2022 Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep: Who could be this year’s Cedric Mullins?

At this time last year, you could certainly find people in the Fantasy Baseball space who were interested in Cedric Mullins. We learned that he was ditching switch hitting after showing very little proclivity for actually hitting right-handed, and he was getting some late-round love in deeper leagues.

Of course, I don’t know if anyone actually expected him to go 30-30 on us and emerge as one of the most valuable players in Fantasy. But the thing is… that kind of thing happens pretty much every year. OK, maybe we don’t have a player emerging from the ranks of the undrafted to be one of the dozen or so best players in the game, but as Ryan Bloomfield of BaseballHQ.com pointed out on Twitter the other day, we get a player drafted outside of the top 150 who returns first-round player pretty much every season:

Each of those players came from a different background and became a first-round caliber player in a different way:

  • 2015: Dallas Keuchel – Good pitcher who had a breakout (outlier) season
  • 2016: Jonathan Villar – Power/speed guy
  • 2017: Aaron Judge – Big power breakout from prospect
  • 2018: Blake Snell – Talented young pitcher put it all together
  • 2019: Ketel Marte – Post-hype breakout
  • 2020: Luke Voit – Good hitter who had an outlier power season
  • 2021: Cedric Mullins – Out-of-nowhere breakout

Let’s take a look at some candidates to follow each of those previous players’ paths. As with Mullins, I don’t actually expect any of these players to be first-round caliber contributors or anything close. It’s incredibly unlikely; that’s the point. But there’s something to like about each of them:

This Year’s Dallas Keuchel: Carlos Carrasco

Carrasco has thrown just 201.2 innings over the past three seasons, so it’s fair to wonder what kind of volume you’re going to get from him, and the 232 innings Keuchel threw in 2015 were a significant part of his value. However, it’s worth noting that 2021 is actually the only season where injuries were really an issue; he made every start in 2020 while his limited availability of him in 2019 was a result of his cancer diagnosis, not an injury. He’s healthy right now and has shown the ability to top 190 and 200 innings in the past, so it’s something he’s capable of.

The question is more about how much his 2021 struggles were tied to the elbow and then leg injuries he dealt with – he had offseason surgery to remove a bone fragment from his elbow this offseason and told reporters “It feels like a new elbow to me. ” Obviously that could just be spring training talk, but it’s good to hear given how much has gone wrong for Carrasco in recent seasons. He was quite good in 2020, so the hope is he can get back to that level for a full season. It’s a lot to ask, but a healthy Carrasco with a solid supporting cast surrounding him with the Mets could absolutely have a big bounce-back season.

This year’s Jonathan Villar: Jo Adell

Adell isn’t going to be the kind of speed threat Villar was that year, but there just aren’t many players who are capable of leading the league in steals while providing something in power – prospects like CJ Abrams or Vidal Brujan might have that kind of potential, but neither is likely to have the role needed to do it.

So I’ll go with Adell, who is one of my top sleeper/breakout picks and has been since the start of the draft process. His price for him is starting to climb thanks to three homers in 10 spring games so far, but he’s still a value where he is being drafted for the potential he brings to the table. And the thing with Adell is he absolutely has the skill set to be an elite base stealer – he’s logged a 98th percentile sprint speed in the majors and has stolen bases at an 84% clip in the minors. If the Angels wanted to let him steal 30-plus bases, he’s absolutely equipped to do it.

But in his case, it’s the power potential on top of the speed that really makes Adell such an enticing Fantasy prospect. He was on a near-50 homer pace last season in Triple-A and has flashed high-end exit velocities in his stints in the majors – and he showed improvement in his plate discipline in 2021, too. Forty homers-plus-steals is a reasonable expectation for Adell this season, and 50 isn’t out of the question. It’s entirely possible we’re talking about him this time next year like we are about Kyle Tucker right now.

This year’s Aaron Judge: Oneil Cruz

Cruz won’t get the chance to show it from the start of the season, but hopefully his time in Triple-A won’t be too long. He’s shown Judge-esque power in the limited looks we’ve gotten from him in front of Statcast systems – he had the hardest-hit ball by any Pirates player all last season in his two games – and the minor-league data available backs that up, too. His minor-league production of him prior to 2021 was n’t incredible, but Cruz looks like he might be a bit of a late-developer – something he would share with Judge, in addition to the fact that both tower over their peers at 6-foot-7.

I’m hopeful we’ll see Cruz before the end of April, and my expectations are quite high – I had him ranked inside of my top 150 in Roto leagues before he was sent to Triple-A, and I’m not moving him down much at all. I want him on my roster when he gets called up because Cruz has all the tools to be a Fantasy superstar.

