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Champ or Chump: Jorge Soler and Shane Bieber

Even if you're happy with your current position in the standings, it's important to avoid complacency. Any production from an unexpected source (such as Jorge Soler of the Kansas City Royals) is liable to disappear at the drop of a dime, so it wouldn't hurt to start looking into a backup plan.

Likewise, even first place teams need to scour the waiver wire vigilantly to ensure that their competitors can't close the gap between them. Shane Bieber, a 22-year old RHP in the Cleveland organization, makes for an interesting streamer in his MLB debut against the Twins.

Here's a closer look at both Soler's and Bieber's fantasy prospects over the rest of the 2018 season.

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The Fantasy Jury is Out

Jorge Soler (OF, KC) - 37% Owned

Soler is finally producing fantasy-useful numbers, slashing .264/.362/.451 with seven homers and a trio of steals (one CS) on the campaign. Unfortunately, most of his peripherals are unchanged. He's likely to turn back into the talented kid with underwhelming numbers fantasy owners have come to know and not care about.

Soler's .264 batting average is barely playable in fantasy, but he almost certainly won't sustain it. His .336 BABIP is a little higher than his .319 career mark, but his batted ball profile suggests a much lower BABIP than either figure would suggest. His .295 BABIP on ground balls (.266 career) is the primary force behind his production to date, but there are two reasons to distrust it.

First, Soler's average exit velocity on ground balls has declined in each year since Statcast data became available. He averaged 89.3mph in 2015, 87.9mph in 2016, 86.5mph last year, and 84.3mph so far this season. Ground ball contact quality isn't everything, but you'd prefer to see the opposite trend if you're hoping for Soler to keep it up.

Second, Soler has become shift bait. His career Pull% on ground balls is a reasonable 61.6%, but that figure has shot up to 68.9% this season. That's squarely in the shift danger zone, and teams are starting to deploy one against him (34 of 122 total opportunities). The early results are only encouraging the strategy, as Soler is hitting .242 against it versus a .379 mark when it isn't in effect. It seems likely that Soler will face more shifts moving forward, sending his BABIP below even his career average.

Soler has hit an average number of line drives over his career (20.9%), but that number has fallen to 18.6% in 2018. Any regression could help Soler, but his LD% rates in 2017 (18%) and 2016 (17.1%) suggest that it may be a new normal. He also has a pop-up problem (15.9% IFFB% this year, 13.3%) that could really sting his BABIP if he tries to join the fly ball revolution. His 34.1% FB% is on the low side for a power guy, but any power spike is likely to be accompanied by a BABIP collapse.

Soler needs an elevated BABIP for fantasy viability, as he strikes out way too often. His current K% of 25.8% looks better than his career mark of 27.8%, but his underlying SwStr% hasn't improved at all (15.1% this year, 14.6% career). His eye (28% chase rate) might be good enough to sustain his current walk rate (11.7%), but pitchers haven't felt compelled to throw him too many strikes (37.4% Zone% against this year). Soler still has holes in his swing, so the walks could dry up quickly if pitchers attack him more aggressively.

Soler's power pace looks sustainable. His 15.9% HR/FB matches his career mark of 15% almost perfectly. His 95.9mph average airborne exit velocity is a Statcast Era best, but he's always been good by that metric (94.4mph in 2017, 93.2mph in 2016, 94.8mph in 2015). His 9.3% rate of Brls/BBE is above average, but Soler beat it in both 2016 (10.4%) and 2015 (10.1%). His Pull% on fly balls (20.5%) matches his career rate (20.4%) despite the uptick in pulled grounders, suggesting that his airborne contact quality has neither improved nor declined this year.

Soler hit second every game from April 30 to May 21, but has been relegated to fifth since that date. That's a significant downgrade that figures to hurt his counting stat totals. You can ride Soler if and when he gets hot, but he's not a viable fantasy outfielder over the long term.

Verdict: Chump

Shane Bieber (SP, CLE) - 20% Owned

Bieber hasn't thrown a single MLB pitch yet, but his minor league career supports a solid streamer with upside for more. He cracked the High Minors by tossing 54 1/3 IP for Double-A Akron last season, posting excellent ratios (2.32 ERA, 2.64 xFIP). He didn't compile an elite strikeout total (22.4% K%), but that's enough if you're not going to walk anybody (2.3% BB%) or allow home runs (48.8% GB%, 4.7% HR/FB).

Bieber returned to Akron to start 2018 and did more of the same. His ERA was elite (1.16), but his 2.64 xFIP suggests that he was really the same guy he was last year. He struck out a few more batters (24.6% K%) while walking even fewer (0.8% BB%). He also continued his ground ball tendencies (46.6% GB%) while mitigating damage on the few airborne batted balls he allowed (3% HR/FB). The performance earned him a promotion to Triple-A Columbus.

Bieber's performance at Akron comes with a little asterisk because it's a pitcher's park. Notably, its 0.863 HR factor from 2014-2016 means that the park might get some credit for Bieber's low HR/FB rates. He wouldn't have the same cushion in Columbus, which posted a 1.398 HR factor over the same time period. While Akron is roughly neutral for BABIP (0.996 ballpark factor), Columbus inflates it significantly (1.059) as well.

Bieber's game largely translated to the more hostile environment. His ratios were again outstanding over 34 1/3 IP (1.05 ERA, 2.40 xFIP) while a stronger 59.8% GB% muted the impact of a predictably higher HR/FB (10%). Most importantly, his K% increased again (to 26.5%) while his BB% remained minuscule (1.7%). Bieber doesn't have dominant stuff (low-90s heat and no true put away pitch), but his minor league resume deserves a crack at the Show.

What will he do with the opportunity? Bieber allowed a .331 BABIP at Double-A last year, but marks of .278 (Double-A) and .183 (Triple-A) this season. The two short samples probably cancel each other out in our projection, so we'll conclude that he will end up with a league average .300 mark. His supporting cast is excellent, and he has the control to meet the 5 IP threshold for a W even if the team monitors his pitch counts closely.

His stuff may not be able to K MLB hitters, but he shouldn't walk any of them either. That should give him a reasonable floor as a rookie, with upside if his increased K% at Triple-A is based on a weapon scouts haven't seen yet. The AL Central is terrible, so he should have plenty of favorable matchups if he sticks in the Tribe's rotation.

That latter point is not guaranteed, as he's only been promised the one start against the Twins. Josh Tomlin is awful though, and Adam Plutko got roughed up by the White Sox in his last start (5 IP, 5 ER, 2 K, 5 BB). The opportunity for consistent MLB innings is there if Bieber gets off to a strong start.

Verdict: Champ


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