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Fantasy baseball: Should you cut bait on stars like Juan Soto, Corbin Burnes?

Chris Landers looks at some slow starts from big names around MLB and whether fantasy baseball owners would be wise to be patient or cut bait.

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Juan Soto of the San Diego Padres reacts after a solo home run during the fourth inning of a game against the Atlanta Braves at PETCO Park on April 19, 2023 in San Diego, California. Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Somehow, May is already on the horizon, which means the dust is starting to settle a little bit on a crazy 2023 MLB season. The sample size of evidence is growing larger by the day, which presents fantasy baseball managers with one of the most difficult questions there is: At what point should I move on from a star that I invested serious draft capital in?

Don’t worry, we’re here to help. Below are seven players who went within or around the top 100 picks in drafts this spring — but who have all been major disappointments thus far. We’ll look under the hood and tell you whether patience is advised or it’s time to cut your losses.

Slumping stars: Should you cut bait in fantasy baseball?

Juan Soto, OF, San Diego Padres

Verdict: Sell

It’s safe to say that owners who sunk a first-round pick into Soto were expecting a batting average north of the Mendoze Line. It’s been tough sledding for the perennial All-Star so far, as he’s hit just .194 with seven extra-base hits in 20 games — and that’s including his two homers on Wednesday and Thursday. Maybe that’s a sign that Soto is coming out of his slump; there’s still plenty of red on his Statcast page, as he ranks near the top of the league in hard-hit rate, barrel rate and expected slugging percentage.

There are also plenty of red flags, though. For starters: his cratering line-drive rate. This is the continuation of a trend, from 22.5 in 2021 to 19.2 last year to a scarcely-believable 6.1 so far in 2023. Combine that with a career-high ground ball rate, and it seems clear that while Soto is making lots of hard contact, it’s not necessarily the kind of hard contact that will produce for fantasy purposes.

Soto is never going to contribute first-round value in power (he’s still never cracked the 30-homer mark) or speed, so he’s really reliant on average and counting stats. The latter should still be there as long as he’s in the middle of San Diego’s order, but it’s very possible that he’s just a .240-250 hitter now. You’re obviously not dropping him, but if you can sell relatively high — say, after he hits two homers in two days — I would pull the trigger.

Corbin Burnes, SP, Milwaukee Brewers

Verdict: Buy

Thankfully, Burnes seems no worse for wear after leaving his start against the Seattle Mariners with what turned out to be a pectoral tweak. He had a rough couple of outings against the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets to start the season, with a troubling dip in velocity on his cutter, sinker and slider.

Good news on that last front: Burnes’ velocity has been back up in his last two outings, the first of which was a dominant eight-inning effort against the Diamondbacks. He seems to be warming up with the weather — with a rising whiff rate and declining hard-contact rate — so stay the course here.

Jake McCarthy, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks

Verdict: Buy

Fantasy owners expected big things after McCarthy swiped 23 bags in just 99 games last year. The speed is still elite, but you can’t run if you can’t get on base, and right now the outfielder is sporting an OBP of .241. It’s been a rough start, but take heart: In some ways, McCarthy is showing a better approach at the plate than he even did during his breakout season.

McCarthy’s strikeout and whiff rates are down, as is his chase rate, so you know he’s seeing the ball well. The answer could be more aggression: Pitchers are challenging him less now that he’s an established name, concentrating more on the outside corner, and he’s responded by trying to go the other way more — where it’s harder to really drive the ball. McCarthy is pulling the ball and swinging at the first pitch far less than he did last year, which makes me think that this is simply a matter of adjusting to pitchers’ adjustments; start hunting for his pitch more and he should start driving the ball with more authority again. His expected batting average (.250) and slugging (.343) are well above his actual marks, and his BABIP is a scarcely-believable .186. He’s going to turn it around soon, and when he does, the steals will come in bunches.

