With the major league season still a couple of months away in a best-case scenario, I thought it seemed like a good idea to jot down some of my spring thoughts before they escaped my memory. And then I thought maybe others might like to read about those thoughts, too. So, let’s bust out some team-by-team notes; I’ll go division by division over the next couple of weeks, starting with the NL East today.
- Dansby Swanson busted out in the first half of last year, only to suffer quad and foot injuries in July and limp home afterwards; he had 17 homers in 380 plate appearances in the first half and none in 165 plate appearances afterwards. I expect that the breakout will stick this time around; he’s getting stronger, he’s hitting more flyballs and he doesn’t strike out as often as his subpar batting averages might suggest. Still, I was more excited about him for fantasy purposes before the Marcell Ozuna signing settled the top half of the Braves order; I envisioned Swanson emerging as a cleanup man or perhaps a No. 2 hitter, with Ozzie Albies sliding down to fourth. Now Swanson would seem to be locked into the bottom half of the order unless someone gets hurt. Maybe things work out in the end anyway, but batting sixth or seventh in between Travis d’Arnaud and Ender Inciarte just isn’t a great situation.
- While the Braves were penciling in Johan Camargo at third base, Austin Riley got off to a really nice start this spring, going 10-for-28 with two homers and a 5/4 K/BB ratio. That MLB will expand rosters in the early going should ensure that Riley will avoid an expected Triple-A demotion. Still, there will be less time for him to overtake Camargo than there would have been during in a six-month season. He’s certainly the more interesting of the two for fantasy purposes.
- As a result of Cole Hamels’ shoulder issue, it was likely that both Felix Hernandez and Sean Newcomb would begin the year in the Braves’ rotation, though that’s no longer the case with Hamels expected to be healthy by the time play begins. I’m rather fond of Newcomb as a mixed-league sleeper after he dragged down his walk rate in relief last season, but the Braves seemed eager to give Hernandez an opportunity after the fine start to his spring. I’ll be quite disappointed if Newcomb gets shoved back into the pen, especially since he wouldn’t be in line for key innings following the Will Smith signing.
- Manager Don Mattingly handed Brandon Kintzler the closer’s role at the beginning of the spring, but a rejuvenated Brad Boxberger might be the better choice for the Marlins, especially since Kintzler’s groundball ability makes him best suited for coming on with men on base. Of course, I’d take Yimi Garcia and Ryne Stanek over both, but Mattingly wants to start off with someone who has done it before. I don’t think anyone in the group is currently worthy of a pick in shallow mixed leagues, but Boxberger is definitely one to keep an eye on.
- Mattingly also anointed Jonathan Villar as his center fielder before games started, which combined with Lewis Brinson’s exceptional early showing and the commitment to give Matt Joyce considerable time in right field has made things rather awkward. It’s hard to take Brinson’s strong start seriously given that he hit a bunch of homers last spring and then did nothing at all once the season started, but the Marlins were raving about his improvement. Garrett Cooper probably deserves as much time in right field as his body can handle, so it’d make sense to play Brinson in center if he’s going to play at all. As awful as Isan Diaz looked in the majors last year, it seems quite likely that the Marlins’ best lineup includes Villar at second base.
- Jon Berti is a popular late-round pick after swiping 17 bases in just a half-season of play last year. It’s understandable; there just aren’t many guys out there with 30-steal potential (20-steal potential in a shortened season) and Berti is one of them. Still, while Berti was a really nice surprise in the majors last year, hitting .273/.348/.406 in 287 PA, it’s worth keeping in mind his rather awful track record offensively; he’s a lifetime .222/.309/.327 hitter in 585 plate appearances in Triple-A. He was also 4-for-29 with a 10/1 K/BB ratio to begin the spring. I see the fantasy upside, but my guess is that he struggles.
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- The stunning announcement that Noah Syndergaard would undergo Tommy John surgery ended the Mets’ rotation competition between Steven Matz and Michael Wacha. Unfortunately, it didn’t make it any more likely that Seth Lugo would get a spot, though the shorter season would make Lugo that much more interesting as a starter. I truly believe Lugo would be a top-30 fantasy starter when healthy, if given the chance, and his elbow would have a better chance of holding up for three or four months than six or seven. Alas, it probably isn’t meant to be. I don’t think Wacha will have any mixed league value. Matz might, but he’s more of a streaming option than someone worth drafting.
