Friday, May 27, 2022

Fantasy Baseball Offseason Tracker: Marcus Stroman signs with rebuilding club; Hunter Renfroe dealt to Brewers

The lockout has come, putting transactions on hold until a new CBA is worked out, but what a wild ride this offseason has already been. Here’s my breakdown of all the major happenings so far …

Hunter Renfroe traded to Brewers

Given that the Brewers’ home venue has brought out the best in a number of hitters over the years, it stands to reason it will also benefit Renfroe, who already excels at putting the ball in the bleachers. Hard to say it’ll be completely transformative after he just had his breakout season, cutting his strikeout rate down to 22.7 percent so that he can actually get the most out of his power profile, but it can only help.

Jackie Bradley going back the other way is interesting because it suggests the Red Sox really missed having his glove in center field. He was a disaster in his one year with Milwaukee but will surely benefit from more consistent playing time, hopefully getting back to the fringy mixed-leaguer we’ve known him to be in the past. Renfroe’s lack of patience at the plate limits his ceiling, but the floor no longer seems so low. You can feel confident drafting him as your third outfielder.

Chris Taylor signs with Dodgers

Bringing back Taylor became a higher priority for the Dodgers after letting Corey Seager walk, and his path to playing time should be clearer than ever. He’s still likely to bounce around some just to take advantage of his versatility, perhaps platooning with Gavin Lux at second base and splitting time with A.J. Pollock in left field. Or maybe an elbow injury will keep Max Muncy out at the start of the year, shifting Cody Bellinger to first base and entrenching Taylor firmly in center field. Whatever the case, Taylor is clearly in line for everyday duty and, as a potential 25/15 guy with decent on-base skills, will be well worth starting at any of the three positions (second base, shortstop and outfield) where he’s eligible.

Marcus Stroman signs with Cubs

The rebuilding Cubs already have their eye on their next contention window, and they evidently trust the 30-year-old Stroman to be a part of it. He has a stable profile that’s built around generating week contact rather than missing bats, and it’s delivered him an ERA in the low threes three of the past four seasons. It also keeps him decidedly middle-tier, with more value in points leagues than standard 5×5, and it doesn’t help his 2022 prospects that he’s with a non-contender. Then again, he went only 10-13 for the Mets last season and still managed to have an impact in Fantasy, so expect him to be drafted among the top 50 starting pitchers.

Rich Hill signs with Red Sox

It seems likely Hill will begin the year in the starting rotation, but he may not last long at age 42. His arrival may cost the more interesting Tanner Houck his spot, especially if the Red Sox like fellow newcomer Michael Wacha for the rotation, so it’s hard to muster much excitement for this move. Hill has been a Fantasy asset in the past, but he wasn’t as useful last season as his numbers would have you believe. They’re bolstered by a 0.99 ERA during an eight-start stretch early in the season. He had a 4.38 ERA, 1.36 WHIP and 8.1 K/9 over his final 20 appearances and will be a late-round flier at best.

Dylan Bundy signs with Twins  

The Twins will take a flier on a pitcher we all more or less liked at this time a year ago, and since they aren’t really in a position to contend, there isn’t much downside for them. There’s certainly downside in Fantasy, though, as those who invested in Bundy discovered early last season. He needs his slider to be in top form to have a fighting chance, and it simply wasn’t in 2021. The struggles weren’t a matter of velocity or spin, though, so there’s still hope for a rebound for a pitcher who has long seemed on the cusp of putting it all together. A rise in whiff rate early next year could put Bundy back in the mixed-league mix, but at this point, we need to see it to believe it.

Mark Melancon signs with Diamondbacks

The good news is that Melancon should remain a closer. The bad news is it’ll be for one of the worst teams in baseball. The odds are low, then, of him repeating as MLB saves leader, but with so few dedicated closers across the game today, it’s still possible he’s drafted among the top 15 relievers. A lot of draft capital figures to be wasted on speculative closers who don’t end up impacting the saves category, so there’s something to be said for security. And though Melancon’s pitch-to-contact tendencies might make him vulnerable in a bullpen built for the playoffs, that’s not what he’s entering into here. He has a long history of success in the ninth inning, relying on weak ground balls to keep runs off the board.

