With position players reporting to camp this week, it's time to ease back into the familiar grooves of spring training. That means, among other things, prepping for weeks of prognostication about the bottoms of rosters and the outlook for on-the-bubble players.
For as chaotic as the team-building process seems from afar, front offices are guided by various mechanisms. Some, like the "options" concept, are in place to prevent talent hoarding. Teams still do their best to navigate around these parameters, especially during spring, when forecasting position battles can be as simple as examining the players' option statuses.
Without getting too far in the weeds, here's how it works: once a player is added to the 40-man roster, they have three option years, or seasons in which they can be optioned to the minors as many times as a team desires without first having to pass through waivers. Do note that some players get a fourth option year, usually due to missing significant time because of an injury, and that a player must spend more than 20 days in the minors to have used an option. Players can also reject optional assignments once they surpass a certain service-time threshold.
Teams have improved at long-term roster management, meaning most bubble candidates without options tend to fall under the umbrella of being a bench player or a relief pitcher.
There are always exceptions, just as there are sufficient examples of players who land in a better situation and take full advantage. That's why we've put together a guide covering more than 20 players who are out of options and might be on the move before Opening Day, be it through a trade or a waiver claim. It shouldn't surprise anyone if a few of these players end up being more valuable than they were expected to be heading into the spring.
The Athletics don't have much wiggle room when it comes to their bench and bullpen situations. It stands to reason that Tony Kemp, a recent trade acquisition, will make the 25-man roster, leaving Franklin Barreto and Jorge Mateo to duke it out for a spot on the bench.
Overreacting to a small sample is a fool's errand, but Barreto's strikeout rate (more than 40 percent) in 209 big-league plate appearances is a red flag. He'll be a young 24 at the start of the season, and he still has boosters around the league who think his speed, power, and versatility will enable him a productive career as a reserve. Mateo, a somewhat similar player with more speed and makeup concerns, hit .289/.330/.504 in Triple-A last season. Impressive ... except Mateo's team, as a whole, hit .298/.371/.531. Barreto would seem like the favorite to win the gig.
Candelario looked the part of a second-division starter prior to last season. He had a miserable 2019, as he didn't perform well and he appeared to fall out of favor with the organization. Teams checked in with Detroit about buying low on Candelario, but the Tigers rebuffed their offers, suggesting they intend to give him another go. Perhaps the Tigers re-sweetened on Candelario after watching Lugo, their primary third baseman last season, swing at everything. Succeeding with an aggressive approach means having a feel for quality contact. Lugo lacks that.
Others to watch
Not every infielder without options is engaged in a positional battle with one another. Two worth noting are Christian Arroyo (Cleveland) and Domingo Leyba (Diamondbacks). Both are hit-only types who don't offer much in the way of power or speed. Arroyo, once the crown jewel of the Evan Longoria trade, was dumped to Cleveland last summer after appearing in just 117 regular-season games in the Rays organization. The D-Backs netted Leyba a long time ago, as part of the three-team deal orchestrated by Dave Stewart that also involved Robbie Ray and Didi Gregorius. He reached the majors last season, and he ought to compete with Josh Rojas, Andy Young, Ildemaro Vargas (also without options), and others for a bench spot.
With the Reds signing Shogo Akiyama and Nick Castellanos over the winter, this would appear to be the end of the road for either Phillip Ervin or Scott Schebler. Ervin is probably a better fit for the Reds' bench due to his right-handedness, so we'll focus on Schebler. He isn't far removed from a 30-homer campaign in 2017. That used to be enough to make a hitter. Not anymore. Schebler has historically been an average hitter, give or take, who can hang in there against lefties and play solid defense. He belongs on someone's bench.
Toronto added Fisher in the Aaron Sanchez trade last summer, and while his career 74 OPS+ isn't encouraging, there are some positive indicators to be found under the surface. He's hit the ball harder than the league-average throughout his various big-league stints, and last season he improved his launch angle, lifting the ball more often. That combination doesn't guarantee success, but he'll need to tap into his power to obscure his strikeout tendencies.
Alford, a former two-sport star, has recorded 400 or more plate appearances once in the past four seasons. Missing out on so many repetitions has made it tougher on him to turn his tools into production. He'll turn 26 this summer, so it's almost time to give up the ghost.
