With the close of spring training and the final drafts taking place this weekend, opening day is finally here. Spring training numbers don’t often translate into regular season success, but it is a time where managers can take an extra look at players and toy with different lineup configurations. More importantly, teams get to settle position battles. Not all of these have significant fantasy implications, but they are always worth a look no matter how deep your league is.
In this list, I identify my top-10 position battles heading into the regular season that hold the most fantasy relevance.
10. Phillies Closer
Phillies manager Pete Mackanin announced at the start of Spring Training that Jeanmar Gomez was the favorite for the club’s closer role. Here we are at the end of Spring Training and Gomez will indeed get the first crack at saves out of camp. His primary competition for the closer role was Joaquin Benoit and Hector Neris.
Neris is clearly the most talented pitcher of the group, striking out 11.4 batters per nine last season. He figures to get a chance at saves if Gomez begins to struggle like last season. Gomez somehow won Mackanin’s confidence despite posting an 8.33 ERA after the all-star break. Even with the shaky second half, Gomez finished with 37 saves which deserves some credit.
Gomez is one of the more unstable options at closer. He has decent control (2.88 BB/9 in 2016), but lacks the true swing and miss stuff (6.16 K/9 in 2016) other closers possess. I’d expect Neris to finish with the most saves for the Phillies in 2017. I would also not be shocked if the Phillies handed the job to veteran Benoit in an attempt to keep the future arbitration numbers for Neris low.
9. Mets fifth starter
The Mets opened camp with a plethora starting pitching and a ton of injury risks. With a rotation of Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Robert Gsellman, the Mets looked just about set heading into opening day. Well, at least before another Matz injury forced the Mets to shake up their plan. That left Zack Wheeler and Seth Lugo as options to fill the last rotation spot.
Despite an underwhelming spring, Wheeler was announced as the team’s fifth starter after losing the last two years to Tommy John surgery. While Wheeler has always had great pedigree and upside, he should face a harsh innings cap/restriction which severely limits his long-term fantasy potential. The Mets haven’t announced any limits for Wheeler, but fantasy owners should assume patience on the club’s part.
If anything happens to Wheeler before a Matz return, Lugo would be the next in line for starts. He could even take the job outright if Wheeler’s spring numbers carry over.
8. Brewers center fielder and right fielder
For a rebuilding team, the Brewers certainly offer a lot of intrigue from fantasy prospective. This year, Milwaukee came into spring training crowded everywhere, and the outfield proved one of the more interesting battles with Keon Broxton, Lewis Brinson, Domingo Santana, and Hernan Perez in competition for the center field and right field starting gigs.
With Brinson being optioned to the minors to further hone his game, Broxton is set to be the Brewers center fielder on opening day. He has modest power and eye-popping speed making him very intriguing late in drafts. As for right field, Santana will get the first crack according to Roster Resource and makes for an interesting flier in deeper leagues. He brings above average raw power and an improving hit tool (.852 OPS in his final 131 plate appearances in 2016) to the middle of the Brewers’ lineup.
Perez will get some at bats in the infield as Roster Resource has him handling the lefty side of the platoon at third base with Travis Shaw. He could also see time at second base with Jonathan Villar sliding over to shortstop if Arcia doesn’t show any signs of improvement. That would thin out the competition some, at least until Brinson is ready for prime-time.
7. Padres left fielder and center fielder
Speed is essential in non-points based formats. Being able to draft speed late just makes it all the better. That’s exactly what Manuel Margot and Travis Jankowski will provide fantasy owners as the starting center fielder and left fielder for the Padres. Margot and Jankowski were in competition with Alex Dickerson and Jabari Blash for the final two spots in the Padres outfield.
Dickerson was the early favorite to start in left field before back troubles forced him to miss time. A recent set back in Dickerson’s recovery will force him to miss the first three to four weeks of the season, opening the door for Jankowski to take over the starting job.
Blash was able to show enough skills in spring training (7 HR with a .986 OPS) to earn the fourth outfielder role out of the gate despite being a non-roster invitee in camp. He should see some at-bats in left field with Jankowski as Roster Resource has Blash seeing the righty side of the platoon.
Margot has the highest upside out of anyone in the Padres outfield. Projected to hit second in the San Diego lineup, Margot has tremendous speed and an above average hit tool that should make him an impactful fantasy player. His only caveat is that the Padres’ may play the service time game. While the team has not announced anything regarding their plans for Margot, he only needs to be in the minors for 24 days to gain an extra year of control.
6. Red Sox fourth and fifth starters
This was more of a battle before David Price’s injury, but an important one nonetheless. Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Steven Wright were in competition for the Red Sox’s final two rotation spots. With Pomeranz beginning the year on the DL, those final two rotation spots belong to Wright and Rodriguez. The Red Sox aren’t planning to lose Pomeranz for long, though, as they hope he’ll back on April 9th, the first time the team needs a fifth starter.
