With spring training games underway, it's time for that annual reminder that you hopefully don't need anymore: Don't overreact to what you see in Cactus or Grapefruit League action. And especially, don't worry about stats. That's hard to do, because we haven't seen any MLB games since October, and it's natural to want to react to what we're seeing so far.
Besides, spring training looks like baseball, and it sounds like baseball, right? And any information is better than none, right?
Not necessarily. At this point in the spring especially, we're talking about games with maybe five major-leaguers in the lineup, with pitchers who might not even sniff the opening day roster throwing one or two innings at a time. I want to see Shohei Ohtani hitting bombs and striking people out as much as the next guy, and I'll have this video on repeat all night:
But when you're hitting bombs off a guy wearing number 92, it's not necessarily major-league quality pitching, is what I'm saying.
Of course, that's not to say nothing matters from the spring. On the whole, you'd rather see a guy perform well in the spring than not, but that should be relatively low on your list of concerns. In Ohtani's case, while it's nice that he hit a home run, the fact that he's looked excellent as a pitcher, throwing in the high-90s and featuring all of his breaking pitches, is the more important information.
Velocity readings are one of those things that may matter in spring training -- although generally speaking, they matter a lot less when we're talking about someone like Zack Greinke. If you're coming into camp with questions about your health like Ohtani is, seeing him throw gas is a good sign. The same goes for someone like Mitch Keller, whose velocity was down last season as he battled through injuries, but who hit 97.4 mph and averaged 95.4 in his first appearance of the spring. It guarantees nothing -- these are pitchers, after all -- but the first step in believing in a sleeper is seeing the skills.
Every spring, I like to put together a list of things that I do actually care about during spring training and keep it updated with examples that we'll want to follow along with. Here are the six things I'm looking for:
- Lineup News
- Position Battles
- Mechanical Changes
- Velocity Readings and New Pitches
- Prospects Gaining Hype
You should never revamp your entire draft strategy because of any one of these factors, but when we're figuring out who to move up and down in the last days before our drafts, this is what I'll be thinking about. Ohtani is poised to move up my rankings with a successful first outing, and I'll be keeping a close eye on his radar gun readings.
And I'll be updating this throughout the spring with things that catch my eye. Things that might matter. After the first few days of games, here's what I'm looking at, with a big tip of the hat to Mike Kurland's spring lineup tracker and Jeff Zimmerman's spring velocity tracker:
This is the most obviously impactful category, and it shouldn't need much explanation. Injuries don't just keep players out of action, but they delay the process of getting ready for the season, which can lead to slow starts. And if guys return too aggressively, things can linger through the rest of the season. Even a seemingly minor issue can unexpectedly derail a season. Spring matters for the players certainly, and if they aren't 100 percent to start the season, that's a huge warning sign.
- Framber Valdez (finger) -- Valdez suffered a fractured left ring finger in his first start, and at this point, it's not quite clear how much time he's going to miss. However, reports have indicated there is real risk that he will require season-ending surgery -- Valdez is reportedly seeking additional treatment options that could keep him active. For now, he's tumbling down draft boards, but he's still worth snagging with a late-round pick on the off chance he returns.
- J.T. Realmuto (thumb) -- Is recovering from a fractured right thumb, but he could have his cast removed this week. It seems like he'll be ready to go for the start of the regular season, and if he falls to the fourth round or later, be ready to pounce.
- Dinelson Lamet (biceps) -- Has been throwing live batting practice in 15-pitch sessions. His health has been a significant concern all offseason, and Lamet is starting to fall well outside of the top 100 in drafts as a result. That will happen until he gets through a few spring starts without issue.
- Kole Calhoun (knee) -- Calhoun had surgery Wednesday to repair a meniscus tear in his right knee. There's no clear timetable yet, but this certainly puts his availability for opening day in question, and could open a path for the catcher-eligible Daulton Varsho to make the roster. Tim Locastro, the team's likely center fielder, has been diagnosed with COVID-19 as well, so there could be two absences in the Diamondbacks outfield for at least a few weeks.
- Nick Madrigal (shoulder) -- Madrigal is recovering from surgery on his separated left shoulder, but he's expected to be ready to play in games within the next week. Madrigal could be an elite source of batting average with plenty of steals if his contact-heavy approach translates.
- Stephen Strasburg (calf) -- Strasburg suffered the injury in his most recent start, putting his availability for the start of the regular season in doubt. On the one hand, I guess it's good news that he's never had a significant lower-body injury, so hopefully this won't be a lingering issue. However, given that he's coming back from carpal tunnel surgery and now has this, it's fair to downgrade Strasburg, potentially out of the top-24 starting pitchers.
