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USATSI

During Fantasy baseball draft season, we talk a lot about upside. We've got a lot of different ways to talk about it. "Player X is great, but he has a relatively low ceiling." "I know Player Z is a risk, but he's got as much potential as anyone." And on and on it goes. But it's sort of a nebulous term, and it's applied inconsistently. Mike Trout's typical season is usually better than all but a handful of players' career years, but we don't really talk about "upside" with Trout. Upside is for young guys, or inconsistent guys, or guys with a lot of unrealized potential.

Of course, every player has upside. Career years happen all of the time, even for veterans with established track records. There's always variance in every player's profile. Skill levels change and, as anyone who plays Fantasy baseball knows, production fluctuates. 

Except for Trout. Trout has been so good since his rookie season that he's almost become boring. He's been remarkably consistent in his career -- his median season OPS is .991, and he's never been below .939 or above 1.088, a spread of 97 points. Compare that to someone like Mookie Betts, who has been between an .897 and .927 OPS in three of his last five seasons, but also has one season with an .803 OPS and another with a 1.078 mark. Alec Bregman has seen his OPS fluctuate from .926 to 1.015 and back down to .801 last season; Christian Yelich jumped from an .807 OPS to 1.000 and then to 1.100 the following season, before falling back to .786 in 2020. 

Which is to say, we've seen best-case scenario seasons from a lot of different players, but we may not have seen it from Trout. This thought came to my mind because we received an email from a listener of the Fantasy Baseball Today podcast a few weeks back with this subject line: "Have we seen the best of Mike Trout?" I thought I would tackle the task of trying to see what a best-case scenario season would look like for Trout, but I always want to do that exercise for all of the hitters being drafted in the first round by NFC ADP. 

I started by trying to project the most realistic PA I could for each player, based on lineup quality and position, and then set up a few basic parameters such as strikeout rate, walk rate, flyball rate, HR/FB rate, BABIP, and a few baserunning stats like stolen base rate, and then plugged in each player's best career marks in each to see what it would look like if they had one of those seasons where everything went right. It's not a perfect science -- RBI and R are especially dependent on context at least somewhat outside of a player's control -- but it should give you an idea of what the upside for each hitter truly looks like. 

Obviously, you can dream on even more than what I've put together here, but I wanted to keep things mostly within the realm of what we've seen from each player at their best. Here are the best-case scenarios for each first-round hitter. 

1. Ronald Acuña

What goes right: He marries his improved patience from 2020 with an improved strikeout rate and his typical batted-ball dominance while returning to 2019 levels of base stealing. 

What it looks like

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0.2941424610440

Acuña might be the only player in baseball with legitimate 40-40 upside, a feat we haven't seen since Alfonso Soriano hit 46 and swiped 41 in 2006. Acuña probably has the lowest batting average ceiling of the first-round crop, but if he can sustain last year's walk rate or something close to it while cutting back some of the strikeout losses, he could be a counting stats monster at the top of that Braves lineup, with a 700-plate appearance season already under his belt.

The key question, the one that arguably unlocks all of Acuña's upside is whether he'll run like this again. He was still in the 97th percentile in average sprint speed in 2020, but it's possible a wrist injury he played through for much of the season is why he was so much more selective as a runner; Acuña attempted a steal on just 10.2% of his stolen base opportunities, per Baseball-Reference, down from 17.9% in 2019. 

Acuña is pretty much the consensus No. 1 overall pick this season, but he also probably carries the most batting average risk of anyone in the top 10. The power and speed combo is what we're here for, and it's that 40-40 potential people are especially dreaming of. 

2. Fernando Tatis

What goes right: He hangs on to the plate discipline improvements from 2020 and just keeps doing everything else he's been doing. 

What it looks like

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0.3141294511334

The thing is, this isn't that different from what Tatis has done so far in his career: He's hitting .301-111-39-98-27 in 143 games so far. Of course, he seemingly played a bit above his head in 2019, which led to the curious reality where he was a much better hitter in 2020 despite worse results. He improved his expected batting average from .257 to .298, and his expected ISO from .238 to .314 as Tatis hard arguably the most impressive batted-ball numbers of any player in the short season. 

We're still dealing with relatively small sample sizes with Tatis, but the improvement from year one to year, even in a shortened season, makes it hard to quibble with anything about his profile at this point. In coming up with this line, I actually gave Tatis his overall career BABIP and put his HR/FB rate a tick below where he's been so far. Which I guess means you could argue I'm underselling the upside here. 

