Happy March 1st everyone! We're officially in the same month as opening day! Camps alll over Arizona and Florida are full of news and energy and we're here to help you parse through all of that newsflow to figure out what's important, what might be getting overlooked and what can be safely ignored (for now).
KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Lucas Duda Finds a Home in Kauffman
Still licking their wounds from the departure of cornerstone first baseman, Eric Hosmer, the Royals agreed to a one-year pact with formers Met, Lucas Duda. Once viewed as a top prospect, Duda split the 2017 season between Tampa Bay and New York, hitting 30 HRs, 64 RBI, 50 runs while slashing .217/.322/.496. Power has never been a question for Duda, but the hit tool as always lagged thanks to a high 47% career flyball rate and 24% strikeout rate. Citi Field, Tropicana, and now Kauffman are all pitcher friendly ballparks, meaning there's little hope for growth in the batting average this year. Health has always been a concern for him, but given the lack of options for Kansas City, he should find regular at-bats. On a positive note, he showed a rebound in his hard hit rate last season to 42%, a potential signal that he is once again healthy. A higher pull rate may help him eek out a few extra long balls, but you're going to have to ask yourself if the extra power in worth the hit to batting average. The exception, of course, is if your league tracks OBP instead of AVG. In those formats, Duda's 11.5% walk rate helps push him into definite consideration in 12 team mixed leagues.
Jorge Soler: The Sleeper of the Year?
Looking back at the 2016 off-season, the Cubs and Royals made a trade that sent Wade Davis to the Cubs in return for Jorge Soler. One all-star season later for Davis and an injury-filled season at Triple-A for Soler and the trade looks tremendously one-sided. Davis, however, has moved on to the Rockies and Jorge Soler finally looks healthy in Royals camp this spring. Soler worked hard this off-season by shaving off 19 pounds and changing his batting stance to move his hands closer to his body. The results earlier this week were impressive when he crushed two homeruns against the Mariners, including one that traveled an estimated 488 feet. The shift in the batting stance was largely driven by the need to get to the ball quicker, improving his overall bat speed. The hope, of course, will be that he can improve upon the 32% strikeout rate he posted last season and his 28% career mark. Like Duda, Soler has shown the ability to draw walks (9% career walk rate), but hitting the ball hard and drawing walks won't be enough to gurantee him regular at-bats. His 56% pull rate from last season will continue stunting growth in his batting average, particularly if he can't pair it with a growth in his hard hit rate back towards the levels he was at with the Cubs earlier in his career (upper 30's to low 40's).
Ian Happ Tearing the Cover Off the Ball
Over in Mesa, sophomore Ian Happ has come out of the gates swinging, hitting two homeruns in just seven at-bats. Like many Cubs, Happ doesn't have a concrete role on the team, which helps keep his eligibility in fantasy leagues high, but it always comes at the expense of regular at-bats. Nonetheless, in just 115 games last season, he showed impressive power potential by hitting 24 homeruns and 68 RBI, while also mixing in a handful of steals. He did slash .253/.328/.514 despite posting a 31% strikeout rate, but that was largely because he benefitting from a .316 BABIP. Given his high 45% pull rate and mediocre consistency at making hard contact (32.8%), it's doubtful he'll be able to sustain that BABIP moving forward, leaving his batting average at risk. Be wary of his rising ADP due to spring performance.
Kyle Schwarber: A Lean, Mean, Braceless Machine
Now nearly two years post knee ligament-reconstructive surgery, Kyle Schwarber has been cleared by doctors to ditch his knee brace while playing defense this season. Add that to the loss of twenty pounds this off-season and Schwarber has been the buzz of the preseason in Cubs camp. Schwarber is committed to improving his defense, a key element that prevents him from playing in key situations and the late innings of important games. Speaking to Cubs beat reporter, Carrie Muskrat, earleir this week, he said "It's funny, because you don't think it (knee brace) has a big effect on yourself when you put it on, but when you take it off, it really does feel different and makes you feel more mobile and less restricted. I want to go out there and make the plays I'm supposed to make. That's my thing right now. I'll keep working with these guys." A leaner Schwarber is certainly something fantasy owners can get excited about. Call it rustiness from missing all of the 2016 regular season or call it a sophomore slump, but 2017 was a brutal year for the outfielder. Through 129 games, Schwarber hit .211/.315/.467 with 30 home runs, 59 RBI and 67 runs scored and even saw an 11 game stint at Triple-A mid-season. Refreshing, however, was that his plate discipline actually showed growth compared to his rookie year (14% SwStr% improved to 12% and his zone contact rate improved from 75% to 81%). His 24% HR/FB rate is still relatively high given his 47% flyball rate and good-not-great 36% hard hit rate. Helping that number was a 45% pull rate and the friendly confines of Wrigley (18 homeruns at home compred with 12 on the road). The stars are aligning for a big bounceback season for Kyle Schwarber and the best news is that his price has been driven way down.
SAN DIEGO PADRES:
Dynasty League Watch List: Luis Urias
The San Diego Padres' farm system is oozing with talented players and MLB.com's 36th overall prospect, Luis Urias, is already impressiving at spring training. At just 20 years old, Urias has already played at 5 different levels in the minors in just 4 years. Last season in Double-A, Urias hit .296/.398/.380 with 20 doubles, 3 home runs, 38 RBI, 77 runs scored and 7 stolen bases. The game power is still developing, but his highest ceiling is actually in the hit tool. His mature approach at the plate (1.04 batting EYE) is a big reason why he projects as a .300 hitter at the major league level. At a time in the game where baseball is moving towards the three true outcomes (strikeout, home run, or walk), Urias projects to be an asset on fantasy teams in the batting average department. He'll probably need more seasoning in the minor leagues for most of the season, but he should impact the major league roster as early as 2019.
Change of Scenery Bounceback Candidate: Bryan Mitchell
After being used as a spot starter and a long reliever for the Yankees, an offseason trade to the Padres has opened up an opportunity for Bryan Mitchell to be used as a full-time starting pitcher. The 8-year veteran is out of options, so he'll likely be a lock to start the year in the Padres' rotation, something manager Andy Green confirmed at the beginning of camp. After consistently posting high strikeout rates in the minor league with his upper-nineties fastball devastating curveball, that same success hasn't yet translated to the major leagues. His velocities check every box you want to see with a +13 MPH differential between his fastball and curveball, but his 93% zone contact rate, 27% chase rate and 6% swinging strike rate tell me he's not fooling batters. He has done a very good job at limiting the damage done by all that contact (just a 23% hard hit rate and 54% groundball rate), which is why we remain optimistic, but unless he can start fooling batters, it'll tough to hold any fantasy value with his current strikeout numbers.
Around the League:
Marco Gonzales (SEA) - After being acquired from St. Louis in a mid-season trade, Marco Gonzales was throwing noticeably faster - 2 MPH to be exact. The change? Based on changes to his release point (BrooksBaseball) and good old fashioned game film, it seems the Mariners tweaked his arm slot and his mechanics to generate the improved effectiveness. The changes made a big difference and Gonzales posted an impressive 24% strikeout rate with a 6% walk rate and 2.60 FIP in September, compared with a 13% strikeout rate, 6% walk rate, and 6.70 FIP before September. By September, Gonzales was also routinely sitting between 92-93 MPH on his fastball compared with 90-91 MPH before his mechanics change. The right-hander enters the year with a guaranteed spot in the Mariners rotation (something he has never had before) and he could easily be one of the best pitchers no one is talking about this spring. In an era where there's no true sleeper, Gonzales may be a dying breed.
Logan Morrison (MIN) - Logan Morrison officially finalized a one-year, $6.5 million contract with the Minnesota Twins on Wednesday. Morrison is expected to serve as the team's primary designated hitter this season after posting career bests in home runs, RBIs, runs scored, and games played with the Rays last year. Morrison slashed just .246/.353/.516, but enjoyed an 8% higher HR/FB rate than his career 14% mark driven in large part by continued improvement to his hard hit rate (up to 37%) while also maintaining a high 46% pull percentage. Those of you hoping for a park factor adjustment bump will be disppointed to hear that left-handers actually have a slight edge in Tropicana, while left-handers at Target Field are at a slight disadvantage. Regardless, he should put together another nice power year in the middle of the Twins lineup.
Danny Salazar (CLE) - Danny Salazar has been dealing with inflammation in his throwing shoulder since mid-Janaury and he continues to be limited on a throwing plan. At this point, we're less than 30 days away from Opening Day and Salazar is yet to be throwing off a mound. For a player with as many injuries as Salazar has suffered, this news should be devastating to his draft value. At the moment, he cannot be trusted as a member of any fantasy roster until he can prove he has a clean bill of health. Drafting injured players in Spring Training rarely ends up returning the value you may seek.
Austin Hays (BAL) - Orioles prospect Austin Hays has been dealing with inflammation in the back of his should and has been limited at camp. Luckily, an MRI showed no structural damage to his lat muscle and he should be able to get back on the field soon. Hays has a opportunity to sieze a job with the major league team this spring after impressing in Double-A last season and receiving a cup of coffee in September. Hays has a plus hit tool with double-digit power, but he's not much of a speed guy. He has some work to do in terms of approach at the plate, posting just a 0.29 batting EYE in the minors last season.
Sean Manaea (OAK) - Sean Manaea was scratched from his Cactus League start on Tuesday with a sore back, but threw a simulated game on Wednesday and is expected to make his next start with the club. Manaea broke out in the first half of 2017, but showed serious regression across the board in the second half (+1.30 xFIP, -6.7% K-BB%). Health has always been a concern for Manaea, so follow him closely this spring to make sure he sees no lingering effects of this back injury.
Kolten Wong (STL) - Expected to be the team's primary second baseman against right-handed pitching, Kolten Wong told the St Louis Post-Dispatch that "I have to established the fact that I want to run, and show them I'm having success running. I want to get that aggressiveness built in, so when the games start, all I'm thinking is going, going, going and being able to react to the rhythm when I should." It's spring training news flow at it's finest since Kolten Wong is expected to hit 8th in the Cardinals batting order, effectively stifling his steal opportunities while hitting in front of the pitcher. He has shown the skillset in the past, but no need to reach for him except as a back-up middle infield option in deep formats hoping for some speed upside.
Yuli Gurriel (HOU) - Houston first baseman Yuli Gurriel underwent surgey on Wednesday to remove the hamate bone from his wrist. It's the same surgery that Pablo Sandoval underwent twice, each time sapping his power afterwards. The surgery will sideline Gurriel for about two months, meaning Marwin Gonzalez will likely start the season as the team's first baseman and Derek Fisher as the team's starting left fielder. This news has a bigger impact on the values of the latter two than Gurriel, himself.
Derek Fisher (HOU) - With Yuli Gurriel expected to miss the first month of the regular season, Derek Fisher now has a clearer path towards being the club's opening day left fielder. The toolsy prospect has an appealing mix of speed and power, highlighted by his 21 homeruns and 16 stolen bases at Triple-A last year. His plate approach is advanced for his age, although he'll need to improve upon the 32% strikeout rate he posted in 53 games at the major league level last year. Fisher is the perfect post-hype prospect with a big opportunity for full-time at bats, which makes him a prime breakout candidate.
Miguel Sano (MIN) - The offseason was filled with question marks for Miguel Sano as he not only underwent surgery on his shin, but he was also accused of assualt. Those charges are pending and Sano made his debut for the Twins on Wednesday, playing third base and going 0-for-2 at the plate. Sano failed to take a step forward in his third year in the majors last season and has consistently struck out in about 36% of his plate appearances. Thanks to a shift in his pull percentage, he saw his HR/FB rate tick back up towards 27%. He still hits the ball hard consistently (40%+ hard hit rate), but there's enough question marks around his plate approach and off-the-field issues that have caused the shine to fade a bit.
Matt Harvey (NYM) - Matt Harvey made his spring debut for the Mets on Wednesday and routinely hit 96 MPH on the radar gun. He ended up throwing 35 total pitches and finsihed with a line of 2 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 1BB, and 2K. Harvey is an extremely risky player to draft, but if he continues to have outings as promising as yesterday, he'll likely see his draft stock begin to rise. At this point, it remains too early to be excited.