Do the Risks Outweigh the Rewards for Lester?
Coming off arguably the best year of his career, Jon Lester has already been tabbed the Cubs' opening day starter for 2017. At 33 years old, however, does his 3rd round ADP correctly reflect what we can expect from him this season? There's certainly lots of question marks surrounding him entering the year. His career high 85% strand rate from 2016 was a big reason for his 2.44 ERA, and while he has consistently sat around a 25% strikeout rate in recent years, he's going to need to get comfortable throwing to a new target this year. David Ross was his personal catcher the last two seasons, but with Rossy's retirement, Willson Contreras is the most likely candidate to catch him. Lester has been caught by other battery-mate's before, so that narrative seems to be getting a little overblown this off-season, but for a player with as many psyche issues as Lester, any change is concerning. Lester still has the skillset to be a very talented pitcher. He hasn't lost any velocity, his swinging strike rate remains strong, and his chase rate hasn't changed significantly. Last year's stats say he's worth a 3rd round pick, but is he really worth all the unknown risk?
The Rich Get Richer
Even after stocking their major league roster with mostly homegrown talent and trading away their top-rated prospect for an Aroldis Chapman rental, the Cubs continue to have a knack for developing youngsters. This spring, those two players are Ian Happ and Eloy Jimenez. While neither player will make the team out of camp, both have raised eyebrows this spring. Jimenez is rated a little more highly and has even drawn comparisons to Miguel Cabrera or Edgar Martinez from his own major league manager, but he's just 20 years old and is likely ticketed for high-A to begin the year. His 6'4'' frame lends nicely to the power upside he showed the last few weeks, but after injuring his shoulder earlier this week, he was re-assigned to minors camp on Friday and will be shutdown from baseball activity for at least a couple of weeks. Happ, on the other hand, has also had a great spring and actually stands a chance at making the big league roster at some point this year. The outfielder-turned-second baseman is slashing .417/.462/.777, but thanks to an already loaded Cubs lineup, it's going to take an injury for Happ to get the call. Once he does, however, he should be able to fill in at second base or at all three outfield positions. Happ has shown 20/20 ability in the minors and while he has shown a little inconsistency with contact at times, he should still be an above average batting average hitter. He need to continue developing his defense at second base, but the bat is major league ready.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS:
The Battle for Second May Get More Crowded:
Kansas City is already auditioning four different players for their starting second baseman position this spring, and it may be getting even more crowded. Alcides Escobar, Cheslor Cuthbert, Christian Colon and Raul Mondesi are all in the mix, but if the team goes solely off spring performance, Mondesi likely has the lead. Mondesi is slashing .433/.452/.700 over 30 at-bats this spring, but unfortunately, both Christian Colon and Cheslor Cuthbert are likely ahead of Mondesi when you consider the business side, since both players are out of options and would need to be placed on waivers if they do not make the 25-man roster out of camp. To complicate matters, recently released second baseman Brett Lawrie is rumored to be linked to Kansas City. Lawrie has had a checkered past with the Royals the last couple of seasons (illegal slide injuring Escobar), but from a pure talent perspective, he likely would have the leg up for the starting job, if he was acquired. The ballpark would be a negative shift for him and many of his underlying indicator stats are all showing red flags, but he's still just 27 years old. The chase rate and swinging strike rates have jumped up over the last couple of seasons and unfortunately, that has also caused the contact rate to dip all the way down to a poor 72%. With just league average hard hit rate and a low contact rate, there's lots of downside risk here.
Forever a Prospect, But When Will He Contribute?
Bubba Starling was supposed to be the next big thing for the Kansas City Royals. He was supposed to be part of the young Hosmer/Moose core that would carry the team to multiple pennants and hopefully multiple championships. Thanks to a combination of slower than expected development and injuries, his major league debut continues to be delayed. Late last week, that trend continued when he was reassigned to minor league camp. Since joining the Royals organization six years ago, Starling has shown brief flashes of promise, but has always managed to sizzle out before he's been able to sustain that level of play. Twice he has undergone LASIK eye procedures or adjustments, the most recent one coming within the last week. Whether or not seeing the ball was the true issue behind his 36% strikeout rate and abysmal .181/.213/.265 slash line from a season ago is unclear, but it certainly didn't help. Starling had played well this spring, getting 6 hits in 20 at-bats. So why are we writing about a struggling minor leaguer in the midst of the 2017 fantasy baseball draft season? Well, the fact is that Lorenzo Cain's contract is up after this season and it's unlikely the team will be able to re-sign him. That means there will be an opening in centerfield, likely at some point mid-year, if the team tries to flip Cain before the trade deadline. Starling's defense and speed component already translate to the big leagues, but it's the hit tool that continues to lag. Still, he's the most logical in-house replacement and if he can manage to continue in Triple-A what he started this spring, he would be a mid-to-late season option in fantasy leagues as a source of inexpensive speed.
