NL Spring Training Position Battles Preview
With pitchers and catchers beginning to report, it is time to watch position battles that will begin to take shape over the coming weeks. Here are a few National League position battles that I am paying attention to. I will provide updates with new information as Spring Training progresses as well as highlight any new developments that occur.
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NL Spring Training Positional Battles to Watch
The only real position battle for a regular spot in Arizona seems to be at catcher, where Carson Kelly is looking like the favorite over Alex Avila and John Ryan Murphy. Kelly owns a career slash line of .154/.227/.188. There’s nothing to see here. The Diamondbacks don’t have many position battles per se, but that is mainly because they have responded to the loss of several key players via trade and free agency this offseason by simply moving players to new positions as if they are playing MLB: The Show.
Ketel Marte played 14 innings in the outfield in 2015. That’s his new full-time job. Ditto for Jake Lamb and his 29 career innings at first base, also all in 2015. Eduardo Escobar has spent more time at shortstop than any other position in the big leagues, so he is moving to third base. Wilmer Flores has played over 100 games at third base, shortstop, and first base. He is Arizona’s new second baseman. Honestly, I love it. I’m a little terrified to take someone like Zack Greinke at his current ADP given his modest strikeout rate and his reliance on groundballs, but that’s another story.
These players who are changing positions could be intriguing targets in the later rounds in leagues where players become eligible at a new position after reaching a certain number of games played threshold. Escobar is going outside of Round 10, and the others are going well after that, including Flores, who is outside of the top 500. Each should have helpful positional flexibility by the end of April.
Merrill Kelly is the likely fifth starter after spending the last four years in the Korea Baseball Organization, but he should not be counted on for fantasy purposes. The biggest positional battle taking place in the desert is the one at the back end of Arizona’s bullpen. Archie Bradley and Greg Holland are seemingly vying for the closer’s job. Neither one strikes out a ton of hitters, and both allow a fair amount of hard contact. That doesn’t bode well given the uncertainty in the field. Beat writer Steve Gilbert believes Bradley has the inside track on the gig, but if I had to pick one for the purposes of extracting value, I’d prefer Holland. And I do not like Holland.
There shouldn’t be a ton of question marks regarding Atlanta’s everyday starting lineup. Brian McCann and Tyler Flowers should split catcher duties. Neither is worthy of a pick in one-catcher leagues. There is some certainty in the rotation and at closer. Touki Toussaint and Mike Soroka are a couple of former first-round picks battling for the fifth spot. Soroka is likely the better long-term prospect, but Touissant may be the better bet to leave camp with the big club. Soroka is still recovering from a shoulder ailment that cut his 2018 campaign short and may be eased into action. Both have almost identical ADP on Fantrax as of press time.
Arodys Vizcaino and A.J. Minter are in competition for the role of closer, barring Atlanta reuniting with Craig Kimbrel. This is another case where I am not in love with either candidate and would prefer to wait a few rounds and snag Minter rather than banking on Vizcaino finally keeping the closer job for an entire season.
The Cubs have some nice utility players on the roster, but their daily lineup should remain consistent. Their rotation is straightforward if Yu Darvish is healthy. Interestingly enough, all five of the starters are currently being drafted between SP33 and SP47. The main competition in Spring Training will likely involve the bullpen pieces. Pedro Strop is likely to begin the year at closer while Brandon Morrow continues to rehab. Strop is still going 100 picks after Morrow. That’s just plain silly.
Colorado has an interesting competition for the second base job. Garrett Hampson is the favorite to win the job and offers tremendous fantasy potential after pick 200. He has averaged over 40 stolen bases per year in the minors, and steals are quite scarce. Hampson should have a nice batting average especially considering the Coors bump. Ryan McMahon figures to be in the mix as well, as is uber-prospect Brendan Rodgers. The former No. 3 pick in the 2015 MLB Draft will probably begin the year in the minors, so I’m not in love with drafting him unless you are in a deep draft and hold league.
The Rockies have some quality arms in their rotation, but I just can’t pull the trigger on any of them unless I get a major discount. Antonio Senzatela (ADP: 647.81) is a deep league flyer, but only as a spot starter on the road or against a weak opponent. Seungwhan Oh and Scott Oberg can both be had well after pick 500 if you want to bet against Wade Davis. In most leagues, they will be on the waiver wire to begin the year.
