Is It Legit?: Brendan Donovan and Logan Gilbert

Can these six players keep up their hot starts?

Drawing meaningful conclusions from a handful of games is hard, but it’s also the difference between success and failure in fantasy baseball. If you can determine whether notable early season performances are due to an actual skill change or just a spring hot streak, there’s a good chance your team will be sitting at the top of the standings come October.

With just a few games in the books so far, it’s important to remember the sample size we’re working with here is tiny. Rate stats are going to look weird for a bit, and they’re going to change incredibly fast. One good or bad game will make or break a player’s line when the season isn’t even a week old.

With so little data available, it’s hard to plant your flag on a player, and that’s okay. Knowing when to pull the trigger on an add, drop, or trade this early is tricky, so let’s dive into some notable performers and see if their early-season success is legit.

Brendan Donovan

In the season’s opening weekend, there may not be a single player who raised his fantasy stock more than Brendan Donovan. The 26-year-old utility man in St. Louis is scorching hot to start the year, slashing .357/.333/.786 with two home runs out of the leadoff spot, an impressive beginning to his sophomore campaign after he finished third in National League Rookie of the Year voting last season.

Donovan was never viewed as a top-tier prospect, but that didn’t stop him from showing out in his rookie season. In 468 plate appearances last year, Donovan slashed .281/.394/.379 with five home runs and two stolen bases while providing excellent defense at six different positions. The overwhelming takeaway from Donovan’s MLB debut was that he was the quintessential player who is much more valuable to his MLB team than he could be to a fantasy team. It’s hard enough to find a player with a plus hit tool and a good eye at the plate, but finding that in someone that can also competently handle most positions on the diamond? That’s a player that every single MLB team would love to have. Fantasy teams, maybe not so much, though. The strong on-base skill is nice in OBP and points leagues, but with little power and stolen base upside, he wasn’t anywhere near the top of draft boards this winter.

As Spring Training launched into full gear, Donovan made waves. He started hitting for power, launching four home runs in 19 Grapefruit League games after hitting just five over 126 games in 2022. That drew the attention of the media and fantasy baseball managers alike, and in a piece by John Denton, Donovan talked about his offseason training regimen, which saw him pick up a heavier bat and learn to use his body more efficiently. He’s changed his stance to be more upright this year, allowing him to load better and increase his bat speed.

Donovan’s changes are already paying dividends, as he’s hit two big flies in three games this year after totaling just five all of last year. The power looks like a meaningful change too. Last weekend he set a new career-best max exit velocity of 109.1 mph, despite never hitting a ball over 107 mph in his rookie campaign.

Add some extra power to a multi-position player that already has a good hit tool, good eye at the plate, and a spot at the top of one of the league’s best lineups, and you get the makings of a fantasy superstar.

Verdict: Legit. Donovan won’t keep up this kind of breakneck pace, but the changes he made over the winter give credence to his early power breakout. It’s pretty reasonable to expect Donovan to reach 10 to 15 home runs this year, even though he’s never eclipsed double-digit big flies at any of his minor league stops. Couple that with someone who should have one of the best strikeout-to-walk rates in the league and an everyday job hitting in front of the likes of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, and Donovan may be one of the best values in fantasy baseball in 2023. His ownership rates have rightfully skyrocketed in fantasy leagues, but if you happen to see him being overlooked on your waiver wire, pull the trigger and enjoy what should be a very fun breakout season from Donovan.

Logan Gilbert

This winter it sure felt like Logan Gilbert was becoming an afterthought in the Mariners’ rotation. You had the de facto ace in Luis Castillo, a former Cy Young winner in Robbie Ray, a young pitcher with really exciting stuff in George Kirby, and then you had Gilbert. Another young pitcher, sure, but one who felt maxed out. One who was more steady innings and a good anchor for a fantasy team rather than someone with electric upside that was an ace in the making. It took all of one start for Gilbert to show a flash of being so much more than a middling fantasy option.

In Saturday’s home start against the Cleveland Guardians, Gilbert went 6 IP, 1 ER. 4 H, 1 BB, and 7 K with 15 whiffs and a 36% CSW. That CSW in his first start is higher than any game he had all last year! So how’d he get there? A re-designed slider and a new splitter.

Gilbert threw his slider 24 times,- and it was sitting 2 MPH faster than last year with less overall movement. Lance Brozdowski called it “a true bullet/gyro ball as opposed to more of a cutter” on Twitter, and it returned a 21% CSW. I think an even bigger deal than the re-designed slider was the brand-new splitter. Despite throwing it only eight times, all to lefties, Gilbert notched four whiffs with the pitch.

The Cleveland offense isn’t a juggernaut by any means, but they did have the lowest strikeout rate of any team last year, so it’s great to see Gilbert have such a nice start against a team you wouldn’t expect to swing and miss often. Gilbert’s secondary offerings were the star of the show on Saturday, but his fastball still put in solid work with a 68% zone rate and 37% CSW. It is worth noting that the heater was down 1.5 mph from where it was last year, but since the results were still where we’d like to see them, I’m happy to not overreact to a slightly decreased velocity in his first start of the season.

Verdict: Legit. Gilbert looked strong in his first start, and flashed some strikeout upside that seemed to be missing most of last year with a re-designed slider and brand-new splitter. Gilbert’s slated to pitch at Cleveland and at Wrigley Field in his next two outings, and I expect more of the same from him, although maybe with a slightly decreased strikeout total in his Cleveland start due to the Guardians having just seen his new offerings last weekend. If that Cleveland start isn’t as solid as his first time out against them, it could be a great buying opportunity. He’ll likely shove against the strikeout-heavy Cubs and see his asking price jump.

Miguel Vargas

Given a small cup of coffee at the end of 2022, Miguel Vargas didn’t do much to impress in his Dodger debut, slashing .170/.200/.255 in 50 plate appearances. An unusual Dodgers’ offseason devoid of a big free agent signing or two left some starting spots open, and Vargas has claimed one of them, starting at second base in each of the team’s first three games and coming in as a pinch hitter in the fourth. Vargas has displayed his trademark excellent eye at the plate so far, posting a .400/.769/.600 line with a seemingly impossible 61.5% walk rate. Those numbers will come back to Earth soon, but it’s an encouraging start for a player who posted a 14.6% strikeout rate to a 13.7% walk rate in 520 Triple-A plate appearances last year.

Verdict: Legit. I’m all aboard the Vargas hype train, especially in OBP or points leagues. He wasn’t too expensive in drafts, and could prove to be a difference-maker. He’s still available in 71% of ESPN leagues and 37% of Yahoo! leagues. He’s currently only eligible at first base, but he’ll gain second base eligibility in the next week or two, so if you need middle infield help, he’s certainly worth an add and stash until you can slot him in there.

Seth Lugo

After two years of being relegated to a reliever role with the Mets, Seth Lugo found a new home and a new role this offseason – starting pitcher for the San Diego Padres. He looked great in his first start of the year on Sunday, posting a 7 IP, 1 ER, 4 H, 7 K line with 9 whiffs and a 33% CSW on 93 pitches. He had the fastball and curveball working, earning a 44% and 37% CSW, respectively. Notably, his slider had a new shape, coming in 4 MPH slower than last year with more spin and movement, but it did earn just one whiff on 13 pitches. Lugo was facing the Rockies on the road, so yes, take that into consideration, but he still showed enough to get me excited.

Verdict: Legit enough. I’m happy to give Lugo a prospective add after this strong first outing. He should have good volume, and could find a lot of success if he finds a feel for that new slider. His next start is scheduled to come at Atlanta on Sunday — a tough matchup, to put it lightly. I’m probably leaving him on the bench for that start unless I’m in desperation mode in a weekly matchup come this weekend, but I think the upside is high enough that he’s still worth rostering and keeping benched until after that Atlanta game.

Adam Duvall

Pull up FanGraphs’ batting leaderboard through the season’s first weekend, and who do you think you’d find at the top? Aaron Judge? Ronald Acuña Jr.? Vladimir Guerrero Jr.? All wrong. Your fWAR leader four days into the year is Adam Duvall. The American League Player of the Week quickly endeared himself to Red Sox fans, starting the season with a .571/.600/1.357 batting line, including a walk-off home run against the Orioles on Saturday. Duvall’s coming off a disappointing season that included a significant wrist sprain that landed him on the 60-day IL and ended his season in July, but he’s shown great ability at the plate as recently as 2021 when he hit 38 home runs and drove in 113 RBI. He also eclipsed 30 home runs two other times before that, so there’s some precedence for his hot start. We’re talking minuscule sample sizes here, but Duvall has so far shown more discipline at the plate, cutting his overall swing rate 10 percent, although that’s come with no walks yet. When he’s made contact, it’s been very loud. His barrel rate is at 36.4% and his pull rate is at a startling 72.7%.

Verdict: Legit. I came into writing about Duvall pretty sure this would end with a not legit designation, but there aren’t any underlying metrics that pop out to me showing that all of this is pure luck. He won’t stay this scorching hot at the plate, partly because he won’t be facing the Orioles’ lackluster starting pitchers every game, but I love that he’s been more selective with his swing choices. Plus, being able to bang line drives off the Green Monster could keep him fantasy relevant all year long. Duvall’s at least worth a prospective add in five outfielder leagues.

Yoán Moncada

Coming off a .212/.273/.353 slash line in 2022, Yoán Moncada was not a hot commodity in draft season, but after hitting .429/.455/.905 with two home runs in five games, he’s garnering some attention among fantasy managers. We’ve seen Moncada rake before. His best season was in 2019, when he hit 25 home runs with 10 steals and a 139 wRC+, but he hasn’t been able to reach anywhere near that level since. He at least put up respectable numbers in 2021, with 14 home runs and three stolen bases, but he really hasn’t been considered an exciting fantasy option for four years now. Still just 27, Moncada may have something left in the tank, but his underlying metrics are concerning. Despite the great start to the season, he’s touting a 54.5% groundball rate and barreling the ball 9.1% of the time, which is about in line with his career average, but lower than last year’s mark when he only had a 76 wRC+. Despite already having hit two home runs, he hasn’t hit a ball at 105 mph or above yet this year, and his strikeout rate of 36.8% is the highest he’s had in a White Sox uniform.

Verdict: Not legit. I expect Moncada to regress pretty quickly unless he can drop that strikeout rate and turn those excess grounders into fly balls or line drives. If you’ve already added Moncada or even drafted him like I did in a few places, I’m not rushing to drop him, but if he starts slumping, his leash should be pretty short if those peripherals don’t improve.

Featured image by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Mark Steubinger

Mark loves everything talking and writing about baseball - from every fantasy league format you can imagine to the unending greatness of Mike Trout. Mark has a degree in Sports Communication from Bradley University and works in radio production. He lives in central Illinois where his TV is permanently tuned to Chicago Cubs games.

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