American League Spring Training Position Battles to Watch
Finally, some baseball games to talk about. Of course, the first spring training game was cancelled and trust me, that won’t be the last one to get canned. I’m sure by now you’ve seen the video of Mike Trout and the snow in Arizona. I mean, you may not have…baseball doesn’t do a great job of promoting probably the best player you’ll probably ever see play, but I’ll save that for another day. Cancellations are going to happen, but for the most part, they should be rare…I think. At least now we can just pretend Bryce Harper doesn’t like baseball, and watch some games without him.
The Tampa Bay Rays lost 3-2 to the Philadelphia Phillies Friday and if you caught last week’s American League Spring Training Position Battles piece, well then you know the Rays are a team to follow this spring. They have three starting pitchers locked in and then who knows really what their plans are. If you recall, they started many games last season with relievers and I’m sure we’ll see more of it in 2019.
Not only are spring training games happening, we have a few signings to talk about which have resulted in a couple more AL spring training position battles to watch.
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Spring Training Position Battles in the AL
SS: Alcides Escobar vs. Richie Martin
The Baltimore Orioles signed Alcides Escobar to a minor league contract and is the front runner to being the season as the team’s starting shortstop. This almost certainly means Jonathan Villar will stay at second base. Martin will be part of the mix, as will Drew Jackson. Martin could play his way into the starting gig as Escobar has been pretty disappointing lately.
Boston Red Sox
As we get closer to the season it seems unlikely that the Boston Red Sox will bring Craig Kimbrel back. It’s looking like Ryan Brasier and Matt Barnes will compete for the closer role throughout spring training so you’ll want to pay close attention to how it plays out. Barnes has two career saves, while Brasier – who is away from the team due to a toe injury – has none.
Brasier had a 1.60 ERA and 0.77 WHIP in 34 appearances last season. He was used in nine of Boston’s 14 postseason games and allowed just one run over 8.2 innings. Over his 33.2 regular season innings, Brasier had a low 7.75 K.9 but a solid 1.87 BB/9. It remains to be seen what Brasier can do over a full season. As for Barnes, he rocked a 14.01 K/9 over 61.2 innings, but he issued 4.52 BB/9. I lean Barnes at the moment.
This isn’t as much as a battle as it is a platoon. Mitch Moreland will hit against righties and Steve Pearce will face lefties. There will be times when the Red Sox’s ride the hot hand, but you can always bank on Pearce getting the call against LHP.
News & Notes: Dustin Pedroia is really only battling his health as he recovers from knee surgery. Boston will no doubt bring him along slowly, although he did take batting practice Friday. Should he suffer any kind of setback, Eduardo Nunez or Brock Holt would benefit, with Nunez being the most appealing of the two.
Chicago White Sox
The Chicago White Sox signed Ervin Santana to a minor league contract and there’s a good chance he’ll make the team. It’s not like there’s a lot of competition for that fifth spot in the rotation, it’ll probably be just a matter of health. Santana had surgery on his right middle finger last February and didn’t make his season debut until the end of July. He only lasted five starts before he was eventually shut down for the rest of the season. He was rocked in each start and finished with an 8.03 ERA. Forget that, though.
Santana had back-to-back seasons with the Minnesota Twins where he pitched at least 180 innings with a sub-4.00 ERA. The 36-year-old won 16 games in 2017 with a 7.11 K/9, 2.60 BB/9, and 3.28 ERA. He’s probably more of a 6 K/9 guy which isn’t really exciting and neither is the ballpark he’ll pitch in. He’s just a guy who was sneaky good in 2017 with five complete games and three shutouts. Don’t be shocked if he’s in the rotation come April and you’re streaming throughout 2019.
Manny Banuelos only has 26.1 big league innings on his resume and his numbers are not pretty (6.49 K/9, 4.10 BB/9 & 5.13 ERA). That said, his AAA numbers last season were promising (10.52 K/9, 3.48 BB/9 & 3.73 ERA). He was acquired from the Dodgers and was once a highly ranked prospect.
