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For fantasy managers, a player with only DH or Utility eligibility can be difficult to own because he creates lineup issues that limit flexibility. For the last decade, Nelson Cruz has been one of the most prolific hitters, and he’s shown few signs of slowing down, except for his shrinking defensive capability. Similarly, Shohei Ohtani is strictly limited to playing as a designated hitter this season, as his pitching career has been delayed due to injury.

Depending on league settings, both players will be limited to UTIL eligibility this season. Cruz did get four games in the outfield last season, so he may still have OF eligibility in a few leagues, but probably not. Despite those limitations, both hitters promise the possibility of All-Star level ceilings.

Should owners avoid the potential issues for each or are these designated hitters being underdrafted?

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Nelson Cruz (UTIL, MIN) – ADP: 97

Nelson Cruz was a top-60 player last season. He was a top-25 player in 2017 and a top-30 player in 2016, so why is he being drafted at 97 this season? The simple answers are age and Minnesota, but mostly age.

To justify a top-100 pick, Cruz probably needs to contribute a wOBA near .350 and a wRC+ of around 120, both of which are below Cruz’s 2018 production of .361 wOBA and 134 wRC+. For context, Stephen Piscotty sported a .351 wOBA and 125 wRC+, and he finished as a top-100 player in 2018. Basically, if Cruz just performs a bit worse than he did in 2018, he’s likely to be a decent value.

The problem is simply that Cruz will turn 39 on July 1. Since 2008, there have been only eight players (among 136 potential examples) who achieved that level of production when they were 38 or older.

2016 David Ortiz 151 38 79 127 2 0.315 0.401 0.62 0.419 163
2015 David Ortiz 146 37 73 108 0 0.273 0.36 0.553 0.379 139
2017 Adrian Beltre 94 17 47 71 1 0.312 0.383 0.532 0.384 135
2014 David Ortiz 142 35 59 104 0 0.263 0.355 0.517 0.369 134
2015 Alex Rodriguez 151 33 83 86 4 0.25 0.356 0.486 0.361 129
2012 Chipper Jones 112 14 58 62 1 0.287 0.377 0.455 0.36 127
2016 Carlos Beltran 151 29 73 93 1 0.295 0.337 0.513 0.358 122
2013 Raul Ibanez 124 29 54 65 0 0.242 0.306 0.487 0.344 121
2011 Chipper Jones 126 18 56 70 2 0.275 0.344 0.47 0.348 120
2010 Chipper Jones 95 10 47 46 5 0.265 0.381 0.426 0.356 119
2015 Carlos Beltran 133 19 57 67 0 0.276 0.337 0.471 0.346 119
2010 Jorge Posada 120 18 49 57 3 0.248 0.357 0.454 0.357 119
2009 Jim Thome 124 23 55 77 0 0.249 0.366 0.481 0.368 119

If we search for performances of 37 or older, the number of examples meeting that criteria nearly doubles. If we search for performances of 39 or older, the number halves. At 39, the aging curve in baseball is precipitous.

What are the odds that Cruz meets or exceeds that break-even point? Apparently, they are quite good. Most of the major projection systems favor Cruz to reach that level. Steamer, in particular, lists Cruz at 35 HR, 88 runs, 103 RBI, and a .282 BA. The run total might be too high. The only player on the list who eclipsed that number was Derek Jeter in 2012 when he was 38.

It is strange to see Steamer predict a player to have a stronger age-39 season than at age 38. However, 2019 is a strange time to be alive, and Cruz’s batted-ball profile explains the optimism. By the Statcast data, Cruz had another excellent offensive season. His xwOBA was .392, right between Max Muncy and Aaron Judge, both of whom had much stronger fantasy seasons than Cruz. The Statcast data also shows that Cruz’s dip in batting average was particularly unlucky. It predicts he should have hit .283 last year, rather than .256. While a quick look at Cruz’s BABIP reveals an abnormally low .264, it would have been easy to disregard that as the result of aging eyes and slowing hands. That doesn’t seem to be the case based on Cruz’s 20th-best 13.8 barrels per batted-ball event.

With the addition of Cruz, the Twins subpar lineup should be at least average, and Cruz should be able to take advantage of the positive park factor at Target Field, which should give back a few of the home runs that Safeco stole last season. Those contextual factors virtually guarantee that Cruz’s run and RBI totals will rebound after last year’s lows.

If Cruz meets his Steamer projections, he’s a top-60 value again, even with the positional disadvantage of being a DH-only player.

Verdict: Champ (based on ADP of 97)


Shohei Ohtani (UTIL, LAA) – ADP: 146

Shohei Ohtani’s situation is more complex than Cruz’s because Ohtani is still recovering from Tommy John surgery. It is difficult to predict how the Angels will handle him. The Angels are fully committed to Ohtani as a two-way player, and they believe that’s where he can make his greatest contribution. They’ll work to ensure that he is healthy and does not jeopardize his recovery. Furthermore, there are already discussions that the team may hold Ohtani out until May and that even then they will limit his games to avoid any setbacks.

Despite the injury, the Angels do plan to use Ohtani as a full-time DH once he returns, and Ohtani is poised to take advantage of hitting third or fourth, which should allow him to produce strong run and RBI totals.

Currently, Ohtani’s floor is nearly unownable, and managers who do invest will have to monitor his day-to-day status all season. It’s unlikely that he will see more than 500 plate appearances or 450 at-bats. However, Ohtani’s ceiling is massive. Consider this comparison:

OBP ISO wOBA xwOBA FB/LD Exit Velo. Brls/BBE
Player A 0.326 0.302 0.365 0.375 92.4 16.9
Player B 0.361 0.279 0.390 0.380 92.6 16.0
Player C 0.348 0.276 0.384 0.352 90.7 12.7

It was difficult to find comparisons for Ohtani because his 367-PA performance was both unique and impressive. By examing the three statlines, it’s easy to see some of the similarities. All three players have top-tier power. All three players were top-30 hitters. While the OBP is more varied than ideal, all three players are above league average. Finally, all three players demonstrated the ability to generate ideal contact and to translate that into actual production (unlike a player such as Teoscar Hernandez whose on-field performance lagged behind his predictive measures).

Player A is Khris Davis. Player B is Shohei Ohtani. Player C is Trevor Story. All three players maintain aggressive approaches at the plate. They take forceful swings, have above-average swinging-strike tendencies but provide solid contact rates and significant counting stats.

In Ohtani’s case, he is going more than 100 picks after Story (18 ADP) and Davis (45 ADP), but with the caveat that he’s likely to miss the first quarter of the season. In some ways, Ohtani looks like a top-tier prospect with an uncertain path to playing time. For managers willing to risk a pick on players like Eloy Jimenez, Nick Senzel, and Vlad Guerrero Jr. (now that the Jays have indicated he’ll start the year in AAA), Ohtani is at least as safe a pick. Ohtani arrived with the pedigree of the other three, provided 114 games of all-star caliber production, and has a clear path to playing time.

Ohtani’s value increases in leagues with three or more IL (formerly DL) spots, two or more utility spots, or head-to-head leagues. At a moment in the draft when managers have the option of third-tier catchers or seventh-tier starters, the opportunity to buy a player with Ohtani’s ceiling is as unique as Ohtani himself. That’s especially true if managers enjoy league settings that mitigate his early-season absence or his positional limitations. In those cases, it’s easy to see Ohtani as a definite top-125 player.

Verdict: Champ (based on ADP of 146)

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