Corey Knebel signs with Phillies  

If you’re curious as to why this one matters in Fantasy, you must not have seen what the Phillies bullpen recently. They struggled to settle on a closer for the first two-thirds of last season before eventually trading for Ian Kennedy, who wasn’t exactly lights-out in the role and is himself a free agent. Meanwhile, longtime fallback Hector Neris has finally moved on to the Astros. Knebel was once a stud closer for the Brewers, recording 39 saves with a 1.78 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 14.9 K/9 in 2017. After a long recovery from Tommy John surgery, he seemed mostly back to form as a setup man for the Dodgers. You could see why the Phillies might view him as the answer to he ninth inning. The $10 million price tag makes it even more plausible.

Alex Wood signs with Giants

Another successful reclamation project for the Giants, Wood is back for a couple more seasons. Durability remains an issue — he missed time both with a back strain and with COVID last season and hasn’t lasted even 160 innings since 2015 — but he limits damage by keeping the ball on the ground and is an underrated source of strikeouts. You won’t go wrong with him as a late-round pick, especially since he’s back in a big park with a strong supporting cast. 

James Paxton signs with Red Sox

The big left-hander underwent Tommy John surgery in April and, thus, figures to miss much of the 2022 season, potentially even the whole thing. So it’s telling that the Red Sox are willing to pay him $10 million for the right to bring him back in 2023 and 2024 (both of which are team options). Clearly, they’re betting he’ll still be capable of performing at a high level in his mid-30s, and his last healthy season (depicted above) was competent enough, featuring missed bats aplenty. Perhaps you should follow their lead in dynasty leagues and stash Paxton away for the future.

Raisel Iglesias signs with Angels

Iglesias peaked in his first year with the Angels, even when so much else seemed to go wrong for them, so we certainly won’t complain about him signing on for another four seasons. We know manager Joe Maddon will handle him like a conventional closer, and he’s one of just a handful of relievers capable of reaching the 100-strikeout threshold. His vulnerability to the long ball has gotten him in trouble at times in his career, but given how few bankable closers there are in the game right now, we can only be so picky. Iglesias will likely be the third one drafted, behind some order of Josh Hader and Liam Hendriks.

Javier Baez signs with Tigers

Comerica Park is known for being a tough place to put the ball in the bleachers, and Baez is now locked in there for the next six years (provided he doesn’t opt out after two). The bigger concern than where he’d eventually land, though, was whether the extremes of his skill set would hold. He became an even less disciplined hitter in 2021 but compensated with his highest ever BABIP and home run-to-fly ball rate (as if he wasn’t already enough of an outlier in those areas).

Could this move to a bigger park be the straw that breaks the camel’s back? It’s possible, but at 29, Baez could also reasonably continue this tightrope walk for another few years. The volatility is apparent, but there comes a point when the power/speed combo from a middle infielder is too enticing to pass up.

Yan Gomes signs with Cubs

The destination is interesting given that at a catcher, Willson Contreras, is the one remaining holdover from the July purge. He’s in his last year of team control, though, and could still follow Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo out the door. Gomes isn’t of the same stature, but he’s a starting-caliber catcher nonetheless. If he winds up having to share the role with Contreras at the start of the year, the expected arrival of the DH spot in the NL could help ease the burden. Gomes is still probably worth drafting late in two-catcher leagues.

Alex Cobb signs with Giants

The Giants have made a habit of reclaiming veteran pitchers in recent years, and the most sparkling of those success stories has been Kevin Gausman. It turns out Cobb has a splitter nearly as devastating. It played up nicely for him in 2021, resulting in a career-high swinging-strike rate and a 3.38 xFIP that would have ranked ninth among qualifiers if blister and wrist issues hadn’t cut his season short. Clearly, there’s talent here, and there may be no other organization with a better chance of unlocking it than the Giants. Expect Cobb to emerge as a trendy sleeper in light of this news.

Kirby Yates signs with Braves

After a tough-as-nails postseason performance, Will Smith’s role obviously won’t be in jeopardy heading into 2022, but his vulnerability to the long ball put him on shaky ground at times during the regular season. If it happens next season, manager Brian Snitker could have an obvious alternative in Yates, whose numbers in his last healthy season speak for themselves. He barely pitched in 2020 and then missed all of last season due to Tommy John surgery, but by locking him in for $8.25 million over two years, the Braves are betting on a return to form. Just know that he may not be fully recovered in time for opening day.

