Finding Steals Without Consequences
It was 1989, Richard Marx and New Kids on the Block were playing on the boombox. On the baseball field, the Giants and A’s were competing for the loyalty of Bay Area kids like me. Choose the Giants? The “Right Here Waiting,” traditional, soft rock team of baseball? Or choose the A’s? The sensational, once a generation, pop-rock wonders? The choice for me was an easy one. There was only one Bay Area team that had the “Right Stuff.”
The A’s were hands down the coolest team in town. They had the Bash Brothers’ home runs, Dave Stewart strikeouts, Walt Weiss’s defensive gems, Carney Lansford’s convulsing batting stance, Tony LaRussa’s majestic hair and, most importantly, they had Rickey Henderson’s everything. Henderson was the ultimate five-tool player: power, average, fielding, a cannon arm and of course, his unrivaled speed. The all-time stolen base leader would often refer to himself in the third person, famously leaving a message for then San Diego GM Kevin Towers saying,
“This is Rickey calling on behalf of Rickey. Rickey wants to play baseball.”
And play baseball he did. Henderson was playful, engaging and fun. He was like a combination of the Hamburglar and Carmen San Diego. He was an absolutely unapologetic thief on the basepaths. Every time he reached first you could feel something magical was about to happen. While you can’t grab 130 steals in one player anymore, finding a couple of guys who at least channel Rickey, can help your team standout just as he did.
Every analyst in the industry will tell you to place an early premium on speed this fantasy season. I’m swimming with the rest of the salmon on this one. With stolen bases trending steadily down since the 2016 season there’s a greater urgency to nab stolen base artists even earlier. Take a look at the decline over the last four seasons.
Only 21 players stole over 20 bags last year. According to Steamer projections, that number dwindles to 19 players as we head into the upcoming 2020 season. Out of those 19 players, only 2 (Mallex Smith and Byron Buxton) are being drafted outside the top 150 picks. For this exercise, I won’t be covering players that are purely speedsters (Delino Deshields, Billy Hamilton, Dee Gordon Mallex Smith) and instead focusing our lens towards more well-rounded players that have the potential to join the 20 stolen base club. Let’s Rickey!
Kolten Wong 2B, STL (NFBC ADP 226)
An already established defensive ace at second base for the Cardinals, Wong is often overlooked and forgotten about in NFBC drafts. For a guy that finished just outside the top 10 in steals last year (24), Wong is being drafted behind the likes of Rougned Odor, Gavin Lux, and Brandon Lowe. Steamer projects Wong for a slash line of .266/.347/.409 with a bit of pop sprinkled in (12 HR) and 16 SB. While his sprint speed may not be anything to write home about (67th percentile), his bump to 2nd in the Cardinals lineup combined with his scorching second half makes him a safe bet for the elusive 20 steal club again.
Byron Buxton OF, MIN (NFBC ADP 161)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. This will be the year that Byron Buxton breaks out. For five straight years, we have been anticipating Buxton and his 30.3 sprint speed to take us to the fantasy promised land. We all know about the injuries, the inconsistencies, and the yearly disappointment that comes from drafting Buxton. But guess what? This is the year Byron Buxton truly breaks out. Why? He was well on his way to that breakout last year as his first half was everything that fantasy owners were hoping for as he stole 12 bags while scoring 43 runs with 9 HRs. But it was the injury bug that once again limited him to only 9 games in the 2nd half of the season derailing his chance to finally reach 20 HR and 20 SB. Buxton has the talent to reach those numbers again if he can find a way to stay healthy, but that’s a big if.
Jon Berti 3B, SS, OF, MIA (NFBC ADP 259)
The question with Jon Berti is where will he play? With multi-eligibility at 3B, SS and OF, Berti can bounce around all over the field. His Sprint/Speed of 29.8 ft/sec rank him (13th) just behind some of the fastest players in the game. Think along the lines of an Adalberto Mondesi being drafted 220 spots later. Berti’s path to playing time is blocked by the worst position player in baseball (Lewis Brinson) and an unproven Isan Diaz. If the Miami Jeter’s can turn Berti into a super-utility player while giving him the consistent playing time he deserves, we could be in store for an easy 20-25 stolen bases.
Franchy Cordero OF, SD (NFBC ADP 454)
On February 8th, 2020, Manuel Margot was traded from San Diego to Tampa Bay. The trade of Margot cleared room for Franchy Cordero to potentially play every day for the Padres. I’ll be honest, I cannot hide my deep affection for Cordero even if his game has a few warts. Cordero’s slash line of .225/.285/.383 and career strikeout rate of 38.8% won’t wow anyone. But there is some light at the end of Cordero’s tunnel. Don’t get me wrong, Cordero is going to strike out a ton but his elite power and speed make him an intriguing pick late in the draft.
Nick Madrigal 2B, CWS (NFBC ADP 272)
Nick Madrigal might not carry the same buzz as fellow rookie Luis Robert headed into the 2020 campaign but that would be a glaring mistake. Last year throughout three levels in the White Sox minor league system, Madrigal struck out 16 times over 532 plate appearances. 16 times! Madrigal strikes out as often as The Rock wears sleeves in The Fast and the Furious franchise. Early reports out of Chicago are that Madrigal will be given every opportunity to win the second base job this Spring. If that’s the case then I’m buying shares of Madrigal like Apple stock. Steamer projects for little power (5 HR) but a good contact rate and great on-base skills. If he can work himself to the top of the newly revamped White Sox lineup, we could be looking at 30-35 steals.