2023 Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep: Searching for this year’s Aaron Judge, Julio Rodriguez more

Fantasy Baseball players love player comps. They’re messy and imprecise and often unfair, but they’re also so much fun. And nothing is more fun than the “____ of the Year” game.

We played that game on Friday’s episode of Fantasy Baseball Today, with Frank Stampfl challenging Chris Welsh and I to try to identify certain player archetypes. “Aaron Referee of the Year”, “Julio Rodriguez of the Year”, etc. You get the picture.

And the truth is, there probably won’t be an Aaron Judge breakout for any player in 2023. He had one of the best seasons in Fantasy history, going from being a fourth-round pick in many leagues to being the clear No. 1 player in the game. That kind of breakout just doesn’t happen very often, especially for an established mid-career like Judge.

There probably won’t be any Julio Rodriguez comp for 2023 either. Rookies typically don’t perform like first-rounders in Fantasy. That’s really hard to do, even in an era where young players seem to be hitting the ground running like never before. It might be unfair to put those kind of expectations on any player.

But…we’re still going to do it. Just remember that when I say someone is going to be “____ of the Year” — whether it’s Aaron Judge or Julio Rodriguez or someone else — it doesn’t mean they’re going to be exactly as good. In all likelihood, they won’t be. Judge has massive shoes and no one is going to fill them. Instead, we try to project players who can get extreme results in the upcoming season. Judge wasn’t guaranteed to play the way he did last year, but it was within his range of possible outcomes, and anyone who identified that and prioritized him as a result benefited greatly.

That’s what we’re trying to do here. You can listen to us discuss our picks below, and I have a few more thoughts on them in this piece:

Aaron judge of the year

AKA, a hitter who goes outside the Top-30 who could finish as the top player in Fantasy.

Chisholm has flashed elite upside already, and was one of the best players in Fantasy on a per-game basis last season, at least in a 5×5 context. Take his 2022 pace and give him 150 games and you’re looking at these numbers:

.254 average, 98 runs, 35 home runs, 113 RBI, 30 steals

Would that be enough to make Chisholm the No. 1 overall player? Probably not — the batting average is a little low for that. It’s not all that different from what Julio Rodriguez managed, though, and he’s a contender for the top draft pick in at least some Fantasy players’ eyes this season.

Chisholm is absurdly worked up, ranking eighth among 497 hitters with at least 50 balls in 2022, and while he doesn’t have Judge’s quality-of-contact metrics, his velocity (94th percentile) helps him make up for what he perhaps lacking as a batsman. Chisholm has “mentioned” his sights on a 50-homer, 50-steal season, and while that’s not going to happen, he’s one of those rare players with the skills to legitimately aim for a 30-30 campaign. If he can shave a few points off his strikeout rate (a high, but manageable, 28.4% in 2022), the path to a first-round pick becomes even easier.

Of the other two players mentioned, I rank Robert higher, but I think Cruz’s chances coming into such an extreme season might be even better. Cruz is the only player in the Statcast era, dating back to 2015, to hit a ball harder than Giancarlo Stanton in a season, and he’s one of four players to record a ball over 120 mph, so he has the raw power. Cruz has a ton of swing and miss in his game and probably always will due to his size, and it’s unreasonable to expect him to make the kind of gains Judge has. However, he’s also a better athlete overall than Judge, with 30-steal upside to go along with power that we may not be able to put a cap on. Is 40 homers impossible? 50? Cruz has his flaws, but if he can keep his strikeout rate in the 30% range, he certainly has upside in the first round — he hit .288/.359/.525 with a 30-30 pace last September while striking out out 29.8% of the time.

Shane McClanahan of the Year

AKA, an obvious starting pitcher who actually breaks out.

My pick may be cheating because Javier is coming off a season in which he managed a 2.54 ERA and 0.95 WHIP while recording nearly 200 strikeouts despite spending parts of the season pitching out of the bullpen. The breakout has already happened, and all he needs to do is maintain the gains he made a year ago while increasing his innings to 170-180 to potentially be a top-12 pitcher. It doesn’t take much, especially armed with several elite wrestlers and a four-seamer that does an excellent job creating weak contact.

Kirby and Lodolo are both more in the McClanahan mold – he was drafted outside the top 100 this time a year ago, just like Kirby and Lodolo. Lodolo probably fits the profile a bit better, and not just because he is left-wing. What made McClanahan such an exciting breakout candidate was the swing-and-miss stuff, with three pitches with at least a 40% strike rate as a rookie. Lodolo’s arsenal is neither as deep nor as varied as McClanahan’s, but his curveball had a massive 46% eim rate as a rookie with excellent contact quality, making it a potentially elite pitch.

