Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep: What matters in Spring Training? Here's what to follow

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This shouldn't be groundbreaking, and you shouldn't need me to tell you at this point, but as spring action gets underway, it bears repeating: Don't worry about spring training stats.

Should you ignore them completely? Maybe not entirely, but ... maybe! The sample sizes are tiny -- Ryan McMahon led all players with 69 spring at-bats last season -- and the level of competition is all over the place. Ozzie Albies had 70 plate appearances last spring, and a lot less than that against actual major-league caliber players. There's just too much noise in the numbers, and you might be better off not looking at a spring leaderboard once.

But that does not mean you can ignore the spring entirely and still win your Fantasy league. The results may not matter much -- Dan Vogelbach's 1.455 did not make him a viable Fantasy option in 2018 — but there's a whole lot that does. You just have to sort through the noise to find out what might actually matter. You have to focus on the process.

That's what this piece will try to help you do. Six things you absolutely should pay attention to in spring that don't count in the box scores are:

  • Injuries
  • Lineup News
  • Position Battles
  • Mechanical Changes
  • Velocity Readings and New Pitches
  • Prospects Gaining Hype

You don't necessarily want to upend your entire draft strategy because someone added a mph of velocity, or his manager suggested he may bat second instead of fifth, but you certainly need to be paying attention. Scott White's Spring Training Notes columns will be a key resource for keeping up with the day-to-day storylines, but with this piece, I want to put these six categories of spring trends/stories together, along with some examples of what we're seeing and hearing.

Note: This piece will be updated as spring goes on. The most recent update came on Feb. 27.

Injuries

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 -- Luiz Gohara's groin and ankle issues last spring -- 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.

  • Luis Severino (Shoulder): Has been shut down until mid-March, and looks like a long shot for Opening Day. An MRI showed no damage, but Severino will be shut down for two weeks before being re-evaluated.
  • Clayton Kershaw (Shoulder): Kershaw threw a bullpen session Monday, and was happy with the results. He's working his way back from soreness in his own shoulder, but has been able to throw, so this is looking less concerning by the day.
  • Francisco Lindor (Calf): Is still on an early to mid-April timeline, but he did hit in a batting cage for the first time in recent days, as he continues to make steady progress.
  • Miguel Sano (Leg): Had a procedure Tuesday to help heal a cut on his lower right leg, and is out until at least May. Marwin Gonzalez will likely open the season as the everyday third baseman, and this should put Willians Astudillo into contention for a roster spot.
  • Mike Foltynewicz (Elbow): Is expected to begin throwing soon, and while Opening Day seems out of the question, he could be ready during the first week of the regular season.
  • Jimmy Nelson (Shoulder): Has been able to throw a live batting practice session. He could return to game action next week.
  • Andrew Heaney (Elbow): Had his most recent start pushed back due to elbow inflammation, a concern given his history. He's still throwing, so it's not a full shut down.
  • Notes below collected Feb. 27.
  • Carlos Martinez (Shoulder): This one is even more worrisome than Kershaw's because Martinez likely won't begin trying to throw until early March after getting a platelet-rich plasma injection. A delayed start to the regular season seems almost certain, and it wouldn't be a huge shock to see him out of the bullpen, at least to start.
  • Marcell Ozuna (Shoulder): Recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, Ozuna is not playing in field yet, however he's served as the designated hitter in live games. He is expected to be ready for Opening Day, though the Cardinals have made some noise about not being thrilled with his timeline. This is definitely one to keep an eye on.
  • Josh James (Quad): James suffered a quad injury in recent days that "probably takes him out of the conversation" for the team's fifth rotation spot. A disappointing turn for one of the more exciting sleeper options for 2019, but I'll still snag him in the later or even reserve rounds. The upside is significant.
  • Gregory Polanco (Shoulder): Polanco underwent surgery on his shoulder, and has begun throwing and swinging. The team's Director of Sports Medicine told The Athletic that Polanco might be able to play in spring games, which would push his hoped-for timeline up from a fuzzy "April/May" to potentially Opening Day. I'd be wary of Polanco getting off to a slow start ala Michael Conforto a year ago, but he showed significant upside last season before the injury, and is worth targeting around pick 200 with this news.
  • Todd Frazier (Oblique): Returned to New York to receive a cortisone shot. Unclear what it means for his availability in the regular season, but obliques are tricky, and setbacks are not uncommon.
  • Jed Lowrie (Knee): Also may not be ready for the start of the regular season; Peter Alonso, Jeff McNeil and J.D. Davis could get opportunities early, though McNeil is continuing to focus on learning the outfield. Alonso seemingly has a track to an Opening Day job at first base, and has made strides defensively, removing one obstacle to his potential playing time.
  • Corey Seager (Elbow, Hip): Started live batting practice Tuesday, recovering from elbow, hip injuries. His stock has slid to the point where he looks like a clear value in drafts, but once he starts playing in games, that should reverse.
  • Michael Pineda (Elbow): Will make his spring debut Friday. Pineda has reportedly been throwing around 93 mph as he comes back from Tommy John surgery.
  • Dustin Pedroia (Knee): Hoping to debut in early March. Pedroia is basically free in drafts, but there's a reason for that.
  • Mike Soroka (Shoulder): Expected to begin throwing Thursday.
  • Shohei Ohtani (Elbow): Hitting off a tee. Could be back in the lineup as a DH by late April.

