Veteran fantasy baseball managers will know that winning a league is equal parts skill, planning, and plain dumb luck. The 2018 MLB season has already been filled with a score of cancelled games due to weather, high profile players on the DL, and surprising performances (both good and bad).
The difference between winning and losing can sometimes be who manages to snag the underrated players having breakout seasons. While traditional “role” players or inexperienced rookies may see their hot starts fizzle out as Spring turns into Summer, if you’re lucky enough to find one of these players available in your league you should consider finding room on your roster.
We’re going to use Yahoo! ownership percentage, although these numbers tend to be pretty close across all platforms. In no particular order, here are 12 little-owned (we use a generous definition of this term at times) Big Leaguers who could help lead your team to a championship — or at least help you pick up some extra wins early in the season.
12. Teoscar Hernandez – OF – 44% Owned
The Toronto Blue Jays have gotten off to a surprisingly hot start, even with their former MVP Josh Donaldson missing a bulk of early games due to a shoulder injury. You’ll see a few more Jays later on this list, but let’s start with young outfielder Teoscar Hernandez. The 25-year-old from the Dominican Republic played well during Spring Training, and the Toronto fans and media thought he should have probably made the Opening Day team. Instead, he was sent back to AAA.
As the inevitable injuries popped up, Hernandez was the first Blue Jays call-up and made an immediate impact. In his first 38 plate appearances, he tallied 12 hits — seven of them for extra bases — and ten RBIs. He even stole a base, something the Jays don’t do very often. While the sample size is small, Hernandez is slashing .343/.395/.743 and forcing the Jays to make a difficult decision about his future. They envisioned Randal Grichuk would be patrolling the corner outfield spots, but he’s hitting just .086 over the first 20 games of the season. It might be time for Teoscar to become an everyday player in Toronto.
11. CC Sabathia – SP – 21% Owned
Everyone keeps expected CC Sabathia to run out of steam, but the 37-year-old Yankee lefty just keeps grinding out wins. He made 27 starts in 2016 and went 14-5 with a 3.69 ERA. If he can repeat that in 2018, he’s more than worthy of a spot on your fantasy roster. He won’t be your superstar, but a valuable member of your fantasy rotation.
Sabathia can still put up solid strikeout numbers, but truly excels at inducing soft contact. He doesn’t give up many home runs, and plays on a good enough team in New York to continue to pick up wins. After three early starts this season, his ERA is just 2.70. At the very least, he’s an attractive option for streaming pitchers. But he really should be rostered for good in most leagues, unless your pitching staff is magically filled with nothing but aces.
10. Kurt Suzuki – C – 29% Owned
Hands up if you had the Atlanta Braves backcatcher on your fantasy radar before the season. If you say that you did, we might be calling you a liar. Kurt Suzuki only played in 81 games in 2017, but still managed to set a career high in home runs and OPS. The 34-year-old veteran is usually considered the backup to Tyler Flowers, but an early season injury has Suzuki getting the majority of the playing time. And he’s making the most of it.
So far he’s batting .317/.420/.610 with three home runs, three doubles, and eight RBIs. That’s pretty good for a position that is typically a fantasy black hole if you didn’t draft one of the few elite catchers in the league. Even if Suzuki’s production drops off, he’s still a career .258 hitter on a team that is producing a surprising amount of runs so far in 2018. As long as he stays in the Braves’ lineup, he’s worth a pickup for now.
9. Ryan Flaherty – 2B, 3B – 21% Owned
Hey look, another Atlanta Brave makes our list! What exactly is going on in Georgia these days? The Braves continue to put up runs, and veteran infielder Ryan Flaherty is part of the production. Somehow, the 31-year-old is suddenly a hit machine. He’s batting .362/.471/.500 over the first 18 games, with 21 total hits. That’s way above his career average of .223/.294/.362. The real question will be whether he can maintain the high level of play for more than a couple of weeks.
A century of baseball analysis will show that Flaherty is likely to regress back towards his career numbers at some point, but in the meantime he should be owned in most deep leagues. While he’s technically only a backup infielder for the Braves, they are being forced to find ways to keep him in the lineup for now. He’s even putting up these numbers batting in the bottom third of the Atlanta lineup (usually 8th or 9th, never higher than 7th). Ride the Flaherty train while it’s chugging along, just be prepared to drop him when (or if) it starts to slow down.
8. Marcus Semien – SS – 45% Owned
Under most fantasy league scoring systems, Marcus Semien was ranked in the top 15 (or even top 10) shortstops after three weeks of baseball. Yet the Oakland Athletics infielder was still only owned in 45% of Yahoo! leagues. While his position is stacked with other All-Star caliber players, it seems unthinkable that no one wants to slot him into a Utility position (or replace an under-performing shortstop).
Semien plays every day, and usually bats in leadoff or No. 2 spot. So far he’s hitting .266/.327/.721, with two home runs and six doubles. He’s also racked up 12 RBIs and a pair of stolen bases, giving fantasy owners some all-around value. While it’s still early, the 27-year-old is on pace to set new career highs in hits, RBIs, walks, and stolen bases. Then again, he’s also striking out more than usual. But hey, if you didn’t manage to land Manny Machado, Didi Gregorius, Carlos Correa or Javy Baez, there are plenty of worse options than picking up Marcus Semien.
7. Drew Pomeranz – SP – 60% Owned
Drew Pomeranz missed the start of the 2018 season due to injury, but we expect him to come back and have a solid year. Sure, his first outing of the season didn’t go very well (3.2 innings against the A’s, with a 7.36 ERA), but he’s better than that. He has a career ERA of 3.69 and won 17 games for the Red Sox in 2017. His 174 strikeouts over 173.2 innings last year should be more than enough of a track record to add him — especially if your league uses Wins or K/9.
