2021 Fantasy Baseball Cheat Sheet: Thoughts on overall top-40 rankings

Andy Behrens
·15-min read

You didn't ask for this, but you're getting it anyway: Today, we're hitting you with an annotated overall top-40 for fantasy baseball in 2021. This year's first round is uncommonly difficult to sort out, with no clear No. 1. We can make decent arguments for at least a half-dozen players at the top, which almost never happens. Here's a look at my cheat sheet for the early rounds, with thoughts on everyone ...

1. Ronald Acuna, OF, Atlanta Braves

A decent case can be made to draft any of these top-6 (or 8) players first overall. For that reason, the sweet spot in drafts this year might actually be somewhere in the middle — in the 5-8 range. But if I land the top pick, I'm giving the slightest of leans to Acuna, a 23-year-old who finished this close to a 40/40 season in 2019 while leading the NL in runs (127). Fantasy managers fully appreciated the degree to which Acuna aggressively pursued the 40-homer, 40-steal plateaus, too.

2. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, San Diego Padres

Tatis is a superstar in every possible sense, and he's a full year younger than Acuna. He's delivered 39 homers and 27 steals while slashing .301/.374/.582 over 629 major league plate appearances. If shortstop wasn't such a weirdly deep position (keep scrolling), Tatis might very well be a no-doubt first overall pick.

Also, he's as fun as it gets in today's game, so he has fantasy intangibles. Just look at this magnificent bat-flippery:

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3. Mookie Betts, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers

Betts has hit .290 or better in five of the past six seasons, he's well established as a 30/30 candidate, and he's finished top-8 in the MVP race for five straight years (winning in the AL in 2018). He's also an on-base machine in a loaded lineup. There are no holes in his fantasy game. If you're taking him at the top, I get it.

4. Juan Soto, OF, Washington Nationals

After slashing an absurd .351/.490/.695 and leading the NL in all three categories, a future MVP almost feels inevitable for Soto. The Nats are making noises about letting him run a bit more in 2021 — a reasonable choice, since he's 23-for-28 on stolen base attempts in his career.

5. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels

Trout hasn't exactly played his way out of the No. 1 spot on draft boards. He launched 17 homers last season in just 53 games while producing a .993 OPS. The year before, he claimed his third MVP and cleared the fence 45 times. While he hasn't been an aggressive base-stealer in recent seasons, he actually hasn't lost a thing in terms of sprint speed. No one should be at all surprised if he swipes double-digit bags in 2021.

6. Trea Turner, SS, Washington Nationals

Turner is the last position player who has a strong case to be the top overall pick, at least for me. He's a .296 career hitter coming off a .335/.394/.588 season in which he missed only one game. Turner stole 30-plus bags in four straight seasons and would have easily reached the mark last year, had anything about 2020 been normal. He offers respectable (if not elite) pop, too.

7. Gerrit Cole, SP, New York Yankees

Cole versus deGrom is nearly a coin flip. I lean slightly toward Cole, based on recent health history (not that deGrom is some major worry. He's had a few elbow, back, and neck hiccups in recent years, however). Cole is attached to a winning environment, his ratios are consistently elite and he has a 300K season on his resume.

8. Jacob deGrom, SP, New York Mets

If you want to draft him over Cole, I get it. He's obscene, already throwing smoke:

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9. Christian Yelich, OF, Milwaukee Brewers

Yelich disappointed last season, no question, but he's still only 29 years old and he reported to spring training as a #BSOHL club member. He's a year removed from a 44/30 season in which he slashed .329/.429/.671. Few players have Yelich's upside.

10. Trevor Story, SS, Colorado Rockies

Assuming the Rockies actually intend to keep Story, he's proven to be a lock for 30-plus homers and 20-plus steals with a .290-ish average. Shortstop is unusually deep this season, but Story's projection would place him firmly in the first round, regardless of position. Ideally, you'll get your speed from an all-category contributor like this guy.

11. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta Braves

Freeman is coming off a richly deserved MVP, having slashed an absurd .341/.462/.640 while leading the majors in run-scoring (51). He can't help you in steals, but he's a massive asset everywhere else. Over the past five seasons, he's hitting .306/.400/.557.

12. Shane Bieber, SP, Cleveland Indians

Bieber benefited from the imbalanced schedule last season, like every other Central ace. But c'mon, the numbers were still ridiculous: 1.63 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 14.2 K/9. That's dead-ball era stuff right there. He was a Cy Young candidate the season before as well, so it's not as if he's a one-hit wonder. Bieber was delayed a bit due to COVID, but he seems to have cleared that issue without complications.

13. Jose Ramirez, 3B, Cleveland Indians

His absolute worst-case in a healthy season looks something like 2019, a year in which he still went 23/24 despite running hot and cold. Ramirez was a monster in the 60-game mini-season, leading the AL in runs (45), clearing the fence 17 times, and producing an OPS of .993.

