Tuma: My Guys for 2023 Underdog MLB Best Ball Drafts

Mar 10th 2023

Brendan Tuma

Here at Underdog Network we spent most of this winter covering macro-level draft strategies such as:

  1. Understanding Outfield Scarcity

  2. Aces Are Undervalued

  3. Late-Round Pitchers Are a Trap

However, it's now peak draft season for baseball fans at Underdog Fantasy, which means it's time to start honing in on exactly which players to target for 2023. Below are 9 of "my guys" for this year's contests.

If you're looking for my full set of rankings you can find them by clicking here.

As always, reach out on Twitter anytime, @toomuchtuma.

Luis Castillo, SP, Mariners

Anyone who has been following along this offseason knows I like securing several top pitchers early in drafts. There's about 19 arms who I consider serviceable as back-end SP1 options, and I love targeting Castillo as my second starting pitcher.

Castillo has always been considered an above-average starter led by his sinker-changeup combo. However, it appears some hidden upside has been unlocked following his trade to Seattle.

We know the Mariners currently excel at pitching development. Once the organization got their hands on Castillo they had him start throwing his slider much more frequently:

With the Reds in 2022 he threw his changeup 25.7% of the time, which produced a 17.8 K-BB%. That changeup usage fell to 17.6% with the Mariners, which spiked his K-BB% to 22.6%.

Castillo's sinker has always been viewed as "nasty" but some poor pitch characteristics meant it arrived to hitters in a "predictably nasty" sort of way. Think of Hunter Greene's fastball last year. Yes it was thrown hard, but it was straight. Castillo's sinkers often moved directly into hitter's barrel zones.

In 2023 we have a lot more information to evaluate pitching. The Mariners have done as good of a job as any team identifying this. Instead of continuing to view Castillo as a primary sinker guy, they recognized that his slider was underutilized.

I have Castillo ranked a full round ahead of his current ADP. He's an easy target for my SP-leaning builds.

Cristian Javier, SP, Astros

If there's one pitcher who reminds me of Shane McClanahan from this time a year ago, it's Javier.

The difference is that the market agrees with this assessment. Javier is a 5th round pick on Underdog right now, so can he really be considered a breakout candidate?

I blame his 7 no-hit innings (with 13:1 K:BB) against the Yankees in June. Oh, and his 6 frames of no-hit ball against the Phillies in Game 4 of the World Series. Most everyone has caught on to his talents.

Here are Javier's stats and league-wide ranks from June 25th through the end of the regular season:

  • 2.23 ERA (6th in MLB)

  • 12.2 K/9 (3rd)

  • 27.5 K-BB% (2nd)

  • 0.82 WHIP (1st)

  • .146 BAA (1st)

  • 14.6 SwStr% (5th)

  • 3.19 FIP (18th)

I profiled what makes him successful in a January article on my Substack here (free to subscribe).

Of any starter going outside the first 4 rounds, Javier has the best chance to finish top-5 at his position. And yet he still projects as a floor play at his current ADP. That makes him a must-have target entering his first full season in the Astros' rotation.

Matt Chapman, IF, Blue Jays

Chapman has been a value pick ever since I first plugged THE BAT X projections into Underdog's scoring system. And despite the fact that I've constantly been pounding the table for him, his ADP has barely moved in a month.

Here's what makes Chappy interesting - in traditional 5x5 roto leagues he's dragged down by his batting average, so many drafters come to UD with an inherent bias against him.

However, he actually draws a healthy amount of walks with a 93rd percentile BB% in 2021 and a 84th percentile mark in '22. The low batting average also lowers his OBP, but UD scoring is based on volume. And those walks add up.

As do his homers. Via THE BAT X he's one of just 17 players projected for 30 homers. If you prefer using ATC, well he's projected for 29.

"Know your league's scoring" is a staple piece of fantasy advice. In my opinion Chappy goes 2-3 rounds later than he should, but for no reason. He also pairs particularly well with any of the other stud Blue Jay bats for a nice correlated mini stack.

Taylor Ward, OF, Angels

This is another mid-round pick who is a fantastic mini stack target for anyone who drafts Mike Trout or Shoehi Ohtani in Round 1. Remember, mini stacks are worth targeting if the value is right, but it isn't something to chase.

Of course, Ward projects as a sharp selection on Underdog even without any other Angels on your team.

Manager Phil Nevin has already said that he's leaning towards Ward as his leadoff man. Hitting directly in front of Trout and Ohtani is a good place to be.

Some drafters might be scared off by the "shape" of Ward's 2022 breakout. He got off to a tremendous start, then struggled mightily, but he eventually rebounded late in the year.

Even with his mid-season struggles Ward posted the 24th best barrel% in 2022. And he combined that with the 5th lowest strikeout rate among those top-24 barrel leaders. Consistently hitting the ball optimally while also making a ton of contact is a great recipe for success.

Finally, note that Ward's struggles can be directly tied to his mid-season shoulder injury. Once healthy, he took off again. The projections love him entering '23, but the market doesn't quite line up with them yet. That's a mistake.

Hunter Greene, SP, Reds

In my Substack piece on the Reds' ace I noted that if we aren't considering Javier as a breakout candidate, then Greene is my pick.

There are a lot of "floor" arms going in the middle rounds. There are also some injury risks who project well on a per-inning basis. Greene stands out, however, as someone who could crush his ADP on pure talent.

Yes, I'm aware he went 5-13 with a 4.44 ERA as a rookie. And he still has a terrible home park for pitchers. That's why he isn't an early-round selection.

Following an uneven start to his first year in the majors, Greene leveled out by midseason, and down the stretch he outright dominated. He dealt with a minor injury in August, but here are his stats over his final 6 starts:

  • 35.1 IP

  • 51:8 K:BB

  • 30.9 K-BB%

  • 1.02 ERA

  • 1.70 FIP

That is OUTRAGEOUS. As always, we should remind ourselves that full-season statistics are more predictive than partial-season stats, but I'm more inclined to believe a midseason breakout for a young player who made a tangible change.

The key for Greene's late-season success was fueled by better fastball locations up in the zone combined with consistent velos. The proof:

(the pitch heat map refers to his fastball locations in September).

Greene is the right kind of bet to make in the middle rounds. Is he a lock to outproduce his ADP and finish as a SP1? Of course not.

Does the floor-ceiling combination make sense in Round 10? Definitively yes.

Will Smith, IF, Dodgers

For some reason several stud catchers are mispriced on Underdog. Most of the below analysis is also true for Willson Contreras.

As a weekly game, catchers are never going to max out their possible playing time in a given scoring period. Even if the Dodgers have a 7-game week, Smith is likely to start maybe 5 of them? And if they have a 5 or 6 game week his opportunity for playing time drops even lower.

My theory is that drafters are aware of this, which is smart, but I believe the market has taken it too far. Any time I run the projections (THE BAT X, ATC, make your pick) with UD's scoring, Smith gets spit out as a value.

And not just a 1-2 round value. I believe Smith has been going 3-4 rounds too late all offseason.

So yeah, I'm not dying to draft many catchers in a weekly points format where the position is lumped in with infielders. If I'm going to take one, though, it's going to be a situation like this where the projection-ADP equation is too lopsided to ignore.

Smith is also a perfect mini stack option with the similarly under-appreciated Max Muncy. Snagging those two mid-round offerings can lead to rounding out the stack with Miguel Vargas later on.

Lars Nootbaar, OF, Cardinals

Back in January MLB fans voted for Nootbaar as the fourth best right fielder in baseball - ahead of Ronald Acuña, Kyle Tucker, and Fernando Tatis Jr. The Nootbaar hive is WILD.

I consider myself to have been early on his breakout in 2022 and now I'm simply intimidated by the passion his strongest supporters show for the 25-year-old.

Still, I need my Nootbaar shares. Here's what I wrote when discussing his dynasty value on Substack:

Another classic “Cardinals Way” development story, Nootbaar was off to a rough start in ‘22, posting a 52 wRC+ with a 30% strikeout rate through July 10th.

Then from July 11th through September 2nd he went bonkers, slashing .295/.423/.605 with 10 homers, an 18.4 BB%, a 14.7 K%, and a 186 wRC+ in 168 PAs.

I was all the way bought in, believing that his offseason Driveline training to improve bat speed was paying off in a big way. By year’s end his max exit velocity had spiked from 109.5 mph in 2021 to 113 mph a season ago. His barrel rate, hard-hit rate, and average exit velocity were all up as well.

Unfortunately, Nootbaar then cooled down and hit just .185 with a 21.3 K% over his final 94 PAs. What makes him so fun is that he went right back to Driveline after the season, continuing to work on his bat speed. He simply isn't satisfied with the level he's at.

Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol has already said he'll be an everyday outfielder in 2023. Picking Nootbaar on Underdog requires a leap of faith with his projection, but I'm comfortable betting on this rapidly-improving young star.

Reid Detmers, SP, Angels

His ADP is on the move, having already climbed 30 spots since mid-February.

I currently have him ranked 142nd, which is still 3 rounds above his ADP!

Detmers through June 21st last year:

  • 58 IP

  • 4.66 ERA

  • 5.35 FIP

  • 9.7 K-BB%

Detmers from July 8th on:

  • 71 IP

  • 3.04 ERA

  • 2.51 FIP

  • 17.5 K-BB%

The difference was throwing his slider harder and with less horizontal movement:

A midseason demotion to Triple-A helped Detmers reconfigure his arsenal. The downside to taking him on UD is that the Angels use a 6-man rotation, which limits his chances at 2-start spike weeks. I still love taking him as my 6th and final SP, though.

Triston Casas, IF, Red Sox

Similar to Nootbaar, I'm foregoing the projection on this one. It's a gut call. Casas debuted in September last season and hit just .197 across his first 95 big league plate appearances.

A closer look under the hood revealed a .208 BABIP, which would've been the lowest among qualified hitters in 2022. He also homered five times and posted a .358 OBP, good for a 120 wRC+ despite the dreadful batting average.

He simply got unlucky during a time when he was still getting his feet wet in the majors. His offseason runout has been perfect as well, with the Red Sox releasing Eric Hosmer.

Casas' minor league numbers aren't ridiculous, but he has talked openly about chasing OBP over SLG while coming up through the farm system. He's a ridiculously cerebral hitter, relentlessly working on his plate discipline in an attempt to only swing at pitches in his "hitter zone."

So yes, I'm putting on my amateur scouting cap for this one. I believe that Casas' power is special, that his strike zone awareness provides a floor, that he got unlucky in his September debut, and that he's an awesome pick on Underdog in 2023.