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Spring Training Battles (2020 Fantasy Baseball)

by Dan Harris | @danharris80 | Featured Writer
Mar 4, 2020

Josh James has a chance to become a quality fantasy starter if he wins the starting role.

Spring training statistics rarely matter. Chris Davis, who hasn’t sniffed a .200 batting average since 2017, looks like the best hitter in baseball so far this spring. And although a Davis resurgence would be a wonderful, feel-good story, fantasy owners shouldn’t be banking on it.

But that doesn’t mean that spring training is entirely irrelevant. When a pitcher is unveiling a new pitch with positive results or a batter has changed his approach and drastically improves his walk-to-strikeout ratio, fantasy owners should take notice.

One particular aspect of spring training that is highly relevant for fantasy purposes is the position battle. Every year, two or more players enter spring training fighting for a single role, and the winner often has a major fantasy impact. Certainly, Pete Alonso, Chris Paddack, and Fernando Tatis Jr. starting off 2019 in the majors drastically altered the fantasy landscape.

This year is no exception. Across the league, there are several position battles going on, the results of which will have a significant impact on fantasy baseball. Here are several examples which fantasy owners should be monitoring closely.

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Astros’ Fifth Starter

Contenders: Josh James, Austin Pruitt, Framber Valdez

Brad Peacock likely would have taken the rotation spot vacated by Wade Miley, but a nerve issue in his neck knocked him out of the competition, at least for now. That leaves James, Pruitt, and Valdez as candidates for the coveted fifth starter’s spot for the Astros.

Fantasy owners should be monitoring the battle closely and have a clear rooting interest. It shouldn’t be for Pruitt, a soft-tossing command specialist with a career 4.87 ERA and 1.36 WHIP. Even with the Astros’ pixie dust, he’ll be off the fantasy radar even if he wins the job. Nor should it be for Valdez, who may have a quality sinker-curveball combination, but who walks more than five batters per nine innings.

Instead, fantasy owners need to be rooting hard for James, who has a chance to become a quality fantasy starter if he wins the role. Armed with an impressive fastball, changeup, and slider, as well as superb velocity, James has all the makings of an ace. Even in last year’s disappointing season, he was in the top two percent of the league in strikeout percentage, expected batting average allowed and expected slugging percentage allowed.

The issue for James is his control (or lack thereof), as his 13.2% walk rate was one of the worst in the league last year. But he worked on his mechanics in the offseason in an effort to improve his command, and the early word out of camp is positive.

With the uncertainty, all but the savviest fantasy owners are ignoring James, as he has a consensus average draft position of 358. But if he wins the fifth starter’s role, then his ADP is going to skyrocket. Monitor the battle for the Astros’ fifth starter’s role, but don’t wait to find out the winner before you snag James in the late rounds of your draft.

Rockies’ Left Fielder

Contenders: Garrett Hampson, Sam Hilliard, Raimel Tapia, Ian Desmond

More likely than not, this battle is going to come down to Hampson against Hilliard. Desmond still puts up 20 home runs per year but the Rockies appeared to accept last season that he’s now no more than a platoon bat against lefties. And Tapia is much more of a fourth outfielder, as he has shown throughout his career.

But so long as Hampson or Hilliard comes out on top, fantasy owners are the real winners. Bud Black has said this spring that he expects Ryan McMahon to play at least 150 games, and with Daniel Murphy slotted in at first base, that leaves McMahon at second. Which means Hampson’s only chance for a regular position (absent a Nolan Arenado trade or other injury) is in left field.

Hampson was a massive disappointment last year, but he had an extremely impressive close to the season with five home runs and nine steals in September. If he can win and hold the left field job, he could tally 30-40 steals and be an impact fantasy option, particularly in the scarce category of stolen bases.

As for Hilliard, he hit 42 home runs and stole 24 bases in 646 plate appearances between Triple-A and the majors last year. Hilliard just turned 26 and is a bit of a late bloomer, but he offers a rare power-speed combination and could be a significant contributor if he wins the job.

