I'll openly admit that every year I struggle with finding bust candidates in Fantasy Baseball. When researching players, I try my best to see the glass half full, looking for reasons to draft that player. The truth remains that everybody has their warts. No player is perfect, though Shohei Ohtani begs to differ.
Optimism aside, every year we have players that underperform their draft position, even ones that completely bottom out. There are many different ways it happens, too. Among the most notable, we often see injuries, change in performance or flat-out bad luck. Baseball is a weird game like that. Yes, a player could be unlucky for an entire season. Like sleepers and breakouts, not every bust should be considered the same. Some players have enough red flags where I'll just completely avoid them while others are just slightly overvalued compared to the skillset of those being drafted around them.
As as a precursor, I'd just like to point out that each of the players listed below are very talented. They just check enough boxes for me stay away at their draft cost. If they fall far enough in drafts, however, everybody has a price. Always keep that in mind.
When it comes to pitchers, betting on strikeouts usually pays off. Dylan Cease struck out 227 batters last season, the fifth most in baseball. I'm very confident that, as long as Cease is healthy, he should continue to get a good amount of strikeouts. The walks aren't going away either, though. Cease posted a 3.8 BB/9 last season, which ranked first among qualified starting pitchers. As a result, Cease posted a 1.11 WHIP, hardly what you'd expect from your SP1 in Fantasy Baseball. Still, he remains a third-round pick as the seventh starting pitcher off the board. Something weird happened in the second half, too.
- First half- 34.4% strikeout rate, 12.9 K/9, 16.4% SwStr rate
- Second half- 24.8% strikeout rate, 8.7 K/9, 13% SwStr rate
For whatever reason, the whiffs plummeted in the second half. Cease posted five strikeouts or less in seven of his final 13 starts. He did that just five times in his 19 first-half starts. It's not like his velocity declined or his pitch mix drastically changed. The point is Cease needs that elite strikeout rate to pay off his current average draft position. Maybe he'll get back to his first-half numbers and put up another Cy Young-caliber season. But on the off chance that second half carries over, I'm going to sit out on Cease this year.
UPDATED 3/21 — It's hard to fade a closer that we know is locked into the role, except for when that closer pitches in Colorado. Bard just had an awesome bounce-back season, pitching to a 1.79 ERA and 0.99 WHIP. His 34 saves were the sixth most in baseball while his 1.8 WAR was ninth-best among relievers. He did it on the back of a pitch-mix change, opting to fade his four-seam fastball and throw more sinkers. The sinker and slider accounted for nearly 95% of Bard's pitches thrown last season. He still pitches in Colorado, however.
Bard has spent three seasons with the Rockies. He was solid in 2020, awful in 2021 and amazing in 2022. Which Bard will show up this season? The control has been an issue in the past, evidenced by his 4.9 BB/9 in 2021. Pitching in Colorado, you're just a few bad pitches away from an inflated ERA and WHIP. Maybe I'm not giving Bard enough credit for his transformation last season but I just can't invest in the closer that calls Coors Field home.
Since writing this back in January, Bard's ADP has dropped about 35 picks. Even with that, I'm fading him. Bard's sinker was down nearly three MPH while his slider down two MPH in his WBC appearance last Saturday. If we're looking at diminished stuff and pitching in Colorado, that's a no go for me.
The price for Thairo Estrada isn't unbearable. He's just going ahead of players I don't believe he should be. Estrada burst onto the scene for the Giants last season, batting .260 with 14 home runs and 21 steals. I kept waiting for him to fall off but it just never happened. I'm just not betting on a repeat. Estrada hit 14 home runs last season on just 18 barrels, 78%. Comparatively, Aaron Judge was at 58% while Kyle Schwarber was 60%. Based on Estrada's quality of contact, I'd expect his power to regress in 2023.
He also had some unfavorable splits last season. Estrada hit .283 with an .834 OPS vs. lefties but just .250 with a .671 OPS vs. righties. Given how frequently the Giants have platooned their hitters in the past, it wouldn't surprise me if Estrada lost playing time at some point. I think he's a solid middle infielder in a deeper Roto league but I wouldn't draft Estrada ahead of names like Jonathan India, Vaughn Grissom and Whit Merrifield, which is currently the case according to average draft position.
