Every year, a few weeks before the autumn leaves, the collective mindset of fantasy baseball managers begins to change. And the boys of summer cede the spotlight to the gladiators of the gridiron.
But that doesn’t mean we can just forget about our fantasy baseball teams. As my fellow LABR and Tout Wars competitor (and Xperts Fantasy League partner) Ian Kahn always says, football season is the best time to gain an edge over next season’s baseball opponents.
With that in mind, it’s time to unveil our All-Breakthrough team. These are players who may have been afterthoughts back in March, but whose performances have elevated their values substantially for next season.
Sean Murphy, Oakland A’s. First of all, the Orioles’ Adley Rutschman looks like a budding star, but he already had sky-high expectations before he even made his MLB debut. Murphy, 27, was the No. 15 catcher in NFBC drafts this season, yet he ranks among the top six at the position in homers, RBI and runs scored.
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Runner-up: William Contreras, Atlanta Braves.
C.J. Cron, Colorado Rockies. Power has never been an issue for Cron. (Witness the 504-foot home run he hit last week, the second-longest in the Statcast era.).
Skeptics wondered about his ability to play the field, especially after having major knee surgery two years ago. But with two healthy seasons in Colorado under his belt, career-high totals in runs (73), RBI (95) and quite possibly homers (28) – plus the adoption of the universal DH – Cron’s status with the Rockies is solid, even at age 32.
Runner-up: Nathaniel Lowe, Texas Rangers.
Andres Gimenez, Cleveland Guardians. Gimenez, 24, has blossomed into a .300 hitter who could go 20-20 (with 16 homers and 18 steals through Sunday). He also needs just two more appearances at shortstop to retain fantasy eligibility at both positions next season. Getting Gimenez and Amed Rosario (No. 24 shortstop) for Francisco Lindor two years ago now looks like a deal a shrewd dynasty league GM might make with both seemingly excellent building blocks for the future.
Runner-up: Vaughn Grissom, Atlanta Braves.
Dansby Swanson, Atlanta Braves. Swanson had a very good 2021 (.248, 27 HR, 88 RBI), but despite his prospect pedigree and durability, he was still the 18th shortstop off the board this spring. He’s taken his overall game to an even higher level this season – improving his batting average by 35 points while maintaining his power and shattering his previous career high in stolen bases with 17. Among shortstops, only Trea Turner ranks ahead of him in fantasy value. A free agent this winter, he’ll be a top option no matter where he’s playing.
Runners-up: Jorge Mateo, Baltimore Orioles and Jeremy Pena, Houston Astros.
Jose Miranda, Minnesota Twins. After slugging 30 homers in the minors a year ago, Miranda’s bat was clearly ready for the majors. The Twins’ injury issues opened the door and the 24-year-old stepped onto the big stage, hitting .275 with 14 homers and leading the club in RBI. Though he has his defensive limitations, Miranda has played enough to qualify at both corner infield spots next season.
Runner-up: Alec Bohm, Philadelphia Phillies.
Julio Rodriguez, Seattle Mariners. The consensus No. 1 prospect entering the season, Rodriguez was no lock to make Seattle’s opening day roster. Even then, drafters were unsure how much of an impact he might make as a 21-year-old with no experience above Class AA, taking him, on average, as the No. 62 outfielder (230 overall).
Elite talent has a way of forcing the issue. Rodriguez posted a .205/.284/.260 slash line in April, but still managed to steal nine bases in nine attempts. Shortly thereafter, his power caught up with his speed to the point where he’s on the verge of becoming this season’s first member of the 25-homer, 25-steal club. (As of Sunday, he needed one more stolen base.).
In keeper formats with minor league rosters, Rodriguez almost certainly wasn’t available on draft day. But his immediate rise to potential first-round status next season gives him the nod ahead of overachievers such as Taylor Ward, Adolis Garcia, Anthony Santander and Jake McCarthy – and yet another budding star in Atlanta.
Runner-up: Michael Harris II, Atlanta Braves.
Spencer Strider, Atlanta Braves. We seem to have a pattern here. After tossing just 3 ⅓ innings above the Class AA level, Strider earned a spot in the Atlanta bullpen out of spring training. Pitching mostly in low-leverage situations at first, he opened eyes with a May 6 appearance in which he struck out eight in four shutout innings.
Strider, 23, got his first start later than month and has been a fixture in the rotation ever since. With a 2.69 ERA and 0.97 WHIP, he’s had five games with double-digit strikeouts – including a season-high 16 over eight scoreless frames against Colorado on Sept. 1. That kind of upside (13.6 K/9) could put him in the third – maybe second – round of drafts next season.
Runners-up: Zac Gallen, Arizona Diamondbacks; Tony Gonsolin, Los Angeles Dodgers; George Kirby, Seattle Mariners; Nestor Cortes, New York Yankees.
Felix Bautista, Baltimore Orioles. Why would the Orioles part with closer Jorge Lopez at the trade deadline? Because they knew they had a future stud closer in Bautista. Since taking over the role Aug. 2, Bautista has converted all nine of his save opportunities with a 1.53 ERA, 0.68 WHIP and a 24/3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 17 ⅔ innings. Adding to his value, Bautista doesn’t mind pitching on back-to-back days or going more than an inning at a time.
Runner-up: Ryan Helsley, St. Louis Cardinals.
Follow Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner.