MLB Spring Training Positional Battles: March 18
Dan Malin goes around the league, giving an update on some of the more notable position battles thus far with just a few weeks until the start of the season.
Milwaukee Brewers Second Base – Just a quick update regarding this one because just hours after posting last week’s Position Battles article, Craig Counsell anointed Mike Moustakas the Opening Day starter at second base. This isn’t a surprise to anyone, really. Travis Shaw will be the starting third baseman with Orlando Arcia at shortstop and Jesus Aguilar at first base. This will relegate Hernán Pérez , Tyler Saladino , and Cory Spangenberg to utility roles coming off the bench. There’s still the possibility that the Brewers could remove Moustakas from the role if he struggles defensively. However, Moustakas has done well enough covering second so it seems like his job is secure for now.
Atlanta Braves Final Rotation Spot and Closer – The Braves have experienced quite a few injuries early on this spring, but they have a lot of depth and are rich in terms of pitching prospects and arms. Mike Soroka is going to miss the start of the season so there’s an opportunity for someone like Max Fried or Touki Toussaint to win the starting job. It will likely go to Toussaint as he’s looked pretty solid in spring. In his last outing this past weekend against Detroit he worked four innings and struck out five while giving up five hits and no walks. He was tagged for a few runs. The ERA hasn’t looked good so far in spring training (6.30), but the strikeout upside is there for the young righty and the opportunity is there for him. In the bullpen, Arodys Vizaino will officially start the year as Atlanta’s closer. A.J. Minter was experiencing some shoulder tightness and has only been able to throw on flat ground. Vizcaino could be a cheap source of saves for your fantasy baseball team to start the year.
Houston Astros Fifth Starter – Previously I touted Brad Peacock as the likely winner of this opportunity and I still believe this should be the case. Peacock has a 1.50 ERA in a dozen innings so far this spring with ten strikeouts to just one walk. The issue with Peacock is that if he does win the final rotation spot it’s possible he could eventually just end up back in the bullpen. The Astros seem to prefer him there as much as that sucks. Josh James could replace him in the rotation once he recovers from his quad injury, and Framber Valdez is in contention for the fifth spot as well but he hasn’t looked nearly as consistent as Peacock has. Valdez boasts a 5.79 ERA in 9.1 innings of work with 13 hits and six earned runs. He also only has three strikeouts to five walks. Forrest Whitley is one of the top prospects in baseball and he’s looked great this spring, but he’ll likely start the season in the minors with potential for a midseason call-up. For now, I’d still say Peacock breaks camp in the rotation. How long he stays there is tough to tell.
New York Mets First Base – It’s a damn crime if Peter Alonso doesn’t break camp as the starting first baseman. The issue isn’t Todd Frazier yet. Frazier will be a problem once he returns from his oblique injury. The Mets would be more inclined to give Alonso the starting job if Dominic Smith wasn’t hitting well. Smith has a spring slash line of .400/.462/.543 with a home run and a pair of doubles. Alonso’s still swinging a hot bat with a .356 batting average and a 1.040 OPS with three home runs and four doubles. He’s looked fantastic in spring and he’s 24 years old so he’s more than ready to break camp with the big league roster. Is he great defensively? Hardly, but his exit velocity is borderline elite and he deserves to open the year with the Mets. They may pull the old send him to the minors card for two-to-three weeks and then bring him up, but there will be a time when he has to contend with Frazier and Smith for plate appearances.
New York Yankees Rotation – So the Yankees have some questions regarding the last few rotation spots. C.C. Sabathia is still recovering from offseason surgery on his knee and heart, and he’s just started working simulated games. With the season less than two weeks away it’s doubtful he’s ready for Opening Day. Add in the fact Luis Severino will not be ready for Opening Day there is an opportunity for someone to break camp in the starting rotation. Jonathan Loaisiga , Domingo Germán , and Luis Cessa are in the running for these two spots and Brian Cashman recently stated the Yankees won’t seek outside help so these are the guys they’re going with. James Paxton , Masahiro Tanaka , and J.A. Happ are safe with the first three spots, and as great as the Yankees bullpen is there’s little evidence that says the Yankees will move an elite bullpen arm to the rotation. It wouldn’t make much sense either, none of those guys have much experience as a starting pitcher. Luis Cessa and Domingo Germán seem like the likely candidates to break camp in the starting rotation. They’ve looked great so far and to be frank, Laoisiga has a 10.00 ERA with six walks and nine hits in nine innings. Don’t expect either of these pitchers to stick in the rotation as Sabathia and Severino will easily bump them from the rotation once they’re healthy enough to return.
