Fantasy baseball roundtable: Who is the No. 1 hitter?

When it comes to making the first overall pick in fantasy drafts, do you go with San Diego's Juan Soto, Trea Turner (now with the Phillies) or someone else entirely? Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire

The day has finally arrived. Pitchers and catchers have begun to report. In other words, the Super Bowl is done and the fantasy baseball season can officially begin its ramp-up toward Opening Day!

With that in mind and with many a fantasy baseball manager beginning the process of figuring out which players to target in their drafts, we posed a seemingly simple question to the intrepid duo of Tristan H. Cockcroft and Eric Karabell. Read on to find out what they had to say about it.

Who is the No. 1 hitter for fantasy baseball in 2023?

Tristan H. Cockcroft: You sneaky, sneaky devil, asking the question like that rather than simply asking who is the No. 1 player! You know I'd be on the Shohei Ohtani bandwagon, as our points-league ranker, as he's far and away tops overall. Unfortunately, he's not No. 1 on either side of the ball for me, if we're asking those questions separately.

In points leagues, my No. 1 hitter is still Juan Soto. I know we don't project him for the most points -- that honor goes to Jose Ramirez -- but Soto's immensely high floor stands out relative to the other candidates. He's the only player who can claim at least a 490-point projection from every major projection system out there. Plus, even in what was a terribly unlucky season, he managed a 14th-best (among hitters) 437 fantasy points. He's in a much better situation in which to succeed and should be a shoo-in for 490-plus in 2023.

Eric Karabell: The answer obviously depends on the scoring format for your league, but as our categories/roto ranker, I have to go with Trea Turner. He finished second to Aaron Judge on last season's Player Rater, a true five-category favorite with a track record of excellent performance and durability.

I considered Ramirez, who finished sixth on the Rater in 2022, but Turner hits for a higher batting average, steals more bases, didn't have offseason thumb surgery, and relocated to a more hitter-friendly home ballpark this winter. Turner gets the nod, although it's hard not to notice his absence from your first round in points formats. Perhaps you could explain why things are so different depending on the scoring format.

Cockcroft: Turner has two great faults in points-based leagues. He has walked less frequently than the league's average in both of the past two seasons and he's not a starting pitcher. In those two years, he has been the Nos. 8 and 10 hitter in terms of fantasy points, dwarfed by better on-base guys like Ramirez and Freddie Freeman (hitters who finished ahead of him in each year). He was also the Nos. 19 and 28 overall players in the format, moving that far down due to the advantages that top starting pitchers gain. I absolutely love the guy and would rank him No. 1 in rotisserie leagues as well, but no matter how many times I've examined the projections during Turner's prime over the past couple of years, there are always 10-15 more clearly better picks for points leagues.

Julio Rodriguez and Bobby Witt Jr., two of your first-rounders, similarly fit this description for points-based scoring. I love the players, but only "like" the skills fit for points. Top-shelf value in points leagues is so much about walks, contact, elite power and/or run production as well as the good fortune to stay completely healthy.

Which brings me to my struggle when considering the "best pick." What about Freeman? He's a top-10 pick for me (albeit eighth), but he's outside your top 10. Still, he has delivered strong returns on investment annually and his contact-quality metrics are as good as almost anyone's in baseball.

Karabell: Yeah, I have Freeman at No. 11 and admit I don't feel so great about it. He deserves better based on both his reliability and durability. I don't have major concerns, but I do think others (Yordan Alvarez, Mookie Betts, Witt) boast more upside for roto scoring. Freeman hit only 21 home runs. He can't drive in Turner anymore, and the Dodgers didn't really replace him. Freeman's BABIP was .360 for the second time in three seasons. The steals should drop.

Anyway, I think he's perfect in tandem with Betts or Witt as first/second-round picks. It's all offense for me in the first two rounds and I admit I do focus on SB potential, if it's applicable and not too much of a reach. I'm guessing you don't pay much attention to stolen bases in your preferred format.

Cockcroft: It's not so much that stolen bases should be ignored in points leagues as that they're the gravy to my mashed potatoes. Last season, nine of the 12 players who stole 25-plus bases also finished within the top 50 in either total points scored or average points per game (minimum 50% of their teams' games played). That group would have averaged only 0.06 fewer points per game without their stolen base contributions. I love that Judge chipped in 16 steals, Freeman 13 and Kyle Schwarber 10, but even with that, they would have gone from first, third and 26th in scoring among hitters to first, third and 28th without any points from those stolen bases. See? It's merely gravy, and you know how I looooove gravy.

Ultimately, a stolen base is worth a single point using our standard ESPN scoring. A run scored is worth one, a walk is worth one, and a double is worth two, and those categories are all far more plentiful. Last year, a mere 24 players stole 20-plus bags, or generated 20-plus points from that category. Guess how many had at least 10 doubles, also worth 20-plus points? It was 320! It's not that steals don't have any weight, it's just that if the player can't hold muster in those other three underrated categories, he's just not worth the draft investment (see: Berti, Jon).

Karabell: If there's anything we've learned in this exercise, it's that you better know your league's rules for scoring and everything else, because it truly defines the value for Ohtani, Turner and everyone else. Oh, and pass the gravy!