Byron Buxton, 2019 Breakout?
5-5, 2 HR and 10 RBIs. That's what Byron Buxton has done in 2 spring training games thus far following a 3-3, 5 RBI day Monday. The damage has been done against guys who have major league experience or top prospects (a la Hunter Harvey today) and maybe its time to start believing this is finally the year Buxton makes good on his incredible upside. Reports are he added 21lbs of muscle in the offseason which could be a huge aid to his aggressive play both in the outfield and on the bases as he tries to look past a dreadful 2018 that saw him hit .156 in 94 plate appearances. His ridiculous 2 game start to the spring may evoke memories of his second half of 2017 that saw him hit .300 with 11 home runs and 13 steals in just 56 games. He's been troubled by a lack of plate discipline (career 14.1% Swinging Strike rate and 31.7% K rate) and his prowess in the field may have afforded him a little bit of a longer leash at times. With the added muscle it will interesting to watch Buxton over the first weeks of the regular season to see if it has an impact on his ISO (career .157 mark) or Hard Hit % (career 27.7%). If those numbers can come up and he can at least be a little more patient at the dish this could be the breakout we've all been waiting for.
Will the Twins Keep 3 Catchers?
Having added depth at multiple positions around the infield, one open question for first year Rocco Baldelli is how his catching situation will shake out. It will be curious to see how Baldelli utilizes all 3, as they all bring something different to the table. Let's take a look at each:
Castro, the former first round pick of the Astros figures to be the opening day starter, as he appears to be healthy following a knee injury in May that kept him out for the remainder of the season. Castro didn't light the world on fire during the first few weeks of the season slashing just .143/.257/.238 over 74 plate appearances. While the batting average has always been inconsistent (he checks in with a career mark of .231) Castro had delivered 5 straight seasons of 10+ home runs - a solid number for a catcher. While not as relevant from a fantasy perspective, Castro did throw out 40% of baserunners in limited action last year which was easily a career high. Castro is the veteran of the group and provided he is healthy will be the front runner in camp.
Following a brief stint in 2017 with the Twins, Garver showcased some of the strong numbers he put up in the minors last year as Garver delivered a very strong fantasy line for a catcher posting a .749 OPS with 28 extra base hits and 45 RBIs over 335 PAs. Many of Garver's advanced metrics (7.9% Swinging Strike Rate and 40.5% hard hit rate to name a few) ranked top 10 at the catching position among those with 300+ plate appearances. For as good as he was at the plate, he struggled defensively throwing out just 18% of baserunners and rating near the bottom of the league in pitch framing. Garver has seen a handful of starts at 1B and DH over the past few years, but those will be difficult to come by with the additions of C.J. Cron and Nelson Cruz. For now, Garver should be off your fantasy draft radar - but worth monitoring over the course of spring Training.
Many baseball fans become intrigued by Astudillo last year following a sizzling .355/.371/.516 line that saw him strikeout just 3 times over 97 plate appearances. The contact-savy Astudillo did fuel that line thanks to a .341 babip, and while his 31.9% hard contact rate is nothing to write home about, he rarely hit the ball softly - just 14.3% of the time. Those numbers helped lead to his continuation of a ridiculous contact rate - he posted a 4.7% swinging strike rate and a 3.1% k rate and has never struck out more then 5% at any level of pro ball. His approach does come with some concerns - as he rarely draws walks and has not hit for a ton of power - although he did notch 8 extra bases in just 29 game last year. His 2019 projections are a bit cloudy at this point, with the only real path to playing time an injury or a trade - it is worth noting that he picked up a start at 3B in Monday's spring game.
Provided he is healthy I think Castro is the choice here to begin the season catching for the Twins, based on experience and better defensive numbers. Garver and Astudillo are the more intriguing options from a fantasy perspective as they offer more with the bat - so the play of all 3 in spring training is worth monitoring.
