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Fantasy Baseball Offseason Tracker: Jeimer Candelario complicates Reds infield; Craig Kimbrel lands closer gig

The hot stove is humming, and the signings and trades are picking up steam. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a place you could go for quick-hitting Fantasy Baseball analysis on all the biggest moves?

Well, there is, and it’s right here. Through the long, dark winter, you can count on the Offseason Tracker to keep the embers of anticipation burning, right up to the point where pitchers and catchers are reporting and Draft Prep season begins anew.

Here’s what to make of what’s happened so far …

Jeimer Candelario signs with Reds

While this move is clearly good for Candelario’s Fantasy value, him being a prolific doubles hitter going to the majors’ most homer-friendly park, it’s a major annoyance to anyone who’s invested in the Reds’ youth movement. Their infield was already overloaded after graduating Spencer Steer, Elly De La Cruz, Matt McLain, Christian Encarnacion-Strand and Noelvi Marte to the majors last year. If you counted five names there, you counted correctly, and that’s before factoring in holdover Jonathan India. Only one, Steer, has shown the ability to play the outfield, but unless he moves there permanently, with Encarnacion-Strand becoming a full-time DH, there wasn’t a road map for playing all six every day. Add Candelario, and whew, what a mess.

Maybe a couple of those infielders become trade bait for Dylan Cease or someone else, but if not, I’d be worried about the playing time for India, Encarnacion-Strand, Steer and Marte, in that order. And even if India and Steer are traded, their power may not translate so well to another ballpark. Kind of feels like there’s another shoe yet to drop, in which case I’m reluctant to commit to any major moves in the rankings, but those four are in a precarious spot right now. As for Candelario, Statcast estimates he would have had 30 home runs if he played every game at Great American Ball Park last year. He won’t play every game there, of course, but a possible 25-homer outcome is enough for me to move him past Alec Bohm at an already loaded third base.

Eduardo Rodriguez signs with Diamondbacks

There aren’t any venues more pitcher-friendly than Comerica Park, which Rodriguez is now departing, but Chase Field is closer than you think. His home/away splits were virtually identical last year anyway. The supporting cast improves with this deal, but then again, you can’t expect him to deliver much better than the 13-9 record he had in 2023. Early in the year, it looked like something might have clicked for Rodriguez — he was throwing a bit harder and using his cutter more — but then after he missed all of June with a ruptured finger pulley, it was business as usual with a 4.24 ERA over his final 15 starts. He’ll eat some innings and pile up quality starts for the Diamondbacks, but he’s still basically a back-end starter for Fantasy — more than a streamer, but not by much.

Juan Soto traded to Yankees

It’s clear now that San Diego wasn’t a great fit for Soto. He’s a career .231 hitter with a .783 OPS there, including .240 and .827 in what was his one full season with the Padres. Of his 35 homers in 2023, 23 came on the road, where he hit a more Soto-like .307 with a 1.026 OPS. The question is how much better he’ll get at Yankee Stadium, because he will get better — the splits tell us that much. For a complete breakdown, along with what this deal means for Michael King and the Padres, check out Scott White’s full-length article.

Craig Kimbrel signs with Orioles

GM Mike Elias has already confirmed that Kimbrel will serve as the Orioles closer in 2024, calling him “one of the best closers in baseball history,” and the 35-year-old makes for a nice stopgap measure with Felix Bautista expected to spend all of 2024 recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Orioles seemed like they already had a pretty good closer alternative in Yennier Cano, but he’s not as much of a bat-misser and was pretty shaky when he stepped into the role late last August.

Cano’s Fantasy value plummets with this signing, but the Orioles would likely fall back on him if Kimbrel implodes, which isn’t an insane thought given his inconsistencies over the past few years. His stuff is still closer-caliber, but there are times when his location breaks down, and the results can be ugly, as happened in the NLCS last year. Still, given the certainty of his role, the strength of his supporting cast, and the likelihood of a big strikeout total, Kimbrel figures to be one of the top 15 relievers off the board in 2024.

