Every single year, the players we see in the first-round of fantasy drafts are slightly different. In your standard 15-team leagues, 11-12 are usually holdovers from the previous season while a few new names shoot up into the conversation. Over the last few years, some of those names have been:
2021: Yu Darvish, Freddie Freeman, Lucas Giolito, Trevor Bauer
2020: Juan Soto, Cody Bellinger, Walker Buehler
2019: Ronald Acuña Jr, Jacob deGrom, Alex Bregman, Jose Ramirez
When analyzing if a player has first-round potential or not, this is how I look at it…
Hitters: Five-Category studs or elite in four categories (Think Nolan Arenado 2015-2019)
Pitchers: Capable of a sub-2.50 ERA, sub 1.00 WHIP, and 35+% strikeout rate.
For this list, I’m going with players that haven’t been first-round selections at any point in their career. And as you can probably guess, all of the players below are young, rising stars.
And let me put the disclaimer out there that this is not a “breakout” article. Far from it. All of these players are already well-known and highly sought-after commodities in the fantasy baseball world. I’m just here to discuss several that could make that next step into the first round next season.
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Potential New First Round Picks in 2022
Bo Bichette, SS, Toronto Blue Jays
This is the easiest inclusion on this list. In 2021 drafts, Bo Bichette is already being taken as a 2nd round pick on average (ADP 25 since 1/1/21), so moving up 10+ spots is hardly a stretch. But he fits the criteria I mentioned above and I never need an excuse to discuss Bo. Everywhere Bichette has gone, he’s hit and hit extremely well. The lowest average he posted at any level of the minors was .275 in Triple-A back in 2019 and he finished his minor league career slashing an impressive .321/.380/.515.
The onslaught didn’t stop once he reached the Majors either as Bichette has hit .311 and .301 respectively in 2019 and 2020 for a .307 overall average through his first 75 games. If you combine his minor league and major league numbers, Bichette has slashed .318/.374/.521 as a professional over 398 games. Not too shabby. And to take this one step further, his slash line is VERY similar to the slash line of a current all-star player I’ve often compared him to. That slash line is .301/.373/.522. The player, Mookie Betts.
Bo Bichette with a smooth bat flip on an opposite field homer pic.twitter.com/kyzj6cjtmI
— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) March 24, 2021
While Bichette has never posted higher walk rates (8.3% in MiLB, 5.5% in MLB), the contact skills are robust and should allow him to continue exceeding that magical .300 threshold while providing a high floor in the category as well. It’s hard for me to imagine Bichette ever dropping down to the .270 range. He’s too good of a hitter for that to happen. Bichette’s underlying metrics back up his performance in the Majors so far as well. In 2020, Bichette posted an above-average exit velocity and hard-hit rate while finishing 70th percentile or better in xBA (91st), xSLG (89th), xwOBA (73rd), barrell% (82nd), whiff rate (73rd), and sprint speed (70th).
He’s going to need to be a bit more efficient on the bases, but there’s five-category stud potential here with Bichette. He’s slated to hit high (likely 2nd or 3rd) in a potent Toronto lineup while playing over 2/3 of his games in hitter-friendly AL East ballparks. A .300/25/15+ season with 200-plus R+RBI is well within reach from the budding superstar shortstop. I’ve got a feeling this is the last time we’re talking about Bichette as a non-first-round pick for a while.
Luis Robert, OF, Chicago White Sox
As we discussed in a recent episode of Fantrax Toolshed, this is likely going to be a massive season for Luis Robert’s value one way or the other. When discussing strictly upside and ceilings for fantasy, Robert’s name is near the top of the list. Robert is one of the few players in baseball with 30/30 upside. If you had a crystal ball and told me that one player was going to go 40/40 this season, Robert would be my 2nd guess behind Ronald Acuña Jr. He’s that damn good IF the approach can improve. And yes, I know that’s a major if. That’s why I capitalized it in that particular sentence.
Let’s take a look at Robert’s contact and plate discipline metrics from his rookie season.
|Metric||Robert||Rank (of 142)|
That’s not good. In fact, this approach is eerily similar to Adalberto Mondesi but with a slightly higher walk rate. But at the same time, you gotta be impressed by the 96th percentile sprint speed, 85th percentile barrel rate, and his 115.8 mph max exit velocity. Those mean more to me than his 34th percentile average exit velocity and 56th percentile hard-hit rate. With an approach this aggressive, you’re bound to make plenty of weak contact just due to the sheer volume of swings, most of which are pitches he shouldn’t of swing at that he barely made contact on. With a less-aggressive approach, you should see those metrics trend up as Robert has consistently shown that he possesses close to double-plus raw power. Just watch the video below for a second.
— MLB (@MLB) October 1, 2020
That was the 2nd longest home run of the 2020 season, trailing only a 495-foot blast by Acuña Jr.
Entering spring training, I was crossing my fingers that Robert was going to show a more improved plate approach this season. So far, that hasn’t been the case as Robert has a .204/.271/.333 and 5.3% walk rate through his first 17 games. The strikeout rate has remained high as well, currently sitting at 31.6% after finishing 2020 at 32.2%. But he also has three doubles, a home run, and five steals (in six attempts) as well. So it hasn’t been all bad.
There’s no doubting that Robert has first-round upside outside of the AVG/OBP department, but getting into the first-round means you can’t be a liability in one of the five main categories. If Robert can make adjustments and get the batting average to a respectable range, seeing him in the first round of 2022 drafts is well within reach for the uber-talented 23-year-old Cuban outfielder.
Kyle Tucker, OF, Houston Astros
You knew my boy Kyle Tucker had to make this list. Prospect fatigue set in on Tucker coming into 2020, even with him posting ridiculous numbers in the upper minors. It didn’t make sense to me, but I was more than ecstatic to scoop up all the discounted Tucker shares that I could in dynasty leagues. Now he’s going in the 3rd round on average and this might just be the beginning.
Throughout his minor league career, Tucker was a power/speed darling and flashed those tools at every level along the way. From 2017-2019, Tucker posted three straight 20/20 seasons including a 34/30 season in 2019 at Triple-A. Even in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, that’s damn impressive. And when you add in his brief 2019 stint with Houston, Tucker combined to post a 107/38/108/35 line in 606 plate appearances. That power/speed blend stuck around in 2020 as well. Tucker swatted nine long balls with eight steals in 58 games for a 25/22 pace. On top of that, Tucker was on pace for 90-plus runs and close to 120 RBI.
There should be no questioning the power/speed of Kyle Tucker at this point. With easy plus or better raw power and an ideal launch angle, Tucker is built for hitting home runs. He’s had an exit velocity above 90 mph in each of his three MLB stints while his launch angle has consistently been in the 15-16° range. Tucker’s hard-hit rate has also been at 44.5% or higher in each stint, which is well above MLB average.
30 homers or 30 steals, which is better?
Kyle Tucker says … why not both?
The #Astros prospect is only the fifth player in Pacific Coast League history to reach the 30/30 milestone!
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) August 24, 2019
Tucker is an annual 25+/20+ threat that will be hitting in the middle of a good Houston lineup, giving him immense four-category upside. As for the AVG/OBP departments, that’s an area where Tucker will likely never be a standout. But with that said, he definitely shouldn’t hurt you in those areas either.
The Tucker doubters and negative Nancys out there will point out that Tucker has struggled against non-fastballs during his Major League career. This is true. However, he hasn’t been terrible against offspeed and breaking pitches either. In 2020, Tucker hit .231 with a .257 xBA and .462 SLG against offspeed pitches and .238 with a .262 xBA and .571 SLG against breaking pitches in 2019.
Does he struggle against them overall? Yes, you could say that. But as long as he continues mashing fastballs (.300+ AVG, .600+ SLG in 2019 and 2020) and doesn’t regress against secondary offerings, Tucker should be able to keep his average above .260. And if improvements are made against offspeed and breaking pitches, Tucker legitimately could get up into the .280-.290 range, as he’s done in the minors. All that put together sounds like a potential first-round selection to me.
Corey Seager, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers
Do you remember how I mentioned in the opening about it being hard to get into the first round with no speed unless you’re putting up Nolan Arenado numbers? Well, here’s the hitter I believe can do it. Yes, Yordan Alvarez could as well, but that daunted UT next to his name isn’t nearly as sexy as the SS next to Seager’s. Let’s start by taking a gander at Seager’s baseball savant page. Why? Because it’s a thing of beauty.
Did you see what was inside the red box? You don’t luck into 95th percentile or higher finishes in exit velocity, hard-hit rate, xBA, xSLG, xwOBA, and barrel rate. Two or three, fine. But not all six. Additionally, Seager posted a .489 xwOBACON which was in the top-2% of baseball.
