2022 Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep: The impact of the lockout on the delayed season, top prospects, and more

There are still a lot of questions left to be answered amid the MLB lockout – not least of which when the season will actually start – but each round of negotiating sessions between MLB and the MLBPA reveals new details on what the sides are looking for in a potential agreement. Over the weekend, for example, we learned that the union agreed to a trio of potential rule changes for the 2023 season in their offer: a pitch clock, larger bases, and a restriction on the ability of defenses to shift pre-pitch.

Those proposals are contingent on other parts of the negotiations, of course, and it does not sound like an agreed-upon deal is imminent at this point – MLB spokesperson Glen Caplin told reporters that the league considered the players’ proposal Sunday a step backward , which does not seem like a great sign. We’ve already lost one week of the regular season due to the deadlock, and it seems inevitable that we’ll see another batch of games canceled in the coming days. So, that isn’t great.

There’s still a lot to figure out, even while Fantasy Baseball drafts are still ongoing. Whether you’re going through with your drafts as scheduled or postponing until we know when the season will start, you’ll want to know what’s going on in the CBA negotiations, so what I’m aiming for with this piece is to keep you up to date on the latest you need to know about the lockout and the CBA negotiations and how they may impact the 2022 Fantasy season – and beyond.

Here’s what you need to know:

The season is delayed until at least April 7

And those games seemingly will not be made up. That’s the first week of games, but more will likely be announced in the coming days – the league appears to need about 30 days between an agreement being reached and the start of the season in order to get even a truncated Spring Training in.

The obvious impact of that is that players who are currently injured and were in doubt for Opening Day have a better chance of being ready for the start of game action. The most notable name among that group of players is Ronald Acuña, who has seen his ADP jump into the first round in NFBC drafts over the past few weeks. We still do not have an exact timetable for his expected return – the last we heard was that Acuña was aiming for a May return.

That’s one of the downsides of not having Spring Training going on right now. We would be getting updates on guys like Acuña and would have a better understanding of their current status. That also goes for the likes of Jacob deGrom, Clayton Kershaw, Max Muncy, Lance McCullers, Mike Clevinger, Carlos Rodon and others. Those situations aren’t all identical, of course: In deGrom’s (elbow) case, whether he’s currently healthy wouldn’t really tell us much about his ability to make it through a full season; with someone like Muncy (elbow) or Rodon (shoulder), we just legitimately do not know if and when they’ll be able to play at all at this point.

The Fantasy Baseball Today team dove deeper into what the lockout means and more including ADP risers and fallers and what we’ve learned from early mock drafts:

You can not just move all injured or injury-risk players up your draft boards every time the season gets delayed, in other words. However, it does mean that someone like Acuña or Clevinger may be able to give you closer to a full season’s worth of stats than they otherwise might.

The delayed season also potentially helps out younger pitchers who might be looking at innings limits. At this point, that does not matter so much, but if we did end up losing all of April, it could make a big difference. Someone like Freddy Peralta, Trevor Rogers, Shane McClanahan, or Shane Baz (to name just a few top-50 SPs) might be able to make it through all five months without having their innings limited, which could be a big deal if all are as good as we think. I do not mind bumping them up a bit for every bit of the schedule that gets canceled.

But I might be most interested in what it means for Michael Kopech. Kopech was included in my Sleepers 2.0 column because I think he showed ace upside while working mostly in relief in 2021, but his price remains depressed due to questions about his role. Will he work out of the bullpen again? Will he move in and out of the rotation? Kopech threw just 69.1 innings in 2021, and the White Sox have their eyes on a deep playoff run, so it’s unlikely he’d be able to get through six months as a starter. But five might be doable. He’s one of my favorite mid-round targets right now.

Top prospect changes

One of the biggest hurdles in the negotiations has been the MLBPA’s attempts to increase compensation for younger players, but one thing we have not heard too much about is attempts to limit service time manipulation. Under current rules, teams are incentivized to keep their top prospects down in the minors for at least a week if not multiple months to start a season, but all indications are there will be mechanisms in the new CBA to try to limit such shenanigans.

It’s not entirely clear what those mechanisms will be, or whether there will be more stick or carrot to them – one proposal we’ve heard was additional draft pick compensation for top prospects who finish highly in Rookie of the Year voting. However, as we talked about on Friday’s episode of Fantasy Baseball Today, it seems safe to assume there will be some kind of incentive for teams to call their top prospects up earlier, and that would certainly matter for Fantasy.

That matters most for the top prospects who have already proven themselves in the high minors, with Bobby Witt Jr. being the poster boy for that entering the season. There were rumblings that he might skip the high minors altogether last spring, and after hitting .290 with 33 homers and 29 steals between Double-A and Triple-A last season, it seems like service time considerations are the only reason he might not break camp with the Royals. He’s already going off the board inside of the top-100 in ADP right now, so there probably isn’t much room for his price to increase, but his power / speed potential makes him an incredibly enticing option to target.

Julio Rodriguez is right there with him in terms of potential and proximity, though he did not spend quite as much time in Triple-A as Witt in 2021. Still, if the incentives are in place, Rodriguez might be in the Mariners Opening Day lineup, and his price – 276.2 ADP – makes him an even more worthwhile gamble than Witt.

You can check out Scott White’s Top 100 Prospects column from earlier in the offseason for more of the top guys who may get the call, but keep Adley Rutschman (C, Orioles), Spencer Torkelson (1B, Tigers), Riley Green (OF, Tigers), and Shane Baz (SP, Rays) on your draft boards as well. Of course, even if those incentives are in place and teams act on them, it’s worth asking whether paying a top prospect premium is worth it. It’s easy to point to someone like Fernando Tatis, who made the leap to the majors after just 14 games at Double-A and hit .317 / .379 / .590 in 84 games as a 20-year-old rookie, as the argument for paying the premium for top prospects.

However, the track record for even top-10 prospects in their rookie seasons is not as impressive as you might think. From 2012 through 2021, only 31 prospects managed at least 200 plate appearances the year they were ranked in the top 10 by Baseball America, and only 16 managed to post a wRC + better than 105. That includes guys like Dylan Carlson (.266 /. 343 / .437 in 2021), Eloy Jimenez (.267 / .315 / .513 in 2019) and Joc Pederson (.210 / .346 / .417 in 2015) who had a wRC + better than 110 but also were pretty fringe- and Fantasy options. For every Trea Turner or Bo Bichette, there’s a Javier Baez, Byron Buxton, or Xander Bogaerts who needed time to figure it out.

That’s not to say you should not be buying these top prospects if their price is right. I did exactly that in my The Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational draft this week, taking Witt at 110th overall and Rodriguez at 311. However, let’s not forget the hype that accompanied Jarred Kelenic last season and how disappointing his rookie season was. Just because these guys are expected to be up earlier does not mean they’ll all be world-beaters. You’re chasing upside there, but rookies are inherently volatile aspects. Keep that in mind.

One other thing to keep in mind: Because minor-league players who are not on the major-league 40-man roster are not part of the union, spring training has begun as usual for those players. That means that, while Rodriguez and Baz are not at camp right now, Rutschman, Witt, Greene, Torkelson, and plenty of other top prospects are. The minor-league season is still scheduled to start on time, with Triple-A beginning April 5, so those players will be getting their reps in either way.

Other changes on the way?

Those are the two key things you need to know about the 2022 Fantasy season as of now, but there are plenty of other details that could impact the Fantasy landscape over the next few seasons, including:

  • A ban on defensive shifts by 2023 – We probably won’t know any specifics on this for a while, but I’d expect to see something like the rules adopted in Double-A last season on a trial basis: all infielders had to have both feet on the infield dirt when the pitch was released initially, and then all teams had to have two infielders on each side of second base when the pitch was delivered. This figures to benefit left-handed sluggers like Joey Gallo, Max Muncy, and Freddie Freeman most, though someone a slower right-handed hitter like Jose Abreu who hits a lot of grounders to the pull side could see a small impact, too.
  • A pitch clock by 2023 – The reported intervals would be between 14 and 19 seconds between each pitch, in line with what was tested at Low-A West in 2021. That saw a drop in average game length from 178.2 minutes to 158.4, per The Ringer. It also saw an increase in offense to go along with it, though whether that was the cause of the increase is impossible to say. It could theoretically lead to more injuries with less rest between pitches, but the data on that is less clear. This would likely impact some pitchers more than others, though predicting who would fall into which category seems nearly impossible.
  • Larger bases by 2023 – This one seems kind of silly and has been met with derision and jokes on social media, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s a small change. However, it would likely lead to fewer collisions at first base like the one that left Cody Bellinger with a fractured fibula last season and could potentially increase stolen bases – both of which would be welcome changes for Fantasy.
  • Changes to free agency – There’s a whole lot going on here, potentially, but the impacts on Fantasy will likely be indirect. The one we’re hoping for is an end to the loss of draft picks for signing players who were given qualifying offers in free agency, which has led to delayed signings in recent years – including several stretching well into the season. Free agency stretching well into spring training for high-profile players just isn’t ideal for anyone.
  • Changes to the draft – There have been proposals regarding a draft lottery to try to mitigate attempts by teams to improve their draft position through tanking, which would hopefully lead to teams like the Orioles making more of a good faith attempt to field actual MLB-quality lineups even when they aren’t trying to contend. That would hopefully lead to more Fantasy relevant players having everyday jobs, which would be a welcome change.

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