2023 Fantasy Baseball: Draft these late-round speedsters and take advantage of MLB's new rules
Each year during Spring Training, I write an article that covers late-round steals sources. Securing swipes has been among the most challenging tasks for managers in recent years, but as Bob Dylan said, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” By making two major rule changes, MLB has given would-be base stealers every reason to get aggressive this year.
First, the league has expanded the size of the bases from 15 to 18 inches, which will improve players’ ability to slide to avoid being tagged and also slightly reduce the distance between bases. And more importantly, any pitcher who makes three disengagements from the mound in one plate appearance without recording an out will cause the base runners to automatically move up one base. This rule essentially encourages speedy players to take massive lead-offs, especially once the pitcher has thrown over once or twice.
These rule changes will undoubtedly lead to a league-wide bump in steals, but it’s anyone’s guess as to how the extra swipes will be distributed.
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One of the biggest misconceptions about stolen bases is that players with large steals totals and terrific success rates will likely go to even further heights the following year. In fact, the opposite is usually true. Maintaining an elite base-stealing rate (over 85%) is hard to do year after year, and unless the player’s name is Billy Hamilton (remember him?), those who lead the league in steals struggle to repeat that feat the following year. For this reason, the best steals sources to target in a draft are players who post solid-but-not-spectacular steals totals and contribute significantly in other areas as well. And with the uncertainty of this category heading into 2023, spreading out your contributors seems to be the wisest plan.
Here are some of my favorite players who fit this plan and do not require an early round pick.
Starling Marte (OF, New York Mets)
There is no doubt that Marte played hurt last season en route to posting his lowest steals total (18) in a non-shortened season since his rookie year in 2012. The 34-year-old underwent core muscle surgery in the offseason, and although he has taken things slowly in spring training, he expects to be ready for Opening Day. There is a strong likelihood that a healthy Marte swipes more than 25 bags this year.
Andres Gimenez (2B/SS, Cleveland Guardians)
After teasing fantasy managers for partial stretches of two seasons across 2020-21, Gimenez became one of last year’s best value picks when he hit .297 with 17 homers and 20 steals. He also reached base at an excellent rate (.371 OBP), and his versatile skill set makes him a better option than incumbent Amed Rosario to hit second in Cleveland’s productive lineup. At age 24, Gimenez could make another significant leap this year.
Jake McCarthy (OF, Arizona Diamondbacks)
McCarthy was one of last summer’s best waiver-wire gems, and he finished 2022 with 23 steals in just 321 at-bats. He also hit .283 with 53 runs scored, and an extrapolation of those stats shows that he could be a 35-steal, 85-run player this year. McCarthy requires a decent investment (current Yahoo: ADP 111), but he is worth it.
Thairo Estrada (2B/SS/OF, San Francisco Giants)
Estrada stole 21 bases in 488 at-bats last year, and with 14 homers, he was more than a one-dimensional player. Still just 26 years old, the multi-position asset is coming into his own as a Major League regular, and he should reach the 25-steal plateau this season. And the best part is that managers can wait to draft Estrada with a late pick (current Yahoo ADP: 191).
[2023 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | OF | SP | RP]
Steven Kwan (OF, Cleveland Guardians)
Kwan is a polarizing player in fantasy circles. Some managers see his amazing 62:60 BB:K ratio from last season and assume that he can repeat his lofty rate stats (.298 BA, .373 OBP) into 2023. Others worry that Kwan’s low barrel rate (1.4 percent) and average exit velocity (85.1 mph) are signs he will struggle to collect base knocks at such a high rate. Overall, I’m inclined to predict that even with a slight drop in OBP, Kwan can tally 20 steals and 90 runs as Cleveland’s leadoff hitter.
Ramon Laureano (OF, Oakland A’s)
Laureano wrapped up a PED suspension at the outset of the 2022 season and couldn’t find his top form (.663 OPS) during the 94 games he played. Still, he remains someone with an intriguing power-speed blend (27 HR, 23 SB across 182 games during 2021-22) and is a strong candidate to be traded to a contending team this summer. And best of all, Laureano’s current Yahoo ADP is very reasonable (pick 245).
TJ Friedl (OF, Cincinnati Reds)
The rebuilding Reds are set to give opportunities to plenty of unproven players, with Friedl at the top of the list. The 27-year-old could hit out of a premium lineup spot after producing eight homers and seven steals in 225 at-bats last season, which raises hope that he could reach the 20-mark in both categories across a full campaign. Admittedly, Friedl is anything but a safe draft option, but he is going undrafted in many Yahoo leagues and could justify a late-round pick simply by having success in April.