What should you be thinking about as you prepare for your Fantasy Baseball draft? It's a good question, and I've answered it with 25 more.
Maybe you're just tuning in and want a quick summary of the most important things to know. Maybe you've been preparing for weeks already but want to make sure there isn't an angle you missed. Or maybe you're just some know-it-all curious to see if I picked the right questions. In any case, this list is for you.
And the top one is especially top-of-mind right now.
1) When is the right time to draft Fernando Tatis?
Yes, the consensus No. 1 pick in the earliest days of draft prep season is already down for the count, having learned upon arriving to camp that he needs surgery to repair an earlier fracture in his wrist. The injury could keep him out for three months, which would put him returning in mid-June. It leaves roughly 60 percent of the season for him to contribute still, but the last 60 percent, at which point you may have already waved the white flag. And of course, it's possible he suffers a setback or isn't at 100 percent when he returns.
But wow, are the potential rewards enticing. There is no better combination of power and speed in the game right now than Tatis, who hit 42 home runs and stole 25 bases even while playing only 130 games last year. The guy may have 50/30 potential, so if you're the patient sort who's willing to ride out a slow start, his production should be well worth the wait. The point I'm comfortable taking Tatis is just outside the top 100, right about the point when Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger typically go off the board (more on them later).
2) When will we see Ronald Acuna again?
The only other player on Tatis' level (at least as far as 5x5 scoring goes), Acuna is himself expected to miss a portion of 2021, still recovering from a torn ACL suffered last summer. There was hope at one point that he might be ready for opening day, but recent reports say Acuna himself is only aiming for May. GM Alex Anthopoulos even more recently said the Braves aren't expecting to see Acuna play the outfield until late May, which doesn't necessarily rule out a return as a DH before then. Still, it's fair to say the 24-year-old's return isn't exactly imminent.
The further away he is, the greater the chance for a setback that delays his return further. Just because he's taking hacks in a batting cage doesn't mean he's ready to chase down fly balls in the outfield or change directions on the base paths. The timeline suggests there are still too many hurdles for us to know what we're getting or when, which makes drafting him in Round 1 a stretch, to say the least. I'm beginning to have second thoughts about taking him in Round 2, even.
3) Will vaccine mandates derail anyone?
The NBA's Kyrie Irving hasn't been allowed to participate in home games for the Brooklyn Nets this season because he doesn't meet the city's vaccination requirements. Turns out this could become an issue in baseball as well. Mandates for certain areas have only become more stringent since last year even as the pandemic has receded into the background. Specifically, players who don't meet the requirement would be ineligible to play in Toronto (visitors only) or New York (home and visitor), according to the New York Daily News. Aaron Judge is presumed to be one such player.
"We'll cross that bridge whenever the time comes," he said about the prospect of missing home games. "So many things could change, so not really too worried about that right now."
What he means by "cross that bridge" is anybody's guess. Relent to the mandate? Dig in his heels like Irving and sit out half the time? He's not wrong that New York could ease restrictions between now and opening day, but a City Hall spokesperson has already said they're not making exceptions for anyone. Judge is just one player, too. There are reportedly others, though their identities have yet to be revealed. It's enough to make you think twice about drafting anyone from the Yankees or Mets, frankly, though my suspicion is that most players will relent if it really comes down to it. Either that or enough will unite in solidarity to carve out an exemption after all.
4) What's really going on with Jacob deGrom's elbow?
The undisputed best pitcher in baseball didn't make a single appearance in the second half of what was shaping up to be a career-best season with a 1.08 ERA, 0.55 WHIP and 14.3 K/9. Only later on did we learn that an MRI showed a UCL tear at one point. Scary Stuff. It's why people are drafting deGrom reluctantly, outside the top five at the position, when he'd normally be the obvious No. 1. The 33-year-old says the UCL is fine now, though, and new manager Buck Showalter is treating him like any other starting pitcher, even giving him the opening day nod already.
"I treated the offseason the same and prepared the same way and everything felt good," deGrom said. "I'll maybe just try to stay on top of things a little more if little things come up, stay on top of them, because there's times where you'll not say anything and it'll be a snowball effect."
The more we see of deGrom this spring, the more he's liable to move up the rankings.
5) Can Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger be fixed?
