2020 Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep: Top 25 position battles at the start of spring training

Spring has spring, and there are jobs to be won. Not all of them matter to Fantasy Baseball players, of course, but I think I’ve narrowed down the 25 that do the most.

I should point out, however, that position battles aren’t always so clear-cut, particularly in an era that favors specialization. Having too many players for one spot is quite often by design, and in those cases, nothing that happens in spring training can prevent a shared workload. The Rays roster, for instance, is one question stacked on another, up to and including whether or not they’ll find a creative way to incorporate Nate Lowe and Brendan McKay, but that’s just the way they like it — everybody playing a role, nobody with a well-defined one.

So yes, I made judgment calls regarding whether or not a “battle” is indeed taking place. Maybe some of them won’t have a clear resolution heading into the regular season, but I think we can glean something by monitoring them during the exhibition schedule.

The “likely choice” is who’s the presumptive favorite. The “preferred choice” is who Fantasy Baseballers are hoping will win the job.

1. Cardinals fourth/fifth starter

Likely choices: Carlos Martinez, Kwang Hyun Kim
Preferred choices: Carlos Martinez, Alex Reyes
If former ace Carlos Martinez shows his shoulder can hold up to a starter’s workload again, he’s a lock, especially now that Miles Mikolas is expected to miss at least the first month with strained forearm. The Cardinals would have preferred not to test their rotation depth and may still be able to avoid it by installing Alex Reyes as their fifth starter for only the time Mikolas is out, but they’ve already said they want him in the bullpen most of the year after he forfeited most of the past three to injury.

Likely choice: Giovanny Gallegos
Preferred choice: Giovanny Gallegos
If Carlos Martinez’s move back to the starting rotation doesn’t go as planned, this competition is already decided: He’ll simply reclaim the role that he handled with ease for the final three months of last season. But you can understand the enthusiasm for Gallegos — who had a 2.31 ERA, 0.81 WHIP and 11.3 K/9 over 74 innings — if Martinez is indeed out of the picture. Still, manager Mike Shildt may prefer to keep his best reliever in a more versatile role, as modern managers often do.

Likely choice: Josh Reddick
Preferred choice: Kyle Tucker
All indications are that Tucker will have a role with the big club on opening day, but he’ll only live up to the breakout hype if he decisively unseats Reddick. Reddick is 33 and has been less than two-win player the past two years, but the old regime still seemed to prefer him to Tucker even as the latter was putting up ridiculous numbers at Triple-A, including 34 homers and 30 steals in 2019. Here’s hoping the new regime sees things differently.

4. Diamondbacks fifth starter

Likely choice: Zac Gallen
Preferred choice: Zac Gallen
Sounds like this one is mostly just for show. Gallen was a revelation after coming over to the Diamondbacks last season, compiling a 2.89 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and 10.9 K/9 in eight starts, and may already be their best pitcher. But seeing as he’s a young player with less than a full season of experience, the Diamondbacks don’t want him to get complacent spring, according to the Arizona Republic. So they’ll make him earn it, which he should do handily, relegating the uninspiring Merrill Kelly to a swingman role.

Likely choice: Edwin Diaz
Preferred choice: Edwin Diaz
It all hinges on the consistency of Diaz’s slider this spring. It was his best friend and worst enemy last year, continuing to pile up strikeouts but also contributing to a home run barrage that ultimately became untenable. Given all that the Mets gave up to acquire Diaz from the Mariners last offseason, he’ll likely get the first crack regardless, but Seth Lugo has proven to be a capable alternative if things go sideways again.

Likely choice: Luke Voit, with Miguel Andujar in utility role
Preferred choice: Anything but a timeshare
Seriously, I don’t care who wins it as long as somebody does so outright. All three of these players have must-start potential, especially batting in the middle of that lineup, yet all three are easily attainable in drafts because there’s no predicting which direction the Yankees will go. Complicating factors include Voit’s miserable second-half performance while contending with a sports hernia and Andujar’s surgically repaired shoulder. The Yankees could theoretically find at-bats for two of them, but it would mean Giancarlo Stanton in left field full-time and Mike Tauchman, another sleeper, to the bench. Gio Urshela, thankfully, appears to have risen above the fray, his defense being far superior to Andujar’s at third base.