Corey Seager signs with Rangers

I don’t worry about this move as much for Seager as I do for Marcus Semien. Sure, I would have rather seen him return to the Dodgers, where he’s lavished in run and RBI opportunities and in no position to be pitched around. I would have rather him gone back to a homer-friendly park than one that’s played big so far in its brief existence.

But I still look at his exit velocities, hard-hit and line-drive rates, 96th percentile xBA and 90th percentile xSLG, and see the sort of skill set that would translate anywhere, even if you could make the case it hasn’t fully manifested yet. The Rangers are betting big that it will for them, locking him in for $325 million over 10 years, and I tend to agree. For more my complete analysis of the Seager signing, click here.

Robbie Ray signs with Mariners

If there was any destination to ensure Ray would sustain the gains made during his surprise Cy Young season, Seattle is it. T-Mobile Park is among the pitcher-friendliest, which is of particular value to a pitcher who allows hard contact, mostly in the air.

Of course, Ray still succeeded in spite of those hard hits and fly balls in 2021, and he did so in a hitter-friendly park within the hitter-friendliest division. Clearly, then, the massive control gains he enjoyed in 2021, allowing him to access and maximize his preternatural bat-missing skills, are the bigger key to his continued success than where he pitches. It’s all moot if he regresses back to 4.5 BB/9. Still, the move to Seattle gives him a higher margin for error that will further justify him being drafted among the top 10 starting pitchers.

Max Scherzer signs with Mets

The Mets offered Scherzer a record annual sum (about $43 million) over three years, which is about as big a deal as a 37-year-old could hope for — even one of Scherzer’s renown. The three-time Cy Young winner (and finalist again in 2021) will have to slow down eventually, but he’s shown little sign of it yet. He did dial back the workload slightly in 2021, becoming more of a 6-to-7-inning pitcher than a 7-to-8-inning guy, but not enough to alter his draft stock in a meaningful way. Consider he’s already won a Cy Young award with the Tigers, two with the Nationals and nearly another with the Dodgers, it wouldn’t matter if his next destination was the Mets or the moon. He’ll be one of the top five starting pitchers off the board again in 2022.

Kevin Gausman signs with Blue Jays

You never like to see a pitcher leave the Giants, particularly for a hitter’s park in a hitter’s division, but I think in Gausman’s case, it’s not going to matter so much. Oracle Park wasn’t as slanted toward pitchers during Gausman’s two seasons there, during which his xFIP — a metric that isn’t swayed by venue — was nearly as impressive as his ERA (3.22 vs. 3.02). The bigger question for Gausman is whether we can trust in the legitimacy of his breakthrough. A broad view would suggest it’s spanned a total of 43 starts, but a narrower one shows he slumped to a 4.42 ERA in the second half. His peripherals were mostly excellent still, but the soon-to-be 31-year-old had a history of mediocrity before then.

The Blue Jays clearly weren’t dissuaded, promising him $110 million over the next five years, and his supporting cast still puts him in a position to win a ton of games. The venue change will inspire some gloom-and-doom takes in the immediate aftermath of this deal, just like it did for Jose Berrios last July, but when you take a hard look at Gausman’s 2021 numbers, it’ll be tough to let him slip beyond the top 15 starting pitchers.

Jon Gray signs with Rangers

Gray was once as high-end as pitching prospects get, and now he’s finally been freed from Coors Field, going to a park (and division) on the opposite end of the pitcher/hitter spectrum. True, he acclimated better to Colorado than most of the pitchers who’ve passed through there, actually delivering a better career ERA at home (4.54) than on the road (4.65). Still, the thin air’s effect on the physics of the baseball no doubt altered his approach, shelving some of what made him great in college. Whether he can unlearn those habits after seven years is fair to wonder, but it’ll make him an interesting late-round target. Of course, there’s still the matter of what kind of support he’ll get from the rest of the Rangers roster.