The focus for many fantasy players will be on the outfield, where highly-touted prospects Jesse Winker and Nick Senzel will attempt to snag jobs. They will have to battle, as former Dodgers Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp join Scott Schebler and Phillip Ervin in a crowded outfield. Owners are drafting both Winker and Senzel ahead of Schebler and Kemp. That seems a bit hasty in most instances, but the upside for both is there. Winker impressed in 334 plate appearances last year, walking more than he struck out and posting a massive 43.9 percent hard-hit rate. If either Winker (ADP: 218.72) or Senzel (243.31) are in the Opening Day lineup, they should produce a huge ROI for their owners.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Austin Barnes figures to get the bulk of the work behind the plate, with Russell Martin starting twice a week. Neither needs to be drafted in a one-catcher league. After that, the Opening Day lineup will be predicated more on health than a competition. The big question mark is shortstop Corey Seager, who is still recovering from Tommy John surgery. If he is not ready for the beginning of the season, Kike Hernandez will likely fill in, most likely at second base. Several of their position players have multi-position eligibility, including Chris Taylor, who will man shortstop and/or second base following the free-agent signing of A.J. Pollock. Max Muncy and Joc Pederson figure to be on the winning side of platoons against David Freese and Alex Verdugo, respectively.
The good news is that there is plenty of competition. The bad news is that there is not a lot here to get the old’ heart pumping. There is not a player on the Marlins who is going in the first 20 rounds of the average 12-team league. That’s borderline unfathomable. Most of the competitions center around a prospect trying to hold off a veteran fringe player.
Newly acquired Jorge Alfaro should get the bulk of the starts behind the plate. He is being drafted as a fantasy starter and is the one Marlin outside of potentially Drew Steckenrider to be considered as such. Peter O’Brien was decent at the end of 2018, but he’s 28 years old and has struck out in 54 of 140 career at-bats. Neil Walker is his primary competition. I’d rather have Walker because of his track record and positional flexibility, but not enough to consider drafting him outside the very deepest of leagues.
Shortstop should come down to J.T. Riddle and Miguel Rojas. Again, we’re talking about a “prospect” who is the same age as Mike Trout. Methinks if Riddle was any good, we would have seen it by now. Like Walker, Rojas is eligible at multiple positions on the diamond. And also like Walker, he still isn’t good enough to warrant a pick outside of really deep formats. It is also possible that prospect Isan Diaz gets a look at shortstop before too long.
In the outfield, Lewis Brinson is looking to rebound from his dreadful 2018. Brinson had produced an abysmal .189/.239/.331 slash line in 461 career plate appearances. The talent that made him a highly-touted prospect is still in there, and Miami should give him ample opportunity to unleash it. He is currently going as OF90 in drafts. I suppose there are worse gambles one can make. Brinson figures to be flanked by some combo of Austin Dean, Magneuris Sierra, and Curtis Granderson. I think the best thing you can say about anyone in this group is that Granderson is probably a bargain as the 207th outfielder off the board in drafts.
The rotation has a similar mix of average to below-average veterans competing against middling prospects. Nobody in this competition is going in the top-100 starting pitchers in current drafts. The trio of Jose Urena, Dan Straily, and Wei-Yin Chen should get the first three spots. After that, it’s a hodgepodge of rookies including Sandy Alcantara, Trevor Richards, and Caleb Smith. Alcantara is the first starter being drafted, and Richards and Smith are both going ahead of Chen and Straily. That should tell you all you need to know about the veterans. I prefer Smith of the bunch, health permitting. Richards has a plus changeup, but not much else. And Alcantara’s wildness and lack of strikeout offerings don’t suit my fancy.
Miami recently signed Sergio Romo to a one-year deal. The move won’t grab a ton of headlines, but I’m buying. Romo should be a stabilizing force in an otherwise unproven ragtag group. Romo also had 25 saves last season, including 17 in the second half. Drew Steckenrider is still the favorite for saves, but I’d further temper already-tempered expectations for the 28-year old. Give me Romo at nearly 200 picks after Steckenrider.
Milwaukee’s everyday lineup should not change all too often. Second base is a likely platoon between Cory Spangenberg and Hernan Perez. I prefer Spanbengerg over Perez given the 200-spot discount, but that isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of the former Padre either.
The back end of the rotation is interesting. Jimmy Nelson had a fantastic 2017 but missed all of 2018. Can he pick up where he left off? If he comes anywhere close, he will be a nice steal at his current draft slot (SP69). Jhoulys Chacin, Freddy Peralta, Brandon Woodruff, and Chase Anderson are all going in the 65-99 range as well. Corbin Burnes and Zach Davies are also in the mix. Chacin, Anderson, and Nelson (health permitting) feel like the only locks. Burnes is listed as a reliever on Fantrax, so he can be utilized rather liberally in fantasy if he wins one of the last two rotation spots.
