Ray Butler’s 2020 High-Value Active Players: Infielders

Written by: Ray Butler

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It never fails.

This offseason, I’ve created a 260-prospect, 60,000-word prospect list (it’s begun trickling out on the site), a prospect obsession list and my first-ever starting pitcher rankings. Before Opening Day, I’ll publish a pair of bold prediction lists—one for prospects, one for active players.

None of that excites me more than finally publishing my high-value active player list.

I say this every year, but when I launched Prospects 365, our mission statement was basically the notion of helping you create an unstoppable force in your fantasy league, no matter the format. Accomplishing that feat not only means creating some of the most valid, well-sourced content in the prospect industry, but also overwhelming you with active player content too good to ignore. The type of active player content you would never expect from a prospect-focused website.

For the upcoming season, that journey began before Christmas with my analytical deep dives on the unlucky Mitch Keller and the breakout-to-be Adrian Houser. With my high-value active player list beginning to roll-out today, we’ve certainly arrived at the meat-and-potatoes of the active player content that will help you win your league—no matter the format—this season.

A brief reminder on the philosophy of this list: every player you’ll read about throughout this three-part series (infielders, outfielders and pitchers) is a player I expect to outperform their NFBC ADP by at least 20.0%. This means if a player has a ADP of 100.00, we’ll consider his inclusion a success if they finish the season as a top-80 overall player (I use Razzball’s Player Rater to make those determinations).

I’m also excited because, on average, the players on my high-value list have improved their ADP by 17.69 draft slots since the list was originally sent to our >300 VIP members on New Year’s Day. THAT is value. If you’d like the entirety of my preseason content sent to you, there’s still time to become a 2020 VIP member.

Now, enough rambling. Here are my high-value active player infielders for the 2020 season.

Note: The “2020 NFBC ADP” attached to each player is their ADP since January 1st. The “VIP NFBC ADP” attached to each player was their ADP when this list was emailed to VIP members on New Year‘s Day.

Robinson Canó, 2B, NYM. Age: 37

Canó deserved better last season, and we’re simply going to take advantage of the price tag in 2020. Let’s keep this simple. Despite missing time last season with a plethora of injuries, Canó’s offensive performance was much better than his surface stats indicate. Exit Velocity? 82nd percentile. Hard Hit %? 87th percentile. Expected batting average? 79th percentile. And it’s the last metric that makes me most bullish on Canó’s outlook this season: the second baseman underperformed his xBA by 24 points last season (.256 BA, .280 xBA). The Mets won’t have much depth at second base if you assume they’re able to dump Jed Lowrie’s contract before Opening Day, and the 37-year-old could be the difference in New York’s lineup simply being good, and New York’s lineup being genuinely great. Assuming the second baseman is able to accrue 500 plate appearances in 2020, he should return fantastic value at a position that’s very top heavy in the fantasy world this season. Canó is currently sandwiched between Aníbal Sánchez and Chris Bassitt from an ADP standpoint, so this is a no brainer. 2020 NFBC ADP: 387, VIP NFBC ADP: 340

