Fantasy baseball: Trends, insights to watch down the stretch

ByTristan H. Cockcroft ESPN logo
Wednesday, August 16, 2023

It's a critical time for fantasy managers, and not merely because there are only 46 days, or just under seven weeks, of baseball remaining in which for them to mount a comeback in their league standings.

The trade deadline arrives in ESPN leagues in two days, set for Friday at noon ET, and certainly is just around the corner for the majority of formats that either use our League Manager game or play offsite. Contenders need to quickly make their trades to strengthen their rosters for the stretch run, while rebuilders are running out of time to pare off their nonessential parts for future talent. Both, too, need to evaluate the talent they have on hand, whether to determine whether players have any remaining value for this season, or where they might stand entering 2024.

In any of those scenarios, forecasting ahead is critical, but especially so for those evaluating trades. What can we expect to see down baseball's stretch run? Here are some of the things that most pique my interest:

Ryan Helsley will have a scheduled Wednesday minor league rehabilitation skipped, after he experienced renewed soreness in his forearm. His recovery was not only important in the St. Louis Cardinals' chase for rest-of-2023 saves -- the team is a middle-of-the-pack 7-6 since the trade deadline with a near-even run differential, signaling a bullpen that might not be completely devoid of save chances -- but also for the team's 2024 plans. Helsley was sometimes rumored a trade candidate when the Cardinals' playoff hopes faded, and he's eligible for arbitration after the season. Will he be back? It might not matter much for fantasy purposes, unless he can return before year's end and maintain his pre-injury elite fastball velocity.

Mookie Betts needs four more games at shortstop to qualify there for 2024, and while he hasn't appeared there since July 6, three days before Chris Taylor's return from the injured list and 20 days before Amed Rosario's acquisition from the Cleveland Guardians, he'd be a rare outfield-second base-shortstop triple qualifier if he gets to 20 defensive games played at the latter. Betts' 5.8 Wins Above Replacement would match Ben Zobrist's 2012 number for a season in which the player appeared in at least 20 defensive games in the outfield and at both second base and shortstop, assuming Betts reaches that shortstop threshold. In the rotisserie era (since 1980), only six players have managed a 2 WAR season while meeting those position qualification thresholds: Randy Velarde (1995), Zobrist (2012-14), Marwin Gonzalez (2017-18), Enrique Hernandez (2018), David Fletcher (2019) and Taylor (2021). Currently the fifth-best scorer (423 fantasy points) and ninth-best on the Player Rater, Betts would be quite the attractive 2024 first-round pick with triple eligibility. Unfortunately, I suspect that he is not quite going to get there, unless Rosario and/or Taylor gets hurt.

Speaking of position eligibility, Bryce Harper is eight games away from qualifying at first base for 2024, though he has played 12 of his past 23 games there, giving him an excellent chance of gaining it. I'd also anticipate him to return to right field for 2024, meaning he could be a dual-eligible player by mid-April.

Can Corbin Carroll become only the second 25-homer, 40-steal rookie in baseball history, joining Mike Trout? Carroll hasn't been anywhere near the same hitter since the shoulder injury he battled just before the All-Star break, batting only .221/.315/.386 with four home runs and 12 stolen bases in his past 36 games. How he finishes this season will have a major say in his 2024 draft ranking, which was trending as a top-three overall pick for rotisserie leagues a few short weeks ago. Carroll, who ranks lower in fantasy points (336, tied for 21st) than on the Player Rater (eighth), could be too richly priced as a first-rounder in the former format if his finish is sluggish.

Speaking of recent funks, Elly De La Cruz has batted just .197/.254/.393 with a 40.5% strikeout rate and only two stolen bases in five attempts in 28 games since the All-Star break, after hitting .325/.363/.524 with a 28.9% K rate and 16 steals in 18 chances in 30 games before it. De La Cruz, a bit of a free swinger who does miss a good share, should've always been expected to hit an adjustment period, but it'd be a huge help for his 2024 ranking if he can show signs of shaking it in September. I think he'll deliver those hints, and it's not outrageous to call him a top-25 overall rotisserie and top-50 overall points-league pick for next year.

What is Esteury Ruiz for fantasy purposes? On Tuesday, he stole his 47th base, gaining one on major league leader Ronald Acuna Jr., putting Ruiz on a prorated-for-injury 67 steal pace, compared to 75 for Acuna. Unfortunately, the remainder of Ruiz's offensive game is precisely that -- offensive - as he's dead last in baseball in average exit velocity (82.9 mph) and hard-hit rate (19.7%) and seventh-worst in Barrel rate (1.7% of his batted balls). Ruiz both walked and got more lift on the ball in the minors, and he'd need to show some of that to be anything more than a one-category rotisserie pick with minimal points-league value.