Whichever one of Hampson or Hilliard becomes the primary left fielder, he should provide plenty of fantasy value. But fantasy owners should be rooting for Hilliard and scooping him up in the late rounds of their drafts because, frankly, Hampson should help fantasy owners even if he doesn’t win the left field job. Hampson’s versatility should be enough to find him mostly everyday at-bats at various positions, particularly given David Dahl‘s injury history.

In other words, Hampson should help fantasy owners regardless of if he wins the left field job. And, as mentioned, Hilliard could offer a rare combination of home runs and steals if he sticks in the lineup every day. Draft Hampson (ADP of 201) and Hilliard (ADP of 391) at their current prices, and hope for Hilliard to come out on top so both have fantasy value.

Brewers’ First Baseman/Right Fielder

Contenders: Ryan Braun, Avisail Garcia, Justin Smoak

How do you fit three players into two spots? We’ll find out after the Brewers get through spring training.

With Eric Thames gone, the Brewers signed Smoak to take over as their primary first baseman. They also added Garcia to play right field. Oh, and they also happen to still have Ryan Braun, a player who is nearly a lock to put up a 20-10 season even at his advanced age.

All three players have various strengths that support their cause for regular playing time. Smoak is the only natural first baseman on the roster and has an elite walk rate, so much so that he had a .342 on-base percentage last year despite batting just .208. Garcia batted .282 with 20 home runs and 10 steals in just 125 games last year and while playing his home games in Tropicana Field. And Braun, as discussed, is still productive and gives quality at-bats at nearly every turn.

The most likely scenario is that Garcia and Smoak take the regular right field and first base jobs, respectively, with Braun filling in on occasion. Although Braun remains productive, he is 36 years old and has battled nagging injuries over the past several seasons. He’s also played only 17 games at first base and 266 games in right field (out of 1727 total), so Craig Counsell isn’t likely to make him the primary option at either spot.

If the situation unfolds that way, it is good news for fantasy owners. Of the three options, Garcia offers the most upside. His expected slugging percentage was .494 last year and .525 in 2017. With a full year in Miller Park, if he keeps the launch angle gains that he has made over the last two years, 30 home runs is within reach. But if he and Braun platoon in right, Garcia’s value obviously takes a hit.

Until the situation is resolved, continue to draft Garcia late in all leagues (ADP of 246) and bank on him getting upwards of 500 plate appearances. Smoak can be considered a late-round corner infielder in deeper mixed or NL-only leagues. And Braun is more viable in deeper mixed leagues with daily lineup changes, as he’s an excellent option when fantasy owners can replace him for his many missed games.

Braves’ Third Baseman

Contenders: Johan Camargo and Austin Riley

Riley took the fantasy baseball world by storm last season, winning National League Rookie of the Month in May, becoming the fastest player in Braves history to hit his 10th career home run, and batting .280 with 14 home runs and a .930 OPS in his first 42 games. He then batted .159 over his next 18 games and lost significant playing time.

Camargo, on the other hand, took a major step back in 2019, seeing his OPS drop from .806 in 2018 to just .663 last year, with a corresponding drop in hard-hit rate. He hardly showed he deserved the third base role.

But one of Camargo or Riley will man third base for the Braves with Josh Donaldson on to colder pastures in Minnesota. If Riley is the winner, then he’s a hitter to draft for your bench with the hope that he puts it all together and becomes a major power contributor. If it’s Camargo (as is rumored by beat writers and early returns suggest), then he’s likely merely an NL-only option and can be ignored in most mixed leagues.

For now, neither is worth considering on draft day. Once fantasy owners get some clarity, however, either Riley or Camargo can become worthy of drafting late in the right situation.

Astros’ Right Fielder

Contenders: Josh Reddick and Kyle Tucker

Reddick is an underrated major leaguer, one who contributes both offensively and defensively. But he’s now 33 years old and, for fantasy purposes, almost completely irrelevant.

