2019 Fantasy Baseball Draft prep: Top 30 position battles in spring training now amended for Chris Paddack and possible Luis Severino replacements
Will Garrett Hampson seize the starting second base job for the Rockies? Where's Nick Senzel's best chance of breaking in for the Reds? Who on earth is closing for the Twins? Scott White looks at the top position battles.
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Guys, it's spring.
Games are happening. And while most of what happens in those games is of little consequence, a small number of players are legitimately competing for something. And those competitions ... well, they could be of great consequence to Fantasy owners.
So you should be following along, specifically keeping a watchful eye on these 30 position battles, which I've ranked by order of importance.
The "likely choice" is who's in the lead right now. The "preferred choice" is who you should hope will win it.
Update: Since the initial publish date, two additional position battles have come to the forefront in Fantasy. Top prospect Chris Paddack is making a strong push for a spot in the Padres rotation and is worth drafting in all leagues as a result. Meanwhile, Domingo German, Jonathan Loaisiga and Luis Cessa are competing for two injury-related openings in the Yankees rotation (Luis Severino, CC Sabathia), and while Loaisiga has the most upside of the group, he's trailing the other two based on spring results. German himself has useful strikeout potential, though.
Likely choice: Hampson
Preferred choice: Hampson
Ryan McMahon hasn't shown much in previous chances, limited though they have been, and Garrett Hampson has the potential to make an even bigger impact in today's speed-starved environment, his steals potential bolstered by his natural on-base skills and the BABIP-inflating environment he would call home. Brendan Rodgers will get a token look since he's a big prospect, but the Rockies have no reason to rush him.
Likely choices: Margot, Renfroe
Preferred choices: Cordero, Reyes
Granted, ending the Wil Myers-to-third base experiment made the Manny Machado signing possible, but it also made for a huge logjam in an outfield full of intriguing possibilities. Manuel Margot and Hunter Renfroe are the safe choices for the other two spots, the former presenting a high floor and the latter being the most proven, but Margot won't be a standout in any category and Renfroe is an all-or-nothing masher. Franchy Cordero and Franmil Reyes bring louder tools and more rounded skill sets. They're the stuff sleepers are made of.
Likely choice: Voit
Preferred choice: Voit
Maybe this is the year Greg Bird is finally and truly healthy, but how many chances does the guy deserve? Luke Voit looks like he could be everything the Yankees hoped Bird would be and more and deserves a longer look after catching fire late last season. The bigger question may be whether he can hold off Miguel Andujar and Gary Sanchez if they're forced to move from the positions where they're considered defensive liabilities, but that's not the sort of thing we'll come to know in spring training.
Update: General manager Brian Cashman and manager Aaron Boone have both suggested there isn't room on the roster for both Bird and Voit, which would seem to tip the scales more in Voit's favor. Hard to imagine the Yankees would send him down after last year's finish.
Likely choice: Knebel
Preferred choice: Knebel
Any of the three has the potential to be a top-five closer. Hader is probably the most talented but also the least likely to claim the job outright. Knebel is the most proven in the role and returned from a minor-league tuneup with insane numbers last September. Jeffress figured out how to miss bats last year, combining it with an already stellar walk rate for a 1.29 ERA. As well as the committee worked for manager Craig Counsell last season, you can bet he'll be noncommittal this spring.
Update: Injuries have seemingly forced Counsell's hand. Jeffress has hardly pitched this spring because of shoulder weakness and looks like he's out for the start of the season. Knebel already has a solid history in the role and may never look back.
Likely choice: Timeshare
Preferred choice: Mejia
Part of the reason top prospect Francisco Mejia is with the Padres now is because of his reluctance to change positions in the Indians organization, so it's catcher or bust for him. The bat has been major league-ready for a while now and is certainly exciting for the position, but it's not a position where a defensive liability is liable to overtake a defensive standout, which is why a timeshare seems most likely to begin the year.
Likely choice: Senzel
Preferred choice: Senzel
The Reds are desperate to find a position for overdue prospect Nick Senzel, not wanting to waste that ammo in the minors again, and center field seems like the best bet. Still, it's fair to assume they'll play the service time manipulation game in April, giving Scott Schebler a path to at-bats for now. There's some small concern that the outfield surplus, which also includes 2018 All-Star Matt Kemp, could threaten Jesse Winker's at-bats — and sticking Yasiel Puig in center field would be one way to have Kemp, Winker and Puig in the same outfield — but new manager David Bell has hinted that Winker's at-bats are safe regardless.
Update: Bell has said that while he wants to see Schebler in center field, the 28-year-old will play left and right field for the Reds this year. He has also suggested he doesn't have a spot for Matt Kemp right now. It would all seem to point to Senzel breaking camp as the team's everyday center fielder or at least arriving at some point in April.
Likely choice: Frazier
Preferred choice: Alonso
General manager Brodie Van Wagenen is already on record saying rookie Peter Alonso, who has the makings of an elite power hitter, would be his choice to start at first base on opening day -- a bold endorsement that suggests the Mets aren't beholden to waiting the additional two weeks at the start of the season to pick up an extra year of team control. It's so advantageous, though, that they'll probably think better of it when push comes to shove, using Alonso's defense as an excuse to send him back down and giving Todd Frazier one last chance, fleeting though it may be, to live up to the contract he signed last year.
Update: Alonso is so far living up to his end of the bargain while Frazier has yet to play this spring because of a strained oblique. Dominic Smith is making a surprise push, though, having tweaked his swing and learned to better manage his sleep apnea. He was the prospect getting all the attention last spring, so while Alonso has clearly passed him on the organization's list of priorities, we can't completely rule him out.
Likely choice: Peacock
Preferred choice: James
Already, Josh James and Framber Valdez have done enough to get their chance in the starting rotation and may ultimately still if the Astros aren't able to dig up the same sort of miracle data for Wade Miley that they've done for so many other pitchers in recent years. For now, though, there appears to be just one opening, and while Valdez's outrageous ground-ball tendencies are intriguing in their own right, James profiles as more of the hard-throwing bat-misser Fantasy owners like to see, having averaged 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings in the minors last year and 11.3 in the majors.
Update: Turns out Brad Peacock is part of this battle, too, and the current favorite. It helps that Josh James has been sidelined all spring by a quad injury, but Peacock showed enough potential as a starter in 2017 that he could potentially keep the job all season.
Likely choice: Bradley
Preferred choice: Bradley
Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo resisted anointing Archie Bradley the closer last spring even though he was clearly the team's best reliever and continued to resist even as Brad Boxberger faltered in the role midway through last season. Greg Holland, a three-time All-Star, gives him a much easier reason to resist, having recaptured his dominant form after joining the Nationals late last year. Bradley, it's worth noting, faltered during that same stretch, delivering a 6.58 ERA in the second half.
Update: Holland has looked so bad this spring, struggling to hit 90 mph with his fastball, that the front-runner has to be Bradley, even if it's a less-than-ideal fit.
Likely choice: Fowler
Preferred choice: Martinez
The Cardinals may be financially obligated to offer Dexter Fowler the first crack, hoping to salvage something from the mega deal they gave him two years ago, but he's the least interesting of these choices from a Fantasy perspective and is too injury-prone to last anyway. Jose Martinez has been such an important part of the offense the past two years that the Cardinals may just bite the bullet and play him in right, as they did down the stretch last year, trading defense for a surefire .300 batting average. At some point, O'Neill and his monster power potential will also factor.
Likely choice: Moustakas
Preferred choice: Moustakas
By opting to re-sign Mike Moustakas late this offseason, the Brewers bridled themselves with the same problem had they had late last season: too many third basemen and not enough second basemen. This time, they'll try Moustakas at the keystone, but seeing as his range is already less than exemplary at the not-as-rangy third base, it could go poorly, possibly forcing them to use the better hitter, Shaw, at second base after all. Either way, there figures to be late-inning replacements aplenty, creating a playing time nightmare for Fantasy owners, but the Moustakas plan is the one of least resistance — that is, until top prospect Keston Hiura is ready.
