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Targeting High Upside Players in Fantasy Baseball Drafts

Drafting for upside can be one of the most beneficial strategies in fantasy baseball. Once you have built the foundation of your fantasy team, finding ways to raise your ceiling can help to take your team to the next level. Each season, the fantasy baseball world is taken over by surprising breakout players. One of the most common mistakes is losing sight of your strategy late in drafts. What sets a good fantasy player apart from a great one is drafting well in the late rounds. This article analyzes the strategy of drafting upside late and identifies one player at each position that comes with plenty of risk, but also a high ceiling.

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When to Draft High-Ceiling Low-Floor Players

Last season, I wrote an article looking at this same strategy. The players with the highest ceiling often come with the most risk. While it can be exciting to add these kinds of players to your fantasy team, it is not always the best decision. The main factor that should decide how much risk you are willing to add late in drafts often depends on how you attack your draft early on. The safer you take the early rounds, the more shots you should take late.

Let’s run through one example. Say you start your draft with three hitters. Those three hitters are Fernando Tatis Jr., Elly De La Cruz, and CJ Abrams. There is plenty of upside here. When healthy, Tatis is one of the most electric players in baseball. De La Cruz’s ceiling is as high as it possibly can be for a second-year player, and CJ Abrams put fantasy teams on his back for two months last season. There is also considerable risk that Tatis does not stay healthy, De La Cruz does not make enough contact, and Abrams fails to take the next step. In this scenario, drafting players with a lot of risk might not make the most sense. Fantasy players would be better served to fill out their team with a group of players that add a bit of a floor to your team.

In a second scenario say you play it safe. In the first round you take Freddie Freeman, in the second round you add Rafael Devers, and in the third round, you add Jose Altuve. While this is certainly a star-studded lineup by name recognition, you miss some of the upside in the first scenario. This start also provides your team with a considerably higher floor. In this scenario, adding upside in the later rounds could be crucial to helping you reach the championship.

Keep reading to see which players drafted outside of the top 170 have a chance to finish inside of the top five at each position. Buyer beware though, each of these players comes with considerable risk!

Catcher: Austin Wells- NYY

Why Austin Wells can finish as a Top-5 Catcher:

Last season, I went with Bo Naylor in this position. Naylor was limited in his playing time and obviously did not finish as a top-five fantasy catcher. This season I am going back to the same well picking a catcher who made his Major League debut late in the previous season. Wells is part of the next wave of Yankees prospects coming up to help the team regain its dominance. The team has already moved on from Kyle Higashioka this off-season giving Wells the inside track at the starting catcher job. He appeared in 19 games for the Yankees last season hitting four home runs.

Power and plate discipline have been his two best attributes throughout his professional career. He has posted well above average HR/FB rates which are a sticky stat when projecting future Major League production. This is the primary reason why Wells could finish as a top-five catcher in fantasy. Wells hits a ton of fly balls and loves to tap into his pull-side pop. With a pretty left-handed swing, it is easy to dream about his potential at Yankee Stadium. The sample size is small, but over 500 plate appearances, Wells would have been on pace for 27 home runs last season. This level of power is rare at the catcher position. If you are looking for upside at catcher, 25+ home run potential at pick 328 should instantly catch your eye.

Why Austin Wells is unlikely to finish as a Top-5 Catcher:

Playing time is crucial for catchers to generate fantasy value. While the offensive performances at the position tend to lag behind that of other positions, players can set themselves apart with consistent playing time. The top five catchers in fantasy all received at least 500 plate appearances last season. The top seven catchers averaged 577 plate appearances. Steamer currently projects Wells for 286 plate appearances. Even if you believe his talent will win out and lead to additional playing time, adding 200 PA still only gets him to a total of 486. Veteran catchers are valued highly by Major League clubs and Jose Trevino figures to take plenty of playing time away from Wells in 2024.

As if playing time is not a big enough concern, there are also plenty of red flags in Wells’ profile. In his first taste of Major League action, Wells chased 37% of pitched with a whiff rate higher than the league average. He whiffed on 41% of breaking balls which could be exploited by Major League pitching. The power is impressive and can carry Wells toward the top of ranking lists, but the floor here is extremely low.

First Base: Kyle Manzardo- CLE

Why Kyle Manzardo can finish as a Top-5 First Baseman

Another young and unproven option for fantasy managers at first base. Kyle Manzardo was one of the hottest prospect names in fantasy baseball entering last season. Injuries, bad luck, and off-the-field issues caused a down year and ultimately resulted in a trade from Tampa to Cleveland. Manzardo returned to action and posted a 123 wRC+ with Cleveland’s Triple-A team and continued his strong play in the Arizona Fall League. Right now, Roster Resource projects Manzardo to be Cleveland’s Opening Day first baseman. He has proven everything that he has needed to at the Minor League level and could provide a big boost to the Guardians’ offense in 2024.

