PT TOMORROW: AL WEST—Jeremy Peña arrives

Houston Astros

Now with exactly two weeks until Opening Day, the free agent shortstop class (including outgoing HOU SS Carlos Correa) has been signed away by other clubs. And while things could change between now and then, suddenly rookie Jeremy Peña SS, HOU) projects to make his MLB debut as the starting SS on the 2021 division champions. A glove-first prospect until the lost 2020 season, the athletic Peña muscled up, and it began to translate in the batter's box at the alternate site. Pena then posted a .287/.346/.598 line, 10, 6/1 SB/CS HR over just 122 Triple-A AB in a 2021 season interrupted by a May wrist injury. Most who've watched him now over the past two years believe he's an everyday MLBer waiting to happen. An over-aggressive 8/41 BB/K gives us some near-term pause, but Peña owned a fine batting eye in previous seasons (65/109 BB/K), suggesting that last year's small sample can be adjusted.

The 24-year-old Pena had been the likely 2022 SS heir apparent before losing three months to the IL last year, and now high-minors inexperience looks like his biggest obstacle. But his glove and newfound offensive upside gives Pena a lot of rope, and there's nothing right now that looks like an everyday shortstop behind him. Aledmys Díaz (3B, HOU) will help spell Pena at times, but the 31-year-old Díaz—.721 OPS, 8 HR over 294 AB last year—has been best-used as an all-fields utility player and he'll likely be needed as such again on a club that has its share of injuries in recent seasons. 

The club likely signed free agent Niko Goodrum (SS, HOU)—a better defender at SS than Díaz—in the event that Peña needs ongoing help. Goodrum's versatility, speed and pop combo (9 HR, 14 SB over 290 AB in DET last year) has long intrigued, but career-long contact struggles (63%, .214 BA last year) have kept him from full-time work. Coming off a lost 2021 due to a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, one-time prospect Franklin Barreto (2B, HOU) has also been signed to a minor league deal. But he has less MLB experience and an offensive profile similar to Goodrum's, suggesting that Barreto is now just organizational MI depth until he shows otherwise. Keeper league and dynasty owners should obviously stick with Pena here; the Astros would like him to run with the job and he's likely to get a long look over the next couple of seasons.


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Seattle Mariners

With 2021 SPs Yusei Kickuchi and Justin Dunn having both moved on, and one-time prospect Justus Sheffield (LHP, SEA) having pitched himself into the bullpen, the biggest Opening Day deficiency comes in the form of rotation depth and inexperience. Thus far Robbie Ray has been the only signing to make up for the current shortfall, putting the onus squarely on internal options who may not be ready. 2021 rookie and now projected #4 starter Logan Gilbert (RHP, SEA) logged 119 IP in his MLB debut—and despite a 4.68/4.21 ERA/xERA, his broad skills set (4.6 Cmd, 12.8 SwK) flashed promise. But a club that began 2021 with a six-man rotation no longer has that luxury, the #5 spot remains unspoken for—and the Mariners are walking a thin line if anyone needs an IL or performance timeout.

Barring another signing or trade, prospects George Kirby (RHP, SEA) and Matt Brash (RHP, SEA) are the current favorites for the #5 slot, which could obviously turn over a few times early in the season. And while both are well-regarded pitching prospects who have dominated during short minor league careers, their lack of high-minors experience is at least cautionary. Kirby's workload was managed throughout 2021, and he was shut down with arm fatigue for a month in mid-July. He returned to toss 26 Double-A IP (2.77 ERA) down the stretch, but that's the sum of his high-minors experience, and he posted just 68 IP for the year.

Brash is only a smidge less regarded, but his presence on the 40-man roster and his 97 IP between A+/AA would seem to give him a leg up on Kirby. This along Brash's plus stuff and 80/23 K/BB and 2.13 ERA over 55 Double-A IP will loom large depending on his short spring training performance for the Mariners, who will need a fifth starter quickly in April. Also reportedly in consideration is Levi Stoudt (RHP, SEA) a prospect with back-end starter upside, but similar to Kirby with just 18 Double-A IP under his belt. The back of the SEA rotation is high on our long-term watch list.

 

Texas Rangers

Much has been made this pre-season of a tentative back-of-the-bullpen for a rebuilding club. Projected Opening Day closer Joe Barlow (RHP, TEX) has been a target for fantasy skepticism due to inexperience and the metrics undercutting his 1.55 ERA (11 saves) in his 29 IP MLB debut last year. Barlow started fast, but his peripherals took a dive following his return from an 11-day IL stay due to finger blisters, which may or may not have accounted for some of his late-season drift. A 4.37 xERA and 24% K% doesn't inspire ninth-inning lockdown confidence. But Barlow also managed a competent 12.3 SwK over the small sample, and his minor league track record—306 Ks over 215 IP—is better than this. Barlow struggled with serious control issues until last year in Triple-A and in TEX, suggesting that walks could again rear up and do him in. But as the closer favorite in Arlington, he's flyer-worthy at the very least.

