Ray Butler’s ‘Must Haves’ for the 2022 Fantasy Baseball Season

Written by: Ray Butler

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Ahhhhhhhhh. It feels good to be back.

It’s been… too long—nearly a year—Since I’ve published an article on Prospects 365. To say I’ve been excited to work on and share this article would be a major understatement. It feels like I’m back where I belong.

But enough about that. Below, I dive into great detail about the seven players I’m considering “must haves” for myself this fantasy season. I’m drafting them everywhere I possibly can. It’s never not the plan to draft these players. From an ADP inside the top-70 to an ADP outside the top-500, I’d like to think I’ve covered every general area of drafts, which also means there’s always a player or two to be excited about regardless of how deep a draft may be.

And hey, thanks for reading this. I’m hopeful this article serves as a launchpad for more content in the very near future.

Let’s dive in!

Logan Webb, SP, SF. 

Webb has already completed the first step to the Corbin Burnes origin story. “Mostly unheralded redraft pitcher breaks out and kicks down the door to mainstream fantasy relevancy.” We can check that box for the right-hander, whose ADP is already well within the top-100 leading up to the 2022 regular season, whenever it begins. The next step for the 25-year-old will be making a similar leap to the one Burnes made in 2021. Let’s call it the “Already-well above average fantasy starting pitcher evolves into one of the very best starting pitchers in all of baseball” leap. And while it’s generally -EV to predict any currently ‘non-elite’ starting pitcher becomes a bonafide first round pick in the fantasy world, I fully believe Webb will be drafted in the same range that Walker Buehler, Max Scherzer and Zack Wheeler are currently being drafted in 2023.

Fortunately, this prediction is less about me talking you into Webb’s impending evolution and more about simply understanding the body of work the right-hander has already provided to us. Take the right-hander’s last 20 regular season starts from 2021, add it to a pair of pristine playoff starts, and these are the numbers you get: 22 GS, 131.0 IP, 2.20 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 142 K. That’s an average of 5.95 IP/start, and I didn’t even mention the fact he was the (hold your nose) winning pitcher in half of those 22 starts. These are, by all accounts, elite numbers that deserve our full attention—before it’s too late.

So how does Webb ascend from the 4.1 fWAR and top-75 fantasy player he already is to a >6.0 fWAR and top-30 player? Elongating the numbers above over the course of a full season would be a fantastic start. I don’t expect the stuff to take a step back, so in my eyes, accomplishing that feat would simply mean remaining off the injured list for a full season. No short stints for shoulder strains, fatigue, etc. Keeping the elbow healthy. Including his time in the minor leagues, we have yet to see the right-hander exceed the 163.0 IP (including the playoffs) mark he accomplished in 2021. At 25-years-old, Webb has plenty of time to prove that ‘workload’ shouldn’t be a perennial concern we have regarding his fantasy outlook, but… it is until it isn’t. Laying any doubts concerning a possible durability red flag to rest in 2022 and beyond may be the biggest hurdle in the right-hander’s way of reaching league-wide superstardom.

On the mound, it’s not Webb’s hellacious slider that his proponents point to when suggesting we haven’t yet seen the best statistical output the 25-year-old has to offer. Instead, it’s the changeup. A definitive third pitch throughout his professional career, the right-hander threw his changeup less and less as the 2021 regular season progressed. The decrease in usage (along with an uptick in slider usage) directly coincides with Webb’s ERA continuing to trickle down throughout the season. So why might the pitch serve as the catalyst for Webb’s continued ascension? Firstly, the pitch comps favorably to that of Aaron Nola as well as some of the league’s best splitters. That fact correlates with the notion that a decrease in usage wasn’t Webb beginning the process of ditching the pitch, but instead finding optimal times to throw it (perhaps while also tinkering with the shape of the pitch). Webb’s changeup/splitter notably began to take on a life of its own in the playoffs, when it played a primary role in the right-hander’s 17 strikeouts in 14.2 IP (all against the Dodgers’ left-handed heavy lineup). The pitch’s continued growth and refinement (throwing alongside Alex Cobb and his renowned splitter every day shouldn’t hurt) could be the key that unlocks an uncharted territory of greatness and wizardry for Webb in the near and distant future.

Draft Logan Webb, unless you’re in a league with me.

Current NFBC ADP: 68.52

Tyler Mahle, SP, CIN. 

I never got around to writing about him, but I was just as enamored with Mahle as I was Trevor Rogers heading into the 2021 season. Don’t believe me?

Mahle was indeed the best pitcher on the Reds last season, but he failed to become the top-30 player I predicted at the bottom of the above tweet. Fortunately for us, that’s the exact reason the right-hander is re-appearing on my hype articles this preseason.

