The presumption heading into spring training was that Alex Wood, back with the Dodgers on a one-year deal, was merely competing for the final rotation spot. But to hear him tell it after a spring debut Sunday in which he struck out two over a scoreless inning, it's already decided.
"I'll be in the rotation," he said. "I wouldn't have taken the risk of coming back without knowing opening day I'd be in the rotation. I don't know what's been said, but I came back here knowing I'll be in the rotation."
Sounds pretty definitive, right? Like he knows something the rest of us don't? What's likely to seal the deal is if he keeps hitting 92-93 mph on his fastball, gaining a couple miles per hour after spending the offseason working with Driveline Baseball, a pitching development program with a history of elevating pitchers to new heights. The last time Wood's velocity was in that range was in the first half of 2017, when he went 10-0 with a 1.67 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 10.8 K/9.
Anyone who has a rotation spot with the Dodgers is a sleeper just because of the supporting cast, and while it's unlikely he takes on a full workload given the way they've operated in the past and the fact he's coming off an injury-shortened season, the per-inning production could be considerable. He should be soaring up rank lists with the revelation that the job may already be his.
Some other tidbits from around spring training:
- Though top prospect Gavin Lux is the presumptive favorite to win the starting second base job after getting most of the time there last September and during the postseason, manager Dave Roberts made a point to say "he still has to earn it." The Dodgers could theoretically open the year with Cody Bellinger at first base and Max Muncy at second, especially since their failed attempt to trade Joc Pederson has left them with a surplus of outfielders.
- Nate Lowe, heretofore presumed to be a first baseman, made a start at third base Saturday, reaching base twice. The 24-year-old has crushed it in the minors the past two years, adding power to a profile that already featured a stellar strikeout-to-walk ratio, and held his own in a major-league trial last year. He wouldn't appear to have a path right now on a Rays team loaded with interesting bats, but a little versatility would ease that path.
- Yoshitomo Tsutsugo's first home run in the States — a high, opposite-field blast — came off a lefty, which is notable since he's a left-handed hitter on a team with ample platoon possibilities. He isn't expected to get full-time at-bats, but the Rays are trying him at a variety of positions and are already praising his plate discipline. As productive as he was in Japan, he could force the issue.
- It was Matthew Boyd's slider and his more extensive use of it that led to an explosion in strikeout rate last year, but predictability may have contributed to the home run barrage that ultimately wrecked his ERA. He's working to reincorporate his curveball as sort of a changeup to his slider and struck out Jose Altuve looking with it Monday. "I've always said I'm a four-pitch pitcher," Boyd said. "Last year, I got a little two-dimensional for a good part of the year."
- Miguel Andujar, the 2018 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up who's coming off surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder, not only homered in his spring debut Monday but got the start at third base, where it seemed like the Yankees no longer considered him a viable option after the emergence of Gio Urshela last year. Defensively, Andujar still fits best at first base, but if the bat looks strong this spring, the Yankees will have to find at-bats for him somewhere.
- Luke Voit is, of course, Andujar's biggest obstacle to winning the first base job outright, and though his miserable second half seemingly damaged his candidacy, it sounds like manager Aaron Boone is firmly in his corner. "I think he's got a big year ahead," Boone said. The injury Voit was playing through in the second half, which was initially billed as a sports hernia, was much more extensive than that. "I tore everything down there," said Voit, who needed three ligaments reattached on each side of his groin.
- Ryan Mountcastle's first two starts of the spring have come in left field, and the Orioles seem open to playing him at all four corner spots after he was primarily a first baseman at Triple-A. The 23-year-old is overdue for a big-league trial after hitting .312 with 25 homers and an .871 OPS in the minors last year, and while service time reasons make it unlikely to happen on opening day, some versatility would help ensure it happens sooner than later.
- The Mariners shocked the baseball world by inking Evan White, who had never played a game above Double-A, to a long-term deal this offseason, making him the odds-on favorite for the starting first base job this spring. He's mostly regarded for his defense and is supposedly light on power, but general manager Jerry Dipoto made a pretty convincing case to the contrary. "I don't know that people are really paying attention to what happened over the last season and a half of Evan's development," Dipoto said. "His exit velocities rank in the above average to elite zone, like 92-93 mph on average, which is a big number." It is a big number, and White's fly-ball rate has also been on the rise. He's worth monitoring.
- Sean Manaea had a miserable first start Monday, allowing six earned runs in 1 2/3 innings, but he was putting some work in on his slider after taking some pointers from Randy Johnson earlier this spring. His slider seemed like enough of a weapon during his outstanding six-start stretch last year, when he compiled a 1.21 ERA fresh off injury, but this latest development only adds to the bag of mysteries for a long-time Fantasy tease.
- Albert Almora worked with hitting guru Ricardo Sosa in the offseason and is "visibly different" at the plate, to use his own words, standing quieter and more upright. It paid immediate dividends with him going 3 for 3 with a homer Monday. Both his high-contact approach and former top prospect standing make him someone worth monitoring, though it'd probably take a huge spring for him to beat out Ian Happ for the center field job.
- After playing almost exclusively left field for the Diamondbacks down the stretch last year, Josh Rojas has already appeared at second base and shortstop this spring. A super utility role would be a clever way to get him involved in a lineup that otherwise appears to be full. The 25-year-old hit .332 with 23 homers, 33 steals and a 1.023 OPS between two minor-league levels last year.
- Corbin Burnes, whose sleeper status flatlined with his 8.82 ERA last year, flashed a new 94 mph slider in his spring debut Monday. That's about 6 mph harder than the one he was throwing last year, putting him in the same company as Jacob deGrom when it comes to slider velocity. This is still the same guy who put together a 1.67 ERA across 26 minor-league starts in 2017, so a weapon of that order could reintroduce him to the rotation conversation.
- Wilson Ramos, who had by far the highest ground-ball rate among qualifying batters last year, worked with an independent hitting coach to improve his launch angle this offseason, and according to MLB.com beat writer Anthony DiComo, the early returns have been impressive. Ramos put on a show in batting practice Monday and then hit a long home run during the game. Though last year's rate was on the excessive side, Ramos has always been a ground-ball hitter and fared well in spite of it, but at 32, he may have some new tricks.
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.