Figuring out the 2021 draft rankings will be the biggest challenge ever faced by those of us who work in this industry, as an abbreviated season is incredibly hard to weigh for players who experienced an improvement or decline.
Although I have many months to change my mind, here is my best guess at the players who belong in the first round of next year’s fantasy baseball drafts.
Ronald Acuna (OF, ATL)
Those who assume that Acuna didn’t live to his No. 1 overall billing this season need to take a closer look. The 22-year-old has made a major year-over-year jump with his OPS (1.026) while tallying 13 homers and six steals in 42 games. He is striking out at a similar rate to last season and has dramatically improved his walk rate. The potential for a 40-40 season is still there.
Juan Soto (OF, WSH)
Having produced a 1.164 OPS this season that has boosted his career mark to .967, Soto can make a case for being the best hitter in baseball. The 21-year-old does everything fantasy managers could possibly want in four categories, and it is only his lack of elite speed (21 career steals) that keeps Soto from pushing past Acuna for the top spot.
Jacob deGrom (SP, NYM)
The consistent excellence of deGrom is a sight to behold. The right-hander is well on his way to a third straight year with an ERA under 2.50 and a sub-1.00 WHIP. He has also posted a career-best 13.4 K/9 rate this season. With a career-best average fastball velocity of 98.6 mph, the 32-year-old is showing no signs of an upcoming age-related decline.
Shane Bieber (SP, CLE)
Bieber has been hands-down the best fantasy starter this year, leading the Majors in wins, strikeouts, and ERA. And his performance certainly didn’t come out of nowhere, as the righty posted a 3.28 ERA, a 1.05 WHIP, and 259 whiffs last season. The long-term success of deGrom caused me to put him ahead of Bieber, but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who flipped their rankings.
Mookie Betts (OF, LAD)
Betts has become arguably the most consistent stud in fantasy baseball. The outfielder will post an OPS over .900 for a third straight year and averaged 27 homers and 24 steals from 2015-19. He leads the Majors by a wide margin in total runs scored since the outset of 2018 and will once again set the table for a high-powered lineup after inking a long-term contract with the Dodgers.
Gerrit Cole (SP, NYY)
Cole had a couple of hiccups during his initial season with the Yankees, but will finish the campaign with stellar numbers that include a 2.84 ERA, a 0.96 WHIP, and an 11.6 K/9 rate. And, when factoring in his insane production over two years with the Astros (35 wins, 2.68 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 602 strikeouts), a case can be made that he should be the first pitcher off the board.
Fernando Tatis Jr. (SS, SD)
Fantasy managers who gambled on Tatis’ ability to repeat his stellar 2019 debut were well-rewarded this season. The 21-year-old was the top fantasy hitter for much of the year, and despite a late-season fade he still ranks no lower than 11th in any of the four counting-stat categories. With 37 long balls and 27 swipes in 139 career games, Tatis has the potential to go 40-30 next year.
Mike Trout (OF, LAA)
I’m fully aware of the backlash that will come my way for putting Trout eighth on this list. The no-doubt best player of his generation, Trout may post an OPS over 1.000 for a fourth straight season. He consistently logs a high average and ranks among the long-ball leaders. But there are small warts with Trout, who no longer steals bases and last played in more than 140 games way back in 2016. To drive this point home, Trout has been stellar at the dish this season but he barely ranks among the top-10 fantasy hitters due to his lack of swipes.
Trea Turner (SS, WSH)
Turner has gone from a pure speed demon to one of the premier five-category contributors. The 27-year-old has made major improvements to his batting average (.339) and power (10 homers), benefitting from an improved strikeout rate. Optimistic managers can hope Turner puts it all together next year and produces 25 homers, 35 steals, and an eye-popping batting mark.
Trevor Story (SS, COL)
Story has become one of the most consistent stars in the fantasy landscape. The shortstop leads the National League with 14 steals, while also putting up healthy marks in batting average (.295), homers (11), and runs scored (39). And his production this year comes after averaging 36 long balls, 25 steals, 100 runs, and 97 RBIs across 2018-19. There is no safer bet in fantasy than Coors Field, and Story is the best option to take advantage of that offense-inducing venue.
Christian Yelich (OF, MIL)
A top-2 pick in most 2020 drafts, Yelich has been a major disappointment. The slugger has logged 11 homers, but his overall plate skills have lagged en route to a .214 average and an .801 OPS. And fewer trips to first base have predictably led to fewer swipes (four). Yelich is striking out at an alarming rate (31.2 percent), but he has to be given somewhat of a mulligan during an unusual, shortened season.
Jose Ramirez, (3B, CLE)
Ramirez makes it a clean sweep; all four players with double-digit totals in homers and steals are on this list. And the power-speed capabilities of the Cleveland superstar are nothing new, as he posted 39 homers and 24 steals in 2018 before accumulating 23 long balls and 24 swipes in just 129 games last season. Ramirez is no longer a .300 hitter, but his ability to consistently threaten the 30-30 plateau makes him an excellent foundation piece for roto squads.