Dylan Covey has a 5.10 ERA over 33 starts with the White Sox in the last two years. He doesn’t strike anyone out (6.20 K/9) and like Banuelos, he has a high walk rate for his career (4.04 BB/9). Covey had a 55.1 ground ball rate over 121.2 innings last season, which is a huge plus considering where he pitches. On the flip side, he has a ridiculously high 84.6 contact percentage for his career with just a 6.7 SwStr%
The White Sox landed Kelvin Herrera and Alex Colome during the offseason and both have closer experience. My initial thinking had Herrera as the team’s closer on opening day, but that’s not a given. Chicago parted ways with a solid hitting catcher in Omar Narvaez for the likes of Colome, so they are definitely high on him.
Also, Herrera had offseason surgery to repair a torn Lisfranc ligament in his left foot. If he stumbles during spring or suffers any kind of setback, the job will go to Colome. It’s Colome who has the higher strikeout upside and has 96 saves in the last three seasons compared to 55 from Herrera.
SP: Matt Moore vs. Daniel Norris
The Detroit Tigers signed 29-year-old lefty Matt Moore this offseason, which killed a bit of hope those had left for Daniel Norris. While Norris may be more suited for a job out of the pen, it’s not a lock he’ll stay there all season.
Moore only started 12 games last season for the Texas Rangers and did most of his damage out of the bullpen. I say damage because Moore had a 6.79 ERA over 102 innings. His strikeout numbers continue to decline and his walk rate continues to rise. He’s also given up 71 home runs in the last three seasons. This is an important spring for Norris if he wants to get back in the rotation.
Someone to watch: Kyle Funkhouser
C: Grayson Greiner vs. John Hicks
The Tigers would love for Grayson Greiner to be the guy behind the plate for them in 2019. In fact, manager Ron Gardenhire has made it clear that’s going to be the case. Greiner made his Major League debut last season, but was pretty quiet overall. The rookie had a .219 average over 166 plate appearances. He had zero home runs with a 27.6 strikeout rate and 14.7 walk rate. He showed a bit of power in the minors, but has a lot left to prove. At 6-foot-6, Grayson will be the game’s tallest catcher, and believe it or not, that’ll be an adjustment for some of the new pitchers, like Moore.
John Hicks – who can play some first – has rocked a .263 average over the last two seasons with 15 home runs. He had a career-high in PA’s (312), home runs (9), RBI (32) and runs (35). He also increased his fly ball percentage from 29 to 38. Hicks deserves some at-bats for sure, but his playing time will come at first or he’ll DH.
News & Notes: Ronny Rodriguez homered Friday in his spring debut, but his path to every day playing time got a bit harder when the Tigers signed Josh Harrison. The former Pirate should leadoff for Detroit this season. He can move around the diamond, but second seems likely.
SP: Framber Valdez vs. Forrest Whitley
I don’t really expect much of a battle this spring for the fifth spot in Houston’s rotation as I already feel like Josh James has that on lockdown. That said, Charlie Morton, Dallas Keuchel (I think) and Lance McCullers (Tommy John) are gone. Collin McHugh heads back into the rotation with Wade Miley grabbing the other spot.
Forrest Whitley has all kinds of game to his name, but only has 10 AA starts on his resume. They have been very impressive starts and he’s shown tremendous strikeout potential (15.95 K/9 in 14.2 AA innings in 2017, followed by 11.62 in 26.1 innings last season). Whitley will find a way in the Houston rotation, it’s just going to take a bit of time. No doubt, we’ll see him in 2019.
News & Notes: Alex Bregman (elbow) took live batting practice this past week. He’s starting to become a steal in the late second due to his health. He’ll be fine people.
Los Angeles Angels
Jaime Barria, Nick Tropeano and Felix Pena will battle for the fifth spot in Los Angeles’ rotation. The Angels signed Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill, but neither have the best track record when it comes to health and productivity.
Pena out-pitched Barria and Tropeano last season, but it’ll be in a stiff competition this spring. Pena has the highest strikeout upside (8.26 K/9), and the best ground ball rate of the three.
