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Spring Training Battles to Watch for Fantasy Baseball: NL Central

Baseball season is almost here. Each day it is getting closer and closer. A couple of days ago, I kicked off my series on Spring Training battles to watch for fantasy baseball. This series is taking an in depth look at one battle on each team that will have an impact on your fantasy leagues. The NL East came first, and today the NL Central is up.

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Position Battles to Watch in Spring Training

St. Louis Cardinals-Designated Hitter

This time last year, it felt like half the spots in the Cardinals lineup were up for grabs. This season is a little bit different. There is a chance Tommy Edman starts the season on the IL and alleviates part of this concern, but for now let’s pretend he does not. There is one open spot up for grabs in the St. Louis lineup and it could come down to Spring Training.

Brendan Donovan is the most likely player to get the majority of starts. Donovan is a bit of a Swiss Army knife for the team. He plays everywhere and has been above average offensively in his first two seasons. Part of the issue is that the team does not seem to be committed to using him in an everyday role and a slow spring could result in him being excluded from the Opening Day lineup.

Similarly, Dylan Carlson is back to fighting for a starting job. Carlson was excellent in 2021 but has gotten worse in each of the last two seasons. A low BABIP is partially to blame for his struggles, but he has not been able to hit the ball very hard in the Major Leagues.

The dark horse here is Alec Burleson. Burleson put up incredible numbers in Triple-A during the 2022 season but has run into some speed bumps at the Major League level. The contact skills have been excellent, but he has failed to tap into any of the game power his 6’2” frame suggests is there. This off-season he has worked hard to get in better shape hiring a nutritionist and working on his outfield defense. Burleson has elite plate discipline and quietly posted an 85th percentile xBA last season. If he can barrel the ball up more, his fantasy value could skyrocket.

For fantasy managers, this is a sneaky battle to watch. Carlson feels fairly irrelevant as he has failed to live up to fantasy expectations. Donovan’s positional eligibility provides fantasy value but his offensive production is rather vanilla. He is not going to be bad, but how much will he help your fantasy team? Burleson is the name to watch. If he shows up in shape and is crushing baseballs, he could be a great late-round player to draft.

Milwaukee Brewers- Outfield

This was originally going to be on the infield, but with the acquisition of Joey Ortiz, that seems to be a little bit clearer. Instead, fantasy managers should shift their focus to the outfield which is filled with budding young stars battling for playing time.

Sal Frelick and Jackson Chourio seem like locks for the Opening Day lineup. Frelick hit in the middle of Milwaukee’s lineup since being promoted last season and Chourio is arguably the game’s top prospect. Barring a disastrous spring, Chourio will be on the Opening Day roster.

That leaves one outfield spot open for Garrett Mitchell and Joey Wiemer. Mitchell being a lefty gives him a slight advantage heading into camp. Mitchell has flashed solid speed and power but also owns a career 38.3% strikeout rate at the Major League level. The raw talent is apparent, but there is debate over if he can put it all together.

Wiemer is not that much different. He flashed plus power and speed at times last season including hitting six home runs in the month of June. He posted a 9.1% barrel rate along with 89th percentile sprint speed. Entering 2023, Wiemer was one of the top prospects in all of baseball and his glove could help him win the right field job in Spring Training.

Both of these players have fantasy value if everything clicks. Both also have plenty of risk that could lead to no real production. If Wiemer can win the starting job in Spring Training, he holds more fantasy value than Mitchell. He has plus power and speed which can turn him into a fantasy start. Chourio is going to get all of the attention this spring, but eyes need to pay attention to the other players battling for playing time.

Pittsburgh Pirates- Second Base

The Pirates are working their way back into relevancy. As the team gets better, more pressure is put on young players to perform before the team moves on. That is what is unfolding at second base.

One of my favorite late-round dart throws this off-season has been Liover Peguero. I hit on him first in my shortstop sleepers article and believe he has the raw skill set to be a viable fantasy option. 6’3” with great raw power and speed gives him a ceiling, not many others have. The biggest thing to watch for this spring is the strikeout rate. If he can keep that down and make more contact, his fantasy value could take off.

To achieve fantasy relevance, Peguero will have to fight off Nick Gonzales from taking the starting job. Gonzales was the Pirates first-round pick back in 2020 and made his Major League debut last season. Similarly to Peguero, he has had trouble making consistent contact throughout his professional career. The team invested a lot in Gonzales and with a strong spring, he could earn a starting spot on the Major League roster.

