Fantasy Baseball: Sizing up critical position battles

St. Louis Cardinals' Jedd Gyorko (3) celebrates his three-run home run off Houston Astros relief pitcher Pat Neshek with Jhonny Peralta (27) and Brandon Moss, left, during the sixth inning of a baseball game, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
(AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

Now that opening day is two-and-a-half weeks away, fantasy drafts are in full swing. It’s just late enough that major league rosters are starting to take shape, but still early enough that there are several key position battles that have yet to be settled.

In a perfect fantasy world, we could ask Joe Girardi to pick a right fielder and the last two pitchers for the Yankees’ rotation in time for our upcoming draft, but that’s not how things work. We have to make a call as to whether or not to assume that players we want to draft will actually win the jobs for which they are vying.

In most cases, the players involved in position battles don’t have ceilings that are sufficiently high to merit the risk inherent in drafting them. For owners in deeper leagues, it will matter whether Whit Merrifield, Christian Colon or Cheslor Cuthbert emerges as the Royals’ second baseman or whether Tyler Collins, Mikie Mahtook or Anthony Gose will patrol center field for the Tigers. In the bulk of drafts, however, these battles can be overlooked.

That is not the case for the following five position battles. At least some of the players involved in these competitions are either being drafted in standard (12-team) mixed leagues or have the potential to merit a pick in those formats. It’s not easy to figure out whether to devote a pick to players who may not even have a regular role, but in some cases, the player is worth the risk. Let’s break down each situation to weigh the risks to playing time against the potential payoff in terms of performance.

Yankees Right Field

Summary: Aaron Judge has the prospect hype and the mind-blowing power, but he does not have a starting job…yet. With a spring slash line of .290/.389/.548 in 36 plate appearances, he hasn’t hurt his chances, but Aaron Hicks is still in the running.

If Judge wins: Should he succeed in cutting back on strikeouts, Judge could have a batting average around .260 to go with 25 to 30 home runs. That potential makes Judge worth a late-round gamble, and the payoff could be considerable.

If Hicks wins: At best, Hicks could provide 20 stolen bases, but he would be unlikely to offer much help in other categories.

Conclusion: Judge is currently 71st in ADP among outfielders, so he should be available in the very late rounds in most standard mixed-league drafts. There is little risk in taking him at that point. Even in the best-case scenario for Hicks, he would merely be a moderate source of steals for deeper leagues.

30 AUG 2016: New York Yankees' rightfielder Aaron Judge (99) hits a two-run home run in the second inning during a MLB game between the New York Yankees and the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire)

Yankees Rotation

Summary: Luis Severino, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, Adam Warren and Luis Cessa are all in the hunt for one of the final two spots in the rotation. No one has really distinguished himself, and all have sub-4.00 ERAs in the Grapefruit League. While each has had some difficulties, the biggest red flag has been raised by Green, who has walked five batters in 5.2 innings.

If Severino wins: At 23, Severino is the youngest of the group and the one who established himself the most as a prospect. He had trouble throwing first-pitch strikes last season, but when Severino got ahead of batters, he allowed just a .200 batting average. He is plenty young enough to recover, and if he does, he could get a strikeout per inning with an ERA in the mid-to-upper 3.00s. Like Judge, Severino is a sneaky late-rounder. In many Head-to-Head leagues, he has relief eligibility, which makes him worth drafting a little earlier in those formats.

Other scenarios: Warren has had some success as a starter, and because of that, he might be worth a flier in Head-to-Head leagues because of his relief eligibility. I suspect that, because of his extensive bullpen experience, Warren won’t make the rotation, as he could be a valuable member of the Yankees’ relief corps. For that reason, I probably won’t be drafting him in any mixed-league format. Green got clobbered in his 2016 debut, but his 12 percent whiff rate is intriguing enough to give him a try in deeper leagues.

Should Mitchell and Cessa win the two jobs, I wouldn’t trust either to pitch well enough to keep the rotation spots for long. Both can be ignored in the vast majority of formats.

Conclusion: Severino’s youth and upside makes him worth targeting in standard mixed leagues, even if he begins the season in Triple-A. Of the others, only Warren has promise in those formats, but he would have to be assured of a rotation spot to be worth drafting.

