Your World Series Champions look as strong as ever heading into 2023, with the vast majority of their championship-caliber core intact.
2022 stats (656 PA): .259 AVG, 93 R, 23 HR, 93 RBI, 1 SB
It’s hard not to love guys who walk more than they strike out, especially when they’ve accomplished such a feat three times in the last five seasons. In his first full season since his monstrous 2019 campaign, Bregman perhaps underwhelmed with his power, hitting just 23 home runs compared to the 41 he sent over the fence in 2019.
Let’s get one thing out of the way—Alex Bregman will not repeat hitting 41+ home runs. Whether or not you think he’s a cheater, the fact is that the rabbit ball likely propelled that power more than anything else. Many players set incredible career highs in 2019 thanks to that little ball, and we aren’t likely to see that ball again.
That being said, I do think Bregman can improve upon his 2022 numbers. Bregman was forced to skip much of his offseason routine prior to the 2022 season due to wrist surgery, and while he did break his finger in the World Series, he avoided surgery and has been swinging a bat since early January.
Additionally, as is laid out in this fantastic piece by Esetban Rivera over at FanGraphs, Bregman resurrected a skill that he lost for 2021 and much of 2022—hitting high-velocity fastballs. According to Rivera’s research, Bregman really hit his stride against these pitches late in the season, and when that skill is combined with his fantastic plate discipline, it makes Bregman a nightmare for opposing pitchers.
Third base is undoubtedly the trickiest position to manage in drafts, and while Bregman is seen as a bit outside of the top two tiers, his skill set is extremely valuable to fantasy managers in all formats. He’s the last of the third basemen (according to current ADP) that I feel particularly safe rostering, because not only does he have a ceiling that’s above his current projections (something like 28-30 home runs and 200 combined runs and RBI), but Bregman’s healthy floor is probably what we saw from him in 2022—where he finished safely inside the top-10.
Alex Bregman should be a target for every fantasy manager on draft day, whether or not you drafted a third baseman in the first two rounds of your draft. At a position that drops off a cliff, you want as many dependable players as you can get.
2022 stats (148.2 IP): 2.54 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 194 K, 11 W
I am infatuated with Cristian Javier. It’s not simply because he finished as the 15th-best pitcher in fantasy according to the Fangraphs Auction Calculator, but also because he accomplished the feat in just 148.2 innings.
The secret to Javier’s success isn’t all that secret—he boasts one of the league’s most devastating fastballs. Among all pitches thrown at least 1,000 times in 2022, Javier’s fastball ranked eighth in swinging strike rate (15.0%), which was the second-best mark amongst all four-seam fastballs (Carlos Rodón‘s four-seamer also came in at 15.0%, but was ever so slightly higher prior to rounding).
While I normally have trepidations about pitchers who primarily use just two pitches, Javier’s fastball is so good that I kind of don’t care about that and I’m even hoping that it scares off other drafters. The high spin rate and Javier’s ability to locate that four-seamer at the top of the zone is an ideal combination and allows him to use that fastball 60% of the time without fear. High spin rate fastballs at the top of the zone are exceedingly difficult to read in the batter’s box as they give that dreaded “rising” effect and don’t drop as much as you think they should. The result is a ton of weak fly balls off the top of the bat.
When you combine that with a rather effective slider that has a ton of horizontal movement (unlike his fastball), you get a guy with two pitches who can change velocities and eye level while also forcing you to figure out whether that ball is going to dive away from you (if you’re a righty) or stay above you. It’s a repeatable combination that keeps hitters off balance, even without a deep arsenal of pitches.
Most projections peg Javier for a high-3s ERA and a WHIP between 1.15 and 1.22, in part due to a bump in home runs, but I believe Cristian Javier can beat those projections based on how well his two pitches work together and force weak contact. A low-3s ERA and a 1.10 WHIP are absolutely in play, and double-digit wins are practically a given. I’ll be stunned if a healthy Javier isn’t a top-25 pitcher by season’s end, and there is the upside to land inside the top-20 for a second consecutive season.