Max Fried has two solid starts and one so-so since his return from a forearm injury, and how he finishes the year will determine whether he's again deserving of a top-20 fantasy starting pitcher ranking entering 2024. His fastball velocity and slider seem fine, so I'm leaning towards the optimist's side.

Chicken parm seemed to cure all that ailed Anthony Volpe, right? Not necessarily, as he's a .247/.332/.447 hitter with seven home runs in 53 games since that meal -- which, much more importantly, spawned a needed tweak to his batting stance -- which are hardly breakthrough-caliber numbers. Volpe has improved his chase rate by 6%, swinging-strike rate by 4% and his strikeout rate by 7% since the All-Star break compared to before it, all of which is great, but I need to see more before buying in on him being a 2024 fantasy superstar. He'll probably be regarded a top-100 overall pick next spring, but his next seven weeks rank among the most important in the game as far as evaluating whether he's deserving -- I predict he ultimately will be.

Things were looking so good for Cristian Javier as June dawned, but he has a 6.66 ERA in his past 11 starts. There's a wide range of outcomes for how he might finish this season, ranging from recapturing his sleeper Cy Young form to not even being a factor in the Houston Astros' postseason rotation. I still like the guy's stuff, but he needs a September turnaround in a bad way.

Bobby Witt Jr. is on a .349/.384/.671 tear with 11 home runs and 11 stolen bases in 14 attempts in 37 games since the beginning of July, with the most significant changes being his reduction in miss (2.5% better compared to his April-June) and strikeout rates (near-4% better). Witt is making a serious push toward first-round draft status, if he can maintain this level of improvement, and his Statcast expected .306 batting average and .402 wOBA during his hot streak suggests he can.

Can the San Francisco Giants steer their way into the National League playoffs with effectively two starting pitchers? Consider this: The Giants have extracted 21 combined starts from "openers" Scott Alexander, John Brebbia and Ryan Walker alone this season, and merely their appearances exceed the amount of openers used by any other team. The Giants also have a major league-leading 46 relief appearances of three-plus innings, from which those "bulk relievers" are a combined 8-11 with three saves, a 3.43 ERA and an average of 7.9 fantasy points in those outings. The major league average for a starting pitcher, to compare, is 8.5, which underscores how ordinary these Giants' contributions for fantasy purposes. Only Logan Webb (sixth in fantasy points, 13th on the Player Rater), Camilo Doval (14th and 7th), Alex Cobb (79th in fantasy points) and Tyler Rogers (35th on the Player Rater) place among the top 100 pitchers in either scoring format. Sure, what the Giants are doing with their pitching is great for them, but it's a headache for fantasy managers. The last thing we need is for them to make the playoffs like this, and other teams to adopt the template.

Randy Arozarena was coasting to his third consecutive 20/20 campaign, but he has chased non-strikes nearly 10% more often since the All-Star break than before it. He needs to reverse that if he's going to maintain his status as a top-40 rotisserie and top-75 points-league pick for 2024.

With the Tampa Bay Rays now sporting four members of their 2023 projected Opening Day rotation on the injured list, three having succumbed to Tommy John surgery and the fourth having an internal brace repair as a method of avoiding a full UCL replacement, Taj Bradley should play a big role for the team down the stretch. Bradley hasn't pitched that effectively this season (5.67 big-league and 9.13 Triple-A ERAs), but he has a 30% strikeout rate through his first 16 big-league starts and was widely regarded a top-15 pitching prospect entering the year. He's one of the rookies I'm most closely watching in the hopes of a strong finish, in order to set himself up for a breakthrough 2024, and that he has totaled 35 fewer innings this year than last suggests that there shouldn't be any workload cap in his immediate future.

Sticking with youngsters to evaluate, what is Ezequiel Duran, exactly? Sure, his plate approach leaves a lot to be desired, explaining how he's a mere .216/.282/.324 hitter with a 31.2% strikeout rate in 33 games since the beginning of July. Duran's long-term defensive position is the real question, but he's going to need to straighten things out at the plate in these next seven weeks (and playoffs) to claim a firm 2024 role and be an intriguing fantasy breakout candidate.

CJ Abrams has made huge strides of late in relative obscurity with the last-place Washington Nationals, and maintaining them could set him up for a sneaky-good-for-rotisserie 2024. Since the beginning of July, Abrams has improved his chase rate by nearly 8%, his miss rate on swings by nearly 6% and has lowered his ground-ball rate by nearly 10% compared to the three months that preceded it, and he's a .298 hitter with 21 stolen bases in 38 games during that time. He's finally turning into the hitter that fantasy managers hoped he might be when he made the San Diego Padres' 2022 Opening Day roster as a Fernando Tatis Jr. fill-in.

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