Karabell's 10 fantasy baseball things to watch for in 2021

Jul 04, 2021 12:22PM

7:03 PM UTC Eric KarabellESPN Senior Writer Close ESPN contributor on TV, radio, podcasts, blogs, Magazine Charter member of FSWA Hall of Fame Author of "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments" Mookie Betts is definitely a superstar, both for the Los Angeles Dodgers and fantasy baseball managers.

Of course, Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr.

, San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr.

and Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto are quite awesome as well, as is that Mike Trout fella of the Los Angeles Angels.

Then there are the ace hurlers.

We love New York Yankees right-hander Gerrit Cole and New York Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom! What if Cleveland Indians right-hander Shane Bieber and new Dodgers right-hander Trevor Bauer do that again! At its core, baseball and our silly little game should be about the human beings that play it and, as we approach another exciting season, I want to think about the absolute best of the best.

Making a legitimate case for so many different players as the prime fantasy option, regardless of format, is rather easy and fun, with no wrong answers.

We have 30/30 options.

We have aces.

We have Mike Trout! One thing I want to watch this 2021 season is whether we get any clarity about who will end up having deserved a bit more love in rankings and drafts than others -- if any of the aforementioned superstars has another level of performance in them. We know they are great.

Can they get even greater? It seems to me that any first-round selection this season is a good one, with established excellence and high floors of expected production.

We cannot go wrong! Well, does that continue in the future or will someone -- perhaps someone who has not been mentioned yet -- rise to the very top, with little debate? Regardless, baseball is back and that is indeed good news! There are myriad things to watch for this season, some obvious and some not so much, some of varying degrees of importance.

Still, smart fantasy baseball managers need to consider so many factors for evaluation this year and beyond.

Me, personally, I cannot wait to see if the Philadelphia Phillies bullpen lowers that .

377 BABIP, which was the highest recorded mark in history.

I left that out below.

Perhaps it was too obvious.

1) The pandemic We certainly pray that 2021 will be a better year for the world than the previous one, for so many reasons.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 virus continues to rage on -- and that includes in the sports world.

Baseball has rules and guidelines for dealing with all the ramifications and perhaps those are still evolving. Perhaps all personnel will take them seriously.

And, perhaps a full, 162-game schedule will be completed.

Fantasy baseball managers cannot really prepare for inevitable player absences, but spreading out the potential risk across multiple teams (for example avoid drafting three Dodgers pitchers or half of the Toronto lineup on one fantasy squad) seems wise.

2) The "current" rules Well, I hardly look forward to pitchers having to bat and Mets first baseman Dominic Smith having to play the outfield, but there still remains some time for the universal DH to become the official law of the league.

To be clear, as of now, it is not official.

However, if that changes -- hopefully before most fantasy drafts -- it would naturally alter the playing time for some key individuals.

Regardless, we do know that we will be getting another season (hopefully six full months of it, this time around) of seven-inning doubleheaders that surely affect fantasy, and that extra-inning oddity of starting with a man on second base.

3) The prospects The truncated 2020 season saw major league franchises promoting young players straight from the low minors in numbers rarely seen before, in part because there simply was no minor league baseball.

In 2021, we could see some extra special patience in this regard.

For example, the San Francisco Giants aggressively pushed catcher Joey Bart, somewhat due to lack of other backstop choices.

However, Buster Posey is back now! Bart, along with Angels outfielder Jo Adell and myriad others that already debuted but struggled, might not play much -- or at all -- in the majors this season. Who knows what happens with Padres left-hander MacKenzie Gore? My advice would be to rely far more on veterans this season, unless you plan to be very patient.

4) The wunderkind Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Wander Franco seems to warrant his own category, as many prospect analysts regard him as a generational talent and a pending superstar.

Franco, still shy of his 20th birthday, earned an invitation to big league camp, but has yet to compete at even the Double-A level in the minors, so expectations are that the Rays will be somewhat patient.

You know, at least until they're not.

If Franco dominates the first few months and the Rays need infield help, be ready.

Franco figures to be special -- a potential five-category fantasy provider.

He's someone I think about, depending on the league format, in the middle rounds.

5) The workloads Another unintended consequence of the shortened season was its affect on starting pitchers, as nobody reached 100 innings.

Right-hander Lance Lynn (last year with Texas, but now with the White Sox) led the sport with 84 innings pitched.

Perhaps Lynn and a handful of others can again coast their way to 200-plus frames in 2021, but the expectation is that organizations will exercise caution in deploying most starters.

There could be innings limits, special pitch counts and likely some six-man rotations, too. This new way of thinking could surely frustrate fantasy managers, making the value of aces seem more critical, as well as better utilization of fantasy bench spots.

6) The bullpens Relief pitchers are different, of course, in both their handling and execution, In fact, we saw more managers/teams than ever opt for shared closing situations in 2020.

Does this continue, or was it simply a symptom of the truncated season? It's too early to tell at this point, but I have to admit that in all of my drafts I harbor thoughts of securing save options early and then, if that fails, simply punting the category.

Neither scenario seems ideal, really.

It might be time to shift to a saves-plus-holds category from now on! 7) The rehabilitating Some noteworthy starting pitchers are on the mend from Tommy John surgery, including Boston Red Sox left-hander Chris Sale, Yankees right-hander Luis Severino and Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard.

Then there is Atlanta right-hander Mike Soroka, on the mend from a torn Achilles and Boston left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, recovering from myocarditis.

This noteworthy crew combined for just three starts in 2020, but each of their teams figure to contend in 2021.

As such, the pressure will be there to get as many innings as possible from them.

Watching how these franchises proceed will be fascinating, but also perhaps frustrating (there's that word again) for fantasy.

8) The bounce-back hitters While each situation demands its own special scrutiny, my tendency is to give 2020 strugglers a general pass, since it was a season unlike any other.

Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich, for example, hardly shined statistically, but in previous seasons, he was an MVP-caliber talent. Our rankings show which version of Yelich we expect, but not all hitters will return to their previous form.

Then there are the myriad hitters that performed up to a special level in 2019, somewhat out of nowhere, such as Arizona Diamondbacks infielder/outfielder Ketel Marte.

So many hitters have much to prove, and so many impatient fantasy managers seem ready to (incorrectly) move on.

9) The pending free agents The current offseason has been a unique one for many free agents and quite a few remain unsigned.

It feels as if half of the league was more concerned with saving money than improving their clubs.

It will be interesting to see the handling of pending free agents, notably at the loaded shortstop position with new Mets star Francisco Lindor, longtime Dodger Corey Seager and myriad others.

Will there be contract extensions, more trades than normal, or a whole lot of nothing? 10) The baseball We close with our watch list with a bit of controversy, as rumor has it that a newly constructed baseball will be introduced this season -- its intention to reduce offense and standardize yearly results, mainly in terms of home runs.

Yeah, this is going to affect fantasy baseball, along with humidors at to-be-announced stadiums.

Still, major changes to our rankings from this news are not likely forthcoming.

We need to see how it all plays out first, just like so many other things.

Steven Buchanan