There may not be official stat lines and box scores, but players are nonetheless making an impression when they take the field for intrasquad games as MLB teams prepare for the start of the 2020 season. And of course, the unstable health conditions are creating new spots in the lineup every day, seemingly. I’ve been keeping track of everything you need in my regular camp notebook column, the latest of which focused on Dylan Carlson’s chances of cracking the Cardinals everyday lineup.
Here are 15 players who have emerged as dark horse candidates in Summer Camp and who could be worthwhile late-round sleepers for your Fantasy team.
Ryan Helsley, RP, Cardinals
With Giovanny Gallegos having yet to report to camp, Jordan Hicks recently choosing to opt out, and Carlos Martinez still making a case for a starting role, Helsley suddenly is the most likely choice to close for the Cardinals, and in fact, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak recently mentioned him first when discussing closer candidates, according to Mark Saxon of The Athletic. Helsley may not have the sort of bat-missing skills that are preferred in the role, having struck out 32 in 36 2/3 innings last year, but he reaches triple digits with his fastball and did have a 2.95 ERA in his 24 appearances.
If he does secure the role, he would rank in the Alex Colome/Archie Bradley range among closers.
Ross Stripling, SP/RP, Dodgers
Stripling wasn’t the obvious choice to replace David Price when the former Cy Young winner opted out earlier this month, not after what top prospect Dustin May did in a swingman role down the stretch last year. Even if Stripling did get the job, he seemed unlikely to take on a starter’s workload, instead piggybacking with May or someone like Tony Gonsolin.
But from the start of camp, manager Dave Roberts has said Stripling would be ready to go seven innings by the start of the season, and he threw 5 2/3 in an intrasquad game Sunday. More likely, Julio Urias and even Walker Buehler, who threw just one inning in his first appearance Sunday, will be the ones having to piggyback at the start, which makes Stripling’s 3.22 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 9.7 K/9 over the past two years awfully interesting.
Stripling joined the Fantasy Baseball Today podcast back in April to talk about how he was approaching the layoff, his desire to be a starter, and more. Subscribe to Fantasy Baseball Today now, as we prepare for the start of the wildest MLB season in memory. We’ll help you keep track of it all:
Yoenis Cespedes, OF, Mets
Having had surgery on both heels and one ankle since he last played in 2018, Cespedes wasn’t yet ready to play the outfield back in Spring Training even though the Mets were anxious to get his bat back in the lineup. Well, you may have heard the DH has come to the NL since then, creating an obvious opening for the former MVP candidate, but it turns out he may not even need it, already getting a chance to man left field in intrasquad games.
Between that and the regular demonstrations of his power in camp, it’s beginning to seem like a foregone conclusion Cespedes will be a regular for the Mets, whether in left field or at DH. And it’s an exciting prospect when you remember he has a .281 batting average and .877 OPS over his past three seasons.
Francisco Mejia, C, Padres
The player whose stock has improved the most in Padres camp, according to MLB.com beat writer AJ Cassavell, is Mejia, who has gone from possibly not making the roster after an 0-for-15 start in Spring Training to pushing defensive standout Austin Hedges for the starting job.
Of course, Fantasy Baseballers were already drafting him like the starter, taking him 17th overall at the position because of his offensive potential. He had a multi-year stretch when he was considered the best catcher prospect in baseball and hit .298 with eight homers and an .857 OPS for about a two-month stretch last year before an oblique injury sidetracked him. Cassavell notes that the DH spot also presents an opening for Mejia.
Griffin Canning, SP, Angels
Canning isn’t just back to being a viable option for the Angels. He’s one of four locks for the six-man rotation, according to MLB.com beat writer Rhett Bollinger. After contending with chronic changes in his UCL back in spring training, which sounded like it might have been a precursor to Tommy John surgery, Canning showed up to Summer Camp feeling back to normal and “10 times better” than he did in the spring. Canning had an up-and-down performance in 18 appearances as a rookie last year, but his 13.8 percent swinging-strike rate would have tied him with Jack Flaherty for 10th among qualifiers.
Tyler Rogers, RP, Giants
Turns out the side-arming brother of Twins closer Taylor Rogers may end up having the same role for the Giants, at least according to manager Gabe Kapler. It’s particularly notable because Kapler was famously resistant to designating the closer while with the Phillies, who had clearer options for that role. It’s likely he’ll continue to mix and match with the Giants, but he did bring up Rogers on his own in a recent interview with the Tolbert, Krueger & Brooks show on KNBR radio. “The one thing I just want to make clear is while if somebody emerges as a surefire closer option for us, a guy that fits the ninth inning, we’ll absolutely put that person in that role.”
Isiah Kiner-Falefa, C/3B, Rangers
Apparently, four months wasn’t enough time for Rangers manager Chris Woodward to sober up on making Kiner-Falefa the team’s regular third baseman while shifting Todd Frazier over to first base. It helps that Kiner-Falefa continues to mash, beginning summer camp 10 for 24 with two homers after going 14 for 37 with four home runs in spring training.
Kiner-Falefa enters 2020 with just five home runs in 176 career games — the kind that count, anyway — but made an adjustment this offseason to incorporate his lower body into his swing more and may have unlocked some power as a result. “Every day that’s going by, he’s making it more and more [possible],” Woodward said. “You see the changes in his body, the changes in his swing, and it’s hard for me to not have him in the lineup.” And oh by the way, Kiner-Falefa is catcher-eligible in CBS Sports leagues.