- Sonny Gray (back) -- Gray looks like he'll miss at least the first week of the regular season with this back injury, and while that doesn't sound so bad, he also dealt with a back injury late last season. That's an ominous sign this early in the season, and I'm dropping him outside of my top 30 at SP as a result.
- Trent Grisham (hamstring) -- This injury doesn't seem serious -- it's a Grade 1 strain, the least serious type -- but it's certainly one to keep an eye on, because hamstring injuries have a tendency to linger if you don't let them heal fully. Hopefully that won't be an issue for Grisham, who needs to steal bases to live up to his top-80 pick status.
- Hunter Harvey (oblique) -- Harvey was placed on the 60-day IL as a result of his injury, so he'll likely be out until late May at the earliest. The Orioles don't have an obvious option to close yet, but Tanner Scott is worth keeping an eye on over the last few weeks of spring action.
- Joey Votto (COVID-19) -- Votto was diagnosed with COVID-19 last week, and he'll have to go through the league protocol in order to return. The good news is, we should know ahead of time when he's getting close because of the testing procedures; the bad news is, it's impossible to say when he might be back at this point. I like Votto as a late-round sleeper, but I might leave him for waivers until we know more.
- Austin Nola (finger) -- Nola suffered a fractured finger trying to catch a foul tip, and we're still waiting for an update as to how long he might be out. I wouldn't expect him for the start of the season, at the very least, and I moved him down the low-end No. 1 catcher range in my rankings as a result.
- Brendan Rodgers (hamstring) -- Rodgers looked like he was finally going to get an extended opportunity to start, but this injury is a red flag. It's not considered a serious strain, but as with Grisham, he'll have to be careful not to come back before he is fully healed. Hopefully that will be in time for opening day, and I'm still targeting Rodgers in the later rounds as a sleeper, but you may need a viable alternative in case he can't go from Day One.
- Alex Bregman (hamstring) -- Bregman is finally playing in spring games, after sitting out the first three weeks with an injury that has lingered since January. He should be good to go for opening day, barring a setback, and I'm willing to draft Bregman in the third round even with the injury risk here.
- Forrest Whitley (elbow) -- Things just keep going wrong for the former top pitching prospect in baseball. The 23-year-old will require Tommy John surgery, meaning his 2021 season is done before it even began. We'll likely see him back on a mound next April or May, but he has no re-draft league value.
- Zack Britton (elbow) -- Britton had surgery to remove bone chips from his pitching elbow. He told reporters he could have pitched through the issue, but opted for surgery to make sure he can be effective when he gets back, which will likely be in June at the earliest. Chad Green is the reliever to target behind Aroldis Chapman in save-plus-hold leagues.
- Nate Pearson (groin) -- Injuries remain an issue for Pearson, who recently suffered a re-aggravation of the injury, putting his status for opening day very much in doubt. Pearson has a world of talent, but he's thrown very few innings as a professional. He's a late-round stash candidate in leagues with an IL spot available, because there's huge upside here. But he's a significant risk, too.
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If nothing else, hitting higher in the order gives you more opportunities to put up numbers because you'll bat more often. Of course, there are other benefits beyond that: You get more run-producing opportunities higher in the lineup; and most teams are more likely to let players run from the leadoff spot than elsewhere. Managers will tinker in the spring, but it's worth keeping an eye on trends to see how teams are considering building their lineups.
With a few weeks left in spring training, here's how things have looked over the past 10 days for every team:
- ATL: Ronald Acuña leading off, Ozzie Albies second, Dansby Swanson either fifth or sixth.
- MIA: Starling Marte primarily batting leadoff with Corey Dickerson No. 2 and Jesus Aguilar No. 3; Garret Cooper getting plenty of reps as cleanup hitter in RF or 1B
- PHI: Andrew McCutchen leading off, Rhys Hoskins batting second.
- NYM: Brandon Nimmo getting lots of leadoff reps (vs. RHP only?).
- WAS: Victor Robles leading off, Trea Turner second, Juan Soto third, Josh Bell fourth. Nationals really counting on Bell bouncing back.
- CHC: Ian Happ leading off, with Anthony Rizzo or Willson Contreras second, Kris Bryant third or fourth and Joc Pederson fifth. We've mostly seen Javier Baez hitting sixth.