Each took a turn winning NL MVP -- Yelich in 2018 and Bellinger in 2019 -- but each has fallen on hard times since then, with 2021 representing a low point. Yelich's season was sidetracked early by a back issue, but he was supposedly healthy for the final 4 1/2 months, during which he still slashed only .238/.353/.373. Bellinger's 2021 was even more disastrous, if you can believe it. He also missed a lengthy stretch at the start of the season with a fractured fibula and then returned to slash .165/.240/.302.
Both are still in the prime of their career. Both still show small reasons for optimism -- especially Yelich, whose average exit velocity was still in the 80th percentile and maximum exit velocity was even higher. One possible cause for his struggles was that he began putting the ball on the ground more like in his Marlins days, but in those days, the results were still better. Bellinger's case, then, may be a little easier to explain. He tinkered with his mechanics coming off the MVP season, for some silly reason, and then got further out of sync after surgery to repair a dislocated shoulder last offseason. It's unclear that the fix is any easier, though.
The bottom line is that both offer first-round potential for an eighth-round price tag, which is right at the point where it's legitimately a tough decision. Colleague Chris Towers has even more to say on the matter.
6) Will we see even more of the deadened ball?
The presumed end of the juiced ball era was a major talking point heading into last season, with MLB introducing a new and not-as-bouncy baseball, and early returns were devastating. As a whole, the league hit just .232 with a .699 OPS in April. Things improved from there, but the new ball still had the effect of reducing offense from the previous two years or perhaps even longer, the juiced ball era having begun midway through 2016. For Fantasy, the middle class returned at starting pitcher, and disparity returned within the hitter ranks. Alterations in draft strategy this year are largely in response to that.
Here's the problem: The league's introduction of the new balls was less than seamless, so to speak. Old balls made it into games still, reportedly because of production delays, and there's no telling exactly when or how often they were used. So do we know the full impact of the new balls yet? Could the landscape change yet again? Could hitters with middling exit velocities lose even more ground in the home run department? It can't be ruled out.
7) Is service time manipulation a thing of the past?
The players union sought to address the matter in the new CBA that took forever to come together, but from where I sit, they didn't get it done. The incentives are convoluted, but the gist is that if a player who spends his entire rookie season on a major-league roster goes on to compete for awards in the years that follow, his team is awarded draft picks. Whether or not that possibility outweighs losing the player to free agency a year earlier remains to be seen, but suffice it to say I have my doubts.
Most likely, we'll still be forced to stash away the biggest prospects for a possible early or midseason promotion after the appropriate service time markers are reached. The list this year includes Royals shortstop Bobby Witt, Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman, Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson and others. It's not a definite waiting period either, which only adds to the frustration. Draft a guy in anticipation of a late-April promotion and you may end up stashing him all the way through June.
8) How many closers will we actually know of?
You may have noticed that modern managers aren't as invested as their predecessors in anointing a particular reliever to the role -- at least not publicly. You may have also noticed that especially few closers are known at this relatively advanced stage of draft prep season. Due to the lockout, much of the typical offseason maneuvering has yet to play out, and so certain relievers who seem like front-runners now may be overtaken by the time the dust settles.
By my count, 12 relievers -- Josh Hader, Liam Hendriks, Raisel Iglesias, Emmanuel Clase, Edwin Diaz, Ryan Pressly, Jordan Romano, Aroldis Chapman, Will Smith, Giovanny Gallegos, Corey Knebel and Mark Melancon -- are more or less confirmed as closers, but Romano, Gallegos and Knebel have only a tenuous grasp on the role. There's also free agent Kenley Jansen, who figures to sign on as a closer somewhere, perhaps even replacing one of the 12 closers we already "know."
The uncertainty has driven up the cost of the confirmed closers to levels that I find untenable. Many of the suspected closers will go on to deliver just as many saves as the confirmed ones, so I'd rather hedge my bet with 2-3 of them at a much lower cost.
9) Is Mike Trout's calf better yet?
Trout, heretofore regarded as the best player of his generation, strained his calf in mid-May of last season, an injury that figured to keep him out until about the All-Star break. It ended up costing him the rest of the season. The unfulfilled wait was the last straw for many who've come to view the former consensus No. 1 pick as injury-prone, and it's true that Trout missed an average of 26 games in the four seasons prior. But apart from a torn thumb ligament in 2017, last year was his first extended absence, and if the calf hasn't healed by now, then we're truly back in the dark ages of sports medicine.
