Breakout for Max Kepler?
Even though the Twins have added a slew of offseason acquisitions, Kepler is among several young holdovers who Minnesota is expecting to breakout after several league average years. If his 6-12 2 HR, 4-walk start in spring is any indication this could be the year. Since his arrival to the bigs at the end of 2015, Kepler has been an every day starter for the Twins over the past 3 seasons despite an underwhelming career line of .233/.319/.408 over 1633 Plate appearances. And despite his 2019 avg sinking to .224 - it may have been Kepler's most successful season, and proof that 2019 could be the breakout year. Despite compiling a below league average wrc+ of 97 he became much more selective at the plate, bring his O-swing% down 4% and his SwStr% to 7.1% - both career bests. The adjustment here provided drastic results - Kepler drew a career high number of walks (11.6%) and struck out at a career low rate (15.7%). Looking forward to 2019, the Twins have added several big-name players to the offense and Kepler and could bounce around the batting order quite a bit, especially with the recent injury to Miguel Sano.
What to expect from Michael Pineda?
Following his first time taking the mound since 2017 there are still questions marks as to exactly what Michael Pineda will deliver in 2019. Pineda, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2017 hurled 2 scoreless innings and struck out 1 while hitting 96mph with his fastball. The results are encouraging but it is only one start, and Pineda as, talented as he is has not turned in elite numbers at the Major League Level on the surface. His best ERA season was a 13-start year in 2014 which saw him post a 1.89 mark which was helped by an 80% lob rate while his fip (2.71) and xfip (3.37) were much higher. Following that he put up 3 seasons in a row with a 4.30+ era - although that number is a little inflated as he posted xfips well below each of his season ERAs. Assuming the extra time he took to recover from Tommy John pays dividends I think there could be some good sleeper value here. Throughout his career he has done a good job of limiting hard contact (28.7%) as well as inducing groundballs (44.2%). The big question for 2019 will be if he can replicate his 2016 10.61 K/9 mark. That year, he threw a career high % of sliders (41.3%) and really baffled hitters with that pitch holding them to a .187 average against and racking up 146 strikeouts. The ERA might not be the prettiest on paper but with a strong offense behind him Pineda could be in for a comeback season and help fantasy owners add wins and strikeouts to their teams' totals.
Who's on Third?
The Twins confirmed Tuesday that Miguel Sano could potentially miss the first month of the season as he underwent a procedure to repair a cut on his heel that he received during the celebration of his Dominican Republic Teams winter league final. Sano had been wearing a boot around camp, but the condition worsened, and it was deemed he needed to have a repair to clean up the area. I covered Sano in detail a few weeks ago so won't go into the numbers again, but this is just another setback for Sano who may not be in for a starting job depending when he returns. The 3B job is up for grabs in Minnesota and while I have profiled the top 2 contenders in previous weeks- let's review who could ultimately fill that role.
Marwin Gonzalez is the first name that jumps out, as he was recently signed and figured to play a utility role, spelling everyone around the diamond. I believe he will get first crack at the full time 3B job, although his 93 starts at 3B are by far the least at any position he can play. Gonzalez should be expected to post at least a .730 OPS and the opportunity to play every day to begin the season should give him a significant draft day boost. One thing of note - he was a late scratch due to shoulder soreness in Tuesday's game.
Willians Astudillo also comes to mind as a potential 3B fill in. He has picked up several starts there this spring and he may have the most upside offensively at catcher the Twins have but he may not have a roster spot. He's hit .294 with a home run, 4 RBIs and 0 strikeouts so far in spring and if he can prove a capable defender and can pick up several starts a week at 3B - I would argue this immediately vaults him into Top-15 catcher status in fantasy not to mention his added eligibility at 3B. He is the player to watch the remainder of Twins camp.
Finally, I see veteran Ehire Adrianza to pick up some 3B reps. He has never offered a ton with the bat (career .658 OPS over 883 plate appearances) but like Gonzalez does have experience playing third base and is more of a natural infielder. His low career slash line coupled with no real counting stats (career 11 home runs and 17 stolen bases) make him not particular desirable in fantasy despite his potential multi-position eligibility. He does have a career mark of .266 vs lefties and should be afforded a spot on the opening day roster especially since he has had a productive spring (7-18, 4 XBH, 4 runs).
Who will be the 5th starter for the Athletics?
Even though we are only a few weeks into camp it seems the battle for the 5th spot in the Athletics rotation has been narrowed down to Frankie Montas and Aaron Brooks. Let's look at how each has fared so far this spring and who is in the lead.
Montas has the inside track, especially following 3 shutout innings over the weekend to bring his spring total to 5 scoreless innings with 4 strikeouts and a .211 batting average against. If he cracks the starting rotation, he would easily feature the hardest fastball (95.8mph avg) of any of the Oakland starters. He has also added a split finger fastball this offseason which will be interesting to see how comfortable he is using it as he threw his fastball and slider a combined 97% of the time last year. The fast start to the spring is nice to see but there are still questions as to exactly what type of pitcher he is going to develop into. 2017 saw Montas strikeout batters at a rate of 10.13 per 9 - but also saw a ballooned 7.03 ERA thanks to allowing 10 home runs in 32 innings and walked batters at a rate of 5.93 per 9. Last year was almost the complete opposite - he struck out batters at just a 5.95 K/9, but also cut his BB/9 to 2.91, and induced groundballs at an 43.7% clip leading to a 3.88 ERA. 2019 is anybody's guess as to which type of season to peg Montas for considering he has only thrown 112 innings over parts of 3 major leagues seasons. As he is the higher upside player and is out of minor league options, barring a big spring from Brooks or an injury look for Montas to grab the 5th spot on the rotation.
Brooks on the other hand has struggled this spring (6IP, 6 ER, 3 BB, 5 Ks) and considering his track record in the majors and minors, its impressive he is even in competition for a roster spot at all. Brooks appeared in just 3 games for Oakland last year, after being acquired from Milwaukee following easily his best pro season at any level (3.35 ERA, 6.7 K/9 at AAA). This follows on the heels or a horrid 2016 season across two organizations at AAA that saw him pitch to the tune of a 6.12 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP. He has struggled in limited major league action throughout his career as well with a career 8.01 ERA in 60and 2/3 big league innings. I would be surprised to see him nab a spot on the big-league roster, but he should be a depth piece at AAA as he did limit home runs (.72 HR/9) and induce a high number of groundballs (55.1%) at AAA last season - so there are some positives to build on.
Will Jesus Luzardo start in the Majors?
Luzardo pitched 2 and 2/3 scoreless innings, striking out 6 Tuesday. Despite walking 2 and hitting a batter it was nevertheless a good outing for the top Oakland prospect who has now picked up 10 strikeouts over 5 and 2/3 spring innings. As one of the top prospects in the game, it is highly unlikely he will open with the big-league club especially since Oakland will most likely want to keep in the minors at least to start the season to gain several additional seasons of control. In addition, the 20-year-old struggled in 16 innings at AAA last year giving up 25 hits and walking 7 over that time - but still notched a 10.1 K/9. The upside is very high here as he ripped through the low minors in just 2 years and has a fastball that reaches an upwards of 97mph. I would imagine the current state of the Oakland rotation, which has mostly an unheralded group of veteran arms (although the same strategy carried them to 97 wins last season) might prompt management to take a closer look if he keeps performing in spring.
Who is the Real Stephen Piscotty?
Sparked by the trade to the Athletics last year in part to be closer to his ill mother, Piscotty had a career best offensive season slashing .267/.331/.491 with 41 doubles and 27 home runs to help pace the Oakland offense. The real question heading to 2019 is real Piscotty replicate last seasons approach which produced similar results to his 2016 season or will be play like the .708 OPS he registered in 2017? The numbers are consistent that Piscotty is at his best when he is more aggressive at the plate. 2016 and 2018 saw him register BB rates under 8% as his swing rates (52.3% and 53.3%) were almost identical which helped him produce 2 800+ OPS seasons. In 2017 however, he got incredibly patient at the dish drawing walks at a 13% clip and swinging at 46.8% of pitches numbers that actually seem to depress his numbers across the board as he slashed just .235/.342/.367 with a below-average wrc+ of 91. He doesn't offer much on the base paths (14 career steals) but the power seems legit and another 25-30 home run season with an 800 OPS seems very plausible.
Around the League:
Travis Jankowski (OF-SD)
Jankowski suffered a broken wrist while diving for a ball in the outfield Monday. It is a rough ending for spring, and the foreseeable future as he is expected to miss a good chuck of time. He struggled to open the spring offensively hitting .222 (2-14) with 6 strikeouts but did add 3 stolen bases. Jankowski was in competition for an outfield reserve spot with several other players on the Padres roster, although this isn't necessarily a good thing as most of the other outfielders brought a power approach while Jankowski brings excellent defense and speed - he hit 3 triples and his 24 stolen bases ranked tied for 7th in the NL, despite him playing just 117 games. It appears for now he will have to wait several months to try to get a chance to improve upon his career high slash line of .259/.332/.346 from 2018.
Kyle Wright (SP-ATL)
Wright made his second appearance of the spring Tuesday, tossing 3 scoreless innings allowing 2 hits and striking out 3. Wright is one of several top pitching prospects in the Braves system, but he will most likely start at AAA unless an injury forces someone to miss the start of the season. He made a brief 4 game appearance last season with the Braves big league club and had decent, but not great numbers across AA and AAA last season (3.46 ERA, 8.7 K/9. Wright does need to work on his control a bit as he does have a 3.3 BB/9 walk rate in the minor leagues but has had success getting groundballs (50%+ at each stop in the minors). Fantasy owners should also remember that he is just 23 years old and 2017 was his first year in the majors - making it more impressive that former 5th overall pick in 2017 made his major league debut less than 2 years after being drafted - worth a stash in dynasty leagues.
Aaron Nola (SP-PHI)
Fresh off a 45-million-dollar extension, the Philadelphia Ace made his spring debut Tuesday showing no signs of rust throwing 3 shutout innings allowing 1 hit and striking out 3. While the Phillies loaded up on the offense this offseason, Nola will be expected to shoulder the load again in 2019. Finishing 3rd place in the NL Cy Young voting last year, Nola was spectacular logging 212 innings as the Phillies workhorse and striking out 224. In a season of rising home runs rates, he limited damage with the long ball (0.7 HR/9). Nola dominated hitters with his curveball last season to the tune of a .156 avg and 107 strikeouts, but one of the big reasons for his success was improved usage of his changeup. 2018 saw a 50+ point drop in opponents' batting averages when he used his changeup and his ability with mix and match that more effectively with his fastball (92.4 mph avg) and curveball really seemed to bring everything together for him. He was a beneficiary of his lowest babip of his career (.251) but there is a chance that number could stay in a similar range as the Phillies have made upgrades to the defense behind him. Owners should feel confident as drafting him as one of the top pitchers this year.
Zack Cozart (3B-LAA)
Cozart is in line to miss a few weeks with a grade 1 calf strain. This could impact his availability to suit up opening day. Following him signing a three-year deal with the Angels in the offseason he struggled to get anything going on offense posting a career worse .219/.296/.362 line and his season ended early due to a torn labrum. Cozart also performed a position switch last year, playing many of his games at 3B (35 games) with some sprinkled in at 2B (16) and his original position SS (15). Despite what appears to be a "down" season his 84 wrc+ is still higher than 3 of career seasons and its possible his 2017 campaign where he posted a 140 wrc+ is a bit of an outlier. The majority of his 2018 metrics don't differ too much except his babip was a career low .244, so even when he does return there are a significant number of shortstops that offer more fantasy upside than Cozart.
Luis Severino (SP-NYY)
Severino was scratched from his 2019 Grapefruit League debut Tuesday with "right shoulder discomfort" and following an MRI it was determined he has inflammation in his rotator Cuff. He is currently slated to rest for the next few weeks while undergoing treatment and the team will proceed from there. This almost surely will force him to miss opening day and could lead to a rocky start for the Yankees projected rotation as C.C. Sabathia is slated for a 5-game suspension to open the season due to an incident last year. Severino has logged 384 innings over the past 2 seasons for the Yankees amassing 450 strikeouts and back-to-back top 10 Cy Young finishes. It is worthy to point out that Severino struggled mightily in the second of last season posting a 5.57 ERA and allowing batters to post an .821 OPS - a far cry from the 2.31 ERA and .579 OPS he allowed during the first half of the season. While he may still be shaking off the offseason rust one has to wonder whether the back-to-back 190+ inning seasons of him throwing his 97-mph fastball are taking a toll.
