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March 23, 2016

Playing Time Battles

National League East

by Greg Wellemeyer

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We’re rolling toward the regular season by taking a look at some playing time that’s still up for grabs. In case you missed the previous editions, here’s Wilson Karaman on the AL West, J.J. Jansons on the AL Central, J.P. Breen on the AL East, and Matt Collins on the NL West.

Atlanta Braves

Key Undecided Roles

Catcher: Tyler Flowers, A.J. Pierzynski
Third Base/Left Field: Adonis Garcia, Kelly Johnson, Hector Olivera
Rotation: Manny Banuelos, Jhoulys Chacin, John Gant, Bud Norris, Mike Foltynewicz, Williams Perez, Ryan Weber
Closer: Jason Grilli, Jim Johnson, Arodys Vizcaino

It’s probably not too surprising that a club that spent the winter shedding major-leaguers from its roster has quite a bit up in the air this spring. The easiest battles to figure out are probably on the offensive side. Behind the plate, the Braves signed Flowers to a two-year deal and brought back the 39-year-old Pierzysnki for 2016, after he turned in a surprisingly stellar 2015 (.281 TAv, his best since 2003). This one isn’t a playing-time battle so much as a platoon situation, with Flowers likely to handle the long side. To the extent that it matters, neither one of the former White Sox has hit very well in spring action.

Olivera has probably cemented himself as the primary leftfielder with a .417/.420/.500 performance in 48 spring at-bats, which should mercifully limit the number of times we have to watch Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. Garcia missed a little time after turning his ankle and hasn’t overwhelmed with his spring performance, but he figures to be the primary third baseman. Garcia showed a big split last year even though he did manage five home runs in only 61 plate appearances against righties. As such, roving East Coast utility man Kelly Johnson will steal some at-bats from Garcia, as well as from Olivera and Jace Peterson at second base.

This rotation is a mess. Julio Teheran and Matt Wisler slot in at the top, and Norris is the presumptive third member even though he’s terrible and spent the second half of 2015 in the bullpen. He’s on a one-year deal and has been horrid this spring (12 ER in 12 2/3innings). I’m sure the Braves would love for Norris to pitch his way into being even a minor trade chip. I’m pessimistic. Folty and Gant have the most long-term potential but each could use a little more development time. Gant has been tremendous since joining the Braves organization - including this spring - but hasn’t pitched above Double-A. Folty got nearly a half-season in Atlanta with mixed results. The 8.0 K/9 was encouraging, as was his 3.0 BB/9, the lowest of his professional career. He struggled with run prevention because of a fly ball tendency, many of which traveled a great distance. Banuelos, Perez, and Weber all got starts in Atlanta last season, with Perez (116 innings) accruing by far the biggest sample. Perez is nothing more than an innings eater (real life, not fantasy), Banuelos probably offers the most upside because he can generate whiffs, and Weber will be the most ratio-stable because of his ability to generate grounders and limit walks. That leaves Chacin, who is reportedly in the lead for one of the vacant rotation spots, despite being in camp on a minor league deal. Health is always a question with Chacin, even though he did manage 155 innings last year between Triple-A and a brief stint with the Diamondbacks. Heavy slider usage means deep leaguers looking for a warm body hould take what they can get while Chacin is still in one piece.

Aaron Blair and Tyrell Jenkins have been re-assigned to minor league camp but both should be in Atlanta at some point this season.

Jason Grilli made his spring debut last week after working his way back from 2015’s ruptured Achilles. Nevertheless, skipper Fredi Gonzalez indicated he’s not locked in to one guy as the closer. Vizcaino is clearly the best pitcher of the three but the Braves will be showcasing Grilli for an eventual trade and he’ll get the most early opportunities if he’s fully healthy.

Miami Marlins

Key Undecided Roles

First Base: Justin Bour, Chris Johnson
Rotation: Adam Conley, Jarred Cosart, Edwin Jackson, Tom Koehler, Justin Nicolino, Jose Urena

The Marlins are committed to Justin Bour as the primary first baseman, affirming that they’ll give him opportunities against southpaws even though he fared poorly against them in 2015. Chris Johnson handles lefties well but this is not a strict platoon situation. I’m more bullish on Bour than most, believing that the power is real and the contextual stats will improve if the Marlins can get full seasons from Stanton, Yelich, and Ozuna. Derek Dietrich has also seen some time at first base this spring.

Jose Fernandez and Wei-Yin Chen sit atop the Marlins rotation. That much we know. Adam Conley broke out in Triple-A last season, then debuted with a solid 67-inning stint that included a 21 percent strikeout rate and 3.76 ERA. He’s having a fine spring, including a recent start in which he struck out all six batters in two innings of work. Given his age and upside, there’s no reason to believe Conley will be on the outside looking in. Jarred Cosart, who is also pitching well in games that don’t count, is probably locked in as well. 2015 was a disappointment after an encouraging full season in 2014, as Cosart missed substantial time and continued to struggle with walks. Strikeouts have never been part of Cosart’s game and there is significant WHIP risk. He’ll probably earn a spot for the Marlins but shouldn’t be a fantasy option outside of deep or NL-only contexts, and even then only as back-end guy. Jose Urena belongs in the bullpen or minor leagues and Edwin Jackson belongs in Korea. Nicolino managed acceptable ratios in his 2015 debut (4.01 ERA, 1.24 WHIP), an amazing accomplishment given that he struck out 23 batters in 74 innings. In the last decade, only Aaron Cook in 2012 struck out fewer per nine innings. Nicolino, too, has been good this spring, but I like Koehler for the last spot. He’s thrown more than 140 innings for the Marlins each of the past three seasons and averaged 190 over the past two. The performance has been good enough to avoid being unseated by another mediocre option.

