One week into the season is far too early to panic about a slow start for fantasy studs—don’t go benching José Ramírez over his .043 batting average, people—but it’s never too soon to start identifying potential fantasy breakouts. With an encouraging change in approach here or an intriguing start there, players who are largely unowned in fantasy leagues can display early flashes that portend productive seasons to come. Aaron Judge homered in the Yankees’ sixth, seventh, and eighth games last season, and the eager fantasy owners who scooped him from the undrafted pool early reaped tremendous dividends by season’s end.
Don’t miss out on those opportunities in 2018. No player on the following list will hit 52 home runs like Judge did last year, but that isn’t a prerequisite for fantasy relevance, and adding counting stats, ratio help, and upside to a fantasy roster is sufficient at this point in the season. Here are six players to add, or at least monitor to think about adding soon, if they’re available in your league: three hitters and three pitchers, with one of each who’s likely available in shallower leagues, one in medium-sized leagues, and one in deep leagues. The best part is that they’ll come with a small enough investment that even if they flop, you can cut bait without losing much value at all.
José Martínez, Cardinals 1B/OF
(80 percent ownership in ESPN leagues)
In the past seven days, Martínez is the third-most-added player in fantasy, behind Hunter Strickland, who won a closing job, and Opening Day wonder Matt Davidson, the White Sox DH who hit three homers in Chicago’s first game. Davidson probably won’t warrant a roster spot over the rest of the season—he’s just four for his past 18—but Martínez, who also tallied three hits on Opening Day, will.
Martínez started the season with five hits and a walk in the first two games, with all of those hits coming against the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom. His home run against Syndergaard—a 400-foot blast to left-center—redirected a down-and-in fastball, marking the first homer the Mets ace had ever allowed to a righty on that pitch in that location. I’ve already touted Martínez this year as my breakout pick, after the Cardinal masher produced a top-five expected performance last year based on batted-ball data, joining Aaron Judge, J.D. Martinez, Mike Trout, and Joey Votto, and shifting Rhys Hoskins, Giancarlo Stanton, and Freddie Freeman down a spot.
He can hit, in other words, and hit well, and his hot start to 2018 only confirms that his success in partial playing time in 2017 wasn’t a fluke. He’s playing everyday this season and hitting fifth in St. Louis’s lineup, where the typical top four—Dexter Fowler, Tommy Pham, Matt Carpenter, and Marcell Ozuna—are so adept at reaching base that Martínez will have plenty of RBI opportunities as the season progresses. His ownership has rocketed upward in just the past week, but if your league hasn’t caught on yet, grab this powerful bat while you still have the chance.
Brandon Drury, Yankees 2B/3B
(21 percent ownership)
As with Martínez, playing-time questions encircled Drury before the season, but also like Martínez, the Yankees’ new third baseman has a clearer path toward 400-plus at-bats than he did two weeks ago. With first baseman Greg Bird out for about two months after undergoing ankle surgery, there’s more playing time to go around the Yankees infield, which is good news for Drury even with talented prospects angling for playing time in the bigs. If Drury hits, he will continue to play, Triple-A climbers be darned, and he’s done the job in the early going.
Through seven games, Drury is hitting .238/.360/.429, with nearly as many walks as strikeouts. He hit one homer and missed another by a few inches on a drive that hit the top of the right-field fence, and after training in the offseason with the hitting coach who helped turn J.D. Martinez into an offensive force, Drury has showed early glimpses of a revamped swing. The air-ball revolution has a new adoptee: Seven of Drury’s 15 batted balls this year (46.7 percent) have left the bat with a launch angle between 15 and 30 degrees, which compares favorably with last year’s 16.6 percent that ranked him 358th out of 387 players with at least 100 batted balls.
More fly balls aren’t a signal of success per se, but as long as Drury doesn’t go full Ryan Schimpf, his altered approach should yield more home runs, especially for a batter in Yankee Stadium. In Didi Gregorius and Aaron Hicks, New York has proved its ability to transform glove-first players into two-way threats, so take advantage of Drury’s multi-position eligibility and coming rise at the plate.
Derek Fisher, Astros OF
(3 percent ownership)
As Fisher’s meager ownership stake suggests, he is more a speculative add than Martínez or Drury, but he fits their broad pattern, too, as a player who might pick up more plate appearances than anticipated in a high-scoring lineup. With Yuli Gurriel first suspended and now on the disabled list, Fisher has been playing almost every day in the early going, and if anyone in Houston’s starting lineup gets hurt and misses extended time, Fisher should start against all right-handed pitchers. (He might even without an injury, if A.J. Hinch prefers to rotate Marwin González around the diamond.)
