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As we approach fantasy-baseball trade deadlines, many owners find themselves needing to improve their team in one way or another. Owners buying a player or making a trade to get their team across the finish line are best off targeting reliable, high-ability players because of the relatively short window remaining in the season. You don't want to buy a high-upside player who takes another two months to put it together.

Part of the idea of this article was initially a focus on dynasty and keeper league owners who might need to buy current talent in exchange for future value. However, as the article has taken shape, it has become something of a buyer’s guide or target list regardless of league type. We’re doing a four-part series in this format: one by position for top-tier talent, one by position for mid and lower-tier players, one for hitting categories, and one for pitching categories.

This first article, in particular, emphasizes top-50 players who should reliably meet or outperform their projections for the rest of the season and who are available at something approximating a reasonable price that is still below or equal to their performance and reliability. Mike Trout isn’t on the list because it's almost impossible to get Mike Trout. Obviously, if Mike Trout is available, you should probably trade for him.

Editor's Note: Our friends at RTSports have best ball leagues with no in-season management. Just draft your team, and that's it! Use your phone for this casual draft by getting emails or texts when you're on the clock. Sign Up Now!

 

If You Can Only Buy One...

If you've had one glaring weakness all year long, and you need to shore up that position, the players below are who I'd be targetting. These players should offer top-performance at their position but without costing quite as much as some of the top-tier alternatives.

Catcher: J.T. Realmuto
In catcher-fantasyland, Realmuto is the equivalent of a five-tool player. He only contributes to four categories, but that’s the state of catching in 2018. Realmuto didn't come into the season with the name-brand cost of Buster Posey, Gary Sanchez, or even Wilson Contreras. Even now, he’s largely overlooked and written off as the only good player on a bad team. By next season though, Realmuto is likely to be the top-ranked catcher in fantasy baseball unless Gary Sanchez returns to form. Realmuto’s xwOBA is .380, suggesting that his .384 wOBA isn’t a matter of luck. He looks on pace to eclipse 20 home runs, 80 runs, and 80 RBI, all while providing a batting average that shouldn’t dip below .290. He’s currently hitting .317, could very well finish the season above .300. Conveniently, Realmuto has been fairly consistent from month to month, and there is no reason to expect regress in any category.

Honorable Mention: Evan Gattis – I’ll cover him more in the mid-tier guide. Gary Sanchez – If you’re a gambling man AND his current owner is exhausted by Sanchez's season so far, go for it, but don’t expect to pay pennies on the dollar.

 

First Base: Anthony Rizzo
When Paul Goldschmidt was having his awful start of the season, he rebounded by batting .364 with ten home runs in the month of June. Months like that help erase the stigma of a poor start. Anthony Rizzo hasn’t enjoyed that type of recovery. He was very good in May when he put up a 157 wRC+, but he was just mediocre in June and has been OK in July. Despite that, Rizzo has historically been one of the most consistent hitters in all of baseball. Since 2013, he has exactly four months when he put up a wRC+ less than 100. Rizzo is a hitter who supplies excellent production all year long but rarely looks like an otherworldly talent for three weeks straight. He’s been a perfectly adequate hitter this season, and his .371 xwOBA is 40 points higher than his actual .341 wOBA, so it’s not just that he was not only undermined by injury in the first month. He's also been somewhat unlucky since then. Expect another 10-15 HRs, 45 runs, and 45 RBI this season.

Honorable Mention: Jose Abreu

 

Second Base: Javier Baez
I wrote about Baez last week, but effectively Baez now projects as the same quality player that Francisco Lindor did at this time last season. However, most rankings I’ve seen have Baez sixth or seventh among second baseman. Even Steamer has him at fourth. It could be a case where analyst opinion lags behind perceived value in the fantasy community, but there are plenty of owners who still regard Baez as a player who gets hot but never has the numbers at the end of the season. Here’s the problem with that. Even if Baez reverted to his flawed 2016 self, let alone his 2017 performance, he is still guaranteed to hit 23 HR, steal 23 bags, and drive in at least 90 RBI. Barring injury or inexplicable meltdown, that’s the worst-case scenario. A word of caution, Baez is more subject to cold streaks than other players on this list, which makes him a comparatively riskier proposition than teammate Anthony Rizzo above.