- CIN: Votto 3 when healthy, Castellanos-Mous-Suarez 2-4 otherwise, Akiyama 1 when in; Gordon outside chance for SS job? Has led off a few times
- MIL: Avisail Garcia has primarily been top four, but we haven't seen Jackie Bradley Jr. and Lorenzo Cain active at the same time. Primarily seeing Kolten Wong first, Keston Hiura in the top four -- and 1B only, as expected.
- PIT: Ke'Bryan Hayes primarily hitting second, often between Adam Frazier and Bryan Reynolds.
- STL: Tommy Edman and Matt Carpenter splitting leadoff, Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt primarily third and fourth. Dylan Carlson usually in he bottom half of the lineup, between fifth and seventh.
- ARI: Ketel Marte batting first or second and primarily playing CF; Josh Rojas seeing lots of time at 2B or SS, but has been moved down the order of late. Daulton Varsho more OF than C at this point, and that's his path to playing time barring injury to Stephen Vogt or Carson Kelly.
- COL: Garrett Hampson primary CF, with him and Raimel Tapia splitting leadoff. Ryan McMahon hitting second with starters. Brendan Rodgers was primary 2B before his injury, usually batting fifth.
- LAD: Gavin Lux primarily at 2B with Chris Taylor jumping around. Mookie Betts leading off, Corey Seager second, Will Smith third or fourth.
- SD: Trent Grisham was leading off before injury, and it's been Fernando Tatis and Tommy Pham since. A lot of Jake Cronenworth or Jurickson Profar second, and Profar seems like the likely CF if Grisham is out.
- SF: Tommy La Stella leading off when he's in the lineup, including vs. LHP; Mike Yastrzemski second, Donovan Solano third, Buster Posey third through fifth.
- BAL: Cedric Mullins batting leadoff and playing CF primarily. Trey Mancini typically second or third, Ryan Mountcastle and Anthony Santander typically third or fourth.
- BOS: Enrique Hernandez batting leadoff vs. both RHP and LHP, Alex Verdugo primarily No. 2, with Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, Rafael Devers following.
- NYY: In "normal" lineups, DJ LeMahieu is leading off, followed by Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, Giancarlo Stanton, Luke Voit and Gleyber Torres. Gary Sanchez batting eighth
- TBR: Little consistency from day to day, but Austin Meadows, Randy Arozarena and Brandon Lowe are the constants at the top of the lineup. Yandy Diaz could hit fourth.
- TOR: George Springer leading off, Marcus Semien batting second. Bo Bichette No. 3, and Teoscar Hernandez batting ahead of Vladimir Guerrero regularly. Cavan Biggio typically batting seventh in "normal" lineups.
- CLE: Andres Gimenez seems like the everyday SS, has hit second frequently, also seventh occasionally. Eddie Rosario No. 2, Jose Ramirez No. 3. Jake Bauers and Bobby Bradley splitting time pretty evenly at 1B. Oscar Mercado batting ninth and playing CF.
- CWS: No. 2 is the only spot in the top four that looks up for grabs. Has been split with Luis Robert, Adam Eaton, and Yasmani Grandal, but Grandal has played there in most of his appearances. Top four looks like Tim Anderson, No. 2, Jose Abreu, Yoan Moncada. Eloy Jimenez batting fifth, Luis Robert sixth (second when Grandal is out?).
- DET: Robbie Grossman leading off vs. RHP, Victor Reyes vs. LHP? Jeimer Candelario hitting No. 2.
- KC: Whit Merrifield leading off, Andrew Benintendi second seems locked in. Adalberto Mondesi hitting third when they are in the lineup, second otherwise. Carlos Santana followed by Salvador Perez and Jorge Soler.
- MIN: Alex Kiriloff not a sure thing at LF? Likely bats low in the lineup. Max Kepler, Josh Donaldson, Nelson Cruz at top of the lineup? Mitch Garver, Miguel Sano and Jorge Polanco four through six, and Byron Buxton seems locked in at No. 7.
- HOU: Myles Straw, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve all leadoff options, but trending to Altuve recently. If Straw isn't leading off, he'll probably hit seventh or lower.
- LAA: Regular lineup looks like David Fletcher leading off full time, with Shohei Ohtani second, Mike Trout third, and Anthony Rendon fourth. When Ohtani isn't in, Trout has hit second.
- OAK: Mark Canha in leadoff spot regularly. Jed Lowrie playing 2B and hitting second, followed by Matts Olson and Chapman and Ramon Laureano. Elvis Andrus low in the lineup.
