Draft Arbitrage: Finding Fantasy Baseball Value Picks (2023)
Often in fantasy leagues, we find ourselves overpaying for name recognition rather than actual production. For example, a player who may have had a few great seasons years ago still has a better-than-deserved reputation. For one reason or another, the lore lives on, and these veterans go far earlier than they should.
In other instances, a player may be more valuable in real life than in fantasy leagues. He may be known for doing all the little things right or is constantly coming up in the clutch. While those moments may be nice, the overall numbers just don’t stack up to their draft slot.
Or maybe he’s simply on a better team, so he gets more TV coverage.
Whatever the case may be, it’s better to avoid these players and instead search for similar production from lesser-known guys. The true value lies in obtaining players who are going to put up numbers but are still flying under the radar. Names don’t matter in fantasy baseball, and neither do reputations. It’s all about the stats, and if you can get a nice return later in the draft, that’s what you should be holding out for.
For today’s Draft Arbitrage piece, we’ll compare a few players who are projected to perform roughly at the same level but are being drafted at vastly different times.
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Fantasy Baseball Draft Arbitrage (2023)
Amed Rosario (SS, LF – CLE): ADP 135
Thairo Estrada (2B, SS, OF – SF): ADP 198
Rosario had the best season of his career last year. The Guardians’ shortstop hit 11 home runs, stole 18 bases, and hit for a solid .283 average. He also scored 86 runs and added 71 RBIs. While those numbers don’t exactly jump off the page, they are perfectly serviceable for a player drafted in the middle rounds. However, what you see is what you get with Rosario, and it’s highly unlikely he will surpass those totals this year, especially if he’s moved down in the lineup.
Thairo Estrada was finally treated like a starter last year, quietly totaling 140 games played. Changing positions almost daily for the Giants, Estrada finished the year with 14 home runs, 21 stolen bases, and a .260 batting average (.290 BABIP). He also scored 71 runs and drove in 62 RBIs. Not bad for someone going around 200th overall. Projections actually have the former Yankee slightly improving on last year’s numbers, and Roster Resource has him as the everyday leadoff hitter.
While neither player is good enough to be your starting shortstop, both will make for an excellent Middle Infielder (for leagues that have it). Rosario is the slightly safer bet, but Estrada can be had over 60 picks later and qualifies at other positions (Rosario also qualifies as at OF). It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see him surpass Rosario’s output this year. Estrada will likely hit more home runs, steal more bases, and collect a comparable number of RBIs and runs.
If the name of the game is value, then Estrada should be your focus. With similar projections, Estrada at 198 is more valuable than Rosario at 135. Take a pass on the Guardians’ free swinger and wait until the later rounds to snag Estrada.
Alex Verdugo (OF – BOS): ADP 177
Bryan De La Cruz (OF – MIA): ADP 256
I’m a huge Alex Verdugo fan. I love the way he plays the game and how he is always open to interacting with the fans. But when it comes to fantasy baseball, he’s not the best option. His greatest strength lies in his batting average, and with the shift ban, it could rise above .300 again. The problem is he doesn’t hit for much power and doesn’t run the bases well. His surrounding cast also isn’t great, so Verdugo’s RBI and run totals won’t be impactful enough to make a substantial difference.
Cruz, on the other hand, went through a major overhaul of his swing late in the year and came back a monster in September. Over the final month of the season, Cruz’s batted-ball profile was up there with the biggest names in baseball. He led all of MLB with a 52.2 hard-hit rate, which was nearly five percent higher than Aaron Judge‘s and over 10 percent better than Yordan Alvarez‘s. For the season, Cruz ranked in the top 10% of xwOBA, xBA, and xSLG.
Cruz’s giant September (.388/.419/.718) helped push many fantasy managers into the winner’s circle. He obviously shouldn’t be counted on for that type of production over a full year. However, even with regression calculated, Cruz could still easily reach 20 homers with a handful of steals and a decent batting average. Those types of numbers would put him on par with a player like Verdugo, who won’t hit as many homers or steal any bags but will likely have a higher batting average and perhaps a few more RBIs and runs.
Another reason to really like Cruz this season is the fact that he struggled heavily against left-handed pitching last year, despite batting right-handed. He crushed lefties in 2021 (although a small sample size), so if Cruz can right the ship and figure out those crafty southpaws, the sky’s the limit for the Dominican-born, former-Astro farmhand. Target him and not Verdugo.