Twins new Super Utility Player
The Twins officially announced the signing of do-it-all utility player Marvin Gonzalez to a 2-year deal Monday. Gonzalez is the latest veteran add to a club that now has the look of a potentially potent lineup in the recently Cleveland dominated AL central. It will be interesting to see where Gonzalez gets the bulk of his playing time. Following his torrid 2017 that saw him post a .907 OPS and a Top-20 MVP finish, Gonzalez regressed back to numbers more in line with his career marks posting a .733 OPS, while hitting 16 home runs. It was a tale of two halves last year for Gonzalez as we struggled to a .233 Avg before the All-star break but ended up posting a .275 mark with 10 home runs over 55 games in the second half. The 2019 batting expectations should be respectable and a .750+ OPS is not out of the question. The real draw with Gonzalez for fantasy owners is the position eligibility. 2018 saw him log 20+ games at 1B, 2B, SS, and the outfield - meaning he is a great candidate for a bench spot to fill in anywhere around the diamond for days off. Gonzalez did suit up for 3 games at 3B last year, and while he won't have that eligibility right off the bat look for him to log some games there if Miguel Sano struggles to get going.
The Case for Paul Blackburn
With the backend of the rotation still in flux for Oakland lets examine Paul Blackburn, a potential candidate to secure a spot with a strong spring. He got off to a strong start pitching 2 shutout innings while striking out 3 pitching in relief Monday. The righty spent most of 2018 on the DL and his surface numbers didn't look particularly great - as he pitched to a 7.16 ERA and 1.41 Whip. As disastrous as those numbers are I see some opportunity here. Blackburn did post a 3.59 fip most likely due to his inflated babip (.344), low HR/9 (.65) and stingy 1.95 BB/9. His injury riddled season aside, has been a model of consistency throughout his minor league career and Rookie season in 2017. He has never posted a single season ERA above 3.50 and has limited damage through the air (single season HR/9 high of .87) while generally inducing groundballs at an elite 50%+ rate in every season but last year (47.3%). Blackburn mostly uses secondary pitches such as a sinker and slider and if owners can look past his lowly 4.3 K/9 MLB career mark Blackburn has the makings of a potential innings eater at the back end of the Oakland rotation.
Battle for top Oakland Utility spot?
Except for catcher, most of the Athletics starting 9 seems to be already locked in. That means training camps battles remain for bench spots and one of the more intriguing ones revolves around two guys who could be utilized around the diamond - Franklin Barreto and Chad Pinder.
Barreto's name may be a bit of a surprise here but the former top infield prospect got a start Saturday in left field, while picking up a start Sunday second base as he tries to play his way onto the 25 man roster any way possible. Last season Barreto showcased his power by slugging .493 and hitting 5 home runs in 75 Plate Appearances. That was the good. Unfortunately his plate discipline issues continue to plague him as he had a miserable 1:29 BB:K rate last season - numbers that are hard to swallow at the major league level. He will need to improve on his 64.1% contact rate and 17.6% Swinging Strike rate if he wants to start the year with the MLB club. If his offseason is any indication, then perhaps he is finally turning a corner. Barreto participated in the Venezuelan Baseball League and dominated - slashing .352/.417/.528 with 7 home runs and 7 steals - numbers strong enough to earn league MVP honors. The most telling fact is that Barreto seemed to focus on his plate discipline by turning in a solid 20:35 BB:K ratio - numbers the Athletics would surely take. His work in the outfield as well as his spring batting over the next few weeks should determine his status - but he off to a good start going 3-6 with 2 doubles.
Pinder on the other hand seemingly has an inside track to a roster spot following two seasons of a .750+ OPS to and his ability to handle every pitcher around the diamond of than position and catcher. While much of his action has come in the outfield and 2B, Oakland has no qualms about moving him around to cover off days for other players. Pinder does profile similarly to Barreto if not slightly better in plate discipline (75% contact rate, 13.4% swinging strike rate) and does handle lefties (.274) better than righties (.230) over his career so could be a plug and play type player in certain situations.
Catcher of the Future?
Sean Murphy homered for the Athletics over the weekend adding more excitement to the prospect's future. Despite a rough go of things in the Dominican Winter League (.185/.275/.272) this offseason Murphy still projects as on the top prospects in the Athletics system and could see MLB action sooner then later due to the catching spot being among the weakest on the Oakland roster. Murphy has always been regarded as a strong defensive catcher with a great arm and has repeatedly thrown out 33%+ of would be bases stealers in the minors. 2018 saw him produce the most with the bat as well as he slashed .288/.358/.498 with 36 extra base hits at AA before a late season promotion to AAA. He showed strong plate discipline at AA (8% walk rate) and was able to parlay that into a 131 wrc+. The home run over the weekend is a quick start for Murphy with the bat; but owners should not expect him to break camp with the club, considering has just 3 games at the AAA level.
Around the League
Jung Ho Kang (3B-PIT)
Kang smacked two solo home runs in his spring training debut Sunday. Kang, who missed all of 2017 and 2018 except for 3 games at the tail end of last season due to legal issues got off to about as good of a start as you can in the spring. Kang posted an .837 OPS with 36 home runs for the Pirates from 2015-2016 but he will still need to continue to produce with Colin Moran coming off a respectable rookie season (.277/.340/.407) at 3B for the pirates last year. One thing to note is that Kang did log 60 games at shortstop in 2015 and with former starter Jordy Mercer having moved on a strong spring from Kang could force the Pirates to see if can still handle the position.
Ke'Bryan Hayes (3B-PIT)
Speaking of Pirates third baseman, Hayes came in as a sub for Kang Sunday and promptly went 2-3 with 2 HR and 6 RBIs, including a walk off Grand Slam. What a way to start the spring for one of the Pirates top prospects as Hayes has been appearing on many Top-50 prospect lists entering the year. The 3B will most likely be ticketed to AAA to start the season as he spent all of 2018 at AA hitting .293/.375/.444. The early spring power surge is nice to see especially when considering Hayes only hit 15 HR in 348 minor league games to date but has stolen 39 bases over the past 2 minor league seasons.
Aaron Hicks (OF-NYY)
Hicks and the Yankees agreed to a 7-year 70 Million Dollar extension Monday. This is a nice deal for Hicks who had a career offensive season in 2018 hitting .248/.366/.467. While the batting average is a bit low Hicks more than made up for it with a career high .219 iso, and a Hard Contact rate 9% higher (39.5%) then his previous career high which led to him mashing 27 home runs. He also exhibited strong plate discipline (15.5% BB rate, 19.1% K rate) which could lead to more time atop the lineup for the Yankees in 2019, a spot he hit .276 with 11 home runs a 19:19 BB:K rate last year. Hicks should be a major source of runs scored and should be counted on for at least 20 home runs and 10 steals - if not more. One thing of note which is not quite as relevant for most fantasy leagues is that according to defensive Metrics Hicks took a bit of a dive last year - his UZR dropped from 5.0 to .7 - a number that ranked him 10/15 for qualified centerfielders.
Patrick Corbin (SP-WSH)
Corbin made his Nationals debut Monday tossing 2 scoreless innings while striking out 2. 2018 saw Corbin post career numbers in just every category as he struck out batters at will (11.1 SO/9) while limiting walks (2.2 BB9) and HR (.7 HR9). His deeper pitching metrics support the fact that his 11 wins are a horrible indication of how good he was last season as his xfip (2.61) sat about half a run lower than his ERA (3.15). 2018 saw the addition of a curveball that while it was his least used pitched (8.8%) it allowed Corbin to fool hitters even more with off-speed stuff (clocking in at 72mph) compared to his fastball sitting at 91.3mph. Corbin figures to slot in third in a loaded Nationals rotation this season.
Maikel Franco (3B-PHI)
Franco went 2-3 with 2 runs and 4 RBI for the Phillies Monday. This continues a hot start for Franco this spring who homered over the weekend. Franco will be locked in a battle with Scott Kingery for playing time at 3B all spring, as the Phillies have the rest of their infield set with the offseason acquisition of Jean Segura. This is a big season for Franco who turned in a big improvement last season over 2017 with a .270 Avg and .467 SLG% as he cut down his K% to a career low 13.3%. The other biggest noticeable different between 2017 and 2018 is a babip that was about 35 points higher last season - so it is plausible that a .270 AVG coupled with 25 HR and a .750 OPS is about as good as good it will get for the 3B.
Troy Tulowitzki (SS-NYY)
Tulowitzki went 1-2 in his Yankees debut including a home run during his first at bat as a Yankee. Tulo got the start at shortstop and led off promptly taking Marcus Stroman deep on the second pitch he saw. The 34-year-old showed he still has it as he yelled into the Blue Jays dugout rounding third base, a homage to the fact that the Blue Jays cut him from the roster despite having to the eat the remainder of his contract. He had struggled mightily in his 2.5 season in Toronto, sporting a .727 OPS - a far cry from his .885 career offering with Colorado. Even with Didi Gregorius expected to be out the first few months of the season, Tulo may have trouble cracking the lineup more than a few times per week with Gleyber Torres expected to man SS. He does a career .307 average vs lefties and could spell any number of Yankee players (Torres, Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks) who hit around .250 or less vs tough southpaws.
Trevor Bauer (SP-CLE)
Bauer struck out 2 over 3 scoreless innings in his spring debut Monday, allowing 1 hit. Knocking off the rust Bauer was solid in this one but didn't get the grounds (0) he normally does (44.5% last year) or the strikeouts (11.34 K/9 in 2018). It is a great sign to see Bauer go 3 innings in his first outing, as the Cleveland staff will need to be the focal point this season eating innings as the Indians have some open questions in their lineup. The biggest keys for Bauer are if he can keep his walks under control - his BB/9 of 2.93 was the lowest of his career and to keep the ball in the yard as he did last year (.46 HR/9 compared with a career mark of .98). If he can do that and hold the opposition to a similar stunningly low .206 average, he has a chance at challenging his 2.21 ERA campaign of last season.
Bubba Starling (OF-KC)
Starling hit 2 solo home runs Monday afternoon. The former 5th overall pick of the 2011 draft, Starling was released by the Royals in the offseason then resigned to a minor league contract. It was probably warranted as he has really struggled at every level in the minors hitting exactly .225 at both AA and AAA in 500+ Plate appearances for both. He has been riddled by injuries over his minor league career but at this point the rebuilding Royals don't have a lot to lose by giving him one more shot during spring training. As the light hitting Alex Gordon and Billy Hamilton are slated to occupy 2 of the Royals outfield spots it's conceivable if he builds on his strong string start that has him picking up 4 hits in 5 at bats, he could earn his way onto the roster - but it's best to be cautiously optimistic at this point.
Yusei Kikuchi (SP-SEA)
Kikuchi pitched 2 innings Monday in his stateside debut, allowing 2 unearned runs on 1 hit with one strikeout. Other then the fact that he was undone by 2 second innings errors it was a rather successful debut for the for the 27-year-old. He struck out Joey Votto in the first inning, which is no easy feat and was able to generate ground balls for 4/6 outs. Kikuchi has been a staple of the Seibu Lions staff in the Japanese League since 2012 and had is two years removed from his best season as pro where he posted a 1.97 ERA and 10.4 K/9. The transition here may take some time and he will have to be careful of walks and it will be interesting to see how the Mariners monitor his workload as his career high in starts in a season is 26. He figures to slot in immediately in the middle of Mariners rotation and could be a high-risk, high-reward addition in fantasy drafts.
Sam Hillard (OF-COL)
And for your out-of-nowhere prospect of the day. Hillard went 2-2 with a double, 2 runs scored and a stolen base. It way too early in spring to get a read on certain players but its Hillard's second straight game with an extra base hit, as he homered over the weekend. The 24-year-old put up decent numbers at AA last year slashing .262/.327/.389. That line won't jump off the paper but the big bodied Hillard who checks in at 6-5 225lbs has slugged 54 home runs and stolen a whopping 102 bases in 441 minor league games. He doesn't rank in the top 10 players in the Rockies farm system, strikes out a lot (31.2% last year) and has a very high babip (.379)to anchor his numbers but his speed/power combo could play well in Coors Field in a few years.
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