Corey Knebel seems to have the jump on the closer’s role, but Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress loom. I don’t know how much, if anything, will change in the spring. We know who these three are. But stranger things have happened. Woodruff and Burnes can slot into high-leverage bullpen roles should they miss out on a spot in the starting rotation.
New York Mets
At first base, the question is not “if”, but “when” Peter Alonso will wrest the job from Todd Frazier. Odds are that the Mets will wait until the middle of April. Fantasy owners are undeterred. Alonso is being drafted in the top-20 in what is a weaker position than usual. Alonso mashed 36 home runs last year in the minors and has the potential to hit that mark in the bigs, at least at a prorated mark. However, he is a bit of a batting average risk.
The road for Jeff McNeil is less defined. The second baseman showed nicely in the second half last year but now will have to sit behind Robinson Cano. McNeil could try to earn a spot in the outfield, but that will be a tough nut to crack as well. Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo should play most days, and Juan Lagares and Keon Broxton are outstanding defenders. McNeil seems like a risk at his current draft price of 2B27. There is no guarantee he sees anything closely resembling regular playing time.
J.D. Davis finds himself in a similar situation to McNeil. He finally got a chance to get out from underneath the loaded Astros organization, only for the Mets to go out and sign Jed Lowrie less than a week later. It is possible that he can potentially fill in at first or in the outfield, but he will have to bide his time there as well. Davis, Broxton, and Lagares are all going outside the top 500. Davis and Broxton are talented offensive players, but I’m afraid their draft prices are proper given the Mets’ other options.
Andrew McCutchen and Odubel Herrera figure to play every day in the outfield, but a Nick Williams/Aaron Altherr platoon in right field is uninspiring. If only there was a way Philadelphia could improve in right field and balance out a mostly right-handed hitting lineup… I am just drawing a blank on they can remedy this. In all seriousness, if Williams ends up on the right side of the platoon, he could be a nice dart throw at the end of drafts (ADP: 418.22).
Other than right field, they have a fairly stable everyday lineup. Rumors of signing Manny Machado persist, of course, but there are worse third basemen in the world than Maikel Franco. Franco has hit over 20 home runs in three consecutive years and is still just 26 years old. His batting average has been up and down, but his xBA suggests he has been a bit unlucky. His price as the 23rd third baseman off the board seems like a buying opportunity considering the potent lineup he figures to be a part of. That endorsement obviously goes out the window if Philly lands Machado.
If the year was 1999 and not 2019, what are the odds Nick Pivetta would be going ahead of Jake Arrieta? I can’t wait for my dad to ask me for help with his draft, then question why I would take a guy with a 5.33 career ERA over a Cy Young award winner whose ERA was under 4.00 last year. Gotta love analytics. Unspectacular options Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez round out the rotation behind ace Aaron Nola.
It is undecided whether David Robertson or Seranthony Dominguez will close for the Phillies, but I’m not sure that will be determined in the spring. Kapler is not likely to make that decision until he is on his way to the park every day. I love Dominguez from a skill standpoint, but I lean towards the 90-plus pick savings with Robertson.
The Pirates are the rare team with two viable catching options. Both Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz hit at least 10 home runs and neither hurt the batting average, as catchers so often do. Yet neither is a top-15 option based on ADP. Cervelli is 18th and Diaz is 26th. They cancel each other out a bit but they both offer some value. If you are in a two-catcher league, you can do worse than to walk with Elias.
Adam Frazier takes over at second base and has a solid set of skills. He slashed .291/.363/.490 against righties last year. Frazier doesn’t run but should hit at the top of the lineup and score a lot of runs and provide a solid average and some pop. I really like him as the 25th 2B off the board.
Frazier is likely to play every day in part because his main competition, Erik Gonzalez, is in line to play shortstop. Gonzalez was dealt in the offseason from Cleveland and should be able to hold off Kevin Newman. Still, his ADP is well beyond 600 and probably rightfully so. He will likely bat eighth in an NL lineup and is not likely to make much of a fantasy impact.
The hot corner features a fascinating battle between Colin Moran and Jung Ho Kang. Kang will resume his MLB career after seeing six plate appearances since 2016. Kang was an excellent hitter in his first stint here. He has a career slash line of .274/.355/.482. However, he is coming back after a long layoff and is a defensive liability. My guess is that Moran will play against right-handed pitching and Kang will play against southpaws. I believe each has considerable upside, as both are being drafted outside the top-25 at third base. I would easily prefer either Pirate to Todd Frazier, for example.
