7 position battles fantasy managers must know before the start of MLB season

By Thomas Harrigan,

Special to Yahoo Sports

A lot has changed since we first looked at some of the key position battles that could significantly impact the 2020 fantasy season back in February.

The coronavirus pandemic caused Opening Day to be pushed back until July 23 and 24, the regular season will now consist of 60 games, and there will be a universal designated hitter. The NL having a DH clears up some of the positional logjams that would have existed without it, but a number of roster questions have yet to be answered.

While some of these situations might not be sorted out until after the season begins, given clubs can start the year with a 30-man active roster and may only play a few exhibition games before Opening Day, fantasy managers should nonetheless keep an eye on the seven competitions listed below.

Astros: Final rotation spot

Main contenders: Josh James, Framber Valdez, Austin Pruitt, Bryan Abreu

With starting pitchers around MLB likely to be limited early in the season after the long delay, Houston may decide James is more valuable as a multi-inning weapon out of the bullpen. But if he nabs a starting job, he’ll have notable fantasy potential while pitching for one of baseball’s best teams.

The 27-year-old finished 2019 with a 4.70 ERA and a 5.1 BB/9 mark over 49 appearances (one start) last season, but he ranked in the 93rd percentile or better in average fastball velocity, strikeout rate, xwOBA and xSLG. Although Forrest Whitley (MLB’s No. 19 prospect) also looms as an option to start at some point, James is worth a late-round pick in 12-team mixed leagues.

Brewers: Closer

Main contenders: Josh Hader, Corey Knebel

Hader was the first closer off the board in many fantasy drafts before the delay, but his stock has dropped some, and it has nothing to do with his left arm. In general, it isn’t as important to target elite closers now, as they’ll have less of a chance to separate themselves from the lower-end options in a shortened season. Hader also is no longer guaranteed to handle the majority of Milwaukee’s save chances with Knebel (Tommy John surgery) back to full health.

Josh Hader #71 of the Milwaukee Brewers
Could Josh Hader lose the closer job in 2020? (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)

After pitching in a variety of high-leverage situations over 2017-18, Hader was forced into the closer role by necessity last year and recorded 37 saves with a 2.62 ERA and 138 strikeouts in 75 2/3 innings. Manager Craig Counsell could revisit his previous strategy if Knebel reverts to his 2017 form (1.78 ERA, 14.9 K/9).

Blue Jays: Final rotation spot

Main contenders: Trent Thornton, Shun Yamaguchi, Nate Pearson

With 100-mph heaters and the offspeed stuff to match, Pearson generated considerable buzz during Spring Training while striking out 11 batters and allowing just one run in seven innings. The Blue Jays’ top priority this season is the development of their young talent, but they shouldn’t be counted out of the race prematurely.

Toronto could surprise if Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. live up to their potential, free-agent acquisition Hyun-Jin Ryu continues to shine and Pearson grabs a rotation spot and runs with it. That likely won’t happen in the opening weeks of the year, but the 6-foot-6 righty could arrive by early August.

Cardinals: Left field

Main contenders: Tyler O'Neill, Lane Thomas, Dylan Carlson

The Cardinals’ closer role is also unsettled, but the team may use a committee until Jordan Hicks is ready to return from Tommy John surgery. For fantasy managers, what happens with St. Louis’ outfield is much more intriguing, as Carlson could be a major difference-maker depending on how much playing time he gets.

Either O’Neill or Thomas is expected to get the first crack at replacing the departed Marcell Ozuna in left field, but in a 60-game season, the Cards can’t afford to be patient if they aren’t getting offensive production from that spot or starting center fielder Harrison Bader. The club ranked 10th in the NL in runs scored and 11th in OPS last season. Carlson, meanwhile, had a 26-homer, 20-steal, .914-OPS campaign in the Minors, then impressed during the Grapefruit League schedule.

Dodgers: Final rotation spot

Main contenders: Dustin May, Ross Stripling

Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Julio Urías and Alex Wood are expected to fill the Dodgers’ first four rotation spots, but David Price’s decision not to play this season opens the door for May (MLB’s No. 23 prospect) or Stripling to grab the final starting job.

Stripling has been a valuable swingman for Los Angeles over the past four seasons, posting a 3.51 ERA with 377 strikeouts and 91 walks in 136 appearances (52 starts), and May filled a similar role after debuting in 2019. The lanky right-hander appeared in 14 games, making four starts and finishing with a 3.63 ERA, 32 K’s and five walks in 34 2/3 innings. Both hurlers are worth selecting in 12-team mixed leagues, with an edge going to May because of his prospect pedigree.

Mets: Closer

Main contenders: Edwin Díaz, Seth Lugo, Dellin Betances, Jeurys Familia

Díaz’s surface stats — 5.59 ERA, 15 homers allowed, seven blown saves in 34 chances — were ugly in 2019, but he posted an elite 39 percent strikeout rate and had the largest difference (.067) in MLB (min. 250 batters faced) between his wOBA (.344) and xwOBA (.277). He may be on draft lists for many fantasy managers who eschew targeting one of the top-five closers, as the Mets righty could easily regain a lofty rank by season’s end.

However, new manager Luis Rojas hasn’t committed to him — or anyone else — as the Mets’ closer yet and could consider using a committee, which would obviously put a dent in Díaz’s fantasy value.

White Sox: Second base

Main contenders: Leury García, Nick Madrigal, Danny Mendick

None of these players did much to stand out during the Cactus League schedule, so Chicago may choose to start the season with the most experienced of the three, García, as its starting second baseman. However, the speedy Madrigal should be stashed in 12-team mixed leagues, given his potential to contribute substantial value in the stolen-base and batting-average categories.

While he doesn’t hit for power, Madrigal struck out just 16 times with 44 walks in 532 plate appearances in the Minors last season, posting a .311 average and swiping 35 bags. Considering the dearth of base stealers around MLB, Madrigal could rank among the MLB leaders in that department even if he doesn’t begin the year on the White Sox active roster.

Thomas Harrigan is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @HarriganMLB.

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