The Mariners swept the A’s in a two-game series to open the season in Japan, but what most of us think of as the real Opening Day, however, is still in the offing. That means there’s one more weekend of fantasy drafts and auctions to take place between now and then.
We’ve spent the last two months here at SI.com preparing for our drafts and auctions. We’ve talked breakouts, sleepers and busts. We’ve delved into every spot on the diamond in our position primers. We’ve debated, debated and then, for good measure, debated some more. And, of course, we’ve ranked our top 300 players. Now, with one weekend left until the regular season begins in earnest, we’re giving you the last bits of advice you need to have a successful draft or auction: the players you need to have, the players you need to fade, and the last-minute difference makers.
Below, I present five players who’ve flown under the radar all offseason, but are suddenly worth considering drafts and auctions.
Ryan McMahon, 1B/2B, Rockies
When spring training opened, conventional wisdom held that Garrett Hampson would replace the departed D.J. LeMahieu at second base for the Rockies. Instead, McMahon had a huge spring, won the job, and became a true sleeper in the process.
McMahon, one of last year’s darlings of the fantasy community, took full advantage of the opportunity created by LeMahieu’s departure. He’s hit .457/.500/.848 with three homers and seven doubles in 52 plate appearances this spring, outpacing Hampson across the board. This job battle is far from settled in the long-term, and Hampson will also break spring training with the Rockies. It’s worth noting, too, that Hampson’s speed is an attractive asset that could help get him back in the lineup. Still, McMahon has clearly been the better player this spring, and is now worth a shot in the endgame of a draft or auction. He struggled mightily in the bigs last year, but in 556 career plate appearances at Triple-A has a .337/.379/.577 slash line with 25 homers, 38 doubles and 104 RBI. This is just McMahon’s age-24 season.
Clayton Kershaw will open the season on the IL, and we’re betting that won’t be the first time that a Dodgers’ starting pitcher goes on the shelf this season. First of all, the team has proved that it’s more willing to push the limits of the IL ever since the league shortened its minimum stay to 10 days. Second, with Kershaw, Hyun-jin Ryu, Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda all in the rotation, the Dodgers are going to have to lean on their nominal sixth and seventh starters more often than most teams.
Stripling will occupy Kerhsaw’s spot in the rotation on Opening Day. Consistently overlooked, Stripling has mostly succeeded in whatever role the Dodgers have asked him to fill. He has made 104 appearances, including 37 starts, over the last three seasons, amassing a 3.52 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 284 strikeouts in 296 1/3 innings. His strikeout rate is a solid 23.2%, while his walk rate is a mere 5.8%. Stripling wouldn’t need an injury to make the roster out of spring training as a starter on many teams, and he’s equipped to take full advantage of the opportunity he has with Kershaw on the IL.
Stripling’s 37 starts and 187 innings as a starter are roughly equivalent to what a starting pitcher totals over a full season. He has a 3.75 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 179 strikeouts against 41 walks as a starter, numbers that would typically get a pitcher into the top 40 at his position. Stripling could move to the bullpen when Kershaw returns, and it’s possible he has a stint or two in the minors to keep him stretched out, but you can bet on him delivering when he gets his chances to start. Considering we know he’ll have at least a few turns through the rotation at the beginning of the year, he should be on your radar on draft day.
Jorge Soler, OF, Royals
Be honest, you know you want to give Soler one more chance. He compiled a decent 2017 season, hitting .265/.354/.466 with nine homers in 257 plate appearances, but his season interrupted in mid-June by a fractured toe. Soler has raked to the tune of a .326/.404/.674 slash line with four homers and four doubles this spring and is expected to be the everyday cleanup man in Kansas City’s lineup. He qualifies in the outfield in fantasy leagues, but he’ll be a full-time DH this year, and that should hopefully make it easier for the oft-injured 27-year-old to stay on the field. He’s one of the purest post-hype prospects you can find this season, and is a worthy gamble no matter the size or parameters of your league.
Ketel Marte, 2B/SS/OF, Diamondbacks
After the Diamondbacks signed Adam Jones, there was some concern that Marte, who was slated to move out to center field, would be squeezed for playing time. That, thankfully, will not be the case. Marte may not have a regular position, but he’ll be an everyday player whether it’s at center, second or short. His versatility will likely allow him eligibility at all three positions all season, no matter your league’s rules.
Marte has long been a favorite of the SI fantasy department, but he hasn’t put together all his obvious tools into a single strong campaign. He did have the best year of his career last season, hitting .260/.332/.437 with 14 homers, 26 doubles, 12 triples, 59 RBI and 68 runs. He’s expected to lead off for the Diamondbacks, hitting immediately in front of Eduardo Escobar, David Peralta and Steven Souza. Marte has always been willing to take a walk, posting a 9.3% walk rate last year, and 11.4% walk rate in 2017. Meanwhile, his career strikeout rate is just 15.7%. If he can continue to make contact and draw free passes at those rates, he could be a cheap source of runs with 15-15 upside while giving you eligibility at three, and in some leagues four (middle infield), positions.
Gio Gonzalez, SP, Yankees
Luis Severino will begin the year on the IL, CC Sabathia is questionable to start the season and Jordan Montgomery will likely miss most, if not all, of 2019. As a result, the Yankees added Gonzalez as a necessary reinforcement in the rotation. He’s unlikely to start the year with the big league club as he didn’t sign until late March, but it’s just as unlikely that Luis Cessa keeps him out of the rotation for long. Gonzalez didn’t have a great year in 2018, ending the season with a 4.21 ERA, 1.44 WHIP and 148 strikeouts in 171 innings. He Severino’s injury and Domingo German’s shaky status, there’s enough upside here to take a shot on Gonzalez late in drafts and hope he sticks in the Yankees’ rotation all season.