Fantasy Baseball 2014: Complete How-to Guide to Spring Training

Andrew GouldFeatured ColumnistFebruary 9, 2014

Fantasy Baseball 2014: Complete How-to Guide to Spring Training

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    Spring training will give fantasy baseball owners an early look at young pitching phenom Taijuan Walker.
    Spring training will give fantasy baseball owners an early look at young pitching phenom Taijuan Walker.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    The smell of spring training burgeoning is enough to blossom excitement among fantasy baseball managers. Those exhibition games signal the beginning of draft season, but should anyone pay any attention to spring happenings?

    For the most part, fantasy gamers can borrow a page from The Rock's repertoire when discussing spring training stats. If anyone tries to tell you Adrian Beltre's spring batting average, just yell "It doesn't matter what Adrian Beltre's spring batting average is!"

    Also, bonus points for those who can raise their eyebrow.

    Reading too much into a small sample size of practice games can lead drafters into a den of regrettable mistakes. You don't want to freak out if a reliable veteran (hence using Beltre as my guinea pig last paragraph) takes some time to wake up.

    On the flip side, a no-name exploding in March does not always predict regular-season success. Remember Jake Fox, who smashed seven homers prior the 2011 season? He hit two homers during the games that count before vanishing to the minors.

    Tuning out spring training, however, to instead gallop in the meadows and smell the roses would not do drafters any favors. 

    There are starting jobs to win and prospects looking to make a lasting impression. And just to make this more confusing, some early signs of improvement could become harbingers of a fruitful season.

    Here's what fantasy baseball players should monitor this spring.

     

    Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs

What Does NOT Matter

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    Unless Joe Mauer gets hurt, pay little attention to his spring results.
    Unless Joe Mauer gets hurt, pay little attention to his spring results.Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Before spending too much time highlighting players and trends worth your attention, it's vital to write off the nonessential details.

    If an established player has a rough spring, don't freak out unless an injury fuels the slump. What's that, Joe Mauer is hitting .225 through 12 games? Whatever. No big deal.

    We have 1,178 games and 5,060 plate appearances to confirm that Mauer is a career .323 hitter. Don't let such a minuscule set of data sway your opinion on the catcher turned first baseman.

    On the other hand, don't move Mauer up the rankings if he blasts five homers. The bigger picture also reveals that Mauer offers just 10.5 long balls per season and has never exceeded 13 homers outside of his fluky 2009 campaign.

    Did Cliff Lee just give up nine hits and six runs in a spring start? Relax. Maybe some grounders just found the right spots, or maybe the ace was testing out a knuckleball for fun. It's common for pitchers to experiment with new pitches or work on their weaker offerings.

    In general, the final output means little for such a small amount of work that doesn't even count. Random variance can wildly sway hit rates in such a small sampling, so batting averages, ERAs and WHIPs cannot be trusted.

    Since players are not swinging and pitching in major league stadiums, power is also inaccurately portrayed. That eliminates almost everything, but the process can explain more than the output.

What Matters

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    Julio Teheran's dominant spring foreshadowed a huge rookie season.
    Julio Teheran's dominant spring foreshadowed a huge rookie season.Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

    In terms of stats, the underlying measures could say more than the surface numbers.

    A pitcher exiting spring with a 1.50 ERA is not enough to deem him a potential breakout candidate. If there are excellent strikeout and walk rates to support that success, then it's worth researching.

    Last year, Julio Teheran showed that March strikeout showers sometimes bring April-September fantasy flowers. The highly touted prospect struck out 35 batters through 26 innings, making him a popular sleeper for last-minute drafters despite his tumultuous 2012, where he registered a 5.08 ERA in Triple-A. 

    He submitted a superlative rookie season, notching a 3.20 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 170 strikeouts through 185.2 innings. Those who skeptically ignored his dominant spring missed out on a tremendous bargain.

    Along with strikeouts and walks, velocity is the most important measure to monitor for pitchers. Roy Halladay's sleeper momentum fizzled last season when he lost a few ticks on the radar gun. The injured ace retired this offseason after a disastrous 2013.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, a hitter who strikes out an inordinate amount above their usual rate raises a red flag. If an impatient hitter draws significantly more walks, take note of it.