- No one seemed to be taking Yoenis Cespedes’s comeback very seriously, partly because of the severity of the injuries he’s trying to overcome and partly because of how well J.D. Davis and Dominic Smith performed last year. Still, Cespedes seemed on track for an April return before the shutdown, and it’s hard to believe the Mets will just glue him to the bench if he shows he’s healthy. Davis was terrific offensively last year, but much of that was fueled by an unreasonably high .355 BABIP and he’s simply not any good defensively. The projection systems call for him to lose about 40 points off last year’s .307 average, and if that happens, he’s probably a below average regular. I like him better than that -- I have him projected for an .825 OPS -- but I don’t really trust him as anything more than a late-round pick, not with Cespedes very much in the picture.
- I’m not quite as high on Edwin Diaz as I was over the winter, though that’s less because of anything he’s done wrong and more because manager Luis Rojas doesn’t seem as interested in committing to him as I assume Carlos Beltran would have been. I was bullish enough on Diaz’s chances for a bounce-back season to rate him as my No. 3 reliever initially. I still think he’ll end up being really good, but the added uncertainty has him down to sixth now.
- A platoon of the left-handed hitting Adam Haseley and switch-hitter Roman Quinn was the expected scenario for the Phillies in center field this year, but Quinn was making a bid to win the job outright while hitting .262/.393/.609 in 23 at-bats. Haseley, meanwhile, was at .143/.217/.190 with nine strikeouts in his 21 at-bats. Those stats don’t mean much of anything, but it is possible Quinn would be the better option while healthy. He’s definitely more interesting in fantasy leagues, given that he’s 23-for-28 stealing bases in 109 games as a major leaguer. It’ll be a situation worth watching when spring training resumes; there’s little chance of Quinn providing three or four months of fantasy value, but he could be a nice source of steals in the early going.
- What doesn’t help Quinn is that Andrew McCutchen (knee) now figures to be back for the entire season. The Phillies were planning on using Jay Bruce in left as McCutchen completed his recovery from a torn ACL. It could also hurt Scott Kingery, one of my favorite picks this year. Kingery had a better chance of hitting first or second in the order while McCutchen was out.
- It seemed either Vince Velasquez or Nick Pivetta would get one last chance in the Philadelphia rotation to begin the year, but Ranger Suarez, who spent most of last year in the Phillies pen, was making a surprising case to overtake them both. Suarez, a 24-year-old lefty, was a very successful minor league starter, but he never got much prospect hype because of his subpar fastball. He managed to avoid walks as a reliever despite using his slider and changeup half of the time, and while I doubt he has a ton of upside as a starter, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him outperform Velasquez and Pivetta. Of course, he might just be holding a seat warm for top prospect Spencer Howard anyway.
- After giving a lot of thought to sliding Trea Turner down two spots or moving Juan Soto up, Nationals manager Dave Martinez said he’ll just have Starlin Castro replace Anthony Rendon as his No. 3 hitter. That’ll work out fine on the off chance that Castro keeps hitting like he did in the second half of last season, but Castro is generally a league-average hitter. He was actually one of the game’s worst players for three months last year; through 72 games, he actually had more GIDPs (14) than extra-base hits (12). He was also 1-for-24 to begin the spring, not that it really counts for anything. It all makes Castro an interesting MI option in mixed leagues; if he hits at his projections, he really should be batting seventh and he could quickly be rendered worthless. However, if he hits just a little better than usual and he gets to hold on to the third spot, he could rack up the RBI and runs scored and provide significant value. Since he’s lasting pretty late in drafts, he’s worth a try.
- I worry about the rest of the options in the Nationals’ crowded infield. There’s no doubt Castro is going to be in there every day early on, leaving just two lineup spots for Carter Kieboom, Howie Kendrick, Eric Thames, Ryan Zimmerman and Asdrubal Cabrera. There would be enough at-bats for the rest if Kieboom is sent down, but it’s going to be really tough keeping the veterans sharp if Kieboom is installed at third base. No, Kendrick can’t play every day at this point of his career, but he’d also seem to be way too good to limit to one or two starts per week, and I don’t see why they would have signed Thames unless they intended to start him against righties. No one in the group comes recommended right now.
- Joe Ross appears to be in line to claim the fifth spot in the rotation over Austin Voth. Voth might have the greater upside of the two at this point, but I still like Ross’s chances of being a solid starter. His fastball appears to be all of the way back following Tommy John surgery. He’s 21-17 with a 3.91 ERA and a 274/95 K/BB ratio over 313 innings in his 57 career starts, and his worst stretch in that span came when his velocity was down nearly two mph in 2017. He should be a streaming option.