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Spring Training Position Battles: American League (2023 Fantasy Baseball)

Mar 11, 2023
Kendall Graveman

Spring training is in full gear and the battles are aplenty. Veterans and youngsters alike are competing for roles on their club’s depth charts and there are certainly some good ones that will come down to the wire.

Let’s go ahead and check out some of the depth chart battles going on in the American League.

Depth Chart Battles: American League

Tampa Bay Rays: Catcher

Candidates: Francisco Mejia, Christian Bethancourt

Odds are the Rays will go with a timeshare behind the plate in an effort to keep both backstops fresh, however, don’t rule Bethancourt out of winning the lion’s share of reps.

It’s been a whirlwind of a professional baseball career for the 31-year-old Bethancourt, who has played all over the world, but his return to the big leagues was a productive one in 2022. Between the Oakland A’s and Rays, Bethancourt hit .252 with 11 home runs, five stolen bases, and a 101 wRC+ across 101 games played. For starters, those figures blow by career norms, as his previous career high in wRC+ was 68 from the 2016 season.

The metrics also back up his work. Bethancourt’s 11.7% barrel rate nearly doubled the 6.7% league average while his 44.8% hard-hit rate clobbered that of the 35.8% MLB average. His xwOBACON of .404 also destroyed that of the .368 MLB average given all of the hard contact. Heck, he even ranked in the league’s 71st percentile in sprint speed, which is certainly impressive for a catcher in his age-30 season.

For good measure, Bethancourt’s pop time ranked in the league’s 96th percentile.

While younger at 27 years of age, Mejia hit just six homers in 93 games while his 85 wRC+ fell 15% below league average. He also produced a .262 xwOBA that left plenty to be desired and fell well below the .315 MLB average. Mejia also produced a minuscule 2.7% barrel rate and an ugly 28% hard-hit rate. His bat was simply well inferior to that of his counterpart in this battle.

While Bethancourt walked in just 3.6% of his plate appearances, he still bested Mejia’s 2.3% mark. Of the 317 players with at least 250 plate appearances last season, Mejia’s 2.3% BB% ranked 314th.

I’d suggest Bethancourt becomes the 1A option behind the plate for the Rays in 2023 and could be a big addition to fantasy managers in two-catcher leagues.

New York Yankees: Fifth Starter

Candidates: Domingo German, Clarke Schmidt

There’s no doubt the top three in the Yankees’ rotation goes as Gerrit Cole, Carlos Rodon, and Luis Severino. Nestor Cortes is technically the club’s fourth starter, but he’s currently nursing a hamstring injury and will start the team’s fifth game of the season.

In any regard, there’s a clear battle going on for the team’s fifth starter role between Domingo German and Clarke Schmidt.

For German, he returned from a domestic violence suspension to toss a 3.61 ERA/4.44 FIP across 15 appearances (14 starts) and 72 1/2 innings in 2022. The right-hander didn’t pitch in the 2020 season but accumulated a 4.25 ERA across 49 appearances (42 starts) and 241 1/3 innings across the 2019 and 2021 seasons before his suspension.

All told, the 30-year-old owns a career 4.37 ERA across 413 2/3 innings with 70 of his 92 big-league appearances coming as a starter.

As for the 27-year-old Schmidt, his work as a starter in the big leagues has been limited to five outings. However, he turned in an excellent 3.12 ERA across 29 appearances (three starts) and 57 2/3 innings for the Yankees last season. The right-hander also produced a solid 3.27 ERA across eight starts at the Triple-A level in 2022.

Schmidt owns a tough 4.95 ERA in his five career starts, but the Yankees invested a 2017 first-round pick into the South Carolina product. I’d be surprised if they settled to use him as a long reliever entering a crucial age-27 season.

This seems like one that will come down to the wire.

Minnesota Twins: Closer

Candidates: Jorge Lopez, Jhoan Duran

Jorge Lopez closed out 23 games between the Orioles and Twins last season alongside a 2.54 ERA. Clearly, the converted starter who tossed an ERA of at least 6.07 in each of his previous three seasons has found his role and flourished out of the gate.

Both Steamer and ATC project Lopez as the top closing option in Minnesota, but both are also bearish on his work from last season. After all, his 3.42 FIP was nearly a run higher than his ERA and both projection systems have his ERA increasing by more than a run in 2023.

He did produce excellent metrics, however, ranking in the league’s 88th percentile in barrel rate and 77th in average exit velocity, both of which help explain major decreases in home-run rate (0.51 HR/9) and HR/FB% (8.8%). Both are shades of career norms.

Despite the career year in 2022, the young, right-handed phenom called Jhoan Duran lingers right behind him, if not beside or ahead of him in this battle.

