In this offseason column, I’ll be taking both sides of a classic dilemma facing fantasy owners every draft: do I go for broke with upside or take the safer bet?
For me, my teams always look fairly similar, with an offense of safe bets and maybe a Giancarlo Stanton or other high volatility middle rounder to go with a pitching staff that has at least one sure-thing closer taken in the top-100 picks.
But following 2020, a season where that strategy really let me down, I figured it was time to at least consider breaking the mold. And that’s where Floor to Ceiling comes in. In each article, I’ll break down two players that play the same position that is within 10-20 draft picks and try to determine which to take. Sure, team construction will come into play, but this should help serve as a guide as you build your ideal team, and will point out reasons to buy the hype or decide that the risk isn’t worth it.
After comparing shortstops Adalberto Mondesi and Tim Anderson and young sluggers Aaron Judge and Eloy Jimenez in prior columns, this week, I’m looking to the hot corner, comparing Rafael Devers and Nolan Arenado.
Chasing Young Upside with Devers
Devers is the younger of the two, coming into his age 24 season in 2021, but he’s got plenty of experience under his belt. Coming into his fifth season in the Show, Devers is now an established stud at third base. In 2020, the Boston Red Sox star hit .263/.310/.483 with 11 homers and 16 doubles, proving that the power jump he made in 2019 was legit. In that 2019 season, Devers completely broke out, smacking 32 home runs and hitting .311, while racking up a whopping 129 runs and 115 RBI.
That upside is what makes Devers so intriguing coming into 2021. Sure, a repeat of his 2019 numbers is unlikely. Or is it? Devers actually hit the ball harder in 2020 and had a similar BABIP, proving that he really does have the ability to maintain his high average. In fact, almost all of the underlying numbers in 2020 mirror his final line in 2019. Perhaps most notably, Devers maintained his elite average exit velocity, which according to Baseball Savant was in the top 5% in baseball in 2019 and 2020.
The main difference in his past two seasons is the slight dip in hard-hit rate, which explains the significant drop in AVG and xBA. In 2019, Devers maintained a 48.5% hard-hit rate, a top-5% mark in the majors, but saw that mark dip down to a still-respectable 43.6% in 2020. This meant that despite moderate increases in sweet-spot% and barrel rate, Devers saw nearly a 40-point xBA drop.
Another unique struggle Devers battled in 2020 was a high strikeout rate. In his 2019 breakout, Devers slashed his K% by nearly 8% from his 2018 mark, finishing the season at 17%. In 2020, the strikeouts returned to his game, as he was back up at 27%, a career-high. This follows the path of another talented left-handed slugger, Christian Yelich.
Yelich, like Devers, struggled with strikeouts in 2020, finishing the season at 30.8%, more than 9% above any mark Yelich had put up earlier in his career. Yelich is one of the few hitters in baseball with higher average exit velocity and hard-hit% numbers than Devers. And while Devers certainly hasn’t reached the consistent MVP-caliber ceiling Yelich has built for himself since 2018, the comparison makes sense, and the upside is certainly there for the younger Devers.
Assuming the strikeout gains Devers made in 2019 come back over the full 2021 season, the Dominican third baseman should build on his already high floor. A strong defender who can play every day, sandwiched in the middle of a strong Red Sox lineup that features Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez, Devers really seems to have all the tools he needs to come close to repeating his 2019 campaign. And at his age, who knows, maybe he can exceed that lofty ceiling.
From the Bottom Up: Mr. Consistency Nolan Arenado
A year ago, saying that any third basemen would have a higher ceiling than Nolan Arenado in 2021 would’ve shocked me. But that’s where we are today. After a trade from Colorado and Coors Field to the much more neutral Busch Stadium in St. Louis this offseason, Arenado seems a lot less likely to hit his classic elite offensive benchmarks this season, especially when you factor in his dismal 2020.
Like Devers, Arenado struggled in 2020 at the plate, but to a much more drastic degree. After five-straight All-Star seasons with the Rockies, Arenado saw all of his rate states fall, and the underlying numbers backed it up. Arenado’s AVG, OBP, and SLG all dropped by more than 70 points from his 2019 season, making for the worst marks since his 2013 rookie season. In his 48 games last season, Arenado hit just 8 home runs and 9 doubles, with his barrel rate and hard-hit rates both falling.
The only positive for Arenado came with his strikeout rate, as he put up a career-best 10% mark, a top-1% mark in the majors. That, along with his career track record, would usually serve to confirm a high floor for the superstar. But in Arenado’s case, a poor 2020 in conjunction with leaving the friendly confines of Coors means that floor is at least questionable.
Like Devers, Arenado is more than likely to play every day in 2021, as he’s played in 150+ games in each full season since 2015. But unlike Devers, the power numbers are not backed by elite exit velocities and hard-hit rates, something which could finally catch up to Arenado outside of Colorado.
In a deep dive for Pitcher List, Lucas Spence described what we can expect from Arenado in 2020 based on the numbers of another star Rockie that moved on to St. Louis: Matt Holliday. Spence predicts a strong season from Arenado in 2021 could be roughly a “91-32-104-.270 line.” The BATX projections from Fangraphs are much more conservative, projecting 80 runs, 30 homers, 93 RBI, and a .262 AVG.
The Verdict: Bet on the Better Lineup, Upside with Devers
Coming into the 2020 season, Devers was ranked 19th by Yahoo, only six spots behind a Coors-backed Arenado. Now, Yahoo ranks Devers at 31 and Arenado all the way down at 43. I’m not sure that gap is fully justified, as the pair really could finish similarly in 2021. Devers is projected by The BAT X to finish with 89 runs, 29 homers, and 89 RBI with a .273 AVG, a very similar projection to that given to Arenado which I referenced earlier.
Of course, projections aren’t the end-all-be-all, but with Arenado’s poor road splits and potential skills deterioration, Devers seems to be the safer and more skilled bet at third base in 2021. While Arenado is likely to struggle to reach the 35-homer plateau with a .300 AVG, as he had done for so many seasons before 2020, Devers has a solid chance to meet those marks, with counting stats that should exceed Arenado’s in a stronger American League lineup.
While I would take Devers all things being equal, the pair is not being drafted equally. In NFBC ADP since March 1, the pair is being drafted as the fourth and sixth third baseman. But the higher ceiling and potentially higher floor player in Devers (40.02) is being drafted later than Arenado (39.69), though the ADPs are almost identical. In future drafts, Devers really should be going ahead of Arenado, especially in 10- and 12-team leagues, regardless of format.