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Spring Training Position Battles To Watch

Lars Nootbaar

Lars Nootbaar

Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

With the Super Bowl in the rearview mirror, fantasy baseball drafts on the horizon and Opening Day less than six weeks away, there are several spring training position battles that carry significant fantasy ramifications. Will Jordan Walker make the Cardinals’ season-opening roster as the club’s everyday right fielder? Can Oswald Peraza hold off fellow Yankees top prospect Anthony Volpe to become New York’s starting shortstop? Are the White Sox willing to commit to Oscar Colas as their right fielder? Is Vaughn Grissom the heir apparent to Dansby Swanson with the Braves? Who is closing for nearly half of the teams in baseball. With exactly one week remaining before Grapefruit and Cactus League action kicks off, here are the position battles fantasy managers should closely monitor in the lead up to Opening Day.

Yankees SS

Oswald Peraza vs. Anthony Volpe vs. Isiah Kiner-Falefa

Oswald Peraza is the clear favorite to emerge as the Yankees’ starting shortstop this spring, but he’ll have to battle fellow top prospect Anthony Volpe and veteran incumbent Isiah Kiner-Falefa over the next few weeks in Grapefruit League action. It’s easily the most fascinating position battle in baseball this spring and could wind up having a massive impact for fantasy managers. The 22-year-old infielder, who is currently being selected outside the top-300 picks, on average, (307th overall) in NFBC drafts since February 1, posted a robust .778 OPS with 19 homers and 33 stolen bases across 429 plate appearances last season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and also didn’t look overmatched during a late-season cup of coffee with the Yankees, slashing .306/.404/.429 with one homer and two steals in 57 plate appearances over 18 contests. He received an additional vote of confidence when he was added to New York’s ALCS roster a few weeks later.

“He has the exit (velocities),” Yankees hitting coach Dillon Lawson told The Athletic earlier this month regarding Peraza. “He has the contact and the bat-to-ball skills. For him, it’s refining his plate discipline and making sure that the ball flight is good. More often than not, it’s happening in a way that’s getting good results. It’s not only when he squares it up. When he mishits it or makes mistakes, he is able to have good results, even when his timing isn’t perfect.” If Peraza makes the Yankees’ season-opening roster, his contact skills and plus speed give him a chance to contribute for fantasy managers in all five traditional categories. He’s a strong late-round gamble in drafts this spring.

Though he’s not likely to crack New York’s Opening Day roster, Volpe is considered a top-10 overall prospect in baseball. He’s knocking on the door to the majors this spring, after hitting .249/.342/.460 with 21 homers and 50 stolen bases last year in 132 games between Double-A Somerset and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. If Peraza struggles out of the gate, Volpe could force New York’s hand with a stellar performance in Grapefruit League play. There’s some swing-and-miss in his profile, which limits his batting average upside, but he could be a four-category contributor right away for fantasy managers. Kiner-Falefa’s defensive versatility could make him appealing to another club in a late-spring trade, but he would make sense as a utility infielder and quality insurance policy behind either Peraza or Volpe.

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Cardinals RF

Lars Nootbaar vs. Jordan Walker

Lars Nootbaar – who is currently being selected just outside the top-175 picks, on average, (184th overall) in NFBC drafts since February 1 – possesses a combination of elite average exit velocity and stellar plate skills that have made him a popular breakout candidate for fantasy managers this offseason, but he’ll face a real test this spring when he squares off against the Cardinals’ top prospect for the starting job in right field. The 25-year-old corner outfielder, who is set to play for Team Japan in next month’s highly-anticipated World Baseball Classic, batted .228/.340/.448 with 14 homers and four steals in 347 plate appearances last season in the majors. He has nothing left to prove at the Triple-A level, where he’s posted an .865 OPS with 10 homers in 52 games over the last two years. It’s undeniable that Nootbaar has all the ingredients necessary to put together a breakthrough campaign, but there’s no denying that Jordan Walker will get a chance in the majors at some point in the near future. The biggest question here is what exactly happens to Nootbaar if the Cardinals decide that Walker’s time is right now. He would most likely slot into a platoon with Juan Yepez at designated hitter, but might struggle to carve out enough at-bats to make an impact for fantasy managers in shallow mixed leagues.

It’s easy to be hyperbolic with elite prospects, but Walker clearly possesses stratospheric long-term fantasy potential. Universally-regarded by talent evaluators as a top-five prospect in the game entering the 2023 season, he’s being given a legitimate opportunity this spring to win the Cardinals’ starting right field job. The 20-year-old 6-foot-5, 250-pound slugger, who batted .306/.388/.510 with 19 round-trippers and 22 stolen bases last year for Double-A Springfield, is transitioning to the outfield full-time this year and projects as an immediate five-category impact fantasy contributor. It would be premature to imply that he could follow a similar trajectory as Mariners’ superstar Julio Rodríguez, who made a similar jump last year from Double-A directly to the majors. However, he’s an extremely talented hitter and Nootbaar represents his only obstacle to everyday at-bats. This is a situation fantasy managers should be monitoring extremely closely.

