Notes from the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues...
With a week until games start to count, teams are solidifying their plans. The Orioles named Kevin Gausman as their Opening Day starter, with Chris Tillman beginning the season on the DL. Gausman finished strong last year, with a 3.10 ERA in the second half. He has had a strong spring, with a 1.80 ERA and striking out 8 in 5 IP in his last Grapefruit League start. Gausman threw a major league career high of 179.2 IP in 2016 and had an overall K/9 of 8.72. He has not yielded a homer in his 10 IP of work this spring after having a 1.40 HR/9 in the 2016 regular season. Gausman has shown signs of living up to the potential he had as a prospect and at age 26 may be poised to make a bigger jump in production. Fantistics is projecting a jump in Wins to 13, along with 180Ks in 183 innings, and a 1.23 WHIP/3.92 ERA. One word of caution is that a lot of the progress he showed in the latter half of last year came after increasing his use of a splitter, and that sometimes can lead to arm injury.
Baltimore will once again have Chris Davis at 1B. That will also be his only eligible position as he didn't patrol the outfield much last year. This puts Davis in a tough area of competition and despite hitting a ton of homers (38 in 2016) can't be considered on the elite level he once was. He suffered from bad luck last year, particularly in the second half, with a BABIP of .248 dragging his season mark down to .279, well below his .314 career number. Davis maintained his ability to draw a walk and ended up with a BB% of 13.2%. Combined with his K% of 32.9% that means that in over half of his PAs he either walked, struck out, or homered. That's pretty much the definition of an all-or-nothing hitter. Davis will have most value in DFS when he is on a hot streak or in a favorable matchup.
Primarily due to some injuries, A. J. Griffin finds himself as the #4 starter in the Texas rotation. He made 23 starts for the Rangers in 2016, posting an underwhelming 5.07 ERA and 5.74 FIP. Griffin's 8.09 K/9 did not offset his HR/9 of a whopping 2.12. It was his first full season back from Tommy John surgery but he hasn't sparkled in the Cactus League so far, with a 6.48 ERA in 16.2 IP. He has thrown better in some minor league games, but that isn't enough to think that he will be able to withstand competition from Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner when they come back from injury.
The Rangers aren't sure when they are going to start using a fifth starter. Given the lack of depth in their rotation they will likely put it off as long as they can. If they decide to use a fifth man in the rotation, though, one candidate is Rule V pick Mike Hauschild. He has posted a 3.12 ERA and struck out 15 in 17.1 Cactus League IP. Hauschild was plucked out of the Houston system after a 3.22 ERA and 3.64 FIP with AAA Fresno in 2016. He also had a HR/9 of 0.45 in the hitter-friendly PCL. Keeping the ball in the yard is a plus for any pitcher with the Rangers. Hauschild is likely to stick with Texas at least in a long relief role and could challenge for a starting spot in his age-27 season as the year moves along.
Junior Guerra will be on the mound when the Brewers take the field for Opening Day. He was without a doubt the top performer of returning starters and earned the honor with his 2.81 ERA in 20 starts in 2016. It was also his first significant stretch as a starter, coming in his 2nd major league season at age 31, following 4 IP in relief for the White Sox in 2015. Guerra received the benefit of good fortune as his FIP was 3.71. He also managed to keep the ball in the park quite a bit, with a HR/9 of 0.74. Guerra's xFIP was 4.29 and was the same at home and on the road in almost the same number of IP (60.2 in Miller Park and 61 away from Milwaukee.) Guerra's performance at home was better than it was away, with a 2.23 ERA, 0.59 HR/9, and 3.51 FIP as opposed to a 3.39 ERA, 0.89 HR/9, and 3.90 FIP on the road. The odds are more likely that his home performance will end up moving towards his road numbers than vice versa. While Guerra may be the best starter Milwaukee has right now, that doesn't make him very valuable from a fantasy standpoint.
