Let's set the parameters. The idea is similar to if you're playing franchise mode in MLB The Show, or my personal favorite, MVP Baseball 2005.
Major League Baseball is starting from scratch. You, being the sharp-minded general manager you are, have the first overall pick.
Who do you take?
Things to factor in:
We are taking current contracts out of the equation. We're starting from scratch, remember. All first-round picks will receive the same deal.
Age matters as much as you want it to. The ideal No. 1 pick will present a combination of youth and production. I'll share my thoughts on this more below.
Let's start breaking down some of the contenders for the first 5-10 picks.
Earlier this offseason I wrote about Franco's chances of "making the leap" in 2022. Baseball's No. 1 prospect for two straight years entering last season, "Wandervision" proved to be special upon reaching The Show.
It took him some time to adjust upon his mid-summer promotion, however. Through Franco's first 120 plate appearances he posted a 78 wRC+ with a 20.8 K%. From July 30th on he recorded a 157 wRC+ with a 6.4 K% (!!).
During this stretch he posted the lowest strikeout rate among qualified hitters in baseball. What makes him special is that he was still hitting for power.
The above image, which is from Fangraphs, shows the K% leaders from July 30th on. Right next to that column is ISO, which is a stat that measures power. Most of the top hitters surrounding Franco on this list hit for measly power. This is because their skills are more contact-oriented. Makes sense right?
Yet Franco wasn't sacrificing extra-base production despite not striking out. This is statistical proof of the eye test; Franco's ability to manipulate the barrel within the zone is unique.
Oh, and at one point he reached base in 43 consecutive games, which tied Frank Robinson for the longest such streak for a player age 20 or younger.
At one point last summer Boston's beloved third baseman had a glaring weakness - he couldn't hit fastballs. Devers hit .200 against heaters in April and .167 in May. At one point in early June the Astros threw 56 consecutive fastballs to Devers, which he struggled with.
So what happened next? Have a look:
Devers adjusted, as all great hitters do, batting .356 against them in June, .309 in July, .224 in August, and .316 in September (per Baseball Savant).
He also improved his O-swing% (swings at pitches outside the zone) throughout the season. He was at 40.5% during the season's first two months and then 30.8% over the final two.
A steady offensive force, Devers is already pretty accomplished for his age, but he keeps finding ways to get better.
Particularly in rotisserie leagues, Bichette is viewed as a first-round fantasy selection entering 2022. However, this is an example of fantasy not always matching reality.
Bichette is a wonderful player. His skill set was tailor made for roto scoring -- a high batting average with some pop, 25+ stolen base upside, and boat loads of runs scored while hitting atop the lineup.
While my favorite projection system, THE BAT X, pegs Bichette for 4.3 WAR in 2022, this ranks just 26th among position players. His 120 wRC+ projection isn't inside the top-50. The reality is that Bichette doesn't get on base enough, or hit for power outside of homers, to be a realistic candidate for a top-10 selection in this exercise.
Once upon a time, the answer to this blog post would've been one of these two future HOFers.
Harper is coming off his best season since unanimously winning the MVP in 2015, but this time his Statcast numbers were even better. He also won the MVP again. In the second half alone Bryce hit 20 homers with a .476 OBP, a .713 SLG, and a 219 OPS+. Entering his age-29 campaign he's halfway to 500 homers.
Then there's Trout, who deserves a column of his own soon. One of the best players, uhh ever, the 30-year-old has been snakebitten by injuries in recent seasons. He was limited to just 36 contests in 2021, though he posted a career-best 190 wRC+ when he was healthy. Incredibly, Giancarlo Stanton has played more games than him over the past five seasons.
Harper and Trout both need to be mentioned in this space, because they would both be first-round picks if all 30 teams had a re-draft. However, their age makes them a little too old to be worthy of a top selection.
Houston's young outfielder struggled last April, but then again so did the rest of the league as offense was down across the board.
