At first glance, these two don’t have a ton in common. Marcus Semien is a middle infielder; Luis Robert is an outfielder. Semien is 31 years old; Robert is 24. Semien is headed to his fourth organization (and his third in three years); Robert has been with the White Sox his entire pro career. But there are some similarities — both offer fantasy managers a power/speed combo with plenty of runs and RBI. And both are going as early as the late first round in NFBC drafts (min. pick of 10 for both), but more typically in the late second or third (19.42 ADP for Robert; 27.73 for Semien). In this week’s player debate, Lucas Spence will make the case for Robert, while Chad Young will defend Semien.
Argument: Pay for the future, not the past
Luis Robert debuted for Chicago in 2020 as one of the most highly-touted prospects in all of baseball and had a relatively mediocre rookie season (.233 AVG, .738 OPS). He then got off to a solid start in 2021 (.316 AVG, .822 OPS) in April before suffering a major right hip flexor injury while running the bases which sidelined him for three months.
However, upon his return to the White Sox lineup, the dynamic Cuban outfielder was sensational and lived up to his pedigree. Robert put up numbers worthy of a first-round fantasy selection over the final two months of the 2021 season (.350/.389/.622 slash line with 12 home runs, 35 RBI, and a Juan Soto-esque 1.011 OPS in just 43 games). Robert likely led numerous fantasy managers to championships in 2021. Now entering his age-24 season while hitting in one of baseball ‘s most hitter-friendly ballparks in the heart of one of baseball’s most fearsome lineups, Robert is primed for a full-fledged breakout season in 2022.
Among many fantasy principles that I adhere to, one of the ones on the top of my list is to never pay for last year’s stats. We want future numbers; past numbers don’t count in our game. Sure, they help us make informed decisions about players, but paying for past performance is rarely a successful endeavor.
Rebuttal: Pay for the future, but it needs to be based on the past
I get the love for Robert. He has five-category stud potential. He plays excellent defense, which doesn’t directly help him in fantasy, but it does mean he’ll stay in the lineup to work through slumps and won’t lose time to defensive replacements. But the track record here is all of 124 games split over two seasons with a .359 BABIP. Over those two seasons, 263 players got 400+ PA; Robert has the 24th worst BB/K ratio.
That doesn’t mean he is bad — he’s not, and I hope to have Robert on many of my teams! But it does impact my willingness to drop a top-20 pick on the guy. Robert is going before players like Cedric Mullins and Tyler O’Neill, who have their own warts and concerns, but who at least had a full-season breakout, instead of Robert’s shortened 2021. We don’t want to pay for past performance, but we want enough past performance to give us confidence that we are going to get what we are paying for.
Argument: Similar numbers, longer track record, better position
Let’s start with the basics — Marcus Semien is coming off a season in which he hit 45 HR, stole 15 bases, scored 115 runs, drove in 102, and hit .265. 2020 was rough, but in 2019, he hit 33 HR, stole 10 bases, scored 123 runs, and drove in 92 with a .285 average. And before I get accused of brushing off 2020, keep in mind that in the “second half” of that shortened season, he had a 126 wRC+.
Another way of looking at it: Semien has been healthy and hitting near the top of lineups, so he has put up over 700 PA each of the last three 162-game seasons. Since the start of 2019 (yes, including that awful 2020), here are Semien’s per-700 PA averages: 34.9 HR, 11.9 SB, 109.1 R, 89.0 RBI, and a .268 average. Robert has fewer HR, R, and RBI for his career than Semien has averaged over the last three seasons.
That is a track record. And it is a track record you can deploy at 2B or SS. Oh, and he has missed 10 games in the last four seasons, so you can use that track record every. Single. Day. If you pass on Robert, you can still build a strong OF — there are plenty of OF to go around unless you play in a 5-OF format. Second base is not as deep. Once Semien is off the board (after Trea Turner and Ozzie Albies, and in some cases Mookie Betts), you are making big tradeoffs. Every other 2B either has big question marks or is missing something that Semien brings.
Rebuttal: The team and park won’t be as kind in 2022
Marcus Semien was simply outstanding in 2021. There is no arguing with a stat line that features 115 runs scored, 45 home runs, 102 RBI, and 14 stolen bases. That’s fantasy gold and illustrates why he was one of the most valuable fantasy players in all of baseball last year, especially given where he was drafted prior to the season.
Semien is now 31 years old. He signed a lucrative seven-year, $175-million contract extension with the Texas Rangers this offseason. So, for fantasy purposes, he will be moving from one of baseball’s most prolific offenses in one of baseball’s most hitter-friendly ballparks in Toronto to a mediocre-at-best Rangers lineup in a pitcher-friendly ballpark at Globe Life Field. Expecting Semien to replicate last year’s numbers is a fool’s errand.
Semien is moving from a lineup that included Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, George Springer, Teoscar Hernandez, and Randall Grichuk to a lineup that features newly-signed Corey Seager, Wille Calhoun, Kole Calhoun, Adolis Garcia, and Nate Lowe. That’s the equivalent of moving from a beach-front condo in Malibu to a duplex in Tulsa.
Lucas’ Closing Argument
Semien has proven to be a terrific baseball player and has now been rewarded handsomely for his previous accomplishments. Props to him, he deserves it. But he also hit .223 with a paltry .679 OPS with Oakland during the COVID-shortened 2020 season. His career OPS across nine MLB seasons is a pedestrian .768. There is a lot of evidence in Semien’s career profile that he’s much closer to “solid major leaguer” than “superstar” and in 2021, he benefited from a very favorable landscape for offensive production.
Given the choice between Semien and Luis Robert? I want to draft the player whose peak seasons are ahead of him, through the windshield, and not in the rear view mirror. Robert offers a dynamic power/speed combination of skills while his ballpark + lineup setup is as good as baseball has to offer. The stage is set for Robert to ascend into baseball’s upper echelon of position players in his third season.
Draft Robert aggressively this season. He’s a budding superstar.
Chad’s Closing Argument
Yes, Semien is moving from Toronto to Texas, but remember those per-700 PA numbers up above? Those came from 1,707 PA from 2019-21, and 983 of those were from two seasons with the Oakland Athletics in a truly awful hitter’s park and a lineup that was far from elite. And these Rangers are not last year’s Rangers, either. Semien will have Corey Seager in the lineup with him. Willie Calhoun should be around. We’ll likely see Josh Jung soon. And who knows if the Rangers are done making upgrades. Semien did it in Oakland, he did it in Toronto, and I am confident he can do it in Texas.
And while it is true Robert might be better over the next few years, as he enters his prime and Semien hits his decline, the question is who would you rather have in 2022. Semien doesn’t need to keep performing into his late-30s. He doesn’t even need to repeat his 2021. He just needs to come close to matching those per-700 PA averages since 2019 while playing MI and he’ll be a bargain, even at the cost of a top-30 pick.
Photos by Joe Robbins & Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire | Design by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter @ IG)