Tucker, on the other hand, could legitimately be a fantasy superstar if he wins the right field job out of the spring. The 23-year-old had a 30-30 season last year at Triple-A, and since 2017, has hit no fewer than 24 home runs or stolen fewer than 21 bases in a minor league season.

For whatever reason, the Astros have never wanted to give Tucker an everyday job in the majors. But with both A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow gone, the new coaching staff and front office may have different ideas. If Tucker has a big spring, fantasy owners might finally be rewarded with seeing his potential.

For now, Tucker is going 164th in consensus average draft position, which is a fair balance of his potential with the uncertainty that comes along with his position battle. But if it appears that Tucker may win the right field job, that ADP is going to rise by a good 50 spots.

Cardinals’ Fifth Starter

Contenders: Carlos Martinez, Kwang-Hyun Kim, Alex Reyes

This one is a little dicey because Miles Mikolas will likely be out for the first month or so with a forearm injury, which opens up a second spot in the rotation. The hit to the Cardinals’ starting pitching depth essentially assures Martinez of a rotation, rather than a bullpen, spot, so long as his shoulder can hold up. Whether it can is a question that can’t be answered yet. But for now, draft Martinez as a starter.

As for the spot opened up by Mikolas’ injury, the most likely taker is Kim, a 31-year-old starter who was signed from the Korean Baseball Organization. Kim’s overall arsenal, other than an outstanding slider, is mediocre, and he’s unlikely to make a fantasy impact regardless of how long he can hold down a starter’s role.

Reyes is the long-shot of the group, as Mike Shildt has essentially said he wants him to pitch out of the bullpen this year after several injury-plagued seasons. But Reyes made nine starts last year and has a starting pitcher’s arsenal with multiple plus pitches. With the Cardinals having a fairly deep bullpen, Shildt could change course if Reyes has a strong spring.

In the end, fantasy owners should ignore Kim, be rooting for Martinez to remain healthy enough to carry a starter’s workload, and draft Reyes at the end of their drafts. Because even if Reyes or Martinez doesn’t win a spot in the starting rotation, they could be a candidate to be the . . .

Cardinals’ Closer

Contenders: Giovanny Gallegos, Andrew Miller, John Brebbia, Carlos Martinez, Alex Reyes

Well, this one is a humdinger. To be sure, the battle may be over before it started. If Martinez’s shoulder cannot hold up to a starter’s workload, then he’s almost certainly going to be in the ninth inning role after he succeeded there last year in relief of Jordan Hicks.

If Martinez lands in the rotation, however, then all bets are off. Although there are four other candidates, it’s worth noting that Miller is the one least likely to win the closer’s job. He’s the primary lefty out of the St. Louis bullpen and he’s coming off two mediocre years. Although he’ll likely pilfer a few save chances when there are multiple lefties due up in the ninth inning as he did last year, he’s almost certainly not going to be the main option.

Brebbia, Gallegos, and Reyes, however, are all in the mix. Brebbia’s fastball misses bats at an elite rate for the pitch (12.9% swinging-strike rate), and has good enough control to succeed in the role. Reyes has a varied pitch arsenal, as discussed, and can be a dominant reliever if healthy. And Gallegos, boosted by an elite slider, had a 2.31 ERA and 0.81 WHIP last season.

Fantasy owners should be rooting for Gallegos to win the role, as his strong strikeout and walk rates are the hallmarks of a dominant closer. And although Shildt generally shied away from him last season when Martinez was unavailable, it’s worth noting that Gallegos notched the save over the weekend against the Nationals. With an ADP of just 202, Gallegos represents a bargain, as he should help fantasy owners’ ratios regardless of if he wins the role. But drafting Martinez and Reyes wouldn’t hurt either.

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Dan Harris is the Editor-in-Chief of FantasyPros. For more from Dan, check out his archive or follow him on Twitter @danharris80

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