For his part, Trout says it's been a non-issue since October and that he had a normal offseason otherwise. While he isn't much of a base-stealer anymore, which takes him out of the No. 1 overall conversation, he's arguably still the best pure hitter in the game, having batted .333 with a 1.090 OPS in the 36 games he played last year. Anyone who lets him slip past Round 1 is being overly cautious.
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10) Will Trevor Bauer be allowed to contribute?
The 2020 Cy Young winner saw his 2021 ended in June because of a sexual assault allegation, and while he ultimately wasn't charged with a crime, MLB is still conducting its own investigation to see if a suspension is warranted. For as long as he's on administrative leave, he's not able to do all he needs to do to prepare for the season, but that's the least of his concerns still. It wouldn't be unprecedented for MLB to levy its own suspension irrespective of the court's decision. And even if the league rules in Bauer's favor, it's not clear the Dodgers would welcome him back. The upside may be too much for you to resist once the top 50 or so starting pitchers are off the board, but you should understand that it may be a wasted pick.
11) Are we sure we've heard the last of sticky substances?
Perhaps the foreign substance ban's lasting impact will be the spectacle of pitchers unbuckling their belts on their lonely march back to the dugout. Why that and not, you know, the actual effect of the ban? Because the effect mostly went away in a matter of weeks. Take Gerrit Cole as an example. He was one of the many pitchers who saw his spin rate decline when the ban went into effect, from 2,551 rpm on the fastball in May to 2,344 in July. It was back up to 2,432 in September. Corbin Burnes experienced something similar -- an immediate dip followed by a gradual return to something closer to normal. I'd go as far as to say it was a widespread phenomenon.
There are a handful of pitchers for whom it's still not clear whether the ban will have a lasting effect -- reliever James Karinchak in particular comes to mind -- but it seems like the vast majority figured out how to work around it. What I can't help but wonder is whether that workaround involved another, less detectable substance and if we could see a second crackdown coming. It's one reason why I tend to gravitate more toward the middle class at the position, another being that the ban, if nothing else, seemed to make the elite starting pitchers slightly less than other-worldly.
12) How much does Justin Verlander have left?
When last we saw him (apart from a singular start in 2020), Verlander had 21 wins and 300 strikeouts. He's like a pitcher from another time, capable of achieving things that maybe no one else at the position (save for a healthy Jacob deGrom -- ha!) can. He's also coming back from Tommy John surgery at age 39, so who's to say if he'll look anything close to the same? I bet on the track record, though. He's already broken the mold by sustaining high-90s heat over 220-plus innings at age 36, so how different is 39, really? Maybe he won't throw quite that many innings, but I bet the Astros don't baby him like they would a 29-year-old coming off the procedure. Why preserve his arm at this stage of his career?
13) What about Luis Severino, Mike Clevinger and Noah Syndergaard?
Like Verlander, these three have all had ample time to recover from Tommy John surgery and should be full-go to begin 2022, with Severino and Syndergaard having briefly appeared last year. And while they're not on the hall-of-fame track Verlander is, they've all functioned as Fantasy aces in the not-so-distant past -- right up until hurting their elbows, basically.
That's not as true for Syndergaard, who looked more hittable in the two years prior to his surgery. It's not uncommon, though, for an inexplicable loss of effectiveness to precede a full-blown UCL tear, so a return to ace form can't be ruled out for him. On average, Severino, Clevinger and Syndergaard are being drafted 157th, 164th and 188th. Clevinger's cost probably appeals to me the most. I've already mentioned my reservations about Syndergaard, and we haven't seen Severino throw meaningful innings since way back in 2018. Regardless of who it is, though, I'd like to be invested in one of these three.
14) Will Bobby Witt make the opening day roster?
I pointed out back in Question 7 that organizations are still likely to play the service time game with their top prospects and even mentioned Witt as a possible victim, but it's worth pointing out that it doesn't always happen. The Royals have an old school bent to them, by which I mean they haven't sacrificed everything to the god of efficiency. They might actually be willing to award the job to Witt on merit alone.
