Fantasy Baseball Waiver Wire: Zach Neto leads pickups coming off Opening Day

Greetings, and thanks for clicking on the first of what will be twice-weekly Fantasy Baseball Pickup columns for the duration of the season. I’ll be handling the Friday version and George Bissell will take Tuesdays. The plan is for these to be rather short and right to the point. Here are four players rostered in fewer than half of Yahoo leagues who just don’t at all belong in the free-agent pool.

Zach Neto SS, Angels (20% rostered in Yahoo leagues)

New Angels manager Ron Washington made it clear at the very beginning of the spring that he liked Luis Rengifo and Mickey Moniak at the very top of the lineup, Nolan Schanuel batting second and Zach Neto hitting ninth as his so-called second leadoff man. By the time Opening Day arrived, he already went away from two of those ideas, batting Anthony Rendon first and Aaron Hicks second Thursday.

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Where he’s yet to waver is with Neto, but maybe he will soon.

Neto, the 13th overall pick in the 2022 draft, tore through the minors before arriving last year and holding his own in 84 games (.225/.308/.377 with nine homers and five steals in 329 plate appearances). He already seemed poised to take a significant step forward in his first full season even before performing as the Angels’ top slugger this spring, pounding out three homers and five other extra-base hits in 58 at-bats. He also swiped four bases. Neto probably isn’t ready to be a great leadoff man in terms of OBP, but he might be the Angels’ best option anyway, partly because of what he’ll bring when he does reach base. He’s a fringy short-term option in shallow leagues, but if he does move up in the order, he could get awfully valuable in a hurry.

James Paxton SP, Dodgers (20% rostered in Yahoo leagues)

There’s very little chance that James Paxton, a 35-year-old who has never made 30 starts in a big-league season, is going to help fantasy teams for six months this year. Even four months is probably a stretch. Still, he’s healthy at the moment and pitching for a Dodgers team that has gotten great results from far lesser talents. There’s no justification for him being unrostered in 75% of leagues.

Paxton resembled an All-Star for three months last year, posting a 3.36 ERA with a 90/22 K/BB ratio in 80 1/3 innings over his first 15 starts from May 12-Aug. 10, and that was with a Red Sox team that played in a terrific ballpark for hitters and had one of baseball’s worst defenses. He’s gone from that awful situation to one of the best in baseball with a Dodgers club that has turned the likes of Tony Gonsolin, Tyler Anderson and Andrew Heaney into temporary stars in recent years. With his career 26% strikeout rate, Paxton has more to work with than those guys did.

So, it won’t be for six months, but now that he’s recovered from Tommy John surgery, perhaps Paxton has at least another 18-20 starts in him. Grab him for the short term, enjoy some wins in which he strikes out six and allows two runs in five innings and then drop him once he lands on the injured list.

Will Benson OF, Reds (25% rostered in Yahoo leagues)

One of last year’s nicer surprises, Will Benson was traded from Cleveland to Cincinnati because the Guardians loathe outfielders with power and went on to hit .275/.365/.498 with 11 homers and 19 steals in 329 plate appearances as a platoon right fielder. He was expected to fill the same role at the bottom of the lineup this season, but TJ Friedl’s wrist injury moved him to center and now Matt McLain’s shoulder surgery has gotten him elevated to the second spot in the lineup. Benson might still do some sitting against lefties, but he’ll contribute enough the rest of the time to be of assistance in mixed leagues.

Where Benson needs to improve is in the strikeout department. Benson isn’t a wild swinger, but he ends up in a lot of deep counts and he was set down on Ks 31% of the time last season. He wound up hitting .275 anyway, but projection systems expect a stark decline there. His best hope of mitigating that would be to get his strikeout rate down.

Working in Benson’s favor is that Great American Ballpark has turned into the game’s second-best offensive park in recent years. Even if he doesn’t continue to bat second, he’ll surely be worth playing when the Reds are at home, and as a No. 2 hitter, that extra at-bat per game makes him particularly valuable. He has a chance to be a 20 HR/20 SB guy if he gets 550 plate appearances.

Jason Foley RP, Tigers (Rostered in 17% of Yahoo leagues)

Given the level of commitment Tigers manager A.J. Hinch showed to closer Alex Lange last year, it was quite a surprise to see Jason Foley become his choice with a 1-0 lead in the ninth inning on Opening Day. There was never a hint that Hinch was making a switch, even though there was a good case for it; Foley finished last year with a 2.61 ERA and a 2.73 FIP, a big improvement over Lange’s 3.68 ERA and 4.36 FIP.

Of course, last year’s numbers aren’t everything, and Lange’s stuff is plenty good enough for him to perform as a fine closer. He was just far too wild in walking 45 batters last season. That’s why we’ve had Foley ranked ahead of Lange this spring, even though expectations were that Lange would close initially. Perhaps that will still be the case; Hinch hasn’t committed to Foley or anyone else in the ninth. Still, Foley, who threw a couple of 100-mph sinkers Thursday, should be viewed as a top-25 reliever at this point and is worth grabbing wherever he’s available.