The end of the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues came and went Wednesday, and with it, we move on to games that actually matter. Spring flags don’t quite fly forever, but kudos to the Yankees and Cardinals for their impressive showings to this point.
One thing that is worth noting from Wednesday’s action is that plenty of teams rolled out their opening day lineups for all to see. Some of these moves had been announced weeks ago, while some batting orders have remained a mystery right up until this week. However, with games that matter just a few days away, the puzzle pieces are falling into place. Here are nine batting order decisions Fantasy owners should know about heading into the last weekend before Opening Day.
I appreciate the Cubs’ decision to buck tradition and put Schwarber at the top of the lineup for a few reasons. For one, it’s just smart baseball. First, he should be one of their best hitters, and after walking 13.2 percent of the time as a rookie, should spend plenty of time on base. Teams have been obsessed with speed at the top of the lineup for a century, but smart ones know that you want the guys who will make the fewest outs at the top, regardless of how plodding they may be.
The more important reason -- at least for our purposes -- is that it will surely help maximize Schwarber’s trips to the plate. He seems likely to be removed late in games for defensive purposes quite often, but batting leadoff could allow Joe Maddon to squeeze out a fifth plate appearance before needing to do so. If nothing else, it should come close to guaranteeing Schwarber four at-bats every game, no matter when the need for a new glove arises. That should help assuage any concerns you might have about Schwarber’s playing time.
DeShields wasn’t even a guarantee to crack the Opening Day roster, however a .316 average and .451 on-base percentage in the spring seems to have solidified not only his roster spot, but his job as well. DeShields looks likely to be the main guy in left field, and should be at the top of a lineup that needs to bash its way to 90 wins and a playoff spot.
DeShields struggled mightily last season, but had a .344 on-base percentage and 25 steals in 121 games in 2015, and could be a solid source of stolen bases as well as runs this season.
Another non-traditional leadoff hitter, Gordon hasn’t stolen 10-plus bases since 2014, and his career high of 17 hardly marked him as a speedster even in his physical prime. However, Gordon does walk a fair amount, sporting a 12.6 percent rate over the past two seasons, despite struggling overall. If he can bounce back and hit in the .270 range, Gordon should walk enough to get on base plenty, giving him a chance to get back to the 90-run range he lived at in his peak. You might not get much more than that from him, but as a late-round pick, it’s not a bad outcome.
There’s some irony in the Athletics, of all teams, prioritizing speed at the top of the lineup, as Davis hasn’t sported an on-base percentage above .320 since 2009, when he was a part-time player for these same A’s. However, Davis was a productive option in 2016, stealing 43 bases to lead the American League. He won’t score as much as some other leadoff hitters due to his lineup and lack of walks, but steals alone can make Davis a viable fourth or fifth Fantasy outfielder.
Gary Sanchez hitting second for Yankees
This is an interesting one, if only because Sanchez profiles as such a classic middle-of-the-order hitter. The emergence of Greg Bird as another threat may have allowed them to move Sanchez up a spot, with Bird looking like the team’s No. 3 hitter to open the season. Sanchez might get fewer RBI opportunities here, but with Bird and Matt Holliday behind him, more runs could follow. Plus, if Sanchez is the power threat we think he could be, RBI won’t be very hard to come from, no matter where he bats in the order.
Of the Nationals’ five best hitters, three (Eaton, Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper) are lefties. The Nationals want Trea Turner to bat leadoff, and while Eaton seems to be a prototypical No. 2 hitter, following him up with Murphy and Harper would put three lefties in a row at the top of the order. That could weaken the lineup vs. lefties, and leave them open to be exploited by elite lefty specialists late in the game. So, trying to avoid that makes some sense.
I’m just not sure they’re going about it the right way. Jayson Werth seems likely to open the season as the No. 2 hitter, with Eaton batting fifth. Werth is, of course, 38 years old, and coming off a .244/.335/.417 season, so making it a priority to get him extra trips to the plate hardly makes much sense. Especially when Anthony Rendon is available, and a much better hitter at this point in their careers. Still, Dusty Baker writes the lineup card, not me, and with Harper and Murphy behind him and Turner causing problems for opposing pitchers ahead of him, Werth might actually end up having some value this season.
Haniger has become something of a hyped sleeper in Fantasy circles thanks to a big spring and some gaudy numbers at Triple-A last season. He made some changes to his swing, putting a priority on getting the ball in the air, and he hit .321/.419/.581 in 129 minor-league games last season.
If you buy that it’s real, Haniger profiles as a 20-home, 10-steal guy, with enough plate discipline to stick at the top of the order. Batting behind Jean Segura and ahead of Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz can be a very valuable place, and it should only add fuel to the Haniger breakout fire.
Altuve batted third for long stretches of last season, so it isn’t much of a surprise, but it is certainly newsworthy, given how much Altuve looked like a different hitter in that spot in 2016. He stole bases at a 40-plus steal clip out of the No. 1 or 2 spot of the order, but had just 12 in 98 games batting third. Even accounting for times he was caught stealing, Altuve still ran about 33 percent less often out of the No. 3 spot. Of course, if he can make up for that with increased run production and scoring, that’s not a bad tradeoff.
It’s just worth noting that Altuve may not get back to the 40-steal range as a middle-of-the-order hitter, and your team’s priorities need to change to reflect that.
Because of his speed, the Twins might have envisioned Buxton as the leadoff man of the future, the kind of player who could get on base by any means necessary and wreak havoc from there. They might have even encouraged an approach typical of light-hitting leadoff types, one full of bunt singles and bleeders through the right side of the infield. That’s not Buxton, and we finally saw what he is capable of last September. After mostly disastrous stints in the majors, Buxton hit .287/.357/.653 in September, with nine homers. What’s more, after going the opposite way 25-30 percent of the time in his previous time in the majors, Buxton became a dead-pull hitter, hitting more than 55 percent of his batted balls to the left side. Strikeouts are still an issue, but Buxton has all of the upside in the world, and still managed to hit .305 with a 30-homer, 20-steal pace in Triple-A last season, if you’re looking for a sign of what he can do.
Hitting third isn’t necessarily more valuable than batting at the top of the order, but Buxton’s place here could be an indication that the team acknowledges the power in his bat is real. That’s a good sign. Let Byron be Byron.