Tristan's Twenty: High-value picks for fantasy baseball in 2017

Kyle Seager finished 12th in AL MVP voting last season but, according to ESPN ADP, is still only being drafted in Round 5. Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

What is value, anyway?

Well, that's simple: Value is the process of identifying player opinions of yours which are stronger than that of the general consensus.

It's the process of making your fantasy team yours: your projections, your rankings, your opinions, your bold predictions, your gut instincts, then determining where your player valuations differ most from the crowd. It's why I'm adamant that you craft as detailed a draft-day cheat sheet as possible, because otherwise, you're just following the herd, never taking a stand, and not truly investing yourself in your squad. (Certainly this process can start by downloading either our cheat sheets or entering your league's specifications into our Custom Dollar Value Generator tool, then adjusting for your own personal preferences. We give you a handy head start, but it's on you to make the final decision.)

The list that follows comprises my favorite value picks, players whom I expect to acquire for the majority of my teams -- players for whom I anticipate having a significantly more favorable opinion than that of the masses. They are "Tristan's Twenty" -- me opening up my playbook and giving you my favorite picks for 2017.

There's a funny thing about that, though. My revealing these picks actually decreases my odds of landing them at "value." After all, any of my competition in any of my leagues can jot them down or print them out, bring them to the draft and attempt to bid me up on them in auctions or snatch them right before me in drafts -- you know who you are. By disclosing the names, I'm risking inflating their perceived value to the point I'll simply let them go. I'm not the guy you're going to trick into bidding $15 on a player I have valued at $11. That runs entirely counter to my draft-values strategy.

In addition, nobody -- not you, not me -- ever truly knows where values will present themselves at the draft table. It's really all a guessing game until we unearth them in the moment. That said, I'm reasonably confident that my opinions of the following 20 players are significantly more favorable than that of the majority.

Each player, listed below in alphabetical order, also includes a "That's a fact," a statistically inclined finding about the player that helped craft my stronger-than-the-norm opinion about him.

Brandon Belt, 1B, San Francisco Giants


How many of you noticed that Belt managed 41 doubles and 104 walks last season, the first player in five years to do so? If you played only traditional Rotisserie perhaps you wouldn't have, as AT&T Park's expansive right and right-center fields depressed Belt's "baseball card" numbers (batting average, home runs and RBIs) and masked the fact that he got a heck of a lot smarter as a hitter in 2016.

Points-league owners know, and that's partly the angle from which this pick comes. Belt was already a top-100 overall scorer in that format last season, providing a baseline within that group again in 2017 with the potential for more power -- and therefore a higher statistical ceiling -- as practically all of his underlying power metrics showed an upswing. Oh, if only they would move in the fences in San Francisco.

That's a fact: Belt had the eighth-highest fly-ball rate (43.2 percent of his balls in play) and the fifth-highest line-drive rate (27.1 percent), making him the only qualifier to finish in the top 10 in both categories.

Nick Castellanos, 3B, Detroit Tigers


A broken left hand ended his encouraging 2016 prematurely, and perhaps it explains how he could be drafted so late -- 185th in ESPN ADP as of March 21 -- despite his having set career highs in batting average (.285), home runs (18) and isolated power (.212). Have we forgotten how effectively Castellanos has adjusted his swing to better hit for power? At the time he got hurt, he had exhibited his highest fly-ball rate and well-hit average of his career, with underlying power metrics -- including Statcast numbers -- that suggested his best outputs were yet to come.

That's a fact: Castellanos also significantly improved against right-handed pitching in 2016, batting .315/.365/.529 against them.

Michael Conforto, OF, New York Mets


One of my longstanding beliefs is that you should always draft skills over role. Conforto's 2017 situation is as representative of that philosophy as any player, as he might arguably be the Mets' second-best pure hitter on the active roster right now yet, as of publishing time, he has no committed place to play every day. During the second half of 2016, he started 21 times, appearing in 44 of 52 Mets games. Now, once again he's stuck behind Jay Bruce and Curtis Granderson on the depth chart.

Conforto has long shown an ability to hit both right- and left-handed pitchers in the minors. When given a chance to play, he's flashed the kind of contact and power potential that might ultimately make him a .270-25 hitter -- as early as this year if the Mets could simply clear a space for him.

That's a fact: Among players who had at least 300 plate appearances in 2016, Conforto's .179 well-hit average ranked in the 74th percentile, his .194 isolated power was in the 68th percentile and his 36.2 percent ground-ball rate in the 10th percentile.

