January 23, 2024, 3:09 pm
By Joe Orrico
Trying to assemble a rankings list is a very difficult task. This could be for movies, songs, cars, food, or a million other things. I think, however, that the trickiest rankings to develop are fantasy baseball-related. There are innumerable factors to consider from a multitude of angles; what format is being played? Is it points, roto, H2H, or perhaps even a combination of the three? how many teams are in the league? are you able to pick up players during the year? are these acquisitions daily, weekly, or maybe even monthly?
All of these questions play a huge factor in developing rankings, and we haven’t even started on the actual players! Injury history, experience, consistency, team and park factors, and so many other things are part of this very difficult process. As someone who assembles rankings, I sometimes struggle with all of these things myself, which is why I asked some very knowledgeable friends from around the fantasy baseball world to help me answer two questions: Who is the toughest pitcher to rank, and who is the toughest position player to rank?
There were a number of different ways to go here. Of the seven panelists (including myself), we were able to come up with 14 different names despite no coordination on who we were going to write about.
I’ve rambled long enough. You’re here to read about the players, so without further ado, here are the 14 hardest players to rank in 2024!
Mike Kurland: mlbplayingtime.com, The Athletic, FantasyPros
One of the more difficult players to rank in early drafts is Wyatt Langford. The upside is through the roof but the lack of clarity in terms of projectable playing time makes it difficult to buy in fully. He was drafted in 2023 and has a combined 80 PA over 17 games between Double-A and Triple-A. There is a lot to like in the tools and being a part of the Texas lineup but can we really bank on the playing time being there? If he does break camp, how long is the leash before being sent down if he struggles? Jordan Walker type of year comes to mind as a potential outcome – which is good in real life but hard to justify at cost in fantasy.
When it comes to pitchers, Tarik Skubal has to be the most difficult to rank. Elite finish with flashy numbers. However, it is just one small sample and he had a fantastic schedule to take advantage of. You can argue he did what he was supposed to do against them. The success also came with tangible changes in the profile making it more believable as well. The concern is simply how much stock can we put into half of a season of numbers? There is a lot to like as well as a few questions. Take this and pair it with the early draft cost and you are either in or out. One of the few players there is no real inbetween on.
Paul Sporer, FanGraphs
Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Tyler Glasnow
These might be obvious answers, but I’m not going to make something up for the sake of originality… it has definitely been the two new Dodgers: Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Tyler Glasnow. Yamamoto should theoretically be easier to rank with a truly brilliant track record in Japan and coming over at age-25, but of course transitioning to MLB for one of the most popular teams with a huge contract is a lot of pressure. The fantasy market is also remarkably excited, with a Top 50 ADP in Fall/Winter drafts so you can’t be half-in on him. If you want Yamamoto, you need to pony up!
With Glasnow, it’s the promise of “what if?”. He is one of the best pitchers in baseball on a per-inning basis since joining the Rays, but with just 388 total IP in that time. Remember, he joined the Rays via trade in 2018. There are 8 pitchers with more innings than that in just 2022-23!! His move to LA doesn’t greatly improve his outlook as the Rays are also excellent at handling pitchers, but the excitement of him building on his career-high 120 IP (yep… 120… going into his age-30 season) has pushed him to a Top 40 ADP in Fall/Winter drafts. This is “pretty privilege” run amok! I can envision both Yamamoto and Glasnow being excellent this year, but there is no room for error at these price points, and the lack of track record (albeit in different ways) for both has made it difficult to feel comfortable with their upper-tier rankings.
Elly De La Cruz
Again, this won’t be a super unique answer, but I have agonized over ranking Elly De La Cruz. The market is remarkably bullish on him with a 22 Fall/Winter ADP which is a biiiit curious for someone who ended his scintillating-but-volatile debut with an 84 wRC+. He is the classic “better fantasy than real life player” because his 13 HR/35 SB in those 427 PA was incredible and it’s easy to see how he will retain fantasy value even if his triple slash lags, but are we really paying a Top 25 pick for a Javier Baez starter kit?
That sounds slanderous given where Baez is today and it’s a not 1:1 comparison because Baez never ran like we’ve already seen from Elly, though that’s at least partly due to the league context of SBs. The thing is we don’t have to warn people about EDLC’s volatility because we saw it! He posted a .191/.272/.355 line in his final 292 PA of the season and you have to wonder if another 2 months of that kind of production would result in a trip back to the minors, especially with all the talent they have on the roster. I know I’m not getting anywhere near ranking him as a Top 25 player like the market is, but I still struggle on exactly where to put him. I totally understand the upside, but at this price, he has to deliver and there are just too many outcomes where he falls well short of even a Top 50 player.
Sara Sanchez: Bleed Cubbie Blue, Baseball HQ
Two of the players that have moved the most for me during this draft season were swapped for each other in late December. Like many trades, this swap cleared up questions like roles and playing time but every time I look at them closer I have new questions. I’ve still noticed a lot of volatility in where I (and others) are willing to draft both Vaughn Grissom and Chris Sale.
Vaughn Grissom is finally going to play. The New President of Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox, Craig Breslow, has stated he sees Grissom as Boston’s everyday second baseman. He’s got an intriguing hit tool that has seen very limited time in the big leagues because the Atlanta Braves opted for Orlando Arcia’s defense in that spot rather than Vaughn Grissom’s bat. In Grissom’s first taste of the majors in 2022 he put up a .291/.353/.440 slashline in 156 at-bats with a wRC+ of 121. He hit five home runs and stole five bases, which hinted at the possibility of 20/20 upside during a full season. That full season never materialized and in 2023 Grissom only saw 80 plate appearances with zero home runs and zero stolen bases. He still hit for average, but his walk rate collapsed from 7.1% in 2022 down to 2.5% in 2023. His power also took a hit and the result was substantially more questionable .280/.313/.347 slashline with a wRC+ of 78.
You can buy the dip at a pretty reasonable price for a guy that Steamer projects for a solid bounceback season of .285/.354/.424 with a wRC+ of 110 with nine home runs and eight stolen bases across 479 plate appearances. Since he was traded in late December Grissom’s ADP has moved up to 240 on the NFBC with a low pick of 179 and a high of 296. The other middle infield options in this range are multi-position eligible Luis Regnifo who goes four spots before Grissom and slightly fewer position-eligible Whit Merrifield, who has not yet signed with a team for 2024.
When he is healthy there are very few pitchers I’d rather watch than Chris Sale, but health has been elusive for the man who is now penciled in as the third or fourth starting pitcher for the NL East juggernaut Braves. Sale last threw 200+ innings in 2017. He hasn’t thrown 150+ innings since 2018. He will turn 35 on Opening Day as the Braves kick off their season against the Nationals. But aside from a torn UCL in 2020 and the stress reaction in his shoulder last June, most of the injuries Sale has dealt with in recent years have less to do with pitching and more to do with bad luck. When Sale has been on the mound, his skills still look exceptional. He had a 29.4% strikeout rate in 2023 coupled with a 6.8% walk rate. His FIP of 3.80 makes his 4.30 ERA from the 2023 season look more than a little bit unlucky in his 102.2 innings pitched.
That luck should shift as he moves from Fenway Park, which is hitter-friendly for everything except home runs, where it is basically neutral, to Truist Park which is hitter-friendly for home runs, but neutral for everything else. Steamer currently projects him for 141 innings with a 3.74 ERA and a 3.74 FIP. It sees his K-Rate lowering a bit down to a still very solid 27.7% strikeout rate with an ever so slightly elevated 7.0% walk rate. Since the trade, he’s been drafted at an average ADP of 154 with a min-pick of 126 and a max-pick of 208. There are a slew of interesting starting pitchers in this range with Sale going just behind Merrill Kelly, four spots later than Michael King, and eight spots later than the still-to-be-signed Jordan Montgomery. The auction calculator sees this ADP as a steal, predicting a $15 season from a healthy Sale, which is similar to the prediction for Grayson Rodriguez who goes almost 100 picks earlier with an average ADP since January of 67.
Mike Carter: Fantrax, The Fantasy Baseball Beat Podcast
I picked up Matt McClain as a free agent in one league which was a move that helped me bring home a championship (not that anyone besides me really cares). McLain was an unexpected help in 2023: 16 home runs, 14 stolen bases, and 65 runs in 403 plate appearances, good for a .290 batting average. In many leagues, he also had dual eligibility at second base and shortstop. At 23, we could expect that his next step will be growth.
Not so fast, says I. I know, I am a thief of joy. The xBA was .256, 34 points lower than what he actually hit. The K%: 28.5, in the 16th percentile in MLB. His BABIP was an unbelievable .385. There was the issue of a serious oblique strain that ended his season, but he had struggled in the second half prior to that, mostly due to an increased whiff rate. McLain had 63 strikeouts in 189 at bats July and August, a whopping 33%. Egads!
My point in all my noise: you can’t just project he’s going to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases by extrapolating what he did last season. Regression is a monster, and he could easily struggle for the Cincinnati Reds in 2024. Right now, you are paying a fifth-round price on average in NFBC leagues. The other issue: there are many mouths to feed for the Reds, and at-bats could be split oddly. In the infield alone, manager David Bell needs to find playing time and at-bats for the following: McLain, Jeimer Candelario, Christian Encarnacion-Strand, Jonathan India, Noelvi Marte, and this one guy named Elly De La Cruz that you may have heard of. Keep that strikeout rate that high and hit .250, and McLain is back in AAA.
Full disclosure: I have always had difficulty projecting Blake Snell. He was 14-9 in 2023, with a 2.25 ERA and 1.19 WHIP, and an incredible 234 strikeouts in 180 innings. That was good for a 31.5 K% which was among the top 6% in all of baseball. Snell overcame a rough April in which he was 0-3 with a 5.93 ERA and staggering 1.93 WHIP. He was essentially unhittable in 2023 from May 1st through the end of the season.
Here’s where I struggle: the xERA, which I know is not a great measure, but last I checked, ERA is a category we have in our game, was 3.79, a full 1.5 runs higher than his actual 2.25. The 13.3 BB% terrifies me, as that is higher than even Jack Carter, who is 13 years old. In both seasons in his career where he threw 180 innings, Snell won the Cy Young and had well over 200 punchouts. His next highest inning total in his career? 129.1 innings, in his second year. That’s a 50-inning difference. He’s now 31 and has 1000 career innings in that arm. His strand rate in 2023 was an astounding 86.7%, one of the best rates of all-time for a season. While it’s possible he’s just better at that than many, it’s also possible that even some slight regression in allowing runners to score could sabotage your precious ratios.
My point in all my noise: if you are banking on him to be your ace, you might want to reconsider your options. I do not trust him to repeat his heroics from last season. A number of factors, including obvious skill and some luck, went into this great season. He’s going to need a stalwart defense behind him as he had in San Diego to even come close to replicating his success. If you’re banking on him to be the ace of your staff and he gives you 120 innings, you probably will not win your league. Caveat emptor.
Ben Tidd: SportsEthos
After being drafted around pick 300 in NFBC Main Events in 2023, Lane Thomas broke out with 101 runs, 28 home runs, 86 RBI, 20 stolen bases, and a .268 average in 156 games. A couple of the reasons Thomas ended up on several of my NFBC teams, and was a target of mine at his ADP, were 1) he was projected to hit at the top of the Nationals lineup, and 2) he had a roto-friendly power/speed profile, and at that price both attributes are very hard to find.
However, in 22 Draft Champions drafts on the NFBC from 12/14 – 1/14, Thomas has an ADP of 110 (OF22) which is significantly lower than the value he provided drafters in 2023. I currently have Thomas ranked as my 93rd overall player (OF20), so I appear to be slightly ahead of the market on him. However, like other NFBC drafters, certain things in Thomas’s profile have me uneasy about where I have him ranked. The first is his lefty/righty splits – for his career Thomas has an .883 OPS vs lefthanders, but a subpar .695 vs righthanders (in 2023 they were .950 and .722, respectively). Second, his breakout year occurred in his age 28 season, and fantasy players should always be wary of late-career breakouts. Additionally, 14 of Thomas’s 27 home runs were hit in May and June when he had an OPS of .931 and 1.017, respectively. In the other four months of 2023, his OPS was .644, .635, .753, and .682. On the positive side, he was one of five players in 2023 that met or exceeded these thresholds – 100 runs, 28 HR, 20 SB.
With a 9.6% barrel rate and a 94th percentile sprint speed in 2023, 20/20 with at least 80-90 runs should be attainable once more. Another point in Thomas’s favor is that players with less than stellar underlying numbers (e.g. Randy Arozarena, Adolis Garcia) have shown they are athletic enough to overcome their deficiencies and provide high-end roto value. I think Thomas can do the same, especially if he can accumulate 650-plus plate appearances once more. With all of that said, Thomas should be a productive outfielder again in 2024, but drafters need to decide if his ADP is paying for his breakout 2023 too much, or perhaps a discount based on how he performed last season.
In 2023 Logan Webb led the majors with 216 innings pitched, a total that some in the baseball world, fantasy included, believe may soon be as extinct as the dinosaurs. In addition to his impressive workload, Webb accumulated 11 wins, 194 strikeouts, a 3.25 ERA, and a 1.07 WHIP. At his post 100 NFBC Main Event price, Webb was one of 2023’s biggest starting pitcher bargains in a year where it seemed like starters were blowing up fantasy managers’ ratios on a nightly basis. In the same 22 NFBC Draft Champions drafts from 12/14 – 1/14, Webb’s ADP is 62 (SP16). I have him ranked as my 39th overall player (SP10), ahead of more popular names such as Tyler Glasnow, Aaron Nola, and Freddy Peralta, so once again I appear to be ahead of the market.
Among starters, I have ranked around Webb, his 2023 K% is second worst (22.8%) and his swinging strike percentage of 9.0% is by far the worst. Not to mention in 2023 his hard-hit percentage against was a very poor 46%. So why do I have him ranked so highly? The main reason is the volume he provides. In 2022 he threw 192.3 innings, and you want an early starter who has shown they can handle a large workload (looking at you Tyler Glasnow). And despite a subpar strikeout rate for his career, his career ERA and WHIP are 3.40 and 1.17, respectively. Perhaps Webb’s most important skill that I haven’t mentioned yet is his ability to induce groundballs. For his career, he has a 58.4% groundball rate, and in 2023 it was 62.1%! On top of that, he doesn’t walk batters (3.9% walk rate in ’23). If you’re a starter who doesn’t get strikeouts, you definitely want to be elite in limiting walks and putting the ball on the ground and Webb checks off both boxes. However, he profiles similarly to Sandy Alcantara, and look at what happened to Sandy in 2023.
However, Webb walks fewer batters and has a better groundball rate so I think he may be an even better version of Alcantara. Also, Alcantara ended 2023 needing Tommy John Surgery so who knows how much the injury affected his poor performance. In an environment where it seems like no starter is safe from a blow-up start, someone with more strikeout upside may be more desirable, but at the same time, Webb can beat you in other ways while still being one of the game’s best starters.
Eric Cross: FTN Fantasy, RotoBaller, The Toolshed Podcast
There aren’t many players in the top 100 ADP with a wider range of potential outcomes in 2024 than Jazz Chisholm. On one hand, Chisholm has a tantalizing power/speed blend that has resulted in 33 home runs and 34 steals combined in 624 plate appearances over the last two seasons. However, he’s yet to show that he can stay healthy for a full season and Chisholm’s zone contact, overall contact, and whiff rates have all trending in the wrong direction over the last two seasons.
I literally have no idea where to rank Rodon this season. This is an arm that was being drafted as a fantasy ace last season but a combination of missed time and poor performance made him one of the biggest fantasy busts of the 2023 season. Now the ADP is in the 175 range, which is highly intriguing, but can Rodon stay healthy? How much of last season’s poor performance, which included massive regressions in the strikeout department and quality of contact allowed, was due to him not being 100% healthy? All of these questions make him difficult to rank.
Joe Orrico: SportsEthos, Fantasy MLB Today Podcast
I find Michael Harris very challenging to place in my rankings. The skills are there for him to finish as a Top 25 player in fantasy, but I do have some concerns as well. He went from 19 HR in 114 games as a rookie to 18 HR in 138 games last year. His SB total stayed at 20 despite the extra games played, and he is generally going to be slotted in the bottom third of the Braves’ order. I worry about his counting stats potentially being a bit limited, even though he’s surrounded by an all-star cast.
Now, he’s still a very well-rounded player that doesn’t hurt you in any category, I just worry about placing him in my Top 12 OF, which is roughly where he goes by ADP (~34 in January drafts). The upside is absolutely there, but if Harris fails to increase his HR and SB totals in year three, we may have to recalibrate our expectations a little bit.
Anyone who even casually follows my work knows that I have a bit of a Zach Eflin obsession, but that doesn’t mean he’s easy to place in my SP rankings. 2023 was a magical year for him and those who drafted him, as he 5th SP and 22nd player overall in roto leagues. He was 3rd in xFIP (3.12), 3rd in xERA (3.11), 3rd in SIERA (3.30), and 4th in K-BB% (23.0). The only real concern here is his injury history, only surpassing 150 IP on two occasions (2019 and 2023). It is a legitimate concern, and on top of that Eflin just has an out-of-nowhere career year, and we all know that those aren’t the easiest to repeat.
The skills were unimpeachable last year and he stayed healthy, and yet, he’s still incredibly tricky to rank. Initially, He came in as my 7th SP, and I’ve since moved him down to 9th. It feels simultaneously too high and too low, and therein lies the conundrum that is Zach Eflin.