Likely choice: J.D. Davis
Preferred choice: J.D. Davis
I’ve previously referred to J.D. Davis — who hit .307 with 22 homers and an .895 OPS in a part-time role last year — as this year’s easiest breakout pick, and it seemed like a safe call when Dominic Smith, who has no business playing anywhere but first base, was his only competition in left field. But former star Yoenis Cespedes, his lower body surgically rebuilt, has reasserted himself in the early days of camp, opening the door for Davis to spend half his time at third base this spring. Maybe he’ll find full-time at-bats between the two spots, but since he’s a defensive liability everywhere, you hate to see new alternatives emerge.

8. Reds left/center field

Likely choices: Timeshare, with Aristides Aquino sent to the minors
Preferred choices: Aristides Aquino, Nick Senzel
The Reds looked like they had an exciting high-upside outfield before adding Nick Castellanos and Shogo Akiyama to the mix this offseason. Castellanos of course has right field on lockdown, and it sounds like the Reds like Akiyama’s potential as a leadoff man, at least against right-handers. Senzel’s top-prospect pedigree would seem to make him the obvious third choice, but he’ll need to prove himself coming off shoulder surgery. Given that Aquino is the only one with minor-league options, he’s probably out of luck.

Likely choice: Sam Hilliard/Ian Desmond platoon, with Garrett Hampson in utility role
Preferred choice: Garrett Hampson
Hilliard had a combined 42 homers and 24 steals between the majors and minors last year, including seven and two following a late-August promotion, so despite his strikeout issues and late-bloomer status, he’s deserving of a chance. And fortunately for him, the Rockies already seem to have accepted that Ian Desmond is a lost cause, using him strictly against lefties down the stretch last year. Ultimately, Fantasy players would prefer to see Hampson settle in somewhere on the diamond since they’re kind of depending on him for stolen bases, but he may have to bounce between the infield and outfield. 

10. Nationals third baseman

Likely choice: Carter Kieboom
Preferred choice: Carter Kieboom
The Nationals are already penciling in Kieboom at third base, viewing him as their best chance to make a splash there after losing Anthony Rendon to free agency, and it’s a refreshing development given how dodgy teams usually are about their top prospects’ timetables. But of course, it’s not a foregone conclusion, especially since Kieboom was a disaster offensively and defensively while filling in for an injured Trea Turner last May. He profiles as a player who should hit for both average and power, though, and prospects of his ilk tend to move swiftly up draft boards as word gets around.

11. White Sox second baseman

Likely choice: Leury Garcia
Preferred choice: Nick Madrigal
The White Sox are giving Madrigal a shot to win the second base job, and he’d be a fascinating change of pace in a power-laden environment. He had more than twice as many stolen bases (35) as strikeouts (16) between three minor-league stops last year, exhibiting a skill set that would make him a handy late-round option in traditional 5×5 leagues. Garcia isn’t really the sort of player that should block him, but there’s of course the service-time game to consider.

12. Athletics fifth starter

Likely choice: A.J. Puk
Preferred choice: A.J. Puk
The Athletics have the pieces in place for a truly dominant starting rotation in 2019 and would of course like to see Puk seize this opportunity. But compared to fellow prospect Jesus Luzardo, who already appears to have a rotation spot on lockdown, Puk is a little rough around the edges. Control was an issue for the 6-foot-7 flamethrower even before he had Tommy John surgery, and his 37 combined innings between the majors and minors last year hardly put those concerns to rest. In Chris Bassitt, who delivered a 3.81 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and nearly a strikeout per inning in 144 innings last year, the Athletics have a capable alternative if Puk doesn’t rise to the occasion.

