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 "This year's ____" game.
We played that game on Friday's episode of Fantasy Baseball Today, with Frank Stampfl giving Chris Welsh and I a prompt to try and identify certain archetypes of player. "This year's Aaron Judge," "This year's Julio Rodriguez," etc. You get the picture.
And the truth is, there probably won't be an Aaron Judge-type outcome 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 not for a mid-career, established player like Judge.
There probably won't be a Julio Rodriguez comp for 2023, either. Rookies generally don't perform like first-round players in Fantasy. It's really hard to do, even in an era where young players seem to be hitting the ground running like never before. It can be unfair to saddle any player with those kinds of expectations.
But ... we're still gonna do it. Just keep in mind that, when I say someone is going to be "This year's ____" -- whether that is Aaron Judge or Julio Rodriguez or anyone else -- it's not saying they will be exactly as good. In all likelihood, they won't be. Judge has massive shoes, and nobody is going to fill them. Instead, we're trying to project players who could have outlier outcomes 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 in a huge way.
That's what we're trying to do here. You can listen to us discuss our picks below, and I've got some more thoughts on them in this piece:
This year's Aaron Judge
AKA, a hitter going outside the Top-30 who could finish as the top player in Fantasy.
- Chris Welsh's pick: Oneil Cruz
- Frank Stampfl's pick: Luis Robert
- My pick: Jazz Chisholm
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 5x5 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 bit low for that. However, it's not that different from what Julio Rodriguez managed, and he's a contender for the top spot in drafts in at least some Fantasy players' eyes this season.
Chisholm is absurdly tooled up, ranking eighth in barrel rate among 497 hitters with at least 50 batted balls in 2022, and while he doesn't have Judge's quality-of-contact metrics, his speed (94th percentile) helps him make up for what he might be lacking as a hitter. Chisholm has "mentioned" aiming for a 50-homer, 50-steal season, and while that isn't going to happen, he's one of the rare players with the skill set to legitimately aim for a 30-30 campaign. If he can shave off a few points from his strikeout rate (a high, but manageable, 28.4% in 2022), the path to a first-round finish becomes even easier.
Of the other two players mentioned, I rank Robert higher, but I think Cruz's chances of turning in that kind of outlier season might be even better. Cruz is the only player in the Statcast era, dating back to 2015, to have hit a ball harder than Giancarlo Stanton in a season, and he is one of four players to record a batted ball over 120 mph, so he's got the raw power. Cruz has a ton of swing and miss in his game and likely always will due to his size, and it's unreasonable to expect him to make the kinds of gains Judge has. However, he's also a better overall athlete than Judge, with 30-steal upside to go along with power that we might not be able to put a ceiling on. Are 40 homers impossible? 50? Cruz has his flaws, but if he can keep his strikeout rate in the 30% range, he absolutely has first-round upside -- he hit .288/.359/.525 with a 30-30 pace in September last season, while striking out 29.8% of the time.
This year's Shane McClanahan
AKA, an obvious breakout starting pitcher who actually breaks out.
- Welsh: George Kirby
- Stampfl: Nick Lodolo
- My pick: Cristian Javier
My pick might be cheating because Javier is coming off a season where he managed a 2.54 ERA and 0.95 WHIP while recording nearly 200 strikeouts despite spending part of the season pitching out of the bullpen. The breakout already happened, and all he has to do is sustain the gains he made a year ago while upping his innings count to the 170-180 range to potentially be a top-12 pitcher. That's not asking much, especially armed with multiple elite breaking pitches and a four-seamer that does an excellent job generating weak contact.
Kirby and Lodolo are both more in the McClanahan mold -- he was being drafted outside of 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's a lefty. The thing that made McClanahan such an intriguing breakout candidate was the swing-and-miss stuff, with three pitches sporting a whiff rate of at least 40% as a rookie. Lodolo's arsenal is neither as deep nor as varied as McClanahan's, but his curveball did sport a massive 46% whiff rate as a rookie with excellent quality-of-contact metrics, making it a potentially elite pitch.
Kirby doesn't have that. He's got a whole bunch of pitches -- six, per Statcast -- that are all pretty good, but he's missing that elite putaway pitch. What he does have is elite control and pretty good quality-of-contact metrics. If he can discover a go-to pitch for whiffs, Kirby could take off.
This year's Julio Rodriguez
AKA, the prospect hitter who makes the Opening Day roster and makes a huge impact.
- Welsh: Jordan Walker
- Stampfl: Ezequiel Tovar
- My pick: Jordan Walker
In the interest of full disclosure, on the podcast, I actually picked Dodgers infielder Miguel Vargas. Who I like quite a bit. But I don't think he has the impact potential of a Rodriguez, and I pivoted to him mostly because Welsh got to Walker first.
Because Walker is the correct choice here. He's an elite athlete who hit 19 homers and stole 22 bases (on 27 attempts) as a 20-year-old in Double-A last season, with pretty good plate discipline. Exit velocity data in the minors are 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 multiple 110-plus mph readings during an Arizona Fall League game last season -- something only 39 major-leaguers managed last season.
Walker is Scott White's No. 3 prospect entering the 2023 season, and he's got a real chance to lock up a starting job this spring. And he's off to a pretty good start to that end, having already clubbed a massive 430-foot homer in his second spring game, and he's 5 for 13 with only two strikeouts through his first four games. He's going to fly up draft boards if it becomes clear he's slated for a starting job.
This year's Jose Berrios
AKA, a top-30 SP who unexpectedly implodes.
- Welsh: Triston McKenzie
- Frank: Robbie Ray
- My pick: Dylan Cease
I'm mostly out on McKenzie at his price, so I'm with Welsh on his pick. I like McKenzie quite a bit, but I've actually used the Berrios comp with him before. I don't necessarily mean it as an insult, because Berrios has mostly been a good pitcher for a pretty long time, but he was often being 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 decent chance we look back at his 2021 as a high-water mark.
But I am, admittedly, more concerned about Cease. Cease does have 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 the prior season, but broke out thanks to massive improvements on batted balls. In 2021, he had a .383 expected wOBA allowed on contact, the 10th-worst mark among qualifiers; in 2022, his .313 mark was the third-best. Pitchers have some control over that, but it tends to be a pretty noise-y stat from year to year, so if he regresses, things could get pretty ugly.
Cease gives me early-career Robbie Ray vibes. I'm sorry!
This year's Michael Harris
AKA, a prospect who gets called up midseason and makes a huge impact, hitter.
- Welsh: Anthony Volpe, SS, Yankees
- Frank: Dustin Harris, OF, TEX
- My pick: Elly De La Cruz, SS, Reds
This one is sort of hard to pin down, because you can certainly make a case that Volpe belongs in that Julio Rodriguez category, while there's a chance we don't even see De La Cruz in the majors. I like both for this category, with Volpe a bit more of a sure thing while De La Cruz carries more upside.
There's 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 on 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, finishing the season with 28 homers and 47 steals in 121 games across 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 -- per BaseballProspectus.com, he actually sports above-average contact rates on pitches in the strike zone. If he can make adjustments, De La Cruz could be 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 entering the season and makes a huge impact.
- Welsh: Hunter Brown,
- Stampfl: Luis Ortiz/DL Hall
- My pick: Grayson Rodriguez
Rodriguez is arguably the top pitching prospect in baseball, and there really isn't that much question as to 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 where 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 does have a season with 100-plus innings under his belt, so he probably won't be limited all season.
However, it's probably pretty unlikely that Rodriguez will surpass the 150-inning mark this season, which is keeping his price low -- since Feb. 22, his ADP is still just 186.10 in NFC drafts. That's a pretty reasonable cost for a player with Rodriguez's skill set, who just put together a 2.20 ERA and 0.933 WHIP with a 36% strikeout rate at Triple-A last season. Rodriguez's ceiling is capped somewhat due to inning concerns, but he's still well-situated to make a big impact and is a great 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. Go look at the numbers he put up last year again and tell me you don't want Rodriguez on your team.