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Fantasy Baseball’s Most Underrated Players

Having a successful fantasy baseball draft is all about finding value. There are times when value presents itself with the very first pick (pending the severity of Ronald Acuna’s knee injury). But most of the time, value is easier to come by in the later rounds. A lot of managers will shoot for the stars towards the end of the draft. I do not mind taking a flier here or there. However, I am a big fan of players that other fantasy managers consider boring. Oohs and aahs are nice, but I prefer cash and trophies. Here are a few players who I feel are still underrated as we head towards the season. I promise that not all of them are boring. ADP data is NFBC data so far in March.

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Fantasy Baseball’s Most Underrated Players

Catcher: Keibert Ruiz, Washington Nationals (ADP: 173.23)

If you have played in two-catcher leagues, you know how gross it can get at the catcher position. And as bad as the landscape looks in March, it usually looks even worse when one of your catchers gets injured and you have to find a replacement. My biggest gripe with catches is that they are usually a drain on your team’s batting average. That is why I think Keibert Ruiz is an underrated option. Ruiz has elite contact skills (86.8 percent career contact rate and 10.9 career strikeout rate) and is a healthy source of batting average. He has a career .274 expected batting average, and last season the power finally began to come around. After hitting 11 home runs in his first 143 career games, he hit 18 in 136 games last year. Half of those came after the All-Star break, while Ruiz posted a .300 batting average.

Ruiz is currently coming off the board as the 15th catcher in recent drafts. I think he provides great value at that price. He finished 11th at the position a year ago and has room to improve in 2024. Ruiz is only 25 years old and should be hitting in the heart of Washington’s order. While the Nationals do not have the most fearsome lineup out there, CJ Abrams and Lane Thomas should afford Ruiz plenty of RBI opportunities. Nationals Park is among the more hitter-friendly venues in MLB based on Statcast metrics. That is interesting to me because Ruiz hit much better away from home (.271, 12 home runs) than at home (.248, six home runs). If he can tap into that home-field advantage, Ruiz can provide top-10 value at the catcher position in 2024.

First Base: Yandy Diaz, Tampa Bay Rays (ADP: 128.77)

Yandy Diaz was a top-six fantasy first baseman a season ago and is going outside the top 12 this season. I find this puzzling on a couple of fronts. First and foremost, we fantasy managers (and I say “we” because I have been guilty of it plenty of times myself) often use Statcast metrics to justify our points in this day and age. I will continue to do so in this article. We will fawn over a player who hit .240 with subpar counting stats but underperformed based on his Statcast metrics. Meanwhile, all Yandy Diaz did in 2023 was finish in the top five percentile of all qualified hitters in xBA, hard-hit rate, average exit velocity, and xwOBA. He also finished in the top 16 percent in xSLG, chase rate, and strikeout rate. Yet we are treating him as if last season was some kind of outlier.

Diaz should continue to be entrenched as Tampa Bay’s primary leadoff hitter. No matter who comes or goes, or whatever crazy lineup platoons Kevin Cash employs, the Rays always seem to put up runs. They have finished in the top four in runs per game in two of the past three seasons. Diaz will score plenty of runs while contributing solid home runs and RBI totals as well. Some players have to hit their ceiling to justify their draft price. Diaz is the complete opposite. You are drafting him as his absolute floor. Diaz was a top-30 fantasy hitter last season and is currently available outside the top 100 overall in drafts. Even if he encounters a bit of batting average regression, Yandy Diaz should be well worth his current draft price.

Deeper 1B options: Andrew Vaughn (ADP: 239.88), Anthony Rizzo (245.61), Jose Abreu (314.93)

Second Base: Jorge Polanco, Seattle Mariners (ADP: 243.44)

Jorge Polanco is the ultimate boring player that nobody wants. He is currently being drafted outside the top 200 overall and outside the top 20 at second base. After two straight injury-plagued seasons, it is not hard to see why. However, the 30-year-old is not far removed from his career year in 2021, where he hit .269 with 33 homers, 97 runs, 98 RBI, and 11 steals. And when Polanco has been healthy in the two years since, his numbers are not far off from those 2021 numbers. Over the past two years, Polanco has played 184 games. In that time, he has 30 home runs, 92 runs, and 104 RBI. If we cut that down by 25 percent (to 138 games played), we are still looking at 20+ homers and 140+ combined runs and RBI. Those are solid numbers for a late-round fantasy pick.

Polanco is now a member of the Seattle Mariners following an offseason trade from Minnesota. He will face a slight downgrade in his home park. But Polanco should hit directly behind one of the best players in the game, Julio Rodriguez. He is also hitting in front of some powerful bats in Cal Raleigh, Mitch Garver, and Mitch Haniger. This can be an interesting lineup if they can remain healthy. While Polanco’s strikeout rate has increased in each of his last two seasons, so has his hard-hit rate. Given a full complement of at-bats, I expect Polanco to post numbers similar to Brandon Drury. Drury finished last year 13th among second basemen in fantasy value last season.

Deeper 2B option: Jake Cronenworth (ADP: 426.02)

Shortstop: J.P. Crawford, Seattle Mariners (ADP: 330.60)

Sometimes the most boring picks are the right picks. And don’t get it twisted – J.P. Crawford is boring from a fantasy perspective. His power is average at best and his speed is virtually non-existent. At a position so rich in fantasy goodness, Crawford is often cast aside. But he can get on base with the best of them, and that leads to hidden value. Last year, his .380 on-base percentage was 11th best in all of baseball. As a result, Crawford scored 94 runs, fourth-best among shortstops. Crawford acquitted himself very well against left-handed pitching last season. He finished the year with a 120 wRC+ versus southpaws. Crawford should continue to hit atop Seattle’s lineup this season. This should yield plenty of runs along with solid numbers in all “front four” Roto categories.

There are a ton of other shortstops with more fantasy-friendly games. And with a fair number of them carrying multi-positional eligibility, it is understandable why many ignore Crawford. But there is virtually no downside at his current price. He is an ideal depth piece, and can even be a serviceable middle infielder and/or utility hitter depending on your team’s needs. Runs in particular become increasingly difficult to come by later in drafts. Last year 34 players scored 90 or more runs. Only 12 of the 34 have an ADP outside of Round 4 in 12-team leagues. Three of the 34 have an ADP outside of Round 12 in 12-team leagues. J.P. Crawford’s ADP is Round 24. Just because J.P. Crawford does not steal bases does not mean he is not a steal.

Deeper SS Option: Amed Rosario (ADP: 460.08)

Third Base: Ke’Bryan Hayes, Pittsburgh Pirates (ADP: 161.95)

I am old enough to remember when nobody paid attention to Spring Training. To be honest, I still don’t pay nearly as much attention to Spring Training as many other analysts do. Wake me when Miguel Andujar threatens for the American League Triple Crown. Having said that, I like what I have seen from Ke’Bryan Hayes so far this spring. He has three home runs in 25 at-bats with nary a single strikeout. He has also been making a ton of hard contact. More importantly, I see this as an extension of how Hayes ended 2023. Hayes batted .307 with a 129 wRC+ from June 1 through the end of last season and could be ready to break out in 2024. He is currently the 16th third baseman off the board, with an ADP in the 15th round in 12-team leagues.

The Pittsburgh Pirates do not have the most potent lineup in MLB (maybe they would if they had kept Andujar, he said sarcastically), but Hayes should put up solid numbers across the board. I would not say he will produce at an elite level in any particular Roto category. However, he does everything well. Per ESPN’s Player Rater, Hayes is one of 10 third basemen who made a positive contribution in all five Roto categories, including one of four with a +0.50 rating or higher in each category. Hayes makes for an ideal fit for your corner infield spot and has the potential to be a top-12 fantasy third baseman. Considering he is available five rounds after the top 12 third basemen are typically being drafted, I believe he is still underrated as we approach Opening Day.

Deeper 3B Options: Maikel Garcia (ADP: 213.74), Eugenio Suarez (304.70)

Outfield: Lane Thomas, Washington Nationals (ADP: 111.68)

Fantasy managers are drafting Lane Thomas higher than most players on my list. However, that does not mean the Nationals’ outfielder is not underrated. There were only 12 players in all of baseball who hit at least 20 home runs, stole 20 bases, scored 80 runs, and drove in 80 runs in 2023. Thomas is one of them, and he is the only one consistently available after the first 50 picks are off the board. Thomas’ ADP is right around the end of the ninth round in 12-team leagues. His Statcast metrics aren’t pretty. Thomas did not rank in the upper quartile in any relevant hitting metric except for his baserunning speed. He also had an unsavory 20.5 percent K-BB rate.

However, Thomas was one of two hitters with a hard-hit flyball rate of at least 40 percent and a pulled flyball rate of at least 35 percent. That signifies to me that his power may not be as fluky as it may appear. The bigger question mark for me is the batting average. Thomas exhibited extreme batting average splits last season. He hit .312 at home but .227 on the road. He hit .331 versus lefties and .242 against righties. Thomas even hit .302 in the first half compared to .223 in the second half. His home/road and first-half/second-half splits were almost the reverse in 2022, so consistency in general has been an issue for Thomas. Despite that, I am quite comfortable drafting Thomas this year, especially when you consider how quickly the outfield appears to fall off after the elite options are no longer available.

Deeper OF Options: Chas McCormick (ADP: 154.42), Brandon Nimmo (190.03), Taylor Ward (223.30) Jung Hoo Lee (227.36), Jose Siri (293.57)

Starting Pitcher: Nick Pivetta, Boston Red Sox (ADP: 172.48)

Fantasy managers are all about potential and upside, especially when a player flashes elite underlying metrics. Except apparently in the case of Nick Pivetta. Pivetta is currently being drafted on average at about the end of the 15th round. If that sounds reasonable to you, allow me to submit the following:

Nick Pivetta is one of six pitchers who had a strikeout rate of 30 percent or higher in the second half last season. Only one of the other five is readily available after Round Six.

He is one of three pitchers who had a second-half SIERA below 3.00. Neither of the other two are available after Round Six.

Pivetta is one of 12 pitchers who, for the entire 2023 season, threw at least 120 innings and recorded a K/9 of at least 10 while registering an xERA and xFIP below 4.00. Included in that list are Shohei Ohtani and Kodai Senga. Because of Senga’s injury, he is now the only other pitcher on this list besides Pivetta currently being selected outside the top 100 overall draft picks.

Sure, he is on the Red Sox. But even I think the hate has gone too far. Pivetta allows a lot of barrels and hard-hit balls from a percentage standpoint. But I think that is a bit overblown because hitters rarely make consistent contact when facing Pivetta. He added a slider/sweeper after being demoted out of the rotation earlier in the season. That seems to have made a world of difference, as evidenced by his prolific second half. I believe that Nick Pivetta can be a top-25 fantasy starting pitcher in 2024 if he continues that trajectory. Even if he falls short of that level of production, he can easily outproduce his ADP. That makes him one of the most underrated pitchers in all of fantasy.

Deeper SP Options: Aaron Civale (ADP: 201.77), Charlie Morton (229.76), Kenta Maeda (251.20)

Relief Pitcher: Tanner Scott, Miami Marlins (ADP: 131.60)

It is hard to say that any projected MLB closer is underrated these days. Most teams use multiple relievers in the role, so any player who is deemed “the guy” automatically sees his draft price skyrocket. However, Tanner Scott seems to defy that premise a bit. Fantasy managers usually draft Scott in the 10th or 11th round, and he is currently going between 12th and 15th among relievers. (Scott will be bumped up a spot moving forward given Devin Williams’ injury.) I think that is too low considering how Scott performed last season. He converted 12-of-15 save opportunities last year, with one of the blown saves coming via a ghost runner in extra innings. And his Statcast page has more red on it than Miami’s City Connect uniforms.

When it comes to relief pitchers, I am usually in the “draft skills, not role” camp. Turnover at the closer position is extremely high, and the wheat tends to separate from the chaff. So, in the “Deeper RP Options” section, I will highlight some players whom I like more than their team’s projected closers. In the meantime, Tanner Scott appears to have the role and he is the most skilled. That makes him a rare breed, and one that I believe fantasy managers are not taking proper advantage of. I do not see a ton of difference between Scott and some of the elite options at the closer position. If he can keep his walk rate below 10 percent (it was 7.8 percent last season), I think Scott can be a top-five closer in 2024.

Deeper RP Options: Hunter Harvey (ADP: 298.02), Yuki Matsui (309.96), Robert Stephenson (334.48)

For more of the great fantasy baseball rankings and analysis you’ve come to expect from FantraxHQ, check out our full 2024 Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit! We’re here for you all the way up until Opening Day and then on into your championship run.

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