13. Cardinals left fielder

Likely choice: Tyler O’Neill, with Tommy Edman in a utility role
Preferred choice: Dylan Carlson, with Tommy Edman in a utility role
Tommy Edman proved to be such an integral part of the Cardinals lineup down the stretch last season that he’ll get his at-bats either way. In fact, the Cardinals would probably prefer to keep him versatile since Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong aren’t exactly stalwarts on the infield, so you can relax if you’ve identified Edman as a mid-round target for batting average and steals. Tyler O’Neill seems like a safe bet to showcase his massive power bat finally, but Carlson is an elite prospect who’ll be knocking on the door sooner than later. A loud spring from him could change things.

14. Dodgers fifth starter

Likely choice: Alex Wood
Preferred choice: Dustin May
Yeah, I’m calling this one a position battle, but we all know by now the way the Dodgers handle their starting rotation. They’ll cycle through all of these pitchers in 2020, making full use of minor-league options and IL stints. It wouldn’t at all be surprising, in fact, if Julio Urias, who has already been declared the No. 4 starter, got mixed up with this group as a way to keep his innings under control. Of the five pitchers listed here, May is the upside play and will eventually be a rotation fixture, but Tony Gonsolin and Ross Stripling have shown intriguing potential themselves.

15. Rangers center fielder

Likely choice: Nick Solak, with Danny Santana in utility role
Preferred choice: Danny Santana, with Nick Solak in utility role
This one may not actually change anything in Fantasy other than who gets to be eligible at more positions — and in that regard, the loser actually wins. Still, those investing a late-round pick in Nick Solak would feel much more comfortable if he had a job to himself, especially with his glove being a liability in the infield. The odds are against it since Solak has minimal experience in center field, but the Rangers clearly want his well-rounded bat (which offers good on-base skills with some power and speed) in the lineup. Santana, meanwhile, is better equipped for bouncing around the infield.

Likely choice: Josh James
Preferred choice: Forrest Whitley
The Astros had an obvious replacement for Gerrit Cole with Lance McCullers coming back from Tommy John surgery, but there’s a wide open battle for Wade Miley’s spot that has already seen its most experienced contender, Brad Peacock, bow out due to neck issues. Josh James, who struck out 100 in 61 1/3 innings of relief last year, has been making the most noise in camp, having reworked his delivery in a way that should allow for better consistency, but Framber Valdez is also interesting as a ground-ball specialist who can miss bats. Then, of course, there’s Forrest Whitley, who’s coming off a disappointing season but was considered the game’s best pitching prospect at this time a year ago. Any of these pitchers could be a big winner given the supporting cast. 

Likely choice: Johan Camargo
Preferred choice: Austin Riley
The Braves were able to replace Josh Donaldson’s bat easily enough in free agency, bringing in Marcell Ozuna, but a hole remains at third base, where they’ll either turn back the clock to Camargo or turn it ahead to Riley. Camargo, you’ll remember, was a decent enough starter for them in 2018, batting .272 with 19 homers and an .806 OPS, and the Braves seem confident he can bounce back from a disappointing showing as a utility player last year. Riley is the future, though, offering the sort of power potential that could make a real impact in Fantasy, but he’ll need to make adjustments after cratering down the stretch last season.

Likely choice: Steven Matz
Preferred choice: Steven Matz
Why the Mets would even consider replacing Matz is a head-scratcher. Sure, the 28-year-old has yet to live up to his potential, dealing with injuries and inconsistency throughout his career, but he’s coming off a strong second half in which he compiled a 3.52 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 8.5 K/9 across 14 starts and has even gotten some buzz as a sleeper in Fantasy. The expectation when the Mets signed Michael Wacha was that he’d be rotation depth — someone they could turn to in case of injury and nothing more, especially since he himself has struggled to hold up in a starting role. Reports of a competition, then, are probably just a formality.

Likely choice: Jason Kipnis/David Bote, with Ian Happ in center field
Preferred choice: Nico Hoerner, with Ian Happ in center field
The hope here is that Hoerner can convince the Cubs he’s their best option for the present as well as the future, and he has a head start after capably filling in for injured shortstop Javier Baez down the stretch last season. It’s debatable how much of an impact he’d make in Fantasy given that his power isn’t fully developed yet, but players with the strong hit tool he has are exactly the sort who tend to take off in this homer-friendly environment. Kipnis would have to be added to the 40-man roster still, but he’s the biggest name here and, as a left-handed hitter, could form a nifty platoon with Bote. Happ has upside as a hitter but is probably a better fit for the outfield.

