As we await news on an eventual CBA agreement, fantasy baseball prep continues, full steam ahead. Recently, we covered injury bounceback targets at starting pitcher. This week, we’ll take on hitters.
In contrast to SP, gambling on hitters returning from injury was largely fruitful in 2021. Those who selected towering sluggers Yordan Álvarez, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton reaped rewards last season. Mitch Haniger is illustrative of the potential profit of using a pick post-200 on a hitter returning from an extended absence. As a result, there are potential targets at each stage of a draft to bet on a bounceback. Setting the bar at 81 games played or less in 2021, here are a few that make particularly compelling cases at their current ADP:
NFBC ADP as of 2/2.
ADP Range: 1-100
Mike Trout, OF, LAA
You didn’t come here to learn about Mike Trout, so we’ll keep things brief. The Millville Meteor is available outside the first round in a 12-team league after missing over four months in 2021 with a significant calf injury. While calf injuries are notoriously tricky and stolen bases are likely a thing of the past for Trout, we may have forgotten just how dominant he looked in April last season. Trout’s 190 wRC+ and .451 wOBA were the best in baseball before he went down for the year.
Looking forward to 2022, Trout projects as about as safe a lock for first-round production as anyone. Drafting speed in the first round is a priority, but it’s tough to overlook Trout’s consistency. The Angel’s lack of steals and injury history largely preclude him from being a top-5 pick, but he appears overlooked at an ADP around pick 14. Along with Juan Soto, he’s the only player projected by THE BAT X for an OPS over 1.000. There’s certainly a strong case to be made he should go off the board before any starting pitcher.
Byron Buxton, OF, MIN
Byron Buxton had the breakout season we’ve all been waiting for in 2021. The former second overall pick posted an incredible 12.2% Brls/PA, displaying his elite skill set. His consistent hard contact led to 19 homers and a .306/.358/.647 over 61 games. He also added nine steals for good measure. As has often been the case throughout his career, however, injuries kept Buxton off the field. A hip strain and hand fracture sidelined the Twins’ outfielder for over half the season.
The laundry list of injuries throughout his career has pushed the five-category performer outside the top 60 in ADP. After Buxton’s 2021 campaign, his current 5th/6th round price makes him one of the biggest values this draft season. With his aggressive style of play, the injury risk is not understated. In fact, Buxton has made seven trips to the IL since the beginning of 2019. Despite this, Minnesota’s slugger is well worth the risk.
While you can’t ignore injury history, predicting future IL stints for hitters is largely a fool’s errand. In addition, a few of Buxton’s stints on the IL wouldn’t appear to put him at an elevated risk for reinjury (such as his recent hand fracture). Outside of the first two rounds, it’s next to impossible to find the five-category production Buxton provides. While his plate discipline is lacking and 2021’s .306 AVG is more of a peak than the expectation, his elite speed and batted ball quality position him favorably to a number of players drafted ahead of him with similar profiles:
Buxton is projected to produce near identically to players going ahead of him, with significantly fewer games played. If this is the year he stays healthy, Buxton is a league winner hiding in plain sight.
ADP Range: 101-200
Anthony Rendon, 3B, LAA
Whereas Trout and Buxton make for more obvious cases as bounceback candidates, Anthony Rendon’s looks cloudier. Although Rendon has been as steady a producer as they come, 2021 revealed signs of concern. The 31-year-old’s plate discipline and batted ball metrics were the worst of his career. Rendon’s chase rate and strikeouts increased while his hard contact rate (as classified by FanGraphs) dropped significantly. In many ways, it’s easier to envision Rendon experiencing age-related decline than a 2022 rebound.
There is, however, a potential explanation to remain bullish on Rendon’s outlook. It’s feasible that the Angels’ third baseman was just never fully healthy last season. Before being shut down for the season, he made four different trips to the IL, all due to his lower body. Could Rendon’s play have been compromised by nagging injury? It’s impossible to say. Nonetheless, it’s certainly possible. 2021 was a precipitous decline that came seemingly out of nowhere. From 2017 through 2020, Rendon never posted an OPS below .900. If injury was the culprit behind his struggles, a pick around 100 will be a hefty discount.
It’s worth noting that none of the projection systems appear too optimistic on Rendon. A combination of age and declining batted-ball quality are likely the reasons why. Despite this, there’s reason to buy in. He’ll be batting behind two MVPs and is poised for a boatload of RBI opportunities. Moreover, the lack of positional depth at third base should put a premium on the 20-25 homers and strong average Rendon typically provides.
Alex Kirilloff, 1B/OF, MIN
Alex Kirilloff put together an admirable rookie campaign largely overshadowed by injury. Just as Kirilloff was beginning to hit his stride, he sprained his wrist. Between May and June, the rookie hit .280 and displayed above-average plate discipline. While his 8 homers over 231 PA won’t wow anyone initially, there’s ample reason to believe more power is on the way in 2022.