Winner: Manager Craig Counsell has officially declared Moustakas the primary second baseman, but there's a difference between primary and everyday. Counsell acknowledged Moustakas' lack of range and said the Brewers will compensate with careful defensive positioning, but I'm guessing that also means late-inning substitutions and frequent days off.
Likely choice: Barnes
Preferred choice: Barnes
Matt Barnes certainly has the stuff to close, his 14.0 K/9 ranking sixth among relievers with at least 50 innings last year, and while the walks are a little concerning, his FIP suggests his 3.65 ERA should have been about a run lower than it was. Ryan Brasier had a 1.60 ERA last year, but his .198 BABIP tells much of the story there. Neither would be a bad choice, but Barnes could be great. Tyler Thornburg is a long shot after losing most of the past two seasons to injury, but if manager Alex Cora prefers to keep Barnes and Brasier in last year's roles, he's an option.
Likely choice: Toussaint
Preferred choice: Toussaint
The Braves have more than a rotation's worth of honest-to-goodness prospects squaring off for a single rotation spot, so you can trust that the one who emerges victorious seriously earned it. That said, an embarrassment of riches allows for a quick trigger when growing pains inevitably intervene, so it's possible none of these seven gains a firm footing in the role. Mike Soroka seems like the best bet as the most polished and best strike-thrower of the bunch, but some shoulder issues early this spring could set him back. Touki Toussaint and Luiz Gohara are the most electric.
Update: Soroka has already been ruled out for the start of the season because of renewed shoulder soreness, making Toussaint the odds-on favorite. Kyle Wright has looked good so far this spring, though, and could prove to be a surprise challenger. Chances are both will make it with Mike Foltynewicz expected to begin the year on the DL.
Likely choice: Montas
Preferred choice: Luzardo
It's no secret that top prospect Jesus Luzardo is the only reason we have to care about this particular competition, and by the sound of it, he's not just a token contender. But it would take a Herculean performance this spring, in all likelihood, to convince a frugal franchise to forfeit a year of control by promoting him right away. There's also the issue of him barely topping 100 innings last year. Between that and his struggles following a late-season promotion to Triple-A, it's fair to wonder if he's actually ready. You wouldn't pay a second thought to any of these other arms, though.
Likely choice: Hudson
Preferred choice: Reyes
No, the Cardinals aren't planning to employ a six-man rotation in 2019, but between the ancient Adam Wainwright and the injury-prone Michael Wacha, they have a couple of rotation options who figure to need replacing at some point. Or maybe even sooner if Carlos Martinez is slow to build up the strength in his shoulder and has to begin the year in the bullpen or on the DL. Really, it's a question of whether top prospect Alex Reyes, in spite of all his arm woes, can position himself to be next in line, thereby justifying his mid-round price tag.
Update: We now know it won't be Reyes, who won't have the time to build up the innings, and the other options are less than inspiring for Fantasy purposes. It's also more obvious now who will be the odd man out if and when Martinez is ready to return to the starting rotation.
Likely choice: McNeil
Preferred choice: McNeil
The decision to bring in Robinson Cano and Jed Lowrie this offseason seemingly left one of 2018's biggest success stories, Jeff McNeil, without a place to play. But management immediately suggested he could try his hand in left field, and in fact, he seems to be the top choice there. It's obviously the preferred scenario for Fantasy owners -- an exceptional contact hitter whose minor-league numbers suggest there's also untapped power makes for an easy sleeper pick, after all -- but if he's getting pulled late in games for glove-first alternatives like Keon Broxton and Juan Lagares or sitting for them against left-handed pitchers, he's hardly worth the trouble in mixed leagues. We need him to really take to the position.
Update: Turns out it won't be McNeil, at least not at the start, because he's needed at third base with Jed Lowrie expected to begin the year on the DL. Assuming he performs like expected there, though, he's almost certainly destined for left field when Lowrie comes off.
Likely choice: May
Preferred choice: May
Trevor May was the one earning saves when last season came to close, so it figures he'd be the favorite for the role now, especially since the only real newcomer to the 'pen, Blake Parker, struggled to secure the role for the Angels last year and was far too hittable overall. May is still working his way back from Tommy John surgery but didn't show any of the usual control issues, walking just five compared to 36 strikeouts in 25 1/3 innings. There's also a chance rookie manager Rocco Baldelli goes the committee route.
