What I’m Hearing: Ted Berg spoke with highly-touted MLB prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. about having to wait for his chance to play ball in the majors.
USA TODAY Sports
As MLB teams are enjoying their spring training camps in Florida and Arizona, USA TODAY Sports takes a look at some of the most important factoids for all 30 clubs.
While plenty of negative story lines dominated the winter, particularly the historically sluggish free agent market, many teams did make serious moves to upgrade and some of the league’s brightest young talent appears primed to take the leap into superstar territory for 2019.
Can the Red Sox repeat? What will Shohei Ohtani do for an encore?
For each club, we’ll highlight a trio of stats, position battles, offseason changes, fantasy sleepers or anything else you need to know.
– Three seasons ago, 2B Jonathan Villar hit 19 homers, stole 62 bases and finished as the No. 4 overall player in fantasy baseball. After a trade last year, Villar, 27, is a full-time starter once again with 40-plus steal upside.
– There won’t be many wins on a team that lost 115 games last year, but even closers on bad teams get saves. Mychal Givens took over the role last August and converted eight of 10 opportunities with a 2.25 ERA.
– Deep sleeper: 3B Renato Nunez put up some big-time power numbers in the minors (32 in 2017 at Class AAA Nashville), and after a solid .891 OPS in September will be in line to start at third base.
Boston Red Sox
– Last winter’s most impactful free agent, J.D. Martinez refuted any concerns his power numbers would be hurt by Fenway Park’s Green Monster. He led the majors with 130 RBI and finished second in both home runs (43) and batting average (.330). At 31. there’s no reason to think he can’t repeat.
– After re-signing postseason heroes Nathan Eovaldi and Steve Pearce to solidify the starting rotation and the bench, the Red Sox return virtually everyone from a team that led the majors in scoring, despite getting limited production at second base and catcher.
– After averaging 36 saves over his three seasons in Boston, closer Craig Kimbrel became a free agent. His replacement is the biggest question mark for the defending World Series champs. Ryan Brasier, with no career saves (but a 1.69 ERA) in 42 2/3 MLB innings, could be dark-horse candidate.
New York Yankees
– Left-hander James Paxton ranked fourth among starting pitchers in strikeout rate (11.7 K/9). He gives the Yankees the top-of-the rotation arm they craved this offseason. His biggest problem is staying healthy; last season’s 160 innings were a career-high.
– Did catcher Gary Sanchez play all last season with a shoulder injury? If so, it would explain such a huge decline from his stellar offensive numbers in 2016-17. A .197 average on balls in play didn’t help. Bank on a major rebound.
– Shortstop Didi Gregorius rode a scorching April to career bests in homers (27), runs scored (89) and slugging (.494), However, offseason elbow surgery will delay his 2019 debut until at least June.
Tampa Bay Rays
– Everything came together for LHP Blake Snell in 2018. He made major gains in his strikeout rate (an elite 11.0 K/9), while at the same time lowering his walk rate. The result was a 21-5 record, 1.89 ERA and a Cy Young award. However, it’ll be hard to duplicate a .241 average on balls in play that was second-lowest among starting pitchers.
– The Rays plan to continue their practice of using relief pitchers as an “opener,” but they won’t have to worry about that on days Charlie Morton starts. The veteran struck out 200 batters for the first time last year in Houston. He gives the rotation a solid No. 2 behind Snell.
– 2B/3B Joey Wendle was a revelation as a 28-year-old rookie, hitting .300 and playing four different positions. On the strength of a fabulous .321/.381/.486 line in the second half, he could hit third in the order.
Toronto Blue Jays
– After posting a 1.073 OPS in the minors at age 19, 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr. may be the best minor league prospect in a generation. A couple weeks in the minors in April might be all that stands between Vlad Jr. and a permanent place on the Jays roster.
– Top starters Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez barely pitched more than 100 innings due to injuries, but both have enjoyed success in the past and are potential rebound candidates despite their pedestrian strikeout rates.
– Catcher can be an offensive wasteland, but rookie Danny Jansen offers rare upside. He hit .275 with 12 homers and a .390 OBP at Class AAA before making his MLB debut in August and showing decent pop.
Chicago White Sox
– Yoan Moncada hasn’t yet achieved the stardom many expected from a former No. 1 overall prospect. But he did hit 17 homers and steal 12 bases in his first full season in the majors. And he’s still only 23.
