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Spring Training Position Battles to Watch for Fantasy Baseball: AL Central

By this point, almost every player has reported for Spring Training. With game action under a week away, injuries and news seems to break by the hour. With so much to pay attention to, this article series is meant to identify for you which playing time battles you need to be paying attention to from each team. Today we move to the AL Central. To check out the rest of the series, make sure to head over to Fantrax!

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Spring Training Battles to Watch

Detroit Tigers – 4/5th Starting Pitchers

The Tigers have quietly had a productive off-season. In addition to locking up their own (Colt Keith) they went out and signed Jack Flaherty and Kenta Maeda. The addition of these two arms has resulted in a much more crowded rotation making this a position to keep an eye on in Spring Training.

A few years ago, Casey Mize, Matt Manning, and Tarik Skual headlined the Tigers’ farm system. While Skubal established himself, Mize and Manning have struggled to stay healthy and produce in the Major Leagues. Both players are healthy entering Spring Training and seeking a rotation spot. Manning has the edge thanks to the fact he pitched last season. He started 15 games for Detroit finishing with a 3.58 ERA. The ERA was solid, but he struck out under 16% of the batters he faced. His ERA indicators suggest significant regression is incoming, but he still holds the inside track to a starting job this spring. Mize did not pitch at all last season after throwing just 10 innings in 2022. Being the first overall pick from 2018 does not hold much weight anymore. Mize will need to prove he is healthy and ready to roll during Spring Training this season.

Then, there are the other guys who made their debut last season. Reese Olson pitched well for Detroit last year posting a 3.99 ERA across 103.2 innings. He also could not have ended the season much better posting a 1.51 ERA across his final six starts. The strikeout rate was mediocre, but his slider generated a whiff rate of 41.6% suggesting there might be more upside there than initially meets the eye. Sawyer Gipson-Long is another candidate to win a rotation spot this spring. Gispon-Long was dominant in four starts to end last season and caught the eye of many around the baseball community. He seems like a long shot to crack the rotation, but if he shows up this spring looking like he did last September, the Tigers might have no choice.

All four of these pitchers are interesting for their own reasons. The best possible answer for many fantasy managers is that Olson and Gipson-Long win the rotation spots. Those two have shown the most upside in the strikeout department of the four pitchers listed. Manning has a wipeout slider but has struggled to get enough consistent whiffs throughout his Major League career. Prospect pedigree suggests that Mize should be interesting, but he has not given us much of a reason to.

Chicago White Sox – Shortstop

Just a few years ago, it seemed like we were entering a new era of White Sox baseball. Instead, the train fell off the tracks and they are now trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces. This could open the door for more prospects to get a chance to prove themselves at the Major League level in 2024.

For those White Sox fans wondering if things can get worse than last year, I encourage you not to look at their projected lineup on Roster Resource. Paul DeJong appears to be in line to receive a chance at reviving his career. DeJong hit 14 home runs between three different teams last season finishing the year with a cumulative wRC+ of 66. DeJong has not been an above-average offensive player since 2019 and has shown no signs of putting things back together. A strong spring could earn him the starting job although the White Sox have no reason to give him a long leash.

One of the options being overlooked is Jose Rodriguez. Rodriguez is viewed as a second baseman long-term but has plenty of experience playing shortstop in the Minor Leagues. Rodriguez has flashed solid power and speed in the Minor Leagues although there are concerns surrounding his hit tool. With few other options on the roster, the White Sox could give him a chance to play shortstop to start the 2023 season.

The real player to watch is Colson Montgomery. Montgomery is one of the game’s top prospects with excellent plate discipline and plenty of raw power. Many scouts project Montgomery to land at third base long-term, a spot that is currently occupied by Yoan Moncada. The White Sox will likely want to see Montgomery show off solid defense at shortstop this spring if they are going to give him a chance to play there at the Major League level. If he can do that while putting together strong offensive numbers, the White Sox could hand him the starting shortstop job.

The only thing that fantasy managers need to pay attention to is Montgomery’s performance. DeJong’s days of fantasy relevance are behind him and Jose Rodriguez has not shown enough to be a reliable target in 2024. Montgomery has the ceiling to be a top-tier fantasy option even without many stolen bases. He is unlikely to win the job, but a strong Spring Training could change that.

Kansas City Royals – Designated Hitter

Much like the Tigers, the Royals have been pleasantly aggressive this off-season. They extended one of their own (Bobby Witt Jr.) and signed players like Hunter Renfroe and Michael Wacha. Now they need to fill out the rest of their lineup with the players they have in-house.

The Royals picked up Nelson Velasquez in the middle of last season and he wasted no time putting his power on full display. He hit 14 home runs in just 147 plate appearances with the team. His 600 plate appearance pace with the Royals was 57 home runs. Velasquez has always had massive power but lacked consistent playing time in Chicago to prove himself. Now in a regular role, Velasquez is a popular breakout pick in the fantasy community. The flip side to Velasquez’s power is a suspect hit tool that is likely to lead to high strikeout rates and low batting averages. He will need to post a decent enough stat line this spring to ensure he remains in an everyday role.

While Velasquez is sure to generate a decent amount of playing time regardless of his Spring Training performance, he could see a slight reduction if Freddy Fermin shows up to camp crushing the baseball. Fermin put together a solid season last year hitting nine home runs with a .281 batting average across 70 games played. After years of Minor League development, Fermin proved to be an intriguing option behind the dish. His glove was not amazing, but he had a strong arm which helped to catch potential base stealers. With Salvador Perez getting up there in age, the team could look to lighten his workload behind the dish and get him more at-bats at DH. Fermin’s ability to perform both offensively and defensively could be the key to this plan unfolding. A strong Spring Training from Fermin could result in Perez taking away at-bats from Velasquez.