On the surface, Seager finished with 15 homers, 41 RBI, 38 runs scored, and a .307/.358/.585 slash line in 52 games. Extrapolate that out over a full season and he’d be at .307/115/45/125. That was Arenado 2015-2019 territory when he was a first round pick. Add in the position Seager plays and his Arenado-esque line looks a tad sweeter than what Arenado did from the hot corner. On top of that, Seager swatted eight homers in 80 postseason plate appearances.
Corey Seager 441-ft home run szn pic.twitter.com/hj6PbIoj9l
— Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports) March 29, 2021
Seager hasn’t cooled down this spring either, slashing .333/.407/.771 with seven homers in 20 games. This is one of the best four-category producers in baseball that is in his physical prime (almost 27) and slated to hit high in a loaded Dodgers lineup with guys like Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger hitting around him. I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of those guys. it wouldn’t shock me in the slightest if Seager hit north of .300 while flirting with 40 runs and well over 200 combined runs and RBI. He just needs to stay on the field for 150+ games.
Corbin Burnes, SP, Milwaukee Brewers
While hitters are the safer bet, I should probably put at least one pitcher on here, right? After all, taking a pitcher in the first round isn’t as taboo as it used to be. In 2021 drafts, the big three of Bieber, Cole, and deGrom have been first-round selections nearly universally while others like Darvish, Giolito, etc have snuck in from time to time. If any pitcher were to make the leap and enter the first-round conversation, Corbin Burnes would be my pick.
In 2020, Burnes set the Major Leagues ablaze for two months. The electric righty finished with a stellar 2.11 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and 36.7% strikeout rate across 59.2 innings. While some are calling for regression in 2021 due to the weak-hitting in the Central bubble, what Burnes did in 2020 was no fluke and backed up by a 2.03 FIP along with the sexy arsenal you see below.
Yes, that’s FIVE pitches with a whiff rate north of 20% and a putaway rate above 20%. Leading the way in both categories was Burnes’ filthy slider that was one of the best in baseball last season. Burnes ability to attack hitters of both handedness with 4+ pitches makes him that much harder to square up. The strikeouts should remain elite moving forward given this dynamic arsenal, so that checks off one of the boxes needed for a pitcher to be a first round pick. Burnes’ 36.7% K rate was good for 4th best in 2020, behind only Shane Bieber, Jacob deGrom, and Tyler Glasnow.
7 IP, 1 H, 11 Ks. Filthy.
Corbin Burnes lowers his ERA to 1.99. 🔥
— MLB (@MLB) September 9, 2020
If Burnes can come close to putting up the ratios he did in 2020, proving that his performance was legit, I have a feeling you’ll see his price tag skyrocket even more in 2022, potentially pushing first-round territory in the same range where guys like Buehler, Giolito, and Bauer are being drafted this season.
DARKHORSE: Jarred Kelenic, OF, Seattle Mariners
The above gif perfectly depicts me after typing Jarred Kelenic’s name into this article. Is it bold and a bit bonkers to include a prospect with zero MLB at-bats in this piece? It absolutely is. Am I off my rocker? That’s debatable. But that’s why he’s a darkhorse candidate, and this is something I could see happening if everything breaks right. Why? Because people love the next big thing. And Kelenic fits that mold.
Do you know what other mold Kelenic fits? That first-round mold I discussed in the intro. Through his first 173 games as a pro, Kelenic has posted 29 homers and 35 steals (8 CS), with a .290/.366/.516 slash line and a 10.2% walk rate. On top of that, 42.2% of his 192 hits have gone for extra bases which is an impressive rate. Kelenic also impressed this spring with six hits in 20 at-bats, two homers, two doubles, and a 4/1 BB/K ratio.
With a plus hit tool, plus power, and around plus speed, Kelenic has the tools to be one of those prospects that burst onto the scene and excels right away. He even said he wants to steal 30 bases this season, which is certainly encouraging. If Kelenic debuts in mid to late-April and goes .285/20/18 the rest of the way, you better believe he’s going to be at least a 2nd round pick in fantasy leagues next season. And who knows, with how elite young talent gets pushed up draft boards, he could sneak into the first round. Is this bold? Absolutely. But that’s why he’s my darkhorse selection.
Honorable Mention/Others Considered
Trent Grisham, OF, San Diego Padres
Ozzie Albies, 2B, Atlanta Braves
Yordan Alvarez, UT, Houston Astros
Rafael Devers, 3B, Boston Red Sox
Media Credit: TalkinBaseball, MLB Pipeline, Baseball-Reference, Baseball Savant, Sarah Langs, MLB, John Adams/Icon Sportswire
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