Shoot, they came close to doing so last spring. Whatever questions they had about his readiness then were likely answered by him hitting .290 with 33 homers, 29 steals and a .936 OPS between Double- and Triple-A. There's a reason Fantasy Baseballers are drafting him just outside the top 100 overall, and it's fair to assume that even if he's not on the big club by opening day, he will be before the end of April.
15) How legit was Robbie Ray?
Last year's unlikely AL Cy Young winner had become basically a non-entity in Fantasy after showing promise earlier in his career. He was never wanting for strikeouts, having three times exceeded 200 prior to last year, but went about it so inefficiently, piling up walks while struggling to go even five innings consistently, that it never much mattered. The low point was a 6.62 ERA in 2020.
It all changed for him last year. He found the strike zone finally, issuing just 2.4 BB/9 as compared to 5.1 over the previous three seasons. He bulked up prior to the season, rediscovered his former delivery and began going right after hitters with his now-even-faster fastball instead of overusing his breaking stuff. The results speak for themselves.
If there's one area where Ray still falls short, it's in giving up hard contact, but the move from Toronto to Seattle should help in that regard. As long as he sticks with the approach he adopted last year -- which is easier said than done, but it didn't come about by happenstance either -- I like his chances of dominating again. The ceiling may actually be higher with the venue change.
16) Can Shohei Ohtani navigate that tightrope again?
When manager Joe Maddon announced last spring that his approach to Ohtani would be different from his predecessor, few took him at his word. After all, a two-way player (which is what the 27-year-old aimed to be again after making a full recovery from Tommy John surgery) would require a substantial amount of rest, likely both the day before he took the mound and the day after. That's just the way it was. Unfortunately, Ohtani's insistence on doing both would limit his usefulness in either, at least as far as Fantasy went.
Yeah ... about that. The eventual AL MVP went on to start almost every game as a hitter. Forget him sitting before and after the days he pitched. Maddon let Ohtani hit on the days he pitched, even going so far as to forfeit the DH spot for the entire game. The production says it was worth it, but seeing as Ohtani also threw 130 1/3 innings, you can't help but wonder if that's a workload he can sustain year after year. he did hit only .229 after the All-Star break, it's worth noting, and since he's being drafted in the first round on average this year, he can't afford too much slippage.
17) Is Shane Bieber OK?
After joining the ranks of the elite in 2019 and joining the ranks of the other-worldly with a Cy Young-winning 2020 campaign, Bieber started off on the right foot last year as well, recording double-digit strikeouts in five of his first six starts. But he strained his shoulder in mid-June and only made it back for six innings at the end of the year. It's fair to say he wasn't quite himself in those six innings, his velocity being down a couple miles per hour and his spin rates being down a couple hundred revolutions per minute, but I dare say it's also not fair to judge him on those six innings. The Guardians just wanted to give him some work in any capacity and didn't build him up fully.
The important thing is he showed up to camp with no lingering effects from the injury, and because it wasn't structural, we can trust that it healed on its own (unlike in the case of, say, Jacob deGrom's UCL). There's risk to drafting any starting pitcher early, but if you're going to do it, wouldn't you rather it be for an established innings-eater with a 2.92 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 11.9 K/9 over the past three seasons? I'll need to see some red flags this spring before I back down from Bieber late in Round 2.
18) How much was Marcus Semien a product of his environment?
The 31-year-old just set a single-season record for most home runs by a second baseman with 45, propelling him to a third-place finish in AL MVP voting. Between those and his 15 stolen bases, he was the seventh-best player in traditional 5x5 scoring last year, and for only the cost of a mid-round pick. Of course, it was his one and only year in Toronto, which is generally regarded as a favorable place to hit and which served up the third-best offense in baseball last year. His free agent deal with Texas means he'll join the third-worst offense in baseball, which itself may cost him between 30 and 40 combined runs and RBI even before accounting for any slippage in his own production.
And slippage appears likely. Not only is Globe Life Field a tougher place to hit than Rogers Centre but the AL West is also home to more pitcher's parks than any other division. Here's the kicker, though: Regression seemed like a given even if he had stayed put. Statcast flagged him as one of the biggest overachievers of 2021, his .245 xBA and .455 xSLG falling short of his actual .265 and .538 marks. It all adds up to Semien being one of my bust picks for 2022.
