The Long Game: Opportunity Knocks

The Long Game: Opportunity Knocks

This article is part of our The Long Game series.

Before diving in to a new season, here are some past articles dealing with important draft/auction prep topics as a refresher course for those about to face crucial keeper decisions:

Deciding which players to keep

Determining inflation and where you stand in the success cycle

Draft pick value chart

Hey, look at that, there's baseballing happening again. Things are still far from normal in the world, and life may not be exactly skittles and beer, but at least we have a semi-normal spring training.

As teams participate in socially distanced camps, there are still intriguing names unsigned, but for the most part current rosters are what coaching staffs are going to have to work with, and that means there are some very interesting job battles that will take place over the coming weeks. In keeper and dynasty leagues, those job battles can be fruitful sources of cheap, useful assets that can help round out your lineup for the next few years. Once in a while, they even turn up bona fide studs. Getting in on the ground floor of those players is one of the best ways to stay competitive, as a stars and scrubs build looks a lot better when you can get star-quality production at scrub prices.

Let's take a look at some of those camp battles and the players involved, to try and identify the best uses for your endgame dollars and late-round picks. Players I think are particularly worth paying attention to will have their

Before diving in to a new season, here are some past articles dealing with important draft/auction prep topics as a refresher course for those about to face crucial keeper decisions:

Deciding which players to keep

Determining inflation and where you stand in the success cycle

Draft pick value chart

Hey, look at that, there's baseballing happening again. Things are still far from normal in the world, and life may not be exactly skittles and beer, but at least we have a semi-normal spring training.

As teams participate in socially distanced camps, there are still intriguing names unsigned, but for the most part current rosters are what coaching staffs are going to have to work with, and that means there are some very interesting job battles that will take place over the coming weeks. In keeper and dynasty leagues, those job battles can be fruitful sources of cheap, useful assets that can help round out your lineup for the next few years. Once in a while, they even turn up bona fide studs. Getting in on the ground floor of those players is one of the best ways to stay competitive, as a stars and scrubs build looks a lot better when you can get star-quality production at scrub prices.

Let's take a look at some of those camp battles and the players involved, to try and identify the best uses for your endgame dollars and late-round picks. Players I think are particularly worth paying attention to will have their names bolded. We'll start with the AL, and tackle the NL next time out:

Orioles

As befits a team in the shape the O's are in, there are lots of players who could win key roles but won't exactly be priority targets in most drafts or auctions. Second base is wide open, but unfortunately Jahmai Jones is the closest thing to a player with upside in the mix. GMs in deep formats should take a look at Pat Valaika, who somehow hit better in Baltimore last year than he ever did in Colorado. The Orioles had success wringing value out of Hanser Alberto the last couple years, and Valaika seems the strongest candidate to inherit Alberto's super-utility role, if he doesn't win the job at the keystone outright.

In the rotation, Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer both have some strikeout upside that could make them assets, although pitching in the AL East does them no favors and Baltimore's track record when it comes to developing starters isn't reassuring (Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman say hi from the west coast).

The closer job is wide open, with Hunter Harvey arguably being the favorite if he can manage to stay healthy for once and manager Brandon Hyde doesn't go full Tampa with his bullpen usage. Tanner Scott also brings gas and could be the top left-handed option, which lends itself more to leagues that value holds than straight saves formats. Dark-horse candidates include Shawn Armstrong, who has consistently posted dazzling numbers at Triple-A for half a decade without finding much success in the majors; Dillon Tate, who was the fourth overall pick in 2015 and has the arm talent to thrive, even if he gets hurt at least as often as Harvey does; and Cesar Valdez as a potential modern incarnation of Doug Jones, riding a baffling changeup to ninth-inning success.

Red Sox

If you're looking for a one-man bench to help you squeeze a couple more streaming SP options onto your reserve list, Marwin Gonzalez is back to being overlooked after a rough 2020 at the plate. It seems like he's been around forever but he's only 31 years old, and if (like me) you are taking last year's stats with a full shaker of salt, he's an excellent candidate to rebound and be a useful bat who qualifies all over the diamond while seeing consistent playing time behind unproven starters at first base, second base and both corner outfield spots.

Garrett Richards hasn't thrown 200 innings over the last five seasons – that's in total, not in any one particular campaign – but he should be able to provide solid innings in deeper formats between IL stints. Perennial sleeper Nick Pivetta will also get one last chance to make good on his raw stuff via the change of scenery card.

White Sox

The roster for the Pale Hose is mostly set, but in shallow formats Andrew Vaughn could potentially be had for cheap, relatively speaking. The third overall pick in the 2019 draft appears likely to break camp as the starting DH, and while Chicago's lineup is formidable, the team doesn't have the quality depth to turn their designated hitter spot into a designated rest area and give starters a break from their defensive duties. If Vaughn at least looks decent in the spring, he should see plenty of playing time.