Foundationally, Mahle is everything I want from a starting pitcher. He throws his four-seam more than half the time (53.1% last season, to be exact) because it’s an elite pitch, posting a .215 xBA, .365 xSLG, 12.3% SwStr and 33.5% CSW in 2021, all of which are near the top of four-seams amongst starting pitchers last season. The 27-year-old also doesn’t walk many hitters, and his superb K-BB% of 19.2% ranked 20th amongst qualified pitchers last season. Hell, Mahle even drastically improved his GB% last season (29.3% in 2020 to 42.2% in 2021). When you’re not forced to ‘hide’ your fastball and you don’t walk many opposing hitters, your margin for error expands exponentially compared to those who are faced with those issues.

So why in the world is Mahle’s ADP currently outside of the top-125? What if I told you the right-hander’s home ballpark was actually his worst enemy last season? Mahle posted a gargantuan 5.63 ERA in 78.1 IP at Great American Ballpark in 2021, which is certainly brow-raising when you consider his 2.30 ERA in 101.2 IP elsewhere. Unfortunately, this disparity has become quite the troubling trend of Mahle, who—outside of a 3.03 home ERA during the COVID-shortened 2020 season—has never posted a home ERA better than 5 throughout his big league career. Trouble pitching in front of a home crowd? Something about Great American Ballpark that doesn’t fit his eye? A Spring Training trade candidate? All of the above? None of the above? It’s wild to think the Reds are likely better off structuring their rotation to ensure Mahle pitches on the road as often as possible, but we’ve somehow arrived at that point.

From a fantasy standpoint, I refuse to believe Mahle’s home park woes will continue to trouble him for the remainder of his career. Even if he’s a Red until the day he retires, the stuff is simply too good for him to continue posting ERAs north of 5 at any ballpark, much less the stadium he calls home. I’m going to continue steadfastly drafting the right-hander; if the massive disparity continues into 2022 and beyond, I’ll look for spots to keep him on my bench against strong offenses at GABP.

Current NFBC ADP: 131.33

Patrick Sandoval, SP, LAA. 

We have officially reached the ‘I wonder if he’s saying __________________________ is this season’s Trevor Rogers’ portion of the article. Sandoval is a Baseball Savant darling, with the only blue in his metric dashboard coming from BB% and Fastball Spin. The southpaw is armed with one of the game’s best changeups, a devastating offspeed pitch that induced a whiff more than half the times it was swung at in 2021. To put that sentence into context, the changeup’s 29.1 SwStr% is 4.5 percentage points higher than the second-ranked changeup (Devin Williams’ screwball) in all of baseball (min. 400 changeups thrown in 2021). As a matter of fact, Sandoval’s changeup has the second-highest swinging strike rate of any pitch thrown at least 400 times last season. First? Jacob deGrom’s slider. The 25-year-old also possesses a slider—a pitch that compiled a .212 xBA and 19.0% SwStr last season—I’d like to see him throw more than 2021 usage of 17.2% moving forward.

So Sandoval is a ‘can’t miss’ pitcher in 2022 and beyond, right? Unfortunately, there are a couple of obstacles standing in the southpaw’s way. Much like Logan Webb (discussed above), we have yet to see Sandoval go wire-to-wire of a big league season. In fact, the 25-year-old has never thrown more than 122.1 IP in any professional season. That was in 2018. Most recently, a stress reaction fracture in his lower back limited Sandoval to 87.0 IP in 2021. I’ll say it once more for the people in the back: a pitcher’s ability to make it through an entire season unencumbered by injury is a concern… until it isn’t. Sandoval has plenty of ingredients to be an excellent big league pitcher in 2022 and beyond, but we won’t help but feel as though there was meat left on the bone if the left-hander doesn’t at least exceed 130.0 IP this season (or a proportional workload if the season is substantially shortened). Only time will tell if this hypothetical concern was warranted or not.

Along with questions concerning his workload, Sandoval embodies the ‘hide your fastball’ pitching archetype. The southpaw’s four-seam is lousy, posting a .283 xBA, .483 xSLG and 7.2% SwStr in 2021. Those are actually improvements from the same categories in 2020. The 25-year-old did introduce a sinker last season, notching a .277 xBA, .454 xSLG and 9.1% SwStr with an 18.8% usage. At least that’s slightly better than the four-seam? We should continue to see the four-seam usage evaporate in 2022, replaced in tandem with an uptick in slider and sinker usage. If these tweaks come to fruition, there’s no reason Sandoval won’t be able to mimic his success from 2021, if not improve upon it. Factor in the thought of a fully healthy campaign, and it becomes quite effortless to envision a pitcher who easily out-earns a price tag that currently hovers around pick 200. Just stay healthy, Patty Ice.

