Preseason Prep – March 21, 2022
Willson Contreras (C-CHC) finished with yet another underwhelming stat line in 2021, as he batted .237 with 21 homers, 57 RBI, and 61 runs scored across 483 plate appearances. Now one of the few holdovers on a rebuilding Cubs team, Contreras will look to recapture more of what he did in 2019 (.274 average and 24 homers across just 409 plate appearances). Although his hard-hit rate came in at a robust 48% per Statcast in 2021, he continued to be fairly grounder oriented (50%) and, for the third year in a row, his strikeout rate climbed (to a career-worst 29%). His swinging-strike rate was fairly steady at 15%, but he swung at slightly fewer pitches inside the zone (up to 66% z-swing%) while also missing a bit more often when chasing outside the zone (down to 47% o-contact%). Overall, Contreras was less aggressive at the dish than in the past (45% swing%), which did help him walk at a career-high 11% rate. As one of the few relatively strong bats left on the South Side, Contreras’ fantasy value will hinge on his ability to reverse the strikeout rate trend. A homer total in the low-mid 20s seems like a sure bet with 400+ plate appearances, but an average in the .250s should be expected. That would put him right around #5 among catchers for fantasy.
Andrew Vaughn (1B-CHW) put together an encouraging 2021 season for a 23 year-old who never before logged a single plate appearance above High-A. Across 469 plate appearances, he hit .235 with 15 big flies and 48 runs scored. He held his own at the dish, with a strikeout rate just under 22% and a walk rate of almost 9%. Although a 94 wRC+ might suggest mediocrity (or that he was slightly below average), such a performance after entirely skipping the high minors is admirable. The peripherals hold some exciting stats, such as a 46% hard-hit rate per Statcast as well as a swinging-strike rate of just 10%, a solid contact rate (78%), and an average(ish) o-swing% of 32%. Overall, not bad given the circumstances. With plus (although not mammoth) power and a plus hit tool that has the potential to be plus-plus, it is exciting to see what Vaughn does going forward. For 2022, expect some modest growth in both the average and power departments – an average in the .250s with a homer total around 20 seems like a pretty safe baseline, although he could certainly do more.
Nathaniel Lowe (1B-TEX) put together a solid if unspectacular first full big-league season in 2021, logging a .264 average, 18 homers, 72 RBI, 75 runs scored, and 8 steals across 642 plate appearances. After being asked to help anchor the weak Texas lineup last season, the 26 year-old will receive much more help in 2022 as additions of Marcus Semien and Corey Seager should take some pressure off of Lowe. Although his overall stat line is underwhelming for a 1B, his wRC+ of 115 indicated that he was fairly productive. An acceptable 25% strikeout rate and quality 13% walk rate highlight his quality approach at the plate (he posted a 9% swinging-strike rate and 79% contact rate), which came with a 45% hard-hit rate per Statcast. Uncharacteristically, Lowe hit a lot of grounders (55%) last season and so his line-drive rate dipped to just 18% while his flyball rate came in at 27%. Expect the groundball rate to dip back into his usual mid-40s this season and, with it, more power output to come. In his second full season, a batting average of about .260 should be expected with a homer total in the mid-20s with a chance for more as he enters his prime. His patience does add value in leagues that consider OBP or OPS.
Triston Casas (1B-BOS) showed some improvement in key areas in 2021 as he spent most of the campaign in Double-A before moving up to Triple-A. The now 22 year-old logged a .279 average overall to go with 14 homers, 63 RBI, and 7 stolen bases across 371 combined plate appearances. Casas recorded a 19% strikeout rate at both levels, down a good bit from the 24% he logged across A and High-A ball back in 2019, while his power output remained largely the same despite facing higher-level competition. The lack of statistical growth in the power department can probably be attributed to a conscious effort to cut down on strikeouts, although it’s worth noting that his power came on down the stretch. It’s also worth noting that he slugged a few dingers in the Tokyo Olympics during the season. At any rate, Casas – with a plus hit tool and plus power – seems likely to start the 2022 campaign in Triple-A, but given his recent progression it would not be surprising to see him get the call to the majors during the campaign and make a significant number of plate appearances. The game power is still developing, so keep an eye on him as he continues to hone his craft in Triple-A.
