Spring Training games are almost here! For those of us who have been waiting all winter for baseball, the wait is almost over. With teams already in camp, roster projections are becoming more and more popular. As fantasy players, analyzing lineups and identifying potential playing time risks is key to drafting. Each team has at least one position battle that is going to have a significant impact on fantasy baseball. This article looks at the most impactful Spring Training battles to watch from each National League team heading into 2024 and identifies which player fantasy managers should be targeting.
Spring Training Battles to Watch
Philadelphia Phillies – Outfield
With Bryce Harper moving to the infield full-time, there are openings in the Phillies’ outfield. The team is likely to use Kyle Schwarber as the primary DH, leaving both left and center field open.
The favorite for playing time is Brandon Marsh. The former top prospect is coming off a career season that saw him post a 125 wRC+. He posted career highs in home runs, runs, RBIs, batting average, and doubled his walk rate from 2022 to 2023. According to Baseball Savant, Marsh posted an 87th-percentile batting run value and ranked in the 91st-percentile in outs above average. The only reason there is a slight concern with his playing time is his struggles against lefties. His 96 wRC+ against lefties is still near the league average and should help him get into the lineup on a regular basis. He is the clear leader in this playing time battle.
The real battle is for the third outfield slot. The Phillies have two options who profile as very similar players. The favorite to start in center field is Johan Rojas. Rojas showed off elite defensive skills and speed in his Major League debut last season but struggled at the plate during the postseason. His biggest competition for playing time is Cristian Pache. He is also an elite defender who showed significant offensive improvement in his first season in Philadelphia. He doubled his barrel rate, increased his launch angle, and doubled his HR/FB%. His strikeout rate remains a concern but a strong spring could propel him into a starting role.
From a fantasy perspective, Marsh and Rojas profile as great targets. Marsh ranks highly in a lot of Statcast metrics and could be one step from putting everything together. He is an underrated fantasy asset who gets to play in a favorable park and elite lineup. Rojas was mentioned as an option for those looking for cheap speed late in drafts in my previous article for Fantrax. He has elite stolen base potential and right now appears to have the edge over Pache in terms of playing time. If Rojas proves he has the Opening Day job locked up, he will be a steal on draft day.
New York Mets – Designated Hitter
The Mets are looking for a bounce-back season, but have not spent the same way they did during Steve Cohen’s first couple of seasons. In more of a transition year, the team has a clear opening at designated hitter. The spot was supposed to be filled by Ronny Mauricio who unfortunately tore his ACL in the Dominican Winter League. Now, the actual DH could rotate throughout numerous players, but that spot in the lineup is worth monitoring for fantasy reasons.
The most intriguing name is Mark Vientos. Vientos is a former top prospect who has already demonstrated big-time power at the Major League level. He hit nine home runs in just 233 plate appearances last season with a 10.7%-barrel rate. His average exit velocity is 92.5 mph with a max EV of 114.9 mph. Those are elite numbers that you look for out of a 24-year-old. Vientos’ kryptonite has been his inability to limit the strikeouts. He struggles to make contact consistently and hits the ball on the ground too frequently to turn his raw power into consistent game power. If he shows the ability to make more contact during Spring Training, he could be a major fantasy asset.
The projected starter by Roster Resource right now is the least exciting name on this list. DJ Stewart posted a 130 wRC+ in 58 games with the Mets last season, but it seems like nobody wants to draft DJ Stewart. The power was legit and always has been but a .154 average against lefties last season almost destines him to be no more than a strong-side platoon option.
The sneaky player to watch is Tyrone Taylor. This is really the name fantasy managers should be paying attention to. We have seen fantasy potential in spurts from Taylor during his time in Milwaukee, but he seemed to put things together during the back half of last season. From August 1 forward, Taylor slashed .283/.327/.572 with eight homers and three stolen bases. He has 86th percentile sprint speed and could be a major fantasy asset if he can earn a starting job. His playing time is largely dependent on how he performs this spring making him a primary name to watch.
Miami Marlins – 4/5th Starting Pitchers
The Marlins are likely to be without Sandy Alcantara for the entirety of the 2024 season leaving ambiguity as to who will be in their starting rotation. Young stars Jesus Luzardo and Eury Perez are locks and Braxton Garret seems extremely likely to be the number three. The final two spots are totally up in the air.
Edward Cabrera seems most likely to be given another crack at starting. When Cabrera is on, he is nearly untouchable. His changeup generated a whiff rate of 36.3% and his curve got whiffs 38% of the time. The changeup received a PLV score of 5.15 (3.78 PLA) and his curveball a 5.18 (with a 3.70 PLA). His changeup is amongst the best in baseball and his curveball is not that far behind. The only issue is that Cabrera has no idea where those pitches are going. He walked 15.2% of batters faced last season which can lead to some crooked numbers.