- SEA: Mitch Haniger batting leadoff regularly, with Dylan Moore often second.
- TEX: Still have a few position battles to sort out, but Leody Taveras hitting leadoff lately, with Isiah Kiner-Falefa batting second.
Playing time is everything in Fantasy. It's more important than talent, even. And spring is the time when teams are tinkering with their rosters, figuring out who will be a part of the opening day lineup. That lineup won't be the one they go with for the full season, but a young player with promise getting his foot in the door at the start of the season is a good way to ensure he stays in an everyday role.
You should check out Scott White's breakdown of the top 25 position battles here, and here are some key notes from some of those battles:
- CWS DH: Andrew Vaughn has started five of the last eight games and sure seems like the leader. If he isn't, it's for contract reasons, and he should be up shortly after opening day. Vaughn is worth drafting in all leagues as early as 200 overall.
- SD 2B: Jake Cronenworth has primarily played second, while Jurickson Profar has played mostly center field since Trent Grisham's hamstring injury. Profar figures to see work all over the field, and Cronenworth could too, but Ha-Seong Kim has started exclusively at shortstop, a bad sign for his chances of playing regularly.
- SEA 2B/LF: Moore is getting a ton of looks at second base, and he's been batting in the top two spots in the lineup more often than not, so it seems that job is his. Left field is less sure right now, but it sure seems like it's going to be prospect Taylor Trammell's job. He'll have to play well to hang on to it with Jarred Kelenic likely to return to game action before the end of the spring and Julio Rodriguez crushing the ball. However, it's not like center and right field are locked down by immoval forces, so it's possible we see all three prospects in the lineup before long.
- CLE SS: Amed Rosario is starting to get reps in the outfield, while Andres Gimenez has been a fixture in the spring lineups of late. It seems like it's Gimenez's job to lose at this point. He's a viable MI option for Roto leagues thanks to his speed.
- NYY No. 5 SP: Deivi Garcia has been impressive in his own right this spring, but it looks like Domingo German's job to lose at this point -- he's thrown nine shutout innings to open the spring, with 13 strikeouts and just one walk. He's worth a late-round look in all drafts.
- LAD 2B: Gavin Lux seems to be the favorite to start on opening day, but he likely won't play every day, given the Dodgers' flexibility and willingness to platoon. Chris Taylor and Max Muncy will both see time at second, but Lux is worth sliding up your draft board right now.
- COL 1B: C.J. Cron is seeing more consistent playing time, and he's doing his usual things: Hitting the ball hard with mediocre plate discipline. That approach should play very well in Coors Field, and he's a worthwhile late-round target.
- STL No. 5 SP: Carlos Martinez seems to have this one locked up with Alex Reyes slated for a relief role. Martinez's velocity has been improving as spring has gone on, but he's a long shot to get back to where he once was. He's worth a late-round look in deeper leagues, but I'll want to see him come out throwing 95 consistently in April before I add him.
- CIN SS: It doesn't seem like anyone is impressing in spring, and Eugenio Suarez is actually going to start seeing some time there, so that's a possible answer. The best hope might just be Dee Strange-Gordon getting the job and giving us 30 steals and a decent batting average, at least until Jose Garcia is ready.
It's not always about putting the ball in the air, but given that doubles and homers live in the air, that's usually the kind of change we want to see.
- Andrew Benintendi is trying to eschew the fly-ball revolution and is aiming for a more level swing path. He used to be a plus in batting average, and if he can get back that, that would help his Fantasy value rebound, especially if he's hitting near the top of the lineup.
Velocity readings and new pitches
You can take these with a grain of salt early on, as guys are still working out the kinks and tweaking things. However, a sudden velocity leap can portend a breakout, while a new pitch can unlock another level for a pitcher with a limited repertoire. On the other side, consistent issues getting up to speed can be a warning sign for decline, or even injury.
- Casey Mize -- 95.5 mph average fastball velocity in his first start and sustained that in subsequent start. Mize has a classic power pitcher profile, but he never averaged more than 95 mph with his fastball in a start last season and was at 93.7 mph with it. There's ace upside here, and this is a promising start for a guy who should be on everyone's late-round radar.
- Jordan Hicks -- Averaging 100-plus mph with his fastball, just as he was before Tommy John surgery. He's also throwing his slider with confidence in games and is probably the frontrunner to close for the Cardinals.
