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Where to Draft Injured Hitters in Fantasy Baseball

ronald acuna fantasy baseball rankings MLB Injury news DFS lineup picks

After a stressful few months where seemingly everybody became an expert on the economics of baseball and traded spin rate analysis for PR spin analysis, we can get back to digging into the game itself. It's wonderful news without a doubt.

Except possibly for those injured players who were hoping for another few weeks of time. OK, fine, they're happy baseball is back too, but we did have a few weeks there where fantasy managers were approaching rankings and drafts as if we were likely to have a May 1 start. That changed some of the evaluation on injured players because, in addition to there being no games or spring training, the lockout meant that players were forbidden from communicating with their organizations. That meant no discussions with the pitching coach, no film review with the hitting coach, no medical follow-ups with the team doctors, and no rehab plans with the strength and conditioning coaches.

So now that we're back for an early April start, what do we do with the injured hitters? How confident can we feel that some of them are going to be ready for games the first week of April? Obviously, we'll continue to get news as spring training intensifies but many fantasy managers are riding the high of the new labor deal and doing drafts now, so we're going to do a little bit of that prep work together. In this article, I'm going to discuss players who ended last season injured and discuss how comfortable I believe we should be in drafting them. We'll look at the nature of their injury, their projected recovery timeline, and whether a start in early April should make you less inclined to draft them or not.

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How to Approach Injured Players

As a general note, I try to not take as much risk with my hitters when I'm drafting my teams. I know pitchers traditionally carry more injury risk, so I'm willing to lean into the risk more there. With hitters, I want to feel as confident as possible that I have a stable amount of at-bats which will give me a strong baseline for production.

If I lean into too much risk with my hitters then I am signing myself up for consistent hunting and streaming on the wire, which is not something I really want to do for more than one or two hitting spots on my roster. As a general rule, if I don't think the hitter has the upside to help me win my league, I likely won't take the injury risk unless I feel confident that risk is being overblown.

As we try to move away from just draft-and-hold biases, all ADP numbers are taken from NFBC Online drafts from February 12th to March 12th 

 

Ronald Acuna Jr., OF, Atlanta Braves

If you play fantasy baseball, which I assume you do because you're reading this, then you've definitely seen the videos of Acuña rehabbing. It started with some ladder drills on the grass, then some shuttle cones, and then full-blown sprints. Now we get videos of him hitting home runs off live pitching in Venezuela.

The point is that people are very excited about Acuña's recovery, as they should be. On July 10th of last year, Acuña tore his ACL while fielding a ball in right field and had to undergo reconstructive surgery. While he has been rehabbing, studies have shown that re-injury to the ACL is significantly reduced in players who wait to return until after nine months. Considering Acuña had surgery at the end of July, nine months would be the end of April and the start of May, which means starting in early April puts Acuña a little bit behind the curve in terms of being 100% healthy for Opening Day. A fact that was backed up by a recent tweet from Marly Rivera:

A factor working in Acuña's favor is the addition of the universal DH. That means the Braves can keep his bat in the lineup early in the season even if they don't feel comfortable with him playing the outfield. This will make it more likely that their star can play close to a full slate of games once he does return; however, I think it's become clear that we should probably expect him to miss the first three weeks of the season and be happy if we're wrong. As a result, I'll be moving him behind guys like Bryce Harper, Kyle Tucker, and Mookie Betts, who are tremendous talents who are more likely to play a full season. Acuña has more upside, but if he misses 15 games and then sits every once in a while early on, you could be looking at a 25+ game difference, which I think is enough justification to move him below this tier of talented outfielders.

NFBC ADP: 8.19
Eric's Rank: 15

 

DJ LeMahieu, 1B/2B/3B, New York Yankees

A lot of people are writing off LeMahieu after he hit .268/.349/.362 in 2021 with just 10 home runs and four stolen bases. But remember that this was his third season with the Yankees, and the first two were incredibly strong, so leaving Coors didn't just catch up to him all of the sudden. His production also didn't fall off of a cliff because of age at just 32-years-old. LeMahieu was playing through a sports hernia for a large portion of the second half of the season. As manager Aaron Boone said at the time, "There's been days where it's better, and he can manage it. There's certain times where he just can't press through."

