MLB Spring Training Positional Battles: March 25 (UPDATED)
*UPDATED* Dan Malin goes around the league, giving an update on the Padres' prospects, the Dodgers rotation, and an injury to one of baseball's top prospects!
Here we go, FANation! The season is finally upon us! Although a couple games happened last week in Japan (congrats to Ichiro on a fantastic career), the other 28 teams in Major League Baseball get things going later this week with the final exhibition games happening Monday and Tuesday in big league ballparks. Do make sure you check out last week’s Position Battles article because there were some that I discussed that have been finalized like the Brewers’ starting second basemen battle (Mike Moustakas takes the cake). As rosters are being trimmed we’re getting a feel for the big position battle winners. I won’t waste time, I’ll jump right in and break some down for you.
Milwaukee Brewers Closer –As of right now it looks like it should be Josh Hader ’s job, although the Brewers have been hesitant to use their talented young southpaw in the ninth inning. With the recent injuries to Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel , the door is wide open for Hader to assume the role. However, the Brewers are still in the mix to possibly sign Craig Kimbrel who has been linked to Milwaukee and Atlanta so far. Júnior Guerra , Matt Albers , and Jacob Barnes are also in play but for now Hader could see a few save opportunities if they wait on Jeffress to return and for a more detailed explanation for what is going on with Knebel’s elbow. I’m going to assume Hader is the winner in the short-term, but he might not stick which would be most unfortunate for Hader.
Milwaukee Brewers Go Young to Round Out Rotation –So while Craig Counsell gets a little conservative with Hader, he has no problem throwing three young arms (Brandon Woodruff , Corbin Burnes , and Freddy Peralta ) into the rotation to start the year. And all three should be watched for fantasy purposes especially Woodruff. Woodruff projects as a solid rotation guy since he has a deeper arsenal so he should be on everyone’s radar. Burnes and Peralta deserve to be watched or drafted in deeper leagues. Chase Anderson has been relegated to the bullpen while Jhoulys Chacín and Zach Davies are the other two arms in the rotation with Milwaukee’s Young Bucks.
Cincinnati Reds Outfield and Middle Infield –So in case you missed it, Scooter Gennett is going to miss about 8-to-12 weeks with a groin strain. This changes nothing for Cincinnati as they sent their top prospect to Triple-A to start the year. Even after the Gennett injury they could’ve brought Senzel back up as he’s somewhat familiar with playing second base. Alas, the Reds know what they’re doing by keeping him down in Triple-A. They see his as the long-term center fielder, not a middle infielder. So with Gennett down, José Peraza will slide over to second base, and José Iglesias will start the year as the team’s shortstop. Now with Senzel at Triple-A Scott Schebler will start in center field, Yasiel Puig in right field, and Jesse Winker and Matt Kemp will mix in at left field, but in reality there’s no solid spot for Kemp to be an every day starter. Things will get a little crowded once the Reds opt to bring Senzel back up, presumably in late April. However, for now, there’s some clarity on the outfield for the start of 2019.
Update: Well here's some bad news: Nick Senzel sprained his ankle sliding into second base in a minor league game so he's going to be in a walking boot for a week or two and then it'll take an additional few weeks to get him up to speed again. So while a lot of people in the fantasy baseball community anticipated a mid-to-late April call up for Senzel, they may have to wait a few more weeks.
New York Yankees First Base –Sadly there is no end to this position battle. Even after Greg Bird was hit by a pitch last week, he should be fine for opening day. And neither Bird nor Voit have relinquished the reigns on this fight because both have looked strong in spring training. Now the addition of Aaron Hicks to the injured list opens things up a little bit. It means the outfield will be manned by Brett Gardner , Aaron Judge , and Giancarlo Stanton . So at least for the first week Bird and Voit can split between first base and DH. Once Hicks comes back, there will be some questions. The preferred choice is Voit since Bird can’t stay healthy. But time will tell.
New York Mets First Base – Let’s head to Queens, NY for an update on the other New York baseball team’s first base battle… Shocking, it’s no different than the Yankees situation! But at least the Mets realize the talent Pete Alonso possesses. It’s not official, but it does sound like Pete Alonso will break camp with the Mets big league roster according to SNY. Alonso has looked great this spring as has Dominic Smith . So it’ll be a little crowded to start the year at first base, but luckily injuries to Todd Frazier and Jed Lowrie open things up for both guys to start the season with the big league club. A timeshare is likely in order to start, but hopefully Alonso pulls away with the regular starting job as the season progresses.
