Have the Rays found their next Ben Zobrist?

When should a fantasy manager buy a skill change? It’s a complicated question that can have a huge impact on your fantasy league.

In the case of a young, promising prospect taking a step forward, such as a Andrew Vaughn, fantasy managers jump on board early. Vaughn, and players like him, were always supposed to be good, so fantasy managers are willing to believe in a skill change relatively early on.

But what about when that same phenomenon occurs with a player who has experienced several years of mediocre production? Fantasy managers are rightly skeptical and tend to wait out those situations.

That presents a buying opportunity for those willing to do the extra research. If you are an early advocate of a previously mediocre player finding the next level, you may end up with the following Ben Zobrist on your fantasy list. Speaking of which…

Ranks are based on standard Yahoo fantasy leagues

Isaac Paredes, Tampa Bay Rays 2B, 3B

Fantasy position over the past seven days: 1

Seasonal Fantasy Rank: 528

The Rays have already lived the Zobrist experience, and it’s possible they’ve done it again.

Isaac Paredes hits .255/.315/.612 since being called up to the majors. He has an incredible 10 home runs in 34 games.

There are plenty of reasons to doubt Paredes’ performance. Before 2022, Paredes had a .215/.290/.302 slash and only 2 home runs in the majors. His performance in the minors was better, but Paredes was not seen as a contender for a big name.

That said, Paredes did show some talent. He made Baseball America’s top-100 prospect list twice. He was at 94 in 2019 and 100 in 2020. Despite having already spent two separate seasons in the majors, he is only 23, an age when it is easier to buy his breakthrough.

Bearing in mind that it’s only 34 games, the numbers show some promising signs. Paredes has increased his running speed and hard hit rate, which could explain his sudden power jump. It also helps that his maximum exit speed is 110.4 mph, which is in the 70th percentile. Last season, Paredes’ maximum exit speed was in the 42nd percentile, a sign that the Rays have unlocked the power potential in his bat.

Paredes is helping these power numbers himself this season with an extreme pull approach. More than 50 percent of his batted balls are drawn and his flyball percentage has increased by nearly 6 percent.

All this bodes well. Paredes looks like a different player after joining the Rays in the off-season. Some setbacks are inevitable as he won’t maintain a 0.612 slugging percentage all season, but if you need help in second or third place and are willing to make a speculative addition, Paredes is already showing a huge advantage.

Cristian Javier, Houston Astros SP

Fantasy rank over the past seven days: 8

Seasonal Fantasy Rank: 79

After pitching seven no-hit innings against the juggernaut New York Yankees, Cristian Javier deserves more attention. After that performance, Javier now has a 2.73 ERA over 62 2/3 innings this season.

Is his outbreak sustainable?

Javier has always been able to show a lot, but needed a solid chance. Now that he has one, this performance shouldn’t come as a huge surprise.

Cristian Javier with the Astros has great fantasy value

Cristian Javier has a regular role, making him a strong fantasy asset. (Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)

That said, Javier has mitigated one of his biggest weaknesses this season. His walking speed has dropped from 12.5 percent to 9.4 percent. He could still improve in that area, but that’s a positive sign.

He has also had great success with his fastball. Batters hit .168 against the field in 2022. It has a little more vertical movement and Javier uses it to hit the zone up and down against right-handers. When they make contact, batters toss Javier’s fastball into the air, but don’t hit it hard enough to deal major damage.

However, there is a concern with Javier’s breakthrough. He has turned into an extreme flyball pitcher this season. His 23.9 ground ball percentage would be the lowest among the starters if Javier qualified for the ERA title.

Despite this, Javier’s home run-per-fly-ball rate is 4.8 percent, by far the lowest in his career. While it’s true that Javier limits hard contact, it’s still a dangerous mix. Eventually some of those fly balls will turn into home runs, which will increase Javier’s ERA.

Even with that, Javier still has a lot of value. Now that he’s firmly entrenched in the Astros’ rotation, Javier should remain a viable fantasy starter. There should be some concern about an inning limit, but he will be an above average fantasy starter as long as he is in the rotation.

Austin Riley, Atlanta Braves 3B

Fantasy rank over the past seven days: 591

Seasonal Fantasy Rank: 55

Austin Riley didn’t fully live up to last season’s breakout, though that didn’t affect its fantasy value much. Riley still ranks 55th among all players, even though he lost 0.050 of his batting average in 2022.

Last week was particularly bad, as Riley was only 3-for-15 with no homeruns. Slumps happen to every player and Riley managers have nothing to worry about in the long run.

