By: Russell Shaffer
Spring Training is either a busy time or a dull drag for fantasy owners. If you’re simply eager to get the season underway, the month of March can be an excruciating grind. On the other hand, if you’re a serious player this time of year offers a great opportunity to monitor position battles, pop up injuries and prospect progress in an effort to make moves now – or plan for future transactions – that can catapult your team into contention.
There certainly have been a lot of storylines to follow so far this spring, but unless you’re Carl Crawford’s elbow, Evan Longoria’s hamstring, Troy Tulowitzki’s groin, the Yankees’ sudden lack of power or a now defunct Florida anti-aging clinic, you may not have been grabbing your fair share of the headlines.
Here are seven spring storylines flying under the radar that could have a big impact on your 2013 fantasy roster:
1. The Resurgent Cleveland Phenom
The Cleveland Indians appear to be in position to turn the 5th starter role over to a phenom. The irony is it’s probably not 21-year-old wunderkind Trevor Bauer but rather former can’t miss fireballer long since forgotten Scott Kazmir. After being out of the big leagues for two seasons, Kazmir is in Tribe camp on a minor league deal and pitching well. The former AL K leader has a 0.00 ERA and 0.50 WHIP with 4 K while consistently hitting 90-92 MPH with his fastball during 4 Cactus League innings. Kazmir is still just 29 and perhaps more importantly he’s a lefty – something coveted across baseball and especially on a righty-dominated Cleveland staff. If Kazmir remains hot this spring, don’t be surprised if he beats out the competition for the first crack at the Indians’ open rotation slot. If he’s even remotely close to his 2005-2007 form, he could be this season’s R.A. Dickey Free Agent Claim of the Year.
2. Texas Makeshift Rotation
Speaking of 5th starters, the broken arm sustained by Rangers pitching prospect Martin Perez – until then considered the frontrunner for that last rotation spot – has intensified speculation that Texas will finally cave and ink Kyle Lohse to a contract. While that may happen, the Rangers may feel compelled to stand pat with some form of Justin Grimm, Robbie Ross or Randy Wells until Colby Lewis is ready to return in May from elbow surgery. Lewis was extremely effective in 2012, posting a 3.43 ERA and 1.08 WHIP with 6 wins and 93 K in 105 IP before being shut down in August. Early signs show Lewis on track to possibly beat a late May timetable by a few weeks, and when he returns he could be a solid 4th fantasy starter. If you don’t like how your staff shakes out on draft day, keep him on your radar or pick him up to stash in a DL slot if you have one to spare.
3. Wild Tiger Not Fit to Close?
Detroit Tigers project turned top closer candidate Bruce Rondon has done exactly what most veteran baseball people expected he would this spring (including me in my Prospect Preview) – fail to get the ball over the plate. Rondon has allowed 10 of the 21 batters he has faced in 4 spring outings to reach base, and while 6 of his 11 outs recorded have come via K it’s clear he – nor anybody else for that matter – has any clue where the ball is going when it leaves his hand. Owners who took Rondon in the 12th round of standard leagues (yes, I’ve seen him go that high) must be sweating in their seats at the thought of Phil Coke starting the season as Detroit’s closer, or worse still the Tigers employing the dreaded bullpen by committee. Say it with me kids, “Never pay for saves”.
4. Andrus heading out of Texas?
The St. Louis Cardinals suddenly have a mess up the middle with SS Rafael Furcal’s injured right elbow proving worse than originally hoped. The Furcal injury creates a spot in St. Louis’ Opening Day lineup that appears likely to be filled by late season Cinderella Pete Kozma. Kozma came out of nowhere in September to spark the Redbirds to a playoff berth by hitting .333 with 11 R, 2 HR, 14 RBI and 2 SB in 72 AB. If Kozma can keep that up – and so far he’s been hitting this spring – he could be a real find at a severely shallow SS position. But before you go making Kozma a late round target as your sneaky SS starter, keep in mind he’s a career .236 hitter in the minors and is far from proven at the big league level let alone a lock for the job. Veteran baseball scribes, including ESPN’s Jayson Stark, speculate St. Louis could finally be willing to part with a few of its wealth of prized prospects to net an elite SS still trending up. One name bandied about is Texas’ Elvis Andrus, which would make sense for both sides as it could bring the Rangers back some pitching while also opening a starting job for top prospect Jurickson Profar. This one really is worth watching.
5. Can Carpenter Stick at 2B?
The other side of St. Louis’ keystone combo isn’t set in stone, either. In an attempt to get more offense in the lineup, the Cardinals are auditioning utility man Matt Carpenter at 2B this spring. Who knows if it will work, but remember this is the same franchise that successfully turned career OF Skip Shumaker into its starting 2B a few years ago. So far Carpenter seems to be making the transition, and if he does indeed gain regular AB and 2B eligibility he has the potential to finish 2013 among the top 10 fantasy 2B. Carpenter finished 2012 with a .294 AVG, 44 R, 6 HR and 46 RBI in 296 AB. His multi-position eligibility that already should include 1B, 3B and OF could make him a valuable asset to have on your bench.
6. Super Rookie Taking Petco By Storm
While we’re examining players looking to make the move to 2B, let’s not forget San Diego Padres prospect Jedd Gyorko. Blocked in the Friars lineup at his natural position of 3B by 2012 MVP candidate Chase Headley, manager Bud Black is looking to get more offense on the field by auditioning Gyorko at second. So far he’s made the defensive plays necessary to show he’s up to the task, and a spring power surge has demonstrated he has a big league bat. If you missed my Prospect Preview article, I predicted Gyorko to have the best chance of any 2013 prospect to have Mike Trout or Bryce Harper like fantasy impact this season. Watch how things develop over the last month of camp, but if you find yourself needing a 2B at the end of your draft be sure to snap up Gyorko.
7. Call the Medic!
One of the drawbacks to drafting your fantasy team in late February or early March is the threat of injury. There is nothing worse than using an early pick on a guy that gets hurt before the games count. Just ask anyone who used a 3rd round selection on Curtis Granderson before he broke his arm. The Grandy Man should be back in early May, which isn’t great but it could have been worse. Joining Granderson on the spring M.A.S.H. list is Cubs SP Matt Garza. Reports out of Mesa, Ariz. This week indicate Garza will start the season on the DL and likely won’t be back until May. This development found Garza getting dropped out of the top 40 on our SP rankings. Milwaukee has also been bitten by the injury bug, though fortunately for them nothing appears to be as serious as the season-ending ACL tear sustained by 1B Matt Gamel. Ace Yovani Gallardo has dropped a few spots in our SP Rankings but appears healthy enough following a minor groin injury to join Mexico’s World Baseball Classic team. Meanwhile, Brewers 3B Aramis Ramirez looks to have survived a serious knee scare as a MRI revealed no structural damage. Ramirez will still likely miss some time over the next few weeks, and could be slowed come Opening Day. Keep an eye out for news on Gallardo and Ramirez as you enter your drafts, and proceed with caution if your draft day falls before the last week of Spring Training.
Follow Russell Shaffer on Twitter @RussellShaffer