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2023 Fantasy Baseball: Drafting for High-Upside, High-Risk

When it comes to drafting, it is always important to have a strategy. That draft strategy could be to load up on pitchers early, tank one specific category, or identify a position you are willing to wait longer than others for. No matter what the strategy is, having one is essential to leaving the draft feeling good amount your team. One ideology that is not talked about enough is deciding how risk-averse you plan on being. The randomness of injuries causes all players to carry some form of risk, but some are riskier than others. In your fantasy baseball draft, it is important to decide how willing you are to target these high-risk high-upside players. In this article, I discuss a little bit more about this draft strategy and then identify a risky player at each position that carries top-five upside late in drafts.

The season is not here yet, but why not get a head start and jump in a Fantrax Classic Draft contest? Get a jump on the season with a Best Ball league or maybe a Draft and Hold. Or put some green on the line with a new season-long league to try and conquer. There’s no better time than now to get your baseball on!

When to Prioritize Drafting High-Upside

When it comes to drafting a fantasy baseball team, one of the most overused pieces of advice is to only fill your bench with high-upside players. This strategy is useful in shallow leagues and has tidbits of truth to it but filling a team with only high-upside high-risk players can get you in serious trouble. This is especially true in deeper leagues where replacement-level players are more difficult to come by. Your fantasy team should consist of a nice blend between “safe” players and “risky” players. This allows your fantasy team to have a safe floor in the event things go wrong while also possessing enough upside to win a championship.

So, what does it mean to draft a player with high upside? The best way to think about this is by using percentiles. A player’s 50th percentile outcome is the expected outcome. Basically, if you use Steamer, ATC, or whichever model you prefer, 50th percentile is the projection. This is what we can expect from the player without factoring in luck or areas they could see improvement. When you are targeting a high-upside player you have to ignore their 50th percentile outcome and instead focus on their 90th percentile outcome. Think about a player’s ceiling rather than their expected outcome. A player with the raw tools of Oneil Cruz has a different 90th-percentile outcome than a player like Nico Hoerner. Identifying high-upside players requires picking out which players have the raw tools to finish in the top five at their position.

These high-upside players often carry significant risks. Sticking with the Oneil Cruz example, his strikeout and whiff rates give Cruz a lower floor than most players. You should not draft a team of only Oneil Cruzes. When you get to the later points in your draft you need to identify which positions to start taking shots on and which positions you need to provide yourself a floor with. If you drafted Cruz early, you should prioritize drafting a shortstop later that has a stable floor. Meanwhile, if you played it safe at shortstop early, focus on drafting somebody with a high 90th percentile outcome later. This article focuses on the second strategy. Below I identify one player at each position that you should target if you are looking for high upside late in drafts(ADP Past 200).

Players to Draft for High Upside

Catcher – Bo Naylor, Cleveland Guardians

Why Bo Naylor can finish as a Top-5 Catcher:

If you have never heard of Bo Naylor, you are not alone. The Guardians’ top prospect (check out my full top 15 breakdown of Cleveland prospects on PitcherList) got his first taste of Major League action late last season after dominating the Minor Leagues. Naylor hit .263 and posted a 20/20 season in 118 Minor League games. The only catcher to post a 20/20 season last year in the majors was J.T. Realmuto. According to FanGraphs Auction Calculator, the top two catchers in terms of 5×5 scoring were Realmuto and Daulton Varsho. Both players stole at least 16 bases and hit over 20 home runs. Naylor has proved he can do this which instantly puts him in the conversation of catchers that could finish top five.

Speed and playing time are the two keys to finishing at the top of the catcher position. Austin Hedges is no longer with Cleveland, so the only competition Naylor has for at-bats is coming from Mike Zunino. In three of the last four seasons, Zunino has posted a wRC+ of below 70. Naylor is the more talented player and should receive most of the playing time. This is Naylor’s job to lose, and he has enough potential to go 20/20. If you want to take somebody like William Contreras who does not have the most upside, pairing him with Bo Naylor would be the perfect combination. Naylor is currently going as C22 around pick 309 in fantasy drafts but has the upside to finish in the top five.

Why Bo Naylor is unlikely to finish as a Top-5 Catcher:

Catcher is one of the most difficult positions to play as a rookie. Not only are you attempting to adjust to Major League pitching, but you are worrying about building a relationship with your own pitching staff on the defensive side. Teams like to rely on veteran catchers, especially for their defense which could be exactly why the Guardians brought in Mike Zunino. The top five catchers in fantasy baseball last season averaged 136 games played. Right now, the highest number of games played by the major projection systems for Naylor is 70. The likelihood of Naylor playing in even 100 games is low, making him a risky draft pick. On top of that, there are concerns over Naylor’s ability to hit. I detail this more in his breakdown in the article linked above, but his swing is big and aggressive leading to a lower floor than some other players.