Tucker quickly caught fire beginning on May 1st. From that point on he hit .320/.387/.600 with a 166 wRC+ while leading the American League in AVG, OBP, SLG, wOBA and wRC+.
It was a herculean performance where Tucker posted career-best strikeout and walk rates. He also recorded greater than a .275 expected batting average on all pitch types.
Ultimately, he makes for a fine selection inside the top 10, but he doesn't have the superpowers of my projected top-5.
A pitcher! Some of you might be whispering to yourselves "finally." Here's the thing, though. Due to the rate of arm injuries that pitchers suffer, it becomes tough to seriously consider one with a high draft choice in this exercise.
Additionally, it isn't as if pitching is becoming easy, but organizations are getting really good at developing young arms. High-speed rapsodo cameras have changed everything. We now have the technology to help pitchers maximize their "stuff." Therefore, it's becoming more common for pitchers to breakout in the later stages of their development.
Burnes himself is an example of this. He posted an 8.82 ERA in 49 innings back in 2019. Milwaukee helped him alter his pitch mix, and voila, he has been worth 9.9 fWAR since the start of 2020.
In 2021 Burnes posted a 1.63 FIP, which was the second lowest mark for an ERA qualifier since 1960 (Pedro had a 1.39 FIP in 1999).
The concern with Burnes as the top pitcher in a draft like this is that he isn't exactly "battle tested" in terms of repeating this performance year over year (like you could argue Gerrit Cole is). But he's on the younger side and should still have his entire prime ahead of him.
I'd take Burnes first among starting pitchers, but I wouldn't touch him until the late teens or early 20s in this draft. I also think ranking the pitchers is a more interesting discussion than arguing where the first one should be taken. Burnes or Walker Buehler, for instance? Maybe it's another future post.
Well I mean if you're going to take a pitcher you might as well take one who also hits, right?
Ohtani easily won AL MVP last season, but somehow his marvelous campaign just doesn't feel appreciated enough. The two-way phenom was unlocked once manager Joe Maddon decided to keep his bat in the lineup almost every day, including when he pitched. He hit .257/.372/.592 with 46 HR, 26 SB, and a 158 OPS+.
On the pitching side, his ratio stats were those of an ace (3.18 ERA, 3.39 xERA, 3.55 xFIP), but his starts were more spread out than other top arms for obvious reasons.
In 2021 Ohtani was one of just four SPs who reached 101 mph. As a hitter, he was one of just four who hit a ball 119 mph. Oh, and his sprint speed was 91st percentile. He's a freak!
There's also a case to be made for Ohtani becoming even more valuable in 2022 and beyond. MLB is instituting "the Ohtani rule", which means he'll be able to continue serving as a team's DH even after he finishes pitching. It might be viewed as a marginal difference, but as long as he's healthy there's really no limit to a team utilizing him for as much of a workload as he can handle.
Yet health is the big question surrounding Ohtani this year. He's already had Tommy John surgery, but can we reasonably expect him to once again hold up under last season's workload? If so, can we feel good about him repeating the performance year over year, when the opportunity cost is passing on other young stars with less physically demanding roles?
Where I land is that Ohtani is a justifiable top-5 choice, but there is a quartet of young phenoms that I wouldn't consider him over.
It's an interesting time to be talking about Acuña's long-term upside. He tore his ACL last summer and is going to be sidelined for the start of 2022. It remains to be seen how quickly he re-gains his explosiveness, which was a critical part of his game on the bases and in the outfield.
What gives me confidence about Acuña's overall value moving forward is the strides he has made as a hitter since his 2018 debut. A quick look at his Statcast page shows improvement across the board since his rookie season. Most notable? His BB% by season:
2018: 58th percentile
2019: 72nd percentile
2020: 99th percentile
2021: 94th percentile
Before going down last year he posted the best strikeout rate of his career. Acuña is becoming pickier with his swing selections, which is an important part of not becoming overly reliant on his athleticism.
