PT TOMORROW: AL Central—different approaches for the 13th batter

(Note: MLB announced on Feb. 12, 2020, that the 26-man rosters for 2020 will be capped at 13 pitchers, excluding any defined "two-way" players. Therefore most teams will operate in 2020 with 13 batters. Additional info on the other 2020 rules changes and the fantasy implications are covered here by BaseballHQ's Matt Cederholm.)

 

Kansas City Royals

Salvador Perez (C, KC) recently reported that his surgically repaired elbow is at 90 percent health, and he expects it to be at 100 percent by Opening Day. Perez’s elbow is the X factor that could send the Royals in several different directions for creatively using that extra batter. 

The team could choose to keep two other catchers on the roster, most likely Cameron Gallagher (C, KC) and Meibrys Viloria (C, KC), and give Perez some extra elbow rest with occasional usage at 1B or DH. (Note that Perez unsurprisingly opened the Cactus League schedule on Feb. 21 as the DH.) However, neither Gallagher nor Viloria offer any fantasy interest.

In addition to facilitating Perez’s return with some non-catching playing time, the Royals are hosting a first base competition between RH-batting Ryan McBroom (1B, KC) and LH-batting Ryan O’Hearn (1B, KC). McBroom made his MLB debut in September 2019 after being acquired from the Yankees, going 22-for-75 with five doubles, but showed much more power while at AAA-Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2019 (26 HR and 29 doubles yielding a .976 OPS in 482 PA). He also showed no real platoon splits, which suggests he could be more than the short side of a platoon. 

O’Hearn struggled in the first half of 2019 and earned a month-long trip back to AAA-Omaha, returning with some harder contact and more line drives which moved xPX up above average for his shortened second half. Depending on Perez’s progress, the Royals might be able to find room for both McBroom and O’Hearn at the start of the season to continue the competition. 

One other permutation is the move of Hunter Dozier (OF, KC) from third base to right field, where he played 20 games in 2019 and is expected to be the regular there in 2020. He received the dreaded “DN” (downside) indicator in the 2020 Baseball Forecaster for a possible loss of regular AB. If Dozier struggles offensively and/or defensively in right field, McBroom (12 games in RF with KC and 37 in Triple-A during 2019) could be an option there as well. 

 

Chicago White Sox

The White Sox picked up Cheslor Cuthbert (1B/3B, CHW) and Andrew Romine (UT, CHW) on minor league deals during the off-season, and either one could fit as a utility player on the 2020 roster, depending on particular positional needs. 

The planets aligned for Cuthbert during his first full season in the majors with KC during 2016 (12 HR, 46 RBI, .274 BA in 475 AB), and after two lean years, he saw (minor) positive value again in 2019. He could carve out a minor role against LH pitching at 3B in 2020, for as we noted last month, 1B playing time is well covered in Chicago this season.

Romine last played in the majors in 2018, but in that season he played all over the diamond, covering every position (including three on the pitcher’s mound) except catcher. (He did more of the same in 2019 at AAA-Lehigh Valley.) His bat is nothing special (.591 OPS in 1,198 career major league AB), but his defensive flexibility with an “A” Health rating (never on the DL/IL in his nine major league seasons), might be what MLB had in mind with the new roster rules. 

 

Cleveland Indians

The signing of Domingo Santana (OF, CLE), recently covered by Tom Kephart in Playing Time Today, puts him at the top of the eight-man outfield playing time heap behind expected everyday CF Oscar Mercado (OF, CLE). When tallying up the other expected starters, a backup catcher and a utility infielder or two, there should be room for at least three additional outfielders under the recent roster changes. 

Current playing time allocations favor Tyler Naquin (OF, CLE), Jordan Luplow (OF, CLE) and Delino DeShields Jr. (OF, CLE) for the larger shares of playing time, but each has questions to be considered. Naquin suffered an anterior cruciate ligament tear in late August 2019, and is expected to start the season on the IL with a possible May return. Before the injury, he showed a greater effort to launch fly balls (from 23% in 2018 to 36% in 2019) while maintaining the same 107 HctX, so as soon as he is ready, he is likely to take back over the strong side of a RF platoon with Luplow. 

