Last night I awoke in a rush. I was sweating, panting almost – awakened by a nightmare more ghastly than you can imagine. One more horrific than the chronic nightmares I had as a child in which the tiny troll figurines stalked my bedroom through all hours of the night. One quick Google search and I’m reliving those dreams – and it’s all too real. Yet, even such horrors do not compare to the demons which disturbed my slumber last night.
Over the past several weeks, I have been struggling to cope with the delay of the Major League Baseball season – something I’m sure you can all relate to. While trying to keep a healthy perspective concerning the real issues and concerns of the present, I have been unable to keep my mind from wandering to the darkest corners of the baseball world. Before the Coronavirus even put the MLB season on hold, I dreamed of such harsh realities taking form. *queues Danny Glover voiceover* You can call it a vision. You can call it a coincidence. I don’t care what you call it, but last night, it got worse.
I found myself walking through an unfamiliar land in which Airpods were even more popular than they are now. Wandering through the streets, I was passed by an Amazon drone engaged in an air delivery. While gazing at its sheer beauty, I stumbled through the gates of Camden Yards and a game program subsequently blew though the wind and onto my startled face. As I pulled the flier away and began to read its text – I instantly gasped in disbelief. 2023 All-Star Game: The Long-Awaited Return of the Midsummer Classic it read, with an action shot of superstar catcher Adley Rutschman spread across the front page.
As I stood in disbelief, I overheard a conversation between two young fans, arguing who indeed was the top backstop in the game, Rutschman or San Francisco’s Joey Bart. But what about J.T. Realmuto, I thought? Or the mid-career development of Willson Contreras? I continued to eavesdrop with the hope that more details would soon become clear.
Here I was, living in my own nightmare in which baseball had been postponed all the way until the 2023 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other notable changes, Freddie Freeman had since moved on from baseball to become a librarian at the legendary Library of Congress, but there were rumors of him coming out of retirement. The same went for Carlos Correa, who was retired from baseball and making an “honest” living as an attorney for the blatantly guilty.
It was all too horrible. Awakened from the terror, I quickly snapped back to reality, realizing it was nothing other than a nightmare – while the real world finds itself in the midst of an actual tragedy. Although I expect to watch Major League Baseball in 2020 (I do, I really do) and am hoping for the best for all nations and people of the world at this time, I couldn’t help but wonder what the league might look like in a world similar to the one which I foresaw.
In this piece, I fast-forward to the 2023 All-Star Game and make some bold predictions about what the best at each position might look like. I will also provide some colorful inferences as it relates to the players and future prospects of fantasy baseball. This week features solely the position players that made the cut for the 2023 All-COVID Team, as well as some prospect shout-outs (kind of an honorable mention sort of thing) at each position.
Catcher: Adley Rutschman
Not the easiest place to start, as it was a tough call at catcher between Rutschman, Joey Bart and a large grouping of MLB backstops headlined by J.T. Realmuto, Willson Contreras and Will Smith. By the time 2023 rolls around, Realmuto will be 32 and pushing 33 years of age, which eliminates him from this conversation due to the sheer nature of the position. As for Contreras, his career plummeted when baseball returned after he spent the entire hiatus studying video of himself and only himself, even proclaiming to manager David Ross to be “Johnny Bench reincarnate.” When informed that Bench was still very much alive, Contreras simply shrugged and walked away. In other news, Will Smith lost all self-confidence in himself after fans grew tired of his cutesy Fresh Prince antics on day two of the quarantine. He never fully recovered.
All humor aside, Rutschman takes the cake at the catcher position for the 2023 All-COVID Team because I honestly do expect him to be the best catcher in the game three-plus years from now. In his Dynasty Catcher Rankings for 2021 Fantasy Baseball, The Itch ranked Rutschman sixth overall behind only Realmuto, Contreras, Mitch Garver, Yasmani Grandal and Gary Sanchez. The youngest within this quartet are Contreras and Sanchez, who will both be 30 years of age come the start of the 2023 campaign. Yes, there are names like Francisco Mejia (ranked No. 11, currently 24 years old) and Sean Murphy (ranked No. 8, currently 25 years old) who represent interesting competition pieces, but don’t possess the offensive ceiling that Rutschman does.
