After a one-week delay, that coming on the heels of a lengthy wait through the winter’s lockout, we finally have stats that count!
With them, we have standings that totally matter – oh, OK, no, they absolutely do not, not anytime soon (think beginning in mid-May), but at least we have standings that cement the fact that fantasy baseball is back!
It’d be understandable if you’re brimming with excitement accordingly. This is a prime time for roster maneuvering, but the minuscule sample size of numbers often leads to rash decisions. The best way to approach pickups at this time of year is to look for clear, skills- or role-related trends, exploiting only those and remaining patient when your core roster pieces have shown no such change to either.
To help you on your way, here are some players worth adding right away, listed in descending order in which I’d roster them:
Josh Lowe, OF, Tampa Bay Rays: The immediate beneficiary of the Austin Meadows trade, Lowe earned an exhibition-game start at leadoff the very next day (in a game of almost entirely Rays regulars), then starts hitting seventh, fifth and six during the opening opening-weekend series against the Baltimore Orioles. It’s a sizable commitment to a player with only two big-league trips to the plate, but warranted considering his 60-degree power and speed grades, and Lowe’s keen eye at the plate should serve him well as he adapts to this level. He might strike out almost 30% of the time, subjecting him to statistical peaks and valleys, but he fills both the traditional rotisserie categories as well as points-league scoresheets. Batting average is about the only thing not to like about Lowe’s profile.
Tylor Megill, SP, New York Mets: The final cut from the write-’em-up group for my annual “Kings of Command,” Megill on Opening Day – as the fill-in for Jacob deGrom – exhibited the reasons for his candidacy, going five shutout innings with six strikeouts, zero walks and 11 swings and misses. Perhaps most importantly, however, Megill averaged 96.1 mph with his fastball, a full tick-and-a-half increase over his 2021 number (94.6), and threw 32-of-39 fastballs faster than said 2021 average. It’s the pitchers who look most definitively different during either spring training or the regular season’s early stages who are the most compelling pickups, and Megill was already a pretty good one entering the year, having posted 29.7% strikeout and 6.9% walk rates between Double- A, Triple-A and his 2021 big-league career time. With a clear path to a regular rotation spot at least deep into May, and probably all year considering the Mets starters’ injury histories, Megill needs to be universally rostered in ESPN leagues (currently sub-30%).
Anthony Bender, RP, Miami Marlins: From the advertised closer-by-committee arrangement to fill in for Dylan Floro, Bender was always my choice, and manager Don Mattingly showed confidence in Bender by throwing him back in there for Saturday’s save chance after the sophomore served up a Thairo Estrada game- tying home run to blow his first chance on Friday. Bender’s fastball-slider pitch selection leads to a wide range of launch angles – he surrendered near-identical weak contact and Barrel rates in 2021 – which will result in the occasionally frustrating blown save, but that slider is absolutely filthy against right-handed hitters. The Marlins should really employ a Bender-closes-but-Tanner Scott-gets-a-lefty-filled-ninth strategy.
Kyle Wright, SP, Atlanta Braves: He’s more of a deep-dive than Megill – think anything larger than our 10-team standard – but color me intrigued, after Wright tossed six shutout innings on Saturday with a decidedly different pitch mix than in seasons past. He threw an almost entirely sinker-curveball combination, the sinker thrown 43.4% of the time and the curveball thrown 40.8% of the time, the latter up from 11.0% in his career entering 2022, while getting much more extension in his delivery than ever before. Wright’s sinker is a high-contact pitch, so his 28.6% overall strikeout rate in that start is probably an aggressive full-year over / under, but he looks a lot more locked in than the barely-made-the-rotation pitcher he seemed just over a week ago.
Steven Kwan, OF, Cleveland Guardians: A classic elite-contact hitter, Kwan has struck out in only 9.1% of his pro-career trips to the plate, including the 14 plate appearances he had during the Guardians’ three weekend games in Kansas City, in which he did not swing and miss a single time. He’s almost entirely without power, rarely ever elevating the ball, but can put a charge into it – 4-of-14 batted balls were struck with at least a 95 mph exit velocity – plus he brings above-average speed that could set his statistical basement at a .280 batting average and 10 steals. Players like that, who play regularly as he is, have value: Luis Arraez, David Fletcher and Nicky Lopez have all delivered plenty-useful recent fantasy seasons while possessing skill sets in somewhat the same ballpark as Kwan’s.
Merrill Kelly, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks: I could go in either direction between him and Wright, and perhaps that Kelly is seven years older as well as the same amount further into his professional career has me placing him lower on the list. Nevertheless, Kelly’s elevated fastball velocity – 93.1 mph, up from 91.6 from 2019-21 combined – which contributed to his striking out 7-of-17 hitters, after he struck out 13-of-23 hitters in his two Cactus League starts , similarly caught my eye. Kelly did strike out 23.5% of the hitters he faced in his final two seasons in Japan (2017-18), and 23.2% in his abbreviated 2020, and if he could elevate his 2022 number back there, he’d emerge as more than a streaks / matchups play.