The top position battles fantasy baseball managers have to monitor

·8 min read

By Thomas Harrigan, MLB.com

Special to Yahoo Sports

Every year, a handful of Spring Training position battles end up having major fantasy ramifications.

In 2019, Pete Alonso, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Chris Paddack all entered camp without a guaranteed spot on the Major League roster. Ultimately, each made the Opening Day squad and became a key part of fantasy lineups.

[Batter up: Join or create a Yahoo Fantasy Baseball league for free today]

With that in mind, fantasy managers would be wise to monitor the seven competitions below.

Houston Astros: Final rotation spot

Main contenders: Josh James, Framber Valdez, Austin Pruitt

Brad Peacock was expected to be part of this competition, but a nerve issue in his neck has opened the door for either James, Valdez or Pruitt to land Houston's fifth rotation spot behind Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., and Jose Urquidy.

While he posted an unimpressive 4.70 ERA with a 5.1 BB/9 mark over 49 appearances (one start) last season, James also ranked in the 93rd percentile or better in average fastball velocity, strikeout rate, xwOBA and xSLG, giving the 26-year-old the most upside of the three competitors. The right-hander has focused on improving his mechanics so he can more consistently pound the strike zone in 2020.

Prediction

James gets the spot. Although Forrest Whitley (MLB's No. 19 prospect) should get a shot at some point this season, potentially bumping the winner of this competition to the bullpen, the flamethrowing James would be worth a late-round pick in 12-team mixed leagues if he does indeed emerge as the Astros' fifth starter to open 2020.

Atlanta Braves: Third base

Main contenders: Austin Riley, Johan Camargo

The departure of Josh Donaldson as a free agent left Atlanta with an enormous hole at third base, to be filled by either Riley or Camargo. Riley, 22, debuted last May and hit .280/.333/.596 with 14 home runs over his first 42 games, but his aggressive approach caught up to him. In his final 38 games, Riley posted a .150/.203/.292 batting line with four homers, 52 strikeouts and eight walks in 123 plate appearances.

The versatile Camargo was a valuable contributor for the Braves in 2018, producing 19 homers, an .806 OPS and 3.3 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, but he regressed last season (seven homers, .663 OPS, -0.5 fWAR).

Prediction

Riley does enough during the Grapefruit League schedule to edge Camargo for the starting job. However, the youngster deals with more inconsistency during the season, making him a fringe option in mixed leagues.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Final two rotation spots

Main contenders: Zac Gallen, Luke Weaver, Alex Young, Merrill Kelly

This is perhaps the most interesting battle on this list, given the promise that Gallen (2.81 ERA, 28.7% K-rate) and Weaver (2.94 ERA, 26.5% K-rate) showed in a limited sample size last season. Young was also solid, though his 3.56 ERA was backed by a troubling 4.81 FIP, while Kelly delivered 183 1/3 league-average innings (101 ERA+).

Unless Gallen struggles considerably this spring, it's hard to imagine that he won't be part of the starting five to begin 2020. Under normal circumstances, Weaver might also be a lock, but he dealt with right elbow problems last year, and Arizona could look to limit his innings. Weaver and Young both have options remaining, but Kelly cannot be sent to the Minors without his consent.

Zac Gallen #59 of the Arizona Diamondbacks
Zac Gallen was very impressive in 2019. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Prediction

Gallen and Weaver both crack Arizona's season-opening rotation, while Kelly is used in a long-relief role until he's needed as a spot starter, and Young begins the year in the Minors. Gallen and Weaver should be drafted between the 10th and 15th rounds in 12-team leagues.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Final two rotation spots

Main contenders: Julio Urías, Alex Wood, Jimmy Nelson, Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin

All five of these pitchers could make multiple starts this year, as the Dodgers take advantage of their depth to keep everyone fresh. Over the past three years, Los Angeles hasn't had a single pitcher make more than 30 starts in a season.