    Then there are three major factors that make spring worth watching. Responsible owners should have their eyes peeled on enticing prospects, notable position disputes and players overcoming injuries. Let's go over those players in more detail.

Prospects to Watch

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    George Springer flashes massive power and speed potential, making him a must-watch for fantasy owners.
    George Springer flashes massive power and speed potential, making him a must-watch for fantasy owners.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Taijuan Walker, SP, Seattle Mariners

    Seattle's premier pitching prospect has the inside edge on a rotation spot, according to MiLB.com's Robert Emrich. Taijuan Walker, 21, can cement a spot on the Mariners' Opening Day roster, which makes him an intriguing upside selection late in drafts.

     

    George Springer, OF, Houston Astros

    The Houston Astros may delay George Springer's debut to keep his arbitration clock ticking, but he certainty displays more upside and fantasy utility and any other candidate. Although his ugly 27.3 strikeout percentage (and that's against minor league pitching) will hamstring his batting average, Springer could easily deliver a 20-20 season immediately.

     

    Xander Bogaerts, SS/3B, Boston Red Sox

    The Red Sox have showed little desire in retaining Stephen Drew since they have Xander Bogaerts ready to take over at shortstop. Viewers were treated to a small glimpse of the 21-year-old when he hit .296/.412/.481 in 27 postseason at-bats. He's a solid middle infielder with a high ceiling, but a monumental spring might inflate his value too much. 

     

    Oscar Taveras, OF, St. Louis Cardinals

    As of now, Oscar Taveras looks like the odd man out with newly acquired Peter Bourjos handling center field and Allen Craig shifting to right field so Matt Adams can log more playing time at first base. But a big spring could at the least endear Taveras to the Cardinals, who will need a replacement if anything happens to the injury-prone Bourjos or Craig.

     

    Byron Buxton, OF, Minnesota Twins

    The 20-year-old outfielder will almost certainly start the season in the minors, but a scorching spring may compel the Minnesota Twins to expedite his development process. Tabbed as baseball's best prospect by MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo, Byron Buxton hit .334/.424/.520 with 12 homers and 55 steals last year. Get your first glimpse at a future superstar.

     

    Other Prospects to Watch: Kolten Wong, 2B, Cardinals; Javier Baez, SS, Chicago Cubs; Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs; Nick Castellanos, 3B, Detroit Tigers; Maikel Franco, 3B, Philadelphia Phillies; Noah Syndergaard, SP, New York Mets; Kyle Zimmer, SP, Kansas City Royals; Jake Odorizzi, SP, Tampa Bay Rays; Kevin Gausman, SP, Baltimore Orioles; Jameson Taillon, SP, Pittsburgh Pirates

Position Battles to Watch (Part 1)

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    Michael Pineda was on the verge of stardom before tearing his labrum two years ago.
    Michael Pineda was on the verge of stardom before tearing his labrum two years ago.Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Lance Lynn vs. Joe Kelly vs. Carlos Martinez vs. Tyler Lyons, No. 5 SP, St. Louis Cardinals

    According to MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch, the returning Jaime Garcia is "all but a lock" to claim a rotation spot "assuming that he proves himself entirely recovered from shoulder surgery." That would leave one spot in St. Louis' loaded rotation among four guys who would start for just about every other club.

    It seems bizarre that Lance Lynn would have to fight for a spot after notching a 3.28 FIP and 8.84 K/9 rate last year, so let's hope the Cardinals wake up and keep him in the rotation. All this uncertainty makes him a cheap risk for early drafters.

    Joe Kelly can deliver for the Cardinals with his 51.1 percent ground-ball rate, but his 5.73 K/9 ratio isn't cutting it for us in Fantasyland. Lyons is a long shot, but one with decent appeal in the closing rounds should he prevail.

    Carlos Martinez dazzled as a reliever during its postseason run, so it suits the organization better to utilize him there unless more rotation openings pop up.

     

    David Phelps vs. Michael Pineda, No. 5 SP, New York Yankees

    After signing Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees have filled all but one rotation spot.

    They have a perfectly competent No. 5 starter in David Phelps, who collected a 3.81 FIP and 79 strikeouts through 86.2 innings last season. He's more of an AL-only play due to his unfortunate home environment.