– Free-agent reliever Kelvin Herrera is recovering from foot surgery in September and should be fully healthy for opening day. The White Sox also acquired Alex Colome, who led the majors in 2017 with 47 saves. Those two will compete for the closer’s job.
– As a 26-year-old rookie, Daniel Palka slugged 27 home runs. His ratio of one every 15.4 at-bats earned him a spot in the top 10 (minimum 400 at-bats) – right behind Aaron Judge.
– With outstanding numbers in all five offensive categories, Jose Ramirez finished the 2018 season as fantasy’s sixth-ranked overall player. However, he struggled over the final two months (.210, seven homers, nine steals) and was 0-for-11 in the playoffs.
– The Indians have done more subtracting than adding this offseason, but one key newcomer is Jake Bauers, 23. He’s shown some power and speed in his minor-league career and should be an everyday starter at first base or the outfield – unless the Indians make another addition.
– Starting pitching is Cleveland’s strength with four members of the rotation recording over 200 strikeouts. But don’t sleep on the Tribe’s No. 5 starter. Shane Bieber has elite control and, like the others, struck out more than a batter per inning last season.
– Miguel Cabrera was one of the game’s most consistent players for over a decade, but he’s finally started to show his age. A ruptured biceps limited him to 38 games and three home runs in 2018. Can he bounce back at age 36?
– Outfielder Nick Castellanos stands to benefit the most from a healthy Cabrera. Despite not having much help around him, Castellanos still hit .298 with 23 homers and 89 RBI.
– The Tigers signed veterans Matt Moore and Tyson Ross to round out their starting rotation, but the biggest addition to the staff would be a healthy Michael Fulmer. The 2016 AL rookie of the year had knee surgery last fall, cutting short his worst season to date.
Kansas City Royals
– With stolen bases on the decline, Whit Merrifield’s 45 steals led the majors and cemented his place among the game’s top second basemen. (Outfield eligibility is gravy.) The Royals may run even more this season with the addition of four-time 50-bag thief Billy Hamilton.
– Shortstop Adalberto Mondesi didn’t get called up to the majors until June 17, but he hit 14 homers and stole 32 bases in just 75 games. However, he’ll need to improve his 72% contact rate and .306 OBP to sustain a high fantasy value.
– Wily Peralta converted all 14 of his save opportunities after being promoted from the minors and taking over the closer’s job. At 29, he wouldn’t be the first failed starter to find new life as a closer. Brad Boxberger, who registered 32 saves last season in Arizona, will provide competition.
– Nelson Cruz may be 38, but he was second in the majors last season in average exit velocity at 93.9 mph. He, 1B C.J. Cron and 2B Jonathan Schoop add a healthy dose of right-handed power to the lineup.
– At 24, Jose Berrios is on the verge of ace status after recording his first 200-strikeout season and improving both his ERA and WHIP from 2017. Getting to the next level will require more consistency (3.03 ERA at home, 4.85 on the road).
– Two of last season’s biggest disappointments – OF Byron Buxton and 3B Miguel Sano are poised for major rebounds. Plagued by injuries and sub-.200 batting averages a year ago, both are fully healthy entering spring training.
– Injuries were at least partly to blame for subpar seasons from shortstop Carlos Correa (back) and second baseman Jose Altuve (knee). Now fully recovered, both could be slightly discounted in drafts this spring.
– The Astros may have delayed the timetable for top prospect Kyle Tucker (24 homers, 20 steals in 100 games at Class AAA) with the signing of free agent outfielder Michael Brantley. However, neither Brantley nor right fielder Josh Reddick have pristine health histories.
– After co-aces Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, the starting rotation is a mystery. Collin McHugh (1.99 ERA in 72 1/3 innings) was incredible out of the bullpen, but will likely take over the No. 3 slot. Unheralded fireballer Josh James was a revelation down the stretch and can be a sleeper even in mixed leagues.
Los Angeles Angels
– Although he won’t pitch at all this season due to elbow surgery, Shohei Ohtani can still swing the bat. After hitting 22 homers in 326 at-bats as a rookie, Ohtani will be able to focus exclusively on offense.
– Free agent Justin Bour found a nice landing spot with the Angels. His power bat fits nicely in the cleanup spot behind Mike Trout and Justin Upton. However, he hit just .192 with two homers vs. left-handed pitchers last year so a platoon is possible.
– Matt Harvey gets a fresh start in the American League is his comeback from thoracic outlet syndrome. His 7.6 K/9 rate last season was his highest since 2015 with the Mets.
