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March 25, 2015

Five to Watch

National League Position Battles

by Wilson Karaman

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Yesterday, Nick Shlain wrote about some fantasy-relevant position battles in the American League, and today we’ll turn our attention to the senior circuit. Here are a few I’ve had my eye on.

Chicago Cubs 2B: Et Tu, Javier?

I hesitate to bring this up for fear of my Twitter life, but Javier Baez was…not good after his promotion last year. And thus far in Spring Training he’s looked…also not good. I’ll spare you the gory details of what ails him, but if you’re interested in such things I can’t recommend Sahadev’s recent piece on the matter strongly enough. If you’re a visual learner, Ryan Parker’s excellent-as-always analysis of Baez’s swing mechanics is where it’s at.

For our purposes, what’s relevant is that on the heels of his .169/.227/.324 debut he’s just 5-for-37 to start spring training, with 13 whiffs and two walks in 39 plate appearances. Joe Maddon has repeatedly refused to confirm Baez’s Opening Day roster spot, and if Baez continues struggling to integrate mechanical adjustments into games over the next couple weeks he may very well force his way to Iowa.

Behind him on the depth chart stands intriguing-in-his-own-right erstwhile super utility guru Arismendy Alcantara, as well as sneaky offseason acquisition Tommy LaStella. The former did his own bit of struggling in his rookie campaign last summer, though impressed with his ability to adapt to center field on the fly.

The Dexter Fowler trade closed off Alcantara’s path to a starting gig, but Baez’ struggles may just open it right back up. Alcantara’s swing rate and pitches-per-plate appearance pointed to a reasonably patient hitter, yet he walked in less than six percent of his trips to the dish. When he did swing, he didn’t make a ton of contact, and when he made contact, he hit precious few line drives. Despite the struggles, the minor-league track record and pedigree suggest he’s more than capable of a strong step forward in his sophomore campaign. The direct path to additional playing time would obviously aid that effort significantly.

Pittsburgh Pirates SS: Jordy Mercer or Jung-Ho Kang?

Pretty much regardless of league context, any time a player hits .356 with 40 homers, it raises an eyebrow, and the Pirates were intrigued enough by Jung-Ho Kang to pony up $16 million for his services this past offseason despite at least what appears to be a full house on the infield dirt. Scouts have been skeptical that Kang’s offense will translate, noting the extreme offensive environment of the KBO (5.62 runs-per-game, compared to 5.22 in the California League last year, for example) and potential timing and swing-and-miss issues against MLB-caliber stuff. And thus far, at least through an initial (albeit miniscule) sample of spring training at-bats, the concerns have been validated to the tune of a 3-for-23 start with nine strikeouts.

Now, I could sit here and talk about whether or not I like his swing (I do!) or try to speculate on converting KBO numbers, but the reality of the situation is I have absolutely no idea how Kang’s performance will translate to the majors. He is Patient Zero insofar as he’s the first established KBO hitter to make the jump, so we have no precedent to work off. Especially given the slow start and Pirate management’s quotes about easing him into things it looks less and less likely that Kang will overtake Jordy Mercer for the starting shortstop gig, and that might be the best thing for fantasy owners on both counts.

For one, Mercer was very quietly a solid mixed-league play last season after an atrocious start to the season. From the first of June on he hit .278/.331/.433 with 11 homers, and despite a horrifying .199/.218/.274 line over the preceding two months he earned $7 of mixed-league value to check in 17th among SS-eligible hitters. He’s currently going 19th among six-spotters, however, and makes for a nice undervalued play in deeper leagues.

Meanwhile, Kang appears destined to begin the year in a utility role with the Pirates, which adds some intrigue on a couple levels. The potential for additional positional versatility is primary among them, and it also means he’s likely to be deployed in more favorable matchups out of the gate while he gets his bearings. The situation makes him particularly interesting in head-to-head leagues, where you won’t have to pay a starter’s price for him (he’s currently off the board 17th among shortstops) and he may just go about gaining a valuable eligibility profile by the time playoffs come around in September. There’s certainly downside risk that he flames out entirely, but legitimate potential for plus pop and MI eligibility doesn’t grow on trees late in drafts, and he has the makings of a nice flier at his current price.

All of the Arizona Diamondbacks: Is this thing on?

Well, not all of the Diamondbacks, just the ones who either play shortstop, catch, or have anything to do with a prospective Yasmany Tomas position. Let’s start with the catchers, because it’s far and away the most depressing positional “battle” in the major leagues, so we should get it out of the way as quickly as possible. Arizona is the only Major League teams currently projecting a negative WARP behind the dish, and there’s only one team within even one WARP of their anticipated terribleness. Neither Tuffy Gosewisch nor the Ghost of Gerald Laird provide any semblance of fantasy intrigue, and the only guy on the organizational depth chart who does has already been sent to minor-league camp and isn’t really a catcher. So basically nobody wins and we all lose.