After being derailed by a left shoulder injury that required surgery, Urías returned last season to post a 2.49 ERA with 85 strikeouts in 79 2/3 innings. Although the southpaw debuted all the way back in 2016, he is still just 23 years old and carries notable upside. Wood is back in Los Angeles after a short stint with the Reds that was plagued by a recurring back issue. He'll look to recapture the form he showed over his first six seasons (3.29 ERA, 3.36 FIP). Nelson, too, is trying to rebound from injuries. He missed all of 2018 following right shoulder surgery and had a 6.95 ERA in 10 outings last season, dealing with elbow problems along the way. May (MLB's No. 23 prospect) has the ceiling of a frontline starter, while Gonsolin is another young righty with considerable potential.

Prediction

The Dodgers begin the year with Urías and Wood in the rotation behind Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw and David Price. But May and Gonsolin both get a chance to start at some point. May, in particular, is worth stashing in mixed leagues.

New York Mets: Closer

Main contenders: Edwin Díaz, Seth Lugo, Justin Wilson

Traded to the Mets following a transcendent 2018 season with the Mariners (1.96 ERA, 44.3% K-rate, 57 saves), Díaz was unable to find his footing during his first year in New York. The righty recorded a 5.59 ERA with 15 home runs allowed over 58 innings, losing the closer's role late in the campaign. But there were some positive signs: Díaz finished with a stellar 39% strikeout rate, and he had the largest difference (.067) in MLB (min. 250 batters faced) between his wOBA (.344) and xwOBA (.277), suggesting he was a bit unlucky. Moreover, 13 of the 36 earned runs he permitted came in just three appearances, during which he tallied a combined three outs.

The Mets will give the 25-year-old every chance to cement himself as their closer, considering all they gave up to acquire him. If he bounces back, he could be a top five fantasy relief option. But if Díaz continues to struggle this spring, the club could turn to a ninth-inning committee, as it did last August and September, splitting save chances between Lugo and Wilson. Dellin Betances could also be a factor in the closing mix, but the team will likely ease him in after he missed all but one game in 2019.

Prediction

Díaz doesn't quite return to his 2018 heights, but he rebounds and collects 30-plus saves with 100-plus K's and strong ratios. (Steamer and ZiPS both project him for a sub-3.00 ERA and a sub-1.10 WHIP).

Washington Nationals: Third base

Main contenders: Carter Kieboom, Asdrúbal Cabrera

To say the least, Kieboom's first Major League experience didn't go well. After debuting in April, he hit .128/.209/.282 and was sent back to the Minors less than two weeks later. Of course, a sample size of 43 plate appearances isn't enough to judge any player, much less a 22-year-old who ranks 21st on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects list.

[Yahoo Rankings: Overall | C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | SP | RP ]

The Nationals are giving Kieboom, who posted a .303/.409/.493 slash line in Triple-A last season, a chance to replace Anthony Rendon at third base. Cabrera, a 13-year veteran, was re-signed to provide insurance.

Prediction

Kieboom is named Washington's starting third baseman, but with six additional infielders -- Cabrera, Eric Thames, Ryan Zimmerman, Starlin Castro, Howie Kendrick and Trea Turner -- on the 26-man roster, he receives regular days off. The youngster has average power and isn't much of a base-stealer at this point, giving him fringe value in mixed leagues.

Chicago White Sox: Second base

Main contenders: Nick Madrigal, Leury García

At 5-foot-7, 165 pounds, Madrigal (MLB's No. 40 prospect) isn't going to hit for much power, but he is an intriguing player in fantasy circles nonetheless. The 22-year-old stole 35 bases in the Minors last season, and he struck out just 16 times in 532 plate appearances. With his outstanding bat-to-ball skills, Madrigal could be a perennial .300 hitter.

García could get the opportunity to enter this season as the White Sox starting second baseman, but Madrigal should have that role sooner rather than later.

Prediction

The White Sox send Madrigal to Triple-A at the outset of the season, but he earns a promotion before the end of April and becomes a viable starting option in the majority of fantasy leagues. That frees up García to handle a utility role. The 28-year-old switch-hitter, who recorded a .311/.344/.443 slash line vs. lefties last season, ends up drawing the majority of his starts as part of a right-field platoon with Nomar Mazara.

Thomas Harrigan is a reporter for MLB.com.

Listen to the Yahoo Fantasy Baseball Podcast