That all being said, it's fair to expect some regression from Tatis even from here. I know we said that last year, but Tatis' 95.9 mph average exit velocity was the highest any player has posted in a season over the last four by a full mph, and obviously the fact we're dealing with small sample sizes means you should expect that to regress. He should still be one of the best players in Fantasy, and the fact that Tatis only just turned 22 means there's also still room to grow. This kind of season may not be so far-fetched for him, even if his chances of hitting it this season are pretty low, naturally. 

3. Mookie Betts

What goes right: He basically repeats his 2018 MVP season but with more power. 

What it looks like

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0.343137389035

Here's what Betts' 2018 season looks like on a 150-game pace: .346-142-35-88-33. It's actually kind of eerie how close that is, and I promise I didn't just plug all of Betts' 2018 numbers in. Betts is perfectly situated to rack up massive counting numbers because he bats leadoff for a good team and makes a ton of contact, and that also allows him to maximize his power production even though he doesn't have a ton of raw power. We've already seen that combination lead to numbers like this once before. 

Betts is one of the safest picks you can make, but don't think that means he doesn't have the upside to compete with anyone at the top level of his output. 

4. Juan Soto

What goes right: He cements himself as the left-handed Albert Pujols, with outrageous plate discipline and a return to 2019's batted-ball profile. 

What it looks like

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0.3421424612519

Some would make the argument Soto is already the best hitter in baseball, and at the very least, what he's done to date in his MLB career at such a young age makes him pretty safe bet for an eventual spot in the Hall of Fame. He had 41 walks to just 28 strikeouts last season while putting up a 40-homer pace, and the Nationals lineup should be much improved around him. This is lofty, but it's actually not much better than what he was on pace for in 2020. 

Of course, if there is one question about Soto at this point, it revolves around the power potential on the high end. He's got raw power to hang with just about anyone, but he now has two seasons out of three with a groundball rate over 50%. His 40-homer pace in 2020 required a 36.1% HR/FB rate, something I don't think we're ever going to see from him in a full season. However, if he gets back to hitting fly balls on about 37.2% of his batted balls like he did in 2019, it's a lot easier to see the path to 40 homers. 

Oh, and maybe he runs a bit more -- 19 steals is a very aggressive projection even on the high end for someone who has never had more than 12, but this outcome just has him combining his steal rate from 2019 with his on-base skills from 2020. That might be the hardest thing to believe here, but ... Nationals manager Davey Martinez did tell reporters Soto wants to steal more bases and spent the offseason working on his agility, so you never know. Steals are mostly about desire. 

5. Mike Trout

What goes right: The best hitter in baseball has his peak season and maybe gets back to running a bit, too. 

What it looks like

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0.3331465613516

Trout is such a great overall hitter that I'm not sure his reputation as a power hitter matches up with the reality: He's the best in-game power hitter in baseball. He was on pace for 52 in 150 games in 2019 and 48 in 2020. In this best-case scenario projection, I have him cutting his strikeout rate back below 20% for the first time since 2017, creating a handful of more opportunities to hit the ball out, so he actually gets to 56 homers with a reasonable 26% HR/FB rate. 

The thing that makes Trout stand out so much is that he so rarely makes mistakes. He doesn't quite have Betts' contact skills, but his strikeout rate is low for an elite power hitter, and he hits the ball in the air a ton without sacrificing batting average. It could be argued that his consistency is why he hasn't had a big outlier season, but I like to think there's one more historic season left in the tank.

Arguably the biggest question for Trout's upside -- and the reason he might be viewed as relatively boring for Fantasy these days -- is whether he'll steal bases again. 16 steals is, frankly, a lowball number when talking about sheer upside. He still ranked in the 94th percentile in sprint speed in 2020, the same as 2018 when he stole 24 bases in 140 games. Trout could steal 30 bases quite easily if he wanted to, it's just not clear whether he would at this point in his career. I think he has the clear highest upside of anyone in baseball as a hitter, and if he did decide to steal 20 bases again, it would be hard to compete. 

8. Trea Turner

What goes right: He keeps 2020's gains as a power hitter while remaining one of the elite stolen base contributors. 

What it looks like

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0.3331323311040

This actually isn't far off what Turner's 2020 pace looks like, though it is a return to pre-2020 stolen base levels. He was on pace for 30 homers and 30 steals over 150 games last season, and there were gains in his quality of contact that make it possible to buy in. He sported a career-best .372 expected wOBA per Statcast data, and he did so without sacrificing contact or strikeout rate. 

