Things change quickly in this game.
The past week proves that: If you drafted Chase Headley or Hanley Ramirez last Saturday, you're not very happy today. Both will miss multiple weeks of the regular season, and Ramirez more than a month.
But injuries aren't the only things that skew values in March. Spring training is a time of battles for jobs, and we're entering the final stages in which such decisions must be made made. Today, let's recap where the most compelling -- from a fantasy angle -- battles stand.
Cincinnati Reds fifth starter/closer: This should be called more "decision" than "battle," as this has always been Aroldis Chapman's eventual role. Thursday represented another mind-bending day in the Chapman conundrum -- starter or closer, closer or starter -- as the Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Daugherty reported that the Reds were to announce that Chapman would close, only to have Reds general manager Walt Jocketty subsequently tell Reds reporter Mark Sheldon that no decision had been made nor would there be any announcement. This comes on the heels of Chapman's admission that he'd prefer to close, as well as Reds manager Dusty Baker's same stated preference, so the smart money is on Chapman occupying the ninth inning, the role in which he earned a No. 3 ranking among relief pitchers on our 2012 Player Rater. As it pertains to his fantasy value, it's a matter of shuffling categorical resources; we'd rank him only one round sooner as a closer, but he'd be a projected 37-save closer with more than a half-run lower ERA.
It's the alternatives at either spot whose values are in flux; Mike Leake is the fallback fifth starter, Jonathan Broxton the reliever signed to a three-year, $21-million contract this winter presumably to close. Broxton's value, outside of what might be 20-hold potential in leagues that reward those, would plummet in an eighth-inning role, much the way his strikeout rate has in recent years (13.50 K's per nine in 2009, 6.98 last year). Leake, meanwhile, would be back on the NL-only map, a potential $1-$3, late-round buy if Chapman closes. Trending toward: Chapman closing; prepare accordingly.
Detroit Tigers closer: Tabbed the team's closer during the winter, Bruce Rondon got off to a rocky start in spring training, allowing three runs, five hits and five walks in 3 2/3 innings of his first four Grapefruit League appearances, casting doubt in his manager, Jim Leyland, who told Jason Beck of MLBlogs.com last week that it was "possible" he'd rely on a closer-by-committee. Since then, however, Rondon has allowed one run on seven hits and two walks in six innings over six appearances, striking out nine, spawning more talk that he's "the guy." Leyland and the Tigers have been coy, but if the team has gone this far with Rondon atop their depth chart, there is little evidence he won't begin the year in that arrangement, which is why he's back up to 40th at his position in our rankings. Trending toward: Rondon, but for how long?
San Diego Padres second base: It has become a moot point, as the primary contenders, Jedd Gyorko and Logan Forsythe, now have a chance to both start, what with Chase Headley due to be out four to six weeks with a small fracture on the tip of his left thumb. Gyorko had been the leader, both in that the Padres all along seemed to want him to emerge victorious and that he's a .283/.309/.547 triple-slash spring hitter who appears major league ready. But there's a new wrinkle: Forsythe hasn't appeared in a Cactus League game since March 7 because of plantar fasciitis in his foot, opening the door for Alexi Amarista to potentially factor in the second-base race, per the San Diego Union-Tribune. If Forsythe is healthy -- and he's tentatively expected to return this weekend -- he'd man third with Gyorko at second, but if he's not, the Union-Tribune suggests Amarista would take second and Gyorko would slide to his drafted position of third. Either way, the upshot is that Gyorko is a safer, middle-infielder-in-mixed/second-base-in-NL-only investment with news he'll start somewhere, while NL-only sleeper-seekers need to read Forsythe's updates. Trending toward: Gyorko at second, Forsythe at third, until about May 1, then this battle might rekindle.
Detroit Tigers fifth starter: This one is dually compelling, first, because incumbent Rick Porcello has been the subject of trade rumors all winter, and second, because Jim Leyland insinuated on Tuesday that the Porcello-Drew Smyly "battle" is every bit a battle when he told the team's official website that "it's going to go down to the wire." Porcello and Smyly are both being prepped to handle 100-pitch workloads during the season's first week, meaning one of two things: The team has every intent to trade Porcello, or the team believes Smyly is the better choice. Both pitchers have excelled this spring, their combined ERAs 3.15 and K-to-walk ratios 10.00, so there's every reason to believe both could be in a big league rotation come April 1. The St. Louis Cardinals, San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers, after all, have been rumored to be interested in Porcello. Trending toward: Smyly winning, but Porcello also "winning" via a trade to a team with a stronger infield defense. Imagine the boost to their respective fantasy values if Smyly emerged in Detroit, with Porcello landing in St. Louis?
Minnesota Twins center field: After a Ruthian start to the Grapefruit League season -- he hit four home runs in a two-game span March 4 and 7, with an unofficial fifth in a March 6 exhibition against Puerto Rico -- Aaron Hicks' spring performance in his past nine games has been more "Hicksian." He's a .192/.300/.308 hitter with two stolen bases during that span; only Darin Mastroianni and his .429/.469/.607 triple-slash rates and seven steals in 13 total spring games is a remaining threat. Joe Benson (.151 AVG, 15 K in 53 AB) is effectively out of the running. Hicks' recent cooling might have a positive effect in fantasy: It'll temper his draft stock, which had soared because of the power outburst. Trending toward: Hicks was handed the job by most everybody outside the Twins' organization two weeks ago, but this one remains in the "undecided" class. He's the favorite, not the winner yet.
Texas Rangers center field: Any Rangers offensive player is a potentially exciting fantasy pick, if only because of their stats-inflating home ballpark, but what makes contenders Craig Gentry and Leonys Martin all the more attractive sleeper picks is that both have enjoyed good springs. The problem, however, is that as players who hit from opposite sides, that breeds the potential for a plate appearance-suppressing straight platoon -- and it's an arrangement that makes sense if you knew Gentry batted .343/.425/.434 against left-handers in 2012. Martin lacks the steep platoon split that warrants such a partnership -- he had a 129-point differential leaning toward right-handers in Triple-A in 2011-12 combined -- so he'd be more intriguing pick if he could somehow emerge with the everyday role in these final 10 spring days. Trending toward: A straight platoon.
Colorado Rockies third base: A four-homer spring has prospect Nolan Arenado reportedly in the Rockies' plans, thanks in large part to Chris Nelson's struggles at the plate as well as the team's apparent preference to use .419-hitting (spring, that is) Jordan Pacheