PT TOMORROW: NL Central - Prove-it year in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Pirates

It was widely expected that Adam Frazier (2B, PIT) would be traded after the team dealt away Josh Bell (1B, WAS) and Joe Musgrove (RHP, SD) relatively early in the offseason. While rumors still persist, Frazier remains on the roster for the time being, leaving the Pirates middle infield clogged. Assuming Frazier earns the majority of starts at second base, his continued presence leaves Kevin Newman (2B/SS, PIT), Cole Tucker (SS, PIT), Erik Gonzalez (SS/3B, PIT), and Wilmer Difo (SS, PIT) to vie for the starting shortstop and short-side of the second base platoon roles.

In particular, this spring sets up to be a pivotal time for Newman and his future in Pittsburgh. After coming off of what appeared to be a breakout 2019 campaign ($21 5x5 earnings, 59 BPV), he suffered a disappointing shortened 2020 season (0$ 5x5 earnings, 22 BPV) and split playing time nearly evenly between second and shortstop. Tucker appears to be headed towards starting the season in the minors, leaving Gonzalez as presumably Newman’s biggest competition. While Gonzalez has never had the breakout fantasy campaign to match Newman, he boasts a decent blend of ability to make contact (75, 74, 72 ct% in last three seasons) along with the ability to hit the ball hard (108, 70, 95 HctX in last three seasons).

On the other hand, if Frazier is dealt, both Gonzalez and Newman would be in a position to earn near everyday roles. Due to a groin injury, Frazier was held out of the team’s opening Grapefruit League contest on Sunday. While it’s worth discounting any spring training result or lineup, Newman hit atop the order while starting at shortstop with Gonzalez hitting seventh and playing second base.


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St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals’ starting lineup is relatively well-defined after the acquisition of Nolan Arenado (3B, STL) and trade of Dexter Fowler (OF, LAA). It’s similarly clear that a backup catcher (likely Andrew Knizner (C, STL)) and Matt Carpenter (3B, STL) will occupy two bench spots. From there, the team’s decisions regarding the usage of their 26 roster spots will dictate the bench bats available to the club to begin the season. Due to the uncertain ability of pitchers to throw heavy innings coming off of the shortened season, it’s been widely speculated that most MLB teams will begin the season with 14 pitchers. If the Cardinals follow suit, only two bench spots for hitters remain.

That would leave two names to watch throughout spring training. As discussed in a previous article, Justin Williams (OF, STL) should be in a strong position to make the Opening Day roster to the Cardinals’ heavily right-handed lineup. Only bolstering his case is the fact that he has no minor-league options remaining. That stands in contrast to Lane Thomas (OF, STL) and Austin Dean (OF, STL), both of whom have two-minor league options and are likely to start the season with Triple-A Memphis as a result.

Edmundo Sosa (2B, STL) finds himself in a similar position. Though he made his major-league debut in 2018, Sosa has accrued only 13 major-league plate appearances. After Elehuris Montero (3B, COL) was dealt to the Rockies, Sosa faces little competition for a bench role along the infield. Combined with the fact that he also has no options remaining, Sosa should be a bench bat behind Carpenter and could see significant playing time should Paul DeJong (SS, STL) or Tommy Edman (2B/OF, STL) get injured or lag in their performance.     

 

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers starting outfield figures to be a relatively familiar trio of Christian Yelich (OF, MIN), Avisaíl García (OF, MIL), and Lorenzo Cain (OF, MIL). However, the team has utilized the offseason to change the depth behind them. After starting 20 games in the outfield in 2020, Ryan Braun (1B/OF, FA) is presumably set to retire, though no official announcement has been made. Meanwhile, Ben Gamel (OF, CLE) appeared in 40 games for the team last season but departed in free agency.

The team made a pair of additions from Toronto’s excess depth, the first of which was Billy McKinney (OF, MIL) towards of the end of the 2020 campaign. The former mid-tier prospect offers a mildly intriguing blend of power (119 PX in 411 career plate appearances) and speed (103 Spd). However, he’s struggled to make consistent contact (72 ct%) and failed to find regular playing time. This offseason, the team also added Derek Fisher (OF, MIL) who offers an even more extreme profile compared to McKinney (59 ct%, 116 PX, 157 Spd across 458 career plate appearances). Given the similarity of both profiles and the fact that each hits left-handed, only one of Fisher and McKinney is likely to make the Opening Day roster.

