Earlier this week I wrote about the three breakout pitchers I'm targeting in fantasy baseball drafts this season. Today we'll be focusing on five hitters who I believe can out-produce their average draft position (ADP).
Note that these are players who are reasonable to acquire at ADP. I tried to mostly avoid early-round bats where draft order plays a bigger role in availability.
One of the most polarizing players in fantasy baseball, Buxton has played more than 92 games in a season just once. His injury history is well documented, and selecting him with an early-to-mid round pick isn't for the faint of heart.
So why bother then? Between IL stints in 2021, Buxton made a leap in his caliber of play. During the early portion of his career he was a popular late-round breakout pick due to his immense tools. "If it all clicks..." was a popular reasoning.
Then it clicked last year. People just aren't noticing, or caring, because of the injuries.
Through the first month of '21 Buxton was performing as the American League MVP, combining uber-elite defense with newfound offensive prowess. In 254 total plate appearances Buxton recorded career-best marks in barrel rate, exit velocity, xBA, xSLG, wOBA, xwOBA and more. In just 61 games he hit .306 with a 1.005 OPS, 19 homers, and nine stolen bases.
"But he got hurt."
That would be correct. Buxton missed 6 1/2 weeks early in the season due to a hip strain, returned, and broke his finger on a hit-by-pitch three days later. This held him out for two more months. His strong finish went largely unnoticed with the Twins out of the playoff race.
I'm purposely choosing not to spend too much time on Buxton here. Readers likely already have chosen sides. That's how divisive Buxton is among fantasy baseball fans.
The 28-year-old's Statcast data fully supports his 2021 stat line, though. He produced at that level before and after his injuries. His power/speed combo gives him No. 1 overall upside, particularly in traditional roto leagues.
If that kind of gamble interests you then you might as well join the 40-1 AL MVP train as well.
Here's the Baseball Savant page that Joseph Daniel Votto put up as a 37-year-old. Keep in mind a few things:
1. He posted a career-best ISO.
2. He fell one homer short of tying a career-high in homers despite being limited to just 129 games.
3. His xSLG rose to .592 (!!) after sitting between .446 and .478 the previous three seasons.
It was a remarkable transformation that wasn't an accident. Votto talked openly about changing his swing late in the 2020 season. The future HOFer had become too obsessed with controlling the strike zone. While crouching in the batter's box to avoid striking out he had eliminated any chance of unlocking his natural power.
Votto then transitioned to a more upright stance. He was slowed a bit by an injury early in '21, but he caught absolute fire over the summer. At one point he homered in seven consecutive games. As noted above, Statcast backed up all of it.
The lifelong Red has an ADP of ~110 on Underdog Fantasy right now. He goes even later in traditional season-long drafts that include relievers. My buddy made an interesting point earlier this offseason. If Votto was 30 years old instead of 37-38, what round would he be drafted in? The 4th?
While Votto is technically fighting Father Time, it isn't as if it showed last year. He's a completely different hitter now than he was from 2018-20. Recognize that and invest in the newly adopted approach from the smartest hitter of a generation.
I didn't forecast including Adell on a list like this even a few weeks ago. My offseason thoughts on the former top prospect were that he's still such a work in progress. Buxton has actually been a good comparison for him - an ultra athletic, toolsy outfielder who is still developing into an advanced hitter.
Perhaps Adell is already making the right adjustments, though. We never want to be a prisoner of the moment and overreact to spring training highlights, but Adell's stance and swing certainly look different right now.
As Fantrax's Chris Clegg highlights here, Adell ditched his pronounced leg kick from 2021 in favor of a more subtle toe tap this spring. The idea is that it'll help Adell cut down on his strikeout rate. He was fantastic in Triple-A last season, recording a 122 wRC+ with 23 homers in just 339 PAs. However, he also struck out nearly 30% of the time.
As long as he continues making progress on swinging at the right pitches, Adell should have no problem accessing his natural power. The toe tap is keeping him balanced and allowing him to hit absolute rockets this month.
Similar to Votto entering '21, we have a tangible reason to think a breakout might be coming. At this stage of drafts, Adell's upside is probably worth it.
Another spring training superstar, Cruz has seen his stock rise over the past week. The 23-year-old shortstop already made history late in the 2021 season. Not only did he become the tallest shortstop ever at 6'7", but he recorded the hardest-hit ball by any Pirates player during the Statcast era (since 2015).
Keep in mind Cruz accomplished that feat in just two games at the big league level.
The question entering 2022 is how soon he'll be a regular in Pittsburgh. There are new service time rules that could incentivize teams to begin the season with top prospects in the majors, but it remains to be seen if the potential rewards are worth the risk.
Still, the fact that Cruz reached the majors at all last year shows he's close to a promotion even if he begins the upcoming campaign in Triple-A.
His height could also be viewed as a risk too. Those long limbs allow him to basically golf low pitches out of the ballpark, but they could also create holes in his swing. We've yet to see how big league pitchers will attack him over a longer sample.
If you want to speculate on a top prospect and don't want to pay sticker price for Bobby Witt Jr., then Cruz is a much more affordable option.
Longoria's ADP baffles me. It's too lazy to call him "this year's Joey Votto", but the similarities are interesting.
Longoria is an aging hitter who lit up Statcast in 2021, but nobody is buying it.
At age 35 he posted a Statcast era-best .352 wOBA that was perfectly backed up by a .352 xwOBA. His .482 SLG even slightly under performed his .487 xSLG.
If Longoria had the plate appearances to qualify he would've finished fourth among all MLB hitters in average exit velocity, seventh in hard-hit rate, and 25th in barrel rate.
2022 ADP? 239th overall.
Concerns for Longoria include his age and the fact that the Giants were intent on giving veterans regular rest in '21. I'm instead choosing to view his organization as a positive factor, since they've clearly demonstrated an ability to get the most out of these veteran hitters lately (Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt being other examples).
Ultimately the Statcast data is just too impressive to overlook Longoria. It isn't just "good." It's "top-25 hitter good." Even if you factor in some regression, Longoria is free in drafts right now. I implore you to take him in the end game of every single draft you're in this spring.
EDIT: On 3/28 it was announced that Longoria would undergo finger surgery. The plan is for Longoria to keep the finger immobilized for at least 10 days before the Giants have a better idea of when he might return. I'm now less interested in Longoria for Underdog's Best Ball format (since there are no IL spots or waivers).