Honorable Mention: Jed Lowrie

 

Shortstop: Trevor Story
Last year, Trevor Story was a disappointment when he produced 60 runs, 24, HRs, 82 RBI, 11 SBs, and hit .239. The batting average hurt, but if that is considered a bad season, then Story has rebounded nicely this year. His 16 HRs, 60 RBIs, and 11 SBs are all helping him to be a top-30 player in 2018. There is such a glut of talent at shortstop that Story gets overlooked as a third-tier option. Maybe that's the case, but he is still within the top-30 fantasy players this season. The difference between Trevor Story and the best guys at the position is relatively negligible and within the range of error. Consider these ROS Steamer Projections:

R HR RBI SB AVG. OPS
Player A 34 11 37 2 .268 .832
Player B 43 8 31 19 .282 .784
Player C 35 12 40 6 .260 .813

The runs and SBs probably give away the identity of player B, but without names, those three players look like similar values. You would definitely opt to take Player B first, but after that, it is a real toss-up between A and C. Player A is Carlos Correa. Player B is Trea Turner. Player C is Trevor Story. There is reason to believe Story’s batting average will stay as high as .280 and that he won’t regress to Steamer's predicted .260 average. For starters, his swinging strike rate has dropped by almost 25%, his hard-hit rate is up about 5%, he’s hitting more balls in the air than he did last year, and he’s hitting those balls harder than last year (95 MPH vs. 93.8 MPH).

Honorable Mention: Trea Turner – He’s been a top-50 "disappointment" this season because owners expected him to hit 25 HRs, steal 50 bases, and score 200 runs. Instead, he’ll probably just hit 20 HRs, steal 40 bases, and score 100 runs. Message the Turner owner and let him know you can live with that kind of disappointment in your life. Expect him to be a top-15 player by the end of the season.

 

Third Base: Jose Ramirez
Ramirez is almost too good to be on this list. It amazes me that people still see him as just a top-40 player. Most analysts are beyond that, but I’ve chatted with several fantasy owners who believe Ramirez’s early-season struggles showed he is not a top-20 talent. I had Ramirez ranked 14th at the start of the season, and all he’s done is exceed expectations this year. He’s a bit overshadowed by Lindor right now, and until he grows another four inches, fantasy owners will distrust the power. Has Mookie Betts taught us nothing? The whole situation makes for a buying opportunity on a guy who should provide another 12 HRs, 44 Rs, 42 RBI, and 11 SBs while giving you a batting average around .300. That’s first-round value for a player most owners still regard as a late second-round talent. There isn’t a ton of profit in that purchase, but at this point in the season, it’s not necessarily about profit, it’s about locking up a championship, and Ramirez is exactly the type of cornerstone to help achieve that.

Honorable Mention: Eugenio Suarez, Mike Moustakas – I’ll write more on Moustakas in the next segment, but the short version is that if the Yankees acquire him, he’s probably a top-35 player rest of season. I’m including this here because if the trade gets completed before the next article, his price will go up significantly.

 

Outfield: Eddie Rosario
I started the season as a non-believer because of a few troubling peripherals around Rosario. I watched him play a couple of times in May and June, and I wrote, “When I've looked at Rosario's numbers, I always think that he's outperforming, but when I watch him, my eyes believe.” In trying to reevaluate players at the mid-season mark, I found something interesting in Rosario’s stats: He is a terrible early season player. During his career, Rosario’s wRC+ in March and April is 65. Outside of March and April, he hasn’t had a wRC+ below 108 in the last two years. He’s had a difficult start to July, but he’s also only played seven games so far. Maybe he’s due to cool off his .332 BABIP, but Rosario looks like a younger, cheaper, and maybe better version of Charlie Blackmon.

 

Outfield: Nicholas Castellanos
Picking Castellanos surprised even me. In Castellanos, we have a guy who has been quietly excellent for the last two seasons. Without Miggy in Detroit, many baseball fans have treated the Tigers as the AL Marlins. Despite that, the Tigers have some interesting players on offense and Castellanos is on pace for another season of 27 HR and 100 RBI. Both an increase in hard-hit rate and a decrease in his ground-ball rate explain why his batting average is up and should stay up around .290 at least. The improved OBP should allow him to score at least 90 runs this season. He won’t meaningfully contribute to steals, but other than that, he’ll be an excellent four-category player.

Honorable Mention: Starling Marte, J.D. Martinez, Cody Bellinger, Nelson Cruz, Ronald Acuna

 

Starting Pitcher: Patrick Corbin
Both Corbin and Stripling lack the track record of the hitters on this list. Pitching is so fluid from year to year and month to month that to get Rizzo-like consistency in a pitcher requires a significant investment. If you want a player like that, the three guys in the honorable mention section would be my targets.