The ceiling for fantasy managers is in Velasquez. He does not cost very much in fantasy drafts and has as high of a power ceiling as just about any player in baseball. The biggest question is whether or not he will be able to hit enough to stay in the lineup. A strong Spring Training would cement him into an everyday role early on this season which is what fantasy managers want to see. On the flip side, Fermin could offer some intriguing deep-league fantasy value as well. In two-catcher formats, the free-agent pool dries up quickly. Fermin profiles to post solid batting averages with decent pop and does not cost anything. If he shows up to spring crushing the ball he could be worth a late-round pick.

Minnesota Twins – Outfield

After trading Jorge Polanco, the Twins depth chart is suddenly a bit less crowded. Anthony DeSclafini could work as a starter, but he does not figure to push any of the other five options out of their rotation. This leaves left field as the biggest question mark heading into Opening Day.

The projected starter according to Roster Resource is Matt Wallner. Wallner appeared in 76 games for Minnesota last season and posted a 144 wRC+. This gives him a significant edge in this position battle heading into Spring Training. Still, his profile does not come without concerns. Wallner struck out 31.5% of the time last season which has been an issue for him throughout his professional career. He also hit just .119 against left-handed pitching which almost guarantees him to be a platoon player at best in 2024. The Twins will likely want to see improvements against lefties as well as improved contact skills this spring. The Opening Day job is likely his barring an abysmal Spring Training performance.

Wallner’s biggest competition comes from a similar player in Trevor Larnach. Larnach has shown flashes at the Major League level but has also struggled to limit the strikeouts. He struck out 34% of the time and failed to show the same level of game power as Wallner. Larnach also comes with a platoon split and hit just .095 against lefties last season. He has all of the same concerns as Wallner but not nearly as much home run upside. The other option for the Twins is to roll with Willi Castro. Castro proved useful in a utility role last season and stole 33 bases in just 124 games. He is less volatile than Wallner or Larnach but does not have the same middle-of-the-order upside as Wallner has. He figures to get at-bats regularly against lefties but is unlikely to win an Opening Day lineup spot.

Wallner is the clear interest of fantasy managers. 14 home runs in 254 plate appearances is good enough for a 33 home run pace. His highs will likely be high and the lows will hurt your fantasy team, but there is not a better option to root for from this group. He profiles to get the Opening Day nod barring a collapse during Spring Training. This is not the most prolific battle to watch, but one to have on your radars.

Cleveland Guardians – Youth versus experienced veterans

The Guardians have too many potential options to choose from, so summarizing them into one feels like the best path forward. For a team constantly retooling to manage payroll restrictions, this lineup is filled with former top prospects. Spring Training could determine which of those players are in the Opening Day lineup and which will be headed back to Triple-A.

Before we get into veterans versus prospects. Let’s start with a quick prospect versus prospect battle. When the Guardians traded away Aaron Civale, they got Kyle Manzardo in return. Manzardo ranked as the best first-base prospect in baseball last season and still ranks toward the top of that list. After struggling to start the season, Mazardo came on strong and put together a solid showing in the AFL. He seems destined to become the team’s first baseman of the future but will need to have a strong Spring Training to avoid getting sent back to Triple-A.

His path to an Opening Day lineup spot got a little bit more difficult when the team selected Deyvison De Los Santos in the Rule-5 Draft. De Los Santos is just 20 years old and has never played a single game above Double-A. While Manzardo is almost assuredly the better option at this point, the team has to keep De Los Santos on their roster for the 2024 season. A strong Spring Training could result in him handling first base duties to start the season over Manzardo.

Another position up for grabs is center field. Many throughout the baseball community have been begging the Guardians to sit Myles Straw in favor of another option. Straw has posted a 67 and 69 wRC+ over the last two seasons and saw his WAR drop to 0.4 last year. His glove has kept him in the lineup but he provides almost no offensive value to the Guardians. On a team starved for offense, Straw will have to prove that he is still worth trotting out there every day. If he does not, the team could turn to recently acquired Estevan Florial. Florial has been a force in the Minor Leagues for years now but was never able to sustain his success at the Major League level. He has significant power and speed upside but struggles to make consistent contact.

The last position battle to pay attention to is Brayan Rocchio versus Gabriel Arias. Although Arias is still only 23 years old, he plays the role of the veteran in this battle. Arias showed flashes of becoming a top prospect back with San Diego but has struggled to make enough contact at the Major League level to be a reliable asset. Through 402 plate appearances, he owns a 74 wRC+ and will need a strong Spring Training to earn a starting spot in the Guardians’ lineup.

Arias’ competition is Brayan Rocchio. Rocchio is a switch-hitting infielder who made his debut last season. Funny enough he is also 23 years old. Scouts have routinely given Rocchio’s hit tool plus grades, but he struck out 31.4% of the time in his small 23-game sample last season. He is a plus-base stealer but lacks significant power projection. He will need to show the Guardians he is capable of handling Major League pitching if he wants to win the Opening Day shortstop job.

The most intriguing battle for fantasy managers to watch is at first base. Kyle Manzardo winning the job would add another significant option at first base to an already deep pool of players. De Los Santos has plenty of projection himself but will likely take a couple of more seasons to develop. In center field, Florial offers tremendous fantasy upside but has shown nothing that suggests he will be able to hit consistently at the Major League level. Neither shortstop option is overly exciting for fantasy managers to choose between.

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1 Comment
  1. DAVID says

    regarding Manzardo. lets not forget De Los Santos is a Rule 5 guy. IMO he gets the nod first and blocks Manzardo to start the year until and if they decide to cast De Los Santos off the team and send him back due to his swing and miss. Lets face it though. Clevelend is starved for power and De Los Santos offers way more power than Manzardo

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