PT TOMORROW: NL Central—Ian Happ heating up in Iowa

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs have relied on a combination of David Bote (2B/3B, CHC), Ben Zobrist (2B/OF, CHC), and Daniel Descalso (2B/3B, CHC) at second base, and the results have been an uninspiring OPS of .669. While both Bote and Descalso have played well to begin the season, Bote has also been used quite a bit at third base, while Descalso exited Saturday’s game with an ankle injury and was not in Sunday’s starting lineup. Meanwhile, the team has given more frequent days off to Zobrist and his bat is starting to look like what would be expected of a player in their age 38 season (61 HctX, 43 xPX). The seeming lack of clarity at the position could result in either Addison Russell (2B/SS, CHC) or Ian Happ (2B/OF, CHC) taking hold of regular playing time upon their eventual arrival to the big leagues.

Happ was originally sent to the minors in search of making more consistent contact. While his 29 strikeouts across 123 plate appearances don’t appear to be a significant improvement, he has just seven strikeouts since April 18, spanning 62 plate appearances. Given his recent shortcomings, it's easy to forget that Happ showed the ability to produce plentiful power (149 PX and 122 xPX through 751 career at-bats) and paired that with above-average speed (102 Spd, 11% SBO). While the focus of this article has been the shortcomings of the team at second base, Kyle Schwarber (OF, CHC) and Albert Almora (OF, CHC) haven’t performed to the degree necessary that would keep Happ out of a rotation in the outfield as well.  

Russell could also be rejoining the major league club in the near future. Manager Joe Maddon stated late last week that Russell was “not far off” from returning to Chicago. Though it’s possible that the Cubs shift Javier Baez from shortstop back to second base, Russell has played at the keystone corner at Triple-A Iowa. While he started slowly, he’s walked as much as he’s stuck out (19.5%) and has a .484 slugging percentage across 41 plate appearances.

 

Milwaukee Brewers

Ben Gamel (OF, MIL) received regular playing time for much of last week thanks to the absence of Christian Yelich (OF, MIL). While Yelich returned to the lineup Sunday, Gamel took advantage of the opportunity and showcased some skills that make him an intriguing player to keep an eye on should another injury in the team’s outfield occur. Given the history of both Ryan Braun (OF, MIL) and Lorenzo Cain (OF, MIL), who have combined to account for 107 days on the injured list across the last three seasons, that’s certainly not out of the question.

While Gamel hasn’t hit for much power (.378 slugging percentage and 87 PX), he went 8-for-27 with two RBI, four runs scored, and a stolen base in his week of regular playing time. However, the problem in his bid to move into a truer platoon role with Braun is the absence of a carrying talent. Even with the lack of pop in his swing, Gamel has just a 65 ct%, causing BaseballHQ metrics to project a significant drop-off in his batting average (.230 xBA). In his brief cameo as a starter, Gamel provided no indication that he’ll be able to improve his ability to make contact, whiffing at least once in six of his seven starts, for a total of nine times in his 32 plate appearances. While injury may create playing time for Gamel, it doesn’t appear that he’s improved his skills enough to push for a time-share in the Brewers’ outfield.

 

Pittsburgh Pirates

A number of injuries have caused the Pirates to undergo something of a youth movement early on this season. Call-ups have spanned from high-profile names such as Cole Tucker (SS, PIT) to players down prospect lists like Kevin Newman (2B/SS, PIT), Jason Martin (OF, PIT), and Bryan Reynolds (OF, PIT). However, Reynolds is a name fantasy owners should become familiar with.

Since joining the team on April 20, Reynolds has recorded at least one hit in 11 of his first 12 appearances, going 15-for-37 overall. While that was largely empty production early on—he didn’t record an RBI or run until his eighth appearance—he has taken over the job in left field and has slowly crept his way up the lineup, culminating in him batting fifth on Saturday against the Athletics. While it doesn’t take a fantasy mastermind to recognize that Reynolds won’t maintain a .405 batting average all season, he has flashed enough skill (173 HctX, .344 xBA, 81 ct%) to suggest he has staying power.