On a team expected to improve but not contend for anything, Barlow could get a lot of rope. The Rangers' other options include 36-year-old Greg Holland (RHP, TEX) whose 20 career saves remind that is no stranger to the ninth inning. But Holland no longer owns his peak velocity, and aside from his 2020 short-season effort, the skills have trended poorly since 2017—4.85/4.76 ERA/xERA over 56 IP last year. He's an interim solution at best. One-time starter Garrett Richards (RHP, TEX) has also been brought in to provide innings and experience. But similar to Holland, Richards' once-electric stuff is now sub-par and the command has never been great.  

If Barlow falters, better long-term bets to replace him include Spencer Patton (RHP, TEX), Jose Leclerc (RHP, TEX) and Jonathan Hernandez (RHP, TEX)—all of whom have shown late-inning flashes in Arlington. The latter two names are both coming off of Tommy John surgery and not expected to re-surface again until July, so their progress should be monitored from afar for now. 

 

Los Angeles Angels

Several intriguing free agent bullpen pieces have been signed over the offseason to front closer Rasiel Iglesias (RHP, LAA) and provide length to a rotation that is questionable at best. If you're looking for potential saves only, look elsewhere for now, because Iglesias owns an A Health Grade and is as rock-solid—2.57/2.67 ERA/xERA, 38% K%, 21.1 SwK, 34 Svs last year—as a closer can be. But fantasy managers in deep Sv+Hold formats should read on...

Fueled by good control and a GB lean, Aaron Loup (LHP, LAA) has posted a sub-2 ERA and sub-1 WHIP over his past 85 IP covering 2020-21. He's unlikely to repeat his 0.95 ERA with the Mets from last season, but Loup has managed hitters from both sides of the plate and is primed to get more hold opportunities in Anaheim. Ditto Ryan Tepera (RHP, LAA), who has whiffed 105 batters in 82 IP over the past two seasons while posting a 16.9 SwK, 2.79 ERA and 21 holds in 2021.

LAA also signed Archie Bradley (RHP, LAA), who recorded a 3.71 ERA over 51 IP in PHI last year. But Bradley's stuff has declined in recent seasons, his 4.52 ERA, 7.5% SwK suggest that only a 56%+ GB% kept him marginally effective in 2021. He's the one of this new LAA reliever group to avoid unless something changes. The Angels [project to lean heavily on their pen, and have a number of new / inexperienced arms that should be tracked. Notable among these is 2021 #1 draft pick and stuff-forward Sam Bachman (RHP, LAA), the most likely of LAA's pitcher-only draft class to be fast-tracked in 2022.

 

Oakland Athletics

With corner infield mainstays Matt Olson and Matt Chapman gone their jobs are up for grabs. Part of the Chapman return coming over from TOR, infielder Kevin Smith (3B, OAK) now gets first crack at 3B. The 25-year-old Smith is a plus defender, but his offense has been up-and-down since being drafted out of college in 2017. He's flashed average power and a career 67/15 SB/CS in the minors, but too much swing-and-miss (439 Ks in 1570 minor league AB) has kept a lid on his upside. Smith gets an MLB opportunity after posting an impressive .285/.370/.561 line (21 HR, 18/3 AB/CS) over 410 PA at AAA-Buffalo last year, an effort that included the best BB/K numbers of his career. It also came in one of baseball's better Triple-A offensive parks and was aided by a live Triple-A ball. Smith now gets his opportunity in one of MLB's worst offensive venues, but if he can hold onto the job, a low-BA, double-digit HR+SB season is projectable.

Olson's vacated 1B spot looks like a scrum, with veteran bench players Billy McKinney and Eric Thames, erstwhile catcher Austin Allen, utility infielder Sheldon Neuse and perhaps even projected LF Seth Brown being among the lead candidates. The general mediocrity here lends some limited interest to the presence of 27-year-old rookie NRI Dalton Kelly (1B, OAK), signed to a minor league contract over the off-season. Kelly also took advantage of the live ball by blasting a career-best 27 HR over 448 PA last year for AAA-Durham. He's always shown a willingness to take a walk (65 BB in 2921), but the 129 Ks are a similarly chronic feature fueling sub-par BAs and the hole in Kelly's skill set. We can't recommend anyone here yet. This is going to be one of the worst lineups in baseball, and likely volatile all season.


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