Fantasy baseball awards for 2023: Ronald Acuña Jr. reigns supreme

When we look back at what happened during the 2023 baseball season, the highlights pop out almost immediately.

The many rules changes designed to bring more offense back into the game largely succeeded – with batting averages, slugging percentages, scoring – and especially stolen bases – reversing their downward trends from the past few years.

That translated into more fantasy goodness everyone (other than pitchers) could enjoy.

It also opened the door to one of the most truly amazing single-season performances in baseball history. After watching Aaron Judge smash 62 home runs (and rack up $55 in fantasy 5x5 value) a year ago, it was hard to even imagine someone topping that.

Yet that’s exactly what Ronald Acuña did on his way toward an unprecedented 40-homer, 70-steal campaign. With a .336 average, 143 runs scored and 101 RBI entering the final week, Acuña has been worth an otherworldly $60 in fantasy earnings, according to Baseball HQ.

No one has ever had a more valuable season in fantasy baseball. Not Rickey Henderson, not Barry Bonds, not Pedro Martinez, not Alex Rodriguez. No one.

Even if you were able to get credit for every single stat Shohei Ohtani put up at the plate ($35) and on the mound ($18) this year, it still wouldn’t come close to what Acuña produced.

Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. celebrates his 40th home run of the season in a Sept. 22 game against the Nationals in Washington.
Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. celebrates his 40th home run of the season in a Sept. 22 game against the Nationals in Washington.

He’s been that amazing. And yet, it’s hard to simply anoint Acuña the 2023 fantasy MVP the way we did with Judge last season. That’s because he was supposed to be the game’s best player, even if we had no clue he’d be this good. Pretty much every set of preseason rankings had Acuña the No. 1, 2 or 3 player available. If you didn’t have a top-3 pick, there was little chance he was going to lead you to a title.

So while there’s no question Ronald Acuña Jr. was by far the best player in fantasy baseball this season, there are others who also deserve time in the spotlight.

Fantasy MVP: Cody Bellinger, Chicago Cubs

Cody Bellinger has revitalized his career this season with the Cubs, hitting over .300 and joining the 20-homer/20-steal club for the first time.
Cody Bellinger has revitalized his career this season with the Cubs, hitting over .300 and joining the 20-homer/20-steal club for the first time.

Following three consecutive years of painful struggles on offense, Bellinger's 2019 MVP season was so far in the rearview the Dodgers chose to simply let him walk away at the prime age of 27.

Latching on with the Cubs, Bellinger proved he still had plenty left in the tank – matching his MVP season’s .305 average, approaching 100 runs and RBI, and stealing a career-high 20 bases. While his 26 home runs are a bit low for a fantasy MVP, the adjustments Bellinger made to become a productive hitter once again were impressive. He has posted a career-low 15.8% strikeout percentage and paired it with a career high batting average on balls in play.

With an average draft position (ADP from National Fantasy Baseball Championship, starting Feb. 1) of 182 overall, Bellinger was freely available to anyone who even considered the possibility he might rebound. He’s on track to finish as fantasy’s No. 6 outfielder, while at the same time gaining in-season eligibility at first base.

Roto value (5x5 mixed leagues via Baseball HQ): $29

Runners-up: Corbin Carroll (ADP: 58, $34), Lane Thomas (ADP: 313, $24)

Fantasy pitcher of the year: Blake Snell, San Diego Padres

With one regular-season start remaining, Padres left-hander Blake Snell has been masterful over the past month, allowing just two earned runs in 38 innings (0.47 ERA), potentially carrying fantasy teams in head-to-head leagues to a championship.
With one regular-season start remaining, Padres left-hander Blake Snell has been masterful over the past month, allowing just two earned runs in 38 innings (0.47 ERA), potentially carrying fantasy teams in head-to-head leagues to a championship.

Snell has more than his share of detractors who don’t like his high walk rate, his injury history or his inability to pitch deep into games.

Despite leading all starting pitchers this season with an average of 4.95 walks per nine innings, Snell also leads the majors in giving up just 5.8 hits per nine. He gets into trouble, but an excellent 11.7 K/9 rate helps get him out of it.

Cite that 3.44 FIP all you want, but Snell puts up the numbers that count in fantasy. With one scheduled start reamining, he has 234 strikeouts in 180 innings, a .181/.293/.286 opponents’ slash line and a major league-best 2.25 ERA.

On average the No. 30 starting pitcher off the board this spring, Snell ranks No. 2 in fantasy value behind only Gerrit Cole.