If you like to gamble, Crochet is your man. (You win some, lose some, it's all the same to me.) Garrett Crochet probably isn't going to be the next Chris Sale and will start the season in the bullpen alongside Michael Kopech, but the back of the rotation is unsettled and if the 21-year-old southpaw comes out firing again and doesn't break down as he did last year, it's not all that far-fetched to think he might get stretched out and blossom into an ace (of SPADES!)

Cleveland

The picture at first base is muddled, but Josh Naylor seems the most likely candidate for the job. He's never been able to find a swing that lets his natural power play in-game though, and he has competition from other unappealing options like Bobby Bradley (can't make contact) and Jake Bauers (can't do much with his contact). All three are also lefties, making the situation even worse for attempting to sort out playing time as there's no obvious platoon. This could be a revolving door all season.

The back of the rotation remains a bit unsettled, so if you believe Cleveland has a magic formula for turning relatively unheralded right-handed pitchers into fantasy studs, Cal Quantrill might be the better target than Aaron Civale, simply because he has better raw stuff. Triston McKenzie is also in the mix, but he carries a ton of bullpen risk.

James Karinchak is the presumed favorite for the vacant closer spot given his ridiculous K-rates, and Terry Francona seems to prefer having an old-school ninth-inning guy rather than mix and match, but we've also seen him deploy a high-leverage guy separately from a ninth-inning guy when he's had multiple arms he trusted (Andrew Miller working ahead of Cody Allen comes to mind). That makes this a decent bullpen for spec saves plays, in case Karinchak remains in the high-leverage role. Emmanuel Clase has the radar gun readings, but Nick Wittgren picked up four saves in 2019 for the club, and Blake Parker has some closing experience from his Angels and Twins days.

Tigers

GMs in OBP leagues won't want to forget about Robbie Grossman, although that's the only format in which the 31-year-old has any real appeal. Detroit seems to be planning for him to be a lineup regular, which could leads to an interesting runs total if he consistently hits near the top of the order, but he doesn't offer much in other categories.

The closer situation here is a mess, to the point that speculation is only worthwhile in deep formats. Any of Bryan Garcia, Gregory Soto, Jose Cisnero, Joe Jimenez, Buck Farmer or someone who loses out on a rotation spot (Jose Urena?) could find themselves working the ninth inning at some point. Soto is marginally the most appealing of the lot.

Astros

George Springer's escape to Toronto leaves a huge hole in center field. Myles Straw will get the first chance to fill it and has some fantasy intrigue due to his steals potential, but his .246/.327/.322 line through his first 98 big-league games should keep expectations in check. If he flops, there don't seem to be a lot of alternatives in the system. Chas McCormick profiles as a bench player and would be stretched defensively in center, and Steven Souza saw a wee little bit of action in center during his Tampa days. Maybe Kyle Tucker gets some reps there.

Royals

Nicky Lopez is the incumbent at second base, but he's had almost 600 big-league plate appearances now and done nothing with them, and he doesn't exactly have the kind of profile that makes me think he'll be a late bloomer. If the Royals give up on him as a starter, the aforementioned Hanser Alberto might be next guy up to at least supply a solid, if empty, batting average. The more likely scenario might be that they shift Whit Merrifield back to the keystone to open up playing time for someone like Edward Olivares, though.

Another unsettled closer situation. Greg Holland is the veteran moxie candidate, and he posted excellent surface numbers last year for Kansas City, but his 2018-19 performance suggests the bottom could fall back out at any time. Josh Staumont is the triple-digit darling, but he walks too many guys to be reliable in the ninth. Scott Barlow also posts strong K-rates without Staumont's velocity, but he seems pigeon-holed into a setup role. There are other dark-horse options as well (another repatriation in Wade Davis, former top prospect Kyle Zimmer) but I would expect those first three to get most of the save chances for the Royals this season. If I had to invest in one, it would probably be Staumont, who could become a monster with just a little more control.

Angels

Albert Pujols is still around to clutter up the 1B/DH picture, but the starting job at first base looks like former two-way player Jared Walsh's to lose. He posted huge numbers at hitter-friendly Salt Lake in 2019, then posted huge numbers again for the Angels down the stretch last year. If you're looking for the next Luke Voit, Walsh could be your guy.

Twins

Mitch Garver's struggles last season may have been injury-related, in which case a rebound to his 2019 level of performance is entirely plausible. On the other hand, Ryan Jeffers was solid in his debut last year and has earned his playing time. Having too many quality catchers is not a luxury most teams enjoy, so this could wind up being a fairly even split, but Garver still makes for an intriguing sleeper if he comes an a decent price given his proven upside.

