With spring training officially underway, fantasy owners are subjected to a veritable deluge of daily updates from various media outlets across the major-league landscape. It can be extremely difficult to discern any semblance of signal from the considerable noise, especially with every player showing up at their team’s complex in Arizona or Florida in the proverbial best shape of their life. However, a report with significant fantasy implications concerning the Athletics’ immediate plans for their electrifying southpaw prospects -- Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk -- surfaced earlier this week. Athletics manager Bob Melvin told reporters Wednesday that there's no plan for a specific innings limit for either Luzardo or Puk at this point. After operating exclusively in relief at the big-league level over the final month of last season, both Luzardo and Puk appear to be firmly entrenched in the Athletics’ starting rotation and the team has no plans to limit their workloads entering the 2020 campaign.
Luzardo was considered a strong candidate to open last season in the Athletics’ rotation before a muscle strain in his throwing shoulder sustained in late-March knocked him out of the running and ultimately kept him sidelined until mid-June. He also missed an additional chunk of the 2019 campaign after suffering a strained lat during a rehab start at Triple-A Las Vegas in early July. When healthy, the uber-talented 22-year-old southpaw recorded stellar results, posting a sparkling 2.51 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 57/8 K/BB ratio over 43 innings of work across three minor league levels. He finally made his big-league debut in September and immediately lived up to the considerable hype. Luzardo showcased a surreal upper-90’s sinker and hard-biting curveball while compiling a pristine 1.50 ERA, 0.67 WHIP and 16/3 K/BB ratio across 12 frames in six relief appearances over the final month of the year. He also looked virtually unhittable, firing three scoreless frames in the Athletics’ eventual loss to the Rays in the American League Wild Card game last October. Simply put, he’s a potential fantasy stud for years to come.
Meanwhile, Puk remained sidelined until early-June as he continued to rehab from Tommy John surgery, which he underwent the previous April. The immensely talented 24-year-old lefty compiled a 4.97 ERA and 38/10 K/BB ratio over 25 1/3 minor-league innings before making his major-league debut in late-August. He pitched out of the Athletics’ bullpen for the remainder of the regular season, recording a 3.18 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and 13/5 K/BB ratio over 11 1/3 innings of work across 10 appearances. The towering southpaw pairs an upper-90’s fastball with a wipeout slider and has displayed an ability to miss bats at an elite rate throughout his professional career.
There’s zero doubt concerning either lefties immense raw talent, but there were certainly enough questions regarding how the Athletics would handle the dynamic tandem’s workloads this season. From a pure fantasy standpoint, this latest report is a colossal development, which provides some clarity on how many innings fantasy owners can reasonably expect this year. It would be unrealistic to project either young lefty to eclipse the 175-inning threshold in their first full-season at the big-league level, especially considering their well-documented health issues and the league-wide decline in starting pitcher workloads in recent years. However, it’s an extremely encouraging sign that the front office and coaching staff will not impose any rigid restrictions on them moving forward. If healthy, Luzardo and Puk possess massive fantasy upside and have the potential to perform at an elite level on a per-start basis this season.
Not only does Oakland boast a pair of the premier left-handed pitching prospects in the game, but they’ve managed to cobble together one of the most exciting rotations in the game. Lefty Sean Manaea re-established himself as a bona fide ace in his return from shoulder surgery and hard-throwing righty Frankie Montas flashed legitimate front-of-the-rotation upside before serving an 80-game suspension after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. If Luzardo and Puk come remotely close to reaching their lofty ceilings, the Athletics could be serious contenders in the American League this season.
Hamels Suffers Setback, King Felix Steps Into Spotlight
The Braves starting rotation took a hit this week when general manager Alex Anthopoulos told reporters on Wednesday that veteran left-hander Cole Hamels, who signed a one-year, $18 million deal this offseason, will not be ready for Opening Day following a setback to his injured shoulder. While the Braves remain confident Hamels' recent shoulder irritation won't be a long-term issue, he’s likely going to be sidelined at the onset of the 2020 campaign. The 36-year-old southpaw could potentially resume throwing in three weeks, which is when he'll be reevaluated, but it's going to take time for the veteran to build back up before returning in April.
Hamels’ extended absence dramatically improves veteran right-hander Felix Hernandez’s odds of breaking camp in the team’s starting rotation. The 33-year-old former Mariner inked a minor-league pact with the Braves last month and will have to battle a plethora of in-house options like Sean Newcomb, Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson and Touki Toussaint to secure one of the final two spots in the big-league rotation. King Felix’s days as a viable mixed-league option are clearly in the rearview, but he has a path to fantasy relevance in NL-only formats if he excels this spring.
Bucs, Red Sox Provide Closer Clarity
Relief pitchers -- closers in particular -- are the most volatile assets in the entire fantasy landscape. The industry-wide consensus mantra associated with virtually every position group has been “draft skills, not roles.” However, closers are the exception that widely-held notion. As we’ve learned over the years, almost any reliever can morph into a successful closer, the key is to secure the role in the first place. With nearly half of the closer situation unsettled entering spring training, fantasy owners received some clarity on the situations in Boston and Pittsburgh this week.