14. Francisco Lindor, SS, New York Mets

Lindor is a party; just a delight to roster in fantasy and/or watch in reality. He's a 30/20 guy who generally delivers a respectable-if-not-elite average, plus he's tied to what should be an excellent run-scoring environment. If you happen to play in an OBP league, drop Lindor a spot or two (or three) in the overall ranks. He's only reached base at a .335 clip over the past two seasons.

15. Bryce Harper, OF, Philadelphia Phillies

We tend to think of Harper as a moderate injury risk, but he's missed only 10 total games over the past three seasons. He lives on base, reaching at a .420 clip in 2020 (.386 career), plus he continues to run enough to help us. It feels as if he's been in our fantasy lives f-o-r-e-v-e-r, but he's still just 28.

16. Cody Bellinger, 1B/OF, Los Angeles Dodgers

Bellinger's shoulder is a small concern, but all the recent reports have been positive. He gave us 62 combined homers-plus-steals in 2019 while slashing .305/.406/.629. Assuming the rest of his spring rehab goes according to plan, he's gotta land among the first few picks in the second round.

17. Trevor Bauer, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers

I've waffled a fair amount on the exact order in which to draft Bauer, Darvish, and Giolito. Bauer landed with a team that might very well win 105 games, and both he and Darvish will obviously benefit from the lack of a universal DH. Team context clearly matters. I've already pulled the trigger on Bauer in a draft in which I led with Cole.

18. Yu Darvish, SP, San Diego Padres

I mean, c'mon:

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Darvish has wizard-level stuff. He's been outrageously good since July 2019. Draft and enjoy.

19. Lucas Giolito, SP, Chicago White Sox

Giolito's 2020 performance was perfectly in line with his 2019 breakout, but with a slightly lower WHIP and a small bump in K-rate. He's a clear challenger for the AL Cy Young and his team should be endless fun. I can detect no flaws here.

20. Manny Machado, SS/3B, San Diego Padres

Machado hit at least 32 home runs in five straight seasons from 2015 to 2019, and he made it halfway to that total last year in an abbreviated 60-game campaign. He has enough base-stealing ability to remain relevant in the category and he's coming off a season in which he slashed .304/.370/.580. Machado almost never misses a game, so availability isn't an issue.

21. Xander Bogaerts, SS, Boston Red Sox

Over the past three seasons, he's hit .300/.372/.535 with just enough base-stealing to help us. His 2019 numbers were silly by the standards of his (or any) position: 110 R, 33 HR, 117 RBIs, .309 AVG. He's been fighting shoulder soreness this spring, but it doesn't seem to be a significant concern.

22. Anthony Rendon, 3B, Los Angeles Angels

Rendon is just an absolute hitting machine. He's posted an on-base percentage of .400-plus in three of the past four seasons, finishing with more walks than Ks in two of those years. It's almost unfair that he and Mike Trout do their hitting in the same lineup. Third base gets ugly outside the top dozen or so names, enhancing Rendon's appeal.

23. Bo Bichette, SS, Toronto Blue Jays

Toronto's lineup was already an intimidating group before Springer and Semien were added to the mix. It's now kind of a buzzsaw. Bichette just turned 23 and he's already cleared the fence 16 times in 340 MLB plate appearances, slashing .307/.347/.549 with eight steals. We're gonna see a ton of this, all season long:

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24. Aaron Nola, SP, Philadelphia Phillies

Nola's K/9 spiked two years ago (10.2), then again last season (12.1). His ERA over the past four seasons is 3.23 and he topped 200 innings in both 2018 and 2019. Projected workload bumps him just ahead of this next guy ...

25. Walker Buehler, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers

It's kinda nuts that we're just 25 players into this thing and already on our fourth member of the Dodgers, with another one coming up soon — and, if I was going two or three names deeper, Corey Seager would make the list. It's really an obnoxious collection of talent. Buehler is every bit as dazzling as Nola, but we should note that LA hasn't allowed a pitcher to exceed 185 innings since 2015.

26. Alex Bregman, SS/3B, Houston Astros

Bregman has been dealing with a hamstring malfunction this spring, but there's not yet any reason to believe he won't be good to go by opening day. He's only a few days away from turning 27 and he already has a 41-homer season on his resume, along with a career OPS of .902. In his last full season, he slashed .296/.423/.592.

27. Luis Castillo, SP, Cincinnati Reds

There's almost no separation between Castillo, Nola, and Buehler for me. Any of 'em would be welcome on my rosters. Castillo has whiffed 10.9 batters per nine innings since 2019 with a 3.35 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. That'll do.

28. Max Scherzer, SP, Washington Nationals

Scherzer and Kershaw seem to belong to their own tier, because A) we've likely already seen the best years from each guy, but B) that doesn't mean they can't still be great. Scherzer hasn't lost anything in terms of velocity and his K-rate remains exceptional (31.2% in 2020). He's allowed a bit more hard contact over the past two seasons, but nothing to suggest he's ready to nosedive. Every projection system still gives him excellent ratios and 220-plus Ks.