This Year’s Blake Snell: Patrick Sandoval

Sandoval wasn’t on Snell’s level as a prospect, so maybe you’re balking at the comparison. However, Sandoval legitimately showed high-level potential last season – among 163 pitchers who threw at least 80 innings, his 15.2% swinging strike rate was the 12th-best in baseball. That was ahead of Carlos Rodon, Dylan Cease, Shane McClanahan, Gerrit Cole, and Freddy Peralta, among many, many others going ahead of him. That’s fueled by a changeup that was one of the very best pitches in the league, with a whiffs/swing rate of 51.4% that was the highest among the 55 pitchers who used their changeups most often.

But Sandoval wasn’t just a one-trick pony. His slider from him was a weapon against both lefties and righties, and he did a good job of suppressing hard contact all around, ranking in the 73rd percentile among pitchers in terms of expected wOBA allowed, per Statcast. There’s a chance the strikeout rate (already a very solid 25.9%) catches up to the whiff rate while he sustains his quality-of-contact suppression, and Sandoval could emerge as a legitimate ace.

This Year’s Ketel Marte: Brendan Rodgers

Marte’s massive 2019 was hinted at in the second half of the 2018 season, as he hit .296/.377/.464, showing more pop while hanging on to his typically terrific plate discipline. Rodgers had a bit of that himself in the second half last season – he hit .296 with a 25-plus homer pace after the All-Star break after struggling prior. That’s not enough for Rodgers to produce like a first-rounder, but it’s a nice start.

But Rodgers needs to build on that, and there’s actually one obvious place he can start. You see, Rodgers was actually really, really good on the road last season, hitting .289/.337/.536 with 12 homers in just 51 games. The problem was, he just couldn’t take advantage of Coors Field, where he hit just .280/.319/.404. His plate discipline and batting average from him were in line no matter where he played, but Rodgers just did n’t have much over-the-fence power at home, hitting just three of his 15 homers from him there. Coors is a pretty massive park and Rodgers doesn’t necessarily have standout quality-of-contact metrics, but it’s still surprising to see that kind of gap in home/road splits. Charlie Blackmon has similarly mediocre quality-of-contact metrics with regards to power and had an OPS .111 points higher at home.

Now, that’s not to say you can just take Rodgers’ excellent road numbers as a baseline and add whatever you think the Coors effect should be. That’s not how it works, and it’s entirely possible his road numbers from him were the bigger fluke or that his home numbers were impacted by some other factor – maybe he doesn’t see the ball especially well or struggles with the difference in how pitches break at Coors. Still, given the way that park plays, it seems safe to assume better production is ahead for him than what he managed in 2021, and if he can continue to grow, he has the skill set to put together big numbers – perhaps similar to what we used to see from Blackmon at his peak, albeit with fewer steals.

This Year’s Luke Voit: Randal Grichuk

Speaking of the Coors effect, Grichuk’s trade to the Rockies could potentially be a very big deal. Grichuk is the classic example of the kind of all-or-nothing power hitter Coors has tended to make look like shallow superstars over the years. That’s because, while Coors Field inflates overall offensive production, the biggest impact is actually on batting average, and that’s where Grichuk’s skill set is weakest.

Grichuk still hits the ball plenty hard – 61st percentile in average exit velocity, 91st in max – but routinely runs a BABIP below .300, and often well below, as with 2021’s .266 mark. Coors Field inflates BABIP more than any park, so that should benefit Grichuk quite a bit. And, while the humidor has made Coors play as less of a bandbox, Grichuk’s pull-heavy approach is going to play very well there, too.

What does a Coors-fueled breakout season from Grichuk look like? Well, if he can sustain the strikeout rate gains he’s found over the past few seasons – he was down to 20.9% in 2021 – Grichuk was able to hit .273 in the COVID-shortened season with just a .299 BABIP. Maybe Coors works its magic and he can push closer to .300 with a 35-plus homer pace, and … yeah, it’s a long shot, but with this home park, it’s not out of the question.

This year’s Cedric Mullins: Keston Hiura

Mullins never had the kind of hype Hiura did prior to 2021, but Hiura is, at this point, a similarly forgotten man. Hiura isn’t making any changes as dramatic as Mullins’ decision to ditch switch-hitting, but he has spent his offseason working on reducing the pronounced leg kick in his swing with the hopes of reducing the swing and miss in his game.

That swing and miss has completely derailed what once looked like such a promising start to Hiura’s career. He hit .303/.368/.570 as a rookie, but then led the NL in strikeouts in 2020 and was even worse in 2021, hitting .168/.256/.301 with a 39% strikeout rate. Hiura is having a terrific start to the spring, though with a 29% strikeout rate in 24 plate appearances, it’s certainly too early to say whether the changes have borne fruit.

Ultimately, Hiura’s chances of even being a viable starting major-leaguer are looking pretty slim at this point, so he’s a long way from re-emerging as a must-start option for Fantasy. But, if you’re talking about a late-round flier in a deeper league, Hiura has pedigree and has shown elite potential in the majors, with a skill set that could feature 35-plus homers and double-digit steals in a very good lineup.

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