As a result, LeMahieu's power all but dried up at the end of 2021, hitting just three total home runs once the calendar flipped to July. He maintained a league-average batting average, but it was well below his normal performance. He had been solid in June with a .292/.350/.442 triple-slash and a .792 OPS to go along with four home runs; however, he was never able to regain that. Since the sports hernia impacts a player's core, it can cause severe pain during any rotational movement, which is basically all of baseball. Therefore, it makes complete sense why LeMahieu had little power in his swing and couldn't make as much consistent contact as usual.

The good news is that sports hernia surgery usually requires three months of rehab, so LeMahieu should have been starting to feel 100% at the beginning of February. It's also a relatively commonplace rehab program, so he shouldn't have been impacted by not having team doctors with him, making LeMahieu a safer bet for a fully healthy season than some of the other names on this list. Even if we don't get 2019 LeMahieu with the .327 average and 26 home runs, I think you can expect an average around .300 with 17+ home runs and 150+ Runs+RBI in a good lineup.

NFBC ADP: 116
Eric's Rank: 117

 

Rhys Hoskins, 1B, Philadelphia Phillies

Hoskins is in a similar situation to LeMahieu. The Phillies' first baseman, underwent core muscle surgery in August and missed the final month-plus of the 2021 season. While Hoskins' injury is listed as a tear in the lower abdomen and LeMahieu's is listed as a hernia, it's important to know that a hernia is actually "a tear in the muscle or tissue that allows part of your insides to bulge out." As a result, both players are dealing with a similar surgery and recovery time, and Hoskins had a month more time to rehab than LeMahieu did, so both men should be fully 100% for the start of the season and the added time to recovery should just make you feel more confident in Hoskins' health.

Which is good because he was crushing the baseball last year, hitting 27 home runs in just 107 games while rocking a career-high 17% barrel rate. Even with a slight uptick in groundball rate, he just had a fly ball rate north of 50%, which is what we want to see with a player who has 83rd-percentile average exit velocity on balls in the air and hit 45% of his balls in the air over 100 mph. Jump back on the bandwagon, folks.

NFBC ADP: 126
Eric's Rank: 112

 

Ke'Bryan Hayes, 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates

Now, we get to a player whose rehab didn't require surgery, which can be a more confusing puzzle to solve. Hayes was first placed on the IL with wrist inflammation on April 4th of 2021. However, he battled through the injury and wasn't ruled out for the season until September 28th. In October it was reported that Hayes would not need surgery to remove the cyst that had developed in his wrist and could start swinging a bat in December if his rehab went well. The good news about Hayes' rehab was that the MLB lockout didn't start until December 2nd, which means Hayes was able to do begin his rehab in Houston while communicating with the Pirates. That should make us feel more confident that the team is satisfied with the plan for Hayes' recovery and the fact that he is back swinging a bat with 100% force seems to indicate his bill of good health.

My only word of caution is not to put too much of Hayes' lack of power output on the wrist injury. Hayes has never been a power producer, never hitting more than ten home runs in any minor league season. So even though he hit five home runs in just 24 major league games in 2020, that was never going to repeat itself. Even with a fully healthy wrist, Hayes is unlikely to become a 20-25 home run bat, so keep your expectations around 15 home runs and be happy if he winds up giving you more.