Jason Castro, C, LAA. Age: 32

I won’t lie: I did a little dance when it was announced Castro was signing with the Angels. The 32-year-old shared catching duties in Minnesota with Mitch Garver last season. As you’ll read below, I think the latter will be the top-ranked fantasy catcher for the 2020 season. But the former might be the biggest value. It flew entirely under the radar because he didn’t accrue enough plate appearances to reach min. PA thresholds, but Castro increased his Hard Hit% to a jaw-dropping 46.4% last season, a fifteen percent jump from his 31.3 Hard% in 2018. And though his Hard% technically wasn’t compiled in enough plate appearances last season to qualify, Castro’s mark of 46.4% ranked 40th amongst all big league hitters, exceeding the Hard Hit% of stars like Cody Bellinger, Bryce Harper and many others. That fact should jump off the page at you, especially since we’re discussing a player being selected after pick 400 at a barren fantasy position. The jump in barreled balls was accompanied by a ten percent increase in fly ball rate, and the catcher’s slash of .232/.332/.435 was actually a noticeable underperformance according to Castro’s expected statistics (.249 xBA, .521 xSLG). Now you tell me he’ll be the primary catcher in a lineup that could allow him to hit as high as 6th from time to time? And I can wait until pick 400 to grab him? I love a good catcher breakout. Analytically, the 32-year-old accomplished that feat last season. But we’ll feel the impact in the fantasy world in 2020. He’ll be more valuable in OBP leagues than AVG leagues thanks to a double-digit walk rate, but I’ll wager Castro flirts with top-12 catcher status in standard leagues this season. 2020 NFBC ADP: 383, VIP NFBC ADP: 443

C.J. Cron, 1B, DET. Age: 30

If you can tolerate a side of a poor-hitting home park with an entree of opportunity, then Cron is a delicious option as a late-round first baseman in 2020. It flew extremely under the radar, but the 30-year-old posted elite Statcast numbers last season. The Exit Velocity, Hard Hit %, xwOBA and xSLG all ranked higher than the 80th percentile. Perhaps even harder to believe? Even the xBA ranked in the 72nd percentile (.277). Now slated to receive the lion’s share of playing time in Detroit, Cron could flirt with 600 plate appearances for the first time as a big leaguer. Fly balls often die in center and right center field at Comerica Park, but if the 30-year-old can revert to the more pull heavy profile he displayed in 2017 (41.9%) and 2018 (43.%) instead of 2019 (38.2%), he’ll find left field in Detroit is a bit friendlier than the common perception.  2020 NFBC ADP: 252, VIP NFBC ADP: 289

Jake Cronenworth, INF/RP, SD. Age: 26

If the Travis Blankenhorn inclusion was for the Best Ballers, the Cronenworth inclusion is for the deep league daily leaguers. Traded to the Padres this offseason alongside Tommy Pham, the 26-year-old will likely carry eligibility at SS and RP before the midpoint of the season. The night the trade was announced, I tweeted Cronenworth would be the perfect candidate to fill the extra, big league roster spot being implemented this season. At minimum, he should accrue 10 plate appearances and 1-2 innings pitched per week. Since you’ll have to slot Cronenworth as a position player (likely MI) or pitcher beforehand, he likely won’t carry much water in weekly leagues. But in daily leagues, the 26-year-old will be a Swiss army knife that provides boosts to certain categories as you see fit. In an era that mandates you optimize your roster spots to the best of your ability, there’s definitely value here. With an ADP outside of the top-700, this is playing with house money. 2020 NFBC ADP: 735, VIP NFBC ADP: 734

Edwin Encarnación, 1B, CHW. Age: 37

Encarnación is intriguing to me this season for a multitude of reasons. First, the 37-year-old was the 118th most valuable fantasy commodity last season despite only accruing 486 plate appearances in 109 games. The first baseman also joins Nelson Cruz, Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado as one of only four players to hit 30+ home runs in each of the last four seasons. That’s consistency. Despite all of this, Encarnación’s current ADP for the upcoming season is outside of the top-200. In my early drafts, the 37-year-old is the first baseman you’re selecting if you ‘miss’ on a first baseman in the early stages of the draft. But is it really ‘missing’ at a certain position when a really good player falls into your lap? I’m not sure if folks think Encarnación will struggle to find at-bats in Chicago, or if he’ll finally begin slowing down during his Age 37 season. I don’t know, and I don’t care. The first baseman will split the 1B/DH role with Jose Abreu on the South Side—assuming good health, he’ll accrue as many plate appearances as he’d like. And he showed no sign of slowing down last season, posting an above average Hard% and Exit Velocity with an xSLG in the 83rd percentile. He’s not going to hit .280 (he probably won’t even hit .260), but banking 30 home runs outside of the top-200 picks—at a relatively thin fantasy position in 2020—is the goodness that helps you win redraft championships. 2020 NFBC ADP: 171, VIP NFBC ADP: 213

Mitch Garver, C, MIN. Age: 29

The process here is quite simple: I believe Garver will be the best catcher in fantasy baseball in 2020. No backstop found the barrel more frequently last season (9.7 Brls/PA), so this isn’t a scorching hot prediction. As a matter of fact, plate appearance suppression might be the only thing that kept Garver from achieving this title in 2019. The 29-year-old finished as the 3rd-most profitable catcher in standard leagues (according to Razzball Player Rater) last season despite only accruing 359 plate appearances, which was far fewer than top-ranked catchers J.T. Realmuto (593 PA) and Yasmani Grandal (632 PA). He’ll likely never see 600 plate appearances in a single season because he’s not an elite defensive catcher, but he should play enough to surpass the 400 PA mark in 2020 with ease. Garver is currently being drafted as C4—and more than 50 picks after Realmuto. The path to profit here is clear. 2020 NFBC ADP: 116, VIP NFBC ADP: 112

Didi Gregorius, SS, PHI. Age: 30

Gregorius is currently being selected after players like Joe Jimenez, Eric Hosmer, Jon Berti and Jorge Alfaro in redrafts. He’s only one season removed from being a top-10 fantasy shortstop in 2018, posting a .268 BA/.335 OBP/27 HR/10 SB line in his Age 28 season in the Bronx. A storm of imperfection has since occurred to cause his stock to plummet. The shortstop injured his right elbow during Game 2 of the 2018 ALDS; he eventually underwent Tommy John surgery on October 17th, 2018. Gregorius didn’t debut until June of last season, but the train never really left the tracks. The 30-year-old never found his groove, posting an 84 wRC+ in 82 games during his ‘walk year’. Now he’s signed a one-year, $14 million ‘prove it’ deal with the Phillies. Manager Joe Girardi has already gone on the record saying the shortstop will bat ‘anywhere from 3rd to 5th’ in Philadelphia’s order, meaning he’ll bat amongst or immediately after Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins and J.T. Realmuto. Citizens Bank Park was actually more kind to left-handed hitters last season than Yankees Stadium (according to Baseball Prospectus’ Park Factors by Handedness), and the 30-year-old should have an infinite amount of opportunities to produce runs in one of the best lineups in baseball. Buy the bounce back here; Gregorius can return similar value to Jorge Polanco (current ADP: 156) this season. 2020 NFBC ADP: 201, VIP NFBC ADP: 216

Tommy La Stella, 1B/2B, LAA. Age: 31

There are so many factors working in our favor regarding La Stella this season. Reuniting with Joe Maddon—a manager with a track record of bullishly managing the 31-year-old—probably deserves a subscript in this conversation, but I’d rather focus on the on-field aspects of this profile heading into 2020. First, a fractured leg in early July of last season suppressed an ongoing breakout from the infielder, who was on pace to easily surpass 20 home runs for the first time in his career, all while likely posting a batting average in the .280-.290 range. The power surge—witnessed in both the home run output and non-accidental increase in Hard Hit rate–is quite funny to compare to La Stella’s previous career totals. Now back to full health, the 31-year-old should be the Angels’ primary leadoff hitter this season. That means he’ll serve as the table setter for Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, Shohei Ohtani and Justin Upton. Assuming he’s able to remain healthy, this means La Stella should flirt with 100 runs scored. Even if the career high 18.4% HR/FB from 2019 decreases (with an obvious approach change last season, regression is not a given—especially with right field of Angel Stadium being extremely favorable for lefties), the infielder could pair the massive amount of runs scored with a .270 BA and ~15 home runs. David Fletcher will steal a bit of TLS’s playing time at second base this season, but the latter figures to see some time at first base in lieu of Albert Pujols. With current 2B/3B/MI/CI eligibility, I love our odds of profiting at the current price point. 2020 NFBC ADP: 282, VIP NFBC ADP: 294