Lineup News

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.

Position Battles

Playing time is everything in Fantasy. It's more important than talent, even. And spring is the time when teams are tinkering with their roster, 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.

  • Red Sox: Who will be the Red Sox closer? Matt Barnes is in the lead, it seems, but the Red Sox may not go with a set closer after letting Craig Kimbrel walk in free agency.
  • Notes below collected Feb. 27. 
  • Braves: Luiz Gohara, Touki Toussaint, Mike Soroka, Bryse Wilson, Max Fried will battle for fifth spot; Gohara was seemingly locked into a rotation spot last spring until he came into camp out of shape after a rough offseason, and suffered groin and ankle injuries that derailed his season. He's lost 40 pounds this offseason, and still projects as a high-strikeout, high-groundball rate pitcher, with borderline Fantasy ace potential if he's right.
  • Reds: Won't save Raisel Iglesias for the ninth inning. He should still lead the team in saves, but 30 saves might be the ceiling if they stick with this plan.
  • Royals: Ned Yost may go with a closer-by-committee. This may be more about lacking great options, as Brad Boxberger, Wily Peralta, and Tim Hill could all figure into the plan.
  • Pirates: Jung Ho Kang is pushing for a role, after missing essentially two seasons due to a visa issue, and then a wrist injury. Kang has played both shortstop and third base, but will likely be trying to push Colin Moran at third. He is a career .274/.355/.482 hitter who has averaged 25 home runs per 162-games.

Swing Changes

It might be too late for Eric Hosmer to make the changes he needs to make, but there's still time for the young guys. 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. On the other hand, a change in team-wide approach through a new coaching staff could lead to less-than-desired outcomes.

  • Notes below collected Feb. 27. 
  • Mets: The track record with Chili Davis as a hitting coach in recent years isn't great, as both the Red Sox and Cubs disappointed in their final seasons with him. The Mets are talking a lot about becoming a better situational hitting team, which isn't a bad thing in and of itself. However, when you start to hear talk of not trying to hit home runs ... well, I get nervous.
  • Nomar Mazara: Rangers working with him to hit more balls in the air. This is one I'd rather have seen Mazara working on in the offseason, but if they can get him to elevate the ball, Mazara still has oodles of potential. He already hits the ball hard.
  • Jackie Bradley: Spent the offseason working with J.D. Martinez's personal hitting coach, who also helped propel Justin Turner's breakout. Bradley has never lacked for talent, and he even hit 26 homers in 2016. Consistency has always been the issue, and changing your swing isn't entirely about hitting more fly balls — it's also about keeping your bat on the plane of the ball longer.
  • Byron Buxton: Has ditched the big leg kick in his swing, and spent all offseason working to get his swing right. Buxton has shown flashes, but hasn't made contact consistently enough to stick in the lineup. There's still the potential for a rare combination of speed and power here, and he's worth a flier late in drafts even if he hadn't re-worked his swing.
  • Albert Almora: Widened his stance hoping for more power. Almora has never hit for much power, but scouts always thought the potential was there. If he can hit for a bit more pop, there is potential here for a Corey Dickerson-esque profile, especially because his glove will keep him in 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 -- think Jack Flaherty or Tyler Glasnow. On the other side, consistent issues getting up to speed can be a warning sign for decline, or even injury.