– Each of the past four seasons, Khris Davis has finished with a batting average of exactly .247. The last three years, he’s hit at least 40 homers and driven in 100 runs. Fantasy owners love consistency. And they love Khris Davis.
– Once upon a time the No. 1 overall prospect, Jurickson Profar finally got a chance to play regularly in Texas … and then was traded. Already eligible at first base, shortstop and third base in fantasy, the 25-year-old will add another position as the A’s projected starter at second base.
– After hitting .297/.380/.524 at Class AAA, breakout candidate Ramon Laureano hit five homers, stole seven bases and scored 27 runs in 45 games with the A’s. His stellar glove and cannon arm should help keep him in the lineup on an everyday basis.
– The M’s have completely revamped their offense this offseason (so what’s new?) with six new projected starters. Among them, Mallex Smith figures to be the new leadoff man and Edwin Encarnacion replaces Nelson Cruz as DH. Since 2013, only Cruz (230) has more homers than Encarnacion (221).
– Yusei Kikuchi looks to continue the Mariners’ run of successful Pacific imports. The left-hander, 27, was a three-time All-Star in Japan and could be the opening day starter. However, he’ll have his innings limited as he transitions away from a six-man rotation.
– Trading away MLB saves leader Edwin Diaz leaves a sizable void in the bullpen. Hunter Strickland recorded 14 saves for the Giants before a broken hand he suffered when punching a wall ended his season in June. He should get the fist … errr, first chance to close.
– Joey Gallo is the king of “three true outcomes” – with 55.6% of his plate appearances resulting in a strikeout, walk or home run. That said, when he does make contact the ball flies. Gallo led the majors last season in barrels (optimal launch angle and exit velocity) per plate appearance (11.4).
– Adrian Beltre’s retirement left a gaping hole in the Rangers lineup, one that free agent Asdrubal Cabrera will hope to fill. The veteran hit 23 homers with the Mets and Phillies while playing at least 20 games at three positions.
– The Rangers rotation should be an adventure with all five projected starters having missed at least one full season to injury. If they can get to the ninth with a lead, however, closer Jose Leclerc (1.56 ERA, 13.3 K/9) looks like a budding star.
– The Braves have two of the most exciting young players in the majors. 2B Ozzie Albies, 22, was an All-Star in his first full MLB season, but he faded in the second half – dropping 55 points in batting average and 210 points in OPS.
– LF Ronald Acuna, 21, thrived after moving into the leadoff spot (.328/.409/.634) and ended up winning rookie of the year honors. However, he’s penciled in to hit cleanup to take full advantage of his power.
– Career-best marks in innings (183), strikeouts (202) and ERA (2.85) vaulted Mike Foltynewicz to the top of the Atlanta rotation. A repeat will be harder to achieve after opponents hit just .251 against him on balls in play – fourth-lowest among all major league starters.
– The Marlins finished dead last in the majors in homers last season. And all three of their top home run hitters (J.T. Realmuto, Justin Bour, Derek Dietrich) are no longer on the team. Veteran Curtis Granderson signed a minor-league deal – and could lead the club in homers.
– Drew Steckenrider has shown he has the strikeout ability needed to close (11.6 K/9 in two seasons), but does he have the control? The 28-year-old had five saves and 19 holds last year and is the heir apparent at the back of the bullpen. Sergio Romo will provide veteran closer experience if Steckenrider stumbles.
– Deep sleeper alert: Righty Trevor Richards, 25, finished the regular season with a 16 1/3-inning scoreless streak. He has an elite changeup and struck out over a batter per inning as a rookie.
New York Mets
– Starting pitching is once again the Mets’ greatest strength. Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom may not duplicate his 1.70 ERA, but even average run support should be worth an additional 5-7 wins.
– Speaking of which … the Mets upgraded their 23rd-ranked offense with the additions of 3B Jed Lowrie, 2B Robinson Cano and C Wilson Ramos. The improved firepower does come with some risk, however. Ramos is the youngest of the trio at 31.
– Michael Conforto could end up being the Mets’ best hitter, especially if he continues to rake the way he did in last year’s second half. He hit 17 homers and ranked fourth in the majors with 52 RBI after the All-Star break.
– The additions of C J.T. Realmuto and SS Jean Segura give the Phillies major upgrades at two positions. Veteran OF Andrew McCutchen improves the team offensively and defensively by allowing Rhys Hoskins to move back to his natural position, first base.
