Add Ben Rice, Shane Baz for immediate lineup boost

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A three-homer game can do a lot to elevate a player’s fantasy baseball profile. If said player also carries catcher eligibility, that’s a help, too.

Ben Rice, a 2021 12th-round pick out of Dartmouth, and the New York Yankees’ fill-in for the injured Anthony Rizzo, achieved the feat Saturday against the Boston Red Sox. Most significantly, he did it in his third game since his promotion into the leadoff spot, supplanting Anthony Volpe, who had batted .183/.203/.244 in his final 25 games atop the Yankees’ batting order.

The swap made a heck of a lot of sense, considering Rice’s career minor league .397 on-base percentage, 13.5% walk and 76.6% contact rates, which compare favorable to Volpe’s big-league-career .292, 7.8% and 72.2% numbers. Rice possesses a keen batting eye, competitive with Juan Soto and Aaron Judge, and for as long as he’s batting ahead of those two, even if only against right-handed pitchers, he’s still fantasy relevant as a catcher-eligible player. Rice, incidentally, remains available in nearly 75% of ESPN leagues.

The Yankees could, in the next 22 days leading up to the trade deadline, seek to upgrade their lineup by acquiring a first baseman (Pete Alonso or Cody Bellinger, anyone?), and that’d impact Rice’s role in the season’s final two months. Especially in ESPN standard leagues, however, stats today matter, and Rice is delivering meaningful ones.

How are they still available?

Jose Miranda, 3B, Minnesota Twins (32.0% rostered in ESPN leagues): In case you haven’t noticed, and judging by his roster percentage you haven’t, Miranda has managed to hit a few baseballs and is threatening to climb into fantasy relevance. The player previously best known as Lin-Manuel’s cousin, Jose over the weekend matched the major league record with hits in 12 consecutive at-bats, becoming the fourth player to do so overall and first since Walt Dropo in 1952. Typically that would be a “’nuff said” blurb, but bear in mind that Miranda’s profile makes him one of the better batting average specialists with a points-league high floor, as among the 174 players with at least as many as his 263 plate appearances, he has the 10th-best strikeout (13.3%) and 40th-best line drive rates (26.2%).

Shane Baz, SP, Tampa Bay Rays (17.2%): I get it, he was a difficult pitcher to stash during the three-plus months he was recovering from July 2022 Tommy John surgery. Even I struggled to keep him around in the two leagues in which I roster him, especially after his minor league rehabilitation stint expired back on May 23, forcing the Rays to activate him while keeping him in Triple-A Durham and tying many fantasy managers’ hands as far as roster maneuverability. Last Wednesday’s trade of Aaron Civale, however, signaled the Rays opening up rotation opportunities for Baz, and soon Jeffrey Springs, and Baz was outstanding in his return outing with the Rays on Friday. Baz delivered a quality start in which his average fastball velocity was a solid 96.2 mph, with the only drawbacks being that his slider and curveball failed to meet the whiff-rate levels he exhibited in 2021-22. It was a big step forward for a pitcher who has top-25 positional upside when healthy.

Deeper league adds

Brooks Lee, SS, Minnesota Twins (12.5% available): Royce Lewis’ injury history has been maddening for his fantasy managers, who have now dealt with his having been on the Twins’ active roster for only 102 of 388 games since his May 6, 2022, big league debut (eat your heart out, Byron Buxton). This injury stint, at least, resulted in the promotion of one of the team’s top prospects, the contact-oriented Lee. He’ll serve as the team’s third baseman in the interim, and in this columnist’s opinion, his batting eye exceeds that of the aforementioned Rice, meaning there’s the potential for a quick acceleration into a premium lineup spot — note that Willi Castro is the currently handling the leadoff chores. Lee needs to be added in every league exceeding 12-team mixed depth.

Michael Mercado, RP, Philadelphia Phillies (2.6%): Forgive him his terrible Sunday start, as that one came against the Atlanta Braves, still a loaded lineup in spite of the injury absences of Ronald Acuna Jr. and Michael Harris II. Mercado, the Phillies’ temporary substitute for the injured Taijuan Walker and Spencer Turnbull, was picked up via trade in November from the Tampa Bay Rays, who were facing a 40-man roster crunch at the time. Though he has a history of struggling with both control and serving up home runs, Mercado dazzled while with Triple-A Lehigh Valley, posting a 1.98 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in his 10 starts there, reestablishing his prospect status after his career seemed somewhat derailed due to 2019 Tommy John surgery. He’s a good speculative arm for NL-only managers.

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