KEEPERS: The changing landscape—Position players

Plenty has changed in the keeper landscape during the off-season, including trades, free-agent signings, and winter performances. And even the absence of activity from some teams improves the outlook for internal options. As spring training games begin, we like to remind keeper league owners of opportunities and scenarios that may not yet be realized, and situations that should be watched and exploited. Rebuilders in particular should remember that more than a few teams will look very different at this time next season. What follows are some random observations and speculation around both leagues.

Reports of Alex Guerrero’s (2B, LA) transition difficulties from SS to 2B, the signing of Cuban defensive wizard Erisbel Arruebarrena (SS, LA), incumbent SS Hanley Ramirez’ spotty defense and Dee Gordon’s (SS/2B, LA) off-season move to 2B suggests that the LA middle infield could be in flux over the coming season. And now, manager Don Mattingly’s recent comments leaning toward a 2B platoon tells us that Gordon’s March performance—particularly his defense—deserves some immediate attention. Gordon’ career 66/19 SB/CS (78% SB%) speaks to his lone dependable offensive skill to date. But his bb% ticked up in 2013, and he reportedly added 13 lbs over the winter. A .271 career hitter vs. RHPs, Gordon is also the only left-handed hitting 2B on LA’s roster.

Miguel Sano (3B, MIN) is getting plenty of attention as the position mega-prospect most likely to make his 2014 MLB debut with MIN. But even with his inexperience and MIN's ability to manage his service time, it would be a mistake to sell consensus #1 prospect Byron Buxton (OF, MIN) short. Very similar to Mike Trout's 2010 performance as an 18-year-old, Buxton didn't skip a beat in his mid-2013 move from Low-A to High-A at age 19. Buxton is expected to begin 2014 at Double-A, from where Trout made the jump to Anaheim in the August of 2011. His patience, running game and defense are nearly ready, with questions only being raised about his power ceiling—another similarity with Trout at that point in his career. Both are special players, and while like Trout, Buxton may not be immediately productive in his first partial taste of MLB action, this is likely the last chance you'll have to buy him low.

CHC could become a laboratory of prospect experiments in 2014, as the Cubs' efforts in figuring out where everyone will play begins now. Position changes could be in store for both of their top prospects Javier Baez (SS, CHC) and Kris Bryant (3B, CHC). And of the projected Opening Day CHC lineup, only the positions of Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro appear safe for now, barring a trade. Notably the CHC OF, 3B and 2B spots all appear to be positions where significant turnover and change are likely. One name to keep close tabs on early is Mike Olt (3B, CHC), who enters camp attempting to erase memories of his 2013 season. Once highly-regarded, Olt struggled early with vision problems, but was unable to reverse a sub-.200 BA and 65% ct% (361 AB) at Triple-A even after his sight improved. The 25-year-old Olt still has good patience and terrific power—and he's the best 3B defender of all the CHC prospects. A good spring could give him an early shot; another disappointment could eliminate him from CHC's plans and open up the position later in 2014 for either Baez or Bryant.

While everyone will obviously be watching George Springer and Jonathan Singleton in the Astros camp, another name you should keep an eye on is Max Stassi (C, HOU).   As we noted recently in our AL West Playing Time Tomorrow space, there's been little progress in long-term contract discussions with the arbitration-eligible Jason Castro, and the Astros may be leery of extending a catcher with a history of knee injuries. A good defender with power, Stassi hit 18 HR in his final 176 Double-A AB, before being promoted to HOU last August. A concussion ended MLB debut following a 2-for-7 line. But he's expected to be ready for spring, where a good performance could give the Astros front office more to think about.

Just as in HOU, observers of the Pirates camp will be watching James Taillon (RHP, PIT) and Gregory Polanco (OF, PIT), two prospects expected to make their MLB debuts this year. As seen last season, the Pirates consider themselves contenders, and they aren't shy about promoting their kids into prominent roles during the heat of a divisional battle. And even though he offered little 2013 evidence that he's ready for an MLB jump, Alen Hanson (SS, PIT) should be added to your spring training watch-list. Hanson struggled in his 137 AB at Double-A last year—.255, 1 HR, 6 SB—but he's a good athlete with 20/20 tools upside, and faces limited obstacles in Jordy Mercer and Cliff Barmes. A decent spring will put Hanson on the Pirates' radar.

Lorenzo Cain (OF, KC) enters his third straight March as the KC CF with a little upside but also a D Health grade. Most of Cain's BPIs are unimpressive or stagnant, with average power that is suppressed by a 50% GB%. But he's a good defender with a decent running game who could conceivably improve with better health. Cain's biggest problem is he's been able to accumulate just 621 AB over the past two seasons. And mostly in Cain's place, Jarrod Dyson (OF, KC) has thrived, out-earning Cain thanks to a plus-plus running game that has resulted in a 64/11 SB/CS during this time. Dyson is a decent defender in his own right, but with less power than Dyson and an xBA in the .250 range. He'll begin March again as a bench player, but two consecutive 30+ SB seasons each with less than 300 AB says you shouldn't ignore Dyson if you can snag him cheaply enough.

The San Diego Padres camp has plenty of interesting position questions, including a first look at Rymer Liriano's comeback from Tommy John surgery, and whether Tommy Medica can build on his furious 2014 to carve out some 1B time. But the most intriguing longer term competition may be a catcher, where starter Yasmani Grandal (C, SD) tries to get back on track following a lost season that included a PED suspension and a season-ending knee injury. Grandal has terrific patience and decent contact, though his upside is difficult to gauge given the issues that surround him—and he may not be ready to play by Opening Day. His biggest long-term competition is Austin Hedges (C, SD), whose defense is ready now. Hedges will need more time in the minors, but most scouts believe in his latent power, and think that his lagging bat could be ready by the end of 2014.    

The pre-season drum-beat is intensifying for Francisco Lindor (SS, CLE), who by most accounts is on track to be CLE's starting SS by 2015 at the latest. The 21-year-old Lindor's one sub-par tool is his power, which should improve as he fills out. But he already profiles as an all-fields, top-of-the-order hitter with terrific strike-zone control and the ability to both walk and steal a base. Even better, Lindor's plus defense is already MLB-caliber, and likely better than that of incumbent Asdrubal Cabrera (SS, CLE). A good early showing by Lindor could begin to accelerate the near-inevitable trade of Cabrera, particularly in the event of a non-contending Indians team that will seek to improve its future near the July trade deadline.

 

 

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.