The Fifth Wheel(er)
It's been a rocky road for Zack Wheeler, and it doesn't seem to be getting better just yet. In March of 2015 he tore his UCL and would miss the entirety of the season after undergoing Tommy John Surgery. His rehab has been fraught with setbacks, and he would pitch just a single inning in 2016 before being shut down due to discomfort in his pitching arm. Upon first reporting to Mets camp, Wheeler experienced tenderness in his right elbow after his first bullpen session. Mets Manager Terry Collins has already said that Wheeler is going to come into the season as a starting pitcher, but is admittedly unsure of how many innings he'll be able to throw. Collins also stated that the battle for the fifth starter position will be an open competition between Wheeler, Seth Lugo, and Robert Gsellman. Despite what Collins has said about Wheeler starting, it would be far from a surprise to see the Mets put Wheeler in the bullpen to begin the season in an effort to manage his innings and try to keep him healthy, especially given the exceptional alternatives for the fifth starter position. Lugo pitched well last season and garnered praise for his record-setting spin rate on his curveball. It measured in at 3,498 RPM according to Statcast, where the MLB average spin rate on a curve is 2,469 RPM. You may or may not remember him striking out Anthony Rizzo on a curveball where he whiffed on the pitch and it would wind up actually hitting his foot. Pure filth. However, Lugo's other pitches aren't great, and he pitched to a 2.67 ERA thanks in large part to a .230 BABIP and 85.7% strand rate. He also allowed 38.4% hard contact, and his xFIP was 4.71. That leaves us with our next pitcher...
Robert Gsellman appears to be the likely favorite to come away with the fifth starter job with the Mets. Gsellman struck out 42 batters in 44.2 innings for the Mets last year, and paired that with a 54.2% ground ball rate for a terrific 76.9% K%+GB%. He finished with a 2.42 ERA, but his xFIP was much higher at 3.38 because he allowed just one home run. Looking through his minor league track record however, he has been outstanding at keeping the ball in the park (aside from a 48.2 inning stint in the PCL, which is a notoriously hard league to pitch in), which leads us to believe it is more skill than luck. He's a righty whose fastball sits at 93-94, and he mixes in a slider, curve, and the occasional changeup. He tossed a shade under 160 innings last season, so if he grabs ahold of the fifth starter gig and doesn't stumble out of the gates, he could hold onto the job all season and make for a very nice late round starting pitcher grab.
The Price Isn't Wright
David Wright will enter 2016 as the Mets starting third baseman. However, Wright has managed just 75 games over the past two seasons, having missed massive chunks of time due to very serious injuries (spinal stenosis, herniated disc in neck). He's going totally undrafted in standard mixed leagues, and deservedly so. It's hard to expect too much from Wright in his age 34 season, and it's also hard to know what to expect while he is on the field. Last year, he conspicuously sold out for power, with his contact rate dropping from 79.5% in 2015 to 67.4% and his strikeout rate rising from 20.7% to 33.5%. He hit seven home runs in just 164 plate appearances with a 15.9% walk rate, but it came with a .226 batting average that would be very likely to stick over a full season with a K% that high. The wiser draft choice in a deeper league would be the man who would step in for him if/when he misses time, and that man is Jose Reyes. Reyes will turn 34 himself this season and does have an injury history of his own, but to a much lesser extent than Wright. Reyes hit eight home runs and stole nine bases in just 60 games after he returned from suspension last season, and would be very likely to hit first or second in that lineup in place of Wright. Both players can be left for the waiver wire in shallow mixed leagues, but Reyes makes for a good stash in deeper leagues with 20-steal upside.
Hire a Carpenter to Build Your Team
Matt Carpenter is going to come into the season with positional eligibility at first, second, and third base, which also makes him eligible at both middle and corner infield spots. That alone carries plenty of value as you draft and manage your team, but Carpenter is also slated to be the Cardinals 3-hitter, which should put him in position to push 90 runs and 100 RBI, with upside for more runs scored given his consistent double-digit walk rates. He also had a tremendous 41.9% hard contact rate last year, which was the third highest mark in baseball behind only David Ortiz and Freddie Freeman (0.2% ahead of Mike Trout). Many have yet to really appreciate the changes Carpenter has made to his swing, but he has eclipsed a .230 ISO in each of the past two seasons, proving that he is a full-fledged power hitter. Matt Adams is the only one behind him on the first base depth chart, and he's an afterthought at this point. Kolten Wong and Jhonny Peralta are going to platoon at second base, so while the plan is to keep Carpenter at first base all year, he could see some time at second and third base as well, ensuring him as many at-bats as he can handle.
