Fantasy baseball – Tristan H. Cockcroft Wednesday musings

It’s a very different ballgame in 2023. In addition to the changes on the field, the ESPN fantasy baseball game underwent significant changes of its own, shrinking the lineups to the starting nine plus seven pitchers, while lowering the point totals for wins (from five to two) and losses (minus-5 to minus-2) and awarding a two-point credit for holds. As the real-life players adapt to this year’s rules tweaks, so do fantasy managers in the standard game.

Typically, this time of year, the smart play is to be patient with any of your draft-day investments that have gotten off to slow starts, recognizing the perilously small sample size that is 20 days of baseball. However, with the advent of shallower player talent pools — and, as a quick aside, while die-hard rotisserie players might bellow in agony over increasing popularity of smaller, more star-oriented mixed points leagues, there’s plenty to be said for diversification of the fantasy game and the challenges that these new formats present — quick reactions are now fair. Simply put, the deeper your league’s free-agent pool, the stronger the case for getting production wherever and whenever it lies, even if it means letting go of a significant investment you made just three short weeks ago.

Yes, the first part of that previous paragraph declares that it is officially “buy-low season” on the trade market, when fantasy managers can often sneak an undervalued player away from his unsuspecting manager. The latter part, however, stresses that the buy-low marketplace has significantly changed in 2023 and that buy-lows in the new ESPN standard might be anything but as the definition of the term itself has widened, depending very much on the type of league in which you play.

So, today, let’s dig deeper into this year’s slow-starting such candidates, and make the calls on whether to trade for or give up on each, keeping the various league types in mind. In other words (cue quirky game show music) let’s play a little “Buy low or bye now!”

MJ Melendez, C/OF, Kansas City Royals — BUY LOW! He’s my A-number-1 “buy low” at present, in part due to his elite power and oodles of playing time. In fact, he’s tied with fellow Royal Salvador Perez for the second-most plate appearances among catcher-eligibles. It’s also because his skill set leans streaky and his year-to-date numbers couldn’t look more unlucky. Would you believe that Statcast says Melendez, who has a mere .243 wOBA, should be at .362 in that department, meaning his 119 point differential is the game’s fourth-largest in that direction? Melendez is still delivering top-shelf Barrel and hard-hit rates, and there’s really no doubt that, given the at-bats, that he’ll hit 30-plus homers in 2023.

Ryan Pressly, RP, Houston Astros — BUY LOW! The case against him is that his average fastball velocity is down a tick thus far (93.6 mph, compared to 94.5 in 2022 and generally 95-plus preceding that), forcing him to lean more on his slider and changeup, as well as the fact the Astros have a bevy of talented, closer-capable arms in the back of their bullpen (Rafael Montero, Bryan Abreu, Ryne Stanek, Hector Neris). Still, Pressly is paid to close — he’s owed at least $28 million more through the end of next season — has been effective enough to post a 2.44 Statcast expected ERA and, perhaps most importantly, historically has taken most of April to build up his fastball velocity. In fact, three of his last six Aprils have seen him average more than a full mph below his rest-of-season velocity in those years. Additionally, he has fallen victim to circumstantial saves bad luck, his Astros totaling only two traditional ninth-inning save chances thus far, both of which came in their season-opening series.

Amed Rosario, SS, Cleveland Guardians — BUY LOW! If you invested at the price of the 156th-overall selection on average in ESPN leagues, or 121st overall in NFBC formats, surely you knew that his game involves ebbs and flows? In just the last two seasons, he has had four months of 55-plus fantasy points as well as four of 40 or fewer, due to his swing-at-everything style — his career swing and chase rates are each 9% greater than the league average during that time span. Rosario’s skills might not be an ideal fit to our standard points system, but with the larger bases and his typically 95th-percentile sprint speed, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll meet or exceed his current pace of 27 stolen bases in 2023. He’s the first “it could go either way” guy on this list for our standard game and it’s entirely possible that, even if you bid him adieu, he’ll still be out there when one of his hot streaks arrives. I’m simply playing a hunch that he’s generally a wise target in trades.

Triston Casas, 1B, Boston Red Sox — BYE NOW! It’s not just a dislike of how he spells his first name the wrong way thing. Rather, his problem is that he’s a still-developing,”three true outcomes” type power hitter, in an era where other types are reaping the advantages of the new rules. Perhaps in deeper leagues — think 15-team mixed and AL-only — he’s worth a trade nibble, but in anything more shallow, Casas should remain out there until the point he shows signs of getting settled. Remember, this preseason he was only forecasted to be the No. 10 first baseman in terms of fantasy points, and players with more stable skill sets like Luis Arraez, Yandy Diaz and Ty France were just behind him.

Anthony Santander, OF, Baltimore Orioles — BUY LOW! His is another case of “it could go either way” in the standard game, as after a certain point (roughly 15-20 or so), outfielders all seem effectively the same. Additionally, Santander could be suffering this season from very much what hurt Ryan Mountcastle last year, namely the far-tougher dimensions at Camden Yards crushing his raw power numbers. Taking a closer look, however, Santander looks like a classic “three weeks of his timing is off” example, the kind of thing that can rapidly and dramatically improve. He has struggled mightily against fastballs, batting only .154 with a near major league-worst 33% miss rate when he swings at them, though he did homer off one on Saturday. It’s another hunch that this is a prime time to sneak Santander away at a discount via trade.

Javier Baez, SS, Detroit Tigers — BYE NOW! This one’s a little easier to say, being that he was the No. 172 overall pick off the board in NFBC formats, with his game more styled to rotisserie play. In points leagues, Baez has a mere 18 points in 16 games, after a 2022 season that saw him score 237 points, leaving him outside the positional top 25. Sure, he has performed better following his April 13 benching for forgetting how many outs there were while running the bases, but he still brings a scary combination of poor plate discipline (40%-plus chase rate), a high ground-ball rate (50% in four of the last five years) and a so-so hard-hit rate. Baez is the type of player to snag when he’s on one of his short-term hot streaks, but is to otherwise be avoided.

Josh Bell, 1B, Cleveland Guardians — BYE NOW! I’m getting tired of his extreme-streaks pattern, as Bell has enjoyed both .311/.390/.504 and .194/.318/.289 half-seasons over the course of his career, and I bet you couldn’t tell me in which years each came? (OK, both were just last year — great before the All-Star break, but bad after it.) Ultimately, players with such wide ranges as his aren’t anything more than streaming options in our new game, but he’s a liability even in a 15-team mixed due to his extreme slumps. So far in 2023, Bell has 67% ground-ball and 22.4% strikeout rates, the latter which would be his second-worst of his eight big-league seasons. There simply isn’t enough upside in either batting average or power to mount a buy-low case.

Jake McCarthy, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks — BUY LOW! Though his numbers leave plenty to be desired (especially his mere 2-of-3 performance stealing bases), most of his skills-driven metrics are right in line with, if not better than, his 2022 rates. McCarthy remains one of the game’s speediest players, but this season, he’s showing more patience, a greater contact rate and has been a plus defender, which should continue to earn him regular playing time to work through whatever ails him. To be clear, he’s a much better target in rotisserie leagues, where his speed carries more weight, so see if you can land him at a discount there.

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