And when he does choose to swing, the results have never been better. In 2021 the 24-year-old posted career-highs in exit velocity, barrel rate, and xwOBA. The ACL rehab does increase his long-term risk, but when considering his overall game I wouldn't let him slip outside the top-4.
Here's a quick summary of the post-lockout frenzy:
1. Baseball is back! Hooray!
2. Tatis is hurt...noooooo.
The 23-year-old human highlight reel fractured his left wrist while riding a motorcycle over the offseason. Due to the lockout, nobody knew about it until early March. Tatis underwent surgery and is expected to be sidelined until June.
This comes after multiple scares surrounding his shoulder last season. Tatis ended up missing just the minimum 10 days for each IL stint related to the shoulder, but it was notable that he didn't undergo surgery for it over the winter.
He also missed significant time in his rookie season due to a stress reaction in his lower back.
You watch him play and it reminds you of the younger version of Harper, who also had some recklessness to his game. Tatis can defy physics and make incredible plays, but those same wondrous achievements also put him at risk. It would be great to see him reel things in upon returning this summer.
I'd personally still take him 3rd overall, because I believe his injuries have somewhat been flukes, but we could've said the same thing about Byron Buxton several years ago.
As for his actual play, Tatis' tools are arguably the best in the sport. How hard he hits the ball (100th percentile xSLG) plus how well he moves (96th percentile spring speed) is truly special.
We've reached the final two.
Vlad took a couple of years to mature as a big leaguer, but once he started taking care of his body entering 2021 it was game over for the rest of the league.
Last season Guerrero set a new record for homers by a player age 22 or younger, launching 48 to surpass Eddie Matthews' record from 1953.
The key to his breakout was increasing his launch angle to be in a better position to consistently barrel incoming pitches. Guerrero posted ground ball rates above 50% in both 2019 and 2020. Last season he lowered that rate to 45.6%.
His barrel rate in 2019 and 2020 was 7.7% and 8.7%, respectively. In 2021 it skyrocketed to 15.1%.
Vlad's Statcast page is as red as you'd expect. The numbers he put up were deserved as well -- a .419 wOBA with a .418 xWOBA.
The weaknesses in his game are speed and defense, but we can live with that if he keeps mashing baseballs like he did last summer, which resulted in a second place MVP finish. There is some long-term risk that he eventually needs to transition to being a full-time DH, but that might be a decade away.
Remember Miguel Cabrera's prime with the Tigers? He won the Triple Crown in 2012 and followed it up with an even better campaign in 2013. That is the best comparison I can make to Vlad Jr. right now.
The difference? Miggy was 29-30 years old back then. Vlad just turned 23 a few weeks ago.
In 2021 Soto joined Ted Williams (1941) as the only players age 22 or younger to total 150 hits and 130 walks in a single season. Soto finished with 145 walks, which is a total that only Barry bonds has matched this century.
Soto was particularly impressive in the second half, hitting .348/.525/.639 with a 199 wRC+. Most incredibly, he drew 87 walks while striking out just 41 times.
Look at his Baseball Savant page. My goodness, it's beautiful:
The one complaint you could make with Soto's profile is the lack of truly elite power. Similar to Guerrero, he can struggle to lift the ball at times. This was especially true in the first half of '21, before Soto re-worked his swing en route to winning the Home Run Derby. Evidently, it worked.
Still, even if Soto tops out as a 35-homer bat throughout his prime, the plate discipline skills are too good to pass on with the 1.01. Soto doesn't just have the best plate discipline in baseball - he has the best plate discipline since Bonds. When factoring in his age, it's the best mastery of the strike zone since Ted Williams.
We also know that plate discipline skills are the most sticky year over year. Whereas an uber-elite athlete like Tatis could eventually lose some of the skills that make him special, Soto's skill set is proven to age well.
He's the best hitter in baseball and would be my No. 1 pick if MLB had a re-draft.
What say you?