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From MLB Backups to Fantasy Baseball Stars?

Drafting backups in fantasy baseball is not usually thought of as a winning strategy. However, in fantasy football, if there is a talented backup running back, they often go high in drafts in case they take over the starting job or are a beneficiary of an unfortunate injury. Maybe we should start doing the same thing for fantasy baseball. Late-round draft picks are dart throws no matter what. Why not target a player who has the upside to be a star, but is blocked on the depth chart? If you believe in the talent, then they are worth the pick because there is a chance they win the job in Spring Training or the projected starter gets hurt. Always bet on talent. In this article, I look at three players currently projected to be backups that could be fantasy baseball stars if given the chance to start.

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!

Backup Hitters to Draft

Dylan Moore- Shortstop/Second Base/Outfield, Seattle Mariners

I bet Dylan Moore was not the first name you expected to see on this list. Can Dylan Moore really become a fantasy star? Last season he slashed .224/.368/.385. He has a career batting average of .208 and has never slugged over .389 (in a season with at least 40 GP). Moore is once again projected as a utility man in Seattle heading into 2023. Seattle has made comments indicating Moore will likely see most of his time in the infield and not the outfield this season. Despite all of this, Moore has fantasy star upside and is well worth a shot with where his ADP is. His average ADP since January 1, is 567 which is basically free. Take a shot on Moore and see if he earns a starting spot.

Dylan Moore stole 21 bases in just 255 plate appearances last season. Since 2016, there have only been seven players to ever steal 20 bases in less than 300 plate appearances. This also marks two straight seasons in which he has stolen over 20 bases despite lacking a full-time role. When you think of the elite base stealers over the past few seasons you probably think of Trea Turner, Tommy Edman, and Starling Marte. Nobody thinks of Dylan Moore who despite only having 791 plate appearances, is tied for 10th in total stolen bases since 2020. In fact, amongst those with 30+ steals since 2020, Moore ranks third in SB/PA. The two players he trails:

  • Jon Berti
  • Adalberto Mondesi

Those are two players that everybody knows have elite speed. Moore has made it clear that he deserves to be in this category as well thanks to elite base stealing instincts which should be further amplified by the new rule changes. At the very least when you draft Moore, you are drafting some of the best stolen base production around. The thought to include him in a cheap speed article (coming soon) was tempting, but there is even mOOre to love about this player.

Over the past three seasons, Moore has shown an innate ability to barrel up the baseball. Many thought his 2020 rate of 13.8% was a fluke, but he has followed this up by posting rates of 8.6% and 12.9%. Despite his well above-average rate of 12.9%, Moore only hit six home runs with an HR/FB% under ten. Simply put, Moore was incredibly unlucky. He saw only five of his 17 barrels go for a home run. This 29% rate is well below the league average and does not make sense for a player that pulls over 30% of his fly balls. His max exit velocity is strong, the sweet spot percentage is incredible, and he hits a ton of fly balls. This is the entire recipe for a power breakout. Power and speed are what we look for when targeting prospects and that should not change when evaluating Moore.

Using the PLV tool developed by PitcherList, the problem in Moore’s profile becomes apparent. The issue has nothing to do with his hitter performance.

Dylan Moore

As a pure hitter, Moore is well above average. The issue is with his approach at the plate. The walks are nice and add nice value in OBP leagues, but think about how great of a season Moore could have if he starts swinging more in the zone. Last season he only swung at in-zone pitches 59.2% of the time.

Dylan Moore

The chart shows just how unaggressive Moore really was. If he is willing to start swinging more at pitches in the zone, then he should see his strikeout rate come down and production go up. My xwRC+ model loves him and thinks that he is far more talented than both Kolten Wong and J.P. Crawford. Buy into Dylan Moore now and see if the Mariners give him an opportunity. In full-time at-bats, there is 30+ steal potential with enough power to hit 20 home runs.

Brett Baty- Third Base, New York Mets

Brett Baty appeared in 11 games for the Mets last season before missing the remainder of the season with a thumb injury. The results were less than inspiring with a .184 average and a 71 wRC+. The small sample size is causing many to fade Baty in draft season and project Eduardo Escobar to be the Mets’ starting third baseman. All the hype and attention Baty gained while torching Minor League pitching has dissipated making now the perfect time to buy in. Of the three players listed in this article, Baty has the best chance to start Opening Day. He is going as 3B42 in drafts outside the top 480 picks. He is a steal and somebody that could quickly turn into a fantasy star.

