A little more than two weeks from this moment, Jon Lester will take the mound at Wrigley Field against the Cardinals, and the 2015 MLB season will be underway. There’s still plenty that can change between now and then, so fantasy owners need to stay up on the latest news from spring training camps in Arizona and Florida. We all know that spring training stats don’t matter, but spring training itself does have an impact on fantasy drafts and auctions. If yours is still in the future, you’ll want to follow our spring training updates from now right up until Lester throws the first pitch of the season.
Pitching is unnatural and no one should do it
Yu Darvish, Marcus Stroman, Zack Wheeler: three pitchers who would have been drafted in 100 percent of fantasy leagues. One of them, Darvish, had the upside to be the best fantasy pitcher in baseball. Another, Stroman, was a popular breakout pick. That’ll all have to wait until 2016, as all three are out for the season. At least in Stroman’s case, it was a fluky ACL tear suffered during pitcher fielding practice. Darvish and Wheeler, however, both fell victim to the UCL scourge, and will be out all year due to Tommy John surgery.
The injuries to all three pitchers are old news. They should drive home the point, though, that pitching is volatile, and why it makes sense to invest more resources in hitting than in pitching. Hitters are consistent and predictable, whereas pitchers are at risk for injury simply because of the nature of their jobs. If you were in an early draft, Darvish was off the board within the first 40 picks. Now he’s done for the season. While he has had injury woes in the past, those weren’t enough to make owners shy away from him at his high draft-day price. That’s what makes every pitcher in that stratosphere a roll of the dice. If one thing goes wrong, you lose one of your top picks. In most cases where something does go wrong, it’s completely unpreventable, as well.
The lesson for fantasy owners: Draft hitters early and draft hitters often. You can always fill out your starting rotation in the middle and late rounds of any draft, or with a few bucks in any auction.
One note on Stroman’s injury that late drafters should keep handy: Hours after we touted Aaron Sanchez as a closer-in-waiting on Thursday, Toronto manager John Gibbons strongly suggested that Sanchez would replace Stroman in the rotation. That makes the prospect, with a blazing fastball and dazzling curveball, a great endgame target.
Kris Bryant, destroyer of worlds, creator of service time arguments
Bryant projects as one of the next great stars in the majors. All he’s done, really his entire life, is crush baseballs. He crushed them in college, and he crushed them at every level of the minors last year. When can only assume he crushed them in high school and junior high and in his backyard playing wiffle ball, too. And he's done it this spring, too. His stats through nine games: 10-for-23 with six homers, two doubles and nine RBIs.
That sounds like a guy who’s ready for The Show. Of course, the Cubs have a vested interest in keeping him in the minors until late April, delaying his service time clock just enough to push back his arbitration eligibility for a full season. And as Theo Epstein stated in no uncertain terms earlier this week, the Cubs are going to do what’s best for the franchise and aren’t going to let any outside sources (ahem, Scott Boras) dictate what they do. Bryant is going to start the year at Triple-A Iowa because it’s what’s best for the long-term health of the franchise. The likelihood that the Cubs miss out on the playoffs because Bryant spent the first three weeks of the year in Des Moines is so slim that it warrants no more mention than this sentence.
The question for our purposes: How should you approach Bryant in fantasy? He may be raking in spring training, and he absolutely dominated Double A and Triple A last year, but none of that measures up to real-life major league games. You know right away that you’re losing at least three weeks of plate appearances from Bryant. What if he struggles when he’s promoted? He did have a 28.6% strikeout rate in Triple A last year and has fanned seven times in 26 trips to the plate this spring. What if it takes him a while to find his stroke in the majors? What if you lose out on a month with him at Iowa to start the year, and then it takes him another month to get it going with the Cubs? Is it worth it to invest in him in redraft leagues?
Despite all that buildup, the answer is yes. Bryant has hit for elite power for his entire career. Even if he plays in just 100 games this year, it would be a disappointment if he came up short of the low-20s in homers. He may strike out a lot, but he also takes a ton of walks, registering a 14.5% walk rate in the minors last year. Bryant is going to be a force in the middle of the Cubs' lineup, which could be much improved with him, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Dexter Fowler and Miguel Montero joining Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro for an entire season. With his affordable ADP, Bryant could be a guy who swings fantasy titles in his rookie year.
Keep an eye on Michael Taylor
Pitching injuries have garnered most of the headlines this spring, but there have been a handful of injuries to position players, as well. Most of those are concentrated in the outfield, with Hunter Pence, Michael Saunders and Denard Span all likely to begin the year on the DL. Jacoby Ellsbury, too, is dealing with an oblique strain that is going to sideline him for at least a week.
The Span injury opened the door for an intriguing player who could be a nice stopgap if you already own one of the injured outfielders listed above. Michael Taylor is expected to start in centerfield for the Nationals while Span is out, and he's someone you’ll want to remember when your draft enters the late stages. Taylor had a monster season at Double A in 2014, hitting .313/.396/.539 with 22 homers and 34 steals. The counting stats should translate, as Taylor has had impressive pop and speed for his entire professional career. The 24-year-old swiped 51 bags in A-ball in '13 and has 49 homers in four years across all levels of the minors, doing that in his age-20 through -23 seasons.
On the downside, Taylor struck out nearly 30% of the time, so batting average is going to be an issue in the majors. The Nationals could very well send him back to the minors when Span returns, given that Taylor is their centerfielder of the future—they’ll probably want him to get consistent at-bats, rather than sitting on the bench in the majors. Still, Taylor can turn a profit in April if you can get him on the cheap.