Marcus Semien signs with Rangers

The new single-season home run leader among second basemen gets a seven-year, $175 million payday, but his new home is about the worst we could have hoped for in Fantasy. Globe Life Field plays big — or at least it has so far, two years in — and is in a division full of parks that play big. His 2021 wasn’t entirely a product of his environment given that he hit 23 of his 45 home runs on the road, but the AL East is on the opposite end of the spectrum with regard to hitter-friendliness. And then there’s the small matter of him going from the third-best offense in baseball to the third-worst, which will limit his run and RBI production while also changing the way pitchers approach him.

It’s worth noting that Semien also put up MVP-caliber numbers for the Athletics in 2019, when he played in an even bigger park within the same pitcher-friendly division, but he followed it up with a miserable 2020 and has basically had only the two standout seasons. Bottom line is this move introduces new uncertainty for a player who had seemingly silenced the critics by bettering that 2019 effort. What once seemed like a logical pick at the Round 2-3 turn now looks like an iffy one at the Round 3-4 turn. For more my complete analysis of the Semien signing, click here.

Avisail Garcia signs with Marlins

You never like to see a hitter go to the Marlins. They had the second-worst offense in baseball last year, and this signing may be the biggest upgrade they make to their lineup all offseason. Plus, their ballpark has been one of the worst suppressors of home runs since it opened in 2012. That’s especially concerning for a player whose home run production has been his biggest drawback over the years. True, he did just set a career high with 29 homers, but while playing in a hitter’s park. His previous high was only 20. He hits the ball hard enough that it’s possible the venue will impact him less than I fear, but this is clearly a stock-down move for someone who was already regarded as a fifth-outfielder type in Fantasy.

Corey Kluber signs with Rays

The Rays have a reputation for never missing, which of course isn’t literally true, but a low-budget team doesn’t achieve their level of success by sinking dollars into lost causes. So when they show interest in a player, it’s best to take it seriously. Still, the 35-year-old Kluber didn’t offer much reason for optimism in 2021. His final numbers, modest though they were, were bolstered by a strong month of May that ended with him on the IL with more shoulder issues. He was knocked around in April and again in September after he returned. Even if the two-time Cy Young winner regains even a hint of his former ability, there’s no telling whether the unconventional Rays have a traditional starting role in mind for him. He’ll be no more than a late-round gamble in mixed leagues.

Adam Frazier traded to Mariners

Frazier got off to a fantastic start with the Pirates last year, even earning an All-Star nod, but it was largely built on BABIP. He came back down to earth with the Padres and doesn’t have the kind of ceiling that’s of much interest to Fantasy Baseballers. He’ll get on base at a decent clip but with minimal power or speed and is ultimately just a fallback middle infielder for deeper leagues. Getting him out of San Diego frees up some of the clutter there, likely ensuring Eric Hosmer full-time at-bats again. In Seattle, Abraham Toro will presumably get a chance to move back to his natural spot with Kyle Seager hitting the open market and Frazier now on board.

Starling Marte signs with Mets

Marte emerged as the game’s preeminent base-stealer last year. His 47 not only led the majors but also made him one of just two players with 35-plus — and he did it in only 120 games. That alone would ensure an early selection in 5×5 leagues, but of course there’s even more to Marte. His ability to put bat to ball and penchant for a high BABIP have made him a consistent source of batting average over the years, and it’s likely he’ll be drafted as a top-12 outfielder in points leagues as well.

He’s coming off a career season that was split between two pitcher’s parks, so this move to the Mets can only improve his outlook (unless you genuinely believe they’re cursed or something). It’s even possible he gets back to the 20-homer threshold he’s reached twice before, but it is worth noting that 33 years old is getting into some dangerous territory for a player whose athleticism is his calling card.

Mark Canha signs with Mets

The Mets, sans Michael Conforto, would seemingly have an everyday role in mind for Canha. He may not have gotten such assurances from every team given that he slumped to a .206 batting average and .656 OPS in the second half while possibly still feeling the effects of a hip injury. He’s been a bit all over the place since the start of the 2019 season, when he broke out with career-best numbers, but one thing he has consistently done during that time is get on base, which should keep him relevant even in points leagues. He’ll get late-round looks either way. He did hit .257 with an .827 OPS on the road last year, so the change in venue can only help.