David Fletcher has the inside track at the starting position at second base thanks to a .275 average over 307 plate appearances last season. He filled in for the injured Zack Cozart, who is healthy and ready to return to third.
If Taylor Ward outperforms Fletcher, he’ll move to third and Cozart would move back to second base. Cozart has the highest fantasy ceiling of the three and he’ll get everyday playing time. He could also go back to being the team’s leadoff hitter which was the case before his shoulder injury. There’s definitely some value in that position, with Mike Trout and Justin Upton hitting behind him. Luis Rengifo is a fine looking prospect who has an outside chance of making the Opening Day lineup.
News & Notes: Shohei Ohtani hit off a tee Friday, but isn’t expected to be ready for the start of the season, which is good news for Justin Bour.
SP: Michael Pineda vs. Martin Perez vs. Fernando Romero
You know how I feel about Michael Pineda…I like him and his first bullpen session went according to plan. Pineda hit 93 mph on the gun and says he feels ready to pitch now. He’ll have every opportunity for a spot inside the Twins’ rotation as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery. Follow his spring and don’t be surprised if his ADP rises if he looks anywhere near the pitcher he looked like pre-TJS.
Martin Perez was brought in and he’ll battle with youngster Fernando Romero. Perez was awful in his 85.1 innings last season (6.22 ERA, 5.48 K/9, 3.80 BB/9 & 84.3 Contact %). Romero showed some promise as a rookie last season, but posted low strikeout totals (7.28 K/9). His contact rate was 77.8 percent, with a 10.6 SwStr% compared to Perez’s 7.2 mark. That said, he had a dip in velocity and some shoulder issues which may lead to some bigger problems in 2019.
Closer: Blake Parker vs. Trevor May
Trevor May made 24 appearances last season and had only three saves. He finished with a 12.79 K/9 and 1.42 BB/9. Those are very solid numbers. Blake Parker saved 14 games for the Angels last season, with a little lower K/9 (9.50) and a little higher BB/9 (2.58) than May. It’s May who is probably better suited for the eighth inning, with Parker having more experience as a closer.
Willians Astudillo is a fan favorite and could be fantasy darling due to this terrific plate skills. He was putting on a show in Minnesota’s first full-squad workouts. He’ll likely come off the bench to start 2019 as Jason Castro is a much better defensive catcher with Mitch Garver also being in the mix. Astudillo does have experience playing multiple positions, though, which should get him to about 300 plate appearances in 2019.
News & Notes: The Twins signed utility man Marwin Gonzalez to a two-year/$21 million contract on Friday. Minnesota is already set around the diamond and in left field, but Gonzalez will find a way to get at-bats. He’s registered at least 515 plate appearances over his last three seasons with Houston. This could mean fewer at-bats for C.J. Cron or Astudillo.
The Oakland Athletics have at least three spots in their rotation up for grabs and there are reports they are interested in Gio Gonzalez. Right now, roster resource has Brett Anderson, Daniel Mengden and Frankie Montas in the rotation. So far, not so good for Mengden as he served up a two-run homer in his spring debut. He struck out two and walked another in his only inning of work.
Jesus Luzardo – who has the highest ceiling of the bunch – allowed two hits, one unearned run, a walk and had a strikeout in one inning. Luzardo only has 16 AAA innings under his belt, so don’t take too much stock into his 7.31 ERA (four starts). He probably won’t make the A’s out of camp, but he’ll be a hot waiver wire grab and he’s a great stash on draft day. 100 plus innings with a 9 K/9 is happening.
Frankie Montas who registered a 3.88 ERA over 65 innings last season. His 5.95 K/9 is not appealing (7.96 over 112 career innings), but he limited his walls to the tune of 2.91 BB/9. Unfortunately, his contact percentage raised from 74 percent to 82 and his SwStr% dropped from 11.8 to 8.6. That said, he was very impressive in his five wins last season (1.05 ERA & 0.93 WHIP).
News & Notes: Matt Chapman is dealing with a thumb and shoulder injury which kept him out of the lineup Friday. He could return next week. Chris Herrmann is expected to be on the Opening Day roster, which means Josh Phegley will battle it out with Nick Hundley. Sean Manaea is reportedly way ahead of schedule but is still likely out until the All-Star break.
