As J.P. Breen takes a look at the spring position battles currently in the process of being settled in the American League East, I’m here to take a look at a few of the fantasy-relevant pushes for playing time taking place in the various camps of American League Central teams this spring, as there are thankfully just under two weeks until Opening Day ……
You might have heard a thing or two about the recent opening at designated hitter over the last few days, but it appears that Avisail Garcia will get the bulk of the at-bats that the recently retired Adam LaRoche was slated to get, leaving the starting-shortstop and fifth-starter jobs remaining as unsettled on Chicago’s South Side.
Right-handed-hitting shortstop Tyler Saladino hit his third homer of the spring on Saturday (off Kenley Jansen), and the 2010 seventh-rounder from Oral Roberts owns a 1.214 OPS in 18 at-bats as he tries to work his way into a platoon with the switch-hitting Jimmy Rollins, who was signed to a $2 million minor-league deal in February. Saladino was promoted last July and struggled mightily with the bat in 254 plate appearances at the major-league level in 2015, hitting for a .225/.267/.335 line (with four home runs and eight steals) while making 53 of his 60 starts at third base. However, in 149 career games at Triple-A Charlotte of the International League, Saladino owns a .282 AVG with 13 home runs and 33 stolen bases in 36 attempts. While Rollins’ career splits are pretty even—he owns a .732 OPS against lefties and a .750 OPS against right-handed pitchers—he was much better against lefties (.762 OPS against) than righties (.610 OPS) in 2015. Even if Rollins starts the year on a hot streak, only four shortstops (Omar Vizquel, Ozzie Smith, Derek Jeter, and Mike Bordick) have played 100 or more games at the position in their age-37 seasons, as Rollins will attempt to do in 2016. It appears Rollins and Saladino will be in a timeshare to open the year, but whoever wins the job will likely be a placeholder until Tim Anderson, who Bret Sayre ranked No. 10 among fantasy prospects, is ready. Anderson has yet to see any action at the Triple-A level, making it likely that Saladino and Rollins hold down the position until the Super Two cutoff—at minimum.
Latos, another veteran brought in on an inexpensive one-year deal, is battling 26-year old RHP Erik Johnson and winter waiver-claim Jacob Turner, who will (somehow) pitch 2016 at age 25, for the fifth slot in the rotation, as it appears John Danks (and his $15.75 million contract) has locked down the fourth spot. Latos pitched a bit better than his 4.95 ERA in 2015 would suggest, as his 3.74 FIP was just a touch worse than the 3.62 FIP he compiled in his last year with Cincinnati, and his cFIP of 97 in 16 starts with the Marlins in 2015 was actually better than his 102 cFIP over his 16 starts with the Reds in 2014. Latos is coming off the board as the 111th starting pitcher in NFBC drafts, and working with pitching coach Don Cooper could be just the elixir he needs to re-establish his fantasy value, as it was only a year ago that Mike Gianella and Bret Sayre rated Latos No. 156 overall on their top 300. Johnson, who has minor-league options remaining, pitched well in six September major-league starts (3.34 ERA) to close 2015, but has struggled this spring (13.50 ERA in two starts) and will likely return to Triple-A, where he doesn’t have a lot left to prove after posting a 2.37 ERA in 22 starts at the level in 2015. BP South Side’s Cat Garcia took a closer look at Turner, who is out of options, and will likely start the year in the bullpen.
With Cleveland’s signings of Juan Uribe and Mike Napoli, the depth chart looks relatively set. The timeline for Michael Brantley’s return from offseason shoulder surgery has seemingly changed about 73 times over the winter, with the latest report indicating that an Opening Day return is no longer out of the question. Prospect Tyler Naquin looked like a strong candidate to see time in center field while Brantley worked his way back, but it appears that the Indians will go with Rajai Davis in center, with recent signings Marlon Byrd and Will Venable around to provide outfield depth. AL-only and deep-league owners should also take note of pre-Lindor starting shortstop Jose Ramirez seeing time in the outfield this spring, as he could see enough work around the diamond in 2016 to be a sneaky-good deep league option with tasty multi-position eligibility. Ramirez, who hit two home runs on Sunday, has had a nice spring and could easily reach double digits in both home runs and steals with enough playing time.
Tomlin, who signed a two-year extension in January, appears to have the fifth-starter role locked up, despite his struggles this spring. 25-year-old RHP Cody Anderson, who looked good at times (3.05 ERA) in 15 major-league starts in 2015, and 26-year-old LHP T.J. House, who pitched well in his most recent spring outing after missing most of last season with a shoulder injury, appear to be on the outside looking in to start the season, but each could be called on if Tomlin’s struggles relegate him to the bullpen at some point.
Another team whose depth chart is pretty well set, the Tigers have worked around spring injuries to Anibal Sanchez and Victor Martinez, and find themselves with just a few questions to be answered prior to Opening Day.