Yadier Molina is not human and, in fact, he spent the last three years of the Coronahiatus leaving Tony La Russa *67 voicemails from phone booths at all hours of the night. We all know that catchers show the wear-and-tear earlier in their careers than other positions, which is why it really came down to Rutschman vs. Bart in this one. At the time of the initial COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, Rutschman’s professional career entailed just a handful of months of Minor League play. As a result, he spent the Coronahiatus refining his craft and working tirelessly to silence the comparisons to Matt Wieters. No one knows what Wieters has been up to since the outbreak and quite frankly, no one cares.
Rutschman slashed .254/.351/.423 with four homers (13 XHB), 26 RBI, 19 runs and one steal in his first 154 professional plate appearances in 2019 which he split across rookie-level, Low-A and Class-A. One steal. Damn that’s sexy. What’s sexier is the 27-to-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio seen in his first taste of the minors, translating to a 17.4 K% and 12.9 BB%. Rutsch-ell Crowe, as I like to call him, came out of college with a 60-grade hit tool and 60-power, so the sky is the limit here offensively from a positional perspective.
He’s-too-Rutsch will come out of the hiatus firing on all cylinders and ready to be the best fantasy catcher in the game come 2023. Don’t expect Realmutoan-esque steals with the 40-grade legs and one steal in 155 pro plate appearances, but he’s at the position to stay (true catcher) and could suck a whole lot less than what we’ve become accustomed to at the position from a fantasy perspective.
I’m not predicting future free agent signings or trades in this piece, as that’s not something I personally have a strong enough grasp on to make projections in confidence. Bellinger may also see his positional eligibility fluctuate as he ages into his late twenties, but if anything, I expect that to favor first base eligibility. Aside from that, this was one of the easier ones for me, as it came down to Bellinger vs. Pete Alonso vs. Matt Olson vs. Andrew Vaughn vs. Spencer Torkelson… and so on. As much as I’d love to go on a rant about Vaughn for the sake of prospect talk, I can’t give him the starting nod at first base on the 2023 All-COVID Team.
Bellinger, who Prospector Itch ranked No. 1 in his 2021 Dynasty Rankings at just 24 years of age (what, seriously? yup.), is hard to argue against in this spot. If we transport ourselves to the setting of my nightmare, Bellinger, born on July 13, will be celebrating his 28th birthday around the time of the 2023 All-Star Game. Side note: Orioles were a logical pick to host the 2023 Classic as a means of segueing to Rutschman, so if that one comes true, I’ll be more surprised than Daniel Norris was when someone reached him via smoke signals to tell him baseball was returning (he spent the hiatus off the map in his VW).
To get back on track, Bellinger takes this one not only because I’m ranking on the heels of his 2019 MVP campaign (.305/.406/.629, 169 OPS+, 16.3 K%, 14.4 BB%, 15 steals), but because he’s also shown a mature ability to make adjustments in his career. Even if 2020 proves to be a step backward for Bellinger (given his 2019 production, it likely will be), I expect him to remain the No. 1 fantasy first baseman three years from now, though if you were to pick Alonso, Olson, Vaughn, or Torkelson, I’d be hard-pressed to argue with you. Again, if you’ve ever seen Freddie Freeman in glasses, you know why he left baseball to become a librarian. Bellinger, on the other hand, spent his time away from baseball playing MLB Road to the Show, in which he requested a trade from the Dodgers after being benched by Dave Roberts in the virtual World Series.
Gleyber Torres is the obvious pick at second base seeing as he’s just 23 years of age and will therefore be only 26 at the heart of the 2023 campaign. Nevertheless, Gavin Lux (ranked No. 5 in The Itch’s Second Base Rankings for 2021 Fantasy Baseball) could easily be just as impactful of a fantasy asset as Torres three years from now, evidenced by his 26 home runs in 113 (458 AB/523 PA) Minor League games in 2019. Second base is one of those positions that make projecting the 2023 All-COVID Team so interesting: we have an established star in Torres, an up-and-coming top tier prospect in Lux and a somewhat unknown commodity in Minor League prospect Vidal Brujan.
Vidal Brujan, Wild Card Prospect: Brujan (ranked No. 3 by The Itch) receives honorable mention at the second base position. He’ll start the 2020 season (we think) in AAA and has 70-grade legs to pair with a 60-grade hit tool. From a fantasy POV (don’t google that), Brujan stole 48 bases in 99 games last year and 55 bags in 122 contests the year prior. He likely won’t ever hit as many homers as Torres or Lux, but as a switch-hitter, he popped all 13 of his home runs from the left side of the plate over 121 games the past two seasons. With the speed and the hit tool Brujan possesses, he should be near the top of the fantasy rankings at second base in 2023 – but likely not at the top, as his power limits him in relation to the modern day landscape of the position.
So why dedicate a whole paragraph to Brujan when he didn’t make the cut for the 2023 All-COVID Team? A) Because he’s already fantasy relevant with a 2020 MLB ETA and will be even more so in 2023 and B) it’s my job to inform you about prospects and you likely already know all you need to about Torres. To wrap things up, if Torres remains healthy, he’ll be in the midst of his prime come the 2023 Midsummer Classic and a near lock to be the top fantasy asset at the position (he is more of a keystone guys than a true shortstop). Nevertheless, 2023 will represent Lux’s fourth full season in the Majors and he’ll be on the precipice of his prime at 25. If you followed baseball at all over the offseason, you know the Dodgers covet Lux and with his 25-15 HR-SB potential in the big leagues, he could certainly overtake Torres for this spot depending on how things play out over the next three years.
Earlier in this piece, I queued my frequently-used Danny Glover voiceover, taken directly from my favorite scene of Angels in the Outfield. Now, I am signaling to queue the skeptics in the comments section as I make one of my boldest predictions.
No Vladimir Guerrero Jr. No Matt Chapman. No Alex Bregman, Nolan Arenado, Yoan Moncada, etc. And yes, I have placed Nolan Gorman ahead of fellow prospects Alec Bohm, Ke’Bryan Hayes and Nolan Jones. This is not a typo. This is my prediction.
Let’s start with Devers. The pudgy-faced phenom will be 26 and entering his prime in 2023 and if you read this site, you know Grey is especially high on Devers – and rightfully so. Devers’ 2019 production (.311/.361/.555, 32 HR, 115 RBI, 129 R, 8 SB, 133 OPS+ 17.0 K%, 6.8 BB%) comes with strong underlying metrics and he’s a modern-day poster boy for exit velocity. His 92.1 MPH average exit velo in 2019 was among the top six percent in the MLB, while his .295 XBA was top seven percent. As Grey explained, he makes great contact on pitches both in and out of the zone and his approach should play for years down the line – during his prime seasons at the very least.
This being said, Devers isn’t where I’m going to catch flak, even if I did leave out Vlad Jr. and numerous proven veterans in favor of him. I don’t see Vlad Jr. panning out at third base, especially not three years down the line, and Bregman (29 in 2023) and Arenado (31) will still be above-average middle-of-the-order bats come 2023, but I’m betting on Devers to out-produce them all in the fantasy realm. Still, at the end of the day, the bold prediction here is Nolan Gorman.
Nolan Gorman, Wild Card Prospect: Gorman reached the Class-A Advanced Florida State League in 2019, doing so at just 19 years of age. He’s popped 32 home runs in his first 188 professional games, including 15 in 125 games last year. Room for improvement? Plenty. Sure, his swing has some holes and is pull-heavy, but he’s a young, left-handed power hitter who won’t turn 20 until May of this year. I’ve loved this bat since he was drafted 19th overall by the Cardinals in 2018. He came out of college with 60-power and a 50-hit tool and although the latter has not yet reached its potential, I have Gorman breaking into the Majors in early 2022 and becoming a force by 2023.
Call me crazy, but I’m prepared to face the music. Just let me down easy and quietly sing Edelweiss into my ear before you do so.
How do we unpack this one? Francisco Lindor is incredible, but Fernando Tatis Jr., Bo Bichette and Wander Franco are all freaks as well. I could make a case for any of those guys and maybe even several other established MLB names beyond that. But I love what we saw from Tatis across 372 plate appearances as a rookie: .317/.379/.590, 22 home runs, 41 extra-base hits, 53 RBI, 61 runs, 16 steals.
Included into his hitter profile from 2019 is a 13.2% barrel % and a .398 wOBA that ranked within the top nine and four percent of Major Leaguers last year, respectively. On the other hand, Tatis’s 29.6 K% ranked in the bottom seven percent of the MLB. We have to remember he was a 20-year-old rookie in 2019 and even so, he could be both a real world and fantasy star even if he only manages to cut down on the strikeouts a smidgen. If he can stay healthy, Tatis will be just 24 and yet (hopefully) also already in his fifth season in the Majors come 2023 at the same time. With this combination, his ability to contribute to all offensive fantasy categories and the mere eye test of how electric a player this is, Tatis is as safe a bet as any to be tops at the shortstop position three years from now.