Nolan Gorman (2B-STL) appears primed to make his MLB debut in 2022, and fantasy owners should be interested in what he could bring to the table. Across 523 plate appearances split between the Double-A and Triple-A levels in 2021, the 21 year-old batted .279 with 25 homers, 75 RBI, and 7 stolen bases; most of that production (328 PA) came at the Triple-A level. While Gorman’s hit tool is merely average at best, the former 3B possesses plus-plus power that he already applies in games. While his minor-league track record includes plenty of strikeouts, including a 27% strikeout rate in Double-A to open the 2021 campaign, he encouragingly slashed that to 19% down the stretch in Triple-A. While a lack of grounders (28% in Double-A and 37% in Triple-A last season) will suppress his average a bit, Gorman rips lots of liners (27% and 29%, respectively) and lofts enough flyballs (34% and 36%, respectively) to amass useful homer totals given his pop. Expect the 2018 first-round pick to reach the majors this season and while the power is intriguing bear in mind that his average is likely to come in under .250.
Trevor Story (SS-BOS) agreed to a six-year, $140-million deal with the Red Sox. It is unclear at the moment if he will move to 2B in deference to Xander Bogaerts, but there is some concern here given Story’s track record away from Coors Field throughout his career. While he’s logged a wRC+ of 125 at Coors, that figure has sat at just 98 on the road while both his batting average and OBP have been about 60 points lower on the road and his slugging percentage about 160 lower. Fenway, fortunately, is not exactly the worst park for right-handed hitters, as it ranked second behind only – you guessed it – Coors Field – in park factor from 2019 through 2021. And Story did put together a productive 2021 campaign in which he hit .251 with 24 homers, 75 RBI, 88 runs scored, and 20 stolen bases over 595 plate appearances. The average, however, was .293 at Coors and just .203 away while he did hit 13 of his dingers on the road in fewer plate appearances (307 PA at home, 288 away). All things considered, the move was probably the best possible scenario for Story as he left Colorado – temper expectations a little from the past and he should deliver.
Anthony Rendon (3B-LAA) certainly disappointed his fantasy owners in 2021 as a plethora of injuries shortened his campaign and rendered his final line a weak .240 with 6 homers and 34 RBI across 249 plate appearances; his wRC+ of 95 was his lowest in the majors. That came on the heels of a solid first season with the Angels in 2020 (.286 average, 9 dingers, and 31 RBI over 232 PA, good for a 153 wRC+). Reportedly at full health for the new campaign, Rendon could offer nice value in fantasy drafts given that while his stock is down, we can pretty safely chalk his 2021 line up to injury issues. Those sapped his ability to make hard contact, yet that rate remained respectable enough at 39% per Statcast while Rendon’s swinging-strike did tick upward to 7% and his contact rate slipped just below 85%; unsurprisingly, this all contributed to a 17% strikeout rate that was his highest since 2016. He was an elite fantasy contributor as recently as 2019 (we’ll call his 2020 merely “productive”) and should recapture some degree of his peak form during a season in which he will turn 32. If Rendon lingers just a bit too long in drafts because your competition forgot about him, I would take him and expect an average north of .270 to go with homer total in the mid 20s, although he could certainly give you more.
Ramon Laureano (OF-OAK) was in the midst of something of a bounceback year in 2021 before a PED suspension cut his season short; he will also miss roughly the first month of action in 2022, so bear that in mind. After following up his breakout 2019 campaign (.288 with 24 homers, 67 RBI, 79 runs scored, and 13 steals across 481 plate appearances), Laureano disappointed in 2020 (.213 average, 6 dingers, 25 RBI, 27 runs scored, and 2 stolen bases over 222 PA) before logging a .246 average, 14 big flies, 39 RBI, 43 runs scored, and 12 steals across 378 plate appearances in 2021. So while he’ll miss about four weeks worth of plate appearances to open 2022, he should post an overall line not too far off what he did in 2019. Given the strikeouts (26% in 2021 and career) and just okay contact rate (75% in 2021 and career), his average is likely to come in around the .250s, but his real value lies in his ability to slug a bunch of homers while stealing more than a few bags. Given that his hard-hit rate rebounded in 2021 (from 34% in 2020) back to 40% and his ongoing ability to record a healthy flyball rate (35% in 2021, 36% career), a homer total in the low 20s seems very doable while his demonstrated ability to steal bases should mean that he grabs about 10-15 for fantasy owners. All things considered, Laureano should probably be priced as an upside #3 OF for fantasy in 2022.
