MLB's Final Winners and Losers of 25-Man Roster Battles for 2019
Despite declaring winners and losers, the battle for playing time is just beginning.
Neither Ronald Acuna Jr. nor Gleyber Torres cracked the Opening Day roster last season. Zack Wheeler, Max Muncy and Adalberto Mondesi also all opened 2018 in the minors, but the demotions proved a mere temporary setback.
As unfortunately already illustrated by Matt Olson hurting his hand in Tokyo, injuries will force teams to swap out players throughout the season. While it's frustrating to see burgeoning prospects held down so teams can finagle an extra year of control, some may only need to hold out a few weeks in the farm.
Of course, there's a special feeling attached to trotting onto the field on Opening Day. Spring training may not matter for some onlookers, but it played a key determining factor in settling several roster disputes.
Before 28 other teams join the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics into the new season, let's break down spring training's winners and losers of some prominent roster competitions.
Chicago White Sox: Outfield
Weeks ago, Eloy Jimenez looked certain to start 2019 in Triple-A to "work on his defense," team-speak for "maneuver an extra year of service time." The Chicago White Sox avoided that flawed process by signing the 22-year-old outfielder to a six-year, $43 million contract on Friday.
The following day, MLB.com's Scott Merkin reported that Jimenez will open the season as the starting left fielder. What coincidental timing...
MLB.com's third-ranked prospect is ready for the grand stage now. He was ready last year, when he killed time by tormenting Triple-A pitchers with a .355/.399/.597 slash line in 55 games.
Literally brandishing light-tower power, Jimenez now leapfrogs Vladimir Guerrero Jr.—whose oblique strain momentarily saves the Toronto Blue Jays from the lousy optics of not utilizing their best player—as the AL Rookie of the Year front-runner. Per FanGraphs, Steamer projects Jimenez to bat .293/.341/.502 with 25 home runs in 130 games.
This development could drop Adam Engel into a platoon with Jon Jay or Daniel Palka. None of the three are particularly well-suited for an everyday role anyway. Struggling mightily in the Grapefruit League, Palka may even be in danger of losing his roster spot.
Winner: Eloy Jimenez
Cincinnati Reds: Middle Infield/Center Field
Nick Senzel's fate shows what would have likely happened to Jimenez if he hadn't signed a long-term pact.
The Cincinnati Reds optioned their premier prospect to Triple-A last week. His agent, Joel Wolfe, called the decision "a simply egregious case of service-time manipulation" in a statement made to ESPN's Jeff Passan.
In Cincinnati's defense, Senzel played just 44 games last season because of vertigo and a season-ending shoulder injury. He has spent spring training learning a new craft in center field, so it's not the craziest thought to believe the 23-year-old can use some extra minor league reps.
The Reds, however, could have reversed course when Scooter Gennett suffered a groin strain that will sideline him for eight-to-12 weeks. Instead, per The Athletic's C. Trent Rosecrans, Jose Peraza will slide from shortstop to second base, and Jose Iglesias will start at shortstop.
Kyle Farmer, a 28-year-old with 0.0 fWAR and zero homers in 59 major league games, will make the big league roster.
Perhaps Senzel and his agent now have a stronger gripe, but Iglesias is a stellar defender credited for 2.5 fWAR in 125 games last year. While Iglesias is far from a terrible starting option, don't be shocked if Senzel—either as a second baseman or center fielder—makes his way to the majors by the end of April.
Winners: Jose Iglesias, Kyle Farmer
Loser: Nick Senzel
Texas Rangers: Outfield
In one of spring's most shocking developments, Hunter Pence thoroughly outplayed Willie Calhoun to earn a roster spot with his hometown Texas Rangers.
Pence, who turns 36 in April, appeared to run out of steam when batting .226/.258/.332 for the San Francisco Giants last season. Signed to a minor league contract, he capitalized on the last opportunity with three home runs, six steals and a .974 OPS in 18 spring contests.
Making matters worse, according to Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News, the 24-year-old left camp after learning of his demotion to Triple-A. He could face a suspension if he doesn't report to his assignment.
Considered one of the game's premier offensive prospects last spring, Calhoun spent most of 2018 in the minors due to defensive concerns. When finally getting a shot, he failed to impress with his bat either, hitting an anemic .222/.269/.333 in 35 games.
Calhoun ultimately matters far more to Texas' future, and Pence's roster inclusion is mostly a feel-good story that shouldn't lead to significant playing time. Yet he earned the honor, and his younger competitor is better served getting regular defensive reps in the minors than riding the pine for the Rangers.
Winner: Hunter Pence
Loser: Willie Calhoun
Chicago Cubs: Infield/Outfield
In perhaps the most stunning roster move, the Chicago Cubs optioned Ian Happ to Triple-A.
Although an enormous 36.1 strikeout percentage led to an underwhelming .233 batting average, the versatile second baseman-turned-outfielder still garnered a .353 on-base percentage and 1.5 fWAR in 462 plate appearances. Even if his .608 OPS against southpaws continued to cost him some playing time, he still looked like a lock to retain a prominent starting role against righties.
Per ESPN.com's Jesse Rogers, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said Happ also didn't see the demotion coming.
"He's not happy," Maddon said. "He shouldn't be happy. He was surprised. I really don't blame him."