While Corey Dickerson (OF, PIT) is slated to return at some point this month, he suffered a setback in his shoulder rehab late in April, making it unclear when he may be able to return to the lineup. It shouldn’t be suggested that Reynolds will maintain the starting left field role over Dickerson when he is healthy enough to return, but both Dickerson and Gregory Polanco (OF, PIT) are left-handed, so the switch-hitting Reynolds should have a chance to stick in the lineup at least two-to-three times per week. To speculate on more playing time, an injury or trade would likely be necessary, though neither is unrealistic. Dickerson is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, meaning the team could look to sell him off at or before the trade deadline if they slip out of contention. Meanwhile, Polanco has looked sluggish—especially defensively—since returning from offseason shoulder surgery.

 

St. Louis Cardinals

Early on, the Cardinals have scored nearly a half-run more per game in 2019 than they did across the 2018 season. Their players, front office, and even beat reporters have given credit to new hitting coach Jeff Albert. While it’s hard to link the early exploits of Marcell Ozuna (OF, STL), Paul DeJong (SS, STL), and Kolten Wong (2B, STL) entirely to Albert, it’s also interesting to note that opposing pitchers are attacking the team differently. As a team, the Cardinals are seeing fastballs 53.4% of the time. While that ranks in the middle-third of the league, the mark is four percent lower than the team saw last season.

The trio of Matt Carpenter (3B, STL), Wong, and Ozuna have seen their individual pitch mix change the most as a result. While both Wong and Ozuna have started the season strong, Carpenter has not. His early power indicators remain largely on track (48 FB% and 146 xPX), but he’s managed just a .040 slugging percentage against breaking pitches and a .053 mark against off-speed pitches. While his .464 slugging percentage and .511 xSLG against fastballs don’t stand out as poor, they represent the lowest marks he’s produced since 2014, and at least partly explain his lagging performance early on. Most concerning is that he’s whiffed on nearly 21% of the fastballs he’s swung at, the highest mark of his career by over three percent.

There are reasons to believe Carpenter will get back on track this season. We only have to look to last season to see him bounce back from early-season struggles, but his dipping ct% (69% this season, 72% last season, and 77% for his career) and his struggles against fastballs are reason for concern early on.

 

Cincinnati Reds

Josh VanMeter (INF/OF, CIN) was a relatively fringy prospect entering the 2019 season, but was starting to gain attention even before his recent call up on Sunday. In the most recent edition of the Watchlist, Alec Dopp made the case that VanMeter could carry significant 5X5 value thanks to solid contact skills, stolen base potential, and recently burgeoning power.

Throughout his time in the minors, VanMeter has shown a consistent and strong plate approach that has traveled with him across levels. While his first taste of Triple-A in 2018 brought on a career-worst 20.2% strikeout rate, prior to getting the call this season, he managed a 23:17 K:BB ratio, good for a 17.6% strikeout rate. While VanMeter won’t be a 20 SB threat, he has gone 10-for-14 on the basepaths across 403 Triple-A plate appearances, and stole a base in his major league debut after appearing as a pinch-hitter on Sunday. The most intriguing part of VanMeter’s profile is his newfound power. While the juiced ball may have something to do with his success, VanMeter has also been a participant in the fly ball revolution. After posting fly ball rates in mid-30s throughout the majority of his minor-league career, since getting the call to Triple-A Louisville, he’s posted a 45% fly ball rate that has resulted in career-best slugging percentages of .464 and .736 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, respectively.

While the Reds have a plethora of options around the infield, they have not showed a hesitancy to rid themselves of veterans recently. While both Matt Kemp (OF, CIN) and Scott Schebler (OF,CIN) were underperforming to a disastrous degree, neither Jose Iglesias (SS, CIN) and Derek Dietrich (INF, CIN) nor the injured Scooter Gennett (2B, CIN) seem to have a long-term home in Cincinnati. VanMeter has shown the ability to play across several different positions both around the infield and outfield, meaning he should have the chance to find his way into the lineup on a semi-regular basis even without additional injuries, trades, or designations.


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