Roto value: $29

Runners-up: Zach Eflin ($24), Justin Steele ($22) , Kyle Bradish ($21), Freddy Peralta ($16)

Waiver pickup of the year: Josh Lowe, Tampa Bay Rays

Lowe flopped spectacularly in his first taste of the majors, leaving him as an afterthought in this season’s drafts (NFBC ADP: 547). Even when he made the Rays roster out of spring training, there was no clear-cut pathway to regular playing time … other than raking from Day 1.

Lowe hit .375/.444/.625 in April with five homers, five steals, 17 runs and 18 RBI. The earlier you jumped on the bandwagon, the more he helped.

Roto value: $22

Runners-up: Spencer Steer ($18), Jake Burger ($14), Tanner Bibee ($14)

Breakout performer of the year: CJ Abrams, Washington Nationals

Nationals shortstop CJ Abrams slides head-first into third base with a triple in a Sept. 19 game against the White Sox. His outstanding speed has helped him steal 43 bases in 47 attempts in his age-22 season.
Nationals shortstop CJ Abrams slides head-first into third base with a triple in a Sept. 19 game against the White Sox. His outstanding speed has helped him steal 43 bases in 47 attempts in his age-22 season.

At age 21, Abrams looked overmatched when he made his MLB debut last year with the Padres. After being traded to Washington in the Juan Soto blockbuster, he walked only once and didn’t hit a homer in 163 plate appearances.

What a difference a year makes. Playing everyday for the Nats, Abrams has started to deliver on his exciting potential. In his first full MLB season, he’s slugged 18 homers and stolen 43 bases (fifth most in the majors).

Roto value: $19

Runners-up: Yandy Diaz, Ha-Seong Kim, Bryson Stott, Chas McCormick

Biggest in-season turnaround: Michael Harris II, Atlanta Braves

Last season’s top waiver wire pickup went on the injured list in early April with a back strain and took a long time to regain his stride. He could have easily fallen back onto the waiver wire with a batting average that was still below .200 on June 11. But from that point forward, a healthy Harris slashed .329/.354/.545 with 15 homers, 15 steals and 60 runs scored over 91 games.

Roto value: $18

Runners-up: Trea Turner, Jose Abreu, Triston Casas, Ezequiel Tovar.

Least valuable player: Alek Manoah, Toronto Blue Jays

Coming off an outstanding sophomore season (16 wins, 2.24 ERA, 180 K), Manoah became perhaps 2023’s biggest mystery. How could someone with such promise completely lose his command and struggle to get anyone out?

The preseason’s No. 20 starting pitcher (ADP 73) pitched only 87 1/3 innings over 19 starts with a 5.87 ERA and 1.74 WHIP. It’s hard to do that much damage in so few innings.

Roto value: -$24

Runners-up: Brady Singer, Luis Severino, Dylan Cease, Tim Anderson

Hitting line of the year: Adolis Garcia, Texas Rangers

In an April 22 game vs. Oakland, Garcia went 5-for-5 with a pair of doubles, three home runs, five runs scored and 8 RBI.

Pitching line of the year: Domingo German, New York Yankees

On June 28, also against Oakland, German pitched MLB's first perfect game since 2012, striking out nine batters and going the distance for the win. It was perhaps the lone highlight of the season for German, who went on the restricted list Aug. 2 to seek treatment for alcohol abuse.

Top 15 for 2024

Finally, let’s take a quick look at some of the players who will be fueling the conversation over the offseason in preparation for next year’s drafts.

This past season, there seemed to be a clear top five, maybe six, overall players. That shouldn’t be the case next spring, as an extremely deep crop of elite talent will make a late first-round pick the most desirable spot in drafts. This tentative look at the top 15 picks doesn’t include a single pitcher, potentially making Gerrit Cole and Spencer Strider excellent value picks in Round 2.

  1. OF Ronald Acuña Jr., Braves

  2. OF Corbin Carroll, Diamondbacks

  3. OF Julio Rodriguez, Mariners

  4. OF/2B Mookie Betts, Dodgers

  5. SS Bobby Witt Jr., Royals

  6. OF Kyle Tucker, Astros

  7. OF Fernando Tatis Jr., Padres

  8. 1B Freddie Freeman, Dodgers

  9. SS Trea Turner, Phillies

  10. DH Shohei Ohtani, free agent

  11. OF Aaron Judge, Yankees

  12. 3B Jose Ramirez, Guardians

  13. SS Corey Seager, Rangers

  14. OF Juan Soto, Padres

  15. 2B Marcus Semien, Rangers

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fantasy baseball awards: Ronald Acuña Jr., Cody Bellinger, Blake Snell