  • Trevor Bauer: Ever the tinkerer, Bauer spent the offseason working on a changeup, and has been throwing that and heis fastball pretty much exclusively so far in spring, with good results. He will then work in the rest of his arsenal, which now includes *deep breath* fastball, cutter, slider, and curveball. And he already had a 2.21 ERA and 2.44 FIP last season.
  • Julio Urias: Reportedly hit 98 mph with his fastball in an outing earlier this week. The former top prospect is in contention for a rotation spot, and has never topped 97 mph in the majors, according to BrooksBaseball.net. It could just be a hot gun in a spring stadium, but this is a reminder that Urias was one of the better pitching prospects of the last decade before shoulder issues, and he is still somehow just 22.
  • Jack Flaherty: Is this a cutter? It kinda looks like a cutter, right? It's too fast to be a slider, and it looks like it has too much glove side movement to be a fastball. 
  • Luke Weaver: Weaver spent the offseason working on his curveball, with the help of a spin-tracking Rapsodo machine. He is also planning on expanding the usage of his cutter.
  • Lucas Giolito: This isn't quite a new pitch, but Giolito is getting more spin on his fastball after an offseason working with weighted baseballs.
  • Notes below collected Feb. 27.
  • Zack Greinke: Was throwing 88 mph in his spring debut. That may not sound like much, but it's probably 3-4 mph harder than he was throwing at this same point last year. 

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.

  • Notes below collected Feb. 27.
  • Chris Paddack: Paddack allowed just one unearned run with four strikeouts over two innings his spring debut. He's been a bit of an enigma as a prospect, as the scouting reports have never quite matched the results. However, the results -- 1.82 ERA, 34.2 percent strikeout rate, 2.9 percent walk rate -- are out of this world good, and he looked excellent in his debut. His fastball looked especially tough up, and his changeup looks like a real weapon. He should see the majors sometime this season, though there is probably a hard cap on his innings around 150.
  • Yusei Kikuchi: A prospect for now, Kikuchi looked solid in his spring debut, and he managed to make Joey Votto look uncomfortable, no small thing. He's drawn rave reviews across the board during the spring, though he is likely to have an innings limit and be skipped in the rotation from time to time this season.
  • Shed Long: The Athletic's Corey Brock says Long will play in the majors, possibly this season, and has impressed in spring with the Mariners. The former Reds' farmhand hit hit .261/.353/.412 in Double-A last season, but has enough pop and speed to be an intriguing Fantasy option.
  • Taylor Ward: Ward looked overmatched in his time in the majors last season, but opened spring action with a grand slam. This is still the same guy who hit .349/.446/.531 with 14 homers and 18 steals in 102 games between Double-A and Triple-A last season. It's a fascinating profile, and it would be great to see him get another shot.

So which Fantasy Baseball sleepers should you snatch in your draft? And which undervalued pitchers can help you win a championship? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy Baseball rankings for every single position, all from the model that called Scooter Gennett's huge breakout last season, and find out.

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Though he can be found covering three different sports depending on the time of year, there is one unifying theme in how Chris Towers approaches sports; "Where's the evidence?" It doesn't matter how outlandish... Full Bio

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