Latest: Fantasy Baseball Draft Tips: First-Round Breakdown

Pitchers and catchers have reported, and that means it’s time to start putting together an early first-round fantasy baseball draft plan.

A few things stood out to me when beginning my draft research this season:

  1. There is no need to draft a starting pitcher in the first round. I will likely wait many rounds to draft my “ace.” Much of that is related to what I’m listing next.
  2. The outburst of stolen bases last season has changed the landscape, and getting a stud hitter with power and speed is more important (and possible) than ever. Gone are the days when you had to roster a speedster like Billy Hamilton and sacrifice power to compete in the stolen base category. Stolen bases jumped from 2,486 in the 2022 season to 3,503 in 2023. Eighteen players had 25 or more stolen bases in 2023. Nine of those players also had 24-plus home runs.
  3. Outfield is one of the leaner positions this year; however, the first two rounds are loaded with elite outfielders who can also give you the power-speed floor that will likely be necessary to compete.
  4. With so many people opting for an outfielder in the early rounds, there could be some benefit to a zag while others zig. Also, don’t forget to make a contrarian plan.

With that said, here is my early first-round breakdown, subject to change as we get further into spring training. This breakdown is based on a five-category rotisserie league.

1. Ronald Acuna Jr., OF, Braves

Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Acuna is the undisputed king of fantasy baseball, no matter what format you play. Not only did he swat 41 homers in 2023, he led the league in steals with … wait for it … 73.

But that’s not all. He also led the league in runs scored (149) and OBP while batting .337.

He’s also a statcast darling. As just one example, his exit velocity has been in the top 3% of the league for four consecutive seasons.

Entering his age 27 season — often reported to be the peak year in a hitter’s career — and batting at the top of a stacked Atlanta Braves offense, Acuna is the number one pick, and it isn’t even close.

2. Julio Rodriguez, OF, Mariners

Rodriguez is an excellent choice in the number two spot. You’ll notice many first-rounders are outfielders, and as this season seems a little more thin at the position, I have Rodriguez a little higher than some. Entering just his third MLB season, you should count on a 30/30 season as your floor, with plenty of potential for more. Though his batting average will likely never be as high as Acuna’s, Rodriguez is an exceptional five-category contributor with room to grow. Last year, he was the only AL player to hit more than 30 home runs, log triple digits in both runs and RBIs and steal more than 30 bases.

3. Bobby Witt Jr., SS, Royals

Witt signed an 11-year extension in the offseason after his impressive sophomore season, in which he hit 30 home runs while swiping 47 bags with a .276 batting average. The knock against Witt would be the team he plays for, but even with the Royals finishing below .500 last season, Witt still managed to tally 97 runs and 96 RBIs. Witt deserves to be the first shortstop off the board with this power/speed combo.

4. Mookie Betts, 2B/OF, Dodgers

That’s right. Mookie will play second base in 2024. One thing I love in roto leagues is positional flexibility. Betts is a career .295 hitter coming off a 39 home run, .307 season in arguably the NL’s best lineup, and you can now slot him in inside or outside the diamond. It’s a long season, and having a first-round caliber chess piece you can move around the field could be extremely valuable.

Mookie’s positional flexibility and keen eye make up for the fact that he doesn’t run like he used to. Still, his 15 steals will at least keep you in the mix. Hitting atop the Dodgers’ lineup, we should expect triple digits in the run category. Betts logged 126 runs and 107 RBIs in 2023.

5.Freddie Freeman, 1B, Dodgers

Freeman just doesn’t slow down. He’s coming off a season of 29 home runs, 23 stolen bases, 131 runs, and 102 RBIs, all while batting a spectacular .331. Freeman has established himself as one of the most dependable MLB hitters. The last season he hit less than .295 or slugged less than .503 was 2015. Freeman led the league in doubles last season with 59. I love his dependability, and he’s protected in an optimal Dodgers lineup.

