Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton
Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton makes a diving catch of a fly ball off the bat of Texas Rangers' David Dahl in the seventh inning of a baseball game, Tuesday, May 4, 2021, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)


Mike Shara

I realize that baseball season may not start until December 2027, but a lot of fantasy drafts have their dates set for March, so I’m going to do my level best to get fantasy nerds prepared, even if it currently feels pointless and depressing – just like baseball owners always wanted it to! Today we’re going to look at five players who are poised to return to fantasy relevance in 2022 after a down season (or two). Some of the names on this list are big names who will likely still go early-ish in drafts and others are names to consider later, when you’re scrambling to fill out your roster. I think there is value in each of these five players this season because there are strong signs, they will return to form at least somewhat. Their relative value will just depend on where you get them in your draft.

ANTHONY RENDON, 3B, LA Angels (2021: .240/.329/.382 in 58 games)
Rendon suffered through the worst season of his steady MLB career last year, which was supposed to be his first full season in an Angels uniform. Instead, he suffered through a 2021 injury fest, going on the Injured List with separate knee, groin, hamstring injuries before officially ending his fraught season in August with hip surgery, admitting that the pain from which had been causing his struggles. He’d appeared in 90% of games the previous five seasons and had a 126 career OPS+. I’m sure gun-shy Angels fans are reminded of the burdensome free agent contract Albert Pujols signed with Anaheim in his 30’s, but Rendon has just turned 32 and the Angels should have a strong lineup this year if Rendon and Mike Trout return to form. Third base is a fairly thin position in fantasy this year and a healthy Rendon might prove a good way to get solid production there without overpaying.

BYRON BUXTON, OF, Minnesota (2021: .306/.358/.647 in 61 games)
His prorated averages last year would have made him a viable third contender with Vladdy Jr and Shohei Ohtani for American League MVP. He was the runaway winner of American League Player of the Month in April last season (remember when MLB played games in April?). I know he’s broken your heart before, because he’s only had more than 300 at-bats in a season once in his career because of injuries. Some of those injuries (wall collisions in the outfield) were due to over-aggressiveness and some (broken hand and concussions from being hit with pitches) have just been bad luck. The Twins wouldn’t have re-signed him to a 7-year, $100 million contract in the offseason if they thought he’d already broken down. He just turned 28 years old, and I believe in 2023 he’ll be a first round fantasy pick.

DJ LEMAHIEU, 2B/3B/1B, NY Yankees (2021: .268/.349/.362 in 150 games)
While he did still play in 150 games, LeMahieu’s 2021 season was still injury marred. He had surgery after last season for a sports hernia which he played with through almost the entire season. I thought the Yankees signing him to a 5-year contract before last season was a mistake (he is already 34) but his stat cast numbers prove that he was a little unlucky last season. His strikeout rate remained low, and his exit velocity was nearly the same as previous seasons. It’s not reasonable to expect MVP-level performances again at this point, but after being overrated last season, a top-of-the-order on-base machine playing in a great hitters’ park with elite hitters around him and multi-position availability will still be a formidable asset going forward.

GLEYBER TORRES, 2B/SS, NY Yankees (2021: .259/.331/.366 in 127 games)
Torres’ first half of the 2021 season was about as bad as anyone in baseball. As well as hitting just .240 with 3 home runs before the All-Star Game, he really struggled defensively at shortstop, making 18 errors with -10 defensive runs saved. Once the Yankees switched him to second base, he seemed to relax and play better, hitting .289/.338/.456 after the All-Star break. Because he was the key acquisition in the Aroldis Chapman trade a few years back and had an exceptional season in 2019, expectations have been really high for him the last two seasons. If you accept that he might just be a league average player who qualifies at two positions, is still just barely 25 years old and hits in a good lineup, he could provide some good value for you again this season, as long as you don’t reach for him too early.

CODY BELLINGER, CF, LA Dodgers (2021:.240/.302/.542 in 95 games)
I mean, you do have to have a little bit of concern about his mental approach. After being named 2019 National League MVP at age 23, hitting an absurd .305/.406/.629 in over 660 plate appearances…he tinkered…with everything. He started changing numerous things about his hitting: stance, approach, etc. and then injured his shoulder high fiving a teammate in the dugout during the 2020 playoffs (yes, you read that correctly). He had shoulder surgery in November 2020 and never looked right last year. He did even more tinkering to try to protect the shoulder and then everything officially fell apart. A small reason for optimism could be found looking at his postseason performance in 2021.  He had 12 hits and 5 walks in 12 games, including a home run and 5 stolen bases. He might not be an MVP candidate in 2022, but the Dodgers will need his left-handed bat in the lineup even more this year with Corey Seager’s departure and he might be overlooked by enough people to the point where his speed/power combo returns value as a later round pick.

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