Josiah Gray has something to offer

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When Ronald Acuna Jr. tore his ACL a couple weeks ago, I thought to myself, “There’s no way that there’s a fantasy manager out there who’s evaded the injury bug this year.” To all you fantasy managers who had a share of Ronald Acuna Jr, don’t feel discouraged. One injury doesn’t have to make or break your season. And if you happen to own him in a keeper or dynasty league, you’ll be able to enjoy his production again soon enough. All in all, I do truly hope Ronald Acuna Jr. has a speedy recovery. He brings a great amount of joy to MLB and he’ll surely be missed for the time being.

With all that being said, for those who lost Ronald Acuna Jr. in redraft, the waiver wire is one of your best friends right now. There are about two months of baseball remaining, which means that there will certainly continue to be valuable players sitting on the wire waiting to be picked up. In addition to this, football season is quickly approaching and fantasy baseball managers who are out of contention will slowly start to focus less on their baseball leagues. For those who are in contention, this is great news. There’s less competition for players, meaning there’s a higher chance you can acquire the player you want. In this week’s waiver wire piece, I’ll be highlighting several players who could potentially help your fantasy teams during the second half of the season.

Points League Options

(Players rostered in under 50% of ESPN leagues)

Jon Gray SP, Rockies (44% rostered)

As the former 3rd overall selection in the 2013 MLB Draft, the expectations have always been high for Gray. Calling Coors home automatically lowered his fantasy ceiling at the time, but his natural talent would fortunately remain unaffected regardless of what field he called home. Before being called up in early August of 2015, he had earned a 3.82 ERA (3.41 FIP) and 274:90 K:BB over his first 276.0 professional innings pitched. At this point in his career, his four-seam fastball was sitting mid-high 90s, his slider was his best pitch, and his changeup was still developing. He then added a curveball to his arsenal in 2016 and fast-forwarding to the present day, it’s fair to conclude that Gray has been just a slightly above average MLB starting pitcher for most of his career.

To be fair, he has dealt with a plethora of injuries, thus limiting his ability to consistently find a groove on the mound. Nonetheless, he’s never had a strikeout rate greater than 26.0% in any season (league average is around 24.0%) and ultimately, he’s yet to reach his frontline starter potential. His best season -- from a results perspective -- came in 2017, when he earned a 3.67 ERA (3.74 SIERA) and 17.8% K-BB over 110.1 innings pitched. Thankfully, over his last several starts, he’s looked like a pitcher who has plenty left in the tank.

Since returning from the injured list on June 25th (elbow), Gray is sporting a 2.40 ERA (3.46 SIERA) and 30.6% strikeout rate over 30.0 innings pitched. What’s changed? His velocity is back up. His velocity on all of his pitches was down for most of 2020 and the early parts of 2021. Given his history of injuries and the timing of his velocity returning, it’s fair to wonder if Gray’s elbow has been hurting him for some time now. Even so, Gray is at his best when his four-seam fastball is sitting mid-high 90s, just like it has been recently. While he still does call Coors home, the return of Gray’s velocity matched his natural talent should help him maintain fantasy relevancy for the remainder of the 2021 season

J.D. Davis 3B/OF, Mets (36% rostered)

J.D. is his name, power is his game. As a minor leaguer, it didn’t take long for Davis to showcase his massive raw power, as he hit 26 home runs in High-A at age-22. His profile had holes just like most prospects, but his power was always going to be his most valuable tool as a professional baseball player. In January 2019, Davis was traded from the Astros to the Mets in a five-player deal and as of today, Davis is the primary third baseman for New York.

He missed about two months of the 2021 season dealing with a left middle finger sprain, but he returned on July 16th and he should see regular opportunities going forward. Now, while power is his most valuable tool, he doesn’t make a lot of contact. In fact, he’s always had a contact rate below league average. His struggles to make contact at an average rate could be stemming from his struggles against pitches higher in the zone. His career contact rates sit at or above league average lower in the zone, but higher in the zone, his contact rates are well below league average.

