As we head into the final full week of April, the time has passed where fantasy owners can imagine vaulting up the standings in just a couple days. Standings are clearly going to evolve over the remaining five-plus months, but owners will need more than a five-homer or three-win day move from 10th place to 3rd. With the climb starting to seem longer, owners who are off to a slow start are prone to making panic moves.
To be clear, we are still at the point in the season where most outlier statistics are a mirage. The inevitable swings that occur with influential stats such as BABIP, strand rate and HR/FB rate seem especially pronounced right now when they are not offset by results over a longer period, which creates opportunities for owners to dig deeper on specific players and separate those who have made real changes in their game from those who have enjoyed good or bad luck. With the goal of looking at the trade market from a variety of angles, here are 10 players who should be the topic of many discussions right now.
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Joey Votto, First baseman (Reds): Considered to be one of the best pure hitters in baseball (.320/.454/.578 slash line in 2017), Votto is batting just .246 and has yet to put a ball over the outfield wall this year. Further, the slugger is currently lacking his trademark plate discipline, posting a 7.8 percent walk rate that pales in comparison to his lifetime 16.1 percent mark. However, while some Votto owners will be panicking that the 34-year-old is at the outset of an age-related decline, those who know their stuff will recognize that the veteran has become a slow starter in recent seasons. In fact, since the outset of 2016, Votto has logged a .728 OPS in April, a .935 mark in May and an OPS above 1.000 in each subsequent month of the season. This is the perfect time to acquire Votto, who seems destined to heat up with the weather.
Daniel Murphy, Second baseman (Nationals): With a rash of April injuries across the Majors, owners who were happy to stash an injured Murphy until he returns from offseason knee surgery are likely feeling the pinch with their DL slots. While Murphy owners who have mostly escaped the injury bug are fine to hold him until he returns to action, those who are struggling to keep healthy bodies in their lineup and bench will have to strongly consider trading him at a reduced cost. Wise owners will focus on Murphy’s uncertain return date while trading for someone who could be a top-20 hitter (.334 average, 48 homers, 197 RBIs across 2016-17) when he is back to full strength.
Adrian Beltre, Third baseman (Rangers): Although Beltre is off to a respectable start (.288/.357/.397 slash line), he has homered just once and has thus far been a marginal fantasy asset. The nondescript early season results should create a buying opportunity for owners who can convince the Beltre owner that at age 39, his days of providing difference-making statistics have come to an end. The veteran has thus far produced a 42.9 percent hard-contact rate that is better than his lifetime 33.1 mark and would have an extra homer or two if not for a 6.7 percent HR/FB rate (lifetime 13.5 percent rate). When all is said and done, Beltre will likely wrap up this season with a .300 average and 25 long balls.
Whit Merrifield, Second baseman (Royals): The start of the season has been a nondescript one for Merrifield, who is batting .271 with 10 runs scored, five RBIs and one steal. His teammates haven’t done much to help his cause either, as the team has collectively posted a .657 OPS while averaging just 3.1 runs per game. However, things should soon improve for Merrifield, who has thus far posted a 42.1 percent hard-contact rate that dwarfs his 30.6 mark from his breakout 2017 season. With steals sources at a premium, wise owners will try to get Merrifield at a discount from those who are currently concerned that they wasted a pick on a one-year wonder.
Josh Hader, Reliever (Brewers): While most fantasy owners understand that there is value attached to skilled setup men, few owners truly understand how valuable they can be. Hader is a great model to illustrate this point, as he currently ranks among the 10 most productive relievers despite accumulating zero wins and two saves. With many starters struggling to work deep into games and closers regularly losing their jobs, talented setup men have become some of the most stable pitching commodities. Among middle relievers, few can match the talent of Hader (1.54 ERA, 0.51 WHIP, 19.3 K/9 rate in 2018). Brewers manager Craig Counsell has made it clear that he has no interest in using Hader as a traditional closer while Corey Knebel is on the disabled list, giving wise owners a clear path to explaining why they should be able to acquire the southpaw at a reasonable cost.
Bryce Harper, Outfielder (Nationals): When everything is going right for Harper, he is perhaps the only hitter in baseball who can compare to Angels superstar Mike Trout. Things have certainly been going right thus far, with Harper leading the Majors in homers (eight) and placing third in RBIs (19) on the way to ranking alongside Mookie Betts as the most productive fantasy commodities. However, hot starts aren’t anything new to Harper, who owns a lifetime 1.088 OPS in April that is more than 100 points higher than any other month. Further, the 25-year-old remains an injury risk, having just recorded an OPS over .854 across at least 140 games just once in his previous six campaigns. While it should take a king’s ransom to acquire Harper, his fantasy owners should be willing to listen.
Brad Hand, Reliever (Padres): As was recently mentioned in this space for relievers Wade Davis and Jeurys Familia, early season saves leaders are likely to be overvalued by owners who don’t recognize that save opportunities often come in bunches. And Hand certainly fits this description, as he currently ranks fourth in baseball with six saves. Unfortunatey, due to the rebuilding nature of the Padres this season, the southpaw stopper is more likely than the other saves leaders to eventually go through a dry spell. Hand has thus far collected saves in six of his club’s eight victories, which is a rate that simply can’t continue. Additionally, after having signed a reasonable long-term deal in the offseason, the 28-year-old could be traded this summer to a contending club who slots him into a setup role.
Sean Manaea, Starter (A’s): As a 26-year-old who is off to a great start (1.63 ERA, 0.72 WHIP heading into a Saturday start against Boston), Manaea is bound to get attention by fantasy owners as someone who is possibly at the outset of a breakout season. However, the southpaw has benefited from a .169 BABIP, and his 4.14 FIP is likely a better representation of someone who logged a mediocre 6.5 K/9 rate across his initial four outings. While his control gains (1.3 BB/9 rate in 2018) are encouraging, Manaea could be traded away by those who correctly see him as more of a mid-rotation asset than a mixed-league ace.
DJ LeMahieu, Second baseman (Rockies): While LeMahieu is definitely a mixed-league asset who should rank among the league leaders in batting average and runs scored, he is likely set for a short stay on the home-run leaders list. The 29-year-old -- who has already tallied five homers this year -- has a career-high of 11 long balls and posted his second-best total when he went deep eight times last season. While LeMahieu owners should not be desperate to trade him away, they should also recognize the looming power regression from someone who currently has a 26.3 percent HR/FB rate that dwarfs his lifetime 7.4 percent mark.
Dansby Swanson, Shortstop (Braves): Formerly a top prospect who is off to a great start this season (.342 average, .928 OPS), Swanson is going to pique the interest of owners who believe that he could be the next skilled youngster to enjoy a breakout season. However, the youngster has benefited from an unsustainable .429 BABIP while showing terrible plate control (27 percent BB:K ratio) and logging an unremarkable 29.3 percent hard-contact rate. With little power and speed (six homers, three steals in 2017), Swanson should be peddled for a low price by owners who recognize that he could eventually return to the waiver wire in mixed formats.