Eduardo Escobar signs with Mets

The Mets have been roughing it at third base the past couple years, so this signing brings them some stability while also keeping Escobar out of a potential playing-time quagmire elsewhere. Of course, it crushes J.D. Davis’ value, but he had begun to look like a lost cause anyway after an injury-plagued year in which he was overtaken by Jonathan Villar. Escobar, soon to be 33, is limited offensively, struggling to get on base but putting the ball in the air enough to deliver a respectable home run total. He can be frustrating for Fantasy purposes, but given the state of the third base position right now, we should just be thankful he’s landed in a place where he can deliver on who he is.

Steven Matz signs with Cardinals

The Cardinals in recent years have built their rotation on mid-grade hurlers with unimpressive peripherals, and Matz indeed fits the bill. The 30-year-old lefty ended his time with the Blue Jays on a high note, delivering a 2.91 ERA over his final 14 starts, but he also had a 1.29 WHIP and 7.5 K/9 during that stretch. His final numbers weren’t bad but also weren’t the sort that moves the needle in Fantasy. His 14-7 record tops the list of stats he’s unlikely to repeat. Consider Matz nothing more than a streamer type, and if you were counting on Alex Reyes joining the rotation for the start of 2022, know that the odds are much longer now.

Wander Franco signs extension with Rays

No changing of hands here, of course, but the scope of the deal makes it no less noteworthy. The guaranteed number is $182 million over 11 years, but there’s an option for a 12th year and escalators that could bring the contract to $223 million. It’s the largest deal ever doled out to a player with less than one year of service time, nearly doubling Ronald Acuna’s previous record.

Early returns back up Franco’s two-year reign as the game’s top prospect. He has yet to optimize for power, but his bat skills are already first-rate. He struck out three times in 16 September games, for goodness’ sake. His production at age 20 puts him on a Hall of Fame trajectory, premature as it is to say, and the notoriously cost-conscious Rays are betting on it. For Fantasy, this deal could raise the already outsized hype to a full-blown fever pitch, making it more likely Franco goes too early (say, Round 2 or 3 rather than 4 or 5), but it’s certainly possible he becomes an out-and-out monster in 2022.

Anthony DeSclafani signs with Giants

DeSclafani will stay with the organization that helped bring out his best, and between him, Kevin Gausman, Alex Wood and even Drew Smyly for a brief stretch in 2020, the Giants have developed a reputation for salvaging forgotten pitching talents. Their big ballpark likely has something to do with it, and it just so happens DeSclafani allowed 0.5 HR/9 there compared to 1.4 on the road in 2021. The 31-year-old faded a bit with a 4.03 ERA in the second half, and between his modest strikeout rate high-ish xFIP and xERA (both 3.95), I do think it’s likely he overachieved a bit. Still, there’s nowhere else we would have preferred to see him go. His return to San Francisco should get him drafted among the top 60 starting pitchers.

Justin Verlander signs with Astros

The Astros ended the suspense before it had a chance to build, giving the future Hall of Famer not only $25 million for 2022 but also the choice to come back for 2023 or test the market again. You could say it’s a lot to gamble on a soon-to-be 39-year-old coming back from Tommy John surgery, but Verlander is the sort of generational talent who seems like he’ll keep going forever. You see his numbers from his last healthy season (he also made one start in 2020), and by opening day, he’ll have already had a solid 18 months to recover. My suspicion is that he’ll slide too far in Fantasy drafts, but a big spring could build the hype.

Brandon Belt signs with Giants

Belt accepted the qualifying offer, perhaps with an eye on negotiating a long-term deal, thus ending the hypothetical of him finally leaving Oracle Park. It’s true the cavernous venue has long stifled his power production and his Fantasy prospects with it, but it has played fairer the past two years, which explains him blowing away his previous career high in homers despite playing only 97 games. It’s that latter number that’s the real problem. Gabe Kapler prefers to sit him against left-handers. We can still hope for more playing time in 2022 — Belt did have a couple lengthy IL stints as well — but not as much as if he had gone somewhere else. He’ll be drafted outside the top 12 first basemen yet again.