George Springer (OF-TOR) logged relatively few plate appearances because of various injuries in 2021, but was productive when on the field, as he finished the campaign with a .264 average, 22 homers, 50 RBI, 59 runs scored, and 4 stolen bases across just 342 plate appearances. As Springer heads into his age-32 season, he will look to play more than 140 games for just the second time in his big-league career (he made his debut back in 2014), and fantasy owners should consider that when thinking about drafting him. But if he can be had for a good value, Springer should remain productive when he’s on the field, as his hard-hit rate came in at about his norm at 42% last season per Statcast while his swinging-strike rate remained under 12%. An interesting thing is that Springer’s flyball rate has steadily ticked upward since 2015, reaching 47% in 2021. That’s obviously good for the power output, especially given that he’s continued to make plenty of quality contact, but there could be implications for the average. If there’s any reason for concern, his strikeout rate – while not at all bad at 23% – was his highest since 2016 as his ability to make contact on pitches outside of the zone dipped a bit (down to 45% in 2021, 51% career). At this point in his career, Springer is a solid #2 option at OF for fantasy but I’d be sure to have a strong #3 in line to mitigate if/when he lands on the IL.
Bryan Reynolds (OF-PIT) rebounded from a poor 2020 (.189 average, 7 homers, 19 RBI, 24 runs scored over 208 plate appearances) to build on his 2019 breakout (.314 average, 16 dingers, 68 RBI, and 83 runs scored over 546 PA) in 2021, finishing the season with a .302 average, 24 homers, 90 RBI, and 93 runs scored across 646 plate appearances. Reynolds slashed his strikeout rate to 18% while showing more patience (12% walk rate), although one might fairly point out that opposing pitchers could afford to be careful with him because, well, there’s not much else going on in the Bucco’s lineup. After having his hard-hit rate slide to 38% in 2020 per Statcast, Reynolds raised it back to 41% (what it was in 2019) while ripping a career-high 26% liners and again ticking his flyball rate upwards to 36%. While it might be unreasonable to expect another .300 average in 2021, Reynolds should put up at least a .280 to go with a homer total in the mid-20s and 80+ each of runs scored and RBI. That makes the 27 year-old a solid #2 OF in fantasy.
Tyler Mahle (SP-CIN) put things together in 2021 as he logged a 3.75 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 10.5 K/9, and 3.2 BB/0 across 33 starts (180 innings). A 3.74 xFIP indicates that his luck was neutral. His swinging-strike rate was just alright at 11%, but opposing hitters made contact at a modest 75% clip while Mahle allowed hard contact at just a 34% rate per Statcast. The effort showed that he was able to build on the pandemic-shortened 2020 season in which he logged a 3.59 ERA, 11.3 K/9, and 4 BB/9 over 47.2 IP (9 starts, 1 relief appearance). Given that 2020 was really his first time delivering a useful stat line in the majors, there were legitimate concerns as to whether he could translate that success to a full season. And he did, with that 3.74 xFIP in 2021 representing an improvement on his 4.59 figure in that department from the year before, when he have some luck on his side (opposing hitters logged a .255 BABIP against Mahle in 2020 despite hitting liners and flyballs a combined 71% of the time). Given his improving control and ability to put up a K/9 north of 9, Mahle should be able to find some success again in 2022, but beware that his flyball-oriented approach could get him into some trouble in Cincinnati.
Max Fried (SP-ATL) put together a strong season in 2021, as he finished the campaign with a 3.04 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, and 2.2 BB/9 across 28 starts (165.2 innings). While the southpaw’s K/9 was below his 9.4 clip from 2019, he did log a career-best BB/9 while continuing to induce grounders at a high rate (52%). His 3.45 xFIP was, moreover, pretty close to that from his breakout 2019 season (3.32). In addition to inducing lots of grounders, Fried allowed hard contact at a modest 34% clip per Statcast (36% career) while opposing hitters made contact at a 77% rate. With an 11% swinging-strike rate over his career (including 11% in 2021), Fried is never going to be a true strikeout artist, but his value in both fantasy and reality is rooted in his strong control, tendency to coax grounders out of opposing bats, and, yes, an ability to record a few punchouts by keeping opposing hitters off-balance with his varied repertoire (39% heater, 11% sinker, 26% curve, 22% slider, and 2% change. Draft the 27 year-old as your #2 SP and you should not be disappointed with the results.