Duran, the owner of baseball’s hardest fastball last season at an average of 100.9 MPH, burst onto the scene with a 1.86 ERA/2.52 FIP and 27.4% K-BB%, both of which blow Lopez out of the water. Duran locked down eight saves in his rookie season while his metrics were among the best in the sport.

The 25-year-old ranked in the league’s 98th percentile in xwOBA, 94th in xBA, 98th in xSLG, 90th in barrel rate, 96th in K%, 88th in BB%, 94th in whiff%, and 98th in chase rate. That’s… solid.

In this day and age, sometimes a club’s best reliever faces the toughest matchups regardless of the inning late in a game. However, it’s going to be tough for Lopez to hold onto the closer role if projections hold up. The share of saves could be closer than some think, as ATC has Lopez with 17 and Duran with 14.

We’ll see how it turns out, but I’m drafting the fire-balling Duran over Lopez all day long for 2023.

Chicago White Sox: Closer

Candidates: Kendall Graveman, Aaron Bummer, Reynaldo Lopez

This battle could extend beyond these candidates, as Jake Diekman, Joe Kelly, and even Garrett Crochet could see save opportunities with Liam Hendriks sidelined with an unfortunate lymphoma diagnosis.

Graveman appears to be the front-runner after saving six games when Hendriks was unavailable last season while he also saved 10 contests between the Mariners and Astros in 2021. Another converted starter, Graveman owns a 2.53 ERA over the last two seasons since being converted to a full-time reliever.

Lopez is also a converted starter who dominated in his first full season as a reliever, turning in a 2.76 ERA and 20.5% K-BB% across 61 appearances, all but one of which was a start. Amazingly, a pitcher sporting a career 1.33 HR/9 allowed just one home run across 65 1/3 innings in 2022. Lowering your barrel rate to just 5% helps, although a fly-ball rate of nearly 40% and a 38.5% hard-hit rate combine to show some luck when it came to the lack of long balls.

Without a save in his career, Lopez is likely behind Graveman on the depth chart, but it’s all about performance at the end of the day.

Bummer has been wildly consistent over the last four seasons for the White Sox. The right-hander worked to a 2.59 ERA from 2019-2022 while limiting home runs to just 0.51 HR/9. While he owns a quality 27.2% K% in that time, Bummer’s 71.7% ground-ball rate over the last four seasons is the highest mark in baseball. The plethora of ground balls and strikeouts obviously combine to keep the ball in the yard.

He appears to be an excellent closing type. It can usually take just a solo home run in the ninth to tie a game, and I want my closer either striking someone out or keeping the ball on the ground. Bummer does the latter better than anyone in baseball.

All told, Graveman likely has the upper hand, but don’t be surprised to see a battle open up if he’s not spot-on this spring.

Seattle Mariners: Closer

Candidates: Paul Sewald, Andres Munoz, Diego Castillo

Another roster battle in the junior circuit resides in Seattle, as the Mariners have three choices from the back end of their bullpen.

Sewald got the bulk of the saves in Seattle last season, as he racked up 20 saves in 2022 and 31 over the last two seasons. The 32-year-old righty posted a 2.67 ERA and 22.7% K-BB% in 2022, and despite an increased 3.06 ERA in 2021, he posted a 30.3% K-BB% that season.

One issue with Sewald is the gopher ball. He owns a career 1.30 HR/9 and has figures of at least 1.39 in each of the last two seasons. Among the 18 relievers with at least 31 saves over the last two seasons, only Ian Kennedy and Will Smith sport higher home-run rates than Sewald in that time.

At the same time, Andres Munoz was flat-out nasty in 2022, posting a 2.49 ERA/2.04 FIP alongside an elite 32.7% K-BB% that ranked second in baseball only to Edwin Diaz‘s 42.6% clip. He made 64 appearances for the M’s and did all of this at just 23 years of age.

In fact, Munoz made his MLB debut in 2019 at just 20. He posted a 3.91 ERA/3.17 FIP and 19.6% K-BB% that season across 22 outings, so it was apparent from the get-go that we had a budding star on our hands. He had off-season foot surgery, but all reports suggest he should be ready for Opening Day.

Finally, a veteran with plenty of back-end experience is Castillo. The hard-throwing southpaw has locked down 35 saves in his career including seven from a season ago. His work did slip, however, as he posted a 3.64 ERA and a 14% K-BB% in 2022. For context, the 29-year-old worked to a 2.78 ERA and 24.9% K-BB% in the 2021 campaign.

Castillo has at least four saves in each of his last four seasons, but a down 2022 year likely puts him well behind Sewald and the youngster Munoz at the season’s outset.

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