Whether he improves on this remains to be seen, but it's a weakness that could cause his batting average to truly vary year-to-year. Fortunately, Davis has proven that he knows how to hit offspeed and breaking pitches, as well as left-handed and right-handed pitchers, so there shouldn’t be much concern regarding some of his more important splits. Furthermore, he’ll likely always have a solid on-base percentage given his ability to consistently draw walks, which helps give him another avenue to scoring points in your leagues. As the second half progresses, I expect Davis to continue to provide home runs and counting stats, making him a solid addition to most points league rosters.

Logan Webb SP, Giants (17% rostered)

After being selected in the 4th round of the 2014 MLB Draft given his 96-97 mph fastball, Webb had a rather rough start to his minor league career. He earned a 5.33 ERA (4.19 FIP) with a mediocre 75:31 K:BB over his first 106.1 professional innings pitched. Then, in June 2016, he underwent the dreaded Tommy John surgery, delaying his overall development. He returned as a relief pitcher in 2017 pitching in Low-A and ended up finishing his minor league career on a strong note: 2.32 ERA (3.26 FIP) with a 201:70 K:BB over 198.0 innings pitched, playing between Low-A and AAA. At that point, his future role in MLB wasn’t clear, but as of right now, he’s starting to look like a player who will be a rotation mainstay for years to come.

One of the knocks on Webb as a minor leaguer was his inability to command his secondary pitches. Well, so far in 2021, his command of his secondary pitches has been arguably *the* key to his success -- more so his command of his slider. Sporting a career high 40.2% called plus swinging strike percentage and 50% whiff rate, his slider has been a much improved pitch this season. He’s been throwing his slider out of the zone more (career low 38.7% zone rate) and hitters have been chasing it (career high 36.9% O-Swing). As a result, he’s been a better pitcher overall. Given his low ownership percentage, Webb is an ideal pickup for those who are searching for free starting pitch depth that has upside.

Daulton Varsho OF/C, Diamondbacks (10% rostered)

Power hitters are fun. Power hitters who also steal are even more fun. Power hitters who steal and are catcher eligible simply feel me with joy. Varsho is the latter and he is demanding our attention. By the end of his Double-AA campaign, it was clear that Varsho was a guy who possessed above average speed, a solid hit tool, and budding game power. A catcher who can rack up double digit home runs and steals while maintaining a solid batting average is not only a strong fantasy catcher option, but a strong fantasy option in general.

However, he has struggled to hit for average to begin his MLB career (.188 batting average over 202 career at-bats) as a result of his struggles against breaking pitches. He’s seen 92 curveballs in his career and has just one hit against them: a 69.7 mph single. This is still a very small sample size, but any improvements he makes against breaking pitches would certainly increase his batting average’s ceiling. With Carson Kelly’s rehab assignment underway, he’ll likely be back in a matter of weeks. When he returns, Varsho’s bat would easily be replaced if he wasn’t hitting and it appears he understands this as well. Since July 20th (15 at-bats), he’s batting .533 with three home runs and two doubles. This is the big leagues and you have to perform well to keep your job. As a whole, Varsho is still a rather inexperienced MLB bat, but he’ll only continue to improve as he gains more experience. All in all, if he can continue to hit while improving his numbers against breaking pitches, a strong second half would be imminent.

Josiah Gray SP, Dodgers (14% rostered)

On December 21st, 2018, the Dodgers traded Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Kyle Farmer, Alex Wood, and cash to the Reds for Jeter Downs, Josiah Gray, and Homer Bailey. Looking back, it’s clear that the Reds messed up. Josiah Gray appears to be a stud in the making and they traded him for a handful of rentals. On the flip side, Gray likely feels abundantly more comfortable in blue and white.

After being traded to Los Angeles, Gray earned a 2.35 ERA (2.64 FIP) and 23.7% K-BB over 145.2 innings pitched playing between Single-A and Triple-A. The young righty is armed with a high spin four-seam fastball that sits mid-90s and tops out around 96 mph, a curveball, a slider, and a changeup. In his first career MLB outing against the Giants on July 20th, Gray completed 4.0 innings pitched of relief while allowing four hits, four runs (three home runs), one walk, and he struck out seven. The home runs weren’t ideal, but he pounded the top of the zone with his four-seamer, a good thing given the fact that the pitch has above average spin. More than that, he threw his curveball and slider down and away to right-handed hitters and he ended up earning a 39% whiff rate overall. His four-seamer induced three whiffs, his slider eight, and his curveball four.

