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Jordan Walker: Champ or Chump for Fantasy Baseball?

Jordan Walker - Fantasy Baseball Rankings, MLB Prospects, Rookie Sleepers

To say that the 2023 season has been a roller coaster for Jordan Walker and his fantasy managers would be an understatement. Largely drafted for his upside after an eventual call-up, the Cardinals included Walker on their Opening Day roster. The fantasy community rejoiced! The good times continued when Walker began his MLB career with a historic 12-game hit streak.

Unfortunately, the Cards failed to meet expectations and started making questionable decisions, including sending Walker back to Triple-A. Fantasy managers were disappointed that their hot prospect would no longer accumulate MLB stats, and some even dropped him if his 67% roster rate on Yahoo! is any indication. The Cardinals have summoned Walker back to the big leagues, but should fantasy managers care?

Walker is a tender 21 years old and is currently MLB Pipeline's top-rated prospect, but his season line of .259/.308/.365 with two homers in 91 PAs isn't that great for fantasy purposes. What should we expect moving forward?

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Scouts Go Gaga for Jordan Walker

As expected from the game's top-rated prospect, scouts love Walker. MLB Pipeline gives him a 55-hit tool, 65-power tool, and 50-grade running. His scouting report notes that Walker has led every MiLB stop in exit velocity and consistently barrels the baseball. The FanGraphs scouting report largely concurs, with 40/45 hit, 55/80 game power, 70/80 raw power, and 50/40 speed. They rank him 11th overall and top in the Cardinals system.

It's easy for fantasy managers to read that and assume that Walker is ready to contribute immediately, but that's not really what prospect lists do. Instead, prospect evaluators are focused on identifying players with breakout potential to become MLB stars. Raw, toolsy players tend to rate highly based on potential when everyone expects them to struggle at first.

In this vein, the MLB Pipeline scouting report on Walker raises some red flags for his immediate fantasy viability. His swing is described as "simple but long," indicating a level of swing-and-miss that big-league pitchers will be able to exploit. Likewise, his "swing-heavy approach leads to chase concerns." If Walker struggles to identify strikes and make contact, strikeouts are likely to keep his average in check.

Strikeouts are acceptable if accompanied by huge power, and Walker is widely expected to be a 30-HR guy at the MLB level. However, his scouting report notes that Walker's professional best in HR in just 19, largely due to hitting too many grounders. Fantasy managers don't want to take on substantial batting average risk for a 20 HR full-season pace.

Finally, scouts don't love Walker's wheels. Both scouting reports give him league-average legs despite an elite Statcast sprint speed of 28.7 ft./sec because of his large size. Fantasy managers likely wanted SBs after looking at his minor league numbers, but that's no guarantee to translate.

 

The Meh MiLB Performance of Jordan Walker

Walker was drafted in the first round of the 2020 draft, so he hasn't had much exposure to the professional game. That said, his performance to date falls short of his glowing scouting reports.

Walker burst onto the fantasy radar in 2022 when he slashed .306/.388/.510 with 19 HR and 22 SB in 536 PAs for Double-A (Springfield). His 10.8 BB% and 21.6 K% looked good on the surface, but his 16.4 SwStr% suggested that he should have substantially more strikeouts. His average was also propped up by a .365 BABIP which would likely prove unsustainable at the MLB level.

Walker flashed plus pop with a 17.8% HR/FB, but his 31.4 FB% was low enough to prevent him from taking full advantage of it. Considering how hitter-friendly the minors have become, we may want to take his HR/FB with a grain of salt as well.

Walker was sent to Triple-A (Memphis) after his MLB demotion and his line does little to inspire confidence: .239/.348/.398 with four homers and steals in 135 PAs. His BABIP regressed to .291, his 30.1 FB% was too low to take full advantage of his 16% HR/FB, and his K% increased to 23.7. His 11.4 SwStr% and 11.9 BB% represent positive steps but aren't enough on their own.

Since Walker has some big-league experience, we have some more advanced metrics for him. His 113.9 mph max exit velocity ranks 34th among all hitters this season, flashing the elite raw power scouts tell us is there. His average airborne exit velocity of 95.6 mph is solid, but his 6.3% rate of Brls/BBE is below average.

Walker's plate discipline is problematic at the MLB level too. He's chasing 38.6% of the pitches he's seeing outside of the strike zone and whiffing at 14.8% of the pitches he's swinging at, which suggests his K% will increase from his current rate of 23.1.

 

Will Jordan Walker Play?

MLB teams rarely call up a top prospect only to send him back down at the first sign of adversity, but that's exactly what the Cardinals did with Walker. The club cited his defense in the outfield as one reason why, and it had a point. Walker is a third baseman by trade who is trying to learn the OF to avoid being blocked by Nolan Arenado and remains a work in progress in terms of reads and routes.

The team also said their outfield was too crowded, a questionable take considering proven scrub Oscar Mercado's presence on the roster. Walker hit 8th in each game since his recall, suggesting that the team has no plans to make him a featured part of the lineup. That hurts his fantasy upside even if he starts hitting. Walker will be a fixture in the lineup while Tyler O'Neill and Lars Nootbaar are on the IL, but he could be sent back down if and when the team becomes whole.

 

The Final Verdict on Jordan Walker

Walker's prospect pedigree is elite, but his short-term prospects aren't great for fantasy. Here's what the major projection systems think:

ZiPS     .240/.300/.379 with 7 HR, 6 SB in 288 PAs

Steamer     .251/.314/.393 with 8 HR, 5 SB in 301 PAs

THE BAT     .251/.306/.380 with 7 HR, 6 SB in 340 PAs

ATC     .251/.311/.395 with 8 HR, 8 SB in 381 PAs

These numbers are impressive for a 20-year-old but unlikely to help fantasy managers, and the Cardinals may not give him the PAs specified if they can help it. Walker remains a great option in keeper and dynasty formats, but managers in redraft leagues should sell based on name recognition while they still can. He looks like a Chump for this year.



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