Houston Astros Fifth Starter –Brad Peacock will open the 2019 season as the Astros fifth starter and he absolutely earned it. The strikeouts were a bit down from what we’ve come to expect from Peacock in recent years, but he still had a strong spring. In 16.1 innings of work he allowed five earned runs on 15 hits and just two walks. His competition, Framber Valdez , will break camp with the big league club but he’ll start in the bullpen. In 15.1 innings of work Valdez allowed six earned runs on 17 hits and five walks. The strikeout numbers weren’t as good as Peacock’s, but it was still a decent showing for Valdez. It’s not a guarantee Peacock will stick with the big league club. Houston has shown in the past they prefer him in the bullpen for long relief. That being said, it’ll be worth keeping an eye on to see if Houston allows Peacock to pitch more than five innings in his starts. But any pitcher in the Astros rotation is worth keeping an eye on because that coaching staff knows how to get the most out of their hurlers.
Colorado Rockies Infield –There hasn’t been an official decision yet regarding the Rockies final roster moves, but both Ryan McMahon and Garrett Hampson have made the case that they both deserve to be on the Opening Day roster. McMahon will clearly get an opportunity to start as much as possible after he had a phenomenal spring posting a slash line of .439/.476/.789 with three home runs, a triple, nine doubles, and 14 RBI. McMahon will likely open the season as the team’s starting second basemen and while I’ve been a bit salty on the guy, he’s certainly earned it and has a little more experience than Hampson. McMahon can also play first base if the Rockies opt to give Daniel Murphy a day off and he has some experience in outfield. For Hampson, all is not lost because he too had a great spring. If he does start the year with the big league club he might struggle to find at-bat’s early on, but a regular spot could open up if McMahon struggles on the road like he did last year. Overall Hampson finishes spring with a .286/.348/.643 slash line with four home runs and seven steals. The Rockies have plenty of power in their lineup with Nolan Arenado , Charlie Blackmon , Trevor Story , Daniel Murphy , etc. Hampson is pretty versatile and he’s shown great speed in spring and he can play outfield as well. It’ll be difficult to start, but Hampson should make the big league roster and find more plate appearances as the season progresses.
Boston Red Sox Closer and Catcher Update –The Boston Red Sox have yet to officially name a closer and time is running out on the defending World Series champions. Ryan Brasier has been sidelined with a toe injury for most of the spring and with the season starting in three days he’s only logged a few appearances and he’s looked serviceable. Matt Barnes had some rough outings the past few weeks, but the fact he’s been healthy enough to get out on the mound has helped his case more than Brasier. Barnes touts a 7.20 ERA this spring, but don’t pay too much attention to that. Pitchers in spring training are usually out there working on different approaches and pitches while caring less about the actual numbers. Barnes has a proven track record as a reliable 7th-8th inning guy. The big question is if he can handle the pressure to close out games in the 9th inning. As far as catcher goes, it appears the Red Sox are looking to move Sandy León possibly by Thursday (Update: The Red Sox have actually placed Leon on waivers). Boston has made it clear they will not carry three catchers for the season and Leon seems to be the odd man out. Christian Vázquez and Blake Swihart have been the only two players to catch for David Price , Chris Sale , and Nathan Eovaldi . That’s a telling sign when only two guys are catching your three best starters. Vazquez is the better defensive option of the two, whileSwihart’s offensive potential has started to come to fruition with 12 hits in 29 at-bats this spring. Obviously the big question is how productive he’ll be once the season starts, but for now it looks like Vazquez and Swihart will open the year as the Red Sox catchers.
St. Louis Cardinals Closer –I haven’t touched on this position battle too much because it just seemed like Jordan Hicks would be named the St. Louis closer to start 2019. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the Cardinals haven’t officially named a closer, but Hicks can be expected to get a majority of the save opportunities. It is odd that Mike Shildt has said Hicks is in line for most of the save opportunities so that’s at least promising, despite no official word on the position. Andrew Miller , once again, seems in line for 8th inning work and he shouldn’t be too sour at that opportunity. He dealt with injuries last year with Cleveland and he hasn’t looked as dominant this spring. Hicks can throw the ball very hard and while the control is still a concern, there’s no denying the heat that he can blow by opposing hitters. If Hicks struggles and Miller gets off to a slow start based on his spring, then the Cardinals have options. Álex Reyes will likely start in the bullpen once brought up and people have really been sleeping on him after injuries have gotten the best of him in his young career and Carlos Martínez likely opens the season in the bullpen as well.