Alex Kirilloff is expected to claim the starting spot in left field, but if he isn't as ready as advertised, a Jake Cave/Brent Rooker platoon is the likely Plan B, with Luis Arraez a potential Plan C. Any of that trio could provide some short-term value, but Arraez is the one with potential long-term appeal, especially if a regular role becomes a showcase for a trade to a team needing a second baseman.

No. 4 starter J.A. Happ has a remarkable ability to look like his career is falling off the cliff, only to drag himself back up by his fingernails, while No. 5 starter Matt Shoemaker can never seem to stay healthy. That makes depth options Randy Dobnak and Devin Smeltzer, and even potentially Lewis Thorpe given the improved velocity he's flashed this spring, some deep-league appeal.

Yankees

As per usual, there aren't many battles going on in camp with the Yankees, but the back of the rotation might offer some bargain opportunities. Domingo German might be the forgotten man in the mix after being suspended all of last season, and if the team doesn't want to employ him, hey, this is MLB – some other team with less scruples and more need for pitching will take him off the Yankees' hands.

Athletics

Remarkably, there's nothing much to see here. The Tony Kemp/Chad Pinder platoon at second base offers neither upside nor long-term value, and the Trevor Rosenthal signing settled the closer issue. Maybe someone like J.B. Wendelken becomes a 2022 bargain if Rosenthal gets flipped at the deadline.

Mariners

There's kind of a reverse sleeper effect going on in the M's outfield. All eyes are going to be on Jarred Kelenic, and to a lesser extent Julio Rodriguez, to see if/when they will break into the majors, but that means no one will want anything to do with Jake Fraley or Mitch Haniger. I mean, there are also reason for that beyond the fact that they might lose their jobs to the wunderkinds, but in AL-only endgames, betting against the rookies making an immediate splash could pay off.

Surprisingly there's not much of interest on the pitching staff beyond perennial sleepers like Yusei Kikuchi. The back of the rotation is up for grabs, but the options aren't great, although you're welcome to throw a buck at someone like Justin Dunn if you want. If there's a dark horse on this staff for value it's Kendall Graveman, who could emerge as a high-leverage relief ace if his velocity gains out of the bullpen are for real.

Rays

There's always deep-league value coming from someone on this roster. It's just hard to predict in advance who it might be. If you are trying to read the Wander Franco tea leaves, the Rays are giving Brandon Lowe reps at third base in camp, which suggests you might want to stay away from Joey Wendle. Any of Chris Archer, Michael Wacha or Rich Hill could have more value than expected if they routinely get their 3-4 innings behind an opener as opposed to right out of the gate on the days they pitch. And of course, you rely on any Tampa reliever for saves at your peril.

Rangers

Jose Trevino is the putative starter behind the plate, but I don't buy it given how much the club has committed to a rebuild. Sam Huff offers nice power upside, but I actually like Jonah Heim to emerge as the guy with the most value, as he has the defensive chops to make Trevino redundant while also having some offensive upside, in a Francisco Cervelli sort of way. Being a switch hitter doesn't hurt his chances at playing time either.

First base is a battle between newcomer Nate Lowe and former prospect Ronald Guzman, who's probably on his last chance to establish himself. The track record on hitters the Rays have given up on is spotty, but for every Jake Bauers there's a Jake Cronenworth, so Lowe could win the job and become a solid bat. If neither seizes the opportunity, it might be Sherten Apostel time.

The Texas rotation is basically an open audition behind their "top" three. Kohei Arihara is already complaining about his ability to grip the MLB baseball, which is not encouraging for a guy who relies on a multitude of breaking pitches to get outs. Mike Foltynewicz's mysterious collapse in Atlanta makes him a huge question mark, but 2018 wasn't that long ago. Kyle Cody needs better command to be of much value, while Joe Palumbo could be headed for the bullpen until he proves his colitis is under control and he's ready to reclaim his prospect sheen. None of them are particularly inspiring, but any of them could reward an endgame dollar in deep leagues.

Jose Leclerc is still around in the ninth-inning mix, but Jonathan Hernandez and his power sinker are the new hotness at closer for Texas and is the better futures play.

Blue Jays

The Jays' lineup is mostly set, but unless Danny Jansen's bat finally begins to develop, there's an opening for Alejandro Kirk to emerge as a valuable option behind the plate. Kirk is what Willians Astudillo was supposed to be at the plate, a guy who just hits everything he sees as soon as he rolls out of bed.

If you don't think Kirby Yates will be able to rebound from last year's elbow surgery (it was only bone chips, but you never know), a small investment in flame-throwing local hero Jordan Romano could pay dividends.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erik Siegrist
Erik Siegrist is an FSWA award-winning columnist who covers all four major North American sports (that means the NHL, not NASCAR) and whose beat extends back to the days when the Nationals were the Expos and the Thunder were the Sonics. He was the inaugural champion of Rotowire's Staff Keeper baseball league. His work has also appeared at Baseball Prospectus.
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