Phillies No. 5 SP

Andrew Painter vs. Bailey Falter

Rated the top pitching prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline, Painter kicked off spring training by telling reporters that he listens to “old music” from the 2000’s and 2010’s and also unveiling a brand-new cutter. In addition to making us all feel old, the towering 6-foot-7 19-year-old right-hander is competing this spring in the Grapefruit League for a spot on the Phillies’ Opening Day roster as the defending National League champions fifth starter. He’ll need to be added to Philadelphia’s 40-man roster at some point to make that a reality, but Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has told reporters that the precocious pitching prospect is under strong consideration to open the 2023 season in the majors. Granted he has just one professional season under his belt, but it was other-worldly as he finished last year with a sublime 1.56 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 155/25 K/BB ratio across 103 2/3 innings (22 starts) across three levels in the lower minors. It’s within the realm of possibility that he unseats lefty Bailey Falter for the final spot in the Phillies’ rotation and makes an immediate impact for fantasy managers. He’s one of the most exciting prospects to monitor this spring and is worthy of a middle-round flier in deeper mixed leagues.

White Sox RF

Oscar Colas vs. Gavin Sheets

The White Sox have done virtually everything in their power this offseason to pave a clear path for Oscar Colas and newly-minted manager Pedro Grifol said last month in a local radio interview that the Cuban-born prospect will be “given every opportunity” this spring to win the starting job in right field. With Andrew Vaughn moving to first base to fill the void created by José Abreu’s offseason departure, all Colas needs to do is hold off Gavin Sheets and super-utility specialist Leury Garcia to secure the role. The 24-year-old outfielder tore the cover off the ball last season in the upper minors, slashing .314/.424/.645 with 23 homers and three steals across 536 plate appearances over three levels. There will likely be some growing pains as he adjusts to the majors, especially early on, but if you’re speculating purely on talent, Colas possesses big-time power upside and could make an immediate impact in deeper mixed leagues.

Dodgers CF

Trayce Thompson vs. James Outman

Los Angeles eliminated a ton of potential preseason drama by installing highly-regarded prospect Miguel Vargas as their starting second baseman at the outset of spring training. We’ll definitely get to the Dodgers’ murky closing situation later on, but for the moment, the lone pressing question appears to be whether Trayce Thompson or James Outman will get the nod in center field. Thompson is the logical choice after posting a respectable .860 OPS with a career-high 13 homers and four steals in 255 plate appearances last season, but it’s difficult not to wonder what Outman could do if he gets an opportunity. The 25-year-old prospect has some serious contact issues, but displayed some considerable offensive upside last year between Double-A Tulsa and Triple-A Oklahoma City, batting .294/.392/.586 with 31 homers and 13 stolen bases in 559 plate appearances. It’s worth noting that Bradley Zimmer and Jason Heyward are also in camp as non-roster invitees, but appear to be extreme long shots to make Los Angeles’ Opening Day roster.

Braves SS

Vaughn Grissom vs. Orlando Arcia

Is Vaughn Grissom the shortstop of the future in Atlanta? Braves third base coach Ron Washington certainly seems to think so after telling earlier this week that he believes the young infielder can be the team’s starting shortstop this season. “I’m not thinking he (Grissom) can do the job, I know he can do the job,” said Washington. “But he has to come up here and he has to win a job. We’re not giving him anything. We just tried to get him ready to compete, and he’s ready to compete.” Atlanta didn’t bring in any established veteran competition for Grissom this spring following the departure of Dansby Swanson via free agency, which creates a linear path for the 22-year-old to emerge as the club’s everyday shortstop. He’s an intriguing late-round selection for fantasy managers given his significant power/speed combo upside. It would take a calamitous performance by Grissom in Grapefruit League action for Arcia, who fits best in a versatile utility role for the Braves, to unseat him heading into the year.

Closing Time Question Marks

The following franchises enter spring training with relatively unsettled closing situations: White Sox, Tigers, Royals, Twins, Angels, Athletics, Rangers, Marlins, Phillies, Diamondbacks and Dodgers. That’s nearly half of the teams in baseball. Yikes. It certainly doesn’t make things easier on fantasy managers attempting to navigate an already volatile closer landscape.

We’re fairly comfortable projecting Kendall Graveman, Alex Lange and Scott Barlow to emerge as the primary stoppers for the White Sox, Tigers and Royals, respectively. It’s possible Graveman or Barlow wind up ceding the occasional matchup-driven save chance to lefties like Aaron Bummer or Aroldis Chapman, but they figure to gobble up the majority of the save opportunities. It’ll be the combination of Jorge Lopez and Jhoan Duran, who is currently dealing with a hamstring injury, handling the ninth-inning for the Twins. Meanwhile, free agent imports Carlos Estevez and Trevor May are the prohibitive favorites for the Angels and Athletics, respectively. However, the remainder of those situations – Rangers, Marlins, Phillies, Diamondbacks and Dodgers – are worth monitoring closely this spring, and this is where it gets interesting from a fantasy standpoint.