6. Corbin Carroll, OF, Diamondbacks

Carroll put on a 25-home run, 116-run, 54-stolen base rookie campaign that culminated with the NL Rookie of the Year award. The only knock on Carroll is whether he can sustain his OBP. The lefty won’t be a huge source of RBIs but he should make up for it in runs scored and stolen bases. The power is dependable, with the same max exit velocity (113.8) as Witt, though Witt has the edge in average exit velocity (90.7 compared to 90) and 95-plus mph hits (241 compared to 184). I have Witt ranked higher for those reasons, but both are easy first-round picks.

7. Kyle Tucker, OF, Astros

Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

King Tuck put together another solid season in Houston, hitting .284 with 29 homers, 30 stolen bases, and 116 RBIs. Though he fell off a little in the postseason and often gets off to a slow start in April, the stats at the end always look excellent. It will be worth it if you’re willing to hang on for the ride with this streaky player. Tucker doesn’t strike out (top 6% in the league by this metric), and his expected BA, wOBA, and SLG were all Top-7% of the league in 2023. Though he isn’t particularly fast, that doesn’t stop him from running.

8. Aaron Judge, OF, Yankees

Aaron Judge, all the way at eight, could end up being the steal of the season. Judge missed much of last year with a flukey injury to his toe. However, he still swatted 37 homers across just 106 games played. No one had a better barrel rate, average exit velocity, or hard-hit percentage than Judge in 2023. In other words, Aaron Judge is still Aaron Judge. He doesn’t have the stolen-base potential of hitters ahead of him on this list, but I would guess we will see him run a little more often this season, and you can count on at least double-digits. This is a power play, and you have to consider the possibility that he may sit out a few as he’s only played 150-plus games in a season twice, but the upside could still be as high as his 62-home run, AL-MVP season of 2022.

9. Fernando Tatis Jr., OF, Padres

Tatis had a down year by his standards, with just 25 home runs and 29 stolen bases across 141 games played, and I do have some real concerns about the San Diego slugger after he hit just .225 with nine homers and 15 steals after the All-Star break. However, he did manage to remain healthy for the first time in his career (he missed the first 20 games of the season due to his PED suspension), and he remains elite defensively, so we should expect him never to leave the field as long as he’s healthy. He’s only 25 and recorded the lowest strikeout rate of his career in 2023, so there’s plenty of possibility for a bounce-back in 2024.

10. Trea Turner, SS, Phillies

Turner struggled to start 2023 with his new team in Philadelphia, and that could have some fantasy managers shying away from drafting the shortstop in the first round. However, in the end, Turner tallied 26 home runs, 30 stolen bases, and 102 runs scored. He hit 16 of those long balls after the All-Star break while raising his batting average to a more typical .292. I’m willing to write off the bumpy ride and re-invest in this power-speed combo hitter.

11. Juan Soto, OF, Yankees

Soto will be in pinstripes, which could be a really good or bad thing. That’s why he is at the tail end of the first round for me. While some players thrive in the big city, others crumble (see Joey Gallo). No offense to Washington or San Diego, but the pressure will be on differently in the Bronx. Soto finished 2023 with 35 home runs, 109 RBIs and 12 stolen bases while hitting .285. He has yet to have a season with lower than a .400 OBP, and his hard-hit rate was in the top 1% of the league last season. Still, I feel this will be a boom-or-bust play. Soto could have adjusted better in his first season in San Diego, and I expect there will also be some unevenness in New York.

12. Jose Ramirez, 3B, Guardians

Ramirez nabs the last spot of Round 1 for me because of his incredible consistency. Ramirez turned in another double-digit home run (24) and stolen base (28) season while hitting .282. There’s no real reason to think he should fall off other than he is now 31. The lineup around him could limit his runs and RBIs, but since you’re taking him at the end of Round 1, you still have time to grab another elite player with the 13th pick to shore up those categories. Bryce Harper, Yordan Alvarez and Shohei Ohtani could all be available next with significant contributions to those categories.

Other first-round worthy picks: Bryce Harper, OF, Phillies; Yordan Alvarez, OF, Astros; Shohei Ohtani; OF, Dodgers; Spencer Strider, SP, Braves; Gerrit Cole, SP, Yankees 

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