Preseason Prep – March 11, 2022
Max Muncy, 1B/2B (LAD)
A lot of early drafters got a steal with Muncy, if he is indeed healthy. According to a recent interview on LA radio, Muncy said he’s progressing well from a torn UCL and should be available when the season starts. Because of the nature of his injury, there was a general expectation he could need Tommy John Surgery, which caused his ADP to fall close to 150, even being taken as low as 256 overall in NFBC drafts. His own report is encouraging enough to start factoring Muncy back in among the top first baseman and second baseman in the league. In fact, until his injury diagnosis, Muncy was having the best season of his career. A career-low swinging-strike rate combined with elite quality of contact resulted in a .368 OBP and 36 home runs. A relatively high flyball rate lends to his generally low BABIP, but last year’s .257 seems inordinately depressed, considering how hard he hits the ball. Improved BABIP will lead to a better batting average (.249 in 2021). Count me back in on the multi-positional, multi-category, seemingly healthy Dodgers infielder.
Kyle Schwarber, OF (FA)
We’re in uncharted territory, and it’s not exactly clear how quickly free agents will sign. By the time you’re reading this, it’s possible a number of key players will be locked up. Perhaps Kyle Schwarber will be one of them. Schwarber has 15 additional suitors this offseason with the addition of the designated hitter in the National League. Yes, Schwarber is capable of playing in the outfield or first base, but it’s not pretty. What is pretty are the 30 home runs you can pretty much bank if Schwarber stays healthy. He popped 32 last year in 471 plate appearances, and while Schwarber had the benefit of playing in two of the best home parks for lefties (Nationals and Fenway), the friendly confines benefited his batting average more than his home runs. A career-high .306 BABIP is related to the ballparks. Therefore, likely BABIP regression will drag his batting average down closer to his career mark of .237. However, the power is undeniable. Schwarber is a flyball-hitter, which works with his 97-mph exit velocity on fly balls and line drives. Ultimately where he ends up signing is intriguing for his combined stats, but that power plays anywhere.
Nathan Eovaldi, SP (BOS)
Eovaldi’s volatile career belies his consistency over the last two years. In some senses, he is a late bloomer. Not that he was late to the major leagues, but he was late in finding a pitching arsenal that works with his high-velocity 4-seam fastball. He seems to have gained more confidence in his curveball, which has been a very effective pitch and a strong complement to the heater. It has helped keep opposing hitters off balance and induce weaker contact, evidenced by a career-low 88-mph average exit velocity in 2021. He particularly slowed bats down so his fastball generated more weak popups. A generous 8.2% HR/FB rate signals a few more home runs will likely be surrendered, but Eovaldi’s a pretty safe bet for a sub-4.00 ERA and 9.5 K/9. It will be difficult to find that level of reliability in the range of where you can draft Eovaldi.
Alex Reyes, RP (STL)
If Reyes was ever going to earn a starting role, he needed time to stretch his arm out. The lockout and shortened spring training won’t give him that time so he is expected to spend another season in the St. Louis bullpen. That worked for a good portion of last season as Reyes overcame a ridiculously high walk rate to convert 29 saves. Eventually, however, he lost the closer job and he is unlikely to earn it back. A lack of control haunts Reyes and inhibits his powerful pitch mix. It’s a mix that could develop into elite starting material, but will he ever get that chance? As a middle-to-high leverage reliever, Reyes’ fantasy value is limited, and there isn’t much to suggest it can improve this season. Still only 27, the door certainly isn’t shut yet, but Reyes’ career has yet to deliver what his pedigree suggests.
Ranger Suarez, SP (PHI)
Suarez’s status for Opening Day is in question. Multiple reports suggest the Phillies starter does not have his visa, which could be an issue for several players because they were unable to secure work visas during the lockout. We’ve seen in the past the process of securing a visa can take some time so it’s not clear when Suarez will be able to report. The truth is the reliever-turned-starter wasn’t likely to accumulate a full season’s worth of innings anyway. Last year’s 106 frames is a career high. Whenever he is finally able to go, it will be interesting to see if he can build off last season’s success. After demonstrating below-average strikeout numbers in the minors, Suarez finished 2021 with a 11.2% swinging-strike rate and a strong 3.24 K/BB ratio. Despite a 59.2% groundball rate, Suarez enjoyed a .257 BABIP against. Expect regression in that number as well as his 86.3% LOB-rate. When those numbers move, so too will his ERA, although I doubt anyone was anticipating a repeat of last year’s 1.36. If Suarez can sustain a velocity near 94-mph, while keeping his changeup hovering around nine miles per hour lower, he can continue a certain modicum of success. However, while he earned a role in the starting rotation this year, any regression whether velocity or command, could lead to a return to the bullpen.