Monte Harrison, OF, Marlins
According to beat writer Joe Frisario of MLB.com, outfield prospect Monte Harrison has a legitimate chance of making the Opening Day roster, possibly as the starter in either center or right field. “I love the energy that he plays with,” manager Don Mattingly said. “The confidence. He plays with that swag and that walk. He’s a guy that you look forward to cracking in here, breaking the door down, and basically showing us what he can do.”
The 24-year-old hit .364 (8 for 22) with six steals and three doubles back in spring training and has already ripped a homer off Caleb Smith in camp. He has had contact issues in the minors but hit .270 with nine homers and 23 steals (in 25 attempts) in just 222 at-bats down there last year. We’ll take another potential steals source, particularly if there’s some power to go with it.
Framber Valdez, SP/RP, Astros
With Jose Urquidy on the IL for unspecified reasons, Framber Valdez becomes the favorite for the fifth spot in the Astros starting rotation, according to MLB.com. “His stuff is electric, his bullpens have been great,” pitching coach Brent Strom said Tuesday. “When Mike Trout says he has the best stuff on our staff, that means something to me.”
I, too, have a fondness for Valdez, who combines elite ground-ball tendencies with a swing-and-miss arsenal, but control has held him back in his big-league chances so far. Anyone who has a rotation spot for a team like the Astros, though, is worth a look.
Vince Velasquez, SP/RP, Phillies
Having tried to survive as a two-pitch pitcher to this point in his career, Velasquez worked to develop a cutter during the shutdown, and it may be what finally brings everything together for a pitcher who has become a virtual afterthought despite averaging nearly 10 K/9 in his career. “I think it’s been a big pitch for him,” manager Joe Girardi said. “It’s allowed him to use both sides of the plate.”
Velasquez still has to secure the fifth spot in the starting rotation, but he took a big step toward doing that Tuesday, striking out six while allowing just two hits and one walk over four innings. “He’s looked really good,” Girardi said. “I don’t think you could ignore what he’s doing.”
Victor Caratini, C./1B, Cubs
As far as the Cubs are concerned, the arrival of the DH to the NL figured to bolster Ian Happ’s playing time and perhaps open up more for Steven Souza. But rookie manager David Ross sees it as a way to get his backup catcher in the lineup more. “I’ve told you guys that multiple times. I like Vic’s bat,” Ross said Friday. “You can really rely on a quality AB when he gets in the box. So that’s great to have as a manager.” Caratini did put up strong numbers in limited playing time last year, batting .266 with 11 homers and a .794 OPS in 244 at-bats. If he can carve out four starts a week, it could be enough to make him Fantasy-relevant.
Tucker Davidson, SP, Braves
With Felix Hernandez opting out, Cole Hamels ailing again, Kyle Wright not having a chance to throw much during the shutdown, and Sean Newcomb still possibly ticketed for the bullpen, Tucker Davidson becomes a dark horse candidate for a rotation spot with the Braves. The left-hander broke through with a 2.15 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 9.3 K/9 between Double- and Triple-A last year and is apparently flashing a new slider in camp. “I don’t remember that [slider] in spring training,” manager Brian Snitker told The Athletic. “That’s a nasty pitch.”
Chad Tromp, C, Giants
The Giants have already said top prospect Joey Bart isn’t a serious candidate to replace Buster Posey as their opening day catcher, but every other catcher possibility for the Giants is a non-roster invitee. One who may be worth a second look, though, is Chad Tromp. He homered twice in an intrasquad game Sunday and also has a double and triple since camp began. “I think everybody is really excited about Chadwick Tromp and the advancements he’s made with his swing,” Kapler said. “A lot of positive conversation around camp with the impression that he’s been making, not just at the plate, but also in the bullpen and taking charge down there.”
The former Reds farmhand hasn’t played much the past two years, having undergone shoulder surgery in 2018, but he hit .280 with nine homers and a .965 OPS in 125 minor-league at-bats after returning last year.
Edward Olivares, OF, Padres
Olivares, a 24-year-old outfielder, is becoming a surprise favorite to win a roster spot for the Padres, according to MLB.com, even over Franchy Cordero and Josh Naylor. “He’s made a good impression in Spring Training, and maybe even a better impression in the short look of Summer Camp so far,” manager Jayce Tingler said recently. “The way he runs stands out, the way he defends all three spots. His at-bats, he’s been as good as anybody at looking at pitches outside the zone.”
Olivares isn’t regarded as a top prospect, but he did put up impressive numbers at Double-A last year, batting .283 with 18 homers, 35 steals and an .801 OPS. And as much as the Padres like to move players in out of the lineup, it’s possible he could emerge as a sneaky steals source in Fantasy.
Jonathan Lucroy, C, Red Sox
Lucroy, who enjoyed several years as a top-flight Fantasy catcher before his production plummeted in 2017, is pushing to make the Red Sox roster as a backup catcher and first baseman. He has an explanation for his struggles over the past three years, too: a herniated disc in his neck. “It’s just a very tough injury to deal with, and I tried to deal with it for three years very stupidly, to be honest. I finally got it fixed and it healed up extremely quick,” he said. “I’m able to sleep at night. I’m just happier because I’m not walking around with knife in my neck, it feels like. I’m just freed up and I just feel better overall.”
Lucroy probably won’t get a chance to play enough to make a real Fantasy contribution, but given his track record, this explanation is an interesting one. And who knows? Christian Vazquez isn’t a sure thing at the plate, despite last year’s breakout.