Jose Berrios (SP – TOR): ADP 206
Marcus Stroman (SP – CHC): ADP 269
Berrios was the equivalent of a batting practice pitcher last season. After getting off to an awful start, the Blue Jays ace (no longer his title) found some success in early summer before surrendering a .912 OPS in August and a .305 average in September. His ERA over his final 11 games was 5.78, while his strikeouts per nine were down to 6.71 K/9. His xwOBACON for the season was a whopping .405, and his xSLG was .466. I could go on and on about how bad of a year Berrios had, but many are still willing to give him a pass based on his past success. While I’m sure he will improve, I’m hardly willing to spend anything more than an end-of-draft selection on him.
Marcus Stroman also dealt with some ups and downs last year. And while both pitcher’s Statcast rankings are full of blue, Berrios’ is more of a midnight blue – as in worse. That said, Stroman held batters to a much lower exit velocity, and a lot fewer barrels surrendered. Stroman’s xBA was only .254, and his xSLG was .389. Overall, Stroman actually had a good season, other than a few blow-up games while dealing with a shoulder inflammation that hurt his totals. His ERA on the season was a passable 3.50, and his WHIP was excellent at 1.15. The Cubs should be slightly better this year, too, possibly leading to more wins.
Berrios’ projections: 10 wins, 4.35 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 160 Ks, put him right around league average with a healthy dose of strikeouts. Unfortunately, after last season, I would call those numbers his ceiling. Whereas Stroman’s projections of 10 wins, 3.80 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, and 145 K’s seem a little low.
The numbers are comparable, but that may be wishful thinking on the part of Berrios after last season’s disaster. Even if he bounces back, Stroman shouldn’t be far behind, as he looked dominant at times down the stretch last year. If I had my pick between the two, I would go with Stroman even if they were both available late in the draft. Berrios could be solid, but the fact that Stro is going 63 picks later makes him by far the more valuable selection.
Craig Kimbrel (RP – PHI): ADP 214
Alex Lange (RP – DET): ADP 262
The Tigers aren’t going to win many games, but with Gregory Soto, Joe Jimenez, and Andrew Chafin no longer with the team, Lange is the heavy favorite to win the closer job. He’s a three-pitch pitcher that leans heavily on offerings down in the zone, where he consistently racks up swings and misses (19% SwStr). His ground-ball-to-fly-ball rate is nearly 2:1, and his FIP, xERA, and SIERA are all well below the 3.41 ERA he produced. The 27-year-old former first-rounder totaled 82 strikeouts, and 21 holds last season while allowing just five home runs in 71 appearances.
The only knock on Lange is that he can be a bit wild at times (like a lot of closers) and only has one save to his credit over his two years in the big leagues. Considering the Tigers’ alternatives, though, things would have to go awfully astray in Spring Training for him to not land the job.
Kimbrel is a classic case of fantasy managers focusing on name recognition rather than production. Kimbrel will turn 35 in May and is no longer the flame thrower he once was. While still an intimidating presence on the mound, his fastball average was down to a career-low 95.8 last year. His curve/slurve also dipped down below 86 mph for the first time since his rookie season and broke slightly less.
With diminished stuff, Kimbrel fell far short of his career norms, striking out, by his standard, a measly 10.80/9. The Phillies’ new addition did only give up four home runs last year, but a big part of that was luck considering his 5.9 HR/FB. Walks were also a problem for the eight-time All-Star finishing with 4.2/9 last year.
There’s also the obvious point that Kimbrel may not even be the closer. Philadelphia has Seranthony Dominguez, who is probably a better option. They also have strikeout specialist Jose Alvarado (14.29 K/9) and Gregory Soto (the Tigers’ former closer), whom they signed in the off-season. Yet, Kimbrel is still going in the early 200s.
Even if he wins the job outright, he likely won’t perform well enough to keep it. And with the Phillies looking to return to the World Series, the leash will be short in the city of brotherly love. In all likelihood, the reigning NL champs will turn to a committee-style approach at some point, further limiting Kimbrel’s value. A much better play is to wait until the end of the draft and select Mr. Lange.
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Austin Lowell is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Austin, check out his archive.