Likely choice: Matt Magill
Preferred choice: Matt Magill
The Mariners’ closer probably won’t be a significant contributor in Fantasy since they’re the obvious choice to finish at the bottom of of the AL West, and it doesn’t help that their leading candidates aren’t the sort that would ever have a firm grip on the role. Magill was the one getting looks there at the end of 2019, but he’s behind in camp due to a sore shoulder. Yoshihisa Hirano spent a few years as a closer in Japan and occasionally filled in there with the Diamondbacks.

Likely choice: Joey Lucchesi
Preferred choice: MacKenzie Gore
When listing off his rotation locks, new manager Jayce Tingler has routinely referenced Chris Paddack, Dinelson Lamet, Garrett Richards and Zach Davies, which suspiciously leaves out Joey Lucchesi even though the 26-year-old has put up respectable numbers in his first two years in the big leagues. He’s still the odds-on favorite, but his two-pitch arsenal pretty much limits him to just two turns through the lineup. The Padres are overflowing with pitching prospects and may entertain the idea of trying someone else in the role, including mega prospect Gore. It’s a long shot, but this is the team that surprised the league by awarding Paddack a job last spring, and it obviously worked out well for them.

22. Padres center/right fielder

Likely choices: Trent Grisham, Franchy Cordero/Wil Myers platoon
Preferred choices: Trent Grisham, Wil Myers
The Padres actually cleared up some of the clutter by dealing off Manuel Margot before the start of spring training, which makes Trent Grisham a virtual lock since he’s capable of manning center field. He’ll still need to perform to make it official, though, especially after an uneven showing with the Brewers last year. Wil Myers’ chances of re-entering the mixed-league scene have also greatly improved, but at times even last year, it seemed like Josh Naylor was the preferred starter of the two. And now, Franchy Cordero, a hard-hitting Statcast darling who was staking his claim against righties early last year, is back in the mix.

23. Red Sox second baseman

Likely choices: Mitch Moreland, Jose Peraza, with Michael Chavis in utility role
Preferred choices: Bobby Dalbec, Michael Chavis
It’s true the Red Sox re-signed Moreland this offseason, but for a paltry $3 million. It leaves the door open for the 24-year-old Dalbec to swoop in and claim the starting first base job this spring. He has a 70-grade power bat but also severe contact issues. He made some strides in that area last year but still hit only .239. Failing that, Moreland figures to platoon with Chavis at first base, with Chavis sliding over to second base most of the time against righties. Like Dalbec, Chavis is a right-handed slugger with contact issues, but he’s ahead in the pecking order after seeing some time in the majors last year.

Likely choices: Sean Newcomb, Felix Hernandez
Preferred choices: Anyone but Hernandez
Cole Hamels’ shoulder injury, which could sideline him for the first month of the season, has opened the door for both Newcomb and Hernandez to make the starting five. But neither is a sure thing, and the Braves’ wealth of young rotation options allows for possible surprises. The Braves probably weren’t counting on Hernandez playing a major role for them and may have just wanted him around camp to help guide their young pitchers, but someone else will need to step up.

25. Brewers first baseman

Likely choice: Platoon, with Ryan Braun also playing some right field
Preferred choice: Anything but a platoon
The Brewers’ big offseason acquisition was Avisail Garcia, who fits best in right field. He forces Christian Yelich over to left field, and to avoid having their best player switch back and forth, manager Craig Counsell has already revealed that Braun, primarily a left fielder, will be in right whenever he’s in the outfield. He’ll be playing out of position either way because his more likely path appears to be first base, where he didn’t last long in 2018. He’s in the final year of his contract, has trouble taking the field regularly and has talked of retirement at season’s end, so it’s possible he’ll play more of a ceremonial role if he doesn’t acclimate to first base well this spring, making Justin Smoak something of a sleeper.

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