Jack Flaherty (SP-STL)
Flaherty was extremely impressive Tuesday vs the Phillies, hurling 4 shutout innings while picking up 9 strikeouts, including 7 straight batters at one point. This in the heels of a tough first outing that saw him give up 3 ER on 5 hits over 4 IP his first time out - although he still picked up 5 strikeouts. It is nice to see that early on the Cardinals have been confident enough to allow Flaherty to toss 4 innings in each of his first 2 starts, as he will be relied on heavily with Carlos Martinez possibly not available to start the season. He had a strong 13.4% Swinging Strike Rate which helped him compile a 10.85 K/9 - numbers that have been on display this spring. A key will be whether he can control his walk rate - a 3.52 BB/9 allowed him to cover only 151 innings over 28 starts - but that may work out in the 23-year-olds favor as the Cardinals try to keep their young starter fresh.
Josh Bell (1B-PIT)
Bell hit a 3-run homer during Monday's spring game. After a promising 2016 that saw Bell hit 26 home runs and drive in 90, his power numbers dropped off a bit as he hit just 12 home runs last seasons. It was sort of a strange season for the first basemen as he traded power for on base skills as he put together a .261/.357/.411 line good for a 112 wrc+, better than his 26 home run season. Through his first few seasons Bell has not been your prototypical 1B power hitter - he has great plate discipline (12.1% walk rate and 17.7% K rate). 2018 saw him try to hit more balls up the center (37.6%) and he pulled less balls (a decrease of 41.5% to 33.8%). While he may not put up typical power numbers I would still expect him to hit in the top 4 spots of the Pirates lineup on a consistent basis - and could end up being the teams home run leader in 2019.
Leonys Martin (OF-CLE)
Martin went 1 for 3 with a 2-run homer Tuesday and overall has had a scorching spring going 8-16 with 2 home runs. Martin, who missed the end of last season following a life-threatening bacterial infection must be the feel-good story of the spring so far and could end up being the top outfielder on the Cleveland roster. Martin has never quite put it together as a professional, although his .255/.323/.425 line was his most impressive yet. 2018 saw a drastic increase his hard hit % (25.3% to 37.9%) one potential reason why he has a career .170 ISO and had 29 extra base hits in just 84 games. Martin has also stolen 20 bases 3 times in his career and despite him turning 31 today, he faces virtually no road blocks to starting time for Cleveland and could easily provide 15 homers and steals apiece.
Salvador Perez (C-KC)
The Royals confirmed Monday that Perez does indeed have a torn UCL in his right elbow and will under season ending Tommy John Surgery. The loss of Perez cannot be understated. From a fantasy perspective he has been one of the top offensive players at the position for years, hitting 20+ doubles and 20+ home runs each of the past 4 seasons, including a career high 27 last year. For the Royals this means Cam Gallagher (career line of .218/.274/.333) steps into the starting role for now, but look for the Royals look outside the organization, especially for someone that brings a strong defensive skillset to the Kansas City Staff. Gallagher is not a fantasy option and the injury here makes the position that much thinner heading into drafts - for those looking for an elite catcher this year, you may need to reach slightly higher than anticipated to get someone that will truly make a fantasy difference.
Jordan Hicks (RP-STL)
Non-closer relief pitchers generally aren't worth profiling on the spring, but Hicks had a spring day to remember Tuesday striking out 4 batters in 1 inning. He was afforded the opportunity for the ever-rare 4th strikeout following a dropped third strike. Hicks has now struck out 7 in 2 spring training innings - although he has still been a little erratic with 1 BB, HBP and wild pitch in that time well. Many fans may remember last year when Hicks burst onto the scene routinely throwing 101mph fastballs - but was not able to translate those into great results. He registered a 3.59 ERA over 77 and 2/3 innings and only struck out 8.1 per 9 innings. While he did generate a 60.7% groundball rate he was extremely wild while he pumped in the gas, averaging 5.9 BB/9, hitting 8 batters and throwing 9 wild pitches. Despite these tendencies his arm is incredibly intriguing, as the Cardinals had him skip AA and AAA, bringing him directly to the majors at 21 last year. With Andrew Miller now in the fold in St. Louis he may pick up the occasional save - but doesn't appear to be the closer yet - but could still be valuable on fantasy rosters if he continues to rack up strikeouts as he has in the spring thus far.
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