This feels like an attempted short-term wakeup call rather than a long-term punishment. The 24-year-old could likely work his way back to Chicago within the first month by raking in Triple-A. When last operating at this level, he submitted a .615 slugging percentage in early 2017 before making his MLB debut.
It's not like the perennial playoff contender is giving his spot to another blue-chip prospect or proven veteran. Daniel Descalso set personal highs in home runs (13) and walk percentage (15.1), yet his career season looks awfully similar to Happ's underwhelming returns.
Entering his sixth year with the organization, Mark Zagunis has gone 2-for-19 in the majors. He may make a decent bench outfielder, but there's little upside for more.
Winners: Daniel Descalso, Mark Zagunis
Loser: Ian Happ
Braves: Starting Rotation
Early injuries to Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman opened up two more rotation spots for the Atlanta Braves, who were already set to have an influx of young hurlers vie for the No. 5 starter role.
According to MLB.com's Mark Bowman, Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright and Max Fried will open the season in Atlanta's rotation alongside Sean Newcomb and Opening Day starter Julio Teheran.
Wright, the fifth pick in 2016's first-year player draft, received the honor despite ceding a pair of three-run homers in his final spring outing. The one poor inning destroyed his final ERA (7.11), but the 6'4" righty still made a strong impression by submitting 18 strikeouts in 12.2 frames.
Another neophyte who made a brief major league cameo last season, Wilson recorded 143 strikeouts over 125.2 minor league frames. Per Bowman, both rookies are scheduled to face the Philadelphia Phillies this weekend.
Although newer, shinier prospects have passed Fried by in Atlanta's prospect hierarchy, the 25-year-old still wields a spectacular curveball that could lead to MLB success. He recorded a 2.94 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 33.2 innings last year.
"We've talked a lot about our depth (of young pitching)," Braves manager Brian Snitker said, per Tim Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. We didn't really know that we would be dipping into it this early. But it's good to have all these young guys. They all have pitched really well, so I feel good about it."
Despite all these openings, there wasn't room for everyone. Given a golden opportunity to join the rotation, Touki Toussaint relinquished 17 runs (15 earned) in 15.2 spring innings. The hard-throwing 22-year-old will need to refine his command in Triple-A to keep up with a competitive crop of promising pitchers.
Winners: Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, Max Fried
Loser: Touki Toussaint
Miami Marlins: Starting Rotation
Trevor Richards, Pablo Richards, Caleb Smith and Sandy Alcantara appeared to be fighting for two spots in the Miami Marlins rotation this spring. It now looks like all four will open 2019 as starters.
Caring not for seniority or salaries, the Marlins announced Wei-Yin Chen will move to the bullpen in the first of two unexpected decisions. The 33-year-old will work this role as their highest-paid player at $20 million.
At least he's still on the team. According to SiriusXM's Craig Mish, Miami released Dan Straily.
While the Marlins have yet to officially declare their rotation beyond Opening Day starter Jose Urena, they now have four clear candidates for as many spots.
On the strength of an elite changeup, Richards stood out as a front-runner to snag a starting vacancy. Lopez, meanwhile, pitched his way into featured placement by yielding two runs and one walk in 20 superb spring innings.
After fanning 88 hitters in 77.1 major league innings last season, Smith continued to miss bats with 19 strikeouts in 13.1 spring frames. While the wild Alcantara has issued 11 walks in five outings, the headliner of last year's Marcell Ozuna trade still boasts intriguing upside if he ever commands the strike zone.
As clear rebuilders in an otherwise competitive NL East, the Marlins have every reason to test out their young pitchers rather than letting Chen and Straily eat innings as veteran placeholders.
Winners: Trevor Richards, Pablo Lopez, Caleb Smith, Sandy Alcantara
Losers: Wei-Yin Chen (bullpen), Dan Straily
Yankees: Starting Rotation/Bench
Injuries to Luis Severino, Aaron Hicks and Dellin Betances forced the New York Yankees to make a few unexpected choices before Opening Day.
The most high-profile one: Who will join the starting rotation? Despite signing Gio Gonzalez to a minor league deal last week, the Bronx Bombers will open the season with Domingo German as their fourth starter, per MLB.com's Bryan Hoch.
Manager Aaron Boone, however, said he may deploy an opener before the 26-year-old righty, who recorded 102 strikeouts in 85.2 major league innings last season.
While Luis Cessa will not take Severino's starting spot, he made the club as a long reliever.
Jonathan Loaisiga isn't making the Opening Day roster, but don't label him a "loser" just yet. CC Sabathia will occupy a roster spot while serving a five-game suspension to start the season. He will then move to the injured list.
Hicks' back injury appeared to clear space for Tyler Wade or Clint Frazier. The Yankees went in a different direction, acquiring Mike Tauchman from the Colorado Rockies.
Although just a career .153/.265/.203 hitter in 69 career MLB plate appearances, the 28-year-old outfielder fared much better in Triple-A (.324/.408/.571) last season. Perhaps the Yankees have uncovered a diamond in the rough, or maybe they just didn't want Wade or Frazier to get lost in a light bench role.
Winners: Domingo German, Luis Cessa, Mike Tauchman
Losers: Clint Frazier, Tyler Wade
TBD: Jonathan Loaisiga, Gio Gonzalez
Note: Advanced stats courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.