Rodriguez has the highest fantasy ceiling of the group. Only 23 years old, Rodriguez has flashed his talent at the big league level multiple times, and his second half performance from last year truly backs up the sleeper hype. Over the second half Rodriguez posted a 3.24 ERA with 79 strikeouts in 77.2 innings. This success came after Rodriguez began throwing his changeup (18.9% swinging-strike rate) more than his slider. At the very least he offers quality strikeout numbers coming late in drafts.
5. Angels first baseman
This competition, like many others on this list, ended because of injury. The Angels surprised some by signing Luis Valbuena for corner infield depth. For fantasy purposes this move seemed to block C.J. Cron from regular at-bats, but when Valbuena injured his hamstring nearing the end of spring training, Cron can now solidify himself as the Angels’ starting first basemen.
Cron has flashed power potential throughout his career including 16 home runs in 407 at-bats last year before injuries plagued his season. His .313 average and 4 home runs this spring may have been enough to win the starting first base job outright, but Valbuena’s injury ensures Cron’s status. He should serve as a decent corner infield option later in drafts, providing 20+ home run power while hitting fifth in the Angels’ lineup. In shallower leagues, he could be a nice fill in for any early injuries as first base lacks depth this year.
4. Yankees right fielder
Holding true to their youth movement, the Yankees have decided to give Aaron Judge the starting right field spot over Aaron Hicks. The result of this competition doesn’t seem all that surprising, but Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi waited until the final weekend. Judge is currently set to hit eighth in the Baby Bombers lineup.
This eighth spot doesn’t seem all that great for fantasy, but Judge’s power is more than enough to make up for that. Literally resembling Giancarlo Stanton, Judge possesses off the charts raw power. Like Stanton, Judge has also struggled with strikeouts, but showed encouraging signs this spring striking out 13 times in 61 at-bats while hitting .344.
The epitome of a boom-or-bust prospect, Judge could provide fantasy owners with 30+ homer power or lose the starting job several weeks into the season. His cheap price tag makes him worth a flier late in drafts – maybe even a waiver wire grab in some leagues.
3. Nationals closer
Just when everyone thought Koda Glover had a handle on the National’s closer role, manager Dusty Baker decided to switch things up on everyone. Washington broke camp with a three-man competition for the closer job that featured Shawn Kelly, Koda Glover, and Blake Treinen. Upon returning to D.C. to prepare for opening day, Baker announced that Treinen would be given the first shot at saves.
This position battle really came down to Glover and Treinen as Washington was concerned with Kelley’s elbow history in such a high demand role. Both Glover and Treinen had a respectable spring, but Glover’s struggles in non-save situations may have ultimately tipped the scale in favor of Treinen. The 28-year-old will take over the closer role for the first time in his career and is worthy of the opportunity.
Possessing one of the best sinkers in all of baseball per Fangraphs, Treinen is a high-floor closer because of his ability to keep the ball on the ground and in the park. Playing for the Nationals greatly increases his value among other relievers and closers, and I view him as a boarder-line top-10 closer right now. The only thing working against Treinen is a potential short leash because of the options around him as well as the Nationals’ desire to trade for a more “proven” closer.
2. Rangers left fielder
This job appeared to belong to Jurickson Profar heading into spring training, and arguably still is with things coming to a close. Delino DeShields, however, made enough noise with a great spring, hitting .317 with 12 stolen bases, to gain a platoon with Profar heading into opening day according to Roster Resource.
DeShields made it a point this off-season to trim down, get back to getting on base, and swiping bags like he did in his breakout rookie campaign rather than attempt to hit for power like he did last year. With speed always appreciated in fantasy, DeShields shouldn’t go unnoticed at the end of drafts, particularly in rotisserie formats.
This platoon is as intriguing as any for fantasy this season. While Profar represents untapped potential and screams upside, DeShields provides the steals and on-base ability every fantasy squad needs. Fantasy owners could take a “parts equal the whole” strategy by drafting both of these Rangers late and using both to their respective strengths.
1. Yankees first baseman
It was impossible to read spring training coverage this season without reading about Greg Bird. Originally in competition with newcomer Chris Carter for the Yankees’ starting first base job, Bird used the spring to get an early start on his stardom. Currently projected to hit third in the Yankees’ lineup, no other player has seen their value increase as greatly as Bird’s has this spring.
Seemingly hitting homers every day and walking whenever he isn’t hitting bombs, Bird has certainly made his mark this spring with a .429 average, 1.582 OPS, and 7 home runs. Carter’s streakiness as an everyday player only further solidifies Bird’s roles as the Yankees starting first basemen. In the middle of the Baby Bombers’ lineup, a healthy Bird could sneak into the top-10 first basemen.
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