The projected fifth starter on Roster Resource is Trevor Rogers. Rogers appeared to be one of the game’s future starts after posting a 2.64 ERA across 133 innings in 2021. His career took a turn for the worse in 2022 and he made just four Major League starts last season as he battled injuries. He projects to be healthy entering 2024 and there is some intriguing upside. Rogers is still only 26 years old and his ERA indicators from 2022 are not as bad as his ERA. In addition, he was showing off a new sinker last season which had the looks of a plus pitch.
Then, do you remember Max Meyer? The former third overall pick who was forced to undergo Tommy John Surgery after just six Major League innings in 2022 should be back and ready for camp in 2024. This is the most intriguing name from a fantasy perspective that is completely overlooked right now. At his peak prospect hype, Meyer was viewed as a pitcher with excellent control and a plus fastball/slider combination. Although the Marlins are likely to be careful with him coming off TJ, a strong spring could push him into the starting rotation to begin the season.
So, what should fantasy managers look for? In Cabrera, more control. He has the stuff to be a fantasy stud, but the relief risk is strong. For Rogers, look for the sinker. His fantasy upside is not very high as the stuff is overwhelming, but solid sinker control could earn him a rotation spot. For Meyer, look at his health and velocity. If both of those stand out, he is a player who could fly up draft boards.
Washington Nationals- Third Base
The Nationals are still not likely to be a team that is competing in 2024, but that does not mean they should be ignored. Teams like this can produce sneaky fantasy value for former top prospects looking for a fresh start. This is exactly the case for two guys bating for the third base job.
The favorite is recent free agent signing Nick Senzel. Injuries derailed the early part of Senzel’s career and he has never been able to get right since. The former second-overall pick fell out of favor in a crowded Cincinnati roster and is now seeking a fresh start in Washington. From April 16 through May 31 last season, Senzel slashed .287/.357/.434 with four homers and three stolen bases. The flash in the pan was brief, but he still showed promise of becoming what many thought he would be when the Reds drafted him. Making hard contact has been an issue for him in the past, but perhaps a new coaching staff can help unlock some of that. A strong spring could land him back on fantasy radars.
The dark horse candidate to win the job is Carter Kieboom. Like Senzel, Kieboom was also a top prospect once who has not quite panned out the way many had hoped. Kieboom has strung together 508 Major League plate appearances over the past four seasons posting just a .199 batting average. Like Senzel, Kieboom has dealt with a plethora of injuries throughout his professional career which seems to have derailed much of the potential he once had. Kieboom is still a full two years younger than Senzel giving him a bit more upside. If he shows up to Spring Training looking healthy, he could usurp the starting job from Senzel.
For fantasy managers, neither one of these players is likely to land on your roster. However, both have the prospect pedigree that make them at the very least an intriguing name to keep your eye on. Health and repetition is going to be key to unlocking the success of either of these players. This is a battle to watch, but one that should not impact your drafts very much. My guess is that Senzel wins the job but fails to ever live up to the hype of a second-overall pick.
Atlanta Braves – 5th Starting Pitcher
Jarred Kelenic is going to be the primary focus of many fantasy managers during Spring Training. However, even if he struggles, there is not a high likelihood that the Braves will not hand him a starting spot. With the lineup set, there is only one place to pay attention to in Spring Training. Who earns the fifth starter spot for the Braves?
Bryce Elder seems to have the early edge in the battle. Elder’s 2023 season got off to an incredible start. He posted a 2.45 ERA across his first 17 starts to the season. However, the stuff never seemed to back up his success rate. Everything came crashing down during the second half. Across his next 14 starts, Elder posted a 5.75 ERA and is now in jeopardy of losing his spot in the rotation. His overall PLV of 4.72 ranks in the sixth percentile in all of baseball. His sinker (which is his most used pitch) ranked in just the 11th percentile for PLV. With underwhelming stuff, his success during Spring Training is all the more important.
The much more exciting option from a fantasy perspective is A.J. Smith-Shawver. AJSS made his Major League debut last season at just 20 years old. After tearing up the Minor Leagues, Smith-Shawver did not find as much success at the Major League level. He relied heavily on his four-seam fastball which got hit hard. Five of the seven home runs he gave up were off of the four-seamer. Despite his Major League struggles, AJSS is going to be just 21 years old for the entirety of 2024. A strong spring could earn him the fifth starters spot and turn him into a fantasy-relevant pitcher.
There is no reason for fantasy managers to draft Elder. Most of his fantasy value was generated from the 12 wins he produced which is unlikely to continue in 2024. The strikeout ceiling is low which caps his value. This battle is intriguing if AJSS can win the job. Smith-Shawver posted a 2.76 ERA with a 31.3% strikeout rate in the Minor Leagues last season. After a full off-season to work on his game, a more refined secondary arsenal could help take him to the next level. This is the biggest thing to watch for during Spring Training.
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