Kyle Gibson, SP (PHI)
Gibson had a 2.87 ERA when he was traded from Texas to Philadelphia last summer. Then he had a 5.09 ERA over the rest of the season. However, the reality is Gibson didn’t change. His luck did. In fact his xFIP was almost identical from Texas to Philadelphia. Unfortunately for the veteran right-hander, his LOB-rate dropped 15% while his BABIP and HR/FB rates hiked. Some of that can be attributed to moving from a pitcher’s park to a hitter’s park. One positive during his short run in Philadelphia was the increased use of his cutter, which generates weak contact. He would be wise to continue that increased deployment this season. All in all, Gibson was never the sub-3.00 ERA guy in the first half. Nor is he the 5+ ERA from the second half. He’s in between, which is just what his advanced metrics suggest.
Yusei Kikuchi, SP (FA)
It was a tale of two halves for Kickuchi, who held opposing hitters to a .204 batting average while closing the first half of the season with a 3.48 ERA, but he fell apart in the second half, allowing opposing batters to hit .300 and finishing the stretch with a 5.98 ERA. Not coincidentally, he lost more than a mile per hour off his fastball. Kikuchi’s inability to consistently retire right-handed hitters is problematic. He is dynamite against lefties, but he hasn’t found the answer against righties. He relied heavily on his 4-seam fastball and changeup, but that didn’t stop righties from hitting .271 with a .357 wOBA. Nonetheless, Kikuchi believes he can make more than $13 million next season because that’s what he declined for his one-year player option with Seattle, and the likelihood is he will secure a multi-year deal worth a higher AAV because other teams recognize the upside: swing-and-miss stuff with a consistently sub-4.00 xFIP. Keep an eye on his fastball velocity in the early going. If he is hitting 95-96 regularly and can demonstrate moderate improvement against right-handed hitters, Kikuchi could finally deliver on his high expectations.
Cody Bellinger, OF (LAD)
Bellinger was the National League MVP in 2019, but in 2021 he lost his everyday role. Whether he can earn it back depends on a great number of things. For one, can he hit fastballs again? Bellinger went from demolishing fastballs (.440 wOBA and .661 slg in 2019) to an easy out (.341 slg, .150 avg in 2021). Part of the problem is an inconsistent swing path. An exorbitantly high launch angle led to a lot of weak fly balls. His line drive rate dipped and so did his barrel rate, down to a career-low seven percent. Meanwhile, whether the pressure to turn it around or a truly diminished swing led to changes in approach, Bellinger became overly aggressive, leading to a 14.2% swinging-strike rate, up nearly five percentage points from his MVP campaign. Not surprisingly, his contact rate dropped six percent. Some early 2022 fantasy drafters eagerly tout his encouraging postseason run, but Bellinger still struggled with contact and strikeouts during the playoffs. However, his launch angle was more level, leading to more line drives. If that was a sign of improved health (he dealt with a nagging shoulder injury) or perhaps a conscious tweak, a bounceback is reasonable.
Andrew McCutchen, OF (FA)
McCutchen is certainly experiencing a rapid decline, but the aging veteran will sign at least one more contract. Whether he will be a part-time player or a regular starter is an important question. Now a batting average liability whose speed is unsubstantial, McCutchen’s most prominent skill is enough power to hit 25+ home runs, but if he is only a part-time player, he just might not get enough at-bats to reach the threshold. McCutchen’s BABIP saw an extreme drop last season, and that was probably a product of some bad luck. If that can recover, so can his batting average, but only so much. Monitor his free agency closely. The role he assumes on his new team will determine his fantasy value.
Triston McKenzie, SP (CLE)
McKenzie’s 2021 was all over the place. He spent a month in the minors, had one excellent month and four abysmal months. He gives up a ton of fly balls, which is why his BABIP remains low, but it was particularly so last season at .217. The problem is a lot of those fly balls left the ballpark. McKenzie gave up 21 home runs in 120 major league innings. He gives up hard contact, and hard contact in the air is dangerous. At some point the young hurler will have to utilize his secondary pitches more. He threw his fastball more than 60% of the time. It’s a high fastball that causes fly balls and home runs. He offers a lot more if he can find some consistency with his slider and curveball. Both of those pitches are far less susceptible to the long ball and more conducive to consistent outings. He is young. Development is quite possible, and he has the tools to do it.
