Spring is in the air. The weather is warmer, the sun seems brighter and we finally get to watch baseball. To the fantasy owner, this time of year is spent poring over stats and projections to determine how to build a successful team. But for the players, this is a crucial time of year to determine what position they play, how often they play, and whether or not they will even make the team. This week, weâ€™ll look at the American League and focus on three teams with high profile positional battles.
Los Angeles Angels: Left Field and Designated Hitter
Manager Mike Scioscia is going to earn his paycheck this spring. Mark Trumbo and Kendrys Morales were displaced from first base with the January signing of Albert Pujols. Future-star Mike Trout is going to take over an outfield position at some point, though maybe not this year. Vernon Wells and Bobby Abreu are competing to see who will be more disappointing. Â Add it altogether and you have five players vying for two positions.
In left field, the battle rages between Abreu, Wells and Trout. For the DH, the loser between the Abreu and Wells competition, Morales, and Trumbo all aim to get regular at-bats.
Unfortunately, the decision in left field is not based solely on skill. If it were, then Mike Trout would be the obvious answer. Last year in Double-A, he hit 11 home runs with 18 triples and 33 stolen bases before he was called up to the Angels’ outfield. His power and speed potential make him an attractive fantasy prospect. But contracts are a big factor in playing time and with Vernon Wells still owed $63 million, he’ll earn the outfield spot. Also, if Trout starts the first three months in the minor leagues, then the Angels control an extra year of his contract. So, despite how successful Trout is this spring, expect this 20-year-old to start the season in the minors.
Wells is coming off an atrocious season himself, with an OBP of only .248. At 33 years old, Wells is in a declining phase of his career and there’s not much upside for mixed league owners. AL-Only owners may take notice to his splits, notably his success against left-handed pitchers where he batted a .284 average along with 10 home runs in only 162 at-bats.
Abreu is coming off his first single digit home run season since 1997 and his batting average has trended significantly downward over the past two years. What’s worse is his poor attitude to a limited role. The plan is to give Abreu 400 plate appearances this year, likely a mix of DH, left field and right field (to cover Well’s and Torii Hunter’s rest schedule). Abreu initially demanded a trade if he is not an everyday player. Since a closed-door meeting with Scioscia, he has tamed this fiery talk and has accepted his role. Nonetheless, don’t be shocked if Abreu is in a different uniform by this summer, especially if the Angels are willing to eat some of his $9 million contract.
Spring Training experimentation features Trumbo at third base, satisfying fantasy owners with youth at a thin position, but leaving the Angelsâ€™ defense in question. But Trumbo’s power potential may be enough to overlook his defensive liabilities. Last year he quietly blasted 29 home runs and in 2010 at Triple-A, he smacked another 36. The power is legit and the Angels will find a way to get him regular at-bats.
At DH Kendrys Morales is the logical choice. He is coming off a fluke injury in 2010 and his body will benefit from the lack of fielding. Nobody is quite sure if Morales will be ready come Opening Day, so this is a player to monitor closely.
Oakland Athletics: Â Closer
When the A’s sent Andrew Bailey packing to Beantown this offseason, they left a wake of uncertainty behind in the closer role. The initial assumption was that Brian Fuentes would take on the role. His 12 saves were second behind Bailey. But career reliever Grant Balfour has been inserted into the role so far this spring, despite 10 career saves versus 14 blown saves. Manager Bob Melvin said last week that these two players were “obvious choices.”
Both players are known commodities and lack the excitement fantasy owners crave. Fuentes has always been an edge-of-your-seat type closer. Balfour has been awful in Spring Training thus far, giving up three home runs in three appearances and sporting a 16.87 ERA. While fantasy owners can be confident that one of these two players will start the season as the featured closer, the true prize rests in either Joey Devine or Fautino De Los Santos.
Joey Devine had Tommy John surgery in 2009, but has not been healthy enough to stay on the mound since his return. He had 26 appearances last year before a back injury derailed his season in July. De Los Santos is the future of this bullpen. He is only 26 years old and features a 96 mph fastball and wicked slider in his arsenal. He led the team last year with an 11.61 K/9.
This spring, let Balfour and Fuentes battle it out as the opening day closer. But know both will falter during the year, clearing the way for either Devine or De Los Santos. Both could provide sneaky value at the end of your draft.
Â New York Yankees: Fourth and Fifth Starting Pitcher
The trade of AJ Burnett was a welcome sight for Yankees fans. Gone are the pain inducing walks and untimely home runs. Now the Yankees enter 2012 with Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia contending for the last two slots in the starting rotation. All three players are fantasy relevant and contain value in New York as their win totals will be high.
Ivan Nova has the inside track after his successful 2011 season.Â Despite a low 5.57 K/9 and a mediocre 3.10 BB/9, his 16-4 record will make him an attractive option for manager Joe Girardi. Nova is only 25-years-old, so the general thought is that he will improve command. But his skill set looks weak and wins are fickle. His five year minor league career boasts an unimpressive 5.60 K/9 and a 3.03 BB/9, right in line with his Yankees debut. Combined with a 4.16 xFIP, we should see regression.
Freddy Garcia has been successful so far this spring. He’s pitched five innings with four strike outs and one walk. Don’t get too excited with this small sample size. His career stats show that he cannot sustained this level of play. In the past three years, he has averaged a 4.18 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP. Having turned 35 in October, it’s safe to assume that his improvement days are behind him. However, if he continues to play this way, Girardi will give him a serious look once the season begins. Â If he does begin the season as the fifth starter, don’t expect him to finish it.
Hughes has been no slouch himself this spring. This is promising news to the Yankees who watched their prized reliever-turned-starter suffer from a dead arm last season. He’s gone four innings with only four hits and one walk. His two strikeouts aren’t too concerning. He has been hitting 93 miles per hour on the radar gun with good control, indicating strikeouts are coming. Hughes has the highest upside of the three players. He is only two years removed from an 18 win season with 146 strikeouts in 176 innings. At the age of 25, we may see improvement in his skills.
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