An old adage in fantasy sports states: You cannot win a league in the first round, but you can lose it there.
Each season, a handful of “can’t miss” players fail to meet expectations. For example, 2020 drafters were no doubt disappointed by the returns from the opening-round selections of Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger, Nolan Arenado, or Justin Verlander.
Looking ahead to ’21 drafts, the first round continues to be fraught with risk. And while there is no such thing as a sure thing, here are the safety-inspired groupings of this year’s first-round targets.
Juan Soto (OF, WSH)
Whether it happens this year, next year, or in five years, Soto is the favorite to eventually strip Mike Trout of his “best player in baseball” title. As a 21-year-old last season, the youngster produced a 1.185 OPS that left the second-place finisher (Freddie Freeman) a distant 83 points behind him. Some of Soto’s fantasy ceiling is dictated by his willingness to steal bases, but his plate skills and age combine to give him the highest floor of any player.
Ronald Acuna (OF, ATL)
Despite a brief IL stint, Acuna produced 14 homers and eight steals in 46 games last season. He also continued to be a run-scoring machine, crossing home plate on 46 occasions. The slugger’s batting average dip (.250) can be written off to a BABIP drop, and he made massive gains with his walk rate. As a 23-year-old with 40-homer power and 30-steal speed, Acuna should be the first overall pick in nearly all formats.
Mookie Betts (OF, LAD)
Arguably baseball’s best leadoff man, Betts had no trouble adjusting to life with the Dodgers. And with Los Angeles intent on going back-to-back, the spark plug will certainly set the table for one of baseball’s highest-scoring lineups. Having scored a remarkable 49 more runs than any other player since the outset of 2018, Betts is a lock to be a five-category star.
Mike Trout (OF, LAA)
In terms of plate skills, Trout is as safe as they come. After all, he has logged an OPS over .990 in each of the past six seasons, and his overall 1.037 mark across those six years is nearly 100 points higher than that of the nearest competitor. Although the Millville Meteor now runs the bases less aggressively, those who limit their steals expectations will not be disappointed.
Freddie Freeman (1B, ATL)
Those who want an ultra-safe slugger need to look no further than Freeman. The longtime Braves star has hit .295 or better in each of the past five years, while also consistently delivering high totals in runs and RBIs. With Acuna and Marcell Ozuna riding shotgun, Freeman should be the centerpiece in one of baseball’s best lineups. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the 31-year-old doesn’t at least come close to meeting expectations.
Fernando Tatis Jr. (SS, SD)
Tatis is terrific (39 homers, 27 steals in 143 career games) and a worthy option as soon as Acuna is off the board. But there remains some downside in a player who has yet to play a full Major League season. Additionally, Tatis sputtered to the finish of his sophomore campaign when he hit .208 with a .714 OPS in September. The 22-year-old should be a beast, but he wouldn’t be the first superstar to experience some growing pains.
Trea Turner (SS, WSH)
Turner fell short of the top group in this safety article by virtue of his erratic steals production last year. The speedster swiped just three bags in his initial 35 games before getting more aggressive down the stretch, which raised some eyebrows for those in this industry who know that steals sometimes dry up as players reach veteran status. With a career-high of 19 homers and a few months away from his 28th birthday, Turner needs to keep swiping bags to maintain first-round status.
Jacob deGrom (SP, NYM)
deGrom is the best pitcher in baseball and can be tabbed as early as first overall in some formats. But like almost all pitchers, he is not without significant risk. The right-hander endured brief elbow-related IL stints in both 2018 and ’19 before dealing with minor back and hamstring injuries last season. Set to turn 33 near the middle of this year, deGrom may deal with more ailments in 2021.
Gerrit Cole (SP, NYY)
Cole is a stellar strikeout artist who, unlike deGrom, had a clean bill of health in recent seasons. But Cole falls short of the safest grouping because of his penchant for giving up fly balls. He allowed a 1.7 HR/9 rate last season, and balls tend to fly out of Yankee Stadium. His 3.87 FIP last year shows Cole’s downside.
Shane Bieber (SP, CLE)
Having yet to endure a Major League IL stint, Bieber is arguably the safest of the first-round arms. And the right-hander is coming off a year in which he was the best fantasy starter (1.63 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 122 SO). But Bieber was one of many hurlers who feasted on weak Central Division foes in the oddball 2020 format, and this year he may find life more difficult when he takes a more traditional trip around the Majors.
DRAFT AT YOUR OWN RISK
Christian Yelich (OF, MIL)
Sure, it was just two months, but Yelich fell apart last season. The native Californian hit just .205, while his strikeout rate jumped more than 10 percent and his hard-contact rate fell by nearly the same amount. Unless the Brewers beef up their lineup, they can expect opposing hurlers to pitch around their lone superstar.
Jose Ramirez (3B, CLE)
Ramirez is an elite power-speed option who has been inconsistent in recent years. The third baseman posted a .637 OPS in September of 2018 before logging a .652 OPS in the first half of the following season. He also hit .202 with a .700 OPS in August of the shortened 2020 campaign. And after losing co-star Francisco Lindor, Ramirez will be under even more pressure to avoid cold spells.