Despite his lackluster 2023 statistics, Manzardo looked like the same player everybody fell in love with prior to the season. He consistently barrels up the ball with high exit velocities. His contact skills are strong, and he drives the ball to all fields hitting plenty of line drives. Right now, his power profile is more geared toward doubles, but he still hit 17 home runs in just 415 plate appearances last season. He profiles as an elite four-category contributor who could be a huge boost to fantasy teams. He is being drafted as 1B31 at pick 417 which is a steal for the upside he possesses.

Why Kyle Manzardo is unlikely to finish as a Top-5 First Baseman:

As mentioned previously, Manzardo’s power is more geared to go gap-to-gap. His raw power and ability to make hard contact allows him to still hit 20ish home runs, but he lacks the home run upside that is typically needed to finish toward the top of first baseman rankings. To finish as an elite first baseman, you either need to post substantial home run totals, or steal 20+ bases. Of the top five finishers from 2023, three hit at least 33 home runs (Olson, Alonso, Walker). The two who did not (Freeman and Bellinger) both stole 20+ bases. Manzardo is unlikely to do either of those.

On top of that, the Guardians could opt to send Manzardo back to Triple-A. The team is always worried about financials and keeping Manzardo in the Minor Leagues could benefit them in the long run. Furthermore, they could look to platoon him once in the Major Leagues. The floor with players yet to make an appearance in the Major Leagues is always low. Manzardo is no exception making him a risky pick late in drafts.

Second Base: Nolan Gorman- STL

Why Nolan Gorman can finish as a Top-5 Second Baseman:

Why can Nolan Gorman finish as a top-five fantasy second baseman? Well, there was a point last season where it seemed like he was going to. The former top prospect finally seemed to put it all together to start last season. On May 25, Gorman was slashing .297/.389/.613 with 13 home runs. He was hitting for average, bringing his strikeout rate down, and still crushing home runs on a routine basis. Gorman was known for posting impressive offensive numbers throughout his Minor League career and seeing it happen at the Major League level was an encouraging sign. Gorman also made sizeable improvements against left-handed pitching helping to remove some of the platoon concern in his profile.

When looking for players who can finish toward the top of their respective positions, it is important to identify outlier traits. Whether it be speed, contact skills, or power, these traits help set certain players apart from the crowd. For Gorman, it is his power. Gorman led all second basemen with at least 200 plate appearances in barrel rate, hard hit percentage. He ranked third in HR/FB% and fourth in average EV. Power like this at second base is extremely valuable. The key for Gorman to finish top five at the position is to lower his strikeout rate. PLV shows that Gorman started making better decisions as the season moved along leading to optimism for 2024.

Nolan Gorman PLV

Going as 2B16 outside of the top 190 picks, Gorman is the perfect player to target if you are looking to add upside to your roster.

Why Nolan Gorman is unlikely to finish as a Top-5 Second Baseman:

Simply put, Gorman does not make enough contact. Instead of improving in his second season, Gorman’s whiff rate increased to 35.5%. Regardless of his impressive quality of contact, the high strikeout rate will bring down his batting average to levels that prevent him from being a top-tier fantasy asset. On top of that, Gorman does not run very much. He posted a 30th-percentile sprint speed last year with seven stolen bases. With no speed and capped batting average potential, Gorman carries significant risk.

Shortstop: Javier Baez- DET

Why Javier Baez can finish as a Top-5 Shortstop:

I will even admit, this one feels impossible. At this point in his career, Javier Baez feels like old news. His career has taken a turn for the worse since joining Detroit. There were always concerns in his profile back with Chicago, but they have been magnified with the Tigers. In two seasons with Detroit, Baez has hit just .230 with a 75 wRC+. The only qualified hitter with a lower wRC+ over that time is Myles Straw.

Even still, the upside for Baez is there. He has hit at least 23 home runs in four different seasons. We are only a few seasons removed from him crushing 31 home runs with 18 stolen bases. He has been a top-five fantasy asset before (albeit in 2018) and has the potential to do it again.

