Wow, it's my first fantasy baseball article of the year. Usually, I've written several by now, but it's been a wild couple of months. Anyway, I'm here now and ready to talk up some 2021 Fantasy Baseball Spring Training Position Battles that have my attention.
When doing my research, I had about fifteen that I wanted to write about. A) I don't think I could hold your attention for that many damn words and B) I noticed that a lot of them wouldn't be super fantasy-relevant for the typical league. So, I narrowed it down to four major battles that I believe could have major fantasy implications. I also added three more at the end that just really intrigued me and I couldn't stop myself from writing about them. The joys of baseball fandom!
The tables below show Steamer projections and Fantrax average draft position (ADP). I tried not to get too "take-y" here. The main purpose of this article is to bring up questions about some players - where they're being drafted, where you want to plant your flag, etc. Planting that flag now can help you buy at value before ADP movement over the next month.
2021 Fantasy Baseball Spring Training Position Battles
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San Diego Padres - Second Base
Competitors: Jake Cronenworth, Ha-Seong Kim, Jurickson Profar
There's an embarrassment of riches for the Padres at pretty much every position, but none more obvious than in their infield. Jake Cronenworth was a machine in the 1st half of the shortened 2020 season (177 wRC+). However, he slowed down considerably in September/October (55 wRC+). What can we expect in 2021?
Meanwhile, the Padres saw an opportunity to sign a highly-regarded 25-year-old in Ha-seong Kim who has already played seven leagues in the KBO. Oh, and by the way, he had an OPS over 0.830 in every full season he played in that league. The Padres paid him like they've got plans for him, so I'm definitely prioritizing his at-bats this spring on my watch list. And, Jesus, that swing though!
Been watching a lot of Ha Seong Kim today. Check out the interesting swing similarities between him and Ronald Acuña. pic.twitter.com/QT69opgxKh
— Chris Clegg (@RotoClegg) December 27, 2020
This doesn't even include Profar, who bounced back in 2020 after a mediocre 2019 with a triple-slash of 0.278/0.343/0.428 with seven homers and seven steals. This team desperately needs the DH to come to the NL. For now, we are doomed to speculate.
Right now, I see a perfect opportunity for a platoon at second base. As is typical with lefties, Cronenworth was considerably better against righties (156 wRC+, 0.265 ISO in 131 PA) than lefties (58 wRC+, 0.036 ISO in 61 PA) in 2020. The sample sizes are a little low for my taste, so it's not fair to judge him this early in his career. This could be something to watch for in spring training though for us fanatics!
Excited to revisit this in a month or so. Either guy would be so valuable to a fantasy roster if they were to get legitimate everyday work. Profar would even be useful in deeper leagues with his positional flexibility as he is likely to get some outfield work.
Los Angeles Dodgers - 5th Starter
Competitors: Julio Urias, Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May
Like the Padres, the defending champions are once again loaded. They've got about five closers and bench players that could play every day on playoff contenders (more on that later).
I wanted to focus on the final rotation spot for them though as there are some high-profile candidates that will be great fantasy assets at certain points of the season. (The four I'm locking in are Kershaw, Bauer, Buehler, and Price in some order.)
According to everything I've seen, Julio Urias is the frontrunner with Gonsolin as a long-reliever and May either a long-reliever or on standby in AAA. When one looks at career splits for each of these guys as starters versus relievers, it's not helpful at all. All three guys have had success in both roles.
— Michael Augustine (@AugustineMLB) October 14, 2020
It's important to remember that the Dodgers have frequently used six-man rotations and timely IL stints to give their starters some rest in the past few years. Each of these guys will be fantasy-relevant at some point in the season, but it would be nice to know for sure which one will get the No. 5 role out of the gate.
Darkhorse: Don't sleep on Josiah Gray! Dodgers' top-rated prospect is going to be a monster. I would think his turn would come either in late 2021 or early 2022, but never count out his kind of talent to win the job out of camp.
Colorado Rockies - Everywhere
Competitors: Ryan McMahon, Brendan Rodgers, Garrett Hampson, Sam Hilliard
The year is 2040. Electric cars are being sold at used car lots. Players are being suspended for genetically altering themselves to improve their game. And the Rockies are still wondering how to platoon Brendan Rodgers, Ryan McMahon, Garrett Hampson, and the rest of their team.
You can't really blame them though - none of those guys have forced their way into the lineup. Excluding Rodgers, each of those guys ran a wRC+ under 90 in 30+ games in 2020. (Rodgers played just seven games and had a negative wRC+ but was playing through injury.) However, the Rockies must figure out how to deploy these guys in three available spots.
I'm willing to give McMahon the edge here because of his defensive ability at third base. While he could lose the occasional start to Josh Fuentes against lefties, McMahon is the favorite to have the most at-bats out of this group. Brendan Rodgers will get an opportunity as well since he was such a highly regarded prospect and hasn't gotten near enough plate appearances just yet. (This makes his ADP very intriguing in deep leagues.) Hilliard should at the very least see the strong side of a platoon in the outfield and could play his way into an everyday role like Tapia did last year.