Wander Franco, Wild Card Prospect: You know the name. Franco is the No. 1 ranked prospect in the MLB, according to pretty much every resource including our very own The Itch. Franco comes equipped with an 80-hit tool, 55-legs and 60-power on the 20-80 scale. Although he hasn’t truly tapped into the power yet, there’s no reason to doubt that it won’t continue to develop even through the early stages of his Major League career. As a lifetime .336/.405/.523 hitter in two minor league seasons, Franco batted .327/.398/.487 last year at Single-A And A-Advanced with nine home runs (43 XBH) in 495 plate appearances. With that, he produced a minuscule 7.1 K% against an 11.3 BB%, walking 21 times more than he struck out. Franco has a mature approach and as the top prospect in the game, should be contributing as a Big Leaguer in 2021 and be a potential star by 2023. He’s a sleeper to be the best shortstop in the game come 2023.
Booooooorrrrinnggg!!! Just say it already. In any case, you know there’s a strong chance this comes true, which is why I had limited creative freedoms on my choices for the outfield. The purpose of this exercise is to use something incredibly unfortunate (Coronavirus pandemic) to make some unique predictions about baseball in the distant future. But when we apply this to the outfield, we get a 21-year-old phenom with 30-year-old plate discipline, a 22-year-old superstar with 40-40 potential and lastly, arguably the best player to ever play the game. If you don’t know which player is which, you likely have bigger problems with your fantasy teams and should stop reading this article.
Mike Trout will be one month away from turning 32 at the time of the 2023 All-Star Game but I have him starting on the 2023 All-COVID Team nonetheless. And rightfully so, seeing as he’s a generational talent or maybe a space-time-continuumal talent or something. Even the greatest of players succumb to Father Time (whom I recently learned is in fact NOT related to Sister Jean), but I’m not out here predicting that Trout will be a value dynasty or keeper pick come 2023 – I’m simply saying I think he’ll still be one of the top three fantasy outfielders. No stats needed for Trout. You know what he’s capable of.
Ronald Acuna Jr. and Juan Soto will each be in the midst of their sixth seasons in the MLB come the 2023 Midsummer Classic, although neither will have even reached 26 years of age. Acuna will be an elderly 25, Soto just 24. These two kids spent the Coronahiatus doing usual kid things: playing video games, racing remote control cars, testing out inappropriate web sites on the internet and leaving flaming bags of dog crap on Jose Urena’s doorstep. Despite using their time so meaninglessly (or efficiently, depending on how you look at it), both will reemerge and be top three players at their position come the 2023 season. Again, you don’t need a soap opera of statistics and underlying metrics to know Acuna Jr. and Soto are outstanding and that their production from a fantasy POV (remember what I told you) is very sustainable moving forward. Good thing, too. Last time I got up on my soap box, I fell, and it really hurt.
Luis Robert, Wild Card Prospect: This could have gone to Jo Adell, but Luis Robert has displayed more production at the AAA level and will be a month away from 26 come the crux of the 2023 campaign. Both of the aforementioned players are projected to debut in 2020, so the age factor makes little difference, but I will tell you (in case you don’t already know) that Adell won’t be able to have a legal drink for another week. Sure, that means he’s a tick or two younger, but I’m still taking Robert after the .297/.341/.634 (16 homers, 7 steals) showing he had over 223 plate appearances last year in AAA. All in all, Robert mashed to the tune of a .328/.376/.624 in 2019 with 32 home runs, 92 RBI, 108 runs and 36 steals across stops in High-A (just 84 PA), AA, and AAA. As a top six prospect according to Baseball America, MLB Pipeline and Baseball Prospectus, as well as being The Itch’s No. 2 prospect, Robert represents the wild card from a prospect perspective in the outfield. From my perspective, he hits upside down with three arms, but then again I’ve been drinking IPAs around the clock since the quarantine hit two-plus weeks ago.
One final note before signing off: I am not a Christian Yelich hater. In fact, I am quite the opposite, having paid a hefty price for him back in 2016 in a keeper league while he was still donning a Marlins uniform. Know who else is still donning a Marlins uniform? Don. But seriously, Yelich will remain highly relevant into 2023 with top 20 overall potential. He just didn’t fit into the 2023 All-COVID Team after spending so much time with Baker Mayfield during the hiatus.