Phillies manager Rob Thomson has stated on multiple occasions that he won’t name a primary closer entering the regular season and will likely wind up utilizing Craig Kimbrel, Seranthony Domínguez, José Alvarado and Gregory Soto to close games this year. It’s an absolute nightmare for fantasy managers to attempt to project who will emerge from that group, but it makes sense that Kimbrel, who wound up losing his grip on the closer role last year in Los Angeles, will be given the first opportunity for Philadelphia given his extensive track record. We’re in wait-and-see move with the Phillies for now.

The Rangers, Marlins and Diamondbacks are ostensibly holding open competitions this spring. Good luck navigating those complex situations, especially in the early stages of the year. Perhaps the most interesting closing situation is in Los Angeles where manager Dave Roberts has yet to provide much clarity on the situation besides telling reporters this week that he doesn’t plan to name a closer during spring training. The odds-on favorite to grab the reins is Evan Phillips, who has quietly blossomed into one of the premier relief pitchers in baseball since arriving in Los Angeles during the late stages of the 2021 campaign. The unheralded 28-year-old righty will have to fend off newly-signed former All-Star closer Alex Reyes in addition to quality in-house alternatives like Daniel Hudson, Brusdar Graterol and Alex Vesia.

MLB Quick Hits: Padres signed RHP Michael Wacha to a one-year, $7.5 million contract with a two-year, $32 million club option for 2024 and 2025 … Angels signed LHP Matt Moore to a one-year, $7.55 million contract … Dodgers signed OF David Peralta to a one-year, $6.5 million contract, RHP Alex Reyes to a one-year, $1.1 million contract and RHP Jimmy Nelson to a one-year, $1.2 million contract … Diamondbacks signed LHP Andrew Chafin to a one-year, $6.5 million contract with a club option for 2024 … Red Sox re-signed INF Yu Chang to a one-year, $850,000 contract … Rays selected the contract of RHP Trevor Kelley from Triple-A Durham … Padres signed LHP Cole Hamels to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training … Royals signed OF/DH Franmil Reyes to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training … Phillies and RHP Seranthony Domínguez avoided arbitration by agreeing to a two-year contract with a club option for 2025 … Corbin Burnes lost his arbitration case against the Brewers and will make $10.01 million this season … Brady Singer lost his arbitration case against the Royals and will make $2.95 million this season … Luis Rengifo won his arbitration hearing against the Angels and will make $2.3 million this season … Harold Ramirez won his arbitration case against the Rays and will make $2.2 million this season … Ryan Helsley lost his arbitration hearing against the Cardinals and will make $2.15 million this season … Josh Rojas lost his arbitration hearing against the Diamondbacks and will make $2.575 million in 2023 … Dodgers placed RHP’s Walker Buehler (elbow), J.P. Feyereisen (shoulder) and Blake Treinen (shoulder) on the 60-day injured list … Red Sox placed 2B/SS Trevor Story on the 60-day injured list with a right elbow injury … Rays placed RHP Andrew Kittredge on the 60-day injured list with a right elbow injury … Padres placed INF Eguy Rosario on the 60-day injured list with a left ankle fracture … Angels placed RHP Davis Daniel on the 60-day injured list with a right shoulder strain … Jacob deGrom will be re-evaluated on Friday after experiencing minor left side soreness earlier this week … Nestor Cortes has been diagnosed with a low Grade 2 hamstring strain and won’t throw off a mound for at least a few weeks … Frankie Montas is scheduled to undergo right shoulder surgery next week and will miss the majority of the 2023 season … Randal Grichuk is likely to miss the start of the regular season after undergoing sports hernia surgery last week … Taylor Trammell will be sidelined for seven weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a broken hamate bone in his right hand … Brewers manager Craig Counsell said Thursday that he expects Aaron Ashby to miss “a couple months” due to right shoulder inflammation … Mitch White is dealing with a right shoulder impingement … Dillon Tate will begin the season on the injured list due to a flexor/forearm strain … Félix Bautista will be behind in Orioles’ camp this spring while on a strengthening program for knee and shoulder issues … James Paxton (elbow) is fully healthy and will not have any limitations this spring … White Sox manager Pedro Grifol said Thursday that Michael Kopech (knee) has thrown a couple bullpen sessions already this spring … Padres manager Bob Melvin said on Tuesday that Juan Soto will play left field this season … Astros claimed LHP Matt Gage off waivers from the Blue Jays … Diamondbacks designated LHP Tyler Holton for assignment … Reds sent INF Alejo Lopez outright to Triple-A Louisville … Tigers signed RHP Matt Wisler and LHP Jace Fry to minor league contracts with invitations to spring training … Phillies signed C Aramis Garcia to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training … Reds signed LHP Daniel Norris to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training … Athletics signed OF Greg Deichmann to a minor league contract … Pirates signed LHP Kent Emanuel to a minor league contract.