Dee Gordon led off for the Seattle Mariners in Friday’s loss to the Oakland Athletics. Mallex Smith did not play, but he’s a possible leadoff candidate for the Mariners as well. Jay Bruce served as the DH and went 0-for-2 from the No. 3 spot. Ryon Healy hit fifth and finished 0-for-1 with a walk. Mitch Haniger was the star of the game with a two-run homer and two runs.
Healy will get most of his playing time at first base, but Edwin Encarnacion and Jay Bruce will play first as well. I’d imagine Edwin will serve as DH a majority of the time with Bruce splitting PT in left field with Domingo Santana.
J.P. Crawford started at short and hit sixth in his Seattle debut. I think he’ll get a good look in the spring, but he’ll need to cut down on the strikeouts. He had two on Friday and left four men on base. Tim Beckham will likely win the job, but you can bet he among others, will be on the trading block this season.
Tampa Bay Rays
SP: Ryan Yarbrough vs. Yonny Chirinos vs. Jacob Faria
This is still something we’ll have to keep an eye on. As mentioned above, they were one of the few teams who changed the game last season when they decided to start games with their relievers and then turn things over to guys like Ryan Yarbrough. Let’s not forget Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon are expected back at some point this season.
Ji-Man Choi started at first base Friday and hit third in the lineup. He finished 0-for-2 with a strikeout. He left two men on base, but he did bring in a run on a sac-fly to left. Yandy Diaz hit in the cleanup spot and played third base. He went 0-for-2 with one strikeout, but I have to say…I’m intrigued with him batting fourth.
The Rays have so many versatile players which will allow manager Kevin Cash to be as creative as he wants to be. Diaz – who played third last season – may play some first, but could take over for Matt Duffy at third. Duffy is dealing with a hamstring injury and is expected to make his Grapefruit League debut Tuesday. Austin Meadows didn’t play, but he’ll be an everyday player for the Rays. Avisail Garcia is out until at least Wednesday as he works his way back from knee surgery. It’s Garcia who seems like the odd man out at the moment.
The Texas Rangers rotation has the ability to be disastrous. Mike Minor will get the ball on Opening Day, followed by Lance Lynn, Drew Smyly, Edinson Volquez and then Shelby Miller. All had promise at one point, but guys the DFS community will love to stack against in 2019. Minor is the only returning pitcher in the Rangers’ rotation, and while the other options have a chance to stick, injuries have been an issue for all of them.
Doug Fister, Bartolo Colon, and Yovani Gallardo are gone, and with that, the Rangers are hoping they improve on their 5.37 staff ERA from last season (second highest in Majors). Volquez is coming off Tommy John surgery, so he’s the one to watch, but he and Miller should be penciled into the rotation. Don’t be surprised if we see Jason Hammel or Ariel Jurado sprinkled in, though. There’s not a lot to love from a fantasy standpoint.
Toronto Blue Jays
LF: Teoscar Hernandez vs. Billy McKinney
Teoscar Hernandez and Billy McKinney will compete for playing time in left field. Toronto Blue Jays’ manager Charlie Montoyo is reportedly considering batting McKinney and Devon Travis at the leadoff spot this season which would mean McKinney will likely start against RHP.
McKinney started 31 games for Toronto down the stretch last season as he was part of the J.A. Happ deal with the Yankees. He wasn’t bad either as he posted a .252/.318/.462 slash line. Hernandez has more promise and upside in his game, but he’s not being considered at leadoff, so advantage McKinney.
The real winner in this battle is Lourdes Gurriel Jr. who should play almost every day and has the ability to move around the diamond. Freddy Galvis will get plenty of playing time this season and when he does it’ll be at shortstop. Travis won’t play short, he’ll play at second base when he gets in the lineup.
Hopefully you found Chris’ take on early position battles helpful? For more great fantasy baseball rankings, strategy, and analysis check out the 2019 FantraxHQ Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit. We’ll be adding more content from now right up until Opening Day!
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