Brandon Drury, OF/3B, Arizona Diamondbacks


The Diamondbacks might have a glut of middle infielders on their roster this spring, but one thing they've maintained all offseason is their desire to have Drury emerge as their starting second baseman come Opening Day. He's capable enough there, though his versatility provides him with a sizable advantage, as he can slide over to third base against tough left-handers, while also serving as a corner-outfield fallback.

Yasmany Tomas is still a defensive liability with poor plate discipline, while David Peralta and A.J. Pollock have shaky injury histories. Hence, Drury has outstanding odds of a near-everyday role somewhere. Although I hadn't initially anticipated Drury providing much pop at the time of his arrival in the majors, he seemed to shift his swing in that direction late last year (.365/.416/.609 rates) while shaving a good six percent off his ground-ball rate in his final 30 games.

That's a fact: Drury batted .364 against breaking balls during that 30-game span after hitting just .184 against them in his first 104 contests.

Kevin Gausman, SP, Baltimore Orioles


I annually borrow a player from my "Kings of Command" column, and this year Gausman is the pick. I feel like I've been waiting forever for this guy to break. (Perhaps my pitching equivalent of Freddie Freeman?) It took four long years for the Orioles to finally grant him a permanent rotation spot, and I'm convinced that the constant up-and-down, rotation-to-bullpen-and-back moves prevented him from hitting his stride during the first three campaigns.

After joining the O's starting five for good last April 25, Gausman seemed to gain greater confidence in -- and relied upon more -- both his splitter and his curveball. Those pitches are avenues to more strikeouts and the seeds of a potential breakthrough.

That's a fact: Gausman had 10 quality starts, eight wins, a 3.10 ERA and a 23.8 percent strikeout rate in his 15 second-half starts in 2016.

Yasmani Grandal, C, Los Angeles Dodgers


He might have been an even more beneath-the-radar choice before manager Dave Roberts proclaimed Grandal to be his starting catcher, rather than part of a lefty/righty platoon. But considering Grandal's injury history, there might yet be fantasy owners out there who are unconvinced. He's an exceptional pitch-framer, so the Dodgers have every reason to give him a hefty workload if he's physically up to it, and Grandal's keen knowledge of the strike zone makes him an especially attractive choice in both points leagues as well as Rotisserie formats that include on-base percentage. Better yet: He hit 15 of his career-high 27 home runs after the All-Star break last season.

That's a fact: Grandal's 45 percent fly-ball rate after the All-Star break was ninth-highest among qualifiers.

Randal Grichuk, OF, St. Louis Cardinals


The best time to board the bandwagon is when there's almost no one else on it. One year ago, everyone was raving about Grichuk's power potential, using emerging metrics like "exit velocity" to outline his breakthrough case. This season, it seems like no one likes him at all, despite the fact that little has changed with his skill set. Grichuk is still a free-swinging slugger subject to slumps and batting-average risk, but after his nine-day demotion to Triple-A Memphis last August, the approach seemed to work for him, as he slugged .579, 19th-best among qualifiers. He also hit 12 homers, good for 17th-most in the league over that stretch.

That's a fact: Grichuk's .230 well-hit average during that 48-game, season-ending stint was ninth-best in baseball.

Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati Reds


Speed is at a premium -- the 0.729 stolen bases attempted per game in 2016 represented the game's lowest average in 45 years -- and Hamilton sure provides a lot of it. But does he provide anything else? After three lackluster seasonal hitting lines, one might assume the answer is "no," except that he showed a sharp change in approach after the 2016 All-Star break, resulting in a .293 batting average and .369 on-base percentage in his final 45 games. His glove will keep him in the lineup, and if he can maintain his improved patience, an 80-plus-steal ceiling is back in the conversation.

That's a fact: Hamilton's second-half walk rate was 10.7 percent, and his "chase" rate (percentage of swings at pitches outside the strike zone) was 23 percent. His career numbers in both leading up to the 2016 All-Star break were 5.9 and 27 percent.

Ender Inciarte, OF, Atlanta Braves


Hamstring problems have sidetracked both of the past two seasons, but when healthy, Inciarte's speed and contact-hitting ability make him one of the better sources of cheap steals. After moving into the leadoff role for the second half of 2016, he batted .306 with 13 stolen bases and an 86 percent contact rate in 64 games. It should be an ideal role for him, considering how underrated the Braves' offense seems to be. Believe it or not, they scored the sixth-most runs in baseball after the All-Star break.

