D.J. Short

Draft Strategy

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NL Position Battles

Friday, February 17, 2012

Reds' left field

Chris Heisey has garnered buzz as a potential fantasy sleeper after smacking 18 homers and stealing six bases over 120 games last season, but the addition of Ryan Ludwick may hurt his chances of a full-fledged breakout in 2012.

Ludwick has batted just .229/.308/.353 with a .661 OPS since being traded away from the Cardinals at the deadline in 2010, but he should enjoy finally hitting in a ballpark which caters to right-handed power. Oh, and don't forget that Reds manager Dusty Baker loves putting veterans in his lineup whenever possible.

Unfortunately a traditional platoon doesn't look like an ideal solution, as both Ludwick and Heisey are right-handed hitters. And while Ludwick had better numbers against southpaws last season (.763 OPS vs. LHP, .644 OPS vs. RHP), he has traditionally enjoyed more success against right-handed pitching (.804 OPS vs. RHP, .751 OPS vs. LHP) in his career. Same goes for Heisey (.885 OPS vs. RHP, .548 OPS vs. LHP), but given that he only has 166 big league plate appearances against left-handers, we probably need to see more before making any broad generalizations about his abilities.

Baker has already said multiple times that "everybody on my team plays," so the reality is that we might not have a clear answer on this situation before Opening Day. I prefer Heisey over Ludwick in fantasy leagues, but it's tough to endorse him outside of NL-only or deeper mixed leagues with five-outfielder spots.

Astros' closer

The Astros will probably lose 100 games for a second straight season, but somebody has to close for them, right? Last year's save leader Mark Melancon was traded to the Red Sox in December for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland, so we should see an open competition for the ninth-inning gig during spring training.

Brandon Lyon is the early favorite by default, what with his $5.5 million salary and previous experience in the role, but who knows what he'll look like after major shoulder surgery. If he has any setbacks, that could open the door for a wide variety of options including Wilton Lopez, David Carpenter, Juan Abreu and Fernando Rodriguez.

There's a lot to like about Lopez, from his 2.87 ERA over the past two seasons, to his elite command and ground ball rate (56.2 percent), but his strikeout rate (6.58 K/9) doesn't exactly scream traditional closer. That could make Carpenter a viable alternative. The 26-year-old right-hander has a mid-90s fastball in his arsenal and posted a 2.93 ERA and 29 strikeouts over 27 2/3 innings at the big league level last year. Carpenter averaged 9.7 K/9 in the minors and was showing signs of improved command prior to his call-up last year, so he could be a fit in the long-term. Abreu has limited big-league experience and Rodriguez averaged 5.4 BB/9 to go along with his 3.96 ERA last season, so they should be considered long shots right now.

My guess is that Lyon will get the nod to start the season if he's healthy. However, I seriously doubt he'll end the season in role, either because he gets hurt again, proves ineffective or new GM Jeff Luhnow swaps him for whatever he can get before the trade deadline in July. Carpenter might end up being the best bet.

Nationals' center field/right field

Nationals' manager Davey Johnson continues to stump for top prospect Bryce Harper to make the Opening Day roster. If it happens, the Nationals would project to have Harper in right field and Jayson Werth in center. Assuming Adam LaRoche has no issues with his surgically-repaired shoulder, Werth would be flanked by Michael Morse in left field.

Nationals manager Mike Rizzo seems to have an open mind about the whole thing, at least publicly, but I'm guessing Harper would have to tear the cover off the ball during Grapefruit League action to justify starting his arbitration clock so quickly. He's still only 19 years old and batted .256/.329/.395 with three homers and a .724 OPS over 37 games after being promoted to Double-A Harrisburg last year. That's pretty darn impressive for the level given his age, but it's not unreasonable to say he could use a little more time in the minor leagues. Barring something unforeseen, I think Harper will make his major league debut around the same time some of the other top prospects do in late-May or June.

Assuming that's what the Nats eventually decide, Werth will likely stay in right field while center field will come down to some combination of Rick Ankiel, Mike Cameron and Roger Bernadina. It's a pretty uninspiring group from a fantasy perspective, though Bernadina's speed could be useful in some formats if he ends up on the strong side of a platoon. It's worth noting that he enters spring training out of options.


UPDATE: Mike Cameron announced his retirement over the weekend, so center field will come down to Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina. I still expect Bryce Harper to open the season in the minors and Jayson Werth to play right field.

Braves' backend starters

The Braves have some legitimate health concerns in their rotation, but fortunately for them, they are blessed with some of the best pitching depth in the game. Tim Hudson is currently rehabbing from November surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back and it's increasingly likely that he'll miss the first couple of weeks of the season. Tommy Hanson (shoulder) and Jair Jurrjens (knee) dealt with health problems of their own last season, but so far they appear to be on track for Opening day. Popular sleeper pick Brandon Beachy should be a lock for the rotation after posting a 3.68 ERA and 169/46 K/BB ratio over 141 2/3 innings last season. This leaves Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, Julio Teheran and Kris Medlen competing for two spots during spring training.

Minor, a 2009 first-round pick, compiled a 4.14 ERA over 15 starts at the major league level last season, including a 3.83 ERA and 51/15 K/BB ratio across 49 1/3 innings after the All-Star break. The 24-year-old southpaw is a favorite to snag one of the two spots and should be considered a sleeper in mixed formats. Delgado doesn't have the upside of Teheran or Arodys Vizcaino, but he probably has a leg up on the competition after making seven starts at the big league level last year. Give him a look in NL-only formats. Medlen only threw 2 1/3 innings late last season following Tommy John surgery and will likely end up in the bullpen.

If all goes well, the Braves will likely go into May with a rotation of Hudson, Hanson, Jurrjens, Beachy and Minor. But injuries or a possible trade of Jurrjens (remember, he was being shopped over the winter) could open the door for Delgado, Teheran, Medlen or Vizcaino down the road. Be sure to monitor this talented quartet.

D.J. Short is a Rotoworld baseball editor and contributes to NBCSports.com's Hardball Talk blog. You can also find him on Twitter.
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