I always enjoy a quality theme when composing these tiers. From Kurt Russell movies to hard rock bands to vacation destinations, I’ve had a healthy variety of themes. With WrestleMania coming up this weekend, I considered some sort of wrestling theme. However, my writing is frequently littered with wrestling references — both obvious and subtle — on a regular basis, so using it as a tier theme could amount to overkill.
For this first set of tiered rankings, I decided on the theme of Final Four teams. The main reason I settled on this theme is that I’m only splitting the players into four tiers this month. As the season gets underway, more clear delineations will likely develop within the tiers, and I’ll probably add more to reflect that.
As of right now, however, there’s just not much separating most of these guys right now. My second tier stretches all the way from No. 6 to No. 20, with much of the tier separated by extremely small gaps. For example, would it be surprising at all if Josh Harrison (No. 14) outperformed Ben Zobrist (No. 9), despite the fact that I have Zobrist five spots higher? That’s a pretty good illustration of how tightly grouped the players within these tiers are heading into the season.
If I forgot any players who you think should be on this list, please let me know in the comments section below and I’ll update it. For reference, I used Yahoo’s position eligibility requirements.
Being the sole 1-seed remaining, UNC is obviously the favorite to take home the title. Of the Final Four teams, the Tar Heels are the one squad that was largely expected to be here all along, and they’re the total package. They should cruise to the championship game with little resistance. HOT TAKE: When you rank No. 2 out of 351 teams in both offensive efficiency and rebounding, you’re going to win a lot of games.
I don’t feel the need to do much analysis on North Carolina, because they’re such a clear-cut top choice. Similarly, I think there’s a rather obvious gap between these five players and anyone in the next tier down, and how much do you really need to hear about guys like Altuve anyway? In fact, my top five is exactly the same as our experts’ consensus rankings — which is far from the case when we get lower down the list — so I doubt I have much explaining to do here.
TIER TWO – OKLAHOMA SOONERS – (No. 6-20)
In their Elite Eight matchup, Oklahoma made No. 1-seed Oregon look more like Oregon State. Popular opinion seems relatively split between Oklahoma and Villanova behind UNC, but I’m going with Oklahoma to represent tier two. First off, I graduated from OU and still live in Norman, so allow me my homerism. Secondly, the Sooners have Buddy Hield, who will almost certainly take home the Wooden Award for best player of the year in college hoops.
The Sooners are far from a one-man team, as the core of Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Ryan Spangler and Jordan Woodard have all started Oklahoma’s last 104 consecutive games. That kind of consistency is exceedingly rare in modern college basketball. However, what keeps the Sooners firmly below the North Carolinas of the world is a lack of quality depth.
Aside from the starters, Oklahoma doesn’t have anyone who averages more than 12.4 minutes or 3.6 points per game. The lack of bench production is a terrifying thought for Sooner fans; if one of the starters gets in foul trouble, things could spiral downward in a hurry. Much like Oklahoma’s top-heavy lineup, this tier consists of productive players with weaknesses that prevent them from reaching the first tier at present.
It’s probably most interesting for me to discuss the players whom I rate significantly higher/lower than our experts, so let’s start with Neil Walker. The 30-year-old was one of my Bold Predictions this year, as I see a possible top-ten fantasy 2B season for Walker. I’m not going to rehash my entire prediction on Walker, but he finished last season strong and is in a great run/RBI spot this year.
A player I’m down on relative to our expert rankings is DJ LeMahieu. The red-hot Trevor Story will begin the season at shortstop, and if his production even remotely resembles what he did this spring, I don’t see the Rockies sending him back to Triple-A (or the bench) when Jose Reyes returns.
Speaking of Reyes, with the news that the charges against him are about to be dropped, it seems highly unlikely that he’ll see more than a 30ish-game suspension. I certainly don’t see LeMahieu falling out of the picture entirely, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see his playing time at second take a hit if Reyes and Story are both producing. I’m also not convinced that LeMahieu’s career year last season is sustainable going forward, even if he gets 600+ PA again.
TIER THREE – VILLANOVA WILDCATS – (No. 21-32)
Devon Travis (+)
Trea Turner (AAA)
I’ve heard plenty of arguments for Villanova over Oklahoma. For me, the Wildcats’ 23-point loss (their most lopsided defeat of the year) to Oklahoma in December — also on a neutral court — can’t just be ignored. College basketball teams evolve quite a bit over the course of four months, but would you rather head into the Final Four facing a team you beat by 23, or lost to by 23? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
However, overlooking Villanova would be a big mistake, especially seeing as they got here by beating Kansas, the only team OU played all year and did not defeat. (Two of Oklahoma’s seven losses this year were against Kansas, while the other five all came against conference opponents who the Sooners beat in the other side of the home-and-home.) If Nova can shut down Kansas like they did, you’d better believe they have the potential to do it to Oklahoma as well.