That's a fact: Inciarte has averaged 35 stolen bases per 162 games played during his professional career.

Jim Johnson, RP, Atlanta Braves


I'm not quite sure why it's assumed by many that either Arodys Vizcaino and Mauricio Cabrera will take over the Braves' closer job from Johnson within minutes of the start of the season. Yes, they have filthier raw "stuff" that results in a good share of strikeouts, but they've also got much shakier control.

We tend to remember Johnson as the extreme-ground-balling, pitch-to-contact version of 2012-13, when he whiffed a mere 17 percent of the hitters he faced. Did you realize that after taking over as the Braves' closer last July 17, Johnson's strikeout rate soared to 31 percent? Oh, he'll regress in the category, but even splitting the difference would give him a substantially better chance at holding the job -- and perhaps provide a ceiling of as many as 40 saves.

That's a fact: Johnson's swinging-strike rate on his curveball is more than double his with any other pitch -- 14 (compared to six) percent. He used that pitch a whopping 27 percent of the time overall, and 38 percent with two strikes, in the second half of 2016.

Nate Jones, RP, Chicago White Sox


Investments in middle relievers for the sole purpose of saves speculation -- rather than also accounting for their ERA/WHIP/K's contributions -- often turn sour, but Jones is one of the few such arms genuinely worth your attention. He has become a genuine standout in all three categories, ranking among the top 28 of 135 qualified relievers in each of those categories last season. He's also one of the few setup men with a truly logical path to closing. The White Sox are rebuilding and have only David Robertson, owed another $25 million the next two seasons and rumored to be on the trade block all winter, ahead of him.

That's a fact: Jones' strikeout rate went from 26.1 percent from 2012-15 combined to 26.8 percent in the first half of 2016 and 32.5 percent in the second half.

Tommy Joseph, 1B, Philadelphia Phillies


Ryan Howard might have been the name brand at first base for the Phillies in 2016, but Joseph was the one who provided the position's greater production. The rookie slugged .501 with .248 isolated power, and he registered the 11th-best well-hit average (.209) among hitters with at least 300 trips to the plate. With Howard now gone, Joseph has first base all to himself, and in a thin Phillies lineup, he could benefit in the counting categories hitting out of the heart of the order. Remember: First base is a thinner position than in the past, so if you're waiting for a bargain, Joseph is one of the wiser fallbacks you'll find.

That's a fact: Joseph batted .278/.346/.522 against right-handed pitching during the season's second half, showing he's not at all a platoon candidate.

Lance McCullers, SP, Houston Astros


There's one, primary obstacle in his path to superstardom -- durability concerns. Those fears are tied to the shoulder and elbow injuries that ruined his 2016, holding him to a mere 89 innings last season after a pro-career high of 157 2/3 in 2015. McCullers' raw stuff is potentially elite, beginning with a curveball which is already one of the best -- and arguably the best -- in baseball. He's working this spring to add a changeup to what was a solid two-pitch mix. He's one of the bigger risk/reward picks on the list, but this is an upside gamble worth taking.

That's a fact: Opponents batted .446/.579/.653 against McCullers' fastball in 2016 as his command of the pitch was a mess. It averaged a well-above-league-average 93.8 mph, however, and has looked much crisper thus far in spring training.

Mike Montgomery, SP/RP, Chicago Cubs


I waffled between including Montgomery here or in my upcoming "deep sleepers" column, but he gets the nod now because I think he's a tad too obvious for NL-only endgame play. Alhough Montgomery made 23 of his 28 appearances after his July 20 trade to the Cubs out of the bullpen, make no mistake that the team acquired him with its sights on a future in their rotation.

Montgomery possesses underrated secondary stuff and an extreme ground ball leaning -- he had a 60.2 percent rate in 2016. He wasn't called upon to record the final out of the 2016 World Series simply because he was the Cubs' last reliever standing. He was in that position because he had earned trust in a critical spot thanks to underrated skills. Even if he starts the season in this reported share of the fifth-starter/long-reliever chores with Brett Anderson, Montgomery should end up with the lion's share of those starts.

That's a fact: Montgomery's three secondary pitches -- curveball (17 percent), changeup (30 percent) and slider (19 percent) -- all generated swinging-strike rates at least 2 percent greater than the league's averages (13, 17 and 17 percent).