If Fisher does, he’ll become a multifaceted fantasy contributor. He’s exhibited offensive success at every minor league level en route to the majors—in four seasons on the farm, Fisher hit a cumulative .282/.372/.488—and he projects as a league-average hitter at the MLB level this season. He adds 60-grade raw power and 70-grade speed on the 20-80 scouting scale and averaged 17 homers and 23 stolen bases per season in the minors. Even partial playing time would give him a chance to reach double digits in both of those stats, and hitting in Houston’s loaded lineup would offer him runs and RBI opportunities galore.
J.A. Happ, Blue Jays SP
(59 percent ownership)
Since the start of last season, Happ has a 23.3 percent strikeout rate. Here is every pitcher with at least 150 innings who’s within 1 percentage point of the Toronto lefty:
Alex Wood (owned in 98 percent of ESPN leagues)
Jeff Samardzija (60 percent)
Gerrit Cole (99 percent)
Chase Anderson (89 percent)
Drew Pomeranz (47 percent)
Jon Lester (95 percent)
Jake Arrieta (98 percent)
Sonny Gray (95 percent)
Gio González (95 percent)
Patrick Corbin (64 percent)
José Berríos (97 percent)
Dylan Bundy (92 percent)
Besides Samardzija and Pomeranz, who are currently injured, and Corbin, whose percentage is sure to rise after his 12-strikeout game against the Dodgers on Wednesday, every pitcher is owned in at least 89 percent of leagues. Happ’s 59 percent ownership share makes no sense in comparison, because there’s not much separating him from the proximal pitchers on that list. Yes, he plays in a tough division, but he’s done so for half a decade now with no ill effects; no, he’s not a young upside player like Berríos or Bundy, but he’s just as sturdy a veteran as Lester or Arrieta or González.
Happ has posted an ERA in the 3s in three consecutive seasons and double-digit wins in four seasons in a row—including one 20-win season, which means little for real-world purposes but a great deal in fantasy—and he has the peripherals to match those totals again in 2018. Pick up Happ. He’s good! No matter what the skewed ownership rates say.
CC Sabathia, Yankees SP
(29 percent ownership)
Sabathia is the kind of boring veteran pitcher whom nobody wants to draft but who will end up serving as a stabilizing force for fantasy owners by midseason. His fastball has changed from a mid-90s four-seamer to a cutter that barely touches 90 miles per hour, and he doesn’t move well as a fielder or pitch deep into games. Yet he won 14 games last year (tied for 18th in the majors) and ran a 3.69 ERA (31st among 90 pitchers with at least 140 innings). He bested Michael Fulmer in wins, ERA, and strikeouts and was basically Dallas Keuchel’s equal in counting stats; even though he’s unlikely to match them again this season, the fact they’re a point of reference at all suggests Sabathia’s fantasy upside.
He fits the profile of a pitcher who’s underrated because what he does well—put hitters off-balance—is less aesthetically overwhelming than a pitcher who relies on strikeouts. Strikeouts are important in fantasy, to be sure, but in this homer-happy age, generating enough soft contact to avoid three-run blasts can be just as vital. Among regular starters, only Kyle Hendricks allowed a lower exit velocity on batted balls last year—Keuchel ranked third, Clayton Kershaw fifth—which helped Sabathia overcome his middling K-rate to tame anxious sluggers and the juiced ball.
His first 2018 start, against Toronto, is about what you can expect from Sabathia this season: He induced lots of soft contact, collected a handful of strikeouts, and allowed just two runs (one earned) in five innings. He won’t hurt your rate stats, and pitching with the support of New York’s powerful offense will put him—and your team—in line for a win more often than not.
Tyler Mahle, Reds SP
(16 percent ownership)
It’s not often that a top-100 prospect begins the season in the majors, pitches a gem in his first start, and is still available in a wide swath of fantasy leagues, but that’s the case with Mahle. Maybe it’s fear of the Reds’ spotty pitching-development history, but the 23-year-old right-hander has a higher prospect pedigree than rotation mate Luis Castillo, who did just fine as a rookie in 2017 and was drafted like a top-30 pitcher this season.
In six innings against the Cubs in his 2018 debut, Mahle allowed zero runs, one hit, and two walks while striking out seven. His fastball bamboozled the Cubs bats, and while Baseball America’s no. 90 prospect doesn’t have a standout pitch, he flashes impressive command and finds the strike zone with regularity. In his minor league career, he walked only 1.9 batters per nine innings (versus 8.3 strikeouts) and allowed 0.6 homers per 9—a skill he’ll need to maintain while pitching at Great American Ball Park.
Fantasy players shouldn’t overreact to one promising start, but Mahle’s ownership is already up 12 percentage points in the past week, and if he dazzles again in his next start against the Pirates, there will be a further torrent of owners jockeying to sign him. Don’t miss out on your chance before then.
An earlier version of this piece included art that featured Tyler Wade in place of Brandon Drury.