Surprisingly, Baez actually made notable improvements to his strikeout rate last season. He lowered his whiff rate by over three percent and his chase rate by 3.5%. This reduction in strikeout rate was offset by a drop in his BABIP despite Baez hitting more line drives in 2023 than in 2022. Listen, is this a stretch? Maybe, but Baez has the speed and raw power to finish as a top-five shortstop. If you need to add some upside late in drafts, he is going as SS36. He could be worth a dart throw to see if he can recapture his magic. His Spring Training has not gone well so far, but news about his back finally being healthy for the first time since joining the Tigers adds more fuel to this pick.

Why Javier Baez is unlikely to finish as a Top-5 Shortstop

Everything that I started this section with is relevant here. Baez has been one of the worst offensive performers in baseball over the past two seasons. Moving to a more pitcher-friendly ballpark has been detrimental to his power output and he is not running nearly as much as he used to. Also, long gone are the days of playing in a lineup surrounded by other All-Stars. The Tigers’ lineup ranks toward the bottom of the MLB making it more difficult for Baez to accumulate counting stats. Outside of his plate discipline metrics, there is very little to be encouraged about in Baez’s profile. If you draft Baez, there is a good chance you drop him within the first two weeks.

Third Base: Ezequiel Duran- TEX

Why Ezequiel Duran can finish as a Top-5 Third Baseman:

If you are looking for the background on Duran’s 2023 season, head over to this article that I wrote for Fantrax earlier this off-season. The moral of the story is that he started extremely hot before having a rough second half. However, when you dig under the hood, there is still a lot to like in his profile. Duran posted an average exit velocity of 90.1 mph with a max EV that ranked in the 96th percentile in all of baseball. Duran is more than just raw power though as he also posted a sweet spot percentage that ranks in the 70th percentile. His tendency to make hard contact should lead to plenty of home runs while his ability to hit line drives allows him to post BABIPs above the league average.

Duran’s upside is not just reliant on his bat. Although Duran stole just eight bases last season, he posted a sprint speed in the 91st percentile. Although Duran has never stolen 30+ bases, he had shown a tendency to run more often in the Minor Leagues. If the Rangers can help encourage him to steal more often in 2024, his fantasy value could take off. The former top prospect carries potential not many players going outside of the top 500 have. With multi-positional eligibility, he is the perfect high-upside pick for fantasy managers to target.

Why Ezequiel Duran is unlikely to finish as a Top-5 Third Baseman:

The Rangers are not messing around. They are fresh off a World Series championship and have top prospect Wyatt Langford banging on the door. Duran struggled during the second half and struggles early on in 2024 could push him back into a bench role. Duran has shown substantial issues with his ability to lay off pitches out of the strike zone and make consistent contact. There is a realistic possibility that Duran strikes out to stick as a starter in Texas’ lineup. He has as much upside as any player on this list but will need to overcome a lot to reach his potential.

Outfield: Christopher Morel- CHC

Why Christopher Morel can finish as a Top-10 Outfielder:

At this point, we all know the upside that Christopher Morel possesses. As if the 16 home runs he hit in 425 plate appearances back in 2022 were not impressive enough, he followed that up by hitting 26 home runs in 429 plate appearances in 2023. He has massive power that rivals just about anybody in baseball. Last season, he posted a 91st-percentile average EV, a 95th-percentile barrel rate, and a 92nd-percentile hard-hit percentage. He is one of those hitters that is capable of going white hot at the plate carrying both Major League and fantasy teams. This leaves fantasy managers dreaming with the thought of “what if” in their heads. What if he puts it all together? He has 40 home run potential and will likely add 10-15 stolen bases.

Craig Counsell has already come out and stated that he believes Morel has proven enough to get regular playing time in 2024. He does not turn 25 until June of this season making many optimistic we have yet to see the best from Morel. Morel is currently going as OF47 in drafts outside of the top 200. He is in the same range as Kerry Carpenter, Daulton Varsho, and Steven Kwan. Morel is the clear upside pick of that group as he could be a league-winner if he ever reaches his full potential.

Why Christopher Morel is unlikely to finish as a Top-10 Outfielder:

The off-season script for Morel is the same script as last year. Yes, Morel has incredible tools and the potential to finish as a top outfielder. The issue is that he does not make enough contact to accomplish that. His cold stretches offset his hot streaks. From August 3 through September 13 of last season, Morel hit just .153/.231/.357 with zero stolen bases. Those numbers are not just bad, they are detrimental to a fantasy team. Morel whiffed on 37% of the pitches he saw last year ranking in the second percentile for that category. While the upside is fun to dream of, the odds of Morel suddenly putting everything together are slim. He is a fun waiver-wire pickup while he is hot, but fantasy managers should be careful in expecting much more from him.

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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