Hot stove sizzles

I thought I was going to be writing about football this week, but the Hot Stove is still sizzling a week after the Winter Meetings ended, with trades and signings holding too many fantasy implications to ignore. The home run king is staying in New York, three of the top shortstops in the game are moving to new venues and the AL Cy Young is coming to the Big Apple.

If that’s not enough, the Braves, Brewers and Athletics made headlines with a three-team trade that left each team with a new No. 1 catcher, while the A’s continued to stockpile prospects. The most notable names on the move are Sean Murphy, from Oakland to Atlanta, and William Contreras, from Atlanta to Milwaukee. Backup Manny Pina, 35, goes from Atlanta to Oakland.

Yankee fans had a few sleepless nights because it looked like Aaron Judge was heading west, with better offers from both the Giants and Padres on the table. But the Yankees ultimately matched a nine-year, $360 million deal from the Giants and were able to resign Judge. The slugger led the league with 62 home runs, 133 runs and 131 RBI to win his first MVP.

Some analysts are making Judge the No. 1 overall pick for 2023 fantasy baseball drafts, although he’s currently being drafted 5th in NFBC drafts. In Roto, where five-category players are the gold standard, Judge was tied for 36th with 16 stolen bases. Keep in mind that Judge never had a double-digit steal season before 2022. It’s amazing what a contract year does for you motivation.

One other thing to keep in mind with Judge has had a history of injuries. After winning AL Rookie of the Year in 2017, Judge underwent offseason arthroscopic surgery on a shoulder during the offseason. He spent two months on the IL in 2018 after being struck on the wrist with a pitch, missed two months with an oblique strain in 2019, and then there was 2020.

Judge reported to spring training in 2020 with something wrong and it was finally diagnosed as

a cracked rib and a collapsed lung. He was all set to miss a significant chunk of the season before the season decided to miss itself, postponed until late July due to the pandemic. Judge wound up playing 28 of the 60 games in that season, with a .257 batting average – his lowest of his career.

In spite of missing some games with lower body soreness in 2021, he played 148 games and then appeared in a record 157 games in 2022 (again, it’s amazing what a contract year does not a player’s motivation). Suffice it to say that those with enough faith to draft Judge before the 2022 season at an ADP of 27 got a handsome return on their investment. But what about next year? 

There’s no question that you’re “buying high” on Judge is you draft him No. 5 overall in 2023. Trea Turner, Julio Rodriguez, Ronald Acuna, Jr. and Jose Ramirez are being taken ahead of him in early NFBC drafts, and the reason is clearly the five-category potential for each of them. However, none of these players will come close to a healthy Judge in home runs and RBI.  

The bottom line is that if I was drafting from the fifth position, and Judge was still on the board, I wouldn’t pass him up. In fact, I would surely take him ahead of Seattle’s super rookie Rodriguez. Rodriguez deserved AL Rookie of the Year in 2022. He slashed .284/.345/.509 with 28 home runs, 75 RBI, 25 stolen bases and 84 runs scored. But he’s played only one season.

In addition to Rodriguez, it’s likely that I would take Judge ahead of Acuna. Coming off a gruesome mid-summer 2021 ACL tear, he’s got off to a slow start in 2022. He finished better than he started, but he only clubbed 15 home runs in 533 plate appearances. The 29 stolen bases was great, but keep in mind that it will be easier to get steals in 2023 with the rule change.

TREA TURNER TO THE PHILLIES

I am in complete agreement with the high-stakes fantasy baseball players about Turner being the No. 1 overall player in 5×5 drafts for the second year in a row. Judge’s superior power earned him a better contract with the Yankees than Turner got with the Phillies, but a fantasy player shouldn’t take Judge ahead of Turner unless he or she is playing in a points league.

Turner, who signed a 11-year, $300 million contract last week, will return to the NL East after slashing .298/.343/.466 with 21 home runs, 100 RBI and 27 stolen bases in 2022. The shortstop, who began his big-league career with the Nationals in 2015, spent the past season and a half with the Dodgers. Heading into his age-30 season, Turner should thrive in the City of Brotherly Love.

Only three other parks – Coors Field in Denver, Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati and Miller Park in Milwaukee – are as friendly to power hitters as Citizens Bank Ballpark. Even with the outfield fences being pushed back in 2007, Citizens Bank Ballpark has more home runs flying over the walls thanks to inviting porches down the line and power alleys that aren’t deep.

This benefits Turner simply because he lacks the power of hitters like Judge, Mike Trout and Pete Alonso. That trio is going to hit 30 plus home runs anywhere, but Turner could hit 30 for the first time in his career in Philadelphia. In fact, I expect him to join the 30-30 club this year. Turner has had 30 plus steals in every full-length season except last year when he fell three short.

The reason Turner was limited to 27 steals (still eighth best) last season in Los Angeles was that he was dropped to third in the lineup after the Dodgers offense struggled to generate consistency. Mookie Betts was moved back into the leadoff spot. Turner is projected to bat leadoff for the Phillies, providing a boost near the top of the order for last season’s World Series runners-up.

Turner, who had a .316/.364/.514 slash line over his last 1,613 plate appearances dating back to the beginning of the 2020 season, has averaged 25 home runs and 37 stolen bases for every 162 games played since the beginning of 2018. With his full five-category fantasy skillset, he’s the closest thing that you can get to a lock for guaranteed monster production in your fantasy league.

JUSTIN VERLANDER TO THE METS

It was just two months ago that the Mets were eliminated by the Padres in the first round of the playoffs. Spending more than any other team in baseball, they won 101 regular season games but were unable to hold off Atlanta in the NL East after sitting atop the division for all but six days. Then they were quickly eliminated in the best-of-three National League wild-card series 2-1.

Things got worse eleven days ago when Jacob deGrom signed with the Rangers. Looking to replace the gaping hole in their rotation, New York signed resilient Justin Verlander to a 2-year, $86,666,666 contract. The Mets hope that reuniting Verlander with Max Scherzer will enable the pair to finish what they were unable to accomplish in Detroit – win a World Series title.

The only problem is that General Manager Billy Eppler forgot to check Verlander’s birth certificate. The future Hall of Famer turns 40 in February. Verlander’s remarkable comeback from Tommy John surgery is a feel-good story on every level. The former Astros ace won his third career Cy Young Award this year, becoming the first pitcher to win the award after not throwing a pitch in the previous season. But that doesn’t guarantee the Mets anything in 2023.

Verlander can run but he can’t hide forever from Father Time after pitching MLB 3,163 innings. The Mets might not be worried, buoyed by the fact that Cy Young pitched 7,356 in his career. Perhaps, Verlander skills won’t diminish for a few more years, but counting on a 40-year-old and a 39-year-old (Scherzer turns 39 in July) to lead you to the promised land seems risky to me.

The players at NFBC appear to agree with me. Verlander’s ADP is currently 48, and he’s the 12th starting pitcher coming off the board. Scherzer is the 15th. In terms of his surroundings, Verlander gets a bit of a boost going from Minute Maid Park in Houston to Citi Field in New York. While his age makes him a greater injury risk, he could be a bargain if he stays healthy.

JACOB DEGROM TO THE RANGERS

DeGrom’s five-year, $185 million contract with the Texas Rangers could put then in the playoffs or be a bust. It all depends on one key factor – the health of the former Mets superstar and future Hall of Famer. DeGrom made 38 starts over the past three seasons, missing 188-of-384 Mets games. His current ADP at NFBC is 34, which makes him a boom-or-bust pitcher in fantasy.

Keep in mind that the Rangers’ supporting cast is weaker than that of the Mets, plus Texas’ Globe Life Field, while a much more pitching-oriented environment than its predecessor across the street, is still slightly more hitting-friendly than New York’s Citi Field. However, this amounts to only a slight downgrade. A healthy deGrom has been the best pitcher in baseball, period.

From 2020-22, deGrom paced the majors in ERA (2.05) and WHIP (0.73) among pitchers who had at least as many as his 38 starts or 224⅓ innings pitched during that time, leading in ERA by nearly four-tenths of a run and WHIP by nearly one-quarter of a baserunner. DeGrom also had 17 games with double-digit strikeouts during that three-year span, tied for third-most in baseball. 

DeGrom, who will turn 35 in June, dealt with a barrage of injuries over the past three seasons, including back, neck, hamstring, oblique, elbow, forearm and shoulder issues. An optimist would point to the fact that he finished his last season in New Yor with 12 strong starts (including his one postseason turn). He passed a physical with the Rangers that indicates he’s healthy for now.

If deGrom can double last year’s totals – 22 starts and 128⅔ innings – he would likely return value to fantasy managers brave enough to draft him. But keep in mind that he has not pitched more than 100 innings since 2019. Texas is counting on a healthy deGrom, based on the contract he was given. If you can stomach the risk on your fantasy team, deGrom may be worth his ADP.

XANDER BOGAERTS TO THE PADRES

The Padres were in the bidding war for both Judge and Turner right up until the end but didn’t leave the Winter Meetings empty-handed. San Diego reached an agreement with former Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts on an 11-year, $280 million contract. Rumor has it that Bogaerts preferred to stay in Boston, but the Red Sox weren’t willing to pay up the dismay of their fans.  

Bogaerts will join a Padres team that already includes Juan Soto, Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. Boston, meanwhile, was left to pick up the pieces after the loss of a homegrown talent who made his major league debut at 20 years old and leaves at 30 after opting out of the final three years of his contract. With Bogaerts, the Padres may be ready to challenge the Dodgers.

Bogaerts was about as productive as ever last year, but his power decline was evident. Playing half of his games in the friendly confines of Fenway Park, Bogaerts only hit 15 home runs and his slugging percentage dropped to its lowest level since 2017. And now he gets a ballpark downgrade. Still a .456 slug is respectable, and the .307 average was sixth best in the league.   

From a fantasy perspective, Bogaerts is a good value at his ADP of 91. He’s currently being taken as the 10th shortstop off the board, and I’m a buyer at that price. He’s reliable and consistent, and you know he will provide strong statistics year after year. His RBI production has fallen since his salad years in 2018 and 2019, but a .307/.377/.456 slash in 2022 will work.

CARLOS CORREA TO THE PADRES

Correa, 28, got a better deal than Bogaerts, which only proves that he’s a bigger deal in reality than fantasy. The Giants signed Correa to a 13-year contract worth $350 million. His new deal with the Giants is the largest ever for a shortstop and the largest ever for a former No. 1 overall draft pick. Overall, Correa’s $350 million pact is the fourth-largest deal for an MLB player.

The longtime Houston Astros shortstop slashed .291/.366/.467 with 22 home runs in 136 games around a finger contusion (hit by a pitch) and a stint on the COVID list. His defense, which has been historically splendid, took a hit in the eyes of the various stats, but remained above average overall. Correa has averaged 7.2 WAR per 162 games in his career which shows his value.  

Correa is currently the 16th shortstop off the board in early NFBC drafts, with an overall ADP of 125. With a career .279 batting average, his production took a hit after the move from Houston to Minnesota in 2022. Home runs dropped from 26 to 22, runs plummeted from 104 to 70 and RBI dipped from 92 to 64, although he did play 12 less games in his only season with the Twins.   

SEAN MURPHY TO THE BRAVES

The Oakland Coliseum is a difficult place to hit. In fact, it rated as the single worst venue for home runs. Consider Murphy, who hit .226, with a .702 OPS there compared to .272 with an .812 OPS on the road. Truist Park is a better hitting environment, and Murphy certainly has a better supporting cast in Atlanta. Expect him to improve on 18 home runs, 67 runs and 66 RBI.

In spite of playing more games than any other catcher in the majors, Murphy’s statistics were depressed last year by batting in the middle of a young, rebuilding Athletics lineup – baseball’s second-worst last season (3.51 runs per game). Now, he’s headed to Atlanta to slot in batting sixth or seventh in the Braves’ potent order (third-best 4.87 runs per game). Holy cow, Batman.

Potent may be an understatement. Ronald Acuna, Jr., Ozzie Albies, Matt Olsen, Austin Riley, Vaughn Grissom and Michael Harris II are reminiscent of the 1927 New York Yankees. That lineup, dubbed  Murders’ Row, included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. By the time a starting pitcher gets to Murphy, he’ll be so shook up that he’ll be in need of therapy session.

Murphy showed signs of a player breaking out in the second half of 2022. From July 1, Murphy hit .278 with an .828 OPS, reaching base at a .366 clip and striking out just 17.4 percent of the time. He finished the season with a .250 batting average and .426 slugging percentage. It’s no surprise that he’s already climbing up the NFBC draft board, currently being taken 136 overall.

WILLIAN CONTRERAS TO THE BREWERS

By most statistical measures, the younger brother of the Cardinals’ Willson Contreras was better than Murphy last year, but he got only 334 at-bats, compared to Murphy’s 537. Contreras even got fewer plate appearances than teammate Travis d’Arnaud, who will remain in Atlanta and cut into Murphy’s playing time. For Contreras, the move to Milwaukee can only be seen as a plus.

The Brewers are ready to make Contreras their No. 1 option behind the plate, and you won’t find too many venues more hitter-friendly than American Family Field. If you combine the benefits of more playing time and a better park, that may offset a weaker lineup in Milwaukee. Contreras’ percentile rankings on Statcast are almost identical to his older brother, now his division rival.

WILLSON CONTRERAS TO THE CARDINALS 

The Cardinals are not known for making big deals at the Winter Meetings, but they had a big hole to fill and they wasted no time in filling it. After 19 seasons of Yadier Molina carrying the load behind the plate, St. Louis signed Willson Contreras to a five-year, $87.5 million contract. This signing had to anger Cubs fans who hate the team by the river, 300 miles to the south.

Contreras moves on after a seven-year run in Chicago. His defense has declined a bit at age 30, but Contreras does have a big arm and can rotate into DH duties. He’s a considerable offensive upgrade to Molina. Contreras is currently going just outside the top-100 picks overall. Only J.T. Realmuto, Daulton Varsho, Will Smith, Salvador Perez and Adley Rutschman are ranked higher.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

There are many more significant moves. The Phillies jumped into the arms race at the Winter Meetings, setting the tone by agreeing to surprising four-year, $72 million contract with Taijuan Walker. Chris Bassitt signed a three-year deal with the Blue Jays. In the last two seasons, Bassitt has compiled 339 innings pitched with a 3.29 ERA and a 23.6 percent strikeout rate.

Rest assured, that millions of words will be written about all of the deals made and still being made in the months to come. It’s been a record-setting offseason, so far, and it’s not over yet. Opening day is March 30, and I’m glad I’ve got time to digest all of it. Please keep reading Doubting Thomas for more updates and insights on the crazy world of fantasy baseball.  

Thomas L. Seltzer, AKA Doubting Thomas, writes about football and baseball for CreativeSports. Be sure to follow Thomas on Twitter@ThomasLSeltzer1.

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