29. Clayton Kershaw, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers

Kershaw probably won't give you a mega innings total, because he hasn't sniffed 200 since 2015. But he was once again terrific in 2020, producing the seventh sub-1.00 WHIP of his career (which is silly) and an ERA to match (2.16). The K-rate and velocity aren't quite what they were in his best years, but they're still among the best in baseball.

Los Angeles Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw
Clayton Kershaw is still a solid starting-pitching option in the early rounds. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

30. Starling Marte, OF, Miami Marlins

Yeah, I realize I'm higher than consensus on Marte, by a non-trivial amount — and if I select a pitcher in the first round, I'd bump him up another five spots here. He's a proven 20/30 player who can hit for a respectable average and he's a threat to score 90-100 runs. This is exactly the sort of player from whom you want to get your steals. I'd take Marte all day in the third round; he's a near-lock to be one of my most heavily rostered players.

31. Marcell Ozuna, OF, Atlanta Braves

Ozuna feasted in Atlanta last season, slashing .338/.431/.636 with 18 bombs and driving in nearly a run per game. Life is good when hitting behind Acuna and Freeman. Last year's rates might be unrepeatable over a full 162, but he can regress a fair amount and still be a statistical monster.

32. Ozzie Albies, 2B, Atlanta Braves

Yet another member of the Braves lineup. So yeah, that team seems pretty formidable. Albies is a reliable power-speed threat who produced a 24/15 season in 2019 while batting .295. He's a good bet to score 90-plus runs, and he's also the top option at a minefield of a position.

33. George Springer, OF, Toronto Blue Jays

Seriously, the Jays' lineup is so much fun. If Springer plays 150 games, he's gonna score 120 runs with 30-plus homers. I like the next three outfielders in these ranks roughly as much as Springer, but his floor is probably the safest.

[Draft Rankings: C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | SP | RP]

34. Jose Abreu, 1B, Chicago White Sox

Abreu has been the AL RBI leader in back-to-back seasons. A .294 career hitter and with four separate 30-homer seasons to his credit, he also rarely misses a game — no small thing. He's a no-risk way to attach yourself to a terrific lineup.

35. Rafael Devers, 3B, Boston Red Sox

This shouldn't require much explanation, given his incredible 2019 season at age-22: 129 R, 32 HR, 115 RBIs, .311 AVG. Devers got out to a brutal start last season, hitting just .183 over his first 21 games, and he never really had time to recover. But he hit .307 with nine homers over his final 36 games, putting any worries to rest. He's a mauler, and still only 24.

36. Randy Arozarena, OF, Tampa Bay Rays

I've already filed my opinion on Arozarena and his ludicrously high ceiling. Between the regular season and playoffs, we now have 190 MLB plate appearances from which to form an opinion. In those chances, he's gone 53-for-165 (.321) with 18 homers and seven steals. It might be a small sample, but it's also a dominant sample. Those numbers sync with his stellar performance in the high minors, too. Arozarena slashed .344/.431/.571 at Double-A and Triple-A in 2019. Every data point we have suggests he's awesome.

37. Luis Robert, OF, Chicago White Sox

Fantasy-wise, Robert probably has the widest range of possible outcomes. He might go 35/35 with an average north of .280, or he might swing-and-miss his way to a 20/15 season and a .225 average. Either way, he's gonna be a blast to watch. Robert was a monster across three minor league levels in 2019 (108-32-92-36-.328), so his all-category potential is clear enough.

38. Eloy Jimenez, OF, Chicago White Sox

Like Robert, Jimenez isn't much of a walker (.321 career OBP), but we've seen him hit for average and he's launched 45 homers in 177 games over the past two years. He's also only 24, still an ascending talent. He's hilarious in the outfield, but fantasy managers have no reason to care about such things.

39. Jack Flaherty, SP, St. Louis Cardinals

As a Chicagoan, I hate to admit that Flaherty is easy to root for — annoyingly so. He has a rich arsenal ...

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...and a terrific big league track record. One lousy September outing torched his ratios last year, but he was mostly fine. Draft with confidence.

40. Adalberto Mondesi, SS, Kansas City Royals

Look, I gotta rank him somewhere because he just led MLB in steals (and in caught-stealing). At this point in Mondesi's career, after 308 games over five seasons, it seems fair to say that he is a verifiably poor hitter by major league standards. He slashed .256/.294/.416 last year, matching his career rates almost perfectly (.251/.284/.415). He's basically untouchable in OBP leagues. Mondesi has modest power, which helps the fantasy profile, but he's not likely to reach base enough to be an asset in runs. I'd prefer to get my stolen bases from a better player, but I also can't deny Mondesi's status as a category leader.

And here's the next ten, without comment: Pete Alonso, Corey Seager, Aaron Judge, Nolan Arenado, Brandon Woodruff, D.J. LeMahieu, Kyle Tucker, Luke Voit, Javier Baez, Nelson Cruz.