I've gotta have Jordan Walker on my Fantasy Baseball teams this year. The Cardinals top prospect has been the talk of the spring so far, hitting .417/.417/.917 with several tape measure homers in eight games. And that's created a bit of a problem, because it's made it harder and harder to actually end up with Walker on any of my teams.
Walker entered the spring as Scott White's No. 3 prospect for Fantasy baseball, but was mostly viewed, if not as an afterthought, certainly as a late-round flier only to open the spring. As of Feb. 23, Walker's ADP in NFC drafts was 212.43, however since the start of March, that has jumped up to 149.95. Your time to draft him at a reasonable cost has passed, and with Lars Nootbaar and Tyler O'Neill playing in the World Baseball Classic, Walker is going to continue to see everyday at-bats, and his price is going to keep rising.
And there's going to reach a point where you've got to pass on players with all kinds of upside who are also more proven at the major-league level – already, Walker is going ahead of someone like Brandon Lowe, who has a .247-97-39-99-7 season under his belt. That's a tough call. Walker has all kinds of upside, but does he realistically have much more upside than a season like that?
As exciting as Walker is – and as exciting as the prospect of nabbing the next Julio Rodriguez unquestionably is – it's important to remember that any prospect, even one as undeniably talented as Walker, carries. Sure, it worked out in a big way with Rodriguez last season, but it's worth remembering that there wasn't that much gap between how Rodriguez and Riley Green were being viewed at this time last season, and Greene was barely Fantasy relevant last season. There comes a point where the risk no longer outweighs the reward, and I could see Walker reaching that point as his price gets pushed closer to the top-100 in ADP.
But … I've gotta have Walker! I can't miss out on his upside completely. Sure, spending a top-150 or top-100 pick on an unproven prospect who doesn't actually have an everyday job (yet) might not be the absolute best way to use my limited draft capital, but Fantasy Baseball isn't about always playing to the most likely outcome for every player. If you just draft your entire team based on projections, you're probably going to end up with a middle-of-the-road squad. You need to take some chances.
Of course, it's easier to say that in the position I'm in, where I'm playing out more than a dozen leagues (in addition to another 20-plus or so mock drafts throughout the course of the preseason). I can spread my risk around to a bunch of different teams and players, exposing myself to upside without necessarily torpedoing my whole season if things go wrong.
If you're only drafting one team, you might have to be a bit more judicious about how you handle risk. Taking an unproven player in the first 100 picks may not be such a smart move when that's the only bite you get at the apple. You still need to chase upside to have a chance to win, but it might make more sense to let a player like Walker fall to that 150-ish range where the risk/reward balance tilts back in your favor.
But when you're drafting 12 teams, you've got a little more flexibility to make some YOLO picks. Because, at least in Fantasy terms, I do get to live more than once.
Walker is the poster boy for this kind of thought process this year, but I'd say 2021 Vladimir Guerrero is arguably the best example in recent years. I was mostly fading him that year, as he was being drafted much higher than his actual production had justified to that point. However, I made a point of drafting him on at least a few teams, because the high end of his range of outcomes was going to be well worth whatever price you paid, and then some. We saw just that, and while it doesn't always or even often work out that way, hitting on those high-end outcomes is what helps you win your leagues.
It's important to keep ranges of outcomes in mind when you're drafting, and a player like Jordan Walker has exceedingly wide ranges of outcomes. You can't build your entire team around high-variance or risky players, but you probably need at least some exposure to them.
The following players won't be on all of my teams. They probably won't be on most of my teams. A few of them are even in my busts column, because I think the likeliest outcome is they end up disappointing Fantasy players. However, I can obviously see the upside, and I'm going to make sure I have that upside on my team just in case it comes to fruition. Let's take a look at what those upside outcomes could look like.
MJ Melendez RF
KC Kansas City • #1 • Age: 24
Melendez is a catcher with the bat and athletic profile to more than fake it in the outfield, with a 40-homer season under his belt in the minors. I think there's probably too much swing-and-miss in his profile to justify a top-100 pick most of the time, but he's also one of those players whose value could increase exponentially if he hits to his fullest potential, because then you're talking about a catcher-eligible player with legitimate 30-homer pop who should get to 600-plus plate appearances because of how much time he's likely to spend in the outfield and potentially at DH.
TOR Toronto • #27 • Age: 24
Guerrero followed up his breakout 2021 with a step back, and it's fair to wonder if that might end up being a one-year wonder kind of situation, fueled at least in part by the literal minor-league parks the Blue Jays spent much of the season calling him. His likeliest outcome probably isn't much different from someone like Paul Goldschmidt, and I rarely find myself justifying the near first-round price for him. But this is a case where, we have concrete evidence of how good Guerrero can be, and it's "No. 1 overall player" level. We're not just guessing anymore.
