Though it was by no means a certainty a month ago, MLB’s opening day has arrived.
In a sense, that’s the first longshot to pay off this season. Fantasy managers are well aware the impact hitting on just one low-percentage gamble can make over the long haul.
Most of the time, we try to figure out the most logical and likely way things will play out over the course of 162 games. But winning a fantasy title can sometimes be the result of exploring what might be possible.
So, let’s allow our minds to wander and consider these bold (but somewhat unlikely) 2022 predictions.
Mike Trout is once again a top-five fantasy player
I realize I’m not breaking any new ground here. Mike Trout is good at baseball.
But in the discussion of the top fantasy options for 2022, Trout’s name is almost always missing. This, despite the fact that he posted career highs in batting average (.333), on-base percentage (.466) and OPS (1.090) last season.
OK, there’s that minor detail that he was limited to just 36 games because of a calf injury that never seemed to heal. Before that though, he was off to a start as great as any in his 11-year career.
The primary concern fantasy managers have about making Trout a first-round pick this season is his injury history. Well, let’s take a closer look.
Point: Trout hasn’t played more than 140 games in a season since 2016.
Counterpoint: Despite the torn ligament in his thumb, wrist inflammation and strained calf, he’s still been incredibly productive. And except for last year, he’s still managed to get at least 500 plate appearances (or the equivalent in the shortened 2020 season).
In 2017, Trout hit 33 homers and stole 22 bases in 114 games. He had 39 and 24 the following season in 140. In 2019, he hit a career-high 45 homers.
The 2020 season looks like the continuation of a downward trend with only 53 games played, but MLB teams only played 60. And Trout’s 17 homers and 46 RBI project to 46 and 124 over a full season.
The best player in the game over the past decade is still just 30 years old. And he’s been fully healthy this spring. Heck, with his calf back to 100%, Trout may even start stealing bases again.
It’s been pointed out many times how the trio of Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon only played 17 games together in 2021. What if that number is 120 or 130 or 150 this season? Even as a second-round pick, Trout could – as he’s done many times before – lead a team to a fantasy championship. (And maybe even lead the Angels into the playoffs.)
Speaking of players with questionable health histories, Buxton has spent much more time on the injured list than Trout has, playing in more than 90 games just once in his seven-year MLB career.
Here, the concern in fully justified. Buxton’s all-out style of play often results in him running into outfield walls. That was the same criticism Harper faced early in his career. At some point, however, Harper managed to channel that energy into only the times when he really needed it. The result was an MVP season in 2015 and another one last year.
Buxton has that kind of talent, and he’s added more power to his game over the past three seasons – with slugging percentages of .513, .587 and .647. His career-high 19 home runs last year came in only 61 games. And the one time he stayed fully healthy in 2017, Buxton stole 29 bases in 30 attempts.
There’s a 30-30 season out there for the taking, maybe more. Coupled with his Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field on a sneaky good Twins team, Buxton has a plausible path to being named AL MVP.
Steven Matz will be more valuable than either Robbie Ray or Carlos Rodon
The free agent market this winter contained an excellent crop of left-handed starting pitchers. At the top were AL Cy Young award winner Ray and fifth-place finisher Rodon. No matter where they landed, high expectations were sure to follow.
But how likely are they to repeat their fabulous 2021 performances?
Ray suddenly solved the control issues that had plagued him throughout his career – reducing his walk rate from 7.8 BB/9 in 2020 to 2.4 BB/9 in Toronto. But his stellar 2.84 ERA was fueled by an amazing 90% strand rate, and his expected ERA according to Baseball HQ was 3.46.
Meanwhile, Rodon avoided the injury bug that led to the White Sox releasing him over the winter and re-signing him to a one-year, $3 million prove-it contract. Despite pitching just 132⅔ innings, Rodon was more than worth it – winning 13 games, posting a 2.37 ERA and tossing a no-hitter.
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Both Ray and Rodon are in new environments, albeit pitching-friendly ones, but they’re being drafted as the aces they’d never been before in their careers.
Matz, on the other hand, is a relative afterthought after winning a career-high 14 games with the Jays (one more than both Ray and Rodon). He doesn’t have anywhere near the strikeout potential the other two do, but his landing spot in free agency may be the most favorable.
Allowing more balls in play is actually a good thing for Matz in St. Louis, where he’ll have the benefit of five 2021 Gold Glove winners behind him on defense, plus perennial Gold Glover Yadier Molina behind the plate.
According to NFBC average draft position over the past month, Ray (50) and Rodon (97) are going far earlier than Matz (251). But the difference will be much smaller when the final season stats are calculated.
Giovanny Gallegos becomes a top-five closer
Gallegos is another beneficiary of the Cardinals’ defensive prowess, though he doesn’t need it quite as much considering his strikeout rate (10.9 K/9 for his career). While the Cardinals closer situation always seems to be in flux, Gallegos is clearly the best arm in the bullpen.
He gets swings and misses, limits walks, and prevents hard contact. Now with Alex Reyes (29 saves in 2021) on the 60-day injured list and Jordan Hicks moving to the rotation, there should be no question who deserves to close.
The Cardinals play in what may be MLB’s weakest division, so there should be plenty of save chances. Gallegos and the Cardinals defense should have a high success rate of converting them.
Jo Adell is this year’s Cedric Mullins
This may be the boldest of the bold predictions. Adell is four years younger than Mullins, but the careers of the two North Carolina natives have a similar arc.
Mullins was a young outfielder from Greensboro mostly known for is speed who showed power in the minors but had completely flopped in several short stints in the majors. He finally got full-time at-bats last season and thrived, hitting .291 with 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases.
Born in Shelby, Adell was a much more hyped prospect, going to the Angels with the 10th overall pick in the 2017 draft. He made his way through the minors quickly, however he didn’t have the benefit of a minor league season in 2020. That may have contributed to a disappointing MLB debut – when he slashed .161/.212/.266 in 132 plate appearances.
Adell earned his way back to the majors last season after hitting .286 with 23 homers at Class AAA Salt Lake. But he struggled again to make contact and get on base once he returned to Anahiem.
The experience calls to mind how Trout also scuffled in his initial appearance with the Angels as a teenager in 2011. After a solid spring (.286, 3 HR, 3 SB), Adell, who turns 23 on Friday, is poised to get regular at-bats in the outfield this season. While expecting him to go 30-30 is a longshot, Adell has the power and speed to contribute significantly in both categories.
If fantasy managers are going to take a calculated risk this season, young players such as Adell, Jarred Kelenic, Andrew Vaughn, Gavin Lux and Jesus Luzardo who saw their development put on hold by the pandemic could be ready to flourish.
Follow Gardner on Twitter and razz him about his predictions @SteveAGardner
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fantasy baseball 2022 B:yron Buxton for MVP among bold predictions
Source: Yahoo Sports