Current NFBC ADP: 198.05

Tanner Houck, SP, BOS. 

While there are many reasons to be bullish on Sandoval in 2022 and beyond, Houck is my official pick to be this season’s Trevor Rogers. And yes, that prediction does feel a little on the cheap side since the right-hander is already being drafted in the top-200 a year after Rogers was available outside of the top-400 for most of draft season, but there’s also reasons to believe Houck may ascend to a level beyond Rogers’ current station in 2022.

Houck misses bats. Period. He misses bats like crazy. Three of the right-hander’s four pitches sported a swinging strike rate north of 16.0% in 2021. Why is that significant? Here’s a list of qualifying starters who accomplished the feat:

Not only is this quite the company to find yourself in (even if Houck didn’t technically qualify), but it’s also company that is being drafted ahead of Houck this preseason. The right-hander limits hard contact. His 23.2% K-BB would have ranked eighth amongst starting pitchers last season had he qualified. His 48.2% GB was sandwiched between that of Corbin Burnes and Charlie Morton. His Savant dashboard from 2021 looks like the southeast on election night. It’s really, really difficult to poke holes in the output we received from the 25-year-old last season.

Except for the workload. A running theme in this article, if you will. Houck only pitched 90.0 innings between Boston and Triple-A last season, which partially diminishes anything the right-hander accomplished when compared to qualified starting pitchers. He exceeded 5.0 IP in a big league game one time in 2021. That’s not to say Houck’s numbers would have crumbled had his workload been expanded last season. He’s never thrown more than 119.0 IP in any professional, full season, and he hasn’t accomplished that feat since 2018. How does the stuff hold up throughout a 162-game regular season? How does the body hold up in that same time frame? Will he have the ability to make it through a starting lineup three times every once in a while? Those questions may be less important in 2022 if the season is shortened by a month or more, but they’re worth contemplating for any dynasty player looking to trade for or draft the righty.

Again, just like with Webb and Sandoval, maybe we’re worried about nothing. Maybe Houck strings together multiple, full seasons, the stuff holds up just fine, and any possible concern regarding the workload is completely buried. But one more time: we don’t know until we know. With the additions of Michael Wacha and Rich Hill this offseason, there are also some questions regarding Houck’s role for the Red Sox this season, but I simply can’t see Boston making a conscious decision to limit and relegate this type of arm talent to the bullpen while trotting out Wacha once every five days to start. If I’m right about the 25-year-old, we won’t have anything to worry about regarding the role this season.

The parts here are… mesmerizing. Houck is a certified bat-misser (and he can do it with multiple pitches), he plays for a good team with an outstanding analytics department and he has youth on his side. Sure, we’re already drafting him inside the top-200, so the revolution won’t be quite as shocking as it was for Corbin Burnes in 2020 or Trevor Rogers in 2021. But it’ll still be televised. And for my money, we’ll be drafting the right-hander inside or around the top-100 in all fantasy formats a year from now.

Current NFBC ADP: 199.76

Kole Calhoun, OF, TEX. 

Let’s call this the “Ah, man. I had forgotten all about that guy!” portion of the article. You won’t get any “wow, great pick” or ovations from your league mates when you select Calhoun this offseason, but he’s the exact type of player who helps you bring home the hardware while making your wallet and bankroll a little fatter moving forward.

You may have missed this news, but in late November, the Rangers signed Calhoun to a one-year, $5.2 million contract with a club option for 2023. The 34-year-old is penciled in as Texas’ Opening Day right fielder, with Nick Solak and Willie Calhoun currently slated to be the left fielder and designated hitter, respectively. While it’s true he missed most of the 2021 season due to multiple left hamstring injuries, there’s a surprising amount of cushion here for the 34-year-old, especially when you consider he’s only a season removed from posting a 125 wRC+ and being worth 1.8 fWAR in the COVID-shortened, 60-game 2020 season.

The Rangers have already made two big free agent splashes in Marcus Semien and Corey Seager this offseason, signaling to their AL West counterparts that they’re serious about competing in the division and league. It feels unlikely the team pursues a player to replace Calhoun after signing him in free agency this fall, and I’m drafting the outfielder as though he’ll be tasked with mop-up duty hitting behind Semien, Seager, Adolis Garcia and Nathaniel Lowe in an underrated lineup. This smells like opportunity. Assuming good health, even if Calhoun is merely average offensively in 2022, his compiling ability alone should mean he out-earns his current price tag. Buy, buy, buy.

Current NFBC ADP: 450.38

Tyler Beede, SP, SF. 

It wasn’t that long ago that Beede was one of the more underratedly-hyped pitchers in all of fantasy baseball. Heck, in the 2019-2020 offseason, it felt like you couldn’t scroll through your timeline for an entire day without seeing a tweet like this one:

The hype culminated with this hype piece from Mikey Ajeto. 2020 was going to be the year everything came together for Beede, and he’d undoubtedly become a top-of-the-rotation starter both in real life and in fantasy. Right? Wrong. Fate had far more sinister things in mind, and Beede underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2020.

The right-hander returned to the mound, albeit in Triple-A, 14 months after the procedure in May of last season. He threw a single inning for the Giants in July before returning to the minor leagues, then a lower back injury ended his season in early August. Sigh. What’s perhaps worse, the numbers from Triple-A in 2021 don’t exactly scream “DRAFT ME!”: 48.2 IP, 50 H, 45 BB (!), 50 K, 6.66 ERA. Woof, woof, woof.

So… why in the world is Beede worthy of being featured in this article? Why are myself and others sticking our necks out to draft a pitcher with seemingly more question marks than exclamation points in his profile? First, the price tag means there’s inherently minimal risk here. Even in Draft Champions and Best Ball leagues (aka 40-50 round leagues), you’re drafting Beede with one of your final picks. At worst, you can afford a “expect very little and hope to be surprised” mindset when you’re selecting the right-hander near pick 500 of draft-and-holds. The best part: you might be massively surprised if everything clicks. After all, the repertoire and bat-missing ability made him an extremely attractive breakout candidate prior to his UCL injury. And that attention and intrigue was mainstream in the fantasy world, not simply a blindfolded dart throw at a player being drafted where the right-hander is being drafted now. If things go south and Beede underperforms or spends most of the season in Triple-A, he’ll either join the ‘unusable’ ranks of most other players selected around pick-500 in drafts (in draft-and-holds) or he’ll be an easy drop (in FAAB leagues).

Next, there’s opportunity here. The Giants could always be active in the free agent or trade market once the lockdown ends, but Roster Resource currently slots Beede as the fifth starter in San Francisco’s Opening Day rotation. As is true with any fifth starter, the 28-year-old will have to earn his spot in the Giants’ starting five during Spring Training and early in the season, but it’s certainly a better outlook than being buried behind multiple arms within the organization. One could even say it’s a better opportunity than Beede deserves, now being two seasons removed from meaningful impact at the big league level and coming off a less-than-stellar performance in Triple-A in 2021. If San Francisco chooses not to sign or trade for another starting pitcher and Beede does emerge as the fifth starter on Opening Day, consider it a notable stamp of approval—if not cause for celebration as a fantasy player—from one of the most analytically-savvy organizations in the sport.

The right-hander doesn’t have to (and won’t) tempt 200 IP in 2022. The walk rate can (and probably will) be higher than we’d like. He can still be very useful on your fantasy teams considering the talent relative to where you’re drafting him. Even if Beede falls flat on his face, those of us who were heavily invested in 2019 want closure, regardless of what it looks like. Around pick 500, he’s well worth the minimal risk.

Current NFBC ADP: 492.10

Harold Ramirez, OF, CHC. 

Clint Frazier has been penciled in as the main beneficiary of the universal DH for the Cubs in 2022, but my money’s on Harold Ramirez—who I believe is a better all-around offensive player than Frazier—emerging in that spot before everything’s said and done. As a matter of fact, I spend an inordinate amount of time daydreaming about the “THE GUARDIANS TRADED HAROLD RAMIREZ FOR CASH” joke tweets that will surely fill our timelines if my prediction turns out to be true. Look: Hittin’ Harold isn’t going to take his walks. He’s going to swing at pitches he shouldn’t. He’s likely going to remain a poor defender. He’s HITTIN’ HAROLD, for crying out loud. But he’s also going to put the ball in play, he’s not going to strike out, and he’s even going to be a bit of a threat on the base paths for a Cubs team that will certainly welcome any and all offensive production it can get from its 40-man roster in 2022.

Ramirez might not possess the tweet-worthy bat speed of Frazier, but he’s produced everywhere he’s been when given opportunities. Now, he finds himself away from an American League team that also rosters Franmil Reyes and with a National League team void of much star-power and sure-fire offensive production. In the land of the universal DH. On paper, this is by far the best opportunity of his big league career. You can do far, far, worse than Ramirez at the tail-end of your outfield depth in Draft Champion and Best Ball leagues.

Current NFBC ADP: 525.43

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Featured image courtesy of photographer Billie Weiss and Getty Images

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