    But Michael Pineda is a high-ceiling hurler that whets a fantasy manager's appetite. He burst onto the scene in 2011, when he amassed 173 strikeouts and 55 walks during 171 innings. That compelled the Yankees to trade catching prospect Jesus Montero in a high-profile swap that has disappointed both parties.

    While Pineda has not thrown a pitch in the majors since 2011, he looked solid in six minor league starts last year. He's exhibit A for a player whose spring performance matters, as he could win a spot with the Yankees and fantasy teams with a healthy showing.

     

    Didi Gregorius vs. Chris Owings, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks

    The Diamondbacks ruined a spicy battle between Archie Bradley and Randall Delgado by instead signing Bronson Arroyo, but let's stay in town to highlight another budding bout.

    Acquired for his glove, Didi Gregorius showed some glimpses of potential at the plate. He only slugged .372, but the rookie obtained for Trevor Bauer hit .252 with seven homers through 103 games.

    That's good enough for Arizona to justify starting the stout defender, but a top offensive prospect should excite fantasy owners much more. Chris Owings hit .330 in Triple-A with 12 homers, 104 runs and 20 steals. In his brief big league audition, the 22-year-old held his own with a .291/.361/.382 slash line.

    If Owings steals the job from its previous owner, he has a case as a top-20 shortstop who can hit 10-15 home runs while hitting around .275. If Gregorius remains the starting shortstop, mixed-league drafters should stay away.

Position Battles (Part 2)

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    If he's the Cincinnati Reds starting center fielder, Billy Hamilton could lead the league in stolen bases by a wide margin.
    If he's the Cincinnati Reds starting center fielder, Billy Hamilton could lead the league in stolen bases by a wide margin.Joe Sargent/Getty Images

    Billy Hamilton vs. Chris Heisey vs. Skip Schumaker, CF, Cincinnati Reds

    Before losing our minds over Billy Hamilton's ability to single-handedly win the stolen base category, he needs to become the Opening Day starter.

    To anyone with fantasy value in mind, Hamilton is the top choice by a mile. If the Reds hand him regular playing time and a green light on the basepaths, he could steal 80 bases. Skip Schumaker would be lucky to deliver a five home run, five stolen-base season, and Chris Heisey is an outfielder to ride on a hot streak for a week then drop when he cools off.

    Although Hamilton's speed excites everyone, he leaves a lot to be desired at the plate. With a .256/.308/.343 slash line in Triple-A last year, he'll need a solid spring to show he can handle better pitching.

    It'd be surprising if Hamilton lost out at batting first in Cincinnati's lineup, but observe his spring production just to be safe.

     

    Juan Lagares vs. Chris Young vs. Eric Young Jr., LF and CF, New York Mets

    For the team, it makes sense to utilize Juan Lagares' Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field and hope Chris Young returns to 2011 levels of production. Eric Young profiles better as a fourth outfielder and pinch runner anyway. But for fantasy purposes, Eric Young, who led the National League with 48 stolen bases last year, holds the most appeal by a huge margin. Lagares is an afterthought, and Chris Young is at best a late-round gamble in deeper formats.

     

    Closer Battles 

    • Texas Rangers: Neftali Feliz is emerging as a contender to grab his old job back. If his arm holds up, expect him to gain steam as a popular target among drafters looking to strike big in the later rounds. Once a premier closer, Joakim Soria also has a chance to reclaim old glory. 
    • Baltimore Orioles: Now that Fernando Rodney is out of play, the Orioles will need to look in house for Jim Johnson's replacement. Tommy Hunter, who exhibited great control but limited strikeout upside in the bullpen, is the leading candidate. Brian Matusz, Darren O'Day and perhaps even top starting prospect Kevin Gausman could enter the fold.
    • Chicago White Sox: While Nate Jones registered a 4.15 ERA last year, he also accumulated a 2.64 FIP and 10.27 K/9 ratio. He's the most intriguing option over Ronald Belisario and Matt Lindstrom.
    • Cleveland Indians: John Axford has a comfortable lead over Cody Allen right now, but Allen is the superior pitcher whom fantasy players should monitor. Axford's career 4.05 BB/9 makes him a prime candidate to unravel at any time, which would guide Allen's 11.26 K/9 ratio and 2.43 ERA into the ninth inning.
    • Houston Astros: One of baseball's sturdiest relievers, Jesse Crain could finally get a crack at the ninth inning, but he's questionable for Opening Day with biceps tendinitis. If not, Chad Qualls, Josh Fields or Chia-Jen Lo would be worth owning in the interim. Saves are saves.