The team also has a number of options that have slowly risen, and also stalled, within the organization. Tyrone Taylor (OF, MIL) had his most significant run in the majors in 2020, but still has only 53 big-league at-bats entering his age-27 season. Meanwhile, Corey Ray (OF, MIL) has stalled entirely in the upper-levels of the minors and should be projected to start the season at Triple-A. Mark Mathias (OF, MIL) and Tim Lopes (OF, MIL) also factored into the outfield picture in 2020 and remain with the club for the 2021 campaign.

 

Chicago Cubs

Despite persistent trade rumors throughout the offseason, the Cubs’ core remains largely intact. One area where that isn’t true is in the outfield, where the team will be heavily reliant upon Jason Heyward (OF, CHC), Ian Happ (OF, CHC), and Joc Pederson (1B/OF, CHC) to remain healthy and perform well after the offseason departures of Kyle Schwarber (OF, WAS) and Albert Almora (OF, NYM).

Nevertheless, the team still boasts some depth thanks to the versatility of some of their regulars. The loser of the second base battle between Nico Hoerner (2B/SS, CHC) and David Bote (3B, CHC) could also rotate into outfield action. Kris Bryant (3B, CHC) has also shifted from third base to the outfield in the past, though he only played there on four occasions in 2020 and the team may prefer him to stick at third base consistently. In terms of full-time outfield depth, the team signed Jake Marisnick (OF, CHC) to a major-league deal this offseason. Originally presumed to enter into a platoon role with Pederson, the Cubs have indicated Pederson will get full time at-bats to begin the season. That could relegate Marisnick to fill a similar role to Almora as a defensive stalwart, something he is quite capable of doing (71 career DRS).

Cameron Maybin (OF, CHC) is another veteran vying for a rule with the club. In spring training on a minor-league deal, Maybin will have the chance to earn a role as a reserve outfielder. He lacks the defensive ability of Marisnick, but would be an experienced veteran bat with speed, making him suitable primarily for pinch-hitting or running situations.

 

Cincinnati Reds

Luis Castillo (RHP, CIN) and Sonny Gray (RHP, CIN) have been involved in trade rumors for much of the offseason, though remain atop the team’s rotation as the Cactus League action gets underway. Tyler Mahle (RHP, CIN) appears set to occupy third starter role, and Wade Miley (LHP, CIN) should begin in the fourth starter role, though he has an F Health grade and has unremarkable skills (no K-BB% above 12 in the last five seasons).

The final spot in the rotation remains wide open. Looking to shift back from a reliever to starter, Michael Lorenzen (RHP, CIN) is vying for the fifth starter role. However, his splits suggest that he is far more effective as a reliever than starter (6.0 K-BB% as starter vs. 12.5% as reliever; 1.3 HR/9 as starter vs. 0.7 HR/9). Setting aside any skills issue, Lorenzen hasn’t thrown 100 innings in a season since 2015. Tejay Antone (RHP, CIN) has garnered some attention this offseason. He made his major-league debut in 2021 and worked as a swingman in 13 appearances – four of which came as a starter. In that limited sample, his split in skills were also stark. In 16.1 innings as a starter, Antone had a solid 3.86 ERA, but struggled with his control (14.3 BB%) and ability to keep the ball in the yard (1.7 HR/9). In contrast, in 19 frames as a reliever, he significantly reduced his walks (8.5 BB%) and home runs (0.6 HR/9). While it’s far too early to dismiss the possibility of Antone as a starter, the opening results didn’t stand out.

Acquired by the Reds for Robert Stephenson (RHP, COL), Jeff Hoffman (RHP, CIN) will have the chance to prove his woes (5.07 ERA, 1.62 WHIP across 231 career innings) were due to Coors Field rather than a true measure of his ability. Meanwhile, José de León (RHP, CIN) struggled mightily with his control (31.4 BB%) in a short six-inning sample in 2020 while being bounced between the alternate site and big-league squad. However, after an impressive stretch in the Puerto Rico Winter League, he’ll have the chance to prove he’s ready for an increased role and fully healthy this spring.


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