The winner of the competition for Pittsburgh’s fifth starter (Nick Kingham or Jordan Lyles, most likely) is probably a mere placeholder for Mitch Keller, who should be up sooner rather than later. Keller is being drafted the highest of the three in deep leagues.
San Diego Padres
The Padres have so much going on that it’s hard to know where to begin. They have arguably the best minor league system in all of baseball, and they’re still in the hunt for some of the sport’s best free agents. With so many balls in the air, it’s hard to say what San Diego’s Opening Day roster will look like. There are plenty of races to watch as Spring Training begins.
Francisco Mejia and Austin Hedges make up the catching combo in San Diego. Mejia was the centerpiece of last summer’s Brad Hand deal with Cleveland. Mejia profiles as an excellent hitter, but Hedges is the superior defender and will probably play more than Mejia owners would like. Mejia’s ADP (C9) is a little too rich for my blood as things currently stand.
I can’t really picture a scenario in which Luis Urias isn’t the Padres’ starting shortstop on Opening Day. Yet he’s being drafted outside the top-300 overall, 24th among second basemen (he will probably be shortstop-eligible by mid-April), and behind teammate Fernando Tatis, Jr. Beat writer AJ Cassavell gives Urias a 95 percent chance of making the Opening Day roster, and Tatis a 5 percent chance. This isn’t an anti-Tatis rant. He’s going to be a beast. Going to be. As in, “in the future”. In a draft and hold or a deep league, I have no problem grabbing Tatis. But he’s probably going to get you nothing for half a season. I’ll gladly take Urias as my MI after the likes of Tatis and Didi Gregorius have been drafted.
Things are not as bright on the mound. San Diego has a bunch of question marks in their rotation heading into 2019. Joey Lucchesi is the only starting pitcher going in the top 500 overall at the moment. There is plenty of help on the way, but the majority of it will not materialize this season. I would advise looking elsewhere rather than trusting anyone on this starting staff in redraft leagues.
San Francisco Giants
San Francisco’s outfield is in flux as Spring Training begins. Steven Duggar has a good shot of making the Opening Day lineup and playing center field. He’s a decent flier after pick 400, as he may hit at the top of the lineup and he has excellent speed. However, it remains to be seen whether he can hit the ball often enough (28.9 percent K rate last year) to be considered a fantasy asset.
Mac Williamson is another under the radar option in San Francisco. Williamson revamped his swing last offseason in the mode of Justin Turner. He hit six home runs in his final 12 games before being called up. He then hit three more in his first five games with the Giants. Williamson then suffered a concussion and was a shell of himself upon his return. The Giants ultimately shut Williamson down due to concussion symptoms. His overall numbers from last year look weak, but I think he may have rushed back or was otherwise not 100 percent upon his return. Williamson can be a draft day steal if he can recapture any of the magic he had last April.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals should have a pretty steady infield on most days. Once again, the biggest question will be whether Jose Martinez can be hidden somewhere where his terrible defense won’t negate his offensive prowess. My crystal ball says no. It’s not like Paul Goldschmidt is going to rest much. The Cardinals could give Martinez spot starts in the outfield, but that would not help fantasy owners in weekly formats. Even given Dexter Fowler’s precipitous decline last year, I cannot justify selecting Martinez as the 16th first baseman off the board.
The other battle involves the potential closers on the roster – Andrew Miller and Jordan Hicks. Hicks is going roughly 20 picks ahead of Miller. Both are likely to get opportunities, so I don’t necessarily have a problem with drafting either guy. I just think the veteran will be leaned on a little more. I also happen to think Miller is the better pitcher provided he can remain healthy.
Washington does not figure to have a lot of competition playing itself out this spring. They have a two-headed monster at catcher in Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki. Both are going outside the top-12 but inside the top-20. Much like the situation in Pittsburgh, I like both guys, though I wouldn’t necessarily prioritize grabbing either in a one-catcher league.
Mick will be updating all the Spring Training Position Battles every Wednesday. For more great 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!
Mick Ciallela has been writing for FantraxHQ since July 2017. He has also written for Bleacher Report. He is a lifelong sports fan and has been an avid fantasy sports player for many years. Mick was the Overall Champion of both the 2016 Football Challenge – Roto and 2017 Play 3 Football contests hosted by CDM Sports. Mick was born and raised in Mount Vernon, New York and currently resides in New London, Connecticut.
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