Setting Up For The Final Boss
Seung Hwan Oh took over the closer job last July for Trevor Rosenthal, who was demoted following a whole slew of lackluster appearances. Oh was absolutely dominant, posting a 1.92 ERA over 79.2 innings with an 11.64 K/9 and 2.03 BB/9, and wound up notching 19 saves after supplanting Rosenthal. Oh will continue to hold down the gig entering the 2017 season, and the Cardinals have said that they are going to be looking at a new role for Rosenthal this season. They are going to stretch him out, and while they haven't ruled out him returning to starting as he was in the minors (the bad news on Alex Reyes perhaps makes this option more likely), it's more likely that Rosenthal turns into more of an Andrew Miller-like super reliever to be used in long relief or as a setup option for Oh. It seems counter-intuitive to take a guy who completely lost his control (6.47 BB/9 in 2016) and battled injuries for much of the season and ask him to throw more innings, but if he can regain his control, the additional innings would make him very valuable in leagues that count holds. Just don't expect him to close, as Oh has quickly become an elite option at RP.
My Cousin Valencia
Danny Valencia was acquired from the A's back in November, and the initial plan was to merely platoon him at first base. His projected role seems to be expanding however, as GM Jerry Dipoto aptly summarized Valencia's all-around effectiveness, stating "He's been excellent against left-hand pitching. He's also been very good against righties for the last couple of years." He used to merely provide a platoon option against lefties, but last year posted an above-average .321 wOBA against righties, and in 2015 managed a terrific .374 mark. Dipoto's optimism extends not only to him facing either-handed pitching, it seems they also intend to deploy him defensively at multiple positions, primarily first base and the outfield, while occasionally spelling Kyle Seager at third base. This news gives me optimism that he could see 500 plate appearances, which puts him on the table in deeper mixed leagues in addition to AL-Only leagues. He has the ability in 500 appearances to hit upper teens home runs with a batting average around (if not better) than .280.
Dan Vogelbach gets no love. He's going off the board at 377 according to NFBC and CBS aggregate ADP, 52 picks behind Cody Bellinger who may not even see the majors this year. If you're unfamiliar with the rookie who was acquired from the Cubs last season, he's a 6'0 250 lb DH-only type that swings a mean stick from the left side. Last year in the minors across 459 at-bats he slashed .292/.417/.505 with 23 homers and a 101:97 K:BB ratio. Granted it was in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League - a hitters paradise - but plate discipline like that doesn't grow on trees. He will be worked in gradually by the M's, facing only right-handed pitching even without any significantly negative splits against lefties in the minors (.259/.348/.506 vs LHP in 2016). It's probably for the best, to let him get his feet wet in situations where he can excel before really challenging him with left-handed pitching, especially with a lefty masher like Danny Valencia to platoon with. I can't argue that he should be drafted in anything shallower than a 15-team mixed league due to his lack of elite power and likelihood to sit against lefties, but keep an eye on him. If/when he hits his stride he can be an asset particularly in points and OBP leagues.
Max Scherzer is noncommittal on his availability for Opening Day, stating that the stress fracture that he suffered in the knuckle of his right ring finger is still bothering him. He is still unable to throw a baseball without discomfort, instead working with tennis balls in the offseason. It is mildly troubling, but at this point there is plenty of time for him to round into game shape. He is certainly a seasoned veteran and doesn't need the spring training reps, so he can afford to ramp up later than most. He's currently going off of draft boards in the late first round, but if this continues to be an issue as we slide towards Opening Day it will be hard to justify taking him that early. He's thrown over 187 innings each of the last seven seasons and he's 32, so it's fair to begin to wonder when he will start to fall off, but up until now he has shown no chinks in his proverbial armor.
Chris Carter officially signed his 1-year, $3 million contract with the Yankees on Thursday. It's a great bat for the price for the Yankess, but it really muddles the playing time situation for fantasy purposes. Carter will platoon with Greg Bird at DH, while perhaps seeing the occasional couple of innings at first base, where he profiles as a poor defender. Carter appears to have drawn the short side of the platoon for the time being, as the left-handed Bird will see the bulk of at-bats against right-handed pitching. He was very effective in 2015 against righties, posting a .387 wOBA with a whopping 48.7% hard contact rate. It's fair to still like Bird this year, presuming he's recovered from what is often times a power-sapping shoulder injury suffered in 2016, but for Carter this is not a great situation. With a definite lack of playing time and a very likely .220-ish batting average, whatever power you will squeeze out of Carter this season will be best utilized in DFS formats and very deep leagues.
Hyun-Jin Ryu was clocked at 84-86 MPH on his fastball during his latest bullpen session. While velocity has never been a notch on his belt, he has always been around 90 MPH with his fastball. Granted pitchers don't reach their normal velocity right away in camp, but this is even below what is considered normal when pitchers report. Ryu is an afterthought in drafts at this point, going on average at pick 411.5, and deservedly so. He missed the entire 2015 season and cobbled together just 32.2 innings last season between the minors and (one start) with the Dodgers. Health appears to not be the only question with Ryu, but now we can also tack on a potential lack of effectiveness. It's very easy to avoid him even in deep leagues, so rather than spending a pick on him, find yourself a lottery ticket that could get the call from the minors and make some noise.