San Diego Padres Catcher – Unfortunately this will likely come down to a time share between Austin Hedges and Francisco Mejia . Mejia is the highly-touted prospect between the two, but Hedges is the preferred defensive option. Mejia is slashing .438/.471/.844 this spring. Yes he touts a 1.314 OPS which is outstanding, but don’t expect that sort of production this season. But Mejia could make some noise. Unfortunately he’ll likely split starts with Hedges who, like Mejia, has three home runs this spring and a nice slash line of .261/.370/.652. Fantasy owners would easily prefer Mejia, but San Diego will likely take a more conservative approach and use him as much as they use Hedges.
Seattle Mariners Outfield – This battle is a little crowded, but not as crowded as some others (i.e. Philadelphia Phillies), but it’s worth mentioning. Mitch Haniger will keep a starting job since he was a solid everyday contributor last season. They’ll also want to give newly-acquired Domingo Santana a starting job as well, probably at the corner opposite Haniger. Santana’s looked great so far this spring slashing .400/.464/.900 and the Mariners will likely give him an everyday starting job. Mallex Smith , when he’s healthy, will probably get the starting job in center field. The big issue is what do the Mariners do with Jay Bruce ? He’s essentially a backup corner outfielder, but he’s still in contention for the first base job, but that could go to Ryon Healy , Dan Vogelbach , or Edwin Encarnación , but he likely DH’s every day. Not to mention Ichiro, at 45 years old, is back in Seattle trying to make the big league roster, as is Braden Bishop. When Smith is healthy the starting outfield will likely be Santana, Smith, and Haniger. Finding a spot for Bruce could prove to be tricky for the M’s.
Milwaukee Brewers Fifth Starter – Jhoulys Chacin , Chase Anderson , Zach Davies , and Jimmy Nelson have a firm grip on the four starting spots. Corbin Burnes , Freddy Peralta , and Brandon Woodruff are competing for the final spot and hopefully it goes to Woodruff. Take it with a grain of salt, but Woodruff has looked great so far in spring training. In 12 innings of work he hasn’t given up an earned run. He’s allowed four free passes and three hits, but he’s collected a dozen strikeouts as well. Workload is the big concern for a 26-year-old righty. Between Triple-A and the big leagues last year Woodruff logged 113.2 innings of work, which is relatively close to what he logged in previous years in the minors. Hopefully he breaks camp with the big league roster and has the fifth spot locked up because he has a decent 94-95mph fastball which is arguably his best pitch. Peralta and Burnes are still in contention, but Woodruff seems to have earned this spot.
Colorado Rockies Second Base – This has been one of my favorite spring training battles to keep an eye on because of the upside Garrett Hampson was exhibiting. The bad news is that Hampson has been hampered with a hamstring injury so his stock is down a little bit. Unfortunately Ryan McMahon ’s stock is on the rise as he’s been raking. He’s slashing .462/.511/.821 with a pair of home runs, six doubles, and a triple. Unfortunately it does look like McMahon is recapturing the hearts of the Rockies organization with how good he’s looked this spring. Don’t forget he did this last year and struggled once the season got started especially on the road. Hampson will need to get back on the field soon to continue making his case, but he still has three home runs and five stolen bases this spring.
Cincinnati Reds Outfield – There isn’t too much to specifically update you on, but it’s worth bringing up for the sheer fact everybody involved is essentially having a good spring. Now I know I’m hyping up a lot of spring training numbers as a lot of guys have ridiculous slugging percentages, but the numbers and playing time are all I have to go off of. But Yasiel Puig is hitting .345 with a pair of home runs. He seems most likely to have a solidified spot in the outfield. Matt Kemp is hitting .370 with three dingers and top prospect Nick Senzel has been hitting the ball well. Former first-round draft pick Phillip Ervin has five home runs this spring, but Scott Schebler is hitting over .400 as well. As much as David Bell wants to get Jesse Winker playing he’s looked the worst at the plate out of everyone this spring. Cincinnati.com did publish an article yesterday noting Schebler and Senzel were competing for the center field job, Kemp and Winker were fighting for left field, and Ervin was simply just trying to make the 25-man roster coming out of spring. The Reds obviously won’t carry six outfielders to start the year so Bell will have some tough decisions to make in due time.