Ryan McMahon, 2B, COL. Age: 25

It took me longer than I care to admit to arrive here, but this thought process is simple: a perceived timeshare at the cornerstone has led to Garrett Hampson being overpriced and Ryan McMahon being underpriced this preseason. The problem with the aforementioned perception is that no timeshare will actually exist. McMahon will be the Rockies’ everyday second baseman; he’s also likely to see some time at first base when Colorado opts to rest veteran Daniel Murphy. In late February, manager Bud Black said he expects the 25-year-old to play in ‘over 150 games’ throughout the 2020 season. That won’t happen because the regular season will almost certainly be shortened following the COVID-19 delay, but a market inefficiency remains uncorrected with McMahon’s draft day price tag. I also firmly believe this: a .260/30 HR/5 SB 162-game campaign wouldn’t be the infielder’s 90th percentile outcome. I’m up to four shares throughout my redraft and dynasty leagues; if the article imbedded below doesn’t make you excited about the 25-year-old’s outlook this season, nothing will. 2020 NFBC ADP: 180

 

Editor’s note: McMahon was retroactively added to this list on March 18th, 2020.

Mike Moustakas, 2B/3B, CIN. Age: 31

I tend to put Moustakas in the same bucket as Nelson Cruz. Unspectacular, unflashy, sure to return you a profit as they age like fine wine. Now batting in a lineup that includes Eugenio Suarez, Nick Senzel and Joey Votto (included for OBP only) playing at one of the best hitter’s parks in the big leagues, Steamer projects Moustakas to produce 181 R + RBI in 2020. Oh, and 36 home runs. With dual-position eligibility post-pick 100, those numbers seem pretty good. Simply put, Moustakas is a low-risk mutual fund. He’ll never make you filthy rich, but you learn to be content with pocketing a 3% payout annually. And don’t you dare get greedy. Just shut up and take your money. 2020 NFBC ADP: 101, VIP NFBC ADP: 114

Miguel Sanó, 1B/3B, MIN. Age: 26

Sanó hit 34 home runs in 105 games. It’s completely unscientific, but that’s a 150-game pace of 49 home runs. His 2019 Exit Velocity and Hard Hit % were both in the 100th percentile, and he’ll enter the 2020 season completely healthy (presumably) and with a newly signed 3-year/$30 million contract. Sanó is entering his prime, and his batted ball profile screams we’re about to witness a few seasons of prodigious power output. There’s obvious injury risk here—Sanó has never compiled 500 plate appearances in a single big league season since debuting in Minnesota in 2015. But the Twins are reportedly monitoring their prized infielder closely this offseason, and there’s also a decent chance, on a team that just lost C.J. Cron, Sanó sees more reps at first base than in season’s past. Assuming he doesn’t lacerate his heel on metal stairs at any point this offseason, there’s no reason to think 2020 can’t be his most healthy campaign to date. The 26-year-old isn’t likely to be an asset for your team’s batting average, but a season with 45 HR and 190 R+ RBI would mean Sanó easily out-earns his current draft day price tag. 2020 NFBC ADP: 123, VIP NFBC ADP: 131

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Travis Shaw, 1B, TOR. Age: 29

Geez, Shaw fell off the face of planet Earth last season. But he’s going to be back with a vengeance in 2020, and he’ll bat in the middle of a sneaky-good Blue Jays’ lineup that plays in the hitter-friendly AL East. This inclusion is all about opportunity and track record. As it currently stands, Shaw will have every opportunity to be the everyday first baseman in Toronto, swapping with Rowdy Tellez and being the designated hitter on ‘off days’. In a lineup that also includes Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio, the 29-year-old will likely have the opportunity to produce and drive home as many runs as any bat in the big leagues. If we’re able to look back on 2019 as the outlier of Shaw’s performances since 2016, it will mean he produced a gigantic ROI this season. Even if he doesn’t fully return to his former self and is slightly below league average offensively, he’ll still outpace his current ADP. 2020 NFBC ADP: 359, VIP NFBC ADP: 410