- Carlos Martinez -- His velocity was alarmingly low in his first few outings, but Martinez maxed out at 98 mph and averaged 94.1 with his fastball on March 14. That's no guarantee he will be a difference maker again, but it's enough to put him back on the late-round radar.
- Charlie Morton -- Morton lost 1.1 mph on his average fastball in 2020, but it creeped up as the season went on and he was very effective in the postseason. He's been consistently throwing 94-96 so far in spring, so it's safe to say the stuff is here. Morton's age and injury history make him a risk, but I'm back to viewing him as a borderline top-24 starter.
- Patrick Corbin -- Corbin lost 1.7 mph on his fastball in 2020, and he hasn't gotten any of it back so far in spring. That doesn't mean he won't find an extra tick or two by April, nor does it mean he can't be effective. But, as we saw last season, the margin for error is a lot slimmer, and it's a lot harder to buy into a bounce-back right now.
- Jameson Taillon -- Taillon's velocity was down in his first few outings, but his most recent saw him average 94.7 mph with his fastball, in line with his pre-injury form in 2019. That's a good sign for a mid-round sleeper.
- Julio Teheran -- Teheran is off most Fantasy radars, but he's been throwing about 3 mph harder this spring than he did last season, averaging 91.9 mph with his fastball. That's not far from where he was at his peak, so maybe there's room for a bounce-back season with the Tigers. In a 15-team league, he's worth a look.
- Justin Dunn -- Dunn was pretty unimpressive in 2020, posting a 4.34 ERA but with peripherals that suggest he should have been much worse. However, after averaging 91.2 mph with his fastball last season, he's been touching 96 and sitting 93-95 all spring. We'll see if that translates to better production, but it's worth keeping an eye on.
- Mike Foltynewicz -- Folty made one start for the Braves in 2020, averaged 90.5 mph with his fastball and was released. It was alarming to see from a guy who typically averaged 95-plus with that fastball, but he's been throwing consistently in the 94-95 range in spring training with the Rangers so far and drawing rave reviews for his performance to date.
- Mitch Keller -- Keller's velocity was way down early last season before he went on the IL with an oblique injury, and it never got quite to where we wanted to see it when he returned late in the season. However, he averaged 95.4 mph in his first spring start and has been consistently working in that range, after averaging 93.9 in 2020. He's still got a lot to prove, but I believe in Keller's talent, and I'm willing to bet on him with a late-round pick in all leagues.
Prospects gaining hype
These might be guys you need to file away for later, although it's obviously not out of the realm of possibility that a prospect can play his way into a starting role with a good spring. Optimism reigns this time of year, but a young guy holding his own unexpectedly with big league players can begin to accelerate the timeline for promotion.
- Bobby Witt, SS, Royals -- The No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 draft has hit just .262/.317/.354 in 37 games in the minors, but there's a non-zero chance he could break camp with the Royals this season. He's been the standout of Royals camp, hitting .333/.379/.667 with three home runs, including a 480-plus foot bomb. Jim Bowden ranks him as the No. 2 prospect in baseball right now, and while it's unlikely he starts the season in the majors, he's giving the Royals reason to consider it, at least.
- Andrew Vaughn, 1B, White Sox -- Vaughn feels a bit like Pete Alonso in spring of 2018. He's an incredibly polished hitter even without much experience in the minors, and he's got a chance to make the opening day roster. He is impressing in early action and is one of my favorite post-200 targets in drafts.
- Jarred Kelenic, OF, Mariners -- Kelenic was going to do everything he could to force the issue for the Mariners before his knee injury. He was apparently a standout in the alternate site sessions last year, and he's crushing the ball early in spring. The knee injury probably gives the Mariners cover to send him down to start the season, but it shouldn't be long before we see him, and he's still worth drafting with a bench spot in all leagues.
- Isaac Paredes, SS, Tigers -- Paredes has a chance to earn a starting job. He struggled in his rookie season, hitting .220/.278/.290, but the 22-year-old is a career .291/.376/.425 hitter in Double-A and could be a middle infield option.
- Jarren Duran, OF, Red Sox -- Duran is earning plenty of rave reviews early on, and his profile could be a very exciting one for Fantasy thanks to his speed. Duran has 28 steals in 82 games at Double-A, and if he can force his way into the Red Sox outfield by opening day or shortly thereafter, that speed could make him a must-start player in Roto leagues.
So which sleepers should you snatch in your draft? And which undervalued first baseman can help you win a championship? Visit SportsLine now to get rankings for every single position, all from the model that called Kenta Maeda's huge breakout last season, and find out.