First Base – Spencer Torkelson, Detroit Tigers

Why Spencer Torkelson can finish as a Top-5 First Baseman:

First base is one of the most difficult positions to break into the top five at. The position is filled with loads of talent and has the highest replacement level. In 2022, the top four finishers at the position averaged a 152 wRC+. Meanwhile, in his Major League debut, Spencer Torkelson posted a 76 wRC+. Despite this, if you are chasing upside late he is the first baseman to target. After being drafted first overall in 2020, Torkelson posted a 148 wRC+ throughout three different levels of the Minor Leagues in 2021. Progression is not always linear!! After early season struggles led to a demotion in 2022, Torkelson rejoined the team looking like a new player. His 95 wRC_ might not jump off the screen, but the improvements he made were legit.

  • He increased his barrel rate from 6.8% to 12.3%
  • Increased his pull percentage from 41.1% to 45.2%
  • Decreased his groundball percentage from 44.2% to 30.1%
  • Increased his exit velocity from 89.5 mph to 93.1 mph

Despite a line drive percentage well over 20%, his BABIP was just .257 and his HR/FB% was still below nine percent. Only eight of his 22 barrels went for a home run in 2023. Torkelson was the first overall pick for a reason. He has the contact skills, and power to hit .275 with 25 home runs. The fences moving in at Comerica should help and I think the perfect high-upside pick. Torkelson is also locked into the starting job in Detroit and has little competition for playing time. He is currently going as 1B30 in drafts but could finish inside the top five or ten at the position.

Why Spencer Torkelson is unlikely to finish as a Top-5 First Baseman:

The struggles Torkelson experienced as a rookie are enough to explain why he will likely not finish inside the top five at the position. Add on top of those concerns a bad ballpark and a below-average lineup around him and Torkelson could easily disappoint again in fantasy. I expect real-life progression, but to finish as a top-five first baseman you have to be a four-category contributor. Detroit’s lineup might not provide the run-scoring or RBI opportunities needed to get Torkelson into fantasy relevance. As mentioned before the replacement level is extremely high at this position and that might be where he ends up in 2023.

Second Base – Ketel Marte, Arizona Diamondbacks

Why Ketel Marte can finish as a Top-5 Second Baseman:

If we are looking for upside at second base, why not look at somebody who finished number one at the position as recently as 2019? Ketel Marte feels like he has been around forever but is still only 29 years old. The biggest driver in Marte’s breakout 2019 was the increase of his launch angle. These gains have stuck in the following years and increased even more in 2022. The one area that decreased for Marte was his BABIP. From 2019-2021, Marte averaged a .339 BABIP. This number crashed all the way down to .276 in 2022. This number figures to partially bounce back in 2023. Marte’s incredible 32 home run power will likely never return, but he should see an increase in his HR/FB%. This number was at 7.8% in 2022 but averaged 14.1% from 2018-2021. Marte should see better luck in his average and power come 2023.

In addition, Arizona could very quietly have a very nice team in 2023. They have built a solid roster around Marte which should provide him with plenty of run-scoring and RBI opportunities. Marte also has a history of stealing bases. His speed has declined over the past few years, but it is hard to say if that can be attributed to injuries. There is potential for his speed to bounce back this season giving Marte upside in all five categories. He is going as 2B21 in drafts around pick 210 but has the upside to finish top five at the position.

Why Ketel Marte is unlikely to finish as a Top-5 Second Baseman:

Health has always been a serious issue for Marte. He is projected to play in about 138 games for Arizona next year, but the top-five second baseman last year averaged 148 games played. There is a chance if all goes right, Marte will still finish outside the top five. Arizona’s 2023 outlook is exciting, but also there are a lot of unknowns. There is a chance the moves they have made and the young players they have up will underperform leading to another difficult year for RBIs and runs for Marte. Also, Marte’s sprint speed has dropped from the 73rd percentile to the 71st percentile, to the 44th percentile, and to the 41st percentile. There is a good chance his speed is never coming back, and he does not barrel the ball up enough to make up for the lack of stolen bases with home runs.

Shortstop – Adalberto Mondesi, Kansas City Royals

Why Adalberto Mondesi can finish as a Top-5 Shortstop:

This would not be a high-upside high-risk article without including Adalberto Mondesi. This year has been quiet on the Mondesi front, but that does not mean he should be forgotten. Mondesi has both the raw power and speed to be a true difference-maker and is the definition of a high ceiling. In a full season, he could hit 20 home runs and steal close to 60 bases. Maybe even more with the new rules in place. FanGraphs currently has him as the Royals starting third baseman entering 2023. If this is true and Mondesi finally stays healthy watch out. Mondesi is going as SS26 in drafts right now but has far more upside than the players going around him. If you drafted somebody like Nico Hoerner or Amed Rosario and are chasing upside late go get Adalberto Mondesi just in case 2023 is the year it all works out.