Los Angeles Dodgers Fifth Starter – With Clayton Kershaw likely to miss the start of the season, there are two spots open in the rotation behind Walker Buehler , Rich Hill , and Kenta Maeda . So the contenders are Julio Urías , Hyun-Jin Ryu , and Ross Stripling . It would be nice if they would consider Urias for one of the spots because of his prominence as a top pitching prospect although injuries have set him back the past few years. It’s hard to believe that he’s still just 22 years old, but he’s looked good enough this spring. The unfortunate news is that the managerial staff may be capping his spring training starts at four innings to prep him for long relief with occasional starts. And that’s still fine and optimism for him to break camp with the rotation. However, it’s not a great long-term prognosis because they also may limit his regular season workload to just 100 innings. Ryu and Stripling are two guys who have seen their share of time in the rotation. Both are serviceable guys, but nothing stands out. Stripling may have more upside as his strikeout numbers have improved with each big league season he’s logged, but he’s never thrown more than 130 innings in the majors. Caleb Ferguson is a dark horse candidate to break camp with a rotation spot, but with Tony Cingrani being shut down recently it appears Ferguson has a better shot of making the team coming out of the bullpen.
St. Louis Cardinals Right Field – Good news for Dexter Fowler truthers, he broke up a spring training no-hitter against St. Louis a couple days ago. The bad news? He has a .194/.237/.222 slash line so far this spring. And he’s never been a big power guy, but that slash line is still awful. To make matters worse they’ll still probably give him the starting job out of camp because of his contract and his defense. Tyler O’Neill has some pop to his bat boasting a .246 ISO last season in short work, but he also had a 40.1% strikeout rate compared to a 4.9% walk rate in 142 big league plate appearances. The other option is Jose Martinez who the Cardinals would love to find a spot for. Martinez easily has the best upside at the plate. He has more power than Fowler and more patience than O’Neill. But he is the worst of the three on defense, and there is nowhere else the Cardinals can put him unless Marcell Ozuna gets hurt, then maybe they can put him in left field. Or an injury to Paul Goldschmidt at first base presents an opening there, but again, Martinez is awful defensively. The Cardinals are probably praying for swift progress towards the National League adapting to the DH spot because there’s simply nowhere to play Martinez unless Fowler gets hurt.
Washington Nationals Fifth Starter – The Nationals knew they needed help with their rotation. There’s only so much Max Scherzer can do on his own while we all wonder if Stephen Strasburg will stay healthy for a full season. So the Nats went out and signed Patrick Corbin to big money and Anibal Sánchez will be a good innings eater. So who gets the last spot? It’ll likely go to Jeremy Hellickson based on merit. Hellickson has bounced around a lot since leaving the Rays, but he’s shown in the past he can log 160+ innings in a season. He doesn’t carry much strikeout upside, and he’ll have the occasional bad outing, but right now he seems likely to break camp in the rotation. Other contenders in the mix are Erik Fedde and Joe Ross , but Hellickson seems like the safest bet.
Los Angeles Angels Fifth Starter – I could’ve really spent this whole article just talking about fifth starters and rotation battles. The Angels don’t have a great rotation and it only gets worse with Andrew Heaney likely out for Opening Day with an elbow injury. So that leaves Tyler Skaggs , Trevor Cahill , and newly-acquired Matt Harvey . The Angels must be excited to finally have Harvey on their roster. I phrase it that way because Harvey spurned the advances of signing with the Angels back in 2007 when they drafted him in the third-round. He went on to play for the University of North Carolina where the Mets would select him seventh overall in the 2010 draft and the rest, as we know, is kind of a weird history especially the way things ended in New York. Alas, here we are and Harvey’s job in the Angels rotation is safe for the time being because there simply aren’t better options to replace him. However, the two options to replace Heaney and fill the void of a fifth starter are Jaime Barria , Felix Pena , Griffin Canning, Nick Tropeano , and Jose Suarez . If going based off merit it’ll likely be Barria and Pena. Tropeano is just getting up to speed on throwing, but he’ll likely start the year on the injured list. Canning and Suarez, while solid prospects for the Halos, just don’t have the experience of Barria and Pena. Barria will likely slot in as the fourth rotation arm and Pena probably gets pushed to the bullpen when Heaney is ready to return.