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Early 2023 Spring Training Standouts: Grapefruit League

Just over two weeks into spring training, teams are starting to get a good idea of how their Opening Day rosters will look. Nothing is set in stone, but big performances can push players that were on the cusp of making the team over the edge. While there’s still plenty of time for position battles to be sorted out, some players are already deserving of some extra attention.

Of course, all spring training performances, both good and bad, should be taken with a grain of salt. Last spring, Kyle Higashioka belted a whopping seven homers with a 1.695 OPS in 28 plate appearances before slashing .227/.264/.389 in the regular season. Spring training is less about the actual stats and more about watching key position battles as well as young players and past-prime veterans trying to make the MLB roster.

The season is not here yet, but why not get a head start and jump in a Fantrax Classic Draft contest? Get a jump on the season with a Best Ball league or maybe a Draft and Hold. Or put some green on the line with a new season-long league to try and conquer. There’s no better time than now to get your baseball on!

2023 Cactus League Spring Training Standouts

Yusei Kikuchi – Toronto

Yusei Kikuchi entered spring training in a competition for the final spot in Toronto’s rotation. He struggled throughout 2022 with a 5.19 ERA and a 5.62 FIP through 100.2 frames. Now, through four spring outings, Kikuchi looks like a new pitcher. He’s fired 9.2 shutout innings with a 13:6 K:BB. The 31-year-old southpaw turned in two straight hitless outings earlier in the month. In his most recent start against the Phillies on Sunday, Kikuchi allowed seven base runners but forced 14 swinging strikes on just 61 pitches.

Kikuchi’s high walk rate won’t lead to much success during the regular season, but his general approach has improved. His fastball was thrown over 50% of the time in 2022 and resulted in a .576 xSLG and 52.8% hard-hit rate. This spring, he’s relied more heavily on the slider and changeup and the results have been positive. It’s worth noting that in Sunday’s lackluster outing, 31 of Kikcuhi’s 61 pitches were fastballs, and half of the balls in play allowed came against that pitch. Barring a turn of events, he not only seems locked into a spot in the Blue Jays’ rotation but also a legitimate bounce-back candidate for deeper fantasy leagues.

Brett Baty – New York Mets

Brett Baty came into camp behind Eduardo Escobar on the third base depth chart. Over the last few weeks, the 23-year-old has done everything in his power to flip roles. He’s slashing .458/.552/.625 with two extra-base hits, two steals, and a 6:4 K:BB. Meanwhile, Escobar went just 2-for-16 before joining Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic. Half of one spring camp doesn’t mean everything, but Baty is proving that he should be starting at third base for the Mets on Opening Day.

Baty’s defense is one of the few knocks against him but he’s been flashing the leather a bit this spring. He spent most of his age-22 season with Double-A Binghamton, slashing .312/.406/.544 with 19 home runs in 89 games. Baty has essentially cemented himself as the long-term third baseman even if he doesn’t break camp with the team. Escobar could be a free agent after the 2023 season if the Mets decline his option, locking Baty into the role for 2024 if he doesn’t secure it earlier. If Baty’s bat stays hot he could force his way into some time in the outfield or at DH as well.

Jordan Walker – St. Louis

All eyes were on Jordan Walker as spring training began and he’s already surpassed his lofty expectations. He’s slashing .424/.424/.728 with three home runs, three doubles, and a stolen base. Not only is he going deep, but he’s hitting rockets. His first spring homer was a 430-foot, 108.9mph blast against Johnny Cueto. Walker is getting plenty of looks as he’s tied for the most at-bats among all Grapefruit League batters. He’s getting more attention now that he’s featured on a national stage but his performance shouldn’t come as a surprise.

He spent his age-20 campaign with Double-A Springfield and posted an .898 OPS with 19 home runs, 31 doubles, and 22 steals. Walker is almost certain to make his MLB debut before turning 21 in May and has already established himself as an elite dynasty baseball asset. He suffered a shoulder strain Saturday but he’s still swinging a bat and the injury was considered to be very minor. Walker is clearly ready to make an MLB impact and has outperformed Alec Burleson and Juan Yepez by a considerable margin this spring.