Justin Smoak, 1B, MIL. Age: 33

It’s extremely fitting that Travis Shaw and Justin Smoak are listed back-to-back on this list, seeing as the pair is basically trading places in 2020. The latter is now slated to share first base reps for the Brewers with Ryan Braun, receiving at-bats on a team that might field a better lineup than Toronto’s this season. But that’s not nearly as important as the fact Smoak was the second unluckiest hitter in the big leagues last season according to xwOBA – wOBA (the .039 difference is second to Marcell Ozuna’s mark of .042). The first baseman will never be a crowning jewel in AVG leagues, but Steamer projects him post a .349 OBP with 25 home runs in 2020 (albeit in 482 plate appearances). Likely batting behind the likes of Keston Hiura and Christian Yelich amongst others, Smoak will have an abundance of opportunities to consistently produce runs this season. Platooning with Braun (who has exceeded 500 plate appearances in a season only once since 2016) clouds the magnitude of the expected return here, but around pick 500, this is a dart worth throwing to ensure infield depth on your redraft teams. 2020 NFBC ADP: 475, VIP NFBC ADP: 526

Dansby Swanson, SS, ATL. Age: 26

Swanson is ‘being able to hit non-fastballs’ away from being an MLB superstar. Of course, that’s like me saying I’m a ‘different face, height and body ‘ away from being handsome. It’s quite the hurdle to overcome, but true nonetheless. But here’s the thing about the 26-year-old: even if he continues to struggle against any and every non-fastball, Swanson simply needs to be a slightly less unlucky version of his 2019 self for us to cash this check in 2020. The shortstop underperformed his xBA by 20 points last season (.251 BA to .271 xBA), but that’s just the prelude. According to this expected home runs metric created by industry friend Max Freeze, Swanson massively underperformed his eHR last season (17 HR, 21.55 eHR). His Hard Hit % also jumped more than seven percent (34% to 41.6%), and he walked more often (8.3% to 9.4%). Despite the misfortune, Swanson posted the best wRC+ of his big league career by 12 points (92). That metric has improved each season throughout the 26-year-old’s big league career. The shortstop simply becoming a league average hitter by wRC+ likely means he helps you win your fantasy league in 2020 (relative to your draft day expectation), but I badly want to believe the underlying metrics last season mean a big breakout is on its way this season. 2020 NFBC ADP: 258, VIP NFBC ADP: 251

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Justin Turner, 3B, LAD. Age: 35

Turner is going to be an ‘old, boring’ player who is going to be on a lot of league winning teams this season. I’ve talked at length about how you have to obsess over power throughout roto drafts to actually hit the 80th or 90th percent threshold in the category. That also means your team is liable to take hits in the batting average department early in your draft, especially if you grab elite power guys such as Pete Alonso, Matt Olson, Joey Gallo or Miguel Sano. Turner can help stabilize your team’s batting average (he’s a career .292 hitter and is projected to hit anywhere from .280-.290 according to various 2020 projection systems) while also acting as an elite run producer. The 35-year-old had elite batted ball metrics last season and should hit behind Mookie Betts and Max Muncy and in front of Cody Bellinger, Joc Pederson and Corey Seager. That seems like a pretty good outlook. Turner hasn’t accrued 600 plate appearances in a season since 2016 and will likely be rested a bit more than we’d like thanks to the Dodgers’ abundance of depth, but he’s well worth the risk at his current price draft day price tag. 2020 NFBC ADP: 165

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Editor’s note: Justin Turner was retroactively added to this list Saturday, March 14th, 2020. 

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Featured image courtesy of photographer Greg Fiume and Getty Images

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