ranked 96% in MLB), an increase of almost 8% from last year. His xSLG was .598 (96% in MLB), his xwOBA was .406 (97% in MLB), and his hard-hit rate of 46.9% was an increase of over 11% from last season and over 15% from 2018. He even drew a ton of walks with a 16.8 BB% (97% in MLB).

The only drawback to Belt is he won’t start very often against left-handed pitching. That is really the only reason for him to be going past the first 100 picks. That, and his lack of a successful track record. Belt has fooled us before, but he’s never had a scientist for a hitting coach, and after seeing the team’s results as a whole, how could you not buy into it? I’ll also say the few Giants games I did get to watch last year, you could tell Belt was a different type of player. He just exuded confidence, and you knew each time he stepped up to the plate, he had the potential to do something special (which he so often did, similar to many of his teammates).

I fully expect the Giants to continue to flourish on offense and with Belt hitting in the middle of the lineup, look for his total production to be closer to someone you’d get in the 7th round rather than the 15th. It’s highway robbery getting him in the middle-late rounds. Target him earlier.

Raimel Tapia (LF/CF/DH – COL): ADP 168

Tapia has turned into the prototypical leadoff hitter for the Rockies, something they’ve vastly missed since Charlie Blackmon become more of a middle of the order slugger. Last season, Tapia hit .321 with a .369 OBP while swiping eight bags on 10 attempts. In the minors, he had a career .319 BA and .825 OPS., including seasons where he stole 30+ bases. He led off in most games for the Rocks in 2020 and hit lefties even better than righties (he’s a left-handed hitter), so a platoon isn’t likely. There isn’t much power appeal to speak of, but over a full season, leading off in front of Trevor Story and Blackmon, you have to like Tapia’s chances at 100 runs, 20+ stolen bases, and a .300+ average. Not bad for someone you can get past the 150th mark, although I do not recommend waiting that long.

Elieser Hernandez (SP/RP – MIA): ADP 169

Does no one remember what this guy did last season and his final year in AAA? He and Zac Gallen were a two-headed, unhittable monster that year and, since being called up, has proven he has the goods to stay. Yes, he was roughed up a bit his first season and a half in the Majors, but that was mainly because of a ridiculous amount of home runs given up, while all his other numbers looked favorable.

Whenever I spot a young pitcher with a low WHIP and high strikeout rate, I’m willing to roll the dice on him in fantasy, and in 2020, it paid off. Hernandez produced a 3.16 ERA, a 1.013 WHIP, and 11.9 K/9 over 6 starts before he got hurt. Like many young pitchers, his only drawback was the number of long balls he still gave up 1.52 HR/9.  But other than that, he really limits base runners and doesn’t give up a lot of runs on hits that stay in the park. He’ll supply you with a low WHIP, more than a K per inning, and a few wins with the support of a surprisingly decent Marlins lineup. In the 17th round, Hernandez is more than worthy of your attention and should be targeted a few rounds earlier than his ADP.

Steven Brault (SP/RP – PIT): ADP 265

Many of the Pirates’ starters unexpectedly produced some quality numbers last season, and none more so than Steven Brault (even arguably better than Joe Musgrove). He showed major improvements in all aspects of his game, and the numbers back it up. In 2020, Brault increased his ground ball rate, only gave up hard contact about a quarter of the time, and was really tough to pull the ball against. He also ranked better than 89% of all pitchers in exit velocity given up and even had a respectable 21% K rate. The NL Central is relatively weak this year, and even though the Pirates won’t win many games, Brault should supply ample numbers in all the other categories. He has a reputation for not pitching deep into games, but after being stretched out over the first month and a half of the season (something normally done during Spring Training and through the first few weeks of the regular season), the Pirates finally let him loose over his final couple of starts for the year. In those last two games, Brault shut down 2 teams fighting to make the playoffs. He silenced the Cardinals, going the full 9 innings while allowing only 1 run on two hits. He then followed that up with 7 shutout innings vs. the division champs, the Chicago Cubs, while once again only allowing two hits.

Brault’s most considerable shift from years past was he largely increased his changeup usage, especially to right-handed hitters. Not only was it his best pitch, but by throwing it more often and reducing the number 4-seam fastballs thrown (by 10%), it made both pitches more deceiving, throwing off the hitters timing, which in turn also heavily improved his fastball results. Brault went from allowing a .285 BA on fastballs in 2019 to a .149 BA in 2020. Add that 1-2 combo into what was already a great slider and a decent curveball (which is almost 20 MPH slower than his fastball), and you have yourself a tough lefty who can go deep into games, change speeds effectively, and keep hitters guessing from either side of the plate. He also only gave up 2 home runs in over 42 innings of work, which is unheard of these days. His overall ADP is extremely late, but his ECR is almost 200 picks earlier. That tells you all you need to know about Brault’s upside. Draft him with confidence at the end of your draft.

Anthony Alford (LF/CF – PIT): ADP 324

Sticking with Pittsburgh, Alford, who is an incredibly deep sleeper, could offer generous dividends. In last year’s minimal sample size, Alford stole 3 bases and hit 2 home runs, combining the few games he played for Toronto and Pittsburgh. He also recorded the 6th highest average sprint speed in the game, according to Statcast, right behind Trea Turner and Byron Buxton.

The former football star also shows great range with the glove and has all the makings of a quality center fielder, helping his case to stick in the starting lineup. Playing for the rebuilding Pirates should work in his favor, too, as their outfield is a wide-open competition with no real standout players. And if he does earn the starting job, with no chance at competing for the Wild Card, the Pirates will likely take plenty of chances on the base paths. They’ll let their speedy baserunners run wild – similar to what they’ve done in the past, further increasing Alford’s value.

His biggest downside, other than his trouble staying healthy, is his consistency with the bat. With a batting average likely to hover around .230 at best, he’s not someone you want in standard leagues. However, his 20 stolen base potential, while hitting the occasional home run, will more than play in deep NL-Only leagues. If the Pirates don’t add another center fielder, look for Alford to get most of the starts, as long as he can keep up a respectable offensive output.

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If you want to dive deeper into fantasy baseball, be sure to check out our award-winning slate of Fantasy Baseball Tools as you navigate your season. From our Lineup Assistant – which provides your optimal lineup based on accurate consensus projections – to our Waiver Wire Assistant – that allows you to quickly see which available players will improve your team and by how much – we’ve got you covered this fantasy baseball season.

Austin Lowell is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Austin, check out his archive.

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