2022 was finally the breakout season everybody had been waiting for. Standing at 6’3”, the raw power and skill were always evident, but it had yet to translate to professional success. Throughout his professional career, Baty has always posted gaudy HR/FB numbers. This remained true in the majors as he posted a 22.2 HR/FB% with a 91st percentile max exit velocity. The issue was just getting the ball in the air. While at Double-A, Baty was able to reduce his ground ball rate from over 55% in 2021 to 42.6% in 2022. This fueled his power breakout flashing easy 25+ home run upside.

Looking too far into Baty’s ground ball percentage from 11-game Major League games is not wise. Although the ground ball percentage shot back up to 53.3%, his average launch angle was a solid 10 degree, and his sweet spot percentage was over 43%. With only 30 batted balls, it is difficult to get a full picture of whether his progression stuck, but I am willing to bet on the talent. If Baty can just post a fly ball rate of around 30%, he can easily hit 20 home runs with the upside for more. Baty also posted a .179 BABIP last season which should see some massive regression. Throw out his 2022 stat line and focus on all the positives in the profile.

Baty’s skills go without mentioning the elite lineup he gets to bat in. The Mets have plenty of talented hitters that will provide Baty with both run and RBI opportunities. Counting stats are critical at a position like third base and Baty has all the opportunity for them.

Eduardo Escobar should not scare you away from Baty. Before Baty’s injury, Escobar had been benched and was really scuffling at the plate. Prior to a red-hot September, Escobar was batting just .218/.269/.383 while ranking in the eighth percentile in outs above average. His final month was fueled by an unsustainable BABIP (.355) and a ridiculous 20.5 HR/FB%. Escobar has never posted an HR/FB% north of 15.2% in his career. Both these numbers will level out and the Mets will quickly realize Baty is far more talented and deserving of a lineup spot. He is one of the steals of 2023 and should be a primary target during drafts.

Royce Lewis- Shortstop, Minnesota Twins

The Royce Lewis inclusion is one that I flipped back and forth on. The former number-one overall pick is the most talented player on this list but is the least likely to have a starting job this season. The most obvious reason is his recovery from a torn ACL. Lewis is expected to be sidelined until at least June with the possibility he does not return until after the All-Star Break. This is the second serious injury Lewis has suffered in his career. He has only played in a total of 46 games since 2019 and durability could continue to be a concern.

The injuries should not overshadow the upside as if he has a role, Lewis has a chance to become a difference maker. Right now, he is going as SS38 in drafts behind Kevin Newman and J.P. Crawford. Lewis has far more upside than either of those players and should be a late-round target in leagues you have room to stash him. The deeper your league, the more you should be targeting Lewis.

During his abbreviated Major League stint last season, Lewis looked every bit like a first-overall pick. He slashed .300/.317/.550 flashing the ability to hit for both contact and power. He whiffed only 16.2% of the time and chased less than the league average while posting above-average exit velocities. The raw skills have always been apparent, but a 94th percentile max exit velocity emphasizes the point. Hitters to post a similar max exit velocity are:

  • Teoscar Hernandez, Sean Murphy, Cal Raleigh, Randy Arozarena, and Jarred Kelenic

Lewis pulls the ball, hits it in the air, and hits it hard. There is 25-30 home run potential evidenced by his future raw power grade of 70.

We still have to wait and see how the most recent injury impacts his willingness to run, but Lewis profiles to have plus speed. He stole 12 bases in 34 games at Triple-A last season. The Twins might be hesitant to let him run wild, but the upside Lewis could easily steal 15-20 bases in a season.

Lewis’ playing time outlook benefits from his strong versatility. He can play all three infield positions along with CF. Right now, the outfield is congested and the infield is blocked by Correa, Polanco, and Miranda. These types of things tend to work themselves out during the season. Lewis is just one injury or poor performance away from becoming an everyday player. The Twins are going to prioritize getting his bat in the lineup no matter what. Correa could get hurt, Buxton could get hurt, Kirilloff could struggle shifting Miranda to first; the possibilities are endless.

While Lewis is the least likely of these three players to have a starting spot, the star potential is also the highest. Lewis is a rare player that has a chance to become a five-category contributor. He has power, speed, and a solid hit tool that should all translate to Major League success. The injury concerns and crowded depth chart are pushing him down draft boards, making now the perfect time to buy in. Would you really rather roster Kevin Newman over the upside of Royce Lewis? Make the right decision and draft a future star before you miss out.

For more great analysis check out the 2023 FantraxHQ Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit!

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