The Wildcats are also a better offensive team than many people realize — while they are awfully dependent on jump shots, they also happen to have a bunch of really good shooters. In fact, they have five players who play at least 24 minutes per game with 3-point shooting percentages over 35%. That’s a lot of firepower.
Much like Nova has a legit — if dark-horse — shot at the title, Logan Forsythe could very well be a huge value play in fantasy leagues this year. The 29-year-old will lead off for the Rays this year, which should simultaneously bump up his runs while also knocking down his RBI. Still, this is an intriguing spot for Forsythe, as I can’t help but wonder if he might not run a bit more.
Forsythe has just 28 steals in his 1,713 major-league PA, but he’s also only been caught eight times. Furthermore, he posted four consecutive double-digit SB seasons from 2009-2012. He’s certainly not a burner and won’t ever be a 20+ SB guy, but with speed at a premium in today’s game, even an extra five steals could give Forsythe a nice bump, especially with how tightly grouped the tier above him is at present.
Eduardo Escobar is a guy I’m keeping my eye on as the season gets underway. He earned another of my Bold Predictions, and I wrote about him at length in September. Escobar made major strides in several important areas last year, such as expanding his plate coverage against righties. Also, his slash line once he became the Twins’ starting shortstop was a very attractive .294/.349/.514.
I’m way higher on Escobar than any of our rankers, and that’s fine. It’s not like I’m staking my reputation on my No. 23 preseason second baseman. Still, I believe his fantasy ceiling to be higher than a guy like Joe Panik, and although Panik’s floor is higher, Tier Three isn’t where I’m looking for players with decent floors.
Speaking of Panik, I’m sure I’ll get some hate for ranking him as low as I did (BELOW EDUARDO ESCOBAR?!), but I am still just not a believer in the guy as a fantasy commodity. Even if he hits over .300 again — and continues to bat in the No. 2 spot — he’s the definition of an empty batting average. He’ll score some runs, but I’ll take the under on him hitting eight homers again, and he does not possess the speed to steal bases at the major-league level.
TIER FOUR – SYRACUSE ORANGE – (No. 33-47)
Javier Baez (+)
Jurickson Profar (AAA)
“Hey, we’re here too!” That’s the rallying cry of the 10-seed Orange, as well as most of the players in this tier. But hey, they did get here, so let’s talk about a few. I’m far from ready to give up on Javier Baez, even if he’s failed to live up to the lofty expectations I had for him two years ago. Baez has plenty of holes in his game — particularly his outrageous strikeout problem — but I refuse to throw in the towel on a guy who’s still just 23 years old.
Baez will start the season on the DL, and there’s really no clear path to regular playing time on the major-league roster, except as a utility player. Still, Baez is just one teammate injury — and a couple of adjustments at the plate — away from being a possible fantasy stud, and it’s incredibly difficult to say that about anyone else this low on the list.
Profar is the other faded-star prospect in this tier, after missing nearly two full seasons to shoulder ailments. Like Baez, Profar is also 23, but unlike Baez, he has to prove that he’s fully recovered from an injury that cost him over 300 games. He’s still worth watching, though. If he comes back in Triple-A looking like the five-tool prospect he seemed to be several years ago, he could make an impact later in the season.
TIER UGGLA – FLORIDA A&M RATTLERS – (No. Just no.)
Dan Uggla (FA)
Just because he’s not actually on a team doesn’t mean I’m getting rid of Tier Uggla! Much in the same way Dan Uggla can’t find a major-league home anymore, the Florida A&M Rattlers didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. I picked the Rattlers to represent Uggla because they were uniquely horrible this season, finishing dead last — out of 351 teams — in the Sagarin ratings.
Chicago State’s hilariously inept 1-28 record made them a strong candidate for this spot, but Florida A&M went 6-21 while also possessing the easiest strength of schedule in all of Division I basketball. Even against the worst possible collection of opponents, the Rattlers still won just 22.2% of their games, which is probably pretty close to what Uggla’s contact rate will be if he ever gets another shot in the majors.
Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.