True story — when I first met my future wife, she didn’t make the best first impression. It was just a short conversation, but I didn’t walk away thinking, “This is my soul mate.” Several months later, after getting to know her better, we had this deep connection that continued to grow until we had the happy family of four that exists today.
Luckily, I was a little more patient with my wife than fantasy baseball managers are with major leaguers. We tend to be a fickle bunch in the fantasy community, and if a player doesn’t immediately meet our expectations, he starts dropping value faster than a new car that has been driven off the lot.
But the sharp turns in fantasy opinions ignore the reality that many outstanding players work through early career detours. Here is a collection of youngsters who have the talent to flip their career arrows in the coming months.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (1B/3B, TOR)
A Guerrero breakout rests on two variables. He already addressed the first one when he dramatically improved his conditioning in the offseason. The other variable is a bigger one — he needs to decrease his career 51.6 percent groundball rate to showcase his power skills. It’s hard to believe that Guerrero will be just 22 this year, and his gaudy Minor League numbers (career .945 OPS) are a reminder of his vast potential.
Austin Riley (3B/OF, ATL)
Riley got off to a promising start in 2019 before regressing rapidly and posting a .486 OPS in the second half. And at first glance, the youngster continued his inconsistent play when he logged an unimpressive .716 OPS last year. But Riley fixed his strikeout rate in 2020, lowering the mark from 36.4 percent as a rookie to 23.8 percent as a sophomore. The powerful slugger now has a chance to hit .250 with 30 homers and 80 RBIs in a loaded Braves lineup.
Nick Senzel (OF, CIN)
After logging 12 homers and 14 steals in 375 at-bats during a promising rookie season, Senzel was limited to 70 at-bats last year as a result of an unconfirmed case of COVID-19. Fantasy managers now treat the 25-year-old as an afterthought, likely forgetting that a healthy Senzel could be a 20-20 player. This should end up being his latest ADP for many years.
Tyler O’Neill (OF, STL)
With 21 homers in 410 career at-bats, O’Neill’s power is undeniable. And the 25-year-old can chip in 5-10 steals across a full season, which is not without value in this steals-scarce landscape. Going undrafted in many leagues, O’Neill quietly lowered his strikeout rate to 27.4 percent in a 2020 season he was hampered by terrible luck (.189 BABIP). The Cardinals lack outfield depth, which gives O’Neill a great chance to break out this year.
Brendan Rogers (2B, COL)
After years of teasing fantasy managers, the Rockies are finally ready to give their young players an opportunity. And Rogers is among the best candidates to take a big step forward. The third overall pick in the 2015 draft has moved past '19 shoulder surgery and is now ready to show everyone the form that led to a career .296 average and .855 OPS in the Minors. And of course, playing half his games in Coors Field could help Rogers take off in a hurry.
Joe Musgrove (SP, SD)
Musgrove has teased fantasy managers for years, putting together dynamic stretches but never having a dominant season. But there are reasons to give the right-hander one more chance, as he posted career-best marks in ERA (3.86), FIP (3.45), and K/9 rate (12.5) in eight starts last season. Moving from a losing Pittsburgh team to a loaded Padres squad could also help Musgrove reach new levels.
Jordan Montgomery (SP, NYY)
By almost every measure, Montgomery had an excellent return from Tommy John surgery last season (3.85 FIP, 9.6 K/9 rate). But his 5.11 ERA may be sticking in the minds of fantasy managers who are passing him by entirely in many drafts. The southpaw is going to be backed by an elite lineup and strong bullpen, which is all Montgomery will need to tally 12 wins while posting solid ratios and a substantial whiff rate.
Nate Pearson (SP, TOR)
Still considered one of the 10 best prospects in baseball, Pearson is being selected later than teammate Robbie Ray, who walked two more batters while you were reading this sentence. The hard-throwing youngster is an absolute stud who dealt with an elbow injury during his abbreviated MLB debut and showed uncharacteristic control issues (18 IP, 13 BB). Pearson walked just 32 batters in 123.1 Minor League innings and he has the swing-and-miss skills to make a major fantasy impact as Toronto’s No. 2 starter this year.
Spencer Howard (SP, PHI)
Like Pearson, Howard went from sought-after prospect to fantasy-afterthought in a matter of months. Sure, the right-hander endured an unimpressive MLB debut (5.92 ERA, 1.64 WHIP), but his season consisted of just six starts. Are you going to trust that small sample size over his career Minor League numbers (3.28 ERA, 12.0 K/9 rate)? I think the answer is obvious.