The season is winding down. There's nothing left to address other than start, sit and streaming decisions, so in between those, I've begun to shift my attention to 2024.
You know what that means: rankings. Yes, you can expect my earliest version of those to begin appearing, one position at a time, in the days ahead. But rather than diving right in, I thought I'd get the wheels turning with a little exercise that also sums up some of the more confounding developments of 2023. We'll have to figure out what to do with them next year, after all.
What follows is what I consider to be the most difficult player to rank at each position, complete with an explanation for each. I've selected multiple players at the positions where we tend to start multiple players in Fantasy, namely outfield, starting pitcher and relief pitcher.
Mitch Garver DH
TEX Texas • #18 • Age: 32
Garver's return to everyday duty over the past month-plus has served to remind us that his production among catchers is second to none when he's healthy and playing every day. Maybe the DH spot, which is what he's occupied most the past few weeks, is the key to unlocking everything, but age 33 is awfully late for a career resurgence. And he's set to hit the open market this offseason, piling on even more uncertainty.
TOR Toronto • #27 • Age: 24
Guerrero got the benefit of the doubt for his disappointing 2022 only to deliver even worse numbers in 2023, getting left in the dust by several newcomers to the first base position. But he's still only 24. His Statcast page is still lit up in red. His expected stats still have more in common with his breakthrough 2021, when he was the best player in Fantasy, than whatever has happened this year. Fool me twice, shame on me, sure, but at the same time, Guerrero's ranking has to account for his upside.
Luis Arraez 2B
MIA Miami • #3 • Age: 26
What makes Arraez so difficult to rank is that there's no one else quite like him. He's an outlier in one category but a detriment in three others, so how you value him depends largely on your build. And seeing as second base is just brimming with upside, it almost feels like a resignation to take him. The calculation is more straightforward in points leagues, where he's been basically must-start this year, but you also have to guard against the possibility he hits .315 rather than .350.
CIN Cincinnati • #7 • Age: 25
Steer has had a surprisingly productive rookie season, much like teammate Jonathan India did a couple years ago. But also like India, the underlying skill indicators are modest at best, which is to say there's a lot of blue on his Statcast page. It's reasonable, then, to question the legitimacy of the performance and if any downturn might cost Steer playing time given the Reds' surplus of rookies with much louder skill indicators (from Elly De La Cruz to Noelvi Marte to Christian Encarnacion-Strand).
Bo Bichette SS
TOR Toronto • #11 • Age: 25
Bichette is sort of like teammate Vladimir Guerrero in that the rosy response to last year's decline was rewarded with ... even more decline. Specifically, it doesn't look like he's any sort of base-stealer anymore, his sprint speed dropping just as precipitously as his stolen base totals, which puts a great deal of pressure on his bat. It's a quality bat -- one that seems like a good bet for batting average, if nothing else -- but his power production is also trending the wrong direction, possibly because he's concentrated on hitting the ball the other way this year. So is he now closer to Xander Bogaerts than Trea Turner in value? The numbers would suggest so, but it feels wrong to downgrade Bichette that much given his track record through age 25.
CHC Chi. Cubs • #24 • Age: 28
We knew Bellinger had MVP upside given that he won NL MVP with the Dodgers as a 23-year-old in 2019, but his bat went missing in three years that followed. So now that he's back to performing at an MVP level with the Cubs, how can we trust it will continue next year? Don't look to the data for reassurance. His average exit velocity is in the bottom 20 percent of the league, and he's well outperformed his expected stats. You could credit his new environment for the turnaround, perhaps, but he's back on the free-agent market this offseason. He's still in his prime and clearly has big upside, but his ranking needs to account for the downside, too.
BAL Baltimore • #31 • Age: 29
We've grown accustomed to Mullins as an early-round pick thanks to his back-to-back 30-steal seasons in 2021 and 2022, but he'll fall well short of that threshold this season. That's partly due to his time lost to injury, but lately, the Orioles have taken to sitting him against lefties as well. Is that going to continue, further suppressing his stolen base totals (not to mention everything else)? Is a 30-steal season even all that valuable anymore given the surge in stolen bases across the league this year? And can we assume, now two years removed from the eye-popping total, that 30 home runs aren't going to happen again?
Lane Thomas RF
WAS Washington • #28 • Age: 28
Instead of playing out his career as a fourth-outfielder type, Thomas was fortunate enough to land with the Nationals at the start of a rebuild effort, providing him with the everyday at-bats he wouldn't have gotten elsewhere. He's responded with a 20/20 campaign that of course has been of great value in Fantasy. Still, his contact isn't of particularly high quality or quantity, and he's among the biggest overachievers, according to Statcast. Maybe he can keep it up, or maybe he's another Nate McLouth lucking into his 90th percentile outcome for a team with nowhere else to turn, thus ensuring that his 2023 will be remembered as little more than a statistical oddity.