Pirates manager Derek Shelton confirmed Wednesday that right-hander Keone Kela will serve as the team’s closer in 2020. The 26-year-old righty excelled in a setup role, posting a 2.12 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 33/11 K/BB ratio across 29 2/3 innings last year. Meanwhile, Red Sox interim manager Ron Roenicke confirmed Wednesday that right-hander Brandon Workman will serve as the team’s closer this season. The 31-year-old veteran recorded a sublime 1.88 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 104/45 K/BB ratio across 71 2/3 innings last year. He also converted 16 of his 22 save opportunities. With plenty of uncertainty on the saves frontier, both Kela and Workman represent solid late-round investments in all fantasy formats this spring.
Red Sox Rumor Roundup
There were a flurry of fantasy-relevant updates out of Red Sox camp this week, most notably a report from Alex Speier of the Boston Globe on Thursday that the team has agreed to terms with free agent outfielder Kevin Pillar on a one-year, $4 million contract. The deal is pending a physical and could be finalized as soon as this weekend. The 31-year-old outfielder recorded a .259/.287/.432 triple-slash line with 21 homers and 14 stolen bases across 161 games between the Blue Jays and Giants last year. Jon Heyman of MLB Network mentioned earlier this week that the Red Sox were close to a deal with Pillar and the addition of a reliable, defensive-oriented veteran center fielder makes even more sense given the uncertain health status of outfielder Alex Verdugo.
The 23-year-old outfielder was the subject of another Speier report on Thursday, which indicated that he could miss the start of the 2020 campaign due to lingering back issues. The centerpiece of the team’s controversial return from the Dodgers in exchange for superstar outfielder Mookie Betts and left-hander David Price last week essentially missed the final two months of last season due to oblique and back issues. Evidently, he hasn’t made a full recovery yet. According to Speier’s report, the back issue was known during the trade negotiations, but the Red Sox don’t view it to be a long-term issue. Yet, they’re still exercising caution and would rather be conservative with Verdugo rather than rush him to be ready for the start of the regular season.
American League Quick Hits: Tigers signed OF Cameron Maybin to a one-year, $1.5 million contract … Mariners signed RHP Taijuan Walker to a one-year, $2-million contract … Yankees LHP James Paxton (back surgery) told reporters Thursday that he will be cleared to throw in 4-6 weeks … White Sox RHP Lucas Giolito is dealing with soreness in his ribcage and a strained chest muscle, LHP Gio Gonzalez is dealing with shoulder discomfort and C Yasmani Grandal has been diagnosed with a left calf strain … Royals C Salvador Perez declared his elbow to be at 90 percent health and expects to be at 100 percent by Opening Day … Twins LHP Rich Hill (elbow) has begun a throwing program and hopes to return in early June … Mariners OF Mitch Haniger (sports hernia) underwent a second core surgery on Thursday and is expected to be sidelined well into the 2020 campaign … Angels RHP Justin Anderson will begin the season on the injured list with a Grade 2 strain of his left oblique … Red Sox 2B Dustin Pedroia (knee) will not be reporting to spring training next week … Orioles manager Brandon Hyde confirmed Wednesday that RHP Hunter Harvey will begin the year in the bullpen … Orioles signed LHP Tommy Milone to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.
National League Quick Hits: Padres SS Fernando Tatis Jr. (back) will have no limitations during spring training and the team has no plans to move him to center field … Padres OF Tommy Pham told reporters Thursday that he played through a partially torn UCL with the Rays last season … Cardinals reportedly plan to utilize INF/OF Tommy Edman as a versatile super-utility player to start the 2020 campaign … Marlins INF/OF Jonathan Villar will get playing time in center field during spring training as the team evaluates the possibility of playing him all over the field this year … Dodgers are expected to platoon Joc Pederson and A.J. Pollock in left field this season … Reds manager David Bell said Thursday that Eugenio Suarez (shoulder) could potentially be ready for Opening Day … Pirates signed OF Jarrod Dyson to a one-year contract … Giants officially signed INF Wilmer Flores to a two-year contract with a club option for 2022 … Cardinals signed 3B Brad Miller to a one-year, major league contract … Reds re-signed INF/OF Derek Dietrich to a minor-league contract with an invite to spring training … Rockies INF Brendan Rodgers (shoulder) has progressed to throwing from 120 feet in his rehab from shoulder surgery … Diamondbacks RHP Mike Leake was diagnosed with a fracture in his left (non-throwing) wrist but still hopes to be ready for April … Brewers INF Luis Urias (wrist) said that he “wants to be ready for Opening Day.” … Marlins signed RHP Brad Boxberger to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training … Braves re-signed RHP Josh Tomlin to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training … Phillies re-signed RHP Tommy Hunter to a one-year contract … Padres claimed INF Breyvic Valera off waivers from the Blue Jays … Martin Prado announced his retirement after 14 major-league seasons.