So why focus on him here? Because there is potential for him even better than the 55th overall player to advance.

Riley has somehow become even more of a monster on the board. His average exit speed is 93.4 mph, which places him in the 97th percentile. His barrel rate of 15.7 percent is even better than last year and puts him in the 93rd percentile. His hard hit rate is up and he throws the ball in the air more often. That should lead to huge numbers of home runs, but you knew that when you drafted it.

What about batting average? Riley’s .307 figure from last year was supported by a .368 BABIP. It would be hard for Riley to sustain that, although hitting the ball hard could make up for some of that loss. However, some of the batting average struggles are legit. Riley chases a little higher on pitches and strikes out more often.

But there’s still a chance he’ll improve those numbers. Riley’s performance against fastballs has plummeted in 2022. After hitting .291 with a .508 slugging percentage against fastballs in 2021, Riley has a .230 average and .454 slugging on fastballs in 2022. Riley hits fastballs even harder in 2022, so it’s hard to imagine that that struggle will continue.

If you’ve drafted Riley, you’re probably happy with his performance. While he hasn’t been as good in numbers as he was last season, there are indications that he has been a better hitter this year. It’s possible he’ll take another step forward in the second half and finish even higher than last year when he was the 40th-ranked fantasy player in standard Yahoo leagues.

Lance Lynn, Chicago White Sox SP

Fantasy rank over the past seven days: 547

Seasonal Fantasy Rank: 704

Fantasy managers who have waited so long Lance Lynn must be disappointed after his first three starts. Lynn has a 6.19 ERA during those first 18 innings – not what you want.

At first glance, Lynn looks like the same pitcher. His strikeout rate remains solid and his running pace is elite. He’s had some bad luck with his .354 BABIP, 20 percent home run per flyball and 52.9 percent left-on-base percentage. All three numbers are so outside of Lynn’s norm that they should all improve as the season goes on.

It’s also worth digging through his gamelogs to see how how Lynn has had a hard time. His first time out was bad. Lynn gave up 10 hits to the Detroit Tigers and was unable to go deep into the game. His other two outings have been solid – until his last inning. Lynn gave up one earned run over five innings against a heavy attack by the Toronto Blue Jays before being unraveled in the sixth. He had a similar experience against the Baltimore Orioles, when he gave up two runs in six innings before things collapsed in the seventh.

Lynn bears some responsibility there, but it is also up to White Sox manager Tony La Russa to recognize when Lynn should be removed from games. Lynn threw 99 pitches against the Blue Jays and 109 against the Orioles in his second and third starts back from the injured list. If La Russa had been more careful, Lynn’s managers would probably feel much better at the start of his season.

La Russa remains Lynn’s real-life manager for now, which is troubling. Ideally, Lynn won’t experience as much fatigue later on in the beginning if he shows up a few more times. He’s shown enough to suggest he’ll still be an above-average fantasy starter anytime soon. Fantasy managers need not panic after a disappointing start to the year.

Jon Berti, Miami Marlins 2B,3B,OF

Fantasy rank over the past seven days: 17

Seasonal Fantasy Rank: 121

If you steal competition values, Jon Bertic should already be on the list. He leads the majors with 22 stolen bases, has only been caught twice, and has one of the best sprint speeds in baseball. He seemingly gets the green light every time he’s on base, meaning he’ll keep posting ostentatious stolen base totals.

With the stolen bases guaranteed, the biggest question is whether Berti can sustain this offensive production† Berti hits .297/.389/.421 on the season. All three of those numbers would mark another career high for Berti (if you take his example of four games from 2018).

Jon Berti with the Marlins.

Jon Berti keeps stealing bases, but will he keep hitting like a star? (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

It will be difficult to maintain those numbers. Berti has a .394 BABIP, which is probably going backwards. His speed can help in that area, as fast players can get more hits if they put the ball in play, but a BABIP near .400 is extreme.

Berti hasn’t really changed his game much either. He’s not known for hitting the ball hard and that hasn’t changed. His barrel rate is higher, although that doesn’t say much compared to what Berti has done in the past. Its launch angle is also higher, but not extreme. However, it should allow Berti to pull out more extra-base hits, so maybe his slugging percentage gain will be preserved.

Overall, there’s little evidence that Berti is in the midst of an offensive breakout. He deserves to be on the list based on his base-stealing ability, but there may come a time when fantasy managers want him on the couch if they’ve already packed steals – because once the regression hits, it can Berti not much else to offer .

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