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Fantasy Baseball: Julio Rodriguez looks like the next great roto star

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Last spring, the Mariners had an offensive prospect that took the fantasy world by storm. Gamers couldn’t wait for the Jarred Kelenic promotion, me included. He looked like someone who could be a five-category star, perhaps very quickly. His May 13 promotion was a Fantasy Baseball national holiday.

Alas, Kelenic hasn’t hit the ground running like we expected. Really, he hasn’t hit much of anything.

Although he’s clubbed 17 homers in 123 MLB games, it’s come with a messy .173/.256/.338 average. He’s been a strikeout machine, whiffing 142 times in 423 at-bats. Right now Kelenic is tearing up Triple-A (.320/.345/.613, five homers in 17 games), but it’s not clear when Seattle will call again.

This doesn’t mean Mariners' rookie optimism was wrong, however. Perhaps Julio Rodriguez was the kid we should have been focused on.

Julio Rodriguez has been everything fantasy managers wanted Jarred Kelenic to be

Rodriguez has been a category juice dream in his 2022 rookie year. He struck his seventh homer of the year in Monday’s win over Houston, and he leads all of MLB with 17 stolen bases. Heady stuff for a 21-year-old. Rodriguez currently slashes at .277/.332/.432, and that’s despite some comical strikes that have been called against him. Show some respect, blue.

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The Baseball Savant page is in Rodriguez’s corner. His spring speed is in the 98th percentile, and all of his hard-hit metrics pin to the right. He needs to work on not chasing so much when behind in the count, but that’s standard for a young player. Even his defense gets a positive grade in the metrics, for whatever defensive quantification means to you.

I did a Tout Wars mock redraft with 11 other managers a week ago, and somehow we let Rodriguez slip into the fifth round (Pick 54, Joe Sheehan). I think that’s a collective error by the room. Barring injury or major slump, I see Rodriguez going in the second round at worst next year, and quite possibly in the first round.

Julio Rodriguez #44 of the Seattle Mariners has been a fantasy star
Julio Rodriguez has been part of the fantasy baseball elite to start 2022. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Let me check some biases at the door. I came into fantasy baseball with old-boring-value as my jam. The Ibañez All-Stars were very good to me. And I still think we have to try to be realistic with baseball rookies, not expect the world from them — collectively — right away.

But that doesn’t mean some players can’t break the rules immediately. Juan Soto was one of those guys. Rodriguez appears to be another. And given how aggressively Rodriguez wants to run, it’s going to buoy his fantasy value even when he has temporary slumps in other areas. Speed never goes into a slump.

Fantasy Football is a game where I view getting younger as a mandate, especially at the running back and wide receiver positions. But I also find my fantasy baseball rosters getting younger all the time, too. You want players on the escalator. You want ascending talents.

In a hometown keeper league last year, my partner and I somehow ended up with both Kelenic and Rodriguez. This was a departure from past strategy — usually we focus on the short-term and let the other managers get misty-eyed for prospects. As it turns out, we drafted Kelenic in an aggressive round, and got Rodriguez ridiculously late. And we wound up trading both players in an aim to win the 2021 title (not that anyone cares, but we came in second. Khris Davis’ ninth-inning homer at Houston on the final day of the year — costing us a win we needed — absolutely crushed me.)

As it turns out, we got more than Kelenic was probably worth. But that Rodriguez trade is going to sting. Having him in our long-term plans sure sounds lovely, right around now.

Since we’re talking about Sonic Youth in Seattle, let’s also acknowledge rookie right-hander George Kirby. The 24-year-old has a tidy 3.38 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 32 innings, with a decent strikeout rate (about one per inning). He’s only walked three batters, which makes Kirby a relaxing watch. He’s always around the plate. His fastball is in the mid-90s, his signature pitch. If Kirby can establish better breaking stuff, he can become a star, too.

If you want to scout Kirby, he hosts the Red Sox this weekend. Next week it’s a date with the Angels, who haven’t won a game since Tim Salmon retired.

Keep the coffee flowing; Seattle is a team worth staying up late for.

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