     

    Other possible position battles: Scooter Gennett vs. Rickie Weeks, 2B, Milwaukee Brewers; Ike Davis vs. Lucas Duda vs. Josh Satin, 1B, Mets; Daniel Nava vs. Mike Carp vs. Jonny Gomes, LF, Boston Red Sox; Tyler Skaggs vs. Joe Blanton, SP, Los Angeles Angels; Josh Beckett vs. Chad Billingsley, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers

Injured Players to Watch

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    Will Matt Kemp be ready to return by Opening Day?
    Will Matt Kemp be ready to return by Opening Day?Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Matt Kemp, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers

    Feeling lucky? A healthy Matt Kemp could gift bold drafters with a first-round star available at a fraction of the cost. Then again, there's good reason to be wary of a guy recovering from an injured left ankle and left shoulder.

    His Opening Day status is up in the air, as he does not want to rush back like last season. From the Los Angeles Times' Dylan Hernandez

    "If I'm ready to play, I'll play. If not, I'm not going to play," Kemp said. "I don't want to come back at 80 percent and get hurt again. I want to be 100 percent the whole year and give everybody what I can give them with a full year of me being healthy."

    Even if he suits up in March, monitor his progress to make sure he'll take the field come April.

     

    Manny Machado, 3B, Baltimore Orioles

    The news on the Manny Machado front is more encouraging. While he won't commit to returning in time for Opening Day, the young third baseman has recovered from left-knee surgery faster than expected.

    A healthy Machado would probably be overvalued, but he's now a potential bargain. Making his 2014 debut in mid-April is not the end of the world.

     

    Mark Teixeira, 1B, New York Yankees

    If you're torn on how to appraise Mark Teixeira this year, you're not alone. The powerful first baseman has a dose of buy-low appeal going for him. If he plays 145 games, a cool 30 homers is a perfectly plausible result.

    But we can't ignore the regression mounting before his wrist ailment knocked him out of commission last year. At this stage of the game, Teixeira is a fly-ball hitter whose average will hover around .250. Now owners have to fear worse.

    Don't go overboard analyzing his spring numbers, but some power indicating he's operating at full strength should stabilize his average draft position.

     

    Brandon Beachy, SP, Atlanta Braves

    Upon resurfacing from Tommy John surgery, Brandon Beachy lasted just five starts before landing back on the disabled list. It's been a while since he notched a 10.74 K/9 ratio in 2011 and a 2.00 ERA in 2012, and some drafters mistakenly throw all their trust into last year's numbers.

    According to MLB.com's Mark Bowman, Beachy will throw in spring training without limitations. His average fastball velocity dipped last year, but he didn't receive much time to regain his rhythm. If he can hit his stride during Atlanta's practice run, the former All-Star could reward drafters handsomely.

     

    Brandon Morrow, SP, Toronto Blue Jays

    Remember Brandon Morrow? To those who answered yes, put down the torches and pitchforks. He flamed out spectacularly last year, getting shredded to the tune of a 5.63 ERA through 54.1 innings before a pinched nerve in his pitching forearm ended his season. Not the fondest of memories.

    He also has a 9.42 K/9 rate throughout his career and most recently tallied a 2.96 ERA in 2012. This is a complete shot in the dark, but see if Morrow's spring warrants some post-hype sleeper consideration in deep leagues.

     

    Other Players to Watch: Ryan Howard, 1B, Philadelphia Phillies; Corey Hart, 1B/DH, Seattle Mariners; Derek Jeter, SS, New York Yankees; Justin Verlander, SP, Detroit Tigers; Josh Johnson, SP, San Diego Padres; Jaime Garcia, SP, St. Louis Cardinals; Jesse Crain, RP, Houston Astros