The Red Sox have started 2018 on fire, blazing out to a 17-4 record. Pomeranz should get plenty of run support to win games, plus he doesn’t have a lot of pressure on him since he’s in the same starting rotation as high-priced pitchers like Chris Sale and David Price, plus former Cy Young winner Rick Porcello. He’s a little under appreciated when it comes to dependable “depth” pitchers.
6. Matthew Boyd – SP – 10% Owned
In his previous three years in Major League Baseball, Matthew Boyd hasn’t resembled anything that looks like an attractive fantasy option. His career ERA is above 5.00, he owns an atrocious 1.424 WHIP, and he’s never won more than six games in a season. However, he’s been lights out so far in 2018 and it worth an early look on pretty much any fantasy team.
Over his first three stars of 2018, Boyd has pitched three quality starts of 6.0 innings or more, giving up just a single earned run in each contest. He doesn’t post extremely high strikeout numbers, but is also keeping walks to a minimum. His ERA of 1.40 and WHIP of 0.672 are unsustainable, and the Detroit Tigers won’t offer him a ton of run support to actually pick up wins (he’s officially 0-1 so far, despite dominating opposing hitters). If you’re in a league with quality starts, ERA, and/or WHIP, Boyd needs to be owned.
5. Tyler Mahle – SP – 9% Owned
It can be tricky relying on young pitchers, but Tyler Mahle just might get there in 2018. He showed what he can do by pitching a marvelous 6.0 scoreless innings against the Cubs in early April, but has suffered three straight losses since. Nevertheless, Mahle is a Top 100 MLB prospect and the 23-year-old righty could quickly mature into a dependable pitcher.
We know the minors aren’t the same as The Show, but Mahle was impressive while he was in them. He barely walked any batters (1.9 per nine innings) and struck out a ton (8.3 per nine), and didn’t give up many home runs. He may be worth picking up a streaming options, with the thought that you’ll keep him on your roster longer if he strings together a few quality starts. If 2018 doesn’t work out for Mahle (the Reds are really bad), keep his name in the back of your mind for future drafts — the kid will probably be very good.
4. Luke Maile – C – 3% Owned
Okay, we admit that there might not be a lot of value in having the backup catcher for the Toronto Blue Jays. But if you have room on your roster, he might be a sneaky add until his bat cools off. While he doesn’t play every game (first stringer Russell Martin gets two out of every three games, usually), the Maile Man has been smoking hot so far in 2018.
In 33 plate appearances, Maile has 12 hits (including four doubles), nine RBIs, and four walks. That translates to a .414/.485/.552 slash line that is completely unsustainable, but super valuable while it lasts. The Jays have even used him to pinch hit on days he doesn’t start, since he’s come up clutch so many times with RISP so far this year.
Maile is still just 27-years-old, and has never had much offensive value in his short MLB career. However, he’s strong and athletic, and owns just 330 plate appearances so far. Is it possible that with a more regular gig, he could become the real deal for fantasy owners searching for a reliable backstop? We don’t know the answer to that, but the early 2018 signs are promising. Plus, Martin has a history of injuries and always seems to be a stubbed toe away from a prolonged DL stint. If that happens, Maile will play almost every day.
3. Danny Salazar – SP – 48% Owned
Cleveland Indians fireballer Danny Salazar started the 2018 season on the DL with shoulder inflamation, but that really shouldn’t dissuade you from owning him. He’s an excellent DL stash and is available in more than half of Yahoo! leagues. Barring a setback, he should be back on the mound some time in May, and will provide fantasy owners with a boost to their starting rotation.
Salazar saw his ERA dip in 2017 (to 4.28, up from 3.87 and 3.45 in 2016 and 2015), but was still impressive — especially when it comes to strikeouts. He fanned 145 batters in just 103 innings pitched last year, for a great 12.7 K/9 ratio. He only gave up 14 home runs in 23 starts. The real question for the 27-year-old Salazar is “can he stay healthy?” If he returns from the DL and continues to put up typical Danny Salazar numbers, you’ll want him on your roster.
2. Adrian Gonzalez – 1B – 3% Owned
At 36-years-old and cast aside by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the offseason, it appeared the sun was setting on Adrian Gonzalez’s big league career. Instead he signed a veteran’s minimum contract with the Mets and appeared in 16 of their first 20 games playing first base. Not only that, but he’s been playing pretty well — for an old guy, anyway,
Gonzalez is barely owned, but already has 11 hits and 11 RBIs. He’s batting .239/.345./391 so far, belting out two home runs for the Mets so far. Those are numbers comparable to first basemen like Eric Hosmer (94% owned) and better than those of Carlos Santana (81% owned). He’s even been batting in the No. 5 or 6 hole for the Mets, meaning he should get plenty more RBI opportunities in 2018 as long as he stays healthy. Aside from Gonzalez’s personal renaissance, the Mets are surprising everyone by jumping out to a 14-6 record and (even more shocking) managing to keep their pitching staff healthy so far.
1. J.A. Happ – SP – 67%
Okay, so 67% isn’t really “barely owned,” but we still think Blue Jays lefty J.A. Happ should be rostered in any fantasy league with at least eight teams. He’s only one season removed from being a 20-game winner with an ERA of 3.18. He was almost as good for the Jays in 2017, but only won 10 games thanks to dismal run support.
So far in 2018, Happ’s strikeout rate is up (12.7 K/9 after four starts) and the Jays are actually scoring a ton of runs. That should help his ability to pick up wins, even with the Jays playing the tough AL East division and having to contend with the Yankees and Red Sox all year. He already has more strikeouts than Gio Gonzalez (88% owned), Jon Lester (91 owned), or Zack Greinke (98% owned). We expect his ERA will settle down a bit too, once he really gets into the routine of the season. He started slow in 2017 too.