Others to watch
The Royals have a pair of offensively challenged outfielders who are without options. Bubba Starling was the fifth pick in the 2011 draft, whereas Brett Phillips was part of the return on Mike Moustakas. The Royals could keep both if they wanted. They could also shed one to diversify their bench, either by carrying Kelvin Gutierrez or plucking someone off waivers. (The aforementioned Mateo would fit in with Kansas City's general obsession with speed.)
Magneuris Sierra (Marlins) can really, really, really run. The Cardinals felt comfortable trading him in the Marcell Ozuna deal in part because of his poor quality of contact. He hit .350 in 40 at-bats last season at the big-league level, but there's no reason to think he's going to continue to produce offensively. To wit, his career exit velocity (79 mph) would've been the second-worst among qualifiers last season, ahead of only Billy Hamilton.
The Reds have a number of relievers who could qualify for this piece. Robert Stephenson and Amir Garrett should be safe, meaning the persons of interest here are Lucas Sims and Cody Reed. Sims introduced a sweeping slider late in the season to promising returns: opponents hit .167 and whiffed on 55 percent of their swings against the pitch. He imparts well-above-average spin on all his offerings, and his history as a starter could tempt a team to use him as an opener and/or as a bulk pitcher. Reed, for his part, is a lanky left-hander with a good slider who has fared well when he's had the platoon advantage against big-league hitters. League sources told CBS Sports the Reds are inclined to hold onto him.
Carson Fulmer was the eighth pick in the 2015 draft, chosen 16 slots ahead of his Vanderbilt teammate Walker Buehler. Whereas Buehler is on the come-up, and should finish this season recognized as the Dodgers' new ace, Fulmer might end the year without a spot on a 40-man roster. He doesn't have outstanding raw stuff (he does most of his work with a low-to-mid-90s fastball and an upper-80s cutter), and he lacks command to the extent that last season he walked six batters per nine innings between the majors and Triple-A. Fulmer worked with Driveline Baseball over the winter, but he wouldn't have made the cut here without his pedigree.
Chris Stratton and Casey Sadler are just travelers on this earth. Stratton has been employed by three teams over the past year, with each hoping to unlock a high level of performance hinted at by his spin rates. He found a semblance of success with the Pirates in a relief role, posting a 117 ERA+ in 46 innings and striking out more than a batter per inning. He'll turn 30 in-season and he'll be arbitration-eligible afterward, so keep his name in mind at the deadline if he performs well. Sadler is also on his third organization in the last year, having been traded to the Cubs earlier in the offseason. The Cubs have a ton of middle-relief options, so it's possible Sadler -- a contact manager rather than a strikeout compiler -- finds himself on the move again.
Hunter Wood (Cleveland), for his big-league career, has a 132 ERA+ in 86 frames. That didn't stop the Rays from moving him at the deadline to clear room on their 40-man roster. Wood doesn't throw hard or have loud stuff, and his delivery is an acquired taste -- he manipulates his trunk in an extreme manner to allow his arm to pass by and release from a high slot -- but the results are the results, and so far his are quality. Pitchers of this kind, without apparent upside and with abundant downside, are always balancing on a tightrope above DFAville.
A noncompetitive team wanting to experiment with a two-way player could tinker with Javy Guerra (Padres). Not to be confused with the veteran Nationals reliever, this Guerra was involved in the Craig Kimbrel trade. He made it to the majors in 2018 as an infielder, then returned late last season as a reliever with an upper-90s fastball. He's highly athletic and he possesses more competency for pitching than his inexperience indicates. It's going to be hard for a team with competitive aspirations, like the Padres, to carry him all season. A lesser team, however, might employ him as a low-leverage reliever who can pinch-run and play the infield.
Ray Black (Brewers) has an elite fastball, in terms of velocity and spin, and a solid breaker. What he lacks is an idea of where the ball is heading after it leaves his hand. He walked more than a batter every other inning last season between the majors and Triple-A, and that performance improved his career rate. Black will turn 30 in June, so the moon is falling on the idea he'll make command gains. It might not matter. Wild relievers are more welcomed now than in the past -- there were 19 relievers in 2019, versus eight in 2010, who qualified and walked more than five per nine innings -- provided they suppress contact. Black hasn't yet, but teams will keep giving him chances to change that so long as his innate arm talent remains.
Others to watch
Duane Underwood Jr. has been on prospect radars since he was selected in the second round in 2012. He has a mid-90s fastball and saw his strikeout rate tick up after moving to the bullpen. As with Sadler, Underwood is at risk of getting caught on the wrong side of a numbers game with the Cubs. Jacob Rhame (Mets), meanwhile, hasn't found success despite a good spin rate.