Likely choice: Woodruff
Preferred choice: Burnes
Brandon Woodruff actually started the Brewers' first playoff game last year, which would seem to give him the inside track, but after spending most of last season in the bullpen, he obviously has to earn it. Any of him, Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta would offer the kind of bat-missing ability Fantasy owners can get excited about, but Burnes might have been too valuable out of the 'pen last year for the Brewers to turn him loose and Peralta has serious control issues. Josh Tomlin is just the veteran alternative if the Brewers decide the kids need more time.
Likely choice: Vizcaino
Preferred choice: Vizcaino
A.J. Minter fell short of the most optimistic projections in his first full season but still managed to steal save chances from Arodys Vizcaino, who also missed much of the second half with shoulder inflammation. There's enough of a precedent for manager Brian Snitker to opt for a shared role, possibly playing matchups, which would of course favor the right-handed Vizcaino. His experience figures to give him the edge if the Braves go the more conventional route, but there's a chance Minter makes a leap this spring.
Likely choice: Hicks
Preferred choice: Miller
Andrew Miller has long been in the discussion for best reliever in baseball, so even after a season wrecked by injury, it's fun to imagine him finally getting a shot to close full-time. More realistically, a shared role with Jordan Hicks is his best hope, but how much of that share he shoulders depends on how much confidence Hicks shows in his slider this spring. The 22-year-old has overtaken Aroldis Chapman as baseball's hardest thrower, but he needs a quality breaking ball to get the most out of it.
Likely choice: White
Preferred choice: White
Tyler White had more or less wrestled this job away from the now departed Evan Gattis by the end of last season, and his overall numbers make him the odds-on favorite to claim it this spring. But he stumbled to the finish line and, at 28, isn't going to have a particularly long leash. Eventually, the Astros need to find a spot for top prospect Kyle Tucker, and White's spot seems like the path of least resistance (though it would probably mean Michael Brantley shifting to DH). Tony Kemp doesn't have near the upside of the other two but is an easy alternative as a quality on-base guy.
Likely choice: Stripling
Preferred choice: Stripling
The Dodgers starting five is set with Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda, but we all know how the Dodgers operate by now. All five are going to spend some time on the DL with one dubious injury or another. There will be opportunities for others to factor into the mix, in other words, and when the leading candidates are a 2018 All-Star and a former top prospect, it's of interest to Fantasy owners. Stripling dominated as a starter for the middle portion of last season, but he faltered after missing time with a back injury, which might open the door for Julio Urias, who impressed out of the bullpen during the postseason.
Winner: Manager Dave Roberts recently confirmed that Stripling is the first up should an opening arise, and we already know it will with Kershaw nursing a sore shoulder. Stripling is worth drafting all leagues considering the upside he showed last year.
Likely choices: Lowe, Meadows, Choi
Preferred choices: Lowe, Meadows, Choi
Aligning the "preferred" choices with the "likely" choices may be wishful thinking in this case, but the fact is it's totally up in the air what the Rays decide to do with these three spots. Ji-Man Choi at least seems like a safe bet to occupy either first base or DH, if only against right-handers, and Austin Meadows offers too much upside not to get a full-time look. Brandon Lowe deserves a spot after making himself known as a high-OPS bat down the stretch last season and will try his hand at first base this spring, possibly shifting Choi to DH.
Likely choice: Smith
Preferred choice: Smith
This one didn't look like so much of a competition until manager Bruce Bochy began talking up Mark Melancon at the start of spring training. Seeing as Will Smith had the fourth-best FIP among relievers with at least 50 innings last year, the lefty was shaping up to be a quality option at a discounted price, but because he's a lefty, there's greater incentive to keep him versatile. And of course, Mark Melancon is owed a lot of money and supposedly healthy for the first time in two years. If he is "back," he'll be a quality choice himself, but we'd like some certainty one way or the other.