Blake Snell, SP, San Diego Padres

You don’t need to keep riding this roller coaster, I promise. Snell has always struggled with command issues, but this year is taking it to a new extreme with a walk rate of 15.1%. Those walks used to at least come with elite Ks and decent-enough run prevention, but Snell has been absolutely shelled to start the season — and his K-rate has dipped to 24.4%, which would be his lowest in six years.

Snell can’t stop getting behind in counts, which is forcing him to rely on his fastball, which in turn is getting the fastball crushed. The pitch carried an expected slugging percentage of .386 last year, but that’s spiked all the way up to .752 in 2023. Maybe it all clicks and Snell gets back to who he was last year. The problem, though, is that even that player is a bit overrated, with a low-4s ERA and good Ks — more a top 30-40 starter than a top-25 one. If he dominates against a lesser opponent here soon, see if you can sell high.

Ozzie Albies, 2B, Atlanta Braves

Verdict: Sell

It got buried a bit during the offseason news cycle, but back in February Albies admitted to having a clean-up procedure done to fix a shoulder impingement that had plagued him for the last year or two. Flash forward a couple of months, and Albies’ ground-ball rate is way up and his average exit velocity is way down. He’s simply having a hard time driving the ball, and the result is a .237 average with five extra-base hits in 19 games.

Another stat is even more concerning, though: Despite the rule changes, Albies hasn’t attempted to steal a single base this year. He was caught five times in eight attempts in 2022, and if he’s stopped making running a part of his game — whether due to ineffectiveness or the risk of injury or both — that changes his fantasy profile dramatically. It also lowers his margin for error, as fantasy owners will all of a sudden be much more reliant on Albies finding a batting average in the .270-.280 range again to recoup value.

Alek Manoah, SP, Toronto Blue Jays

Verdict: Sell

Just about everything’s gone wrong for the big righty so far this year: velocity is down, hard-hit rate is way up, K-rate is down, walk rate is way up. He seems to be responding to his struggles by pressing, which of course has made everything worse. So why don’t I think he’ll revert to who he’s been the past year and a half?

Put simply, I’m not sure those elite numbers were reflective of who he actually was as a pitcher. Advanced metrics like Stuff+ are harsh to Manoah, and even last year he was striking out less than a batter per inning while relying on inducing weak contact to get outs. Manoah won’t struggle this mightily all year, but don’t be surprised if his true water level is more in the 3.50-4.00 ERA range. If you can buy him at that price, go for it, but be wary.

MJ Melendez, C/OF, Kansas City Royals

Verdict: Buy

If you bought into Melendez’s breakout last year and were hoping for the rare catcher-eligible player who gets everyday playing time elsewhere on the diamond, don’t let his cold start dissuade you. Melendez is still crushing the ball, with among the very highest hard-hit rates in baseball this year. The problem is where he’s crushing it — in the air and overwhelmingly to the pull side, which given his cavernous home park has resulted in a lot of warning-track flyouts.

Statcast expects Melendez to have four homers given his batted-ball profile, instead of the measly one he’s produced so far — with an expected slugging percentage some 240 points (!) higher than his actual rate. Eventually more of those fly balls are going to find grass, or the seats, and his numbers will turn around. The Royals are committed to playing him every day, mostly in the outfield, which gives him a huge counting-stat advantage over everyone else at catcher.

Aaron Nola, SP, Philadelphia Phillies

Verdict: Buy

Nola’s gotten off to a rocky start, but those who’ve owned him before know that this is always the case — even last year, he had a 3.90 ERA and an 11 percent swinging-strike rate in the month of April. Add to that the fact that he’s one of the league’s slowest operators with runners on base now having to adjust to the pitch clock, and we’re willing to give Nola a bit of leeway before sounding the alarm. The righty goes through a rough patch seemingly every year, but with the exception of that extremely unlucky 2021, the results are always there. If his velocity and whiff rate are still down as the weather warms up, then revisit it.