Diamondbacks Rotation

Summary: Shelby Miller, Patrick Corbin and Archie Bradley are competing for the last two rotation spots. Miller and Bradley have been inconsistent this spring, but their bad outings have been so awful that both have ERAs above 9.00. Corbin has generally pitched well, and a spot was would seem to be his to lose.

If Corbin wins: Barring a collapse like he had for much of last season, Corbin should be good enough to use as a No. 4 or 5 starter.

Other scenarios: Should Corbin somehow get overtaken by Miller and Bradley in the final weeks of spring training, I still wouldn’t trust either of Arizona’s back-end starters in a standard mixed league.

Conclusion: None of the three competitors are being drafted among the top-100 starting pitchers, so if you pass on all of them, you should have ample opportunity to pick them up on waivers. Because Corbin finished last season in such strong fashion (two earned runs and 22 strikeouts over his final 19 innings) — albeit in a relief role — I will be targeting him in the late rounds just to make sure I have him rostered.

SCOTTSDALE, AZ - MARCH 14: Arizona Diamondbacks Starting Pitcher Patrick Corbin on the mound during the Spring Training game between the Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks at Salt River Field in Scottsdale, AZ., USA.(Photo by Wilfred  Perez/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Wilfred Perez/Icon Sportswire)

Nationals Closer

Summary: This one could go right down to the wire, just like the Astros’ closer battle did a year ago. As with Houston’s competition, this one has a clear frontrunner in Shawn Kelley. If you recall, the presumed frontrunner for the Astros was Ken Giles, but he didn’t get the job, and Kelley could face the same fate. There are questions about Kelley’s durability, and rivals Blake Treinen, Joe Blanton and Koda Glover all have something to recommend them for the role.

If Kelley wins: He gets strikeouts and doesn’t walk many batters, and he proved during a brief stint last season that he can handle the closer’s job. The biggest questions would be whether Kelley can stay healthy and on how many consecutive days he can be used.

Other scenarios: Treinen and Blanton have proven to be highly-able relievers, though neither has closing experience. Both own skill sets that should translate well to closing. Glover has strong minor league credentials but has made all of 19 relief appearances in the majors. The Nationals could also trade for a reliever (David Robertson, perhaps?) whom they could use as a closer.

Conclusion: If Kelley were assured of being the Nationals’ closer, I would be targeting him as a top-12 reliever. He ranks just 25th in ADP among relievers, so there are plenty of owners who are concerned about his chances to capture the role. I have Kelley a couple of spots lower in my rankings, at 27th, so I am pretty much giving up on drafting him in any league where I am taking two closers. His chances of winning the job are just low enough that I’d rather avoid the headache of targeting him rather than a safer source of saves.

Cardinals Third Base

Summary: Either Jhonny Peralta or Jedd Gyorko will emerge as the Cardinals’ regular third baseman. Gyorko has a breakout 2016 performance and a strong spring (.304 batting average) on his side, but his superior versatility could also make him the more attractive candidate to fill a utility role. Peralta is working his way back from a disappointing season, during which he was limited by a thumb injury.

If Peralta wins: With a full rebound to his 2015 levels, you’d be getting a player whose value may not be all that different from that of Eugenio Suarez. Drafters seem to expect such a rebound — and agree with the comparison. Suarez ranks 33rd among third basemen in ADP, and Peralta ranks 34th.

If Gyorko wins: With an ADP rank among third basemen of 25th, Gyorko is getting more attention as a late-rounder in standard mixed leagues, but he may not perform well enough to provide a return the meager expenditure. Though he is coming off a 30-homer season, Gyorko’s track record and fly ball distances suggest that a home run total between 20 and 25 is a more realistic expectation for 2017, even with full-time play. Gyorko doesn’t hit for average or steal bases, so he needs even more power than that to be viable outside of deeper formats.

Conclusion: Even though the Cardinals lineup should provide plenty of run-producing opportunities, neither Peralta nor Gyorko offer enough in other categories to be worth pursuing in standard mixed leagues, even in the later rounds.

Statistical credits: FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference. All ADP data are from FantasyPros.

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