SAN DIEGO PADRES:
Battling for Second...or Third
When incumbent Corey Spangenberg went down with an injury last season, Ryan Schimpf made the most of his opportunity by hitting 20 homeruns in just 330 plate appearance while also scoring 48 runs and driving home 51. Now that Spangenberg in healthy, the duo is locked in a position battle this spring. The battle, however, has turned into a contest to see who can lose the job, with each player struggling thus far. Manager Andy Green has hinted that he may actually move Yangervis Solarte from third base to second base and have the two second baseman battle for the hot corner, a place he thinks both players play a little better. Spangenberg is hitting just .241 this spring (7-for-29), while Schimpf has just 2 hits in 11 plate appearances. From a fantasy perspective, either player could have value, although the extra power that Schimpf provides from the middle infield spot in nice to have. Schimpf's 40% hard hit rate is the driver behind his 18% HR/FB rate, although that latter number will likely regress back a few percentage points this year. Schmipf is an extreme fly ball hitter, which isn't the best profile to have while playing in the roomy Petco Park. His low contact rate also won't do his batting average any favors. Spangenberg has 20 stolen base upside, but he doesn't have much of an eye at the plate, so the on-base percentage skills are below average. Since both players bat left-handed, the traditional platoon would normally be ruled out, however, Spangenberg has actually shown strong reverse splits through his limited career, making it reasonable he could see a little extra time against southpaws, while Schmipf faces more righties. In deeper formats, you're going to need to roster one. I'd prefer Schimpf, but there's still a path for Spangenberg to get a substaintial role.
Is Solarte "Good Enough"?
As we mentioned above, Yangervis Solarte will see more at-bats this year and at the moment, he and Wil Myers are about the only two sure things that we know about the Padres lineup. Solarte hit 15 home runs in 2016, one more than the season before despite playing in 43 fewer games. The driver seems to be the combination of a few smalls tweaks - lower GB/FB ratio (1.2 to 1.1), higher hard hit% (31% to 33%), and a heavy pull % (49%). Assuming he stays healthy, he should have no issue exceeding 500 at-bats this year and should continue to post modest gains in the power department to go along with his already strong 84% contact rate. He'll help you in batting average, won't let you fall behind in home runs, but there's little to no speed and the Padres lineup is so desolate that runs and RBIs will likely he hard to find. Solarte is a fine middle-infield option, but I wouldn't count on him as a starter for my fantasy team at 2nd base or 3rd base.
Around The League:
Pablo Sandoval (3B) - The Panda had a nice day at the plate on Saturday, hitting 2 home runs in the Red Sox spring training game. Sandoval has been torrid all month and his now hitting .333 with 3 home runs and 11 RBI. He remains penciled in as Boston's starting 3rd baseman and will hold nice sleeper value given the strength of the lineup around him. Thanks to his below average hard hit rate along with a tough home park, Sandoval was never a huge source of power. Nonetheless, he rarely strikes out and his career 83% contact rate helps to keep his average high. It may be worth a late round flier on him, once again.
Tyler Saladino (CWS) - The biggest immediate beneficiary to the releasing of Brett Lawrie is certainly Tyler Saladino. The super-utility man is slated to be the White Sox opening day second baseman and will likely keep the seat warm until uber prospect Yoan Moncada is ready to contribute. Saladino has hit really well in spring training, slashing .406/.472/.813 with 3 HR, 8 RBI and 6 runs scored. A below average hard hit rate and really high 51% GB rate makes it difficult for me to buy into the home run totals, but with a 84% contact rate, he should help in batting average. He's a draftable option, for depth only, thanks to his multiple position elibility.
JD Martinez (DET) - The preseason injury bug bit JD Martinez over the weekend. Martinez injured his right foot while trying to make a catch on Saturday and was seen walking with crutches after the game. Per Anthony Fenech on Twitter, Martinez went underwent an MRI on Sunday to learn more about the injury. The initial diagnosis was a mid-foot sprain, but obviously this situation looks like one that may cause Martinez to miss time, potentially into the regular season. Martinez current has an ADP at the end of the 3rd round.
Zack Greinke (AZ) - Greinke drew the start for the Diamondbacks against the Netherlands on Saturday and tossed 5 innings while allowing 6 hits and 1 run while also striking out 2. Greinke's velocity has been a storyline all spring, with his first two starts hovering around 89-90 MPH, so it was nice to see his fastball velocity jump back up to 91 MPH. Nonetheless, that's still 1-2MPH below where he has been throughout his career. Thankfully, he still relies on his slider and curveball as his out pitches, so he's going to be a little more immune to the fastball velocity fluctuations than power pitchers, but he's still going to need to induce more groundballs if he's going to stay out of trouble in Chase Field.
Scott Schebler (CIN) - Schebler had a nice day at the plate on Sunday going 2-for-3 with 3 RBI and 2 runs scored. Schebler has shown 30 homerun power in the minor leagues and he's heading for one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in the MLB. In a small sample last year, Schebler posted a respectable 33% hard hit rate. He needs to continue to improve his approach at the plate and a shift towards hitting more flyballs than groundballs would also be a plus. If he finds a way to lower his 1.81 GB/FB rate, he would have a pretty good shot as 25-30 homeruns in 2017 givne his batted ball speed.
Jon Gray (COL) - Jon Gray was in mid-season form on Sunday when he went 5 innings while allowing just 2 hits, 1 run, 1 walk and striking out 7. There's a lot to be excited about this year with the Rockies pitcher. Gray saw growth in his swinging strike rate from 2015 to 2016 (2% improvement) and his contact rate fell from 78% to 75%. His 42% groundball rate is nice to see, but ideally that number would be even higher for a pitcher in Colorado. Thankfully, he relies heavily on his dominant 95 MPH fastball, something that isn't nearly as impacted by the light mountain air as breaking balls would. Look for Gray to be a breakout star this year.
Carlos Rodon (CWS) - Carlos Rodon made his spring training debut on Sunday by throwing 4 scoreless innings and striking out 5. And with that, all the concerns we had around Rodon have dissipated. Rodon was battling arm fatigue at the end of last season, so the team wanted to bring him along slowly this spring. It's safe to say Rodon responded well. He's primed for a break-out in 2017 as he continues his strong strikeout numbers (10.1% SwStr%) and continues to work on the command of his fastball to pair with his already unhittable slider.
Tony Watson (PIT) - Tony Watson's nightmarish spring continued on Sunday when he allowed a whopping 5 earned runs on 3 hits and 2 walks. Pittsburgh maintains their commitment to Watson in the closing role, but the fact remains that Daniel Hudson has the best arm in the Pirates bullpen right now and I feel like it's only a matter of time before he gets save chances. At this point in the spring, Hudson is easily lining up as my favorite handcuff for both his own skillset and his own opportunity.
Mitch Moreland (BOS) - Boston's new first baseman went 3-for-3 on Sunday and now has 12 hits with 12 RBI and a home run through 32 at-bats. He's currently slashing .375/.432/.563 and has easily locked up a job on opening day. Hitting anywhere in the Red Sox lineup generates enough value for mixed league consideration, but what type of player in Mitch Moreland now? Moreland's high hard hit percentage has always boosted his HR/FB rate and a regular gig should boost those counting stats even more. He's going to hit near the bottom of the lineup, but you can do worse with a late round dart with one of your final picks.
Lance Lynn (STL) - The injury to Alex Reyes all but guaranteed Lance Lynn with a rotation spot, but now he's also pitching like he deserves it. Lynn threw 5 shutout innings while allowing just one walk and striking out 3. Lynn is recovering from Tommy John Surgery last season and he'll slot in the #4 or #5 spot for St. Louis. Lynn has never been an overpowering pitcher and for the most part, he relies on his defense behind him to bail him out. For fantasy purposes, he's a fine innings eater, but without elite strikeout numbers, he just blends in as just "one of the guys".