If Lars Nootbaar is everybody's favorite breakout then Michael Harris is everybody's favorite bust candidate. Harris was ridiculous as a rookie, providing five-category production for Fantasy and winning the National League Rookie of the Year. It's especially impressive when you consider he did all of that as a 21-year-old who was promoted straight from Double-A. I understand why people are excited about him. Harris is just going too early based on some of warts I'm seeing in his game.
First up is the plate discipline. Harris walked just 4.8% of the time while striking out in 24.3% of his plate appearances. He's an uber-aggressive hitter, too, posting a near-42% chase rate to go along with a 13.8% swinging strike rate. Next up Harris had a really high 56% ground ball rate yet he still managed 19 home runs. He needed the sixth-highest HR/FB ratio among outfielders to post that power output. It's possible he could repeat that mark but I'd rather not pay a third-round price tag to find out. Lastly, we have Harris' splits. He posted just a .238 batting average with a .649 OPS vs. left-handed pitching last season. Harris was inconsistent against lefties in the minors, too. He won't lose playing time considering he's an elite defender but the splits could draft Harris' overall numbers down. I love the talent. It's just too big of a price, too soon.
I know what you're thinking. "Frank must have lost his mind!" Anybody who followed our work last year knows I loved Sandy Alcantara. Now I still think he's super talented and I don't think he's going to bottom out or anything. I just think he's a little overvalued at his current average draft position. Anytime you're banking on volume as a pitcher skill, you're in dangerous territory. Alcantara led baseball with 228.2 innings last season, 23.2 more than Aaron Nola. I'd wager on Alcantara to lead the league again this season. But what if he doesn't?
As we know, MLB is implementing shift restrictions. As a result, there will be more hits and likely more runs scored. The Marlins shifted the fifth most in baseball last season. Why does this matter? Alcantara had a 53% GB rate and relies a decent bit on balls in play. All I'm saying is that if more hits are going through, that will lead to more batters faced, more pitches thrown, and less efficiency. Last year Alcantara needed the most innings in baseball just to finish eighth in strikeouts because he has a lower strikeout rate than typical aces. Among the top-19 starting pitchers drafted in NFBC ADP, Alcantara's 23.4% strikeout rate is the lowest. Relying on innings volume is a dangerous game to play. I'm just a little nervous when it comes to Alcantara's skillset and this year's environment.
First I'd like to issue an apology to Zac Gallen for doubting him last season. Between previous forearm ailments and a bum shoulder last spring, I'd basically written him off. Now that I've got that off my chest, I can write about him as a bust this year. Gallen was unreal in the second half last season, posting a 1.49 ERA, 0.74 WHIP and 10.3 K/9. His 3.3 WAR over the final two and a half months was tied with Justin Verlander for best among starting pitchers.
What's the issue, you ask? Gallen posted just a .237 BABIP against last season, tied for the second lowest among starting pitchers. Of the five lowest BABIPs, Gallen was the only one with a ground ball rate over 40% and it was up at 46%. Much like my rationale for fading Alcantara, Gallen will allow more hits because of the shift restrictions. Also, a .237 BABIP was just lucky for a pitcher who gets as many ground balls as Gallen does. He also doesn't get many whiffs, which is worrisome. Gallen's 10.1% swinging strike rate was tied for 31st among 45 qualified starting pitchers. There's a good pitcher here, just not one who should be drafted inside the top 70 picks.
You've heard it once. You've heard it a million times. Third base is a wasteland for Fantasy Baseball. If you miss out on the top-eight options, good luck. Even if I miss out early, one player I know I'll be avoiding is Ke'Bryan Hayes. While the out-of-position steals are helpful, Hayes doesn't provide much else. It's a shame, too. When he got called up during the shortened 2020 season, Hayes hit the ground running with a .376 batting average and five home runs over just 24 games. Since then, he's slugging .356, tied for the sixth-lowest over the past two years.