NFBC ADP: 140
Eric's Rank: 169

 

Alex Kirilloff, 1B/OF, Minnesota Twins

The Twins rookie had season-ending wrist surgery in July after trying to play through the pain for two months. The recovery was expected to take two to three months, so he would have been ready to go for normal Opening Day anyway, but I wanted to highlight him here because I'm all in on Kirilloff this season and think his 2021 numbers were impacted by his two months of playing through the injury. You can read some of my thoughts on him here and watch my video on him below:

NFBC ADP: 179
Eric's Rank: 168

 

Max Muncy, 1B/2B, Los Angeles Dodgers

Not we come to a player I'm a little bit less confident in. Max Muncy missed the 2021 postseason after suffering a ligament tear in his left elbow, and there was much discussion about his rehab over the course of the winter. While Muncy didn't have to undergo Tommy John surgery, he had to take months to rest and rehab his elbow. Much of that recovery was also done without any communication with the Dodgers. As Muncy himself said, "I’m getting more time to get healthy, but I’m not able to work with my guys on the [Dodgers’] staff. I can’t even talk to them, really. I’d probably be getting better treatment if I was getting worked on by them, but that’s just the unfortunate circumstances. It does give me a chance to get healthy, but I’m not getting the full extent of what I could be getting."

So even if Muncy is confident he will be ready for the start of the season, his own words give me lots of pause. For starters, he's admitting that the care he's getting isn't as good as what he'd get with the Dodgers. He's admitting that the team had no communication with him regarding his recovery. He's also admitting that he just started swinging a bat. Since the Dodgers are clearly competing with a World Series in mind, I believe their recovery plan for Muncy will be with the end goal in mind, gladly willing to sacrifice games early on if they can ensure he'll be healthy for the games in September and October.

Which brings me to the Dave Roberts quote. Everybody is hanging on Roberts saying that Muncy will be ready for Opening Day, but there is crucial additional information there:

Not knowing the capacity of the return is not something we should just ignore. Yes, the NL DH helps, but if all Muncy can do for the first few weeks is DH then there is also a risk he is not going to be in the lineup every day as the team works to give multiple guys days off here and there following the rushed start to the season.

On top of all of that, you have a player who dislocated his elbow and suffered ligament tears and didn't get any surgery to correct that. I understand that was the medical recommendation of doctors and I am not a doctor, but it also does make me nervous that he could either re-injure that elbow or could compensate for any discomfort by adjusting his swing path, which clearly didn't work out for his teammate Cody Bellinger when he was recovering from his shoulder injury. I've bumped up Muncy's projected plate appearances in my projections to 550, which feels fair, but he's a .250 hitter with no speed, so he's really only going to help me in three categories which is why he came out as the 64th ranked hitter in a 12-team format. So I'm not "off" of Muncy, but I likely won't push him up much farther than the ranking you see below.

NFBC ADP: 160
Eric's Rank: 117

 

Anthony Rendon, 3B, Los Angeles Angels

Let's end with a guy I've always been a fan of. I mean, is there anything baseball fans want more than to see an Angels team with a fully healthy Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout, and Anthony Rendon? Despite being labeled as "injury prone" Rendon actually played at least 136 games in every season between 2016-2019 and then played in 52 games during the COVID-shortened 2020 season, so last season was the first time he missed significant games since 2015.

The third baseman battled a hip injury for much of the season, constantly shuttling on and off the IL before getting surgery and ending his season after just 58 games played. However, Rendon was always thinking of 2022 when working on his rehab plans. He "made it clear that once he saw the Angels falling out of contention, he pushed for the Halos to have him get the surgery as early as he could so he could be back in time for the spring." For him, he was always planning to be back for the start of spring training, even before it was pushed back by weeks.

On March 5th Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times reported that Rendon was "full-go" after hip surgery, which should make us feel good about his likelihood of starting on Opening Day. If we're expecting that, we also need to adjust our projections for a fully healthy Rendon. For starters, that means throwing out a 2021 season where he was playing through injury the entire time. Most projections have Rendon as a .270 hitter, but that would be his lowest batting average since 2016. Why exactly do we think he's not at least a .280 hitter after hitting over that mark in four straight seasons before last year? The man has an incredibly smooth swing where the bat path remains in the zone for ages, which is why he's never had a strikeout rate above 20% in any major league season.

If I consider that Rendon is a .280 hitter with 24+ home runs in a really solid lineup, my projections spit him out as the 70th ranked hitter, and I feel comfortable taking him there given how few solid 3B options there seem to be.

NFBC ADP: 112
Eric's Rank: 106



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