Ian Anderson (SP-ATL) probably lost a little luster in 2021 as he followed up his strong 2020 debut (1.95 ERA, 11.4 K/9, and 3.9 BB/9 over 32.1 IP) with a 3.58 ERA, 8.7 K/9, and 3.7 BB/9 over 128.1 IP (24 starts). The 3.96 xFIP points to an inflated 79% strand rate and low .261 BABIP suppressing his ERA a bit, although it’s worth noting that compared to his track record a 15% HR/FB seems high. Probably the most concerning thing about Anderson’s season was the significant decline in strikeouts as opposing hitters made a bit more contact against him (up from 72% in 2020 to 74% in 2021) while they swung more often at pitches inside the zone against him (up to 70% from 63%) and also made a bit more contact on those pitches both inside the zone (up to 83% from 81%) and outside of the zone (up to 59% from 56%). Anderson’s groundball rate did slip from 53% to 49% while the opposition also made more hard contact against him (up to 39% from 32%). The good news is that he seemed to round into form during the playoffs and will turn just 24 this season. Given his plus heater and plus curve that come with a plus-plus change-up, one can fairly expect Anderson to be a #3 SP for fantasy in 2022 as he logs an ERA in the upper 3s while fanning a batter an inning. Although he could, of course, continue to improve and put up #2 SP stats.
Huascar Ynoa (SP-ATL) put together an impressive abbreviated 2021 campaign, as he recorded a 4.05 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 9.9 K/9, and 2.5 BB/9 across 91 innings of work (17 starts, 1 relief appearance). An injury sustained while taking out some frustration in the dugout after getting roughed up sidelined him for three months, but he returned late in the season to flash some of the effectiveness that he showed earlier in the campaign. While his two-pitch approach that consists of a 97-mph heater (45% usage) and an 85-mph slider (48% usage) was much the same as in the past, the key to his improved performance was a vastly lower walk rate and higher swinging-strike rate (13%). The problem is that his limited repertoire can lead to his offerings being predictable and opposing hitters can therefore hit him hard (43% hard-hit rate per Statcast in 2021). While his slider commanded a 4.7 wSL, his heater came in below average at -1.3. Unless Ynoa develops a serviceable third offering after deploying his 88-mph change just 7% of the time last year, it’s tough to envision him remaining an effective starter or even avoiding bullpen duty.
Grayson Rodriguez (SP-BAL) should receive further seasoning in the minors to begin the 2022 campaign, but it is likely that the stud SP prospect earns some playing time in the majors at some point in the season. Over 23 starts across High-A and Double-A last year, the 21 year-old righty compiled a stellar 2.36 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 14.1 K/9, and 2.1 BB/9 in 103 innings of work. A 2.67 xFIP across those two levels confirms that his surface numbers were pretty legit. Armed with three plus-plus offerings (heater, change, and slider) as well as a plus curve and cutter, Rodriguez has demonstrated tremendous strikeout ability along with solid control. Now a two-time minor-league pitcher of the year for the Baltimore organization, the 22 year-old is built like a workhorse SP (6’5″, 220 pounds) and possesses pure stuff that is intriguing for fantasy. It’s just a matter of when he gets the call, and if he parlays his past success into the 2022 season that promotion could happen sooner rather than later. For now, just make sure he’s on your radar and expect a midseason call-up.
George Kirby (SP-SEA) is in a similar boat as Grayson Rodriguez as the 2022 season approaches after posting a strong 2021 campaign. The 2019 first-round draft pick might not possess the elite repertoire of Rodriguez, but he has demonstrated stronger command throughout his minor-league career as he deploys a plus-plus heater that reaches into the high 90s to go with a developing slider, change, and curve. Kirby’s strikeout potential, at the moment at least, is not as great as that of Rodriguez, but there have been lofty comparisons made to Shane Bieber based on his strong control. In addition to piling up 80 strikeouts against just 15 walks across 67.2 innings split between High-A and Double-A last season to go along with a combined 2.53 ERA and 1.08 WHIP, Kirby induced grounders at a 59% clip in High-A (41.2 IP) and 49% rate in Double-A (26 IP). The xFIP was a bit elevated at each level (3.07 in Double-A, against a 2.38 ERA while, in Triple-A, it was 3.62 against a 2.77 ERA), largely because Kirby gave up exactly one homer all year. The pure stuff and punchout ability of Rodriguez makes him the more intriguing of the two prospects for fantasy, but make sure Kirby is nevertheless on your radar.