The St. Louis Cardinals have a ton of question marks in 2020, but with that comes plenty of opportunities to capitalize on fantasy baseball sleepers. Who should you keep on your radar?
In this cruel baseball-less world we are currently living in, there are always things that can still be analyzed. If you are a fantasy baseball player, chances are your drafts have already taken place. However, there are players on the St. Louis Cardinals that are available in a lot of leagues that could make or break a fantasy baseball season.
As we’ve seen in the majority of projection systems, confidence in the St. Louis Cardinals isn’t at an all-time high nationally. As the unbridled homer that I am, I believe that the team is being undervalued, but you won’t find many Cardinals players drafted early.
This list will be similar to a “breakout players” list, however, there will be an included factor of how available these players are in ESPN’s fantasy baseball leagues. With that, let’s quit babbling and jump in.
Depending on who you ask, it’ll either be Lane Thomas’ year, or it will be Tyler O’Neill’s year in 2020. Both outfielders are 24 years old and both outfielders have been denied any true chance at a starting job yet.
That all changes in 2020. Heading into the season, these two players are going to be the options in left field. Likely starting the year with just four outfielders, Dexter Fowler and Harrison Bader will man right and center field, and it’ll be a competition between Thomas and O’Neill for left. All that’s left is waiting for one player to grab the job.
For Thomas, his 2019 consisted of just under 40 at-bats in 34 games, but he managed to accumulate a .6 bWAR in that short amount of time by hitting four homers in that time. The power he showed along with the ability to get on base at a .409 clip added for a 1.093 OPS on the year.
For O’Neill, he’s had more time to show what he’s got in the MLB, with 271 career at-bats over the past two years, but still without any extended chance to hold a steady job. This resulted in a .258 batting average and just a .761 OPS (career). We all know that O’Neill has a ton of power, but with that will come strikeouts. Inconsistent playing time has tainted his career line and a true judgment can’t be made until he truly gets a shot.
Both of these outfielders may be overshadowed in 2020 by Dylan Carlson‘s debut, and ESPN’s leagues have shown that. Thomas and O’Neill are rostered in just 0.2% and 5.5% of leagues while Carlson (with 0 MLB at-bats) is rostered in 9.9% of leagues. That’s still relatively low for Carlson, but I wouldn’t call Carlson a dark horse anymore. His name is out there as a top hitting prospect, and should he come out of the gate hot at AAA, that rostered percentage is going to skyrocket.
Thomas and O’Neill will get the first shot though, and they should not be this overlooked.
There is always a risk involved with signing players from foreign leagues and bringing them to the MLB. That risk is shown in the often affordable contracts these players sign, but there are also clear trends that result from a player who is polished in another league and that no MLB teams have tape on. You should capitalize on that.
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If you look at the majority of pitchers that come to the USA, the first half of their first season is almost always the best. From there, performance dips to a more normalized level as the league adjusts to them.
Looking at the last two times the Cardinals have signed international pitchers, this trend comes out. The first player was Seung-Hwan Oh who came to the Cardinals in 2016 at the age of 33 on a two-year deal. In 2016 as a whole, Oh had just a 1.92 ERA over a whopping 76 appearances. Isolating just the first half, Oh had a 1.59 ERA. That was followed by a 2.36 ERA (still stellar) in the second half. In his second season, his first-half ERA jumped to 3.54 then 5.30 in his second half.
That is a very steep and clear trend.
Looking at Miles Mikolas you can see something similar. His return to the MLB in 2018 started with a first-half ERA of 2.79, then 2.88 in the second half. Again, that comes together for a very good 2018 ERA of 2.83. In his second year (2019), Mikolas bucked the trend a little with a better second half than first, but his season ERA still jumped from 2.83 to 4.16.
This trend could be orchestrated more with other players, but the point is, Kim will likely never be better than he will be in the first half of 2020 (obvious caveat with the current playing situation). Kim is established enough at age 31 that he knows what kind of pitcher he is, and given that he did not give up a run in 8.0 spring innings, and will likely be the 5th starter coming into the year, he’s definitely someone you need to roster. He’s owned in just 3% of leagues.
As much as I’m a homer in general, I would call myself an even bigger Ryan Helsley homer than anything. Helsley has never been a very highly touted prospect outside of the Cardinals organization, but he has a chance to hold a very high-leverage role out of the Cardinals’ bullpen in 2020.
With Carlos Martinez returning to the rotation and with Jordan Hicks still out with injury, there is an opening at the closer role that doesn’t have a perfect candidate yet. Helsley, who throws a 100 mph fastball while mixing it up with a cutter, changeup, and curveball, could be that perfect candidate.
Helsley will have some hiccups I believe as a slight dig into his stellar 2019 statistics reveal that his 2.95 ERA masked a 4.22 FIP. Adding to that, Helsley focused on not walking as many players in 2019 which brought down his strikeout rate to just 7.85 K/9, which is not a good number for a closer. However, his minor league career suggests that he can routinely sit at about 10.0 K/9 which would do just fine at closer.
The Cardinals have a lot of young relievers who could potentially have a huge impact on the bullpen this season, but with Helsley being rostered in just 0.5% of leagues and a taste of the MLB already under his belt, he’s my favorite candidate from that group to put up big numbers out of the bullpen.
Fantasy baseball will no doubt be changed just like the regular season this year, but with any luck, each league will still be able to crown a champion. There are many players out there who fit the “dark horse” role, but even if you hit on just one of them, it could be the difference between winning your league or not.