Santiago Espinal – Toronto

After a breakout 2021 season, Santiago Espinal made his first All-Star game in 2022 despite finishing the year with a .692 OPS. A late injury and the arrival of Whit Merrifield hurt his playing time in the second half and now his role on the team isn’t very clear. Espinal has now forced the attention back on himself with his impressive spring performance. The 28-year-old is slashing .423/.464/.654 with three extra-base knocks and three steals. Espinal went deep in his first game with a 101.8mph shot against the Pirates on February 25.

Cavan Biggio is also competing for some time at second base and has registered an .823 OPS this spring. Meanwhile, Merrifield has posted a lackluster .732 OPS while being caught stealing in three of his five attempts. Espinal is proving that he’s not to be forgotten in Toronto’s mix of utility options. Barring a change, one would assume that Merrifield will still begin the year as the team’s second baseman. However, Espinal should see more time against lefties (.301/.375/.451 against them last season) and he has the flexibility to move around the infield as needed.

Trevor Rogers – Miami

After an All-Star 2021 season in which he finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting, Trevor Rogers took a step back in 2022. He posted an ugly 5.47 ERA (4.35 FIP) with just 8.9 K/9 through 107 innings. The 6-foot-5 southpaw was great against left-handed batters but, overall, was consistently disappointing throughout the year. However, he showed slight improvement with a 3.72 ERA and 23:4 K:BB over his last four appearances. Rogers used that finish as momentum this spring and he looks like his 2021 self again.

Rogers chart

Rogers has allowed two runs with 11 strikeouts and no walks over nine innings. He began spring with seven scoreless frames before coughing up a homer to Josh Lowe on Saturday. He’s still relying mostly on his four-seam but it hasn’t been getting hit as hard as it did in 2022. Rogers fired 18 fastballs against Boston on February 25th and not one was put in play. The 25-year-old had less success with it against the Rays on Saturday, but he allowed an average exit velocity of just 87mph with the fastball and registered an overall CSW% of 37%. Rogers also threw the sinker 10 times Saturday, more than he threw it during the entire 2021 and 2022 regular seasons combined. The development of a third pitch to complement his fastball and changeup could lead to a 2023 rebound.

Quick Notes

  • Bryce Elder was one of multiple arms looking to secure the role as Atlanta’s fifth starter. He’s set himself back early by coughing up six runs in 7.2 innings. If Kyle Wright misses any time to begin the year, Elder could still open the season at the MLB level.
  • On the flip side, Jared Shuster has allowed just one run with a 9:1 K:BB through 8.2 innings this spring. The 24-year-old posted a 3.29 ERA across 139.1 total innings at the Double-A and Triple-A levels last season. Expect him to debut with Atlanta in 2023.
  • Ronny Mauricio has been one of the most electric names in spring training. He’s drilled four home runs with a double, one steal, and 1.230 OPS through 25 plate appearances.
  • Kyle Bradish is sporting a 12:2 K:BB and 2.00 ERA through nine innings. The 26-year-old was 20th in Stuff+ among all pitchers with at least 110 innings in 2022. If he can keep his command in check, a 2023 breakout for Bradish is on the horizon.
  • Anthony Volpe has gone deep twice while adding three steals with a .320/.433/.680 slash line. The 21-year-old shortstop is building a case to break camp with the team, even if it’s still a stretch.
  • Luis Severino has posted a 9.35 ERA with 10 strikeouts and five homers allowed through 8.2 frames. The Yankees’ rotation will be thin to start the regular season and the team will be leaning heavily on Severino this year.
  • Mark Vientos is slashing .333/.353/.606 with two homers, three doubles, and nine RBI through 34 plate appearances. However, he’s struck out 11 times with just one walk. The 23-year-old will likely see time at the Triple-A and MLB levels this season.
  • Darick Hall has gone deep four times while posting a 5:3 K:BB. He’s slashing .346/.414/.846 and has likely shown enough to secure some time as the Phillies DH this season, specifically against right-handed pitching.
  • Nick Maton was blocked in Philadelphia but has a path to a utility role now with the Tigers. He’s belted three home runs with a 1.049 OPS through 28 plate appearances this spring.
  • JT Brubaker has posted a 15:3 K:BB through eight spring innings. He’s registered a 37.5% whiff rate while relying very heavily on the sinker and slider.
  • MacKenzie Gore owns a 5.40 ERA and 1.60 WHIP through 10 innings. The 24-year-old has just six punchouts with four walks. He should still break camp with Washington and make his team debut early in the year.

For more great analysis check out the 2023 FantraxHQ Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit!

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