Seattle Mariners Jay Bruce Conundrum –There’s no doubt the Mariners can, and will, find ways to get Jay Bruce plate appearances. But they’ll have to shuffle and move him around a little bit. It helps his case that Kyle Seager is going to miss all of April after undergoing surgery and that Ichiro announced his retirement last week. To be fair, Ichiro wasn’t going to seriously cut into his playing time, but it opens things up a little bit on the outfield depth charts for him. Bruce isn’t a prototypical center fielder so he’s not taking Mallex Smith ’s job, but he could get a few starts in the corner outfield spots when Mitch Haniger and Domingo Santana are off. Not to mention the M’s could get him reps at first base and DH, but again he’s behind Dan Vogelbach and Edwin Encarnación for those spots with Ryon Healy filling in at third for Seager. But the guys ahead of him will require days off, especially an aging Encarnacion. It’s not pretty and it might be frustrating at times for Bruce, but there are avenues for him to get playing time now that the Seattle roster has come to fruition.
Atlanta Braves Final Rotation Spots – So Julio Teheran will likely be the Braves Opening Day starter on Thursday. What happens after that is a mystery. Mike Foltynewicz is slated to start the year on the injured list and Kevin Gausman is just making his way back after starting Sunday’s exhibition game against the Rays. He lasted 3.1 innings striking out five while walking three in a brief shutout effort. However, what is nice to see is that Atlanta took an approach similar to Milwaukee and has opted to open the season with some young arms in the rotation. Unfortunately one of them won’t be Touki Toussaint who was optioned to Triple-A to start the year after back-to-back poor outings to finish up spring training. Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright could follow Teheran in the opening road series against Philadelphia is the Braves opt to hold Gausman until the home series against the Cubs. Wilson (21) and Wright (23) are a couple of the prized-pitching prospects the Braves have in their system, but it’s a question of how long they’ll stick in the rotations with Folty slated to return at some point. The other question is in regards to Sean Newcomb . Newcomb has struggled this spring allowing 15 walks in 17 innings of work with a 5.29 ERA and 1.71 WHIP. These were similar problems he saw last year and he didn’t show much improvement on the matter in spring training. So while it’s exciting the Braves are opting to go with some young guns to start the 2019 campaign, there are still a handful of questions regarding the season-long stability of this rotation.
Los Angeles Angels Final Rotation Spots –With the Andrew Heaney news breaking that he would be starting the season on the injured list there was an opening in the rotation to start the year. As of right now it appears Jaime Barria and Félix Peña will open the season in the rotation after José Suarez and Griffin Canning were optioned to Triple-A Salt Lake. Pena has looked really good this spring with 25 strikeouts in 14.2 innings of work, but he figures to be the odd man out once Heaney is ready to return considering Barria has more experience as a rotation guy. Canning is one guy you can keep an eye on throughout the season because he could be a call up later this year worthy of rostering if he gets off to a good start. He’s only 22, but he has the upside to be the second or third guy in the rotation long-term.
San Diego Brings on the Young Prospects - Earlier this spring training I talked up the Padres briefly in an article, but didn't follow up too much because I wans't anticipating them starting the year with Fernando Tatis Jr. on the roster. Well, I was very wrong. Tatis will presumably be the starting shortstop from the Padres and he'll likely hit towards the bottom of the lineup. He does have some swing-and-miss troubles so in a points league he gets a slight downgrade, but he still needs to be owned. The Padres are also starting Chris Paddack in the rotation so if you need starting pitching help, you need to grab Paddack if he's available. It's interesting the Padres are willing to start the year with both Paddack and Tatis on the big league roster as neither player has played a game above Double-A. The outfield is still a bit crowded with Margot, Renfroe, Myers, Cordero, and Reyes. Myers, if healthy, has an every day spot. And after Reyes' explosive second half he should see plenty of opportunities as should Margot. The Padres have made some big moves recently and they should have the offense to put up runs. The starting pitching could be a struggle since they don't have a notable ace to anchor their rotation and it'll be worth seeing if they cap Paddack's innings.
Los Angeles Dodgers Rotation - The Dodgers rotation is in rough shape heading into their season opener. Clayton Kershaw isn't what he used to be and he's currently dealing with an injury that'll leave him unready for Opening Day. Walker Buehler, seen as the next Dodgers ace, made his first spring appearance just a few days ago. Buehler will be ready for for the start of the season, but there were obvious holes that needed to be filled with Kershaw's absence. Hyun-Jin Ryu will start opening day, Ross Stripling will follow, and then Kenta Maeda, and Buehler will go. Julio Urias, once a highly-touted prospect and still very young has earned the final rotation spot and he absolutely earned it after a fantastic spring. In 15.2 innings of work he allowed just three earned runs and racked up 15 strikeouts to three walks. It looks like he's throwing harder than ever and he's bounced back after a few injury-plagued seasons. Once Kershaw is ready to return, I don't anticipate Urias getting bumped to the bullpen, it looks like that'll probably be Maeda so Urias is worth a pick up if he's available in your league.