Noah Syndergaard signs with Angels

The 29-year-olds ace lands in a good park in what’s probably the best division for pitchers if the DH is indeed coming to the NL, so no worries there. The real question is whether he can regain his former ace standing after Tommy John surgery. Calling him an ace may be too generous given how his stock had slipped in the two years prior to the surgery, during which he compiled a 3.73 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 9.1 K/9 across 57 starts. It’s fair to wonder if even those numbers are attainable given the 3 mph decline on his fastball during the little bit we saw of him in 2021. The Angels are clearly hopeful at $21 million, but the one-year deal acknowledges the risk.

Eduardo Rodriguez signs with Tigers

This move telegraphs the Tigers’ intentions to contend in 2022, and why not? They upped their winning percentage to .475 in 2021, just two years after finishing 53.5 games out of first place, and still have two top-flight prospects, Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene, on the verge of a debut. As for Rodriguez, he was bound to improve no matter where he went, his 4.74 ERA being completely out of line with his 3.43 xFIP and 3.43 xERA. Fenway Park is of course an especially dangerous place for a left-hander to pitch, and the move to Comerica Park should help in that regard. He’ll be worth drafting among the top 60 starting pitchers in the hopes of a bounce-back season, offering the upside of a No. 3.

Andrew Heaney signs with Dodgers

Just when you thought it was safe to give up on Heaney in Fantasy, the 30-year-old left-hander joins up with one of the organizations best known for making good on reclamation projects. The Dodgers seemed eager to get him, too, snatching him up for $8.5 million at the start of the offseason. It’s not like they’re forced to shop the bargain bin either. What they see in him is no doubt the same thing that has kept Fantasy Baseballers interested all these years: He has big swing-and-miss tendencies but a vulnerability to the long ball that has kept him from making good on it. It’s possible the Dodgers still go the big-dollar route in remaking their pitching staff this offseason, bringing back Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, but if not, Heaney will have renewed sleeper appeal given their interest in him.

Wade Miley claimed by Cubs

Miley had a career year and will make a modest $10 million in 2022, so it’s surprising the Cubs didn’t have to give up anything to get him. But it’s also revealing. Despite the impressive stat line, the left-hander is no one’s idea of a front-line pitcher and got a healthy dose of regression in September, delivering an 8.35 ERA and 2.18 WHIP in four starts. He keeps the ball on the ground and is good for 5-7 innings most of the time, so he belongs in a major-league rotation. But with minimal strikeout ability and a career 4.14 ERA, he’s probably back to being just a matchups play in 2022, especially for a rebuilding club.

Buster Posey retires

Posey’s absence is a net loss for Fantasy Baseball, but it clears a path for one of the better-known catcher prospects in the game, Joey Bart. The 24-year-old, drafted second overall in 2018, has spent some time in the majors the past two years, making a minimal impact. Injuries have inhibited his development in the minors, rendering him something of an all-or-nothing hitter, and it’s possible the Giants will choose to ease him in, bringing in a veteran to bridge the gap. Still, the likelihood of Bart stepping into the role at some point in 2022 makes him worth targeting as a top-15 catcher in Fantasy, top 12 if the Giants begin talking him up.

Tucker Barnhart traded to Tigers

At first glance, this move doesn’t have serious Fantasy implications, but the role Barnhart leaves behind in Cincinnati figures to be filled by Tyler Stephenson, a former first-round pick who delivered a near-.800 OPS as the offensive-minded half a catching tandem. Only five catchers had a higher OPS, and one is now retired. Stephenson may not impact the ball quite hard enough to maintain that mark, but he’s clearly in the mix as a top-12 catcher. Meanwhile, Barnhart’s arrival in Detroit reduces slugging Eric Haase to backup status. He can also man the outfield, which will potentially give him enough at-bats to keep him relevant in two-catcher leagues, but that’s only if he isn’t eaten alive by strikeouts. His margin for error is less now.

C.J. Cron signs with Rockies

It’s no secret why Cron emerged as an impact contributor in 2021 after barely registering previously. It was his first year in Colorado, where he hit .326 with 19 homers and a 1.073 OPS compared to .235 with nine homers and a .734 OPS on the road. Now that we know he’ll be back with the Rockies, we can take the performance more or less at face value and target him as a top-10 first baseman for 2022. It’s no certainty he’ll be able to sustain those numbers age 32, but he’ll be in the one place that makes it possible.

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