For fantasy managers out there, the best outcome is Peguero winning the job. Gonzales has flashed power upside but has never been much of a threat to steal bases. Peguero is the full package of power and speed giving him even more upside. The player to win this job could be the one who strikes out less during Spring Training. If either (or both) player shows an improved hit tool, they could become fantasy-relevant at a rather thin position. I will be watching to make sure that Peguero retains his projected Opening Day lineup spot for 2024.

Chicago Cubs- Starting Pitcher

The Cubs lost Marcus Stroman to the Yankees this off-season, leaving a large hole in their starting rotation. They filled that with Shota Imanaga but are now left to decide which young starting pitcher to round out the rotation with.

Right now, Roster Resource has Jordan Wicks projected as the fifth starter. Wicks made his Major League debut last season posting a 4.41 ERA across seven starts. The thing about his stat line is that it would look a lot better without his final start where he gave up six runs in 1.2 innings. The issue with Wicks from a fantasy perspective is that his strikeout ceiling is fairly low. His stuff is underwhelming and he is more of a “crafty lefty” than a power starter. He struck out just 16.3% of the batters he faced at the Major League level last season and saw his strikeout rate dip with each promotion. A bump in velocity during Spring Training would make him a more appealing fantasy asset.

After Wick are a couple of wild cards. Javier Assad pitched well in 109.1 innings between the rotation and bullpen last season. He posted a 3.05 ERA including a 2.84 ERA in a stretch where he started in nine straight appearances. Assad throws slightly harder but also lacks the secondary offerings that Wicks has. Assad struck out 20.9% of batters last season and could also use a velocity boost to increase his fantasy value.

The third option is the most intriguing. Entering last season, the Cubs had two popular breakout candidates in Justin Steele and Hayden Wesneski. Their 2023 seasons went in completely opposite directions which is why Wesneski is hardly even talked about anymore. He worked in a swingman role for the majority of last season finishing with a 4.63 ERA in 89.1 innings. Unlike Wicks and Assad, Wesneski has an excellent breaking pitch to pair with a fastball that is closer to average velocity. Wesneski’s sweeper generated a whiff rate of 37.6% last season and got an incredible 5.52 PLV score. His cutter was also given a 5.43 PLV score. Better fastball command and a pitch to attack lefties with is what Wesneski was missing last season. Improvements to his changeup could help him reclaim fantasy relevance.

This position battle is truly wide-open heading into Spring Training. All three players have a shot but only one profiles to be fantasy relevant. Wesneski has the best stuff and the highest ceiling of the three. If he shows flashes of returning to his 2022 form (a 2.18 ERA in 33 innings), he could break out a year later than everybody expected.

Cincinnati Reds- The entire infield

When you have as many talented infielders as the Reds, you do not usually make that a priority in Free Agency. Instead, the Reds brought in Jeimer Candelario to add to the confusion that is their infield playing time.

Matt McLain appears to be the only person guaranteed to receive regular at-bats from the jump. McClain was excellent last season and combines excellent power and speed. He is also a defensive upgrade over Jonathan India at second base. He will be an Opening Day starter

Based on the $45 million contract and the comments of manager David Bell, Jeimer Candelario will also be an everyday player in 2024. After a down season in Detroit, Candelario revived his career between Washington and Chicago last year. He hit 22 home runs although his quality of contact was rather mediocre. The move to Cincinnati should help prevent too much regression this season.

The question becomes where does Candelario play? First base or third base? If he plays third, that seemingly opens the door for Christian Encarnacion-Strand to take the first base job. CES has incredible raw power, but a swing-happy aggressive approach could get him into trouble at the Major League level. Then, there is also Jonathan India who is battling for playing time. India has primarily been a second baseman but has not reached a 100 wRC+ since winning Rookie of the Year in 2021. The team could play him at first base, second base, or DH if he plays well this spring.

Why would India play second base if they have McClain? Well, McClain could in theory slide to short if Elly De La Cruz struggles this spring. This is the scenario nobody wants to talk about but Elly did slash .191/.271/.355 with a 62 wRC+ after the All-Star Break last season. A bad spring could send him back to Triple-A.

Then, there is Noelvi Marte who hit .316 with three homers and six stolen bases in his 35-game Major League debut last season. Marte is another former top prospect and could be an elite fantasy contributor.

For those keeping track, that is six players for five spots. Two are locks to be in the Opening Day lineup, but the other four will come down to how they perform in Spring Training. All of that is also based on the assumption that Spencer Steer will be playing the outfield as opposed to the infield. De La Cruz comes with the highest draft price of the names listed and is likely the player you need to watch the closest this spring. Marte has the most upside for his current draft price, but a slow spring could send him back to Triple-A. The Reds are likely the most important team for fantasy managers to watch during Spring Training this year.

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