PT TOMORROW: NL East—Heavy helium

Philadelphia Phillies

Héctor Neris (RHP, PHI) started camp with competition for the closer gig. Has the back end of the bullpen picture changed much in spring training? As of this writing, it’s too close to tell who’s actually in the lead. Neris had a bumpy start, but has since righted his ship: 6.2 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 9 K. Last year’s meltdown (4.57 ERA, 4.61 xERA, 1.71 WHIP, 76 BPV) is the reason he’s in a dogfight for the job in the first place. At his previous level (6 straight 100+ BPV seasons), Neris is skilled enough to hang on to the job. Now, he has to wait for manager Joe Girardi’s decision. “I’ve still got to let that play out,” Girardi said recently. “That has not been at our forefront of decisions we have to make so we haven’t spoken about it a lot. And I think the makeup of the rest of the ‘pen could affect how we do something.”

Archie Bradley (RHP, PHI) looked like a favorite to possibly wrest the closer mantle from Neris when he signed up. Bradley’s had a fine spring (6 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 4 K) and he has closed before (career 28 SV), but he doesn’t quite match up in terms of dominance with the other hopefuls. When he’s going good (though not in 2020), Bradley has the kind of GB% (career 47%) that’s especially useful for getting double plays with runners on, so a stopper’s role may ultimately suit him best.

José Alvarado (LHP, PHI) may have the most helium in the PHI bullpen race—but don’t you dare call him a blimp. Best Shape of His Life™ stories have become a favorite spring training trope, but in this case, Alvarado’s 50-lb weight loss has justifiably made headlines. He’s back to throwing 100 mph gas and the results show it: 6 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 10 K. Alvarado has some previous closing experience with TAM, but not quite as extensive as Neris’s with PHI. There’s a lot of excitement surrounding Alvarado, and if his newfound physique can lead him to regain the skills he had a couple years ago (125 BPV in 2018), he should be capable of holding on to the closer role if given the chance.

There’s one more piece of the puzzle to mention: usually, RHP are more likely to close out games than LHP. However, PHI has two additional lefties—Tony Watson (LHP, PHI) and JoJo Romero (LHP, PHI)—that could make the team. Girardi’s decision will factor in his other left-handed options. Romero’s been solid (6 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, 6 K), Watson less so (4.2 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 2 BB, 7 K).

 

Atlanta Braves

Travis d’Arnaud (C, ATL) has had a fine spring (6 for 20, 1 HR, 3 BB, 5 K) and, most importantly, is healthy. The backstop is coming off his finest season yet: .321/.386/.533, 9 HR, 1 SB in 169 AB. Sure, a 42% h% gave him a boost, but some of the underlying metrics concurred (129 HctX, 122 xPX). Keep in mind, however, that d’Arnaud’s .259 xBA, 26% HF/F, and 70% ct% were a touch more bearish on his ability to repeat that 2020 performance. Catchers capable of hitting .260-ish with 20 HR power and landing a plum spot in the lineup (probably 5th or 6th) are rare, making him an attractive draft target. His bat is also solid enough to garner a few game starts at 1B to give Freddie Freeman (1B, ATL) the occasional rest. The caveat with d’Arnaud is health: his “F” Health grade comes with an IL history as robust as the Oxford English Dictionary.

William Contreras (C, ATL) appears to be ahead in the competition to be d’Arnaud’s caddy. The younger brother of Willson Contreras (C, CHC) is hitting well in camp (3 for 13, 1 HR, 5 BB, 5 K) after holding his own last year in Atlanta (.251/.309/.346 in 63 AB). As a 21-year-old in 2019, Contreras hit a combined .255/.315/.354 with 6 HR, 29 BB, 84 K in 381 AB across two levels, topping out at Double-A. An MiLB career 115 wRC+ illustrates his offensive potential. The fact that he’s already on the 40-man roster plays heavily in his favor to go north with the ball club next week.

Alex Jackson (C, ATL) has struggled at the plate this spring (2 for 21, 1 HR, 3 BB, 7 K), but he’s known as a solid pitch framer and has posted a cumulative 111 wRC+ in his MiLB career. The 25-year-old has impressive raw power, which manifested in 2019 at Triple-A (28 HR, .304 ISO, .533 SLG). That thunderous stick was accompanied by a rather soggy hit tool (5.8% BB%, 34.2% K%, .229 AVG), and indeed, Jackson’s results in camp suggest the hole in his swing is still rather exploitable. He’ll most likely return to AAA-Gwinnett for more seasoning.

 

Miami Marlins

Lewis Brinson (OF, MIA) has been a favorite topic in this space for the past few years because he epitomizes the kind of high-risk, high-reward player that drives fantasy managers crazy but could pay off big someday. Typically a strong spring performer (career .943 OPS), he’s having an okay camp (6 for 24, 1 2B, 1 HR, 1 SB, 3 BB, 4 K). Tiny sample, yadda yadda, but the strikeout rate is somewhat encouraging for someone who’s struggled mightily to make contact (MLB career 68% CT%). Unfortunately for his chances of making the team, Brinson is blocked at all three OF spots by veterans, and the couple bench slots he might qualify for are apparently occupied as well. He’ll most likely head back to Triple-A to work on his plate discipline and wait for an opportunity to open up.

