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March 24, 2015

Five to Watch

American League Position Battles

by Nick Shlain

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Tampa Bay Rays SP: Nate Karns in the rotation to start the season?

Injuries to Alex Cobb (forearm), Drew Smyly (shoulder), and Alex Colome (pneumonia) have the Rays rotation in flux. Nate Karns, a 27-year-old right-hander acquired from the Nationals prior to last season, went from battling for the fifth spot in the rotation to being locked in after these injuries. Spring training statistics can be deceiving, but Karns has had a good spring (9 H, 3 ER, 3 BB, 8 K in 13 1/3 innings) after he posted a 5.08 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in 27 starts with Triple-A last season.

While Cobb, Smyly, and Colome could all return to the Rays rotation sometime in April, Karns figures to get at least a few starts to show what he’s made of before that happens. Karns isn’t a glamorous option by any means, but he can miss bats as he has struck out over 150 batters each of the past two years in the minor leagues. His control isn’t great and leads to too many walks (nine percent walk rate in Triple-A last year) and home runs (16 home runs allowed in Triple-A last year) allowed. Fortunately, the Rays will play 12 of their 22 April games at Tropicana field and another three against the Marlins in Miami. I wouldn’t tempt fate by starting him in fantasy when he’s pitching at Yankees Stadium or Rogers Centre, but he’s a potentially underrated source of strikeouts if he can keep from ruining your ratios.

Chicago White Sox 2B: Micah Johnson or Carlos Sanchez?

Despite Micah Johnson’s .455 AVG this spring, Jason Martinez of MLB Depth Charts isn’t ready to project him as the Opening Day starter at second base for Chicago. Instead, the White Sox are likely to hand the job to Carlos Sanchez, at least against right-handed pitching, to begin the season. Sanchez will make contact, but he isn’t much of a hitter and isn’t nearly as exciting in fantasy compared to Johnson.

Once the White Sox are two weeks into the season, they should give Johnson a chance to prove himself. He’s not an outstanding hitter himself, but his speed will drive his value. Johnson has plus-plus speed and the potential to rack up stolen bases in bunches, which is a profile that can be very valuable in AL-Only leagues. It would perhaps be unwise to get into a bidding war with your White Sox fan friend over Johnson, but you can’t forget about the speedster on draft day even if he’s sent back to the minor leagues.

Toronto Blue Jays 2B: Devon Travis or Ryan Goins?

The competition for the opening day job at second base is down to just Travis and Goins thanks to a groin strain that will keep Maicer Izturis on the disabled list to begin the season, which is funny because groin strains are serious in baseball and the Blue Jays are still paying Izturis $3 million annually. According to John Lott of the National Post, Travis “would appear to have the edge.” This is good news for fantasy owners, of course, because Goins isn’t much of a fantasy option. Travis, however, has tools and hit 10 home runs with 16 steals in 100 games with Double-A last year. He’s unlikely to breakout in any one of the fantasy categories, but it is a balanced profile and if he can grab hold of the job and hang onto it, he should be a solid middle infield option in AL-Only leagues.

Oakland Athletics SP: Kendall Graveman?

The A’s are also waiting on some pitchers to get healthy. Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin are on the comeback trail from Tommy John surgery and could return mid-season. With spots in the rotation basically up for grabs after Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir at the top, Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle writes that, “Graveman seems like a lock to make [the] rotation.”

Graveman isn’t going to miss very many bats, but he induces groundballs with his sinker-slider combination and has added a cutter in the last year. He’s allowed just one earned run in 15 innings this spring and batters are hitting a paltry .143 against him. The Athletics also have Drew Pomeranz and Jesse Hahn as rotation options and there could be a logjam if even one of Parker and Griffin return during the season. That still leaves plenty of time for Graveman to establish himself and given his ground ball heavy profile and home ballpark he could do that in short order. The lack of strikeouts will make him more of an AL-Only option, but I also like him for deeper mixed leagues.

Houston Astros Closer: Luke Gregerson or Neshek or Qualls or Fields or Sipp?

The Astros are still yet to name a closer. Chad Qualls saved 19 games for the Astros last year, but the team brought in Gregerson and Neshek as free agents. Gregerson is the most established reliever and the Astros rewarded him with a big contract this past offseason, but his strikeout rate and slider usage has declined each year since 2012. His strikeout rate was still 20 percent last year, but it was approaching 25 percent a few years ago. Gregerson’s slider usage has declined from using it 68 percent of the time to just 47 percent of the time last year. These trends aren’t headed in the right direction for Gregerson and he doesn’t have the benefit of being a Proven Closer™ as his career high in saves in a season is nine. Until the club names a closer, it would be unwise to target Gregerson just to see the Astros fool around with a committee system or him blow the gig.

Related Content:  Spring Training,  Fantasy,  Position Battles

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