Likely choice: Colome
Preferred choice: Colome
This closer battle was shaping up to be one of the more interesting ones before Kelvin Herrera suggested he might not be ready for opening day due to his continued recovery from foot surgery. Alex Colome was the preferred option anyway given that Herrera doesn't have the bat-missing ability of a traditional closer. but Herrera is the bigger-name commodity and has a successful track record in spite of his shortcomings. The White Sox never really committed to a closer last year, and it's possible the same could happen this year if Colome doesn't lock things up in spring training.
Likely choice: Gardner
Preferred choice: Frazier
Though he took a notable step back last year, Brett Gardner was still enough of a factor in Rotisserie leagues that it's not so clear we should be rooting for him to lose his job to the up-and-comer. But even if he doesn't, he's not going to be batting leadoff anymore, which takes those 95 runs off the table. More likely, it'll be a gradual changing of the guard, but Clint Frazier, who GM Brian Cashman once said has "legendary" bat speed, is 25 now and kind of needs to get going.
Likely choice: Pederson
Preferred choice: Verdugo
As comfortable as the Dodgers are implementing platoons and as many lefty mashers as they have on their bench, there's really no reason for them to move away from Joc Pederson, who has made great strides in terms of making contact the past couple years and put up a .900 OPS against righties last year. It'd be more a case of Alex Verdugo being so obviously ready that they can't justify sending him down, which might lead to them shipping Pederson elsewhere. Verdugo doesn't have anything more to prove in the minors and is equally adept vs. righties and lefties, so he'd be a tidier fit.
Likely choice: Peralta
Preferred choice: Boxberger
"The roles will define themselves over time" is how Ned Yost summed it up, which is probably code for "this is the best we've got?" The best anyone can say about Wily Peralta is, to echo Yost's sentiments, "he got the job done," going 14 for 14 in save chances late last season. He did it with such ugly numbers, though, that it's hard to take him seriously in the role. The sad truth, though, is that Brad Boxberger is no bullpen ace either, so maybe it's better to stick with what works until it doesn't anymore. Yost's old-school mentality at least ensures us he'll commit to one or the other at some point, and that's worth something in Fantasy.
Likely choice: Bruce
Preferred choice: Bruce
Daniel Vogelbach has a great batter's eye and took the Cactus League by storm last year, so it's fun to speculate on him as a deep sleeper now that the departure of true DH Nelson Cruz frees up the Mariners lineup a little more. But even his best-case scenario probably wouldn't be as rewarding as a bounce-back season for Jay Bruce, who was never quite right last year because of plantar fasciitis. Bruce was a steady 30-homer, 90-RBI guy prior to last year, though, and seeing as he's only 31, that's still a possibility if he can carve out an everyday role.
Likely choice: Travis, Galvis
Preferred choice: Travis, Gurriel
Devon Travis has no hope of staying on the field for a full season, and Freddy Galvis is an offensive liability. Rest assured, then, Lourdes Gurriel will get at-bats somehow, someway. He's probably behind those two on the depth chart to begin the season, but he'll fill in for both often enough to create a near equal timeshare between the three. And if anyone's going to hit his way into a more prominent role, it's him, making him the only one of the three you might consider drafting to fill a middle infield spot in, like, a 15-team Rotisserie league.
Three other players who aren't in well-defined battles but could greatly improve their stock this spring:
Willians Astudillo, C, Twins: He's competing for a bench spot, presumably in a super utility role that would also include some catching. And because catcher is where he's eligible in Fantasy, it wouldn't take everyday duty to make him an asset..
Jung Ho Kang, 3B, Pirates: He's back in the mix after a couple years dealing with off-the-field issues. It's hard to envision him unseating Colin Moran for everyday third base duties, but he could become the lesser half of a platoon, possibly earning a bigger share over time if his power comes through.
Mac Williamson, OF, Giants: He overhauled his swing last offseason and then crushed it the Cactus League, crushed it in the PCL and crushed it in the majors for like a week before suffering a concussion that totally destroyed him, finally forcing him to shut it down for good in August. He's past it now and has no legitimate competition for a starting job, making him again an intriguing power sleeper.
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