While Rodgers has the best all-around profile for fantasy, Garrett Hampson is so damn intriguing because of his speed on the basepaths. His minor league numbers were fantastic, but it just hasn't translated to the majors yet. He should start the year as a super-utility guy but could quickly play his way up the depth chart if other guys falter (or if he has a good spring!)
Regardless of what happens, we have to be alert here because we all know what Coors Field can do for fantasy goodness.
Detroit Tigers - Back of Rotation
Competitors: Michael Fulmer, Jose Urena, Julio Teheran, Tarik Skubal, Casey Mize, Matt Manning
I think this one will surprise people. But, I believe in the talent of Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize. I desperately want them to win jobs out of camp, but ultimately it's up to the Tigers to make that call. It's hard to see the motivation for the Tigers to do that. Hey, maybe with all this stuff coming out of Seattle, the tables get turned somehow in favor of the players...
Anyway, this is a classic case of signing veterans that can eat innings until they are ready to call up their stud pitchers. (One could infer that from the table above.) Expect Mize and Skubal to be held down for a couple of weeks before getting the call in late April.
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) September 6, 2020
For some light reading, check this article out regarding Skubal learning a splitter from Mize. It's awesome to see two great pitchers share their weaponry with their cohorts. This development for Skubal, adding a third pitch that he is more confident in, could mean wonders for his game. Something to keep an eye on in his spring training starts.
Also, keep an eye on Matt Manning, another high-profile pitching prospect in the system. He should start the year in AAA and get a call-up in the summer. Imagine a AAA staff with Mize, Skubal, Manning, and others like Beau Burrows, Alex Lange, and Franklin Perez. The Tigers are looking good in the pitching department for the near future.
Others Receiving Votes
Lux in Flux
It wasn't that long ago that Gavin Lux was near the hotness in 2020 fantasy drafts. Then, a disappointing 2020 for him occurred after missing time in spring training and getting sent to the alternate site. He did finally get a chance to start several games in the final month or so of the season, but it wasn't a good showing. His Fantrax ADP of 200 flirts with the line between "taking a chance" and "having to call him my MI or UT". So, what's in store for Lux in 2021?
Really, the only spot that's halfway open for Lux is second base. However, I don't believe projecting fewer at-bats for Chris Taylor is a wise move. At least not at the beginning of the season. Taylor was impressive in 2020 and he's been incredibly consistent since joining the Dodgers in 2016 (116 wRC+, 0.805 OPS).
Exit velocity: 106.1 mph
Distance: 422 feet
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) October 14, 2020
Unfortunately, I'm not sure if he even beats out Edwin Rios out of the gate. Rios could even see playing time in the field without a DH against righties should the Dodgers get creative with their lineup (move Muncy to 2B). Rios is running a 152 wRC+ in his first 139 plate appearances, so he'll certainly get more looks in 2021 to prove those numbers wrong or right.
Met Your Match
A competition that isn't getting as much buzz is the battle for the Mets' final rotation spot. We've got incumbent David Peterson versus newcomer Joey Lucchesi. The two southpaws have very similar Steamer projections with both expected to start double-digit games and sport an ERA around 4.30 with useful K/BB ratios.
Honestly, I'd like to see both of these guys get twenty-plus starts. I've always been a fan of Lucchesi while Peterson was fun to watch last year with that beautiful slider. With that said, there is one wild card here that could provide a path for both to shine: Taijuan Walker. Injuries limited him to just 14 innings between 2018 and 2019. Last year, he had an ERA (2.70) that was around two runs lower than his FIP (4.56) and xFIP (4.82). One way or another, I don't trust Walker to hit the Steamer-projected 26 starts.
Jordan Yamamoto is also an interesting name to remember for deeper leagues as his name has been tossed around as well. I would expect him to see several starts throughout the 2021 season. Noah Syndergaard is also expected to return at some point which will muddy things even more.
The fate of many Twins rests in Alex Kirilloff's hands. The 23-year-old got his first taste of the big leagues in the 2020 postseason last year and performed well for an injured Byron Buxton. Now, he gets an opportunity this spring to take the job for good. The top-tier prospect projects to be an excellent fantasy option and could be an absolute steal at his current ADP of 252 if he can take the job.
First player in MLB history to record his first big league hit in the postseason: @Twins' Alex Kirilloff.
And no cheapy: 105.9 mph exit velo pic.twitter.com/VCvqSBdEY7
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) September 30, 2020
If that happens, where does that leave Jorge Polanco and Luis Arraez? The best case for those two is Kirilloff needing extra time in AAA to start the year. This would allow Arraez to get playing time in left field. If Kirilloff thwarts those plans though, you could see an ugly platoon at second base between Arraez and Polanco, who had a down year in a shortened 2020 season. The Twins have expressed that they want Polanco at second base most days, but if he plays like he did last year, it could get interesting.
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