Hayes hits the ball hard but a majority of it is on the ground. He owns a 52% career ground ball rate to go along with a 4.8% barrel rate. League average barrel rate is 6.7%! He also likes to hit the ball to center and opposite field often, which makes him more of a threat for doubles power than it does home runs. Until Hayes learns to pull the ball in the air consistently, we're likely looking at 10 home runs or less. The cherry on top is that he plays for the Pirates. Hayes has averaged 70 runs and 52 RBI per-150 games played during his career. Reminder: the Pirates are still bad. Hayes goes late enough that he won't hurt you. I just don't think there's much upside.
I'll always be cheering for Byron Buxton. It just won't be on my Fantasy team. Not as a top-100 pick, at least. Between the injuries and change in skillset, I find it extremely tough to rely on Buxton as one of your top three outfielders. Over his last three full seasons, Buxton has played 240 of a possible 486 games. That's 49 percent. He's only exceeded 100 games once in his career and that came all the way back in 2017. Over the past two seasons, he's missed time due to recurring hip and knee injuries. I'd be willing to wager one or both of those ailments will be an issue in the future, too.
Now let's talk about the skillset. Who is Buxton at this point? Last season he blasted 28 home runs over 92 games, an amazing pace. However, he did that with just a .224 batting average and six steals. In fact, he has just 17 total steals over the past three years. It seems like his days of running are behind him and, given the specific injuries he's dealt with, that makes sense. So what is he now? A Kyle Schwarber-type bat? That could prove to be productive. We just need to change our expectations compared to previous years. Between the bevy of injuries and change in skillset, I just find myself looking the other way when Buxton's name comes up in draft rooms.
Tyler O'Neill is a fun player! He's also more jacked than you or I will ever be. With all those muscles come injuries… lots of them. I've been wary of players like this in the past because baseball is a weird game. It requires a lot of flexibility and repetition. Let's just be honest. The bulkier you are, the harder this game could be, especially when it comes to health. Since being called up in 2018, O'Neill has been on the Injured List nine times. Last season O'Neill played just 96 games and went on the IL twice with a strained left hamstring, something he's also dealt with in the past.
O'Neill's skillset is enticing given his power-speed combination. One year after posting 34 homers and 15 steals in 2021, O'Neill managed 14 and 14 last season. The problem, for me, is that 2021 looks like the clear outlier in O'Neill's career. Over 1,370 career plate appearances, O'Neill is batting .251 with a .788 OPS. That's a fine player but it's nowhere near the standout we saw in 2021. His quality of contact also took a huge step back. In 2021, O'Neill's average exit velocity was 93 MPH with a 17.9% barrel rate. In 2022, it was 89.8 MPH and 11.3%. You've got injuries to worry about, the production, plus the Cardinals are loaded with talent. If O'Neill doesn't perform, he could wind up on the outside looking in. I'm fading him at an ADP just outside the top-100.
UPDATED 3/21 — At first glance, Tony Gonsolin is going pretty late in drafts given the season he just had. Last year Gonsolin won 16 games and put up a 2.14 ERA and 0.87 WHIP, just a tad better than his career numbers. There's no doubt Gonsolin is a very serviceable pitcher… when he's on the mound. Gonsolin threw 130.1 innings last season, a career-high at any level. He's also dealt with recurring shoulder injuries and, worst of all, a strained right forearm he suffered in August.
As we've seen for decades, the dreaded strained right forearm is usually a precursor to worse injuries down the road. It's not a guarantee Gonsolin will need some kind of surgery but it is worrisome. You couple that with the shoulder history and it just doesn't make sense to invest in Gonsolin at his draft cost. He's going ahead of names like Dustin May and Jeffrey Springs who have similar upside and nowhere near the same amount of risk. Given how often pitchers land on the Injured List, why invest in one who's already dealing with this many red flags?
Not only did Gonsolin suffer a forearm strain last year but he's dealing with a pretty nasty ankle injury this spring as well. Gonsolin will start the season on the Injured List and is expected to miss at least the first couple weeks. He was always going to regress statistically but now we have multiple injuries to worry about, too. There are a lot of fun pitchers to target in the middle rounds instead of going after one that's already hurt.