Why Adalberto Mondesi is unlikely to finish as a Top-5 Shortstop:

This boils down to Mondesi’s inability to stay on the field. Since making his debut in 2016, Mondesi has never played in more than 102 games in any season. He has averaged 25 games over the past two seasons, and it is unrealistic to expect 100 games from him. Several people in the organization have already come out and said they cannot view him as an everyday player.  On top of this, even when healthy he has never been an above-average offensive player. Since 2019, he has averaged a 79 wRC+ and it is possible the Royals will not even let him play every day if healthy. In what is now a crowded infield, he will have to beat out Hunter Dozier for playing time at third base. The likelihood of Mondesi being worthless in fantasy is far greater than the chances he finishes top five.

Third Base – Anthony Rendon, Los Angeles Angels

Why Anthony Rendon can finish as a Top-5 Third Baseman:

Talk about a blast from the past. The reason Anthony Rendon can finish as a top-five third baseman is that he has done it before. In both 2017 and 2019, Rendon finished as the fifth-best third baseman, and in 2018, he finished seventh. Rendon might be 32 years old, but everything looked relatively normal from his small sample in 2022. Rendon has excellent plate discipline and contact skills. He has one of the most consistent swings in baseball which produces a lot of line drives. These line drives should help his BABIP jump back up to at least .300. The shift ban should only further help his abilities to post a high average. What if the injuries are really all that was impacting Rendon? He hit 34 home runs in 2019 and maybe he can do it again in 2023.

We have covered how Rendon increases his average and power. He also plays in a lineup featuring: Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Taylor Ward, and Hunter Renfroe. Playing in a lineup with those guys should help Rendon post high run and RBI totals. If healthy, he has a chance to be a four-category player. Currently going as 3B20, Rendon has the upside to finish inside the top five at the position. If you draft somebody like Alec Bohm or Jose Miranda, pair them with Anthony Rendon for his late-round upside.

Why Anthony Rendon is unlikely to finish as a Top-5 Third Baseman:

Rendon is not getting any younger. He has played in a combined 105 games over the past two seasons, and he likely will never stay healthy for a full season again. As long as Ohtani is there, the Angels cannot play Rendon at DH which puts more stress on his body. In addition, he has slugged .381 over the past two seasons. There is a good chance his power is gone and never coming back. Rendon still has value in OBP leagues but is unlikely to be a fantasy stud at third base ever again.

Outfield – Bryan De La Cruz, Miami Marlins

Why Bryan De La Cruz can finish as a Top-10 Outfielder:

Take one look at Bryan De La Cruz’s Baseball Savant page, and you will understand exactly why he made this list. De La Cruz played in a career-high 115 games for the Marlins in 2022 producing a wRC+ of 104. Digging deeper, @PeteBBaseball put out a tweet showing how Bryan De La Cruz posted a 124 wRC+ against righties while going four for four in stolen base attempts. I would have inserted the tweet, but Pete is private so you will just have to take my word for it.

BDLC hit .277/.309/.496 against righties in 2022. He posted an average exit velocity of 90.8 mph, a barrel rate of 11.9%, and a sweet spot percentage of 43.6%. He has some of the best quality contact metrics in the game yet goes completely unnoticed. Only 12 of his 29 barrels went for a home run in 2022 and this rate should see improvement in 2023. I do not think 25-30 home runs with full playing time is unrealistic. His biggest competition for playing time is JJ Bleday (gross). On top of this, he has above-average speed and the potential to add ten stolen bases. He is currently going as OF54 in drafts but is somebody that has the raw tools to finish inside the top ten outfielders. If you fill your outfield with players like Yelich, Happ, and Renfroe I would be targeting the upside of De La Cruz later.

Why Bryan De La Cruz is unlikely to finish as a Top-10 Outfielder:

The answer comes from the other part of Pete’s tweet. He does not hit lefties (48 wRC+). It will be extremely difficult to finish inside the top ten outfielders if De La Cruz finds himself in a platoon situation. Think about Joc Pederson last year. He essentially only played against righties and despite dominating, he only finished as OF26. De La Cruz also has strikeout and contact issues that need improvement if he wants to make the jump to fantasy stardom. Moreover, is the fact Miami’s offense will likely struggle again in 2023 meaning limited counting stats for De La Cruz. Add on the fact that Miami is now planning to play Jazz Chisholm Jr. in the outfield and the likelihood of this happening is slim at best.

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