PT TOMORROW: AL West—Jesus is coming

Oakland Athletics

That Mike Fiers (RHP, OAK), Marco Estrada (RHP, OAK) and Brett Anderson (LHP, OAK) are the veteran arms fronting a young rotation on Opening Day speaks volumes as to the club's biggest weakness. The 34-year-old Fiers's 3.56 ERA over 172 IP was a huge 2018 surprise, but it was built on an outlier-ish 1.9 Ctl (66% FpK) and good H%/S% fortune that his 4.41 xERA says will be a tough repeat. The 35-year-old Estrada had no such luck, struggling to a 5.64/5.73 ERA/xERA over 144 IP while dealing with back and hip injuries. Estrada's HR-prone tendencies should fare better in cavernous Oakland Coliseum, but despite a rock-solid 11% SwK, age suggests his best years are in the rear-view. At 31, xGBer Anderson is the youngest of the trio, but also the most challenged SwK and health-wise. He's coming off an 80 IP 4.48/3.99 ERA/xERA, 5.3 Dom effort in 2018, the seventh time in eight seasons Anderson has failed to pitch more than 83 innings.

Now out of minor league options, 26-year-old Frankie Montas (RHP, OAK) is the frontrunner for the #4 spot, and offers at least some long-term hope. Montas still owns good velocity, but struggled to put hitters away (6.0 Dom, 9% SwK) during his first extended work as an MLB starter—3.88/4.76 ERA/xERA over 65 IP in 2018. Montas has added a split-fingered fastball to his repertoire and the small sample results this spring (9 IP, a run, 8/2 K/BB) are at least encouraging. Daniel Mengen's (RHP, OAK) control is a calling card, but sub-par Dom (5.6 Dom, 8% SwK) and lack of a GB tilt projects a back-end starter at very best. And until something changes in the profiles of Paul Blackburn (RHP, OAK) or 30-year-old Chris Bassitt (RHP, OAK), they seem like placeholders even if they earn some early starts.

The big question in camp is when uber-prospect Jesus Luzardo (LHP, OAK) makes his MLB debut. The smart money suggests that the money-conscious A's will first make sure they secure that extra service time year. But though Luzardo was on fumes last August in his first Triple-A exposure (16 IP, 13 runs), he's dominating his MLB camp this spring (10 IP, a run, 15/4 K/BB). And help will clearly be needed if the A's are to make another post-season run. He'll be on an innings limit, but expect Luzardo sooner than later in 2018.

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Seattle Mariners

Last week in this space we noted that the Opening Day rotation won't immediately have the bullpen support it had in 2018, which adds pressure to eat some innings early on. And minus 2018 ace James Paxton, this won't be an easy task. New staff "ace," Marco Gonzales (LHP, SEA) will have to stretch to add more than he did in 2018, when he made 29 starts but finished seven innings just four times. As a control-driven soft-tosser without much room for error, Gonzales' 13-win, 4.00/3.71 ERA/xERA season (167 IP) may be a tough encore. After pitching in six-man rotations, the reported plan for first-year Japanese import Yusei Kikuchi (LHP, SEA) will limit his workload as well, using him as a one-inning "opener" every fifth start or so. We're currently projecting at Kikuchi at 145 IP, and it's difficult to see how he ends up much higher.

Workhorse Mike Leake (RHP, SEA) tossed 186 IP for the second consecutive season, and has averaged a tick above this for the last six years. But the 31-year-old Leake's velocity sat below 90 MPH throughout 2018. And a 4.36/4.25 ERA/xERA (5.8 Dom, 8% SwK) doesn't leave much upside. The innings that Leake eats for the Mariners aren't likely to help your fantasy team. Felix Hernandez (RHP, SEA) was brutal last year, with awful underlying trends. 34-year-old Wade Leblanc tossed a career-high 162 innings (3.72 ERA, 9 wins), posting a career year with a 4.46 xERA. There's a lot of downside in this paragraph.

Behind these names, new arrival Justus Sheffield (LHP, SEA) is the only MLB-ready arm that offers real optimism, as seen in the 2.48 ERA and 123/50 K/BB (116 IP) that he posted at AA/AAA in 2018. But these are all of Sheffield's high-minors IP, and he'll be on an innings limit. Whenever he might get an extended audition Sheffield—who posted 3 IP with 4 runs and 3 BB with NYY late in the season—will be a growing pains risk. In short, there's likely to be plenty of both starting and relief work in SEA for any pitcher in the organization who can step up.


Texas Rangers

The gem of this bullpen is obviously Jose LeClerc (RHP, TEX), who seized the closer role with a vengeance after conquering what looked like chronic control woes in 2H 2018. It was just 28 innings, but an 0.64 ERA, 44/8 K/BB and a 20% SwK have convinced many fantasy owners to ignore the small sample aspects of this breakout. But perhaps a bigger risk for Leclerc owners is the club-friendly 4yr/$15M extension he signed last week, on a rebuilding club that needs everything. If he continues where he left off last year, it'd be surprising not to hear Leclerc's name come up frequently in trade discussions.

