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3 Fantasy Baseball Hitters Who Broke Out in 2023

Nolan Jones - fantasy baseball rankings draft sleepers waiver wire pickups

The 2023 Major League Baseball season has been in the books for over a month. New champions were crowned and all the major awards have been doled out. For many fantasy baseball enthusiasts, the end of one season marks the beginning of the next, meaning preparations for 2024 are already underway.

The first step in developing a draft strategy for the year ahead is a look backward at last season’s results. Some of the bigger names came through as expected -- Ronald Acuna Jr., Shohei Ohtani, Freddie Freeman, and the like. So many more players that were unheralded last spring snuck up on us and produced beyond their projections. 

Finding the diamond in the rough can turn a team into a league winner. In this column, we will take a look at three players who helped their teams (both in real life and in fantasy) to a greater extent than anticipated. After reading, check out more of the offseason content produced by RotoBaller, and as you prep for your drafts, ask yourself who might be on this list next year. 

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Jonah Heim, C - Texas Rangers

2023: .258/.313/.438, 61 R, 18 HR, 95 RBI, 2 SB

A .214 hitter through the first three seasons of his career, there was not a lot of hope that Jonah Heim would be a fantasy standout in 2023. He came out of the gate hot, though, ending April with a .303 batting average, five home runs, and 22 RBI. Hitting sixth behind the talented core of Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Adolis Garcia, and Nate Lowe, he ended the season with a career-high 95 RBI.

 

Unfortunately, a wrist sprain derailed his stellar campaign in late July. Heim was put on the injured list on July 28 and after he returned, it was clear he was still playing through the pain. The 28-year-old collected just 26 more hits in 142 plate appearances after returning in August. His power seemed to have been sapped also, getting only four more home runs the rest of the season. 

Heim’s 2024 ADP will probably take a knock due to the injury and second-half slide but the corrections to his swing that made his first half worthy of an All-Star start will still be there. A healthy Heim could be a great late-round value pick again as he is slated to remain the starting catcher in the Rangers’ star-studded lineup next season.

 

Lane Thomas, OF - Washington Nationals

2023: .268/.315/.468, 101 R, 28 HR, 86 RBI, 20 SB

Lane Thomas debuted with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2019 but injuries, illness, and a logjam of outfielders in the Cards’ system limited Thomas to 84 appearances over three seasons wherein he slashed a pitiful .172/.289/.336. A midseason trade to the Washington Nationals in 2021 gave him a shot at more regular play and more consistent production. In 2022, Thomas was made an everyday player and he managed to swat 17 homers but his totals in other fantasy categories left a lot of room for improvement. 

His production in 2022 and the promise of a starting role in 2023 gave Thomas some preseason buzz as a late-round sleeper. Those who rolled the dice on him were rewarded with early-round production as the outfielder played his way to his first 20/20 season. Thomas was also one of 17 players to score 100 runs or more in 2023. His batting average improved by 27 points and his slugging percentage by over 64 points over his 2022 numbers. 

This is not a success story that should be expected to carry into next season, though. Thomas slumped hard in the second half and his struggles against right-handed pitching were masked by his insane splits against lefties. Early projections have Thomas producing about 80% of what he did last year with a batting average closer to his career mark of .250. If he can be found at or after his ADP of 108.92 in early NFBC drafts, he may provide decent value, but this is not a breakout to pay up for in 2024. 

 

Nolan Jones, 3B/OF - Colorado Rockies

2023: .297/.385/.542, 60 R, 20 HR, 62 RBI, 20 SB

Nolan Jones made his major league debut in 2022 with the Cleveland Guardians. A July call-up, Jones hung on for a little over a month, appearing in 28 games and collecting 94 plate appearances before being sent back to the minors. Not long after the end of the 2022 season, Jones was traded to the Colorado Rockies, who deployed him to Triple-A Albuquerque to begin 2023. 

Jones was recalled to Colorado on May 26 and saw regular playing time through the rest of the season. A third baseman through most of his minor league career, he only played one game at the hot corner and instead spent most of his time in the outfield where he led the league in assists (19) even though he played in just 109 games. Jones also had the distinction of being the fastest player in major league history to record a 20/20 season, hitting the milestone in just 424 plate appearances. 

Jones’ production got him enough attention to finish fourth in the voting for the National League Rookie of the Year. Detractors may point to the “Coors Field effect” as a key to his success, but he hit as many home runs on the road as he did at home and his ISO was over 40 points higher in away games. The batting average will sink but with a full season of starting duties ahead of him, the outlook for 2024 is bright and his ADP (58.67 on NFBC) in early drafts already reflects fantasy managers’ optimism. 



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