Mike Moustakas, 3B, Kansas City Royals


Forgive him his injuries last season, as they were of the extremely unlucky variety. He suffered a left thumb fracture when struck by a pitch in late April, and then only a day after returning, he tore the ACL in his right knee in a collision with teammate Alex Gordon, ending his season. At the time, Moustakas was exhibiting many of the breakout traits that earned him a space on this list last year; I consider this my way of saying he'll pick things up right where he left off.

That's a fact: Using only Moustakas' April 2016 numbers, he ranked 16th in isolated power (.307), 12th in well-hit average (.250) and ninth in opposite-field hits (9).

Joc Pederson, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers


He's a member of an extremely crowded outfield. He's a player who has had significant trouble hitting left-handed pitching to this stage of his career. He hasn't been anywhere near the base stealer in the majors as he was in the minors. Now look closer:

Pederson's .249 isolated power ranked 20th and his .194 well-hit average ranked 32nd among 175 hitters who had at least 450 plate appearances last season. Who else in that Dodgers outfield has a more legitimate claim to a regular role? (If you say Yasiel Puig, well, I disagree with you.) Pederson is an especially appealing choice in points and on-base percentage leagues thanks to his high walk rate. I also think he's capable of more power growth and perhaps better success -- maybe boosting his productivity to at least serviceable numbers -- against lefties if given the chance.

That's a fact: Pederson hit 103 of his 245 batted balls -- 42 percent -- 100 mph or faster in 2016.

Robbie Ray, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks


A very trendy sleeper on many pundits' lists due to his league-leading ERA-FIP differential -- he had a 4.90 ERA but a 3.76 FIP -- Ray's inclusion on my list is more about his improving skills rather than mere "regression to the mean" speculation. Can we all please put aside Ray's FIP and recognize how, exactly, he's improved?

  • He gained velocity with every pitch in his arsenal in 2016, and that's regardless of which stat source is your preference.

  • He posted an eye-popping 30.8 percent strikeout rate in the second half of 2016.

  • He leaned more on a slider -- he used it a career-high 22 percent of the time in 2016 -- which helped fuel those K's.

That's a fact: What, those weren't enough? OK, Ray's "regression to the mean" backers do have a point, in that his BABIP allowed was 55 points higher than the league's average, while his left-on-base percentage was four percent lower and his home run/fly ball percentage two percent higher than the norm.

Kyle Seager, 3B, Seattle Mariners


Call him "Captain Consistency." Seager's batting average has ranged within 10 points of .269, his home run total within five blasts of 25 and RBIs within 15 of 84 in each of the past five seasons. Plus, he has improved the homer total in a step-ladder pattern while nearly exhibiting the same with all of his triple-slash numbers (AVG/OBP/SLG) during that time span. Seager has been quietly getting better, yet he's rarely ever hailed as a top-five third-base candidate.

That's a fact: He had the game's sixth-best isolated power (.144) and third-best well-hit average (.119) on pitches outside the strike zone in 2016.

Matt Shoemaker, SP, Los Angeles Angels


Shoemaker's 2016 ended on a truly scary note when he suffered a small skull fracture and hematoma as a result of being struck by a 105-mph Kyle Seager line drive. As for his recovery, so far, so good. His past three spring outings (March 9, 14 and 19) were rather encouraging. If the injury concern scares other owners away, consider it prime time to pounce, as Shoemaker looked like a completely different pitcher last summer after his brief, early-May trip to the minors, posting 14 quality starts, a 3.10 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 22.5 percent strikeout rate in his final 22 starts.

That's a fact: What changed during that season-ending hot spell was Shoemaker's use of his splitter -- his swing-and-miss offering --as he threw it 40 percent of the time during that time span.

Mike Zunino, C, Seattle Mariners


Mike Zunino has a .195 career batting average. Try to move past that. You can't, can you? It sure seems like nobody is willing to do so -- at least no one with whom I've spoken.

Now what if I told you that Zunino, after returning to Triple-A to begin last season, made a small tweak to his batting stance, substantially boosting his contact rate to 75 percent? Though that one categorical boost might not have carried over to his 55-game, season-ending stint with the Mariners, many of his underlying numbers did. He didn't seem nearly as helpless at the plate as he did from 2013-15, and even a boost to the .225 range in terms of batting average might be all it would take to significantly increase his power potential.

That's a fact: Zunino's chase rate with two strikes, which was 44 percent in 2014 and 36 percent in 2015, dropped to 29 percent with the Mariners last season.