For me, Corbin is similar to Eddie Rosario. I wasn’t buying him anywhere, but I need to reconsider what I think I know about him. Two weeks ago, I listened to the umpteenth analyst podcast to recommended selling Corbin. When I started this article, I looked at Corbin more extensively, and it seems like a situation where you want to zig while everyone else zags. Even if Corbin regresses, he still looks like a pitcher achieving a new level. Corbin’s O-swing rate (swings outside the strike zone) is top five; his swinging-strike rate is top-five; his groundball rate is top-20, and his K-BB% is top-10. He is succeeding because he puts batters in bad situations and forces them into poor outcomes. Corbin looks like a top-20 pitcher, who could be a legitimate Cy Young candidate but won’t because of the other top-tier pitching talent in the National League. Batters take bad swings against him. He induces contact on the ground, which is less likely to hurt him. He can make batters miss with the combination of his excellent slider and fastball. Those attributes describe pitchers who become aces.

Starting Pitcher Runner-Up: Ross Stripling
Nobody has Stripling ranked higher than 78th, but this list is supposed to be about guys who are top-50 players. Be willing to buy him at a top-50 price, and damn the torpedoes. Don't start with offers in that range, but if that is the cost of business and you need a top-tier starter, you should feel empowered to pay that cost. Most owners are still thinking of him as a recent development, but he has almost 90 innings of elite performance. Among pitchers with 80 IP, he ranks 5th in ERA, 17th in K/9, 6th in K-BB%, 8th in FIP. Among pitchers with at least 250 batters faced, Stripling has the second best xwOBA, behind only Justin Verlander. The only concern about Stripling is the number of innings. He’s never thrown more than 116 innings in a season. By most accounts that would take him to 165 innings before the Dodgers shut him down. However, the Dodgers are in the hunt, and if Stripling continues to pitch like Kershaw once did, they’ll have to keep him on the mound. Even if they do though, that doesn’t mean Stripling won’t wear down as the season continues. Fortunately, Stripling didn’t start the year in the rotation, and shouldn’t eclipse the 165 mark until the very last week of the regular season.

Honorable Mention: Jacob deGrom, Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer – These three players fall into the honorable mention section only because they are such obvious targets, but the consistency of their excellence makes them worthwhile names for the list. It’s unfathomable that these three can still be purchased at profitable rates. They are all within the range of error for Max Scherzer, but nobody is buying them that way. In particular, Kluber is perpetually underrated as a guy who is a mere top-30, but not a top-15 player. He is older and unflashy, so his stock is below what it should be, but if I absolutely had to buy one pitcher to solidify my rotation and I needed to guarantee that player would be a rock in my rotation, I'd be targeting Corey Kluber.

 

Closer: Edwin Diaz and Sean Doolittle

***Sean Doolittle just went in for an MRI on his foot. Monitor that situation and watch his peripherals and performance before making any move to buy him.***

I’ve already written about Edwin Diaz, but here’s the rundown: Diaz has been awesome, except when he had a case of dead arm last season. You can’t avoid dead arm for closers; every reliever is going to get it sooner or later. Don’t trade for closers. But if you are going to trade for a closer not named Edwin Diaz, you should be looking at Sean Doolittle. I know what you are saying, “David, Sean Doolittle is 31 years old. Sean Doolittle puts up mediocre peripherals. Sean Doolittle sounds like a character in a Wes Anderson film.” You’re mostly right about all of it. If we were operating only on the basis of the sound of his name, Doolittle would be the deferential professor with the worn elbow-patches on his corduroy jacket. Fortunately, this the real Sean Doolittle. Let’s call him the angry professor, or perhaps the violent Seth Rogen. Regardless, he’s a damn-fine closer, and his 1.94 FIP tells us that his 1.45 ERA is for real. His peripherals are usually respectable, and this year they are excellent. He’s cut his walk rate in half. His wOBA is the best among any pitcher with at least 100 batters faced, and his xwOBA is second best. He trades the top spot back and forth with Josh Hader. The difference is that Doolittle gets saves for one of the better teams in baseball, and Josh Hader is just a super-awesome pitcher who isn’t particularly useful outside of leagues using Holds.

Honorable Mention: Kenley Jansen

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