One of the central questions of the 2021 season is how much what players and teams did in the 2020 season can possibly cross over. It was only 60 games, after all, just more than a third of a “normal” season, and as we all know, 60 games could just be a simple hot streak … or, for that a matter, a cold one. Also, players age and evolve in unpredictable ways: Who’s to say whether we can tell anything from 60 games played eight months ago anyway?
The question is obviously a key one, especially when someone has been particularly great over those 60 games. Is that the real player, or just a heater?
As we lope into February, just a fortnight away from pitchers and catchers reporting, it’s even time to start thinking about fantasy baseball. (I got my invite to renew my league from last year just the other day.) So today, we look at the best 20 players of last year, by Fangraphs WAR, and try to assess whether you should BUY, SELL or HOLD on their performance from last year. To be very clear: Players are not stocks, they are people, and these are all very good players that, if you are fortunate enough to have them on your team, you should absolutely keep them. We’re just using the format to gauge whether you should expect to the player to be better in 2021, worse in 2021, or roughly the same. Got that? Cool.
So: The top 20 players in Fangraphs WAR in 2020, and whether they can pull that off again.
1. José Ramirez, 3B, CLE (3.4 WAR)
Remember when Ramirez had that wretched start to 2019 and you wondered if he was somehow Charlie from Flowers For Algernon, that he’d come out of nowhere to become one of the best hitters in baseball before losing all his skills as quickly as they’d come? It turns out: Nope, he’s just one of the best players in baseball. That said: Are we sure he’s the best player in baseball in 2021? Especially with his running mate in Francisco Lindor gone? The guess here is, well, not quite. SELL.
2. Freddie Freeman, 1B, ATL (3.3 WAR)
Freeman’s 2020 season began with him legitimately fearing for his life during a battle with COVID-19. It ended with him winning an MVP and starting to inch into some real Hall of Fame conversations. Freeman seems to just get better every year, though he may be asked to do more this year if Marcell Ozuna doesn’t return. Also: It’s possible Ronald Acuña Jr. passes him as the best player on this team this year. Still: Count Freeman out at your peril. HOLD
3. Shane Bieber, SP, CLE (3.2 WAR)
That’s right: Two of the three best players in baseball played for Cleveland last year. Bieber’s breakthrough year established him as the ace of a team that had a few former aces already. That said: We’ve seen one-year blips like this before. Bieber is still a star. But are you ready to proclaim him the best pitcher in baseball? SELL
4. Mookie Betts, RF, LAD (3.0 WAR)
This is the actual first year of Betts’ contract with the Dodgers, and he gets to start out without the pressure of having to win them their first World Series in more than 30 years: He just did that, after all. BUY
5. Yu Darvish, SP, SD (3.0 WAR)
It is certainly strange that the Padres’ trade for Blake Snell garnered more headlines than the Darvish one did, because Yu was the better pitcher by a wide margin. Darvish took a huge step forward at the end of 2019 and carried it over into 2020. And now he’s the lead horse for a staff that gets to have that Padres lineup supporting it every game. He’s my early Cy Young favorite. BUY
6. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, SD (2.9 WAR)
Throughout most of the Padres’ wonderful 2020 season, there was considerable debate as to whom, exactly, the real Padres MVP was. Was it Manny Machado? Was it Wil Myers? (Who actually had the best OPS.) But let’s not get overcomplicated: The Padres are who they are because of Fernando Tatis, and he just gets better every day. Watch out. BUY.
7. Trea Turner, SS, WAS (2.7 WAR)
Didn’t realize that Turner was that good in 2020, did you? Did you know he had a higher slugging percentage than both Tatis and Betts? That seems too much to ask this year. No one would blame you if you picked him first in your fantasy draft, though. SELL.
8. Anthony Rendon, 3B, LAA (2.6 WAR)
The first year of the Rendon era didn’t really work out for the Angels, but you certainly can’t blame Rendon for that. This was the first year of Mike Trout’s career that he was not in fact the highest WAR player on the team. If Rendon beats him again, he might win the MVP. HOLD.
9. Jacob deGrom, SP, NYM (2.6 WAR)
His string of consecutive Cy Young Awards ended at two last year, but it’s very possible this will be the best Mets team he has played for. It’s exciting just to think about him pitching with Francisco Lindor behind him. HOLD.
10. Mike Yastrzemski, RF, SF (2.6 WAR)
Little Yaz’s story took a truly incredible return last year: He was one of the three best outfielders in baseball! He’s older than you think he is, at 30, which might put a ceiling on him, but even if he falls a little, he still settles in as the best player on the Giants by a wide margin. SELL.
11. José Abreu, 1B, CWS (2.6 WAR)
Abreu has been flinging off doubters for years, and now he has a shiny MVP trophy to bat them back with. But those young stars on this team seem destined to pass him, and maybe soon. SELL.
12. Manny Machado, 3B, SD (2.6 WAR)
Let’s take a step back and revel in the fact that the Padres currently have three of the best 12 players in baseball last year. Manny may have had his best season last year, and why wouldn’t he? He’s in his peak after all. This is what the Padres brought him in for. They’re getting the best of him. HOLD.
13. Trevor Bauer, SP, free agent (2.5 WAR)
Bauer is still looking for a team, but it’s only a matter of time now. Can he do what he did last year for a full season? Two full seasons? Four? SELL.
14. Dinelson Lamet, SP, SD (2.5 WAR)
Ha, OK, let’s take another step back and note that the Padres have four of the top 14 players from last year. That said: Lamet’s injury issues are well-documented, and the Padres are concerned enough that they brought in three other top-shelf starters this offseason. If Lamet stays healthy, he can be back up here in next year’s rankings. But not even the Padres seem to think that will happen. SELL
15. Marcell Ozuna, LF-DH, free agent (2.5 WAR)
Ozuna’s agents were surely hoping the NL would end up with the designated hitter, but alas, he may have to wait a year. You’d still think someone would be eager to grab the guy who came this close to winning the Triple Crown last year. SELL.
16. Mike Trout, CF, LAA (2.5 WAR)
Oh, yeah, him. It has long been speculated that, at some point, Trout is just going to have a downright Ruthian year. How about this year? BUY.
17. DJ LeMahieu, IF, NYY (2.5 WAR)
The Yankees were able to bring their stealth MVP back, which should make them better and probably even the AL East favorite. But here’s betting he’s not their MVP this year. It may be time for a Giancarlo Stanton explosion, actually. SELL.
18. Trevor Story, SS, COL (2.4 WAR)
It just got a lot lonelier for him in Colorado. But he sure is set up to have a free agent walk year for the ages. Because he may be ready to go. BUY.
19. Juan Soto, RF, WAS (2.4 WAR)
Soto’s defense, which doesn’t look as bad to me as Fangraphs rates it, pushes him down this list: He had the third-highest offensive WAR in baseball. This guy is going to be in the Hall of Fame someday. BUY.
20. Ronald Acuña Jr., RF, ATL (2.4 WAR)
And he may go in with this guy, the player he’ll forever be connected with, and to. But who wins their MVP first? BUY.