Chances are that someone other than Mike Trout is going to finish as the No. 1 hitter in Fantasy baseball this season. As brilliant as he is, Trout has only finished as the No. 1 hitter in Roto leagues in two of his five full seasons in the majors, though no player has topped him twice in that span.
With that in mind, this preseason series is going to look at the seven players with the best chance to finish ahead of Trout in 2017. We’ll look at the path that could take them to the No. 1 spot, as well as the potential pitfalls along the way.
Let’s take a look at one player whose value might be moving in the wrong direction: Josh Donaldson.
Path to Glory
Donaldson has been a model of consistency since breaking into an everyday role in 2013, posting an OPS plus of between 145 and 152 in three of his four full seasons in the majors. With the exception of 2014, when one bad month in June sunk his numbers, Donaldson has been consistently one of the handful of best hitters in baseball, finishing in the top-four in MVP voting in three of four seasons as well.
However, for our purposes, 2015 was when he really took off. Like Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista before him, Donaldson took a big step forward in the popular imagination upon his arrival in Toronto, and where he was playing played a big part. Donaldson jumped from 53 combined homers and 373 combined runs and RBI in two full seasons with the Athletics to 78 homers and 466 combined runs and RBI in his two seasons with Toronto.
Partially, this reflected playing in a better lineup — we’ll get to that a bit later. But a much bigger part was the impact of his home park. Donaldson played in 198 games at the O.Co Coliseum, and sported a .778 OPS, with one home run every 29.6 plate appearances. In 2014, he was especially better on the road, with a .156 point OPS split in favor of road parks.
Things have been much more welcoming in his new home, where Donaldson has hit 45 of his 78 homers over the past two seasons. Overall, he has a .309/.402/.611 line at the Rogers Centre, so if you’re looking for the main reason Donaldson may challenge for the No. 1 spot, that’s where you start. And it makes perfect sense once you dig into the numbers. Rogers Centre has consistently boosted home runs from right-handed batters, while O.Co Coliseum has a dampening effect.
This isn’t a Dante Bichette at Coors Field situation of course. It’s more like Nolan Arenado.
He’s an elite hitter in any environment, but playing in a park that accentuates his strengths certainly helps. Donaldson turning into a legitimate 40-homer threat is a big part of why he has a chance to be the No. 1 hitter — which he was in 2015.
What could derail him?
Of course, those big counting numbers, especially the run production, is also a big part of what makes Donaldson so valuable, and there are reasons to think he just isn’t going to have enough help around him to match what we’ve come to expect.
The Blue Jays’ offense took a step back collectively in 2016, dropping to ninth in the majors after finishing first by a huge margin in 2015. They scored nearly 150 fewer runs, and though Donaldson was surrounded by big names, they didn’t produce as expected. The Blue Jays saw the start of Troy Tulowitzki and Jose Bautista’s decline phases, and it’s no surprise Donaldson drove in more than 20 fewer runs from one year to the next.
Tulowitzki may have better days ahead, but this Blue Jays’ offense is almost certainly going to take another step back in 2017. Encarnacion, who did most of the heavy lifting along with Donaldson, is already gone to Cleveland, and though Bautista is likely to return, he took a big step back last season. The Blue Jays did add Kendrys Morales, who will help, but can’t hope to replace what Encarnacion brought to the lineup.
Donaldson could be every bit as good in 2017 as he has been in the last two seasons and still be a less valuable Fantasy player. You also can’t discount the possibility that, as he enters his age-31 season, Donaldson could start his own decline phase, and though I wouldn’t necessarily expect it, it’s very much in play at this point in his career.
Chances he finishes as the No. 1 player: 2 percent
Donaldson should be on anyone’s short list of best players in baseball, but there’s a very good chance he takes a step back as a Fantasy option, even if he is the same player in 2017.