Freddy Peralta, SP (MIL)
If you need proof that young pitchers can develop and learn from their results, look no further than Freddy Peralta. Bouncing between the bullpen and the starting rotation for the first several years of his career, Peralta finally reduced the use of his fastball and diversified his pitch mix. A changeup, curveball and slider created an arsenal that limited hard contact and led to a breakout campaign. Fly balls and weak contact will contribute to low BABIPs, but .230 may be unsustainable. However, even a moderate increase in BABIP still keeps Peralta’s overall line in good shape. Anticipate some regression this year, but Peralta is a good bet for another strong season in 2022.
Marco Gonzales, SP (SEA)
There was a time when Marco Gonzales was a ground ball pitcher, but that was not the case in 2021. All of a sudden two-thirds of his batted balls are in the air. Not unrelated, his fastball usage was the highest in five years. The result was a career-high LOB-rate and career-low BABIP. Assuming a good portion of luck, Gonzales is in danger of massive regression. In fact, his 5.16 xFIP was the second-highest of his career. Gonzales has managed to overcome weak velo and underwhelming peripherals to post three straight sub-4.00 ERA seasons. Expect that streak to end in 2022.
Jorge Mateo, OF (BAL)
Mateo’s elite speed and moderate power cannot overcome his horrible plate discipline. It’s hard to imagine, even a poor team like Baltimore giving Mateo an everyday role when his swinging-strike rate hovers in the mid-teen’s. Furthermore, he is overly-aggressive and just doesn’t take walks. Mateo needs to get on base, whether it’s via a free pass or a base hit because he is one of the fastest players in baseball. If you want cheap speed near the end of your drafts, Mateo’s wheels would suffice, but only if he gets some playing time and some trips to first base. What would help is trying to go the other way. Mateo finished 2021 with a 41% pull percentage. He went to right field less than 20% of the time. Spraying the ball around the field opens up the defense to take advantage of his speed. Foremost however, he needs to make contact before we worry where he’s hitting it. Mateo may never elevate from a fourth outfielder, but his upside remains simply because of his incredible athleticism.
Garrett Hampson, 2B/OF (COL)
Hampson is nothing more than a backup middle infielder or reserve outfielder in most fantasy formats. That’s a direct result of his lack of playing time. A full complement of at-bats has 15/25 written all over it. Hampson’s power is unimpressive, but he plays in a great ballpark and has sufficient enough swing to pop 15 dingers. The speed is very good. He could be a 25-30 stolen base guy, but only if he plays. And the Rockies have been hesitant to let him play. Yes, his batting average remains low based on his weak quality of contact, but he makes enough contact and is relatively patient, exhibiting a 7% walk rate. It’s all about playing time. If you’re looking for late round speed, you can grab Hampson to offer stolen bases along with a chunk of other stats. The upside is tied to his role.
Freddie Freeman, 1B (FA)
Freeman is a free man. Sorry. A free agent. One of the biggest names on the market, and while many expect him to return to Atlanta, there is significant buzz from major teams like the Dodgers and Yankees. It will be hard to imagine the longtime Brave outside of Atlanta, but there are certain spots, like Yankee Stadium, that play well to his left-handed bat. However, Truist Park is a nice stadium itself for hitters. He benefited the last couple years from the new stadium; however, Freeman’s skill set plays anywhere. He has elite quality of contact with a barrel rate in the double digits nearly every season of his career. He saw a slight decline in home runs (still a solid 31), which is connected to his career-high ground ball rate. That’s not much of a concern, unless it continues to decline. A change in club and limited adjustment time might lead to a slow start, but the floor is high with the former MVP.
Jordan Montgomery, SP (NYY)
Montgomery’s health concerns were put to bed last season when he made 30 starts, finishing with a 3.83 ERA. The ERA was solid, but what was most impressive is his ability to miss bats. Montgomery flashed a 13.7% swinging-strike rate, utilizing a fairly even mix of five different pitches. He threw hard stuff that moved in different ways but complemented a 92-mph fastball with a changeup that is 10-mph slower. That explains why his changeup was so effective, and why he continued to use it more and more. He has a lot of options when he’s on the mound, and hitters will have trouble knowing what to expect. Meanwhile, his command is solid and there’s room for even more growth. Montgomery could truly break out in 2022.