Alex Verdugo traded to Yankees

This reads like the Red Sox ridding themselves of a headache since none of the three pitchers they got back is a notable name in prospect circles, but Verdugo is a player of some consequence in Fantasy. Going to Yankee Stadium is always a good thing for a left-handed hitter, but maybe less for him since he tends to hit balls more on the ground and up the middle. His xHR at Yankee Stadium the past two years is 32 vs. the 24 he actually hit, but the entire disparity is from 2022 (it was actually negative in 2023). It’s reason to hope for closer to 20 homers than 15 (not that he’s ever quite achieved that lesser mark) and puts Verdugo in consideration to be one of the top 40 outfielders drafted in 2024.

Meanwhile, Verdugo’s departure opens the door for some interesting young outfielders in Boston. Wilyer Abreu made hard contact and showed good on-base skills in a late-season trial, both of which were also true in the minors, and Ceddanne Rafaela is a slick-fielding jack-of-all-trade type with decent contact skills, speed and power. Both would seem to have the inside track on a starting job now, though of course, the offseason isn’t over.

Erick Fedde signs with White Sox

Fedde was a pretty good prospect back in the day, but he got enough chances for the Nationals from 2017 through 2022 that it hardly seems relevant now. What is relevant is how he lit up the Korean league in his one year there, going 20-6 with a 2.00 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 10.4 K/9 to win the league’s equivalent of both Cy Young and MVP. It’s a lesser league, of course, but it’s the same one where Merrill Kelly revitalized his career with numbers that weren’t nearly as impressive as Fedde’s.

It may be that the league was more a backdrop to showcase Fedde’s changes rather than instill them. He spent last offseason at the PUSH Performance workout facility remaking both his mechanics and arsenal, adding a sweeper and split-change that White Sox pitching advisor Brian Bannister compared to Logan Webb’s. More than anything, Webb stands out for his 62.1 percent ground-ball rate, tops among qualifiers last year. Fedde’s rate in Korea was 70 percent. It’s anybody’s guess how those changes will translate to the majors, but make no mistake: they are considerable changes. And given the precedent of pitchers like Kelly, whose time overseas was a total game-changer, I’d be surprise if Fedde lasted into the late rounds on Draft Day.

Jarred Kelenic traded to Braves

The Braves also acquired left-hander Marco Gonzales (later flipped to the Pirates) and first baseman Evan White in what was mostly a salary dump for the Mariners, who received right-hander Jackson Kowar and pitching prospect Cole Phillips in the deal. The big name here, though, is Kelenic, who was regarded as one of the top prospects in baseball just a couple years ago. His stock is obviously down after three years struggling to make contact at the big-league level, but the 2023 version was the best we’ve seen so far — one who wasn’t an automatic out against left-handers and sliders.

Joining the Braves lineup takes some pressure off, and it’s too early to say the 24-year-old is a finished product. Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos has already confirmed that the Braves plan to play Kelenic in left next year, possibly in a platoon with Vaughn Grissom. The deal may renew interest in Kelenic as a late-round flier in five-outfielder leagues, though the burnout the Mariners experienced with him is shared by many Fantasy Baseballers.

Jackson Chourio signs long-term deal

Chourio of course doesn’t change teams with his eight-year, $82 million deal with the Brewers, but it’s no less worth mentioning here for the impact it has on his 2024 value. The 19-year-old (he’ll turn 20 before opening day) is now a near shoo-in to make the team out of spring training. There are no longer any service time ramifications to consider, and if he’s not with the Brewers from the start of his rookie season, no amount of hardware he wins will score the team extra draft picks.

It’s a big leap for a player his age and likely won’t come without growing pains, but his strikeout rate dropped from 26.9 percent in 2022 to 17.8 percent in 2023 even as he ascended to the upper minors for the first time. His power/speed combo gives him superstar potential, and with outfield in a weakened state, it’s not crazy to regard Chourio as a top-20 option there right away

Luis Severino signs with Mets

Severino remained in our good graces even as he threw a combined 18 innings from 2019 through 2021, and that patience seemed to be rewarded when he delivered a 3.18 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 9.9 K/9 across 102 innings in 2022. But boy was 2023 a different story, the kind of out-and-out disaster that begs the question “why even bother?” Are the Mets the organization to change our minds? Certainly, they’re not known for performing magic tricks, but they’re willing to pay the guy $13 million for a year. And a deeper dive reveals that the characteristics of Severino’s pitches — from the velocity to the spin rate to the movement — didn’t actually change that much. He’s no more than a late-round flier at this point, but one who retains intriguing upside.