Turner is probably the weakest hitter of the elite options, but if he can keep his strikeout rate in the 15% range like it was in 2020, 30 homers aren't outside the realm of possibility with an elite batting average. However, he'll need to get back to at least his 2019 rate of steal attempts -- he was on pace for 49 in 150 games. It's possible that the physical gains he has made to allow him to become a better source of power could sap some of Turner's elite foot speed, but if that is the case, it hasn't shown up in his Statcast numbers -- his 90.5 mph average exit velocity was his highest ever, but he was still sixth in all of baseball in sprint speed. If the 27-year-old puts the best of both facets of his game together, he could be the No. 1 player for the second year in a row. 

10. Jose Ramirez

What goes right: He kind of just has to keep doing what he's been doing since breaking out of his slump in 2019. 

What it looks like

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0.3241284613032

Since the 2019 All-Star break, Ramirez's per-162 pace is: .307-118-52-149-25. That's not far off from this line, amazingly. Of course, Cleveland's lineup took a big hit with the loss of Francisco Lindor, and we're talking about a relatively small sample size, which is why that isn't just the base-line expectation at this point. 

However, I'll just state this plainly: I'm fully in the tank for Ramirez this year. He's been an elite Fantasy player in three out of the last four seasons, finishing fifth in 2020, fourth in 2018, and 12th in 2017. He's a high-contact hitter who gets the most out of his profile thanks to a pull-heavy flyball approach, and he really hasn't shown much sign of slowing down as a base stealer. I have his salary value at just one dollar below Trout/Soto/Tatis, and he'll probably be my most-drafted player this year. 

11. Christian Yelich

What goes right: He just does what he did in 2019. 

What it looks like

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0.3321365011525

Like Ramirez, Yelich is one of the players who has actualized his best-case scenario already: His 150-game pace for 2019 was .329-115-51-112-35. 2020 was a big drop, as his strikeout rate skyrocketed, but Yelich has talked pretty openly about how the lack of in-game video affected him, and he still had elite batted-ball data, so I'm mostly willing to give him a mulligan for that. I don't expect he'll return to 2019 levels, or else I might rank him as the No. 1 overall player, but Yelich should bounce back to somewhere around his 2018-2019 peak. 

12. Trevor Story

What goes right: He maximizes his power output while -- most importantly -- staying in Colorado. 

What it looks like

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0.3091184310529

Much depends on Story remaining with the Rockies, a real question after they traded Nolan Arenado. The team reportedly hopes to sign Story to a long-term extension, but if he refuses, it's not out of the question that he could find himself moved on sometime this season.

But if he does stay in Colorado, there's still room for Story to reach another level. He was actually on a 35-plus steal pace in 2020, and we've seen him flirt with 40 homers before. For someone who hits the ball pretty hard and has the benefit of the thin air of Coors Field for half of his home games, it's a bit of a surprise we haven't seen a bigger power season from Story, who hasn't had a HR/FB rate above 20% since his 2016 rookie season. With a swing geared toward generating power, even a small jump in that rate could lead to a spike in home runs. This is what that kind of season would look like.

13. Freddie Freeman

What goes right: It looks a lot like his 2020. 

What it looks like

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0.328127411408

Atlanta's offense should provide Freeman a ton of opportunities to rack up counting stats, and his line-drive-heavy approach means this could be underselling his batting average potential a bit. The thing about Freeman, though, is that there doesn't really seem be a particularly wide range of potential outcomes. This would represent career-bests in all hitting categories for a full season, but they really aren't the kind of outlier numbers some of the other guys in this exercise show. That probably owes to the fact that Freeman is, at 31, less likely to continue improving than anyone else here. But it also points to the relative safety in his profile. 

14. Cody Bellinger

What goes right: He pretty much repeats 2019. That's it. 

What it looks like

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0.3121255012019

Bellinger is another player who seems to have actualized his best-case scenario before. Obviously, it's possible he takes another step forward from a skills standpoint, but based on what he's shown, 2019 looks pretty close to the maximization of his skill set. He put himself in consideration for the top pick with that performance, but tweaked his swing in 2020 and couldn't get back to that level. I think he still can, but the fact that he's coming off shoulder surgery is a bigger red flag than his 2020 struggles.