MIA Miami • #2 • Age: 25
We also have concrete evidence of how good Chisholm can be, at least for a stretch. He played just 60 games last season, but his 150-game pace was clearly first-round worthy – .254-98-35-113-30. Whether he can sustain that for a full season (while staying healthy!) is the big question, but Chisholm has the skill set to be a truly elite Fantasy option, and he'll be eligible at both 2B and OF, two relatively shallow positions. It's a volatile profile in terms of skills (there's still a lot of swing-and-miss in Chisholm's game) and injury risk, but you've gotta have Chisholm on at least one of your teams if you're drafting more than one. He's too fun.
TB Tampa Bay • #5 • Age: 22
Franco is kind of where Guerrero was back in 2021. He's a former top prospect who has already established himself as a solid major-league hitter, but he hasn't come close to justifying the hype yet. Or his draft price, frankly. And it's harder to see how Franco makes that leap at this point – Guerrero Jr. already had elite exit velocities, so the key was hitting the ball in the air more to unlock his upside. Franco doesn't have that going for him – he was in the 18th percentile in average exit velocity and 26th percentile in hard-hit rate a year ago. And he hasn't really shown much stolen base upside either, though he has been a very efficient base stealer in his MLB career. Franco isn't as tooled up as you'd hope for a player with his kind of hype, but we've seen some flashes, including an 85th percentile max exit velocity last season. There's still room for a peak DJ LeMahieu-esque outcome here.
STL St. Louis • #18 • Age: 21
Walker just hit .306/.388/.510 with 19 homers and 22 steals in 119 games as a 20-year-old in Double-A, while consistently sporting exit velocities that would rank among the best in the majors. You don't generally see exit velocity readings north of 110 mph from minor-league players, so Walker has a chance to be legitimately special, with real five-category potential. Or he might not be on the Opening Day roster. Either way, it's impossible to totally pass him up right now.
ATL Atlanta • #23 • Age: 22
Harris made my busts list, because I have platoon and power concerns that just make it hard to justify a late-second round price for him. That being said, he sported well above average quality-of-contact metrics as a rookie with elite sprint speed readings, and if he improves his plate discipline and starts hitting the ball in the air more frequently, he legitimately could be a 30-30 guy and a first-rounder.
Taylor Ward LF
LAA L.A. Angels • #3 • Age: 29
Generally speaking, you won't go broke betting against late-career breakouts like Ward, who was more of a high-.700s OPS bat for much of his minor-league career. He was better than that in the high-minors and then put up exceptional Statcast numbers last season, including a .361 expected wOBA that perfectly matched up with what he did. At least in that sense, his 2022 was no fluke. I'm betting against a repeat, but he's a relatively cheap opportunity to buy into what could be a very good top of the lineup for the Angels, and if last year was for real, he could very easily be a top-12 outfielder.
NYY N.Y. Yankees • #27 • Age: 33
I still think there's room for one more monster Stanton season. He took a step backwards in terms of strikeout rate last season, but he remains one of the two or three hardest hitters in the league when he does make contact. There's easily 40-plus homer upside here, and a 50-homer season isn't out of the question.
HOU Houston • #53 • Age: 26
Generally speaking, if I'm taking a pitcher inside of the top-100 picks – and especially inside the top 50 – I'm taking someone who I feel reasonably confident could give me 180 innings, and that's hard to project for someone like Javier, who has never topped 150. But Javier is such a fun pitcher to bet on, with start-by-start upside as high as anyone – counting the playoffs, he allowed one or no hits in seven of 27 starts. He also had the third-highest strikeout rate for any pitcher with at least 140 innings, and while his .228 BABIP suggests there is probably regression coming, but his .168 expected batting average allowed was actually slightly lower than his actual .169 mark. He might be one of the best pitchers in the game on a per-inning basis, and if he does manage to give you 180 or so innings, he'll be in the "Best Pitcher in Fantasy" discussion.
CIN Cincinnati • #21 • Age: 23
Greene is another incredibly fun pitcher, though unlike Javier, he's a lot further away from being definitively good. He might be the hardest throwing starting pitcher in major-league history, and his slider is unquestionably a better pitch than that fastball. Which is kind of the problem – the fastball gets a lot of whiffs, but he also gave up the third-most homers in the league with the pitch last season, and his changeup is still little more than a show-me pitch. However, velocity is viewed as a proxy for upside for a reason, and Greene showed that off with 37 strikeouts and two earned runs allowed in his final four starts after coming back from the IL last season. If he comes anywhere close to channeling that for a full season, he's an ace.
Kodai Senga SP
NYM N.Y. Mets • #34 • Age: 30
At 30, Senga is the elder statesman of this group, but he's also got nearly 1,100 innings pitching at a high level under his belt. He joins the majors after an 11-year career in Japan where he sported a 2.59 ERA and 10.3 K/9, which is even more impressive than you might think, given that the K/9 in the Japan Pacific League last season was just 7.5. He throws in the upper-90s with a full repertoire of potential swing-and-miss pitches. We don't know how his stuff is going to translate to MLB, and Senga has had some durability and control issues in recent years, having fallen short of 150 innings in three consecutive seasons. However, seeing as how his ADP is outside of the top 190 right now, it's a pretty easy bet to make.