2022 stats (201.1 IP): 2.82 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 194 K, 17 W
I don’t want to take anything away from what Framber Valdez accomplished in 2022. He had a masterful season and really anchored the Astros’ rotation as the only Astro to log 200 innings. Asking Valdez to repeat that accomplishment, though, is a rather tall order.
First, Valdez’s profile is one that allows a ton of contact. Sinkerball pitchers practically beg for the batter to make contact in hopes that it’s a weak dribbler to an infielder’s glove, and to his credit, Valdez induced more ground balls than anyone else in the game (and it’s not particularly close.) His 66.5% ground ball rate was a full 9.8 points above second place (Logan Webb‘s 56.7%), and surprisingly, I think he’s a lock to lead the league in grounders once again.
The thing about grounders, though, is that they are pretty BABIP-dependent, and grounders allow a higher BABIP than fly balls (since it’s a lot more likely that a grounder will squeak through the infield than it is for a fly ball to find grass). While I’m on record saying that the shift will not impact the game as much as people think, it is likely to have the biggest impact on pitchers exactly like Framber Valdez, who include loads of pulled ground balls. When unshifted, batters managed a .338 BABIP against Valdez compared to a .247 BABIP when the shift was on. While teams will likely employ some kind of positional shift despite the new rules, it’s hard to imagine that Valdez will escape the rule change unscathed.
I don’t think Valdez will be a bad or non-useful pitcher in fantasy in 2023—in fact, I think he’ll be quite good. The issue, though, will be how the rule change (and just his luck in general) will impact his WHIP, which was already on the higher side of acceptable. A dump to a 1.20 WHIP and above will make Valdez a bit of a liability there, and if his ERA goes up to the mid-3s instead of the low-3s, he will all of a sudden appear a lot more average than you hoped for.
2022 stats (47.2 IP): 2.27 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 50 K, 4 W
On one hand, I’ll never forget the 24 consecutive curveballs McCullers used to shut down the Yankees in the 2017 ALCS. The dominance of that pitch should be etched into your brain much like your high school sweetheart’s phone number.
Yes, that curveball is still a masterpiece. That pitch, paired with his somewhat similar slider, routinely posts a CSW north of 35% and makes him a threat to rack up double-digit strikeouts on any given night. Ability is not the question for McCullers.
Durability is the question of course, and you knew that once you saw his name listed here. Lance McCullers Jr. has pitched 130 or more innings in the regular season just twice in his career—2015 and 2021. He missed all of 2019 and huge chunks of 2016, 2017, and 2022 due to elbow issues, and it’s not hard to imagine that it has to do with the way he throws those breaking pitches. As Nick Pollack pointed out in his recent Plus Pitch podcast, McCullers throws his breaking ball in a way that puts a lot of tension on his elbow, and it has led to a lot of shortened seasons.
I’m as guilty as anyone of dreaming on another 150+ inning season for McCullers, but the more I look at what he can do and how he does it, I just can’t justify the risk any longer.
Even if McCullers does pitch more innings than we hope (projections peg him for 135 to 150, which would be the second-most big-league innings of his career), it will come with warts that I used to ignore thanks to the gaudy strikeout totals.
In each of the last two seasons, we’ve seen McCullers walk more than 11% of batters, pushing his WHIP north of 1.20. Sure, the ERA has not yet suffered (2.96 ERA over 210 innings since the start of 2021), but it required McCullers to leave 80.6% of runners on the bases, and while skill has an impact on this number, it’s rare for any pitcher to consistently strand this many runners. For reference, only eight qualified pitchers in 2022 stranded 80% or more of runners. When you look for how many pitchers have sustained that number over two seasons, the list shrinks to four—Robbie Ray, Max Scherzer, Julio Urías, and Brandon Woodruff. A drop to 75% doesn’t sound like much, but when you allow as many baserunners as McCullers does and allow more than four walks per nine innings, it can start to pile up quick.
There’s a time and place to draft McCullers—he’s a potential lottery ticket for strikeouts and wins if he starts 25 games—but history suggests that he’s unlikely to do so, and the underlying metrics indicate that the stellar ERA may be destined to inflate itself if he loses even just a little bit of luck. If you’re going to take the risk, make sure you know what you’re getting into.
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)