Adam Lind finalized his deal with the Nationals to essentially back up Ryan Zimmerman if (when) he gets injured. Lind ideally won't see time against lefties even if Zimmerman is out as he owns a career .260 wOBA against southpaws. Zimmerman himself was dreadful last year, hitting just .218 with 15 home runs in 115 games. The poor batting average can be traced to an unkind .248 BABIP, which lies well below his career norm of .309 despite an above-average 34.7% hard contact rate and a batted ball profile that was largely unchanged from his career numbers. It's tough to rely on Zimmerman for much since he hasn't played more than 150 games since 2009, but if you need a corner infield or bench bat in a deep league, he's still a better option than Lind who is an injury away from any real playing time and hit just .239/.286/.431 in 126 games for the Mariners last season.
While Oakland isn't expected to be a great offense, they have some rotation options that offer a great deal of intrigue for fantasy this year. One of those starters is Jharel Cotton, who A's manager Bob Melvin stated has a "leg up" on the fourth starter spot heading into spring training. It should come as no surprise after Cotton posted a 2.15 ERA over 29.1 September innings last year. Typically I gravitate towards ground ball starters, but an exception I am willing to make is a fly ball heavy pitcher who will make half of his starts in spacious O.co Coliseum. It's a small sample size, but he had a 48.2% FB%, and he also induced a massive 24.4% pop-up rate against opposing batters, which would have led the league by a country mile over the course of a full season; the full-season leader in that category was Marco Estrada, who induced 16.8% pop-ups. He has above-average command, and despite a meager 20.5% K%, he had a mighty 12.5% swinging strike rate, which would indicate his strikeouts should certainly climb. He did have 499 K's in 447 minor league innings, for what that's worth. He could be homer-prone at times and therefore you will want to bench him in small ballparks, but as a late round option he makes for a nice dart throw.
Andrew Triggs is another back-end of the rotation option for the A's heading into 2017. A converted reliever, Triggs posted a 2.81 ERA as a starter late last season with 22 strikeouts and just one walk in 25.2 innings. He's a 6'4" 220 lb righty who features a deceptive side-arm delivery, which has helped him develop a good sinking fastball along with a very nice slider and cutter. What appears to be his ticket to success as a starter, however, is the changeup he has developed to neutralize platoon splits against left-handed batters. He used it very sparingly last year, but looked to be an effective pitch before his season came to an early end due to a back injury. While he isn't likely to strike out a batter per inning, he has consistently exhibited exceptional command, and we can again note the very favorable home ballpark. With his deception and ability to limit baserunners, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him steamroll the league his first time around. There's no way he'll start 32 games though since he's been a reliever his whole career, so don't invest in him as anyone you're relying on for a full season.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said that Tyler Glasnow isn't expected to crack the opening day rotation unless he pitches lights-out during spring training and shows some improvements. Part of it undoubtedly has to due with the fact that the Bucs slow play the promotion of their prospects no matter who it is, but part of it is legitimate improvements that Glasnow needs to make. He still can't find the strike zone, as evidenced by his 5+ BB/9 at every level he pitched at last year. He also still doesn't use a changeup with any sort of regularity or confidence, which he will absolutely need to do if he's going to be a legitimate starting pitcher; 60% fastballs and 35% curveballs aren't going to work for long on their own. He still maintains over a strikeout per inning and flashes elite upside, but he's not a pitcher that you can draft in the preseason to be a meaningful part of your rotation. He should make the rotation at some point in the season, but it's hard to say when. A lot of it will be up to Glasnow to perform.
Zack Cozart is getting back into action and reports that his knee is now 100% healthy. He will not require a knee brace either, so his outlook is improving for the coming season. He's slated to bat second between Billy Hamilton and Joey Votto, but as a career .246/.289/.385 hitter perhaps that speaks more to the lackluster state of the Reds offense than the offensive capabilities of Cozart. With a pull-heavy fly ball approach and a slightly above-average hard contact rate you can expect to see another 15+ home runs in a full season, but that type of batted ball profile will always lead to a depressed BABIP, which leads to around a .250 average. He's not a great fantasy option, but he's going to give you similar production to Brandon Crawford at a much cheaper price point.
Ian Desmond changed zip codes this offseason, signing a 5-year, $70 million contract with the Rockies. Those words are music to a dynasty owners ears, aren't they? Moving to Colorado, what a glorious outcome for hitters, although not so much for pitchers. Desmond had inexplicably attempted fewer steals in 2015 but did get that number back up to the upper twenties last year, where it had always been prior. That led to another 20 steal season, giving him his fourth career 20/20 season. He has managed an 18% HR/FB rate not just last year but several seasons before, which is difficult to maintain with such mediocre hard contact rates, but the move to Coors will help him approach 20 homers again. His .350 BABIP from last year would also be doomed for regression, except for the move to Colorado, where BABIP balloons like a belly at a buffet. Perhaps the biggest positive progression he made last year was in his plate discipline, where he cut his strikeout rate from 29.2% to 23.6%. He did this not by whiffing a great deal less (still had a swinging strike rate of 12.2) but rather by swinging at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone. He cut his chase rate by 3.3% and overall was a more patient hitter, resulting in fewer strikeouts and better contact. It's a great lineup for Desmond, who will again carry 20/20 potential, and will shortly be eligible both at first base and in the outfield.