New York Mets

Key Undecided Roles

Backup Catcher: Kevin Plawecki, Johnny Monell

Not much to report for the defending National League champs. An injury to Asdrubal Cabrera and the release of Ruben Tejada have thinned out the temporary middle infield depth. Wilmer Flores has a gig at the six spot while Cabrera heals and will eventually steal some time from Lucas Duda at first base. Juan Lagares and Alejandro De Aza have both hit well in spring but are solidly the fourth and fifth outfielders. Lagares will play late innings as a defensive replacement and will start occasionally against lefties at the expense of Michael Conforto. I don’t expect that to be often enough to truly damage Conforto’s value.

Perhaps the most surprising development out of Port St. Lucie has been the idea that Plawecki may head to Las Vegas when camp breaks. After half-hearted attempts to work both he and Travis d’Arnaud at first base, the Mets seem to have given up. In a vacuum, it makes sense to send Plawecki somewhere where he can play regularly. That giant sucking sound you hear does resemble a vaccum but it’s actually New York City, a place where a guy called Johnny Monell in the next best catching option if Plawecki goes west.

Philadelphia Phillies

Key Undecided Roles

Catcher: J.P. Arencibia, Cameron Rupp, Carlos Ruiz
Corner Outfield: Cody Asche, Tyler Goeddel, Darin Ruf, Darnell Sweeney
Rotation: Severino Gonzalez, Jeremy Hellickson, Adam Morgan, Charlie Morton, Brett Oberholtzer
Closer: Andrew Bailey, David Hernandez

Given that the Phillies are definitely not going anywhere this year, it’s pretty cool that they’re letting catching instructor Carlos Ruiz call a game for their young starters every once in a while. There hasn’t been a player-manager since Pete Rose in the mid-80s. Watch your back, Pete Mackanin. Chooch is stealing from time from Rupp for sure, and potentially from J.P. Arecibia, too. That pair are pretty similar: ugly batting average, loads of power. Arencibia finished second in the International League with 22 home runs and bopped six more at the big league level in just 73 plate appearances. Despite a strong spring, he’s unlikely to depose Rupp, who is three years younger and who played regularly for the Phillies last season. Rupp is a fine option for NL-only owners who can stomach the poor average in exchange for some thump.

Odubel Herrera will be in center field and the rest of the grass is up for grabs. Rule 5 selection Tyler Goeddel has done enough to make the roster and could establish himself in right field with Aaron Alterr out for most of the season. He’ll offer a cheap power-speed combo but it’s unreasonable for him to make as seamless a transition as fellow Rule 5 draftee Herrera did in 2015. Asche is the incumbent in left field. He’s also currently injured. He hit .245 with 12 home runs last year, good enough for $8 in NL-only earnings. That’s better than what I remembered. Darin Ruf and Darnell Sweeney will probably see some time in the outfield, though Ruf will primarily be Ryan Howard’s platoon partner and Sweeney more of a true utility-man and Cesar Hernandez insurance.

Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez, and to a lesser extent Jerad Eickhoff offer some long-term promise at the top of the rotation, which will hopefully bring solace to Phillies fans who watch Jeremy Hellickson start on Opening Day. Brett Oberholtzer is out of options and assured to be on the 25-man roster, though likely in the bullpen despite not allowing a run in eight spring innings. I assume the Phillies want Morton to be the fifth guy seeing as how they actively traded for him and his $8 million dollar salary. Adam Morgan has been better in spring but he has no upside and there’s little reason not to let Morton chew up innings until he gets hurt or traded.

David Hernandez has been the assumed closer throughout the offseason but news emerged recently that Andrew Bailey might actually be the favorite. It would be a remarkable comeback story if Bailey can pull it off. He pitched nine major league innings in 2015 after missing all of 2014, and hasn’t thrown more than 30 since 2011. I’m staying away no matter how this shakes out.

Washington Nationals

Key Undecided Roles

Shortstop: Danny Espinosa, Trea Turner

As with the Mets, the jobs in Washington are pretty stable. Lucas Giolito has yet to be reassigned to minor league camp. For a team that has designs on playing into the autumn, it doesn’t make much sense to put major league innings on his arm in April, especially since he’s still working to build up his innings count. Giolito pitched 117 frames in 2105 between High-A and Double-A. Tanner Roark is perfectly capable while they wait, and he’s throwing well right now.

Michael Taylor’s impressive spring performance is an argument for more than a typical reserve role. He might have to wait for Jayson Werth to get hurt.

The one true toss-up is at shortstop, where the Nationals are still deciding between a versatile veteran and one of their best prospects. Turner’s speed is real and 25-30 swipes is a possibility as soon as 2016 if he gets enough at-bats, but his .322 career line in the minors is well above what you should expect. Add in some useable power for the position, and you have high-floor option from the jump. Neither Espinosa nor Turner has been productive in camp and I’ll be surprised if Dusty Baker’s doesn’t defer to the veteran.

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

Related Content:  Spring Training,  Fantasy,  Position Battles

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