– Despite a stellar strikeout rate (10.3 K/9), Nick Pivetta was victimized by the highest opponents’ average on balls in play of any starting pitcher in the majors (.324). Don’t be discouraged by his 4.77 ERA; he could improve that by more than a run in 2019.
– The closer’s job will be sorted out in spring training with David Robertson and Seranthony Dominguez both possessing elite strikeout rates (over 11.4 career K/9) and capable of handling the role. Manager Gabe Kapler could be tempted to split the save opportunities.
– Patrick Corbin parlayed a breakout season (11-7, 3.15 ERA, 246 K) into a monster free-agent contract, but he’ll still play second fiddle to Max Scherzer in the rotation. A healthy Stephen Strasburg would give the Nationals perhaps the best trio of starters in the majors.
– Juan Soto rose from Class A to runner-up in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting in his age-19 season. With exceptional plate discipline and 22 homers in 116 games, he should be even more productive in his first full season.
– Victor Robles was supposed to be Washington’s top prospect, but an elbow injury opened the door for Soto’s ascendance. Robles, 21, has the speed to steal 30-plus bases, but has yet to develop much power.
– As free-swinging as ever, Javier Baez did serious damage when he connected, hitting 34 homers and leading the NL with 111 RBI. He also remains as versatile as ever with at least 20 appearances at second base, third base and shortstop.
– Brandon Morrow (22 saves, 1.47 ERA) was excellent in his first season as the Cubs’ closer. However, the injury bug bit him once again, limiting him to just 30 2/3 innings. He will be out until at least May as he recovers from arthroscopic elbow surgery. Pedro Strop should serve as interim closer until Morrow returns
– Picking up Cole Hamels’ 2018 option was a no-brainer for the Cubs. After arriving from Texas at the deadline, the veteran lefty went 4-3 with a 2.36 ERA in 12 starts. The key: he cut his home run rate by more than half, post-trade.
– Ian Happ is always an asset in on-base percentage (.353), but he may have been too selective at the plate as his home runs and slugging percentage tumbled from 2017. Despite being a switch-hitter, a .202/.291/.317 slash line vs. left-handers leaves him open to a platoon.
– Joey Votto took a step backward in 2018 – mostly due to a two-month dry spell in July and August when he hit .252 with one homer. (A sore knee after being hit by a pitch may have contributed.) One reason to expect a rebound: His home run/flyball rate of 9.5% was half of what it’s been the previous three seasons.
– The Reds have been one of the most active teams this offseason in turning over their roster. Yasiel Puig could be one of the biggest winners, moving to a home park that was the most homer-friendly in the majors last year. Veteran right-hander Sonny Gray will front a revamped starting rotation.
– Is Jose Peraza a speedster with sneaky power? Or an infielder with pop who steals bases? He changed identities at midseason last year (5 HR, 17 SB in first half; 9 HR, 5 SB in second). After hitting at least .280 in each half, it’s possible he could be both at once.
– Christian Yelich put together a career year, doubling his home run total from 2017 with a career-high 36. Skeptics point to his major league-leading 35% home run-to-fly ball rate that was 15 points above his career average.
– Free-agent pickup Yasmani Grandal led all NL catchers with 24 homers last season, and he’ll be moving to a much more hitter-friendly home park – a benefit Yelich discovered in 2018.
– Jimmy Nelson, 29, should be fully healthy after missing all of last season with a shoulder injury. If he can maintain the significant improvement in strikeout rate he showed from 2016 to 2017 (7.0 to 10.2 K/9), he could be a big-time sleeper.
– Adding a slider to his repertoire midway through last season gave Jameson Taillon a third plus pitch, and helped him break out at age 26. Taillon was especially good over the second half, when he went 8-3 with a 2.33 ERA in 13 starts.
– RF Gregory Polanco had a bounce-back season cut short by a shoulder injury in September. He’ll miss at least the first month of the regular season as he recovers from surgery, but he could be a sleeper with 20-homer, 20-steal potential.
– Right-hander Joe Musgrove was shut down early with an abdominal issue that turned out to be a stress reaction in his pelvic bone. He pairs excellent control with a solid 11.4% swinging-strike rate – signs that there could be more upside to come.
St. Louis Cardinals
– The Cardinals made the boldest trade of the offseason by acquiring All-Star 1B Paul Goldschmidt. Busch Stadium may cost him a few home runs, but he’ll contribute in many more areas. Fantasy owners are most interested in whether the Cardinals give Goldschmidt the green light on the bases after he stole 32 bags in 2016, but a total of 25 the past two seasons.