Behind LeClerc is an aging bullpen auditioning for roles across-the-board this spring. Thirty-five-year-old Jesse Chavez (RHP, TEX) returns following an astonishing career year—2.55 ERA 5.4 Cmd over 95 IP—that began in TEX before a dominating Aug/Sept stay with the Cubs (39 IP, 42/5 K/BB, 2.39 ERA in 39 IP) during which he earned higher-leverage work and even four saves. Chavez credits a May arm-slot tweak for SwK, FpK and velocity bumps that fueled his 2018. Whether he can come close to a repeat at this age is anyone's guess—but he might be next in line for ninth inning work behind Leclerc.

Returning Chris Martin (RHP, TEX) brings fine control to the table, but can't stay healthy. And when he is, the 33-year-old Martin doesn't miss enough bats or generate enough GBs to live up to a sub-4 xERA. His 42 IP in 2018 were a career-high, his 4.54 ERA a personal best. Thirty-five-year-old Shawn Kelley still misses bats (12% SwK), but his skills have seen better days. A now chronic 50+% FB% won't be a good look in Arlington. The current youngster of the core is Connor Sadcek (RHP, TEX), the prototypical inexperienced big arm with control issues that should be watched from afar. Aside from perhaps Chavez, there's nothing deep-leaguers should consider chasing yet. But tabbing Leclerc's late-inning setup help early could yield saves dividends later in the season.


Houston Astros

The bullpen may lose both of their 2018 long options Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock to the 2019 rotation, but it remains a plus, particularly at the back. Start with primary closer Roberto Osuna (RHP, HOU), acquired from TOR at the trade deadline and who took over the closer role from Hector Rondon (RHP, HOU) in late August. Osuna's 7.6 Dom was an extreme career outlier, but his velocity is intact and a 15% SwK suggests no worries—particularly given that stable/elite control. If he has some hiccups, Rondon has saved games now for two upper-tier clubs, including 15 with HOU in 2018. A poor July and September took a bite out of what was otherwise a decent season—3.20 ERA, 10.2 Dom, 3.4 Cmd—and Rondon's overall skills take a back seat to Osuna's. Still, he remains a rosterable option for saves-chasers. 

Also acquired at the 2018 trade deadline, Ryan Pressly (RHP, HOU) took his game to a new level with his first 23 IP for the Astros (0.77 ERA, 32/3 K/BB). And though his ERA will regress, Pressly's season-long 18% SwK and solid control says he'll also be a late-inning force, and will also get consideration should something go haywire with Osuna. Add in Will Harris's (RHP, HOU) overall dominance—including three consecutive 150+ BPV seasons—and the club shouldn't scuffle in the late innings. A healthy Chris Devenski (RHP, HOU) seems more likely than not to rebound back into form and provide a solid middle-inning link to these names.

The long relievers are likely to be determined by what happens to the back of the rotation, how well names like Peacock, Josh James, Framber Valdez and Cionel Perez perform in swing roles that still look uncertain. But even the rookies here have some deep-league appeal as part of a talented pitching staff that shouldn't miss too much from 2018.


Los Angeles Angels

A 2B/3B situation that seemed shaky in February looks worrisome now in mid-March. Zack Cozart's (3B, LAA) troubling health history is front-and-center once again, following a calf strain that has limited him to seven AB this spring and keeps his Opening Day readiness up in the air. Cozart still projects good contact skills and average power, but his DL history (just 224 AB in 2018) remains the big red flag. His backup is inexperienced Taylor Ward (3B, LAA), who posted a breakthrough 2018 between AA/AAA at his new position, flashing power, speed and patience. But is still learning the ropes defensively, and Ward's 12 Ks in 32 AB so far this spring are again showing the holes in his swing.

David Fletcher (2B/3B, LAA) currently projects as the Angels' starting 2B, but he's also getting Cactus League reps at 3B, SS and in the OF, suggesting value as a versatile utility. If Ward needs more Triple-A time, Fletcher could move from 2B to 3B (where he played 33 games in 2018), potentially opening up his primary position for Luis Rengifo (2B, LAA). But this scenario adds risk and issues on its own, in that Fletcher's arm is tad short at 3B, making this a short-term fix. And outstanding contact is Fletcher's one carrying skill at the plate. With moderate speed and no power to speak of, Fletcher still needs to prove that he can hold down regular MLB AB.

Rookie Rengifo has even less experience than Fletcher though his fantasy upside seems more intriguing, courtesy of 41 SBs, 75 walks and a .299 BA over three levels that ended in Triple-A last year. Tommy La Stella (3B/2B, LAA) still projects as a utility bat off the bench, but with sub-par defense that leaves him unsuited for most-of-the-time play. Stay tuned.

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