Travis Shaw got his first full time season in the majors last season with the Red Sox, after appearing in 65 games in 2015. The Brewers sent Tyler Thornburg to Boston in the offseason for Shaw and prospects and Shaw will man the hot corner in Milwaukee. He did increase his homer total from 13 to 16, but it took him 530 PAs in 2016 after 248 the year before. Shaw's batting average dropped from .270 to .242 and his slugging average from .487 to .421. Those are likely effects from his HR/FB plunging from 17.8% to 10.3%. It looks like a lot of balls that sailed out of the park in 2015 became fly ball outs in 2016. In the Cactus League Shaw has hit 3 homers in 48 ABs, well ahead of his 2 HRs in 65 ABs last spring. This gives some hope for a return of power, but Shaw will have to show it when the games count for his age-27 season to be an upgrade.
Madison Bumgarner ended his Cactus League appearances by going 7 IP and allowing 2 runs on 4 hits while striking out 9 and not giving up a walk. That looks to have him primed to open the regular season Sunday night. In 2016 Bumgarner had his 6th straight season of 200+ IP and turns 28 this August. Matt Cain has 6 such seasons with the Giants before suffering a rapid decline at age 28. Tim Lincecum had 4 seasons with a heavy workload before burning out. As they say in the investment commercials, "Past performance is no guarantee of future results." Keep a close eye on Bumgarner to see if he can beat the fate of his former teammates.
Although Shelby Miller hasn't necessarily given up a lot of runs in his latest Cactus League starts, his efficiency is less than stellar. He needed 94 pitches to get through 4.1 IP yesterday. Only 56 of them were strikes. This follows an appearance where he threw 73 pitches in 3.1 IP (47 were strikes.) This is not the kind of performance you'd like to see from a pitcher who needs to bounce back from a disappointing 2016.
After getting battered in his previous Cactus League start, Derek Holland turned in a solid performance for the White Sox. He gave up 2 runs on 5 this and 2 walks in 6 IP. Holland only struck out 1 batter, though. It was the best outing so far for the new acquisition.
Injuries have knocked Tyler Thornburg's role in the Boston bullpen from main setup man to earlier reliever to almost certainly starting the season on the DL. He is suffering from arm fatigued and had trapezius spasms that torpedoed a scheduled outing yesterday. Thornburg's primary fantasy value was going to be in leagues that counted holds but with this latest setback his value itself is on hold.
The Cubs had prime prospect Ian Happ in camp and learning how to play 2B better from HOFer Ryne Sandberg. Happ's bat was certainly hot in the Cactus League, with a .417 average. Still, they sent him down to the minor league camp and will likely get his first taste of AAA this season. What is significant is that the Cubs still think of Happ as a 2B. His defense has never been a strong part of his game and many have thought he would end up in the outfield. Chicago hasn't given up on him at 2B, where his bat has more potential future value.
As the only one of the 3 prime Boston catchers with options remaining, Blake Swihart found himself sent to AAA Pawtucket. He hit .325 in the Grapefruit League so didn't do anything to make the decision easy. Swihart will be turning 25 next week and could be trade bait should the need arise since he had some success at the major league level in 2015.
David Hernandez posted a 3.84 ERA and 9.91 K/9 in 72.2 IP out of the bullpen with the Phillies last year. He was in camp with the Giants this spring. Hernandez requested his release from them when it became apparent they didn't have a place for him. He is now with the Braves trying to get one of their last 2 bullpen spots. There is tough competition in the person of Chaz Roe, but if Hernandez prevails in a brief auction he will be in a position to pick up some holds. He had 15 in 2016 with Philadelphia.
Michael Brantley will be starting a string of 3 Grapefruit League games that will determine whether he will start the season on the DL. He hit a homer in Sunday's game and has a .313 average in 5 spring games. The Indians are optimistic that Brantley will be ready to go, considering that he has had no setbacks this spring.
Raisel Iglesias is recovering from bruises he suffered in a fall in the shower earlier this spring. He threw on Sunday and is scheduled to make at least one appearance before the regular season starts. Iglesias is confident he won't have to start the season on the DL. If he avoids being disabled he will be part of the Reds' bullpen by committee that is going to close out games.
Seth Lugo did not bounce back from his loss in the WBC title game in his start against the Nationals yesterday. He was tagged for 4 runs on 8 hits in 4.1 IP. Three of those hits were homers. As a swing man for the Mets last season, Lugo posted a 2.67 ERA, but a FIP of 4.33. His last two outings have not helped his case to get the last spot in the Mets' rotation.