Preseason Prep – March 7, 2022 – Fantasy Baseball 2022

Preseason Prep – March 7, 2022

Keibert Ruiz (C-WSH) is quite frankly as good of an option as fantasy owners have outside of the top few players at the catcher position. Beyond Salvador Perez, Will Smith, J.T. Realmuto, and Yasmani Grandal, it’s a real crapshoot of unproven, flawed, and injury-prone options. Ruiz, however, offers some upside with a decent floor as a switch-hitting contact-first bat that has solid – if unspectacular pop – in it. And that’s important because he received a late-season audition in Washington last year and appears set to begin the season as the team’s primary backstop. Based on his plus contact ability and tendency to drive liners (about 23% in Triple-A last season), Ruiz seems primed to offer an average in the neighborhood of .270. The key to his fantasy value will be, then, his power production. Before last year, he never popped more than 12 homers in a single season, but he slugged a combined 24 across 316 Triple-A plate appearances and another 96 in the majors. Ruiz did hit just 3 homers across 96 big-league PA while logging just a 30% hard-hit rate per Statcast, so it’s not a given that he will be a lock for 20+ dingers over his first full season of MLB action at age 23. Over a full campaign – or almost one – 15 homers with a quality average seems like a reasonable expectation, with a possibility for more.

Josh Bell (1B-WSH) rebounded in 2021 after a rough second half of the 2019 season and a weak 2020 showing, finishing with a .261 average, 27 homers, and 88 RBI across 568 plate appearances. It might not be as impressive as his overall 2019 line (.277/37/116), but it was useful and more importantly, repeatable given his track record. Take, for example, 2017, when Bell batted an eerily similar .255 with 26 dingers and 90 RBI across 620 PA. After fanning at a 27% clip in 2020, that was down to slightly under his career average at 18% in 2021 while he raised his walk rate back to his career norm at about 11.5% (under 10% in 2020). The hard contact, most encouragingly, finished at a career-best 52% per Statcast. A concern, however, is the continued high groundball rate (53.5%), which didn’t leave many flyballs (26.5%) or liners (20%) to go over the fence. The 25% HR/FB might appear unrepeatable at a glance, but he logged a 24% HR/FB in 2019 and a 22% in 2020, which suggests that at least a 20% is doable again. Overall, it appears that Bell has put his late 2019 and 2020 struggles behind him to reestablish himself as a top-10 option at the 1B position with likely projection of a .265 average 25-30 homers over a full season of action. And there is an added bonus in his ability to draw walks for leagues that consider OBP or OPS.

Jonathan India (2B-CIN) won the 2021 NL Rookie of the Year award, and for good reason. After not logging a plate appearance above the Double-A level, the then-24 year-old batted .269 with 21 homers, 98 runs scored, 69 RBI, and 12 stolen bases across 631 big-league plate appearances on the campaign. None of those stats – save the runs – are impressive, but taken as a whole they make India a fringe top-10 option at the 2B position in fantasy. As he did throughout his minor-league career, he showed patience and a good eye at the dish, drawing walks at a healthy 11% rate while fanning at an acceptable 22% clip. He certainly doesn’t have burner speed, but his propensity for getting on base and his opportunism did allow him to successfully convert on a dozen of 15 attempts. The power rated as merely average, too, as a prospect, but India finished the 2022 campaign with a solid 38% hard-hit rate and showed a fairly balanced batted-ball profile, with a 23% liner rate, 44% grounder rate, and 33% flyball rate. With a selective approach, 77% contact rate, 9% swinging-strike rate, and ability to make some quality contact, the former top-5 draft pick appears likely to reprise his role as an all-round contributor – expect an average in the .260s to go with a homer total in the mid-20s and about 10 steals, and the results should be there; prorate accordingly as the ongoing lockout shortens the season.

Eduardo Escobar (2B/3B-NYM) moves to the New York Mets for 2022 after logging a .253 average, 28 homers, and 90 RBI across 599 plate appearances split between Arizona and Milwaukee in 2021. Although he doesn’t rate highly on most fantasy lists, owners should consider him if they miss out on top-10 options at either 2B or 3B, especially given his position flexibility. Outside of his abysmal 2020 campaign, Escobar has been a solid – if largely unexciting – producer since 2017, posting an average of at least .253 and at least 21 dingers each year (again, outside of the shortened 2020 season). His highs during that span were a .272 average and 35 homers, which gives you some idea of where he should reside in 2022 – probably an average in the .250s with a homer total in the mid-high 20s over a full(ish) season. He doesn’t fan a ton (21% in 2021), but also doesn’t make a lot of hard contact, with his 34% per Statcast in 2021 representing a career best. But he’s a sheer volume guy in terms of contact, as doesn’t swing-and-miss a ton (11% in 2021) and makes a healthy amount of contact (78%) while ripping a fair amount of liners (21%) and lofting lots of flyballs (a career-high 47% in 2021). Add all that up and you will have a guy who is useful as a later-round addition because of his steady – if unspectacular – production.

Amed Rosario (SS-CLE) will likely remain on many waiver wires after 2022 fantasy drafts wrap up, but make sure he’s on your watch list. The now 26 year-old put together a solid 2021 campaign after overcoming some early struggles, finishing the campaign with a .282 average, 11 homers, 77 runs scored, 57 RBI, and 13 steals over 588 plate appearances. Although none of those figures stands out, he finished the season batting near the top of Cleveland’s admittedly weak lineup. Rosario’s 51% groundball rate is a key to his solid average, but limits his power output, although his 43% hard-hit rate per Statcast was a career best in that department. As his 32% pull, 40% center, 28% push batted ball distribution indicates, he excels at using the whole field and is therefore not one to suffer from a shift effect. One key area where Rosario could help fantasy owners is in the stolen base department, for he did go 13-13 on steal attempts last year and could get the green light more based on that success – and he did swipe 24 and 19 bags with the Mets in 2018 and 2019, respectively (although he was also caught a lot those seasons). So, while shortstop is a stacked position, Rosario could make an interesting average/steals/runs addition in the event of an injury or if your league has an MI option. Over a full season – or almost one, it’s reasonable to expect about a .270ish average to go with 15-15 homers and steals.

Hunter Renfroe (OF-MIL) will move from one hitter-friendly park to another in 2022, as he will call Milwaukee home after rejuvenating his career in Boston. In 2021, the now-30 year-old hit .259 with 31 big flies and 96 RBI across a career-high 572 plate appearances. The power has never been a question for Renfroe, but he maintained a place in the lineup by slashing his strikeout rate to just under 23%, his best in an appreciable MLB sample size, while posting a career-best 44% hard-hit rate per Statcast. Renfroe simply swung and missed at an 11% rate, his best in a full (or near-full) season, making contact at a 77% clip that is easily his best rate in that department as a full-time player. His most notable improvement, it seems, came against fastballs (11 wFB after coming in at or below zero each of the previous four seasons), although he was also no slouch against breaking stuff (5 wSL and 2 wCB in 2021). While Renfroe’s improvements in 2021 were encouraging, it’s tough to trust him after multiple years of quality power production that came with sub-.250 averages. For fantasy, I would view him as an upside #3 OF and not overpay for him in drafts. An average around .240 with about 30 dingers seems like a reasonable expectation over a full(ish) campaign.

Jesus Sanchez (OF-MIA) capitalized on a hot start to his age-23 season in Triple-A by returning to the majors late in the season and acquitting himself much better than he did in 2020, when he logged a .040 average over just 29 plate appearances. Across 251 plate appearances in 2021, Sanchez batted .251 with 14 homers and 36 RBI. The strikeout rate was down from the ridiculous 38% he posted in 2020, but still high at 31%. He does swing and miss a good bit (13%), partly because he does chase pitches outside of the zone (36% o-swing%) and miss at many of those (58% o-contact%). With an overall contact rate of 73%, there is room for concern about his average going forward, although a .250 average seems like a reasonable expectation for the youngster. Encouragingly, Sanchez tended to make good contact when he did get the bat on the ball (43% hard-hit rate per Statcast) and assembled a fairly balanced battled ball profile that included a 21% liner rate, 45% grounder rate, and 34% flyball rate. He also didn’t lapse into simply pulling the ball, as evidenced by a 37% pull rate, 36% center rate, and 27% push rate, which can help the average. Given the strides that Sanchez made last season and that he should have the opportunity to build on that progress as a starter, the 24 year-old should be on fantasy radars as a breakout candidate. The average should come in at about .250 with a homer total in the mid-20s over a full season; prorate accordingly.