Sonny Gray signs with Cardinals

The Cardinals continue their rotation overhaul with one of the biggest prizes on the free agent market, AL Cy Young runner-up Sonny Gray. Of course, in Fantasy, Gray has long been regarded as second-tier, his occasional flashes of brilliance too often undermined by injury and inconsistency. Then again, he was pretty stable during his two-year stint with the Twins, compiling a 2.90 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 8.9 K/9. He led all qualifiers with a 2.83 FIP in 2023 and also unveiled a new sweeper that Eno Sarris of The Athletic considers a game-changer. Still, between his past fake-outs, his so-so strikeout rate, and the fact that 2023 represented his first time crossing the 180-inning threshold since 2015, you’re better off thinking of Gray as a rotation stabilizer than a true standout in Fantasy, targeting him as your No. 3 or 4 in 12-team leagues.

Kenta Maeda signs with Tigers

Maeda’s high ERA and low innings total will likely make him an afterthought in most Fantasy drafts, but there’s upside for the Tigers to dream on. His 10.9 K/9 ranked 12th among pitchers with at least 100 innings, which is a good place to start when talking upside, and his 12.8 percent swinging-strike rate ranked 23rd. His penchant for hard contract did yield some troubles with the long ball, but moving to the venue that Statcast rates dead last for home runs over the past three years should help to mitigate that. More than anything, it’s health that will determine Maeda’s fate in 2024, and with him turning 36, there will be some bumps along those lines. But for a reminder of how good it can be, he had a nine-start stretch after returning from a triceps injury last June in which he put together a 2.36 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 11.2 K/9.

Eugenio Suarez traded to Diamondbacks

T-Mobile Park was the single worst venue for right-handed hitters last year, according to Statcast, so at first glance, this would seem to be an upgrade for the four-time 30-homer man. But his power production was better at home than on the road the past two years, and Chase Field actually rates worse for home runs specifically. No, Suarez’s issues have less to do with his surroundings than his profile. A strikeout rate over 30 percent basically condemns him to a low batting average, and his fly-ball and pull tendencies, while allowing for big home run totals at times, only make it worse. He’s best used as a corner infielder in Rotisserie leagues. His arrival at third base does close one potential path to at-bats for prospect Jordan Lawlar, but the 21-year-old’s future is likely at shortstop anyway.

Reynaldo Lopez signs with Braves

Normally, the signing of a middle reliever — even one of Lopez’s ilk — wouldn’t merit a mention here, but word is that the Braves plan to stretch him out as a starter this spring. It’s unclear whether it’s a contingency measure or Plan A for Lopez — the rest of the Braves’ offseason maneuvering may ultimately determine which — but it’s a noteworthy development for a pitcher who hasn’t been a full-time starter since 2020. The will-be 30-year-old struggled in his years as a starter before finding success in relief, gaining a couple ticks on his fastball while doing away with his changeup and curveball. The Braves must see some untapped potential here, though, and if he indeed holds down a rotation spot for them, the win potential alone would make him a potential Fantasy asset.

Lance Lynn signs with Cardinals

Lynn has had a nice career and goes back to where it all started in St. Louis. Unfortunately, he’s clearly on the downside of it now, having struggled to get his ERA below 6.00 last year. A move to the Dodgers at the trade deadline didn’t do much to improve his standing, and if they can’t straighten him out with all they’ve done to reclaim other veteran pitchers, then it’s hard to imagine the Cardinals will. Lynn can still deliver a decent strikeout total on occasion, but given how susceptible he was to blowups in 2023, you should think of him as more of a risk/reward streamer than a staple for your Fantasy staff in 2024.

Aaron Nola signs with Phillies

This seven-year deal ensures the status quo for a player who, frankly, could have done with a change. Nola is coming off his second year in three with an ERA around 4.50, and a new team might have offered more reason for optimism in 2024. Of course, there are other reasons to believe he could bounce back. A look at the game log shows no shortage of brilliant starts — the kind only accessible to aces, more or less — and he showed improvement in the postseason, apparently making a mechanical adjustment to help him locate on the edges of the plate better. We know now his home runs issues are recurring, though, which should discount him slightly on Draft Day despite his ace potential.

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