With the Tigers bringing in Jordan Zimmermann (five years, $110 million) and the Craig Goldstein of major-league pitchers (Mike Pelfrey) on a two-year, $16 million deal this winter, only one spot remains open in the rotation behind Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez. Norris, Boyd, and Michael Fulmer all arrived in Detroit last July via the David Price and Yoenis Cespedes trades. Norris, who turns 23 next month, was the centerpiece of the return for Price and would appear to have a leg up on Greene for the fifth rotation spot, but Brad Ausmus hasn’t revealed much regarding the topic this spring. The key for Norris in not becoming a one-man WHIP killer is limiting walks, which he did a much better job doing in his eight starts with the Tigers after coming over from Toronto, seeing his walk rate drop from just under five per game with the Jays to just below two per nine innings with the Tigers. Greene struggled immensely as 2015 went on, seeing his ERA rise from 4.60 in April/May to 5.83 in May, then exploding to 11.05 in June and finally reaching 12.27 in July, before pitching only one more inning in the majors the rest of the way. Greene finished with a sparkling 6.88 ERA and somehow finished just short of winning the American League Cy Young award. After offseason surgery for a pseudoaneurysm in his pitching hand, Greene has pitched fairly well this spring, striking out 10 in 8 2/3 innings while allowing 10 hits and three runs.
Top prospect Michael Fulmer also appeared in the running for a major league role, but was optioned to Triple-A Toledo on Friday and Boyd and Farmer both look like longshots to overtake Norris or Greene, but are each currently are still in major-league camp.
Saltalamacchia was brought aboard to backup starting catcher James McCann after the Tigers chose to move on from Alex Avila, which leaves the out of options Bryan Holaday without a guaranteed roster spot this spring. Holaday is hitting for a cool .464 AVG with four home runs this spring, which means there is about a zero percent chance that he would make it through waivers, and has led to the Tigers to discuss keeping all three catchers to start the year.
Key Undecided Roles
Starting right fielder (after Jarrod Dyson injury): Travis Snider or Paulo Orlando?
Fifth starter: Kris Medlen, Danny Duffy, Dillon Gee or Chien-Ming Wang?
Starting second baseman: Omar Infante or Christian Colon?
Jarrod Dyson’s Grade 2 strained oblique injury, one that is expected to keep him out of action for at least the first couple of weeks of the regular season, will likely lead to a Travis Snider/Paulo Orlando platoon until he returns.
The defending World Series champs figured to have a few openings in their rotation over the winter after the departure of Johnny Cueto, but the free-agent signing of Ian Kennedy and the re-signing of RHP Chris Young closed two doors. Danny Duffy (who’s pitched primarily out of the bullpen in Cactus League action to this point) has struggled mightily this spring, but Ned Yost (predictably) doesn’t seem too concerned, although it appears that his struggles could lead to a bullpen role in 2016. Yost hasn’t committed either way as of yet, but all signs point to Chris Young and Kris Medlen rounding out the Kansas City rotation to start the year, with Dillon Gee filling the long-man role out of the bullpen and Wang serving as depth at Triple-A Omaha. Wang has reportedly been throwing 94-95 MPH this spring, so he could also emerge as a rotation option elsewhere if he moves on from the Royals, as he looks to channel his inner Rich Hill. Prospects Miguel Almonte and Kyle Zimmer are also on hand at Triple-A Omaha as rotation options as the year progresses.
Omar Infante, who has two more years and $15.75 million (plus a team option for 2018) left on his contract, appears healthy this spring, which likely gives him the advantage over the soon-to-be 27-year-old Colon, who is hitting .182 in 33 at-bats.
Key Undecided Roles
Starting center fielder: Byron Buxton, Danny Santana, or Max Kepler?
Starting designated hitter: Byung-ho Park, Oswaldo Arcia, or Carlos Quentin?
Fifth starter: Ricky Nolasco or Tommy Milone?
After dealing Aaron Hicks to the Yankees this winter, the Twins appear ready to hand the keys to center field to Buxton, the no. 2 fantasy prospect in the land. “Mr. Oktoberfest,” a.k.a. Max Kepler is still in big-league camp, but with Eddie Rosario, Buxton and Miguel Sano slated as the starting outfield, it’s highly doubtful that the Twins would keep Kepler around in a backup role. However, he could be the first up if an injury strikes a starter in the outfield.
Minnesota imported Park from the KBO this offseason with the intention that he and Joe Mauer would see the lion’s share of plate appearances between first base and designated hitter, and his strong spring—three home runs and a .303 AVG—hasn’t done anything to change those plans. Forgotten man Oswaldo Arcia—now known simply as Orlando’s older brother—hasn’t hit this spring (.208 AVG in 24 AB), after not hitting for most of the 2015 season. The recently un-retired Carlos Quentin and Arcia appear to be battling for the final bench spot at this point, with both offering little defensive value. I still really like Arcia as a player who could harness his 20-plus home-run potential and flourish with a change of scenery, but he’s going to have to prove he can still hit at some point to earn an opportunity somewhere else. R.I.P. Kennys Vargas’ fantasy value.
Twins skipper Paul Molitor said earlier in camp that it would take something “fairly significant” for Tyler Duffey to not secure the fourth spot in the Twins rotation to start the year, leaving Ricky Nolasco (and the $25 million left on this deal) and Tommy Milone as the primary options for the fifth spot, with Jose Berrios already assigned to the minors and Trevor May already informed that he would returning to the bullpen. PECOTA likes Nolasco slightly more than Milone, but Jose Berrios (No. 26 fantasy prospect) should be up after it’s prudent service time-wise for the Twins to make the call.