The shortstop situation is interesting in a “this came out of nowhere!” sense and sad in a “we’ve written a bunch of nice things about Chris Owings this offseason” sense. After the off-season trade that sent Didi Gregorious to New York it was all but assumed the keys to the castle had been neatly tucked into Owings’ back pocket, but a couple days ago word emerged from Peter Gammons that Nick Ahmed may have seized the inside track to breaking camp as the Snakes’ shortstop. That’s bad news in fantasy land, as despite last year’s PCL’d numbers Ahmed’s offensive profile is not particularly appealing outside of some modest stolen base potential, and any loss of playing time for Owings knocks him off his sneaky sleeper pedestal.

Most pressingly for Arizona, the Yasmany Tomas Hot Corner Experience somehow keeps on keepin’ on despite nigh-on wholesale dismissal by the scouting community. Whether Tomas sticks at third has all kinds of implications, both for his own positional versatility and the playing time of others. If he sticks, under-the-radar Jake Lamb heads back to the minors.

J.P. wrote at greater length about this dynamic last week, and I largely share his affinity for Lamb as a potentially strong endgame value play. The D’backs continue to threaten that this experiment may continue into the season, however, and their outfield roster crunch is the primary reason why. With Trumbo and Pollock locked into RF and CF, respectively, and David Peralta seemingly set up for everyday duty in left, the inn’s already full. Add in young, semi-interesting fourth outfielder Ender Inciarte and old, less-interesting lefty masher Cody Ross, and there isn’t a ton of wiggle room if they do pull the plug.

Los Angeles Dodgers C: Yasmani Grandal or A.J. Ellis?

Judging by ADP, our own depth chart projection, and general common sense most people are aggressively assuming that Yasmani Grandal will be catching the overwhelming majority of pitches in Chavez Ravine this summer. But I’ve followed this team in general and Don Mattingly in particular long enough to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism, at least for the time being. A.J. Ellis is well-regarded, dare I say beloved, internally on account of his assorted clubhouse and game management intangibles, and as recently as 2012 he hit .270/.373/.414 before the lower body injuries began piling up. Those injuries are certainly worth emphasizing, especially given that Ellis is soon to be 34 years old and failed to clear the Mendoza line last summer when he was on the field.

Grandal, meanwhile, has received heaps of deserved hype this offseason for an anticipated offensive breakout. He closed last season strong as his own knee surgery drifted farther into the rearview, he’s out of Petco, and (presumably) he’ll have an inside track to a starter’s workload behind the dish.

A switch-hitter, Grandal’s line from the right side was awful last year, however, and he hasn’t looked much better in the early going this spring, either. Meanwhile, Ellis’ career .720 OPS against the fairer-handed includes a robust .361 OBP, hinting at the parameters for a potential left-right platoon. And while the Dodgers have insisted Ellis will not serve as Kershaw’s “personal catcher,” the ace’s stated preference would figure to hold an awful lot of water if he struggles to get on the same page with the newcomer in a couple early season starts.

The Dodgers have thus far been mum on the exact plans, and my point in emphasizing the uncertainty is only to highlight that this situation likely has more fluidity to it than may intuitively appear. Obviously Grandal emerging as the primary guy would do right by a whole lot of fantasy managers. But Donny Baseball may just have other ideas for a thus-far-healthy A.J. Ellis.

Philadelphia Phillies OF: Ben Revere and hope for groundballs near (second base)?

With the Phillies finally, mercifully on the apparent path towards possibly thinking about maybe burning down their roster and starting from scratch, there are some glaring holes on the squad entering the season. The outfield is one of those places. Ben Revere is a nice fantasy asset on account of his wheels, and he’s locked in up the middle. But it gets uncomfortable quickly when the focus shifts to his left or right.

Domonic Brown has a busted up Achilles tendon that may or may not require him to start the season on the DL, and he was worth all of $4 over more than 500 plate appearances last season. There’s possibly still a power stroke in there somewhere, but outside of a couple-month stretch in the first half of 2013 he really hasn’t shown an ability to sustain league-average offense against Major League pitching. He’s not the worst bench flyer at the end of a deep league draft, given that if he’s healthy he’ll play. But beyond that he’s a wait-and-see guy at best.

In left field it’s an even greater wide open. Grady Sizemore ostensibly entered Spring Training with an inside track for the starting nod, but he’s got three hits in 11 games now and looks just about as cooked thus far as he did during last year’s 83 OPS+ effort. He shouldn’t really be drafted anywhere at this point even if he wins the job outright, as there just doesn’t appear to be much of his prior glory left in the tank.

Rule 5 pickup Odubel Herrera appears to be the other option here, and Matt Winkleman conveniently did a nice job breaking down his potential fantasy value over at Dynasty Guru in the nick of time yesterday. Cheap speed is always worth paying attention to, and got some of that in addition to a not-terrible hit tool. The combination is decent enough that he cracked Bret’s Top 50 Second Base Prospects this offseason, back when he was still a future keystoner. That last part is key, incidentally, as he currently possesses 2B eligibility in Sportsline leagues and the added versatility makes him that much less uninteresting for those in deeper leagues if he does manage to emerge as the primary left fielder.

Wilson Karaman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Wilson's other articles. You can contact Wilson by clicking here

Related Content:  Spring Training,  Fantasy,  Position Battles

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Every Team's Moneyball... (03/24)
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Fantasy Article Five to Watch: America... (03/24)
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