To begin, according to Statcast metrics, Kirilloff underperformed his batted ball profile last season. Compared to a .251 AVG and .423 SLG, the lefty posted a .291 xBA with a .541 xSLG. It’s important to remember these expected stats are not predictive of future performance. However, it does suggest Kirilloff may have been unlucky on balls in play. Another reason for optimism? An understanding his power was likely sapped as a result of his wrist injury. As the calendar turned to June and the Minnesota outfielder attempted to play through his wrist injury, he was unable to sustain his pre-injury power surge:
Additionally, Kirilloff can play two positions and should be an everyday member of the Twins’ lineup. With a combination of everyday at bats and more power, he appears primed to outpace his 2022 projections. The BAT X is the most optimistic with playing time, giving the outfielder 119 games played and 494 ABs. In short, if you believe Kirilloff will be a full-time player for the Twins, he makes a strong case to exceed expectations and provide ROI at his ADP.
Mitch Garver, C, MIN
Up next, another Minnesota Twin. Mitch Garver is already climbing draft boards, a trend that could continue as we inch towards (hopefully) Opening Day. Garver has struggled with injury the previous two seasons, only appearing in 68 games last year. However, when he did play in 2021, the results were outstanding.
In only 243 plate appearances, Garver belted 13 homers with a .875 OPS and a respectable .256 AVG. Moreover, he posted a 17.4% barrel rate which would have been amongst the league leaders if qualified. Unfortunately, injuries have hampered his ability to stay on the field for much of the last two seasons. Consequently, the Minnesota catcher is the 10th off the board at his position. For those unwilling to invest in one of the top three catchers, Garver is an outstanding fallback option.
Looking back to 2019, we’ve seen the power-hitting catcher at his best. That season’s .273 AVG is likely a peak, but another ~25 homer year feels within reason if health allows. While he likely won’t receive the playing time volume of a Yasmani Grandal or Willson Contreras, it’s possible Garver may see more plate appearances at DH with Nelson Cruz no longer in the fold. Outside of his power potential, the most exciting aspect of Garver is his draft day cost. At an ADP around 200, the Twin is practically free. Garver is the perfect high-upside target for those waiting at catcher. At best, he can be top 5 at the position and provide incredible value. Worst case? Garver hits the IL and you can stream the hot hand at the position.
ADP Range: 201-300
Luke Voit, 1B, NYY
Few players have seen their fantasy stock fall more than Luke Voit in the last year. Just one year after leading the majors in homers, Voit is largely a forgotten man for both the Yankees and in fantasy. He played in just 68 games, the result of a myriad of different injuries throughout the year. Until the Yankees resolve their future plans for first base, Voit’s future outlook remains in flux and his draft stock will remain depressed. While there’s risk in an uncertain playing time situation, it presents the opportunity for a potentially huge discount on a power hitter.
First, given his production when healthy, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Voit is relegated to a bench role. If he’s n0t in the Yankees’ plans at first, it seems likely he’s a prime candidate for a trade. Whether it be in a package for Matt Olson or for pitching reinforcements, New York will have plenty of suitors. Even if he’s traded to a less hitter-friendly park, Voit has demonstrated the power to hit anywhere.
When Voit was on the field, the results were underwhelming for a top 100 pick entering 2021. His strikeout rate jumped to 30.7% with a .239/.328/.437 batting line. Under the hood, however, there are some positive signs for a return to form. Voit’s xwOBAcon was a strong .435 while his barrel and hard contact rates all remained in line with past seasons. Moreover, he was 11% above league average as a hitter according to wRC+, not bad for a hitter who was clearly impacted by injury and is essentially a dart throw in your draft.
If you still have apprehension, it’s worth noting that Voit’s underperformance was potentially the result of playing through injury. After returning in May well ahead of schedule from a partially torn meniscus, the first baseman struggled mightily until returning to the IL with an oblique injury. Voit on appeared truly healthy an August, a month in which he hit .281 with a .915 OPS. It’s rare to find a middle of the order bat with 30+ homer potential. Don’t hesitate to take a chance on the hulking power hitter well above his ADP. The playing time question should sort itself out before Opening Day. If he catches some luck on the health front, Voit has the potential to deliver you a top 5 season at the position.
Deep League Considerations Post-300
- Mike Moustakas (373.46): Battled injury for much of the past two seasons. NL DH should help him stay on the field and brings some pop (with multi-position eligibility on Yahoo).
- Evan Longoria (400.93): Quietly has had a bit of a late-career renaissance since 2020. Makes hard contact and should produce strong counting stats when on the field.
- Nico Hoerner (405.16): A potential last-ditch effort in deep leagues for those in need of a few stolen bases. There should be plenty of at-bats available for the rebuilding Cubs and is available over 100 picks after his teammate, Nick Madrigal.
- Lorenzo Cain (411.12): No longer locked at the top of the Brewers lineup, but should still be capable of 15 steals
Photos by John Cordes/Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)