John Laghezza’s overpriced hitters: Elly De La Cruz, Cody Bellinger and more

In this age of gaming, the ability of players to process ubiquitous information at lightning speed continues to create an increasingly efficient fantasy draft market. The inception of readily available advanced, and expected, stats gives even novice players a new perspective never previously afforded to them in the past. Therefore, as macro ADP sharpens, I believe fewer players “bust,”so winning becomes all about avoiding pitfalls associated with high opportunity costs. Staying inside the Top 75 overall, there’s at least one hitter at each position I project to disappoint at the current price. Here we go …

A few gray clouds gathered to work against Smith all at once, eliminating any chance of an appearance on my 2024 rosters. For starters, the catcher pool is at its deepest level in years and it’s not just me saying it — Derek Carty’s THE BAT X projects 18 catchers to hit +15 home runs in 2024. Then, of course, Dodger Blue comes at a premium. Normally I wouldn’t mind paying up for a player of Smith’s ilk considering the contextual surroundings and robust career 600 PA pace — .261 BA, 84 R, 95 RBI, 28 HR, 2 SB. The thing is, Los Angeles just spent the GDP of a small nation on Shohei Ohtani, who happens to be relegated to strict DH duties for 2024. That impenetrable logjam could very well mean Smith won’t see those extra 58 trips to the plate this year, representing more than 10% of his playing time in 2023. Simply put, the face price, opportunity cost, replacement value, and chance of losing playing time are all way too high.

Goldschmidt just posted perhaps his worst season ever, as Father Time nodded along to degradation in both the 36-year-old’s approach and production. The 13-year veteran slid backward in terms of zone contact and swing-and-miss-ability, resulting in a precipitous drop in power output and, subsequently, counting stats. Not to say a player cannot produce 5×5 profits at his age, it’s just that the evidence of slowing down continues to pile up.

Goldschmidt struggled mightily against fastballs again, regressing for the third straight year to career worsts in both SLG and Whiff rates. It’s not a great sign when we’re down to hanging our hat on enough steals from an aging veteran to justify a cost inside the Top 60. I’m getting a bad feeling about staying on this Midwest-bound train ride one stop too long when comparable first basemen go significantly later on in the draft.

Listing this particular fade pains me since I owe Nico Hoerner a debt of gratitude for sending me to this year’s NFBC main event. Well, as the old saying goes, what have you done for me lately? Once we factor in a ~150 pick jump in ADP, my taste sours and there’s a 0.0% chance I’d draft Hoerner in any league I planned on winning.

Despite a healthy 5×5 line in last year’s breakout effort (688 PA, .283 BA, 98 R, 68 RBI, 9 HR, 43 SB), he still only totaled nine barrels (100% HR/BRL) — and now you’re paying full freight for a repeat that I doubt will even occur. A hitter drafted inside the Top 50 should not be as categorically imbalanced as Hoerner — end of story. Using premium picks on players who can’t hit homers is the quickest route to the bottom of the standings. For reference, Hoerner’s underlying power metrics border on non-existent (23.4% Hard Hit, 1.7% Barrel, .298 xwOBAcon) and there’s no realistic way to reach the projected double-digit home run totals necessary to profit when you factor in the well below-average 31.6% pull rate. Hard pass.

Of all the players I’ve avoided like the plague this season, De La Cruz is the only one I’m actually hoping to be wrong about. Let me be as clear as possible, this young man’s talent borders on superhuman and my lack of rostership is in no way a condemnation of his potential. At only 22 years old, Elly already has the highest sprint speed in the league, the hardest recorded infield throw, and the third-hardest hit ball in Statcast history (behind only Giancarlo Stanton and Ronald Acuña). Wow, literally outstanding stuff.

The thing is, we’re not drafting for a physical combine, but rather 5×5 fantasy value. There remain glaring flaws in his disciplinary approach (33.7% K, 35.5% Chase, 61.0% Zone-Swing) and way too many grounders, which could lead to more sustained slumps, like we saw in the second half  — 292 PA, .191 BA, 36.0% K, 51.0% GB rate, 62 wRC+). Despite the alluring power-speed appeal, using a Top 20 pick on a player with fewer than 100 games on the ledger tilts the risk-reward ratio out of favor, pigeon-holing you into needing a ceiling outcome just to break even.

For a boring old conservative fantasy manager like myself, Bellinger will always be oil to my water. After seven seasons, the only reliably consistent part of his game is the inconsistency. I get the allure. Bellinger has all the talent in the world, an MVP season on the ledger and he’s coming off a Top 15 fantasy hitter season in 2023. That said, I cannot buy into the power projections, unanimously calling for +22 homers. Bellinger posted his best HR total (26) in four seasons despite the lowest hard hit (29.3%), pull (43.6%), and barrel (6.1%) rates in that span. He also managed 26 bombs on 26 barrels for an unsustainable 100.0% BRL/HR — MLB average is roughly ~54%.

While Bellinger’s shift toward late-count contact boosted his batting average, I think it may also serve to stunt any incoming power ceiling. There’s still enough talent behind his pull-heavy approach to avoid totally busting, but I don’t want those types of risks inside the Top 40 overall, where a return to his three-year 600 PA average — .203 BA, 74 R, 70 RBI, 21 HR, 12 SB — would be disastrous at the cost.

Thanks for stopping by, and feel free to comment below with anything on your mind. Please follow me on X @JohnLaghezza, where you can find a pinned link to all my third-party work, including +100 write-ups, a Top 655 with over 30 tiers, and uploadable ranks for Underdog. Good luck!

(Top photo of Elly De La Cruz: Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY Sports)

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