Teoscar Hernandez (OF-TOR) followed up his breakout 2020 campaign (.289 average with 16 dingers, 34 RBI, and 6 steals across 207 plate appearances) by making some promising gains in 2021. The then-28 year-old batted .296 with 32 homers, 116 RBI, and a dozen stolen bases across 595 plate appearances. In addition to maintaining a strong BABIP (.352) thanks to a 49% hard-hit rate (per Statcast) to go with a 26% liner rate, 38% grounder rate, and 36% flyball rate, Hernandez slashed his strikeout rate from a concerning 30% in 2020 to a shade under 25% in 2021. His contact rate of 70% was no great shakes, but it was the best of his career as he raised his contact rate on pitches inside the zone a career-best 82% while swinging at more pitches inside the zone (77%) than ever before. The more aggressive approach did not, however, elevate his chase rate, as his o-swing% remained steady at 34%. Overall, there’s a lot to like about Hernandez from a fantasy standpoint, but the key to whether he continues to post quality batting averages will be whether he keeps the strikeout rate down. Expect an average about .270 to go with 30+ bombs over a full season, as well as about 10 steals, and you should get about what you paid for in drafts.

Tyler O’Neill (OF-STL) finally delivered a strong season in 2021 at age 25, batting .286 with 34 homers, 80 RBI, and 15 stolen bases across 537 plate appearances. While power is legitimate, there is real reason for concern about his average going forward given his continued strikeout problems (31% in 2021). While O’Neill often punishes the ball when he gets his bat on it (career-best 52% hard-hit rate per Statcast in 2021), he doesn’t make a lot of contact (just under 68%). Part of the problem is a 16% swinging-strike rate and a 77% contact rate on pitches inside the zone in 2021 (same as 2020) and a limited ability to make contact on pitches outside of the zone (43% in 2021) despite chasing at a 32% clip. So, while O’Neill should be good for 30+ homers over a full season, it would be unreasonable to expect his average to finish north of .270 again. Sure, there is value in, say, a .260 average and 35 bombs, but I wouldn’t overpay if his 2021 breakout inflates his price tag on draft day.

Cal Quantrill (SP-CLE) had a surprisingly proactive age-26 season in 2021 as he finished the campaign with a 2.89 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, and 2.8 BB/9 across 149.2 innings of work that included 22 starts and 18 relief appearances. A 4.43 xFIP and 4.52 SIERA, however, suggest that fantasy owners should not count on him to replicate that performance in 2022. While Quantrill did a good job of limiting hard contact (34% per Statcast), he did not miss many bats (9% swinging-strike rate) as opposing hitters logged an 80% contact rate against him. The lack of strikeouts is an issue for fantasy – especially in leagues with innings caps – and his control is not elite enough to keep the bases empty so as to minimize the damage when opposing hitters make good contact. His improvement in 2021 likely boils down to one key development – the addition of a cutter to his repertoire, which he deployed 26% of the time. It was by far his most effective pitch (wFC was 11.6), so it will be interesting to see if opposing teams are able to solve that going forward. At any rate, I wouldn’t count on him being anything more than a back-end SP for fantasy, and the odds are that someone in your league will think more of him based on last season’s ERA and WHIP.

Kevin Gausman (SP-TOR) has a new home in 2021 as he moves from San Francisco to Toronto. The 31 year-old’s performance over the last two seasons has been legit, as he followed up a breakout 2020 (3.62 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 11.9 K/9, and 2.4 BB/9 across 59.2 IP) with a strong 2021 (2.81 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 10.6 K/9, and 2.3 BB/9 across 192 IP). A 3.06 xFIP in 2020 and 3.28 xFIP in 2021 confirm that he’s been one of the game’s most effective starters – including for fantasy – since the start of the 2020 campaign. While opposing hitters did make hard contact at a 41% rate last season per Statcast (something to keep an eye on), he replicated his 15% swinging-strike rate from 2020 while batters again made contact against him at about a 70% clip. Encouragingly, he elevated his o-swing from just under 32% in 2020 to nearly 36% in 2021, with opposing hitters again finding limited success when they chased (53% in 2021, 62% career). However… Gausman IS moving from the pitcher-friendly confines of Oracle Park to more hitter-friendly Rogers Centre, and the AL East is admittedly a tougher nut to crack than the NL West. Overall, I would expect Gausman to remain a fantasy asset but do not be surprised if the ERA and WHIP tick upward a bit.

Kyle Hendricks (SP-CHC) was always a more valuable pitcher in real baseball than fantasy baseball as an innings-eater who didn’t fan many batters but always logged quality ERAs and WHIPs that defied advanced metrics (such as xFIP). In 2021, however, the script flipped, as he logged a 4.77 ERA that ended up slightly north of his 4.61 xFIP, with a 1.35 WHIP and 6.5 K/9 (his lowest since his rookie campaign back in 2014) killing his fantasy value. Things went wrong in a few areas. For one, his control was merely good (2.2 BB/9) rather than elite (BB/9 was under 2 each year 2018-2020). For another, his 16% HR/FB was a career worst. Sure, there may have been some poor luck involved there, but consider that his 33% hard-hit rate per Statcast – while still modest – was a career high. Pair that with an 82% contact rate (his highest since 2014) and you have the makings of a rough season. With limited strikeout ability, Hendricks needs elite control and minimal hard contact, and both faltered last season. It’s tough to tell if he will rebound in his age-32 season, but the price should be low enough that I would be comfortable adding him as a back-end option for the fantasy rotation on the hope that he recaptures his form from the six seasons that preceded his disastrous 2021.

Frankie Montas (SP-OAK) rebounded in 2021 after a terrible 2020 campaign (5.60 ERA, 1.51 WHIP), 10.2 K/9, and 3.9 BB/9 over 53 IP) to log a 3.37 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 10 K/9, and 2.7 BB/9 across 187 innings of work). A 3.64 xFIP does point to a little good luck – particularly the combination of a slightly suppressed .296 BABIP and slightly elevated 75% strand rate – pushing his ERA down a bit, but overall the peripherals are encouraging. The control rebounded significantly in 2021 – bear in mind that Montas was also coming off a long suspension when he returned in 2020 – and the poor luck that he experienced in 2020 in the form of an 18% HR/FB did come down to 11% (13% career). After inducing few grounders in 2020 (37%), he corrected that a bit in 2021 (43%), although that was still south of his 49% from his breakout (half-) season in 2019. Perhaps most encouragingly of all, Montas posted a career-best 14% swinging-strike rate to go along with a career-high 36% o-swing% and career-low contact rate just under 73%. Value him as a #3-type SP for fantasy in 2022 and you should be satisfied with the results.

Emmanuel Clase (RP-CLE) capitalized on James Karinchak’s struggles in 2021 to claim the closer role in Cleveland and only cemented his hold on it by logging a 1.29 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, and 2.1 BB/9 across 69.2 innings of work. Sure, the K/9 isn’t elite for a reliever, but his control is sold and Clase’s elite cutter/slider combo effectively keeps hitters off-balance and induces grounders at a 68%(!) clip while he allows so little hard contact (29% per Statcast). A true two-pitch power arm, Clase deploys his 100-mph cutter 70% of the time while otherwise using his 92-mph slider. With a 17% swinging-strike rate and a 42% o-swing% that comes with an o-contact% just under 50%, his sub-10 K/9 does seem a bit low. While it’s difficult to expect Clase to replicate a sub-1.3 ERA, I would still expect something in the mid-2s to go with a K/9 that climbs north of 10. He’s elite, and the combination of Cleveland’s weak offense and strong rotation likely means that he should see plenty of save opportunities in 2022.

James Karinchak (RP-CLE) endured a rough 2020 season as he went from closer to spending some time in Triple-A. Overall, he finished his MLB campaign with a 4.07 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 12.7 K/9, and 5.2 BB/9 across 55.1 innings of work. Okay, one doesn’t necessarily need to dive deep to begin to figure out what went wrong. After logging high BB/9s throughout his minor-league career, a 1.7 BB/9 across 27 IP in 2020 was a bit surprising and definitely something that folks expected to regress. But the steep climb killed his fantasy value, which was paired with an 18% HR/FB that was partly fueled by a 41% hard-hit rate per Statcast. Despite the nice K/9, his swinging-strike rate did dip significantly (from 17% in 2020 to just under 13% in 2021) while opposing hitters proved less inclined to chase (o-swing% down to 28%). Given Clase’s stellar performance and positive outlook as well as Karinchak’s terrible control, it’s tough to envision the latter having much fantasy value in 2022.

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