ATL Atlanta • #20 • Age: 33
Ozuna had a monster year for the Marlins in 2017, causing him to be drafted in the Round 3-4 range the following year. What followed were two years of disappointment with the Cardinals. Then came the shortened 2020 season, when he was the No. 1 outfielder in Fantasy, which again caused him to be drafted in the Round 3-4 range the following year. What followed were another two years of ... well, disappointment would be understating it. So now that he's made himself into a Fantasy stud again this year, what can we expect to follow? For as rewarding as his contributions could be, there's no way to draft Ozuna with confidence.
Blake Snell SP
SD San Diego • #4 • Age: 30
Those of us who experienced the roller coaster that was Snell in 2021 and 2022 have been waiting for the bottom to drop out for months now, but since it hasn't, he's now in the thick of the NL Cy Young race, actually leading the majors in ERA ... while issuing 5.0 BB/9. Clearly, those numbers are incongruous, and all the ERA estimators suggest the same. But then again, given how susceptible every pitcher is to blowup starts in the current pitching environment, whose ERA can we trust? Maybe we should just accept the strikeouts from Snell -- which are the most reliable part of his profile -- and let the other numbers fall where they may.
CHC Chi. Cubs • #35 • Age: 28
In a year defined by unreliable pitching, Steele has been as steady as they come, which is why he's a leading candidate for the NL Cy Young award. But while he's managed to keep his ERA low, the others numbers -- namely, the innings, WHIP and strikeouts -- aren't what we've come to expect from Cy Young winners in recent years. Given that his xFIP and xERA are both in the mid-threes, there's reason to believe he's lucked into his ERA, at least in part. So how good is he really?
Aaron Nola SP
PHI Philadelphia • #27 • Age: 30
We gave Nola a pass for his uncharacteristically bad 2021, and it paid off ... for a year. But now that it's happened twice in three years, is it really uncharacteristic anymore? Not helping matters is that his strikeout rate isn't what it was then, and because of that, his ERA estimators don't suggest that he's underperformed all that much. Yet if you look at the game log, the good starts are still of a caliber only attainable for true aces, and there aren't many of those out there anymore. Confused yet? Well, Nola is also a free agent this offseason, so you'll need to account for that variable, too.
HOU Houston • #35 • Age: 40
Verlander seemed invulnerable to age when he came back from Tommy John surgery to win a Cy Young at 39 last year, but it apparently sapped him of whatever youth remained in him. He has been less dominant in every measurable way this year, delivering his worst stat line since 2015, yet in the context of 2023, he's still been pretty good. So should we anticipate further decline for him at age 41 next year, or has he entered the boring-but-safe phase of his career? What does "safe" even mean in our current pitching environment?
Mitch Keller SP
PIT Pittsburgh • #23 • Age: 27
If you think you have Mitch Keller figured out, you haven't been paying attention. He'll throw eight shutout innings one turn and give up eight earned runs the next. He's liable in any given start to collect more strikeouts than swinging strikes. He throws six distinct pitches, and his usage is never the same from one start to the next. His velocity fluctuates more than should make anyone comfortable yet seems to have no impact on his performance. He's all at once scary and scary good, such that I could see him winning anywhere between four and 17 games for the Pirates next year. How do you rank a pitcher like that?
BAL Baltimore • #74 • Age: 28
Felix Bautista may turn out to be one of the easiest players to rank if he succumbs to Tommy John surgery, but the Orioles have yet to prescribe that procedure for his torn UCL and have in fact let him begin throwing off a mound again in the hopes of returning for the playoffs. If they continue down this path and head into the offseason convinced that nothing needs to be done for his elbow, will you feel the same way? Bautista had established himself as the best closer in baseball prior to the injury, but you'll need to apply a sword-of-Damocles discount, whatever that looks like.
CLE Cleveland • #48 • Age: 25
Emmanuel Clase is on track to be the MLB saves leader again, but he's been far from the lockdown closer he was in 2021 and 2022, also pacing the league in blown saves. Such perils are common for closers who eschew strikeouts for weak contact, but Clase seemed like he might be the exception to the rule. He'll still be ranked among the top closers next year since it doesn't appear that his job is in jeopardy, but the reliability that was part of the package in previous years, making up for his lack of strikeouts, may not be anymore.