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Burning Questions: NL

by Nathan Grimm
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

Atlanta Braves -- The Braves stripped the team of most of its discernible offensive talent, leaving Freddie Freeman standing alone in the remains. Should he be downgraded because of his surroundings?


The instinct is to say yes, of course, but it might not be as dramatic as some would expect. Freeman was the team's lone beacon of offensive hope in 2015 as well, and although wrist and oblique injuries limited him to 118 games, he finished with 18 homers, 66 RBI and 62 runs scored. Over 650 plate appearances, that extrapolates to 24 home runs, 83 runs scored and 89 RBI to go with a .276/.370/.471 line. Those numbers would be right around his career averages, so it's not as though opposing pitchers completely avoided the 26-year-old despite his surroundings. He may lose a few counting stats again this year, but the reality will likely be much more fantasy-friendly than the perception.


Milwaukee Brewers -- Francisco Rodriguez is gone, dealt to the Tigers. So who closes games in Milwaukee?


The Brewers have at least three legitimate candidates in Jeremy Jeffress, Will Smith and Corey Knebel, and Michael Blazek will likely be in the conversation, too. But the most conventional closer of the group, and therefore the first guy likely to get a shot, is Jeffress. The 28-year-old can run it up to 96 mph, and his curveball is a plus pitch as well. In a setup role last season, Jeffress posted a 2.65 ERA while striking out 67 over 68 innings of work. While the smart money is on Jeffress, the real answer may not be clear until the end of spring.


St. Louis Cardinals -- Randal Grichuk certainly turned some heads in 2015, mashing 17 homers while batting .276/.329/.548 in 350 plate appearances. How much of that is real?


The power is definitely real. Grichuk hit at least 20 homers in each minor league season since 2012 prior to spending the entire 2015 campaign with the Cardinals, and his hard-hit percentage, according to FanGraphs, was 25th in the majors among players with at least 350 plate appearances. Unfortunately, the batting average isn't likely to stick. Grichuk swings and misses a lot, and his 2015 average was buoyed by a .365 BABIP that isn't likely to stick. But is .250 with 20-23 homers still valuable? You bet.


Chicago Cubs -- Kyle Schwarber had a heck of a debut in 2015. Over a full season, what kind of numbers can he put up?


Schwarber, the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft, tore through the minors and made his MLB debut in June. His power showed up right away upon his promotion to the bigs, and there's no reason to think that's going anywhere. Where he can improve is his hitting for average after a late slump left his season line at .246/.355/.487. Assuming that ticks up incrementally -- when you strike out as often as Schwarber does, it will never be a strong suit -- Schwarber should be passable in four categories. His struggles against lefties might keep him from being an everyday player, but he could hit 25 homers on the right side of a platoon in left field.


Arizona Diamondbacks -- David Peralta broke out in 2015 and has a starting job locked up heading into next season. What can we expect from him this year?


Before last season, Peralta was best known for being a former Cardinals’ pitching prospect-turned-outfielder. That storyline changed when the 28-year-old batted .312/.371/.522 with 17 homers, 78 RBI, 61 runs scored and nine steals last year. The list of guys who bat .300 while striking out in 20 percent of their at-bats is short and is populated mostly with stars, so Peralta isn't likely to repeat that average. But similar counting stats with an average closer to .275 is still quite valuable. He might have come out of nowhere, but Peralta shouldn't be discounted as a one-year wonder.


Los Angeles Dodgers -- Corey Seager sure looked the part of a budding superstar in a brief sample size last season. What should be expected in his first full season?


Seager "struggled" to a .278/.332/.451 line at Triple-A last year before showing better in a September cameo, hitting four homers while collecting 17 RBI, 17 runs scored and two steals in 27 games. With Jimmy Rollins now gone, Seager is in line for regular playing time next season and will have a chance to show what he can do. And what he can do is hit, batting a collective .307/.368/.523 in four minor league seasons. Even if he doesn't light the world on fire like he did last September, Seager should approach 20 homers in a good Dodgers lineup. At a position that isn't necessarily loaded with offensive talent, the 21-year-old will definitely be worthy of getting drafted as a starter in 10-team leagues.


San Francisco Giants -- Which Giants starter not named Madison Bumgarner will be the best in 2016?


A bet on any of the other four projected starters -- Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, Jake Peavy and Matt Cain -- would be betting on a return to form in some respect. And while there's evidence to suggest Samardzija won't be as bad as his 4.96 ERA in 2015, the odds-on favorite to be the Giants' second-best pitcher is still Cueto. The right-hander was miserable after a midseason trade to the Royals, posting a 4.76 ERA with just 56 strikeouts in 81 1/3 innings to end the regular season, but his terrific career should hold more weight than a few months in a new league in the middle of a pennant race. And now, a pitcher who relies on weak contact and keeping the ball in the ballpark is moving to a decidedly pitcher-friendly park. Cueto bet on himself with an opt-out clause in his contract, so fantasy owners should feel good about betting on him, too.


Miami Marlins -- Jose Fernandez was his usual terrific self after returning from Tommy John surgery, going 6-1 with a 2.92 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 64 2/3 innings. What should we expect this season?


The full Monty. Fernandez was better than pitchers are supposed to be in their first season back from TJ surgery, an unsurprising fact only because of how good he's been from the outset. Another season removed, and Fernandez should be as good or better -- it's not uncommon for pitchers to return from the surgery stronger than they were -- than his pre-surgery self. A limitation on his innings could be the only thing keeping him from pushing Clayton Kershaw for top billing, but make no mistake -- Fernandez is once again a fantasy ace.


New York Mets -- Michael Conforto started the 2015 season at High-A and ended it as a contributing member of a World Series team. What's a reasonable expectation for him in 2016?


Conforto seemingly came out of nowhere last season, but the reality is he was an advanced prospect entering the draft as a college junior and has the pedigree of being a high first-round draft pick. He also performed well at every stop before being promoted to the show, so it's not as though the Mets moved him quickly out of desperation. In total, the 22-year-old batted .288 with 21 home runs, 80 RBI and 76 runs scored between the majors and minors last year. Similar production over the course of an entire MLB season is a lot to ask of a guy who will play the entire 2016 season as a 23-year-old, but he could approximate something close. Something like 15-18 homers, 60 RBI and roughly the same number of runs scored while hitting .260 sounds about right.


Washington Nationals -- Is Joe Ross legit?


The question is overly simplistic and terribly vague, but it's one plenty of fantasy owners likely asked themselves at times in 2015. The 22-year-old was moved to the bullpen and used sparingly over the season's final month, but he finished the year with a 3.64 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 69/21 K/BB ratio over 76 2/3 innings. The overly simplistic answer to the question, then, is yes. Ross was "one of the most sought-after pitchers of the offseason" but stayed put because the Nationals liked what they saw in the youngster. Ross might have his innings limited once again this year, but if he makes 24 starts he could win 10 games with a sub-4.00 ERA on a still-strong Nats club.


San Diego Padres -- It wasn't that long ago that Wil Myers was a top prospect, but two years' worth of injuries and ineffectiveness has taken a lot of the shine off. Is there hope for a better tomorrow?


Injuries have been unkind to Myers the past two seasons, but there's reason for optimism. First, Myers said his left wrist feels stronger than ever after June surgery. The Padres also traded first baseman Yonder Alonso to the A's, clearing a path for Myers to play every day at first base. With less risk of injury and a clean bill of health, Myers should have a chance to tap into the potential he showed after hitting .293/.354/.478 with 13 homers and five steals in 88 games with the Rays in 2013. His home park will still suppress some of his offensive potential, but a full slate of at-bats should yield close to 20 homers with a shot at double-digit steals as well.


Philadelphia Phillies -- Will anybody on the Phillies be worth drafting?


They won't win many games in real life, but they're not quite a fantasy wasteland. The most obvious fantasy asset is Maikel Franco, who could hit 30 homers if everything breaks right. The wins won't be there for Aaron Nola, but he showed in 2015 that he's a capable big league pitcher. Even someone like Aaron Altherr could break double-digits in homers and steals, rendering him an interesting deep league player if nothing else. Even so, most of the Phillies' best days are likely still two years down the road.


Pittsburgh Pirates -- Is Gerrit Cole a first-tier fantasy starter?


When a former No. 1 overall draft pick goes 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA, the answer is usually yes. But our game puts an emphasis on missing bats, and for that reason alone it's hard to count Cole among the elite. He's still very, very good -- if he's not in the top tier, he's likely headlining the second tier of starting pitchers -- but he ranked 20th among qualified starters in strikeout percentage this past season. That was behind guys like Ian Kennedy, James Shields and his teammate Francisco Liriano. Striking out roughly a batter per inning while walking basically nobody and giving up even fewer home runs is a great formula for success, and Cole should once again be a top-10 fantasy starter this year. He's just not in that rarified air.


Cincinnati Reds -- The 2015 season was a lost one for Devin Mesoraco, but he's reportedly feeling better and should be ready for spring. Will his offense return as well?


That's certainly the hope. It should be the expectation, too, with good reports coming out about Mesoraco's hip. The 27-year-old is reportedly able to squat without any issues and expects to have a normal spring, so the hip injury that contributed to a .178/.275/.244 line prior to his season ending in late May shouldn't have a similar chilling effect on his offense this year. After all, it was just two years ago that Mesoraco batted .273 with 25 home runs and 80 RBI. Even if that's his offensive ceiling, it's good enough to put him near the top tier of fantasy catchers.


Colorado Rockies -- The Rockies' pitching staff has some interesting names -- Jorge De La Rosa, Jon Gray and Jake McGee -- but Coors Field is a notorious no-fly zone for fantasy pitchers. Are any Rockies hurlers safe to own in standard leagues?


This answer is almost always no, but McGee actually has a chance to do well in the high altitude. He throws almost all fastballs anyway, which is a pitcher's best chance of success at Coors. And with Adam Ottavino sidelined due to Tommy John surgery, the closer job is wide open. Whether the Rockies' starters will get McGee and Co. a lead heading into the late innings is another story, but even so, the southpaw should still provide a strong ERA and strikeout numbers. There will be worse closers to own in 2016.