Magneuris Sierra (OF, MIA) is in position to snag one of the remaining spots on the bench on account of his lack of options and rather in spite of his spring performance (4 for 23, 2 BB, 7 K). The 24-year-old is a great defender with blazing speed (MiLB career 145 SB in 657 G) who puts the ball in play (17.4% K%), but has no power (.375 SLG, 0.91 ISO). Sierra has managed 12 SB in 291 career MLB at bats, but that’s come with a .247/.290/.285 slash line. He did fare better in 2020, batting .250/.333/.364 with a 9% BB, 80% CT%, and 4 SB in 44 AB. Still, we’re talking about a very weak bat in an already challenging offensive environment. Sierra may get a month or two to prove that he can walk and slap hit his way on base, but chances are he may find himself on the way out come June with other more promising offensive options biding their time on the farm.

 

New York Mets

Albert Almora Jr. (OF, NYM) was acquired to bolster the outfield defense—specifically CF—and provide a right-handed bat to complement the all-left-handed starting trio. He’s hit for power this spring (7 for 27, 2 2B, 2 HR) with less-than-stellar plate discipline (1 BB, 7 K). He has a minor league option remaining, but with José Martínez (OF, NYM) going down with an injured knee, he’s a pretty sure bet to make the club. The 27-year-old Almora has shown flashes here and there in parts of five MLB seasons, but besides a respectable career .266 xBA and above-average speed, he’s yet to register an xPX over 92. Unless he starts hitting the ball with increased authority (and launch angle), Almora will continue to be an asset in the field, but a more of a placeholder in the lineup.

Kevin Pillar (OF, NYM) is a bit redundant on the Mets roster, as he was signed after Almora and fits a similar profile as a right-handed, glove-first outfielder. But the 32-year-old Pillar actually comes with more offensive upside, having returned no less than $10 5x5 every year since 2015. If we combine his last two seasons, he’s batted .266/.300/.440 with 27 HR, 19 SB, and an 89 wRC+ in 868 PA. Don’t expect him to set the world on fire, but with enough at-bats he could threaten double-digit HR & SB again. Will he get those AB? The Mets better hope not, as that would suggest trouble for the starters.

Khalil Lee (OF, NYM) was acquired in a three-way deal during the offseason, and is a proper OF prospect with offensive potential, excellent speed, and a plus glove. The 22-year-old has a career MiLB slash line of .256/.366/.409 and 124 wRC+. He’s shown excellent patience (12.9% BB%) with some swing-and-miss as well (28.2% K%). Lee repeated Double-A at age 20, and while we don’t generally prefer players who double-dip like that, the level was still age-appropriate on the second go-around. That “redo” year was memorable: in 2019 at Double-A, Lee hit .264/.363/.372 with 8 HR and 53 SB in 546 PA. Those numbers were aided by .375 BABIP, but that wasn’t too far above his career MiLB mark of .357. Lee will head to Triple-A for more seasoning, but is a legit prospect who could potentially make an impact later in 2021.

 

Washington Nationals

Carter Kieboom (3B, WAS) came into camp as the presumed 3B. The Nats would very much like for their former top prospect to seize the job, and have spoken out in support of his job security. But camp has been such a nightmare that Kieboom’s probably peeking around corners to make sure Jason Voorhees isn’t stalking him (6 for 36, 2 2B, 1 3B, 2 BB, 12 K). There have been words of encouragement (“Carter’s going to get an opportunity to play third base”), but everyone took notice when a new face started taking grounders at third base.

Starlin Castro (2B, WAS) got a start at 3B, and now, people are wondering if Kieboom is losing his grip on the job. Manager Davey Martinez insists that’s not the case: “This doesn’t mean anything. We just want to see what this looks like right now.” But the fact is that the team has a fix, should they want to go in another direction and send Kieboom down to give him time to rework his swing.

Luis García (2B, WAS) had his MLB debut in 2020 at the ripe old age of 20. While they haven't called in the sculptor for his statue outside National Park yet, he held his own as the youngest player in the league: .276/.302/.668, 18 R, 2 HR, 16 RBI, 1 SB in 134 AB. He isn’t a speed demon on the basepaths (34 SB in 1224 MiLB AB) and hasn’t developed any power (12 HR), but his bat-to-ball skills are quite advanced (15.3% K%), especially when you consider his age and level (topped out in Double-A at age 19). Could he take over at 2B while Castro slides over to 3B? Yes, it’s possible, and the Nationals have shown their willingness to use precocious talent over the last few seasons. But it’s also worth noting that he could easily struggle as well, as the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

With a week to go before Opening Day, management isn’t ready to commit to anything. “No decisions have been made yet. But we want to make sure we take the 26 best guys that we can possibly take,” says Davey Martinez. From a fantasy perspective, we’d be very wary of Kieboom’s PT for now. And if you were considering Castro, he very well could add 3B eligibility early in April if things go south—or stay south, as it were—for Kieboom.


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