Unless something changes abruptly, he will be making his first career MLB start on July 25th against Colorado. If he continues to locate his four-seamer at the top of the zone while inducing whiffs on multiple pitches, he could become a legitimate fantasy asset rather quickly. This is, of course, the optimistic outlook, as it’s entirely possible the Dodgers limit him the rest of the way. Gray’s future is very bright, but it remains to be seen just how deep he’ll be allowed to go in his upcoming outings. Lock him up now if you have the space, as a good start against Colorado will result in his ownership percentage skyrocketing.

Pavin Smith 1B/OF, Diamondbacks (32% rostered)

After a respectable showing in 2020, Pavin Smith has been trying to make the most of his playing time so far this season. As a former 1st round pick, the Diamondbacks will likely grant him plenty of playing time for the rest of the season, and for good reason. Although Smith will never be a star, his ability to limit his strikeout rate while also drawing walks at a high rate has been evident since day one. Over 1,074 minor league at-bats, Smith earned a .281/.364/.426 slash line with 23 home runs, a 11.6% walk rate, and a 12.2% strikeout rate. This looks like the profile of a player who will be boring, but productive for most of their career.

Over his first 335 at-bats of 2021, he has a .269/.328/.424 slash line with 9 home runs and a stolen base. His quality of contact has been satisfactory across the board and he’s been making contact at an above average rate. Now, his sprint speed ranks in the 39th percentile and stolen bases will never be a big part of his game. His fantasy value will stem from his ability to hit for average, draw walks, and accumulate counting stats. Over these last two months of the season, Smith could give your team’s weekly floor a nice, subtle boost. There’s also the chance he taps into more power, as he’s hit four home runs since July 1st (54 at-bats). Don’t overlook Smith if you see him out there.

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Deep Points League Options

(Players rostered in under 10% of ESPN leagues)

Jo Adell OF, Angels (5% rostered)

Adell has been considered one of the best prospects in baseball since being drafted 10th overall in the 2017 MLB Draft. The hype has always been warranted, as his immense raw power and lightning quick speed give him the tools to be a multifaceted real life and fantasy contributor. Despite these fun raw tools, he’s already dealt with a handful of injuries that have delayed his development. Fortunately, he’s now healthy and he’s having the best season of his minor league career at 22-years-old.

Over 283 at-bats, he’s earned a .279/.333/.562 slash line with 19 home runs and 7 stolen bases. Adell was given the chance to show what he could do at the MLB level in 2020, but failed to produce as he just wasn’t ready quite yet (41.7% strikeout rate over 132 plate appearances). Even so, his 97th percentile sprint speed and 115.5 max exit velocity help support the tools that have made him such an intriguing prospect. When he gets another opportunity to show what he can do at the highest level, I’m betting on his raw tools being on full display early and often.

Spencer Howard SP, Phillies (3% rostered)

When Howard made the jump from Double-A to the big leagues after just 211.1 minor league innings pitched in 2020, it seemed possible that Howard would make an immediate impact. Armed with a true four-pitch arsenal that includes three above average secondary pitches along with a four-seam fastball that sits mid-high 90s, Howard has the potential to be a special arm in Philadelphia for years to come. But for now, the Phillies seem focused on limiting Howard’s workload early on.

He’s made 12 starts since 2020, but has qualified for a win just once. In the long run, this is a good thing, no matter how much we might want to see Howard throw right now. For one, if he truly does become a workhorse starter in the future, he’ll need to build up to that type of workload. And secondly, his command hasn’t been sharp to begin his MLB career, so going deep into starts might not be an option yet. All things considered, Howard is a very talented pitcher who is in the early stages of what should be a productive MLB career. It’s possible his workload is truly limited for the rest of the season, but at his current ownership percentage, it can’t hurt to make the gamble in deeper formats.

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