Of course, there's the added complication of him also finishing third in AL MVP voting for the Athletics in 2019, when he was in an even bigger park as well as that same tough division. So, um ... yeah.
19) Can Francisco Lindor recapture his old form?
The 28-year-old enjoyed a multi-year run of first round-caliber production, but he's had a two-year run now of significantly diminished production, barely slugging over .400 each of those years. The 2020 production was easy enough to write off, it being the pandemic-shortened season and all, but you can't say the same for last year. You can say he was adjusting to a new league and a new environment, having been traded from Cleveland to New York, and maybe that explains it. Then again, there may be a more objective explanation.
The start of Lindor's career coincides almost directly with the start of the juiced ball era. Though a top prospect, he didn't profile for big power, but he did what a lot of hitters did during the juiced ball era and tailored his swing for more. Specifically, it meant putting the ball in the air more, which made sense at a time when seemingly anything hit in the air had a chance of leaving the yard. Unfortunately, the new baseball last year raised the threshold for a fly ball becoming a home run.
I'm not saying Lindor's .230 batting average is the new norm for him, but if he now profiles as more of a 25-homer guy than a 35-homer guy with the new ball, batting average could be a longstanding issue given how many fly balls he hits.
20) Did the alterations at Camden Yards go too far?
In the interest of having their longtime hitter-friendly park play "fairer," the Orioles greenlit some drastic changes this offseason. Specifically, they moved the fence back 30 feet for all of straightaway left field while also raising the height from seven feet to 12. Moving a fence back just 10 feet can make a significant difference. Thirty is completely transformative. Just look at how its new dimensions compare to every other park:
So much for hitter-friendly. It looks like it could be the single toughest venue for a right-handed batter to hit it out now, which is bad news for Ryan Mountcastle, another bust pick of mine. He hit two-thirds of his home runs at home last year. Meanwhile, John Means, a left-handed pitcher with extreme fly-ball tendencies, has a new breakout case. It's like the Orioles designed this park just for him. Note that the right field fence is unchanged, which is good news for Cedric Mullins, who pulled 29 of his 30 home runs that direction last year.
21) Will the hurried buildup wreak havoc on pitchers' health?
Spring training is normally as long as it is precisely to keep pitchers from ramping up too quickly, so cutting it in half coming out of the lockout presents some risk. If nothing else, you can expect teams to take it easier with them the first couple turns through the rotation, as we saw following a similarly hurried ramp-up during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
22) Just how "available" is Max Muncy?
A collision at first base late last year left him with UCL damage in his elbow, but he's managed to avoid Tommy John surgery ... for now. Manager Dave Roberts believes Muncy will be ready for opening day but isn't sure "to what capacity." Having the DH in the NL this year makes it more likely he can play through a balky elbow, but it may be irrelevant. He has reportedly gotten work at both first and second base in simulated games already.
23) Does Clayton Kershaw have anything left?
Tommy John has been mentioned as a possibility for Kershaw as well after the three-time Cy Young winner barely pitched in the second half last year. The subject of retirement also came up. The Dodgers were willing to sign him for one more year at $17 million, which they obviously wouldn't do if they thought he had nothing left, but it's curious that no team offered him more. Maybe one did, but he wanted to go out as a Dodger. It's worth noting that he was still plenty effective for the time he was healthy last season.
24) What got into Joey Votto?
His 36 home runs last year were only two fewer than in his previous three seasons combined (albeit one of them of the 60-game variety) and are all the more impressive when you consider he achieved them in just 129 games. It may seem like a fluke considering his recent history, but Votto deliberately set out to hit for more power last year and accomplished it. It actually began in 2020 with him homering eight times in his final 28 games, so while I respect the concerns that come with drafting a 38-year-old, I mostly buy it.
25) Who is Trevor Story apart from Coors Field?
We had to answer this same question for Nolan Arenado at this time a year ago, and it went about as expected. The third baseman still got to his power because of his commitment to putting the ball in the air, but it cost him significantly in batting average absent the BABIP-boosting effects of Coors Field. I imagine this year playing out much the same way for Story, who hits the ball a little bit harder on average but makes contact less frequently, also with a tendency for fly balls. The bad luck he experienced in his final year with the Rockies may coincidentally serve as a sneak peak of what's to come.