Fantasy baseball: How Acuna's knee changes the top of the draft

Ronald Acuna Jr. is usually the first pick in fantasy baseball drafts so far. AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

Fantasy baseball managers may not agree on much, but there has been little debate this offseason that Atlanta Braves OF Ronald Acuna Jr., easily the most valuable player from the 2023 season, is the best choice to be the first player in 2024 drafts, and the most expensive in salary cap auctions. After all, Acuna hit .337 with 41 home runs, 106 RBIs, 73 stolen bases and 149 runs scored. There has never been a season like this in baseball history, so expect some regression.

Today, fantasy baseball managers agree that there is at least some level of concern about Acuna and his ailing right knee, as he reported soreness late last week and was scratched from weekend games. Acuna famously tore the ACL in his right knee in 2021 and missed half of that season, then underachieved -- based on his incredible talent level -- in 2022 before his unbelievable 2023 campaign.

A weekend MRI showed meniscus irritation, and since this is an important and ultra-valuable player, the Braves are taking no chances. They sent the superstar to Los Angeles to see noted Dr. Neal ElAttrache for further inspection. Perhaps it is not a big deal yet, but Braves fans, anyone with Acuna on their roster and potential investors -- such as anyone with the No. 1 pick in their draft -- will be paying close attention to Monday's news.

Atlanta manager Brian Snitker told anxious reporters on Saturday: "Right now we're trying to be optimistic. Maybe just a couple of weeks or whatever, just to calm everything down. But honestly, I don't know until we get what the doctor out there says."

Most fantasy managers are not drafting during the first week of March, so there is time to judge the results, though the "whatever" in Snitker's comment may concern. If Acuna had a major knee injury, chances are the team would have shared this information already. At this point, pessimism does nobody any good. Acuna can sit for a few weeks and remain the best player in fantasy this season. It was going to be difficult for Acuna to steal another 73 bases anyway just because, wow, that is a lot of steals. Before any knowledge of a sore knee, ESPN Fantasy projected 52 steals.

At this past weekend's League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) NL-only auction in Florida, Acuna cost $40, considerably below an expected bidding flirtation with matching the league record $50 tag. Still, no other NL players went for more than $40. Acuna led the way, even with a general agreement by participants that Acuna may not suit up for a full April slate of games. Statistically, he is that dominant. Acuna cost a league-high $49 in the mixed league auction the next afternoon.

Fantasy managers always crave clarity, and as of Monday morning, there is little in terms of whether Acuna will miss games that count or be physically compromised this season. Be patient, fantasy managers. The news may not be as perfect as everyone would prefer, and Acuna may miss time early in the season, but he may remain the top draft pick anyway.

Spring training injuries

  • Tampa Bay Rays OF Josh Lowe was shut down for roughly a week with left hip inflammation and, again, considering this is a player who steals bases, this could matter quite a bit. Lowe broke out last season by hitting .292 with 20 home runs and 32 stolen bases, despite being utilized mainly as a platoon option. The Rays seem confident -- are any teams not confident? -- that Lowe will be ready for the games that count in a few weeks, but if Lowe isn't back to full health in a week, it may be time to lower expectations a bit.

  • It is definitely time to worry about talented Cincinnati Reds LHP Nick Lodolo, who is still having problems with the stress reaction in his left leg (tibia) after the same injury derailed him last season. Lodolo excelled as a rookie in 2022 with a 3.66 ERA and 29.7% strikeout rate. Last season, he made only seven starts with a 6.29 ERA, and the Reds seem concerned enough that the 26-year-old is scheduled for more testing. The strikeout upside is considerable, but unlike Acuna and Lowe, an early season IL stint may force Lodolo out of most standard drafts.

  • Boston Red Sox RHP Kenley Jansen remains out with lat soreness, and the team has not updated his situation with reporters in two weeks. Jansen probably does not need major spring work to prepare for the season, since he's been around forever, and he throws his signature pitch (cutter) nearly 80% of the time. It remains premature to draft setup man Chris Martin and assume he earns April saves.

  • Many believe new Los Angeles Angels RHP Robert Stephenson will take the closer role from incumbent Carlos Estevez, but there are several issues here. One, Stephenson has shoulder soreness and told reporters he may not be ready for Opening Day. Two, new manager Ron Washington keeps confirming that Estevez is his closer. Things can change, of course, and Estevez remains far from dependable, but it is hard to recommend drafting Stephenson over him.

    Other notes

  • Toronto Blue Jays RHP Alek Manoah missed his weekend start with shoulder soreness, which may not be a big deal yet, but may help explain his wild first outing, when he threw only 17 of 38 pitches for strikes and hit three batters. He recorded five outs, and he permitted four runs. Manoah was terrible without warning last season and perhaps some fantasy managers automatically rule him out due to this reason, but Manoah is not giving anyone - including the Blue Jays - reason to be confident, either.

  • New York Yankees 1B Anthony Rizzo clubbed a pair of home runs in Friday's game and enters the week with an OPS approaching 2.000. Yeah, it is early March, and Rizzo is 34, but we must remember he was off to a great start last season before the collision with Fernando Tatis Jr., which resulted in a concussion that ruined things. Rizzo was hitting .304 with 11 home runs through May. After that point, he hit .170. A healthy Rizzo is a fantasy sleeper.

  • Atlanta RHP Reynaldo Lopez started Saturday's game against a formidable Toronto lineup of regulars and tossed three shutout innings. Lopez has been a full-time relief pitcher in recent seasons, but he sure looks to be in the lead for the No. 5 rotation spot over Bryce Elder and others, and since this is the Braves and they score so many runs, we have to start taking this seriously in fantasy. Lopez is becoming worthy of a spot in ESPN standard leagues.