Baseball has no offseason, as the annual First Pitch Arizona conference, presented annually by Baseball HQ around the beginning of November, attests. “FPAZ”, centered around the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League, gives us not only a good look at some of the upcoming season’s rookie candidates, but also an opportunity to reengage with the brightest minds in the industry and take a “way-too-early” look at what’s ahead for our wondrous fantasy baseball game in 2023.
After a weekend of scouting and diving into 2022 numbers and trends, here are a handful of players who I’ve (at least somewhat) changed my mind about.
Heston Kjerstad, OF, Baltimore Orioles
He’s got a plenty sweet swing, finishing one home run behind Seattle Mariners prospect Robert Perez Jr. in Saturday’s Home Run Derby, so naturally, if you’re playing a fantasy-related such contest, he’s your guy. In all seriousness, while the Derby isn’t fantasy-relevant, I’m glad I got to see Kjerstad’s natural, raw power ability, as I — few of us, really — had gotten to after myocarditis kept him off the field from the point of his No. 2 overall selection in the 2020 amateur draft until his June 10, 2022 pro debut for Class A Delmarva. Kjerstad could begin next season in Double-A Bowie, as the Orioles need to decide on his 40-man roster status after the year, and while he’s not ranked especially generously on prospect lists today, he’s one to track who could shoot up those ranks in-season.
Lucas Giolito, SP, Chicago White Sox
I’ve got an important share in Giolito in my longest-running keeper league,. I have been leaning towards letting him go and am even more inclined now after Saturday’s “The Next Big Thing” panel revealed his spin rate was down sharply following the June 2021 rule prohibiting sticky stuff. Giolito’s four-seam fastball in 2022 was down nearly 2,000 rpms compared to where it was in 2020, and it was down more than 1 mph to boot. He’s simply not pitching with ace-caliber stuff these days.
Luis Garcia, SP, Houston Astros
Among several pitchers cited in Saturday’s “The Next Big Thing” panel, Garcia’s presence on the list of slow-tempo hurlers wasn’t one I had expected. Per Statcast, the right-hander had the second-slowest average time between pitches with the bases empty among those who threw 750-plus (21.2 seconds, behind only Shohei Ohtani‘s 21.7) and second-slowest with men on base (27.1, behind only Josiah Gray‘s 27.2). Garcia was by far the slowest-working Astros starter, and he’s more of a change-of-pace, minimize-hard-contact type, so the adjustment to the pitch clock could be tougher for him than his rotation mates.
Alejandro Kirk, C, Toronto Blue Jays
All credit to Kirk for an outstanding, breakthrough 2022 campaign that placed him third at his position in fantasy points. But as Baseball HQ’s Ryan Bloomfield reminded us, Kirk cooled off dramatically over his final 50 games, batting .236/.338/.298, ninth among true catchers in fantasy points during that time. Fatigue could’ve factored in as Kirk had never played more than 92 games in a professional campaign before. Perhaps he’ll be better equipped for the summer grind in 2023 with 139 games (plus two postseason games) under his belt. You should draft him more for his contact-oriented, high-floor skill set than the chance he’ll vie for No. 1 positional honors on the Blue Jays.
Aaron Nola, SP, Philadelphia Phillies
An interesting point raised by the Launch Angle Podcast’s Rob Silver stressed that with wins decreasingly going to starting pitchers, a pay-for-wins strategy might make more sense in 2023, especially in larger leagues (15-team mixed and NFBC-style). In that case, a pitcher like Nola, whose offense seemed much more itself during the 2022 postseason but who managed only 11 wins in his 32 regular-season starts, could be a relative draft value. To that point, the Bill James Handbook’s projections have Nola at 14 wins, tied for the league’s second-most.
Matt Mervis, 1B, Chicago Cubs
The Mervis buzz was still at its peak in Phoenix in November, after the 2020 undrafted free agent from Duke batted .309 with 36 home runs across three minor league levels in 2022, then belted another six home runs in his first 16 games in the Arizona Fall League. Mervis had a strong showing in Saturday’s Home Run Derby — again, there’s little fantasy relevance to such contests — then captured Fall Stars Game MVP honors, not to mention was probably my most-asked-about player from conference attendees. He’s far from a top prospect entering 2023, but among the year’s prospective rookies, he’s one of the higher-impact candidates. Mervis brings a tweaked swing and better-than-anticipated contact approach while facing little in the way of competition for the Cubs’ first base job. Perhaps Chicago brings a veteran in on a nonguaranteed deal as competition, but this is a wide-open opportunity for Mervis, who should be considered a favorite to win the job.
Josh Jung, 3B, Texas Rangers
Kirk is shaping up as one of the better draft values at this early stage of the offseason. He is going 209th on average in 17 the NFBC drafts that have taken place, which is unusually late considering the early price tags of similarly young hitters (Bobby Witt Jr. eighth, Corbin Carroll 62nd, Gunnar Henderson 97th). Jung enjoyed a big first week in the majors before cooling off considerably. His strikeout rate of 38.2% is scary, but he’s also a solid power-hitting prospect who should be the Rangers’ regular third baseman at the start of 2023.
Fantasy baseball — Who are experts buzzing about at the Arizona Fall League?
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