– Incumbent closer Jordan Hicks averaged over 100 mph on his fastball, but had frequent issues with his control (5.2 BB/9) and converted only six of 13 save chances. If he stumbles, free agent addition Andrew Miller could take over the role.
– Carlos Martinez was the ace of the staff until injuries forced him into a relief role for the final two months of 2018. He’ll return to the rotation, but Jack Flaherty (or possibly Alex Reyes) could take over the No. 1 role in short order.
– The humidor that made its debut last season helped turn Chase Field from the No. 3 park for offense in 2017 to the No. 11 park in 2018. It wasn’t the catastrophic decline in offense some projected, but it reinforces how important pitching and defense were to the Diamondbacks last season.
– Trading Paul Goldschmidt to St. Louis and losing A.J. Pollock to free agency will hurt Arizona both offensively AND defensively. As a result, 3B Jake Lamb shifts to first base and shortstop Ketel Marte will have to learn to play center field on the fly.
– Is this the year Archie Bradley finally takes over as closer? The D’backs signed three-time All-Star Greg Holland as a free agent. His chances to get saves will depend on whether he’s more the guy who began last season in St. Louis (7.92 ERA in 32 appearances) or the one traded to Washington (0.84 ERA in 24 games).
– Trevor Story took a major step forward on offense in 2018, Cutting his strikeout rate from 34% to 26%. As a result, he added 52 points to his batting average and hit a career-high 37 homers (including the season’s longest: 505 feet). If he keeps stealing bases, he’s a borderline first-rounder.
– Free agent Daniel Murphy landed in almost the perfect situation for fantasy owners. The .299 career hitter will take aim at the gaps in Coors Field’s expansive outfield and could win a batting title he missed out on in 2016 by .001 (to then-Rockies 2B DJ LeMahieu). He should add first base eligibility early in the season.
– Kyle Freeland and German Marquez are trying to debunk the notion it’s impossible for pitchers to succeed in Colorado. Freeland had the edge in wins (17 to 14), but Marquez stands a better chance to repeat because of his superior underlying stats (10.6 K/9, 3.40 FIP).
Los Angeles Dodgers
– Walker Buehler may soon surpass Clayton Kershaw as the Dodgers’ staff ace. He was magnificent in his rookie season, going 8-5 with a 2.62 ERA in 24 games. The only concern might be from him throwing a career-high 177 innings, counting the postseason. Otherwise, the skills (.193 opponents’ batting average) stand out.
– A blockbuster trade with the Reds opened up playing time in the outfield for a major free agent signing. A.J. Pollock provides power, speed and excellent defense in center field, but he’s played more than 115 games only once in the past five seasons.
– Corey Seager returns from elbow and hip surgeries that limited him to 26 games in 2018. Keep an eye on how much playing time he gets in spring training. He could be a top-five shortstop if he’s fully recovered by opening day.
San Diego Padres
– How will the Padres find playing time for everyone in the outfield, especially with Wil Myers moving back there? Hunter Renfroe seems reasonably secure after hitting a team-leading 26 homers (19 in the second half) last season. Otherwise, it’s a virtual tossup.
– With one of the game’s top prospects in Fernando Tatis Jr. nearly ready, free agent Ian Kinsler may be squeezed out of a job by midseason. Or he could split time with rookie Luis Urias, who’ll begin the year at shortstop.
– Kirby Yates, 31, was outstanding over the final two months as a first-time closer (12 saves in 13 chances, 2.14 ERA, 12.9 K/9). The bullpen as a whole is strong, unlike the starting rotation. However, funky lefty Joey Lucchesi gets a ton of strikeouts and ground balls, making him an interesting breakout candidate.
San Francisco Giants
– Injuries the past two seasons have kept Madison Bumgarner from being the 200-inning workhorse he was earlier in his career. They may also be partly responsible for a sizable drop in his strikeout rate. Keep last year’s ERA splits in mind (1.63 at home, 4.97 on the road) if any of the frequent trade rumors ever materialize.
– Lefty Drew Pomeranz posted solid numbers as both a reliever and starter from 2014-17, but injuries took their toll last season and his ERA soared above 6.00. San Francisco may be the perfect place for the 30-year-old to revive his career.
– Let’s face it, the Giants are a mess on offense. 3B Evan Longoria led the team in homers with a mere 16 and their best hitter, Buster Posey, is recovering from August hip surgery. There’s little immediate help coming in the minors either.
Follow Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner