- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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We've reached the end.
Don't fret, though -- we've merely reached the end of spring training. Now something even greater is here: baseball's Opening Day!
The statistics now count, and all that work you've done constructing your team is about to pay off. (I say, "about to pay off" because I prefer an optimistic angle.)
But before the season begins -- or, at least the season for 26 of the 30 big league teams -- let's take a look back at what transpired during spring training. What changed? Are there any nuggets, especially in the resolution of those position battles, which might help fantasy owners with either an upcoming draft or an add/drop deadline? Value is always changing.
The "watch list" update
First, let's take a quick-hitting look at how the eight players in my original "watch list" concluded their springs:
Jason Heyward, OF, Atlanta Braves: Here's as good an example as any of how spring statistics can be manipulated. Everyone talks about his .227 batting average, four walks and 22 strikeouts, but what if I told you this: He was a .143/.200/.179 hitter with a 33.3 percent K rate in his first nine Grapefruit League games, but a .277/.314/.553 hitter with a 23.5 percent K rate in his last 15? Ultimately, Heyward's swing looks improved, as the homer total demonstrates his ability to hit for power, and he's showing an ability to drive the ball to all fields, something that wasn't as easy for him during his down 2011. There isn't enough here to say Heyward will have a massive breakout season, but expecting a return to his 2010 performance level is reasonable.
Adam Wainwright, SP, St. Louis Cardinals: The 1.45 spring ERA in five starts will grab you, but I maintain that Wainwright has yet to show the kind of command, especially of his curveball, that earned him a third-place finish in the 2009 National League Cy Young balloting, and second place in the 2010 race. Just listen to his own assessment of his final spring tune-up, per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "It was very vanilla, very bland. My breaking balls weren't sharp. My fastballs weren't located. That is not a good combination."
Sure, Wainwright is holding himself to a high standard, and he should. But I look at his six K's compared to four walks in his past 13⅔ spring innings and say he's not quite where he was pre-surgery. His spring says he'll get there with time, but I remain firm in my assessment of the right-hander at the start of camp.
Tommy Hanson, SP, Atlanta Braves: That he's healthy enough to pitch this spring is a plus in itself, but that 4.15 K's-per-nine ratio in his three exhibition starts -- small sample, yes, but still troubling -- hardly looks like vintage Hanson. The more I watch him pitch the more his delivery bothers me, and it puts him near or at the top of the boom-or-bust player list. Think of him as a "Josh Johnson 2011," but for 2012.
Jesus Montero, DH, Seattle Mariners: The question in my initial column wasn't about Montero's health or performance at the plate, it was about his position, and in both of the Mariners' regular-season games in Japan, he was their designated hitter. Yes, in 17 total games this spring -- Cactus League, exhibition games in Japan and those regular-season games in Japan -- Montero caught nine, but only once did he catch on back-to-back days: March 9-10. That the Mariners will begin the season with three catchers on their roster, starter Miguel Olivo and backup John Jaso the others, signals that Montero should at least get a backup's amount of time behind the plate. So if you're guessing, if one out of every four Mariners games is a Montero catching game, then he'd qualify at catcher in ESPN leagues on May 17. (He needs 10 games to qualify at catcher.)
Zach Britton, SP, Baltimore Orioles: His spring has been a total loss, as Britton suffered another setback with his shoulder shortly after my initial list was published. He visited Dr. James Andrews in mid-March and received two rounds of platelet-rich plasma therapy, and was placed on the 15-day disabled list. At best, maybe he'd factor into the season's second half.
Brian Matusz, SP, Baltimore Orioles: Matusz was a subject of our recent "30 Questions" series, and the only update to his spring performance thus far was that he limited the Detroit Tigers to three runs on five hits in five innings, striking out four compared to one walk on March 30, his final Grapefruit League start. Thanks to a 22-K, 3-walk spring, he grabbed the fifth-starter job for the Orioles, putting himself on the radar as an AL-only sleeper and a pitcher to watch closely even in shallow mixed leagues.
Justin Morneau, 1B, Minnesota Twins: Like Heyward, Morneau's has been a tale of two springs, as he managed .091/.167/.091 triple-slash rates and a 19.4 percent K rate during his first 11 Grapefruit League contests, but .433/.452/.900 rates and a 9.7 percent K rate during his last nine. Unfortunately, I haven't seen much of that Morneau the past week, witnessing more of the terrible edition that toed the field the first three weeks of March. That said, there's a potential explanation for his struggles: Improvement in his wrist, which he had surgically repaired last September.