Kirby doesn’t have that. He has a whole bunch of pitches — six per Statcast — all of which are pretty good, but he lacks that elite pitch. What he does have is elite control and pretty good quality contact metrics. If he can find a good pitch for smell, Kirby can take off.

This year’s Julio Rodriguez

AKA, prospect hitter who makes the Opening Day roster and makes a huge impact.

In the interest of full disclosure, on the podcast, I actually chose Dodgers player Miguel Vargas. Which I like a lot. But I don’t think he has the impact potential of a Rodriguez, and I turned against him mostly because Welsh came first to Walker.

Because Walker is the right choice here. He’s an elite performer who hit 19 homers and stole 22 bases (in 27 attempts) as a 20-year-old in Double-A last season, with pretty good plate discipline. Exit velocity data for the minors is sporadic and sometimes hard to come by, but what we have for Walker suggests he’s producing preternaturally elite readings for a minor-league player, including several 110-plus mph readings during an Arizona Fall League game last season – – something only 39 major leaguers accomplished last season.

Walker is Scott White’s No. 3 prospect enters the 2023 season, and he has a real chance to lock up a starting job this spring. And he’s off to a pretty good start on that end, having already clubbed a massive 430-foot homer in his second spring game, and he’s 5 for 13 with just two strikeouts through his first four games. He will fly up the clipboards if it becomes clear that he will start work.

This year’s Jose Berrios

AKA, a top-30 SP that unexpectedly implodes.

I’m mostly looking for McKenzie at his price, so I’m picking Welsh. I like McKenzie quite a bit, but I’ve actually used Berrios comp with him before. I don’t necessarily mean that as an insult, because Berrios has mostly been a good pitcher for quite some time, but he was often drafted as if he had ace potential when he didn’t. I think McKenzie is similar — I like him, but I think there’s a good chance we’ll look back at his 2021 as a high-water mark.

But I’m admittedly more worried about Cease. Cease has the elite strikeout rates of an ace, but as we saw in 2021, that’s not necessarily enough. He actually had a slightly lower strikeout rate (and slightly higher walk rate) in 2022 than last season, but broke out thanks to massive improvements on batted balls. In 2021, he had a projected wOBA of .383 allowed on contact, the 10th-worst mark among qualifiers; in 2022, his .313 mark was third best. Pitchers have some control over that, but it tends to be a pretty noisy stat from year to year, so if he regresses, things could get pretty ugly.

Cease gives me early career Robbie Ray vibes. Sorry!

This year’s Michael Harris

AKA, a prospect who gets called up mid-season and makes a big impact, hits.

This one is kind of hard to pin down, because you can certainly make the case that Volpe belongs in that Julio Rodriguez category, while there’s a chance we won’t even see De La Cruz in the majors. I like both for this category, with Volpe a little safer while De La Cruz has more upside.

There is some Oneil Cruz in De La Cruz’s profile. He’s massive for a shortstop, and carries massive strikeout concerns as a result – he went down in strikes 31% of the time in 2022. However, he also had massive production, hitting .304/.359/.586 while reaching Double- A as a 20-year-old, finished the season with 28 homers and 47 steals in 121 games at two levels. That’s an alarming strikeout rate for a minor leaguer, though De La Cruz’s biggest issue is more about swing decisions than swing limitations — according to BaseballProspectus.com, he actually has an above-average contact rate on pitches in the strike zone. If he can make adjustments, De La Cruz could become a superstar; even if he doesn’t, a Javier Baez-type career isn’t out of the question.

This year’s Spencer Strider

AKA, a pitcher who has an uncertain role going into the season making a huge impact.

Rodriguez is arguably the best prospect in baseball, and it really isn’t so much questions about what his role will be to start the season. It’s more a question of what his role will be throughout the season, coming off a season in which he threw just 75.2 innings while dealing with a lat strain. He almost certainly would have made it to the majors last season if not for that injury, and he has a 100-plus inning season under his belt, so he likely won’t be limited all season.

However, Rodriguez is probably pretty unlikely to surpass the 150-inning mark this season, which keeps his price low — as of Feb. 22, his ADP is still just 186.10 in NFC draft picks. That’s a pretty fair price for a player with Rodriguez’s skill set, who just put together a 2.20 ERA and .933 WHIP with a 36% strikeout rate at Triple-A last season. Rodriguez’s cap is somewhat limited due to concerns, but he’s still well-positioned to make a big impact and is a solid pick at his current price.

For what it’s worth, Rodriguez averaged 98 mph with his fastball in his spring debut and told reporters after that outing that his stuff is better than it was last year. Look at the numbers he put up last year again and tell me you don’t want Rodriguez on your team.

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