The RH-batting Luplow feasted on LH pitching to the tune of an 1.181 OPS, with 14 HR in 128 AB. However, the famine of hitting for less than half of that (.573 OPS) against righties, rightly limits his playing time opportunities. Santana played 42 games in RF in 2019, and may become the interim handcuff for Luplow until Naquin returns.

That leaves DeShields and possibly Jake Bauers (OF, CLE) covering LF at the start of the season. DeShields also received a “DN” indicator (<200 AB, 10 SB) in the 2020 Baseball Forecaster, and we took a look at his stagnant skills a month ago in this space. He, too, might be on the short end of a job share with Bauers, who still has the opportunity to develop at age 24, and the first development step for Bauers in 2020 could be improving his contact frequency (career 68%) and strength (74 HctX in 2019). 

 

Detroit Tigers

Both Niko Goodrum (2B/SS/OF, DET) and Christin Stewart (OF, DET) finished the season slowed by injuries; Goodrum missed September with a groin strain, and Stewart lost August with a concussion, then struggled in his September return. What contingency plans do the Tigers have in place for 2020?

The Tigers brought back 33-year-old Cameron Maybin (OF, DET) for his third tour in Motown, where he has a decent combined line (.294/.362/.399 in 444 PA), but most of those numbers were accumulated in 2016 when he was four years younger. His 2019 line with the Yankees is virtually the same but with an additional 100 points of slugging, partially intentional (increased FB%) and partially luck (37% h%). 

Stewart’s first half of the 2019 season showed a decent plate approach but weak contact, and the interrupted second half is difficult to draw meaningful conclusions from. Both the RH-batting Maybin and LH-batting Stewart own about a 50-point OPS advantage against RH pitching (Maybin with 3,000+ more AB than Stewart), so this could be a job share rather than a straight platoon. Maybin’s ability to play all three positions will help his playing time cause as well. 

Goodrum may end up reprising his 2019 deployment as a “regular utility” player with near-everyday AB, but he is currently penciled in for leading a job share at SS with Jordy Mercer (SS, DET) and still-rookie-eligible Willi Castro (SS, DET). Castro, who is the Tigers No. 10 ranked prospect in the 2020 Minor League Baseball Analyst, had a solid 2019 season at AAA-Toledo (11 HR, 17 steals in 21 tries, .301/.353/.467 in 465 AB) before his August call-up. Mercer can provide fully adequate shortstop coverage (6,900 innings at SS over eight seasons), as insurance if Castro starts the season at Triple-A for whatever reason, but Castro is expected to be the near-term future regular at the position. 

 

Minnesota Twins

A recent thread in the BaseballHQ Subscriber Forums discussed playing time possibilities for fan favorite Willians Astudillo (C, MIN) as related to the extra batter for 2020. “La Tortuga” missed July and August 2019 with an oblique injury, but managed to collect almost 200 AB in the other four months of the season, gaining 20-game eligibility at catcher and 10-game eligibility at the infield corners. That positional flexibility should keep him on the roster all season, as long as he can continue making contact at an elite rate (96% ct% through 283 career AB), and stay healthy. 

Astudillo still slots as a No. 3 catcher however, behind Mitch Garver (C, MIN) and recent free-agent signee Alex Avila (C, MIN). Garver sits in the top tier of AL catchers for offensive purposes after a .995 OPS breakout in 2019, but his defensive performance (18% caught stealing in 2017-19) is well below league average (28% for that period). Perhaps there is a hidden message here in the Avila signing as he brings a career 30% caught stealing rate and might help Garver improve in that regard. 

Avila returns to the AL Central where he spent the first seven seasons of his career in Detroit (five of those as the primary catcher) but will now be the primary backup to Garver. A power and patience guy, he has a career 121 xPx and 14% bb%, with the triple-digit xPx and double-digit walk rate in each of his 12 MLB seasons. That walk rate makes him much more palatable as a second catcher in OBP leagues (career .348 OBP) than those using batting average (.235 career BA). 


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