"I think earlier I was a little afraid to kind of let it go, and I've build that confidence in there that it's not going to go back to where it was before I had the surgery," he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Morneau will serve as the Twins' everyday designated hitter this season, a smart move by the team as it could keep him healthier for a lengthier period. He's as risky as they come, the prospect of another concussion perhaps threatening his career, but in his new role he's sneaking on the radar even in mixed formats.
Johan Santana, SP, New York Mets: Well, he looks healthy, at least. Though, unlike the aforementioned Hanson, Santana might actually stay healthy for an entire season -- or at least if I had to predict one of them to do so, it'd be Santana, not Hanson. Santana is coming off back-to-back strong spring outings versus the Cardinals, striking out 11 compared to three walks in 11 innings, and while his 200-plus-strikeout seasons are probably long behind him, he can certainly be of service in NL-only and deep mixed leagues. At the bare minimum he'd be a smart streaming-starts option in ESPN daily formats.
10 spring battle winners of note
While there were plenty more than 10 positions up for grabs this spring, these are 10 of the most relevant, highest-impact decisions in fantasy leagues. Here's a quick look at the winners of each, and the fantasy relevance for the players involved:
Boston Red Sox fourth and fifth starters and closer: To think, at the onset of spring training, the primary question for the Red Sox was whether converted reliever Daniel Bard would make a successful transition to the rotation, but at the end, the questions were not only about him, but who would join him in the starting five and who would stand in for injured closer Andrew Bailey. It took all spring, but we finally have our answers: Bard is the fifth starter, Felix Doubront is No. 4 and Alfredo Aceves, the loser in the rotation battle against those two, will occupy the ninth inning for the Red Sox come Opening Day. Bard and Aceves immediately stand out as winners; conversely, former Houston Astros finisher Mark Melancon is the clear loser in the closer race.
Bard might have endured his share of struggles this spring -- his ERA was 6.57 -- but in his defense, he was adapting to a completely different role, and did in brief spells flash the dominance he had as a short reliever. He's not a "start him" type option initially, but well worth stashing in an AL-only league. The rubber-armed Aceves, meanwhile, should be an instant pickup in all formats, his 2.62 ERA and 1.01 WHIP during his career as a reliever more than supporting his case to succeed in his new role. Sure, the Red Sox might need him to start -- or eat up multiple innings in middle relief -- in time, and for that reason Melancon warrants keeping on an AL-only bench. But Aceves is well worth adding and activating for now.
Toronto Blue Jays fifth starter: Though Joel Carreno's ascension to the Blue Jays' rotation this week might be the surprise of their spring, it's actually the other rotation-spot winner who should attract fantasy attention: Kyle Drabek will begin the year as their No. 5 starter. You might recall Drabek as "that awful rookie who ruined my AL-only team with a 6.06 ERA and 1.81 WHIP last season," but as Keith Law notes, the right-hander this spring revamped his delivery and has increased use of a two-seamer that should generate a healthy number of ground balls. Sure enough, Drabek finished the spring with a 3.72 ERA and 14 K's in 19⅓ innings, and while his margin for error is slim in the high-scoring American League East, he's well worth a speculative late-round pick in an AL-only league.
New York Yankees third, fourth and fifth starters: The story here is less about what Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia did this spring than what Michael Pineda did not do; Pineda couldn't get his fastball velocity up into the mid-90s range in which it resided during his hot first half of 2011, and after admitting to a shoulder injury during his final spring start, the right-hander was placed on the disabled list to begin the year. Hughes' performance, however, bears noting: He managed a 1.56 ERA and 4.0 K's-per-walk ratio in five spring appearances, looking closer to the top prospect he was a few short seasons ago than the disappointment he was in 2010-11. Give Hughes one more chance to prove himself; he still has the skills to be a solid No. 2-3 big league starter.
Detroit Tigers fifth starter: Rookie Drew Smyly emerged with this role after managing a healthy 4.00 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in his five spring appearances. If you're asking, "Who is Drew Smyly?" Here's your answer: He's a 22-year-old left-hander whom Keith Law ranks the No. 3 prospect in the Tigers' organization -- he didn't make Law's top 100 overall -- and who was 11-6 with a 2.07 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 9.29 K's-per-nine ratio in 22 games (21 starts) between Class A Lakeland and Double-A Erie last season. Smyly is a relative unknown, a rookie who might take time to adapt to the majors, but he's capable of striking hitters out and generating a healthy number of grounders. He might succeed enough that AL-only owners will find use for him, and those in daily leagues might want to consider him as a streaming option.
Cincinnati Reds fifth starter: Sometimes the best man doesn't win, which might well be the case in Cincinnati, where Homer Bailey, he of the 7.98 ERA and 1.84 WHIP during the Cactus League season, beat out Aroldis Chapman, who had 2.12/1.12 numbers, for this much-discussed role. From a roster-preservation perspective the decision makes sense; Bailey is out of options and would have had to been either demoted to the bullpen, where he has little experience as a pro, or exposed to waivers if removed from the roster. But it's a frustrating decision for fantasy owners, because it probably locks Chapman into a relief role for most, if not all, of 2012, he's hardly assured of overtaking Sean Marshall for the closer gig, and his WHIP tends to be too high for him to be of much help to your ratios in middle relief. Consider this the disappointing decision of the bunch.
Colorado Rockies third base: At times this spring, it appeared that veteran Casey Blake might be the Rockies' starting third baseman, then an early buzz hinted hotshot prospect Nolan Arenado might be a dark horse candidate for the gig. At spring's end, Blake has been released and Arenado returned to the minors leaving the position in the hands of a Chris Nelson-Jordan Pacheco platoon. Don't underestimate either player as an NL-only option, however, as Nelson could be a .275-hitting, 15/15 type if granted regular at-bats, while the lifetime .303 minor league hitter Pacheco might be a wise No. 2 catcher option in those leagues that use two catchers if he can sneak in enough time behind the plate to qualify there. These are the kinds of players valuable as back-of-your-roster plug-ins.
Atlanta Braves shortstop: This battle of rookies turned out to be a bust; favorite Tyler Pastornicky batted .221/.270/.250 in 68 spring at-bats, while upstart Andrelton Simmons managed .186/.271/.233 in 43 at-bats of his own. When everyone fails, go with the initial favorite, right? That's apparently the Braves' thinking, though having watched Simmons' brilliant defensive skills, it's fair to say that he might have won the job if he had any experience above Class A ball, wasn't just 22 years old or had at least performed equally well at the plate as Pastornicky. Pastornicky doesn't look ready to be anything more than a cheap source of steals in NL-only leagues, and Simmons might have done enough that if he gets off to a scorching start in Double-A Mississippi, he could get the call by midseason.
Cleveland Indians third base: This one is more about who didn't win the job than who did: The Indians returned Lonnie Chisenhall, the most attractive fantasy option of the primary contenders, to the minors last week, handing the role to veteran Jack Hannahan. Unfortunately, Hannahan's most valuable asset is his glove; he has 34 defensive runs saved as a third baseman since 2008. The reason that's "unfortunately": DRS isn't a category in the vast majority of fantasy leagues. (Yet?)
Kansas City Royals second base: Ditto Indians third base, as Johnny Giavotella was the unfortunate loser of this battle, earning himself a trip to the minors, as well. That elevates Chris Getz to starter status, making him the likely Opening Day starter for a third consecutive season, though in neither of the past two years was he much of a fantasy option. Getz's 36 steals combined from 2010-11, plus his prospects of regular at-bats at least initially, put him on the AL-only radar, but don't expect much. Giavotella might warrant a midseason call-up, just as he earned one a summer ago.
Tampa Bay Rays fifth starter: One of the Rays' strengths is their starting pitching depth; beyond just Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis, Alex Cobb is a pretty viable rotation contender in his own right, even though he scarcely got a look for this role this spring. The story here is Niemann ousting Davis, who heads to the bullpen, meaning those in AL-only and very deep mixed leagues should make that switch, as well. Niemann's 4.05 ERA and 1.43 WHIP in four starts this spring might not be eye-popping, but the takeaway from his camp was that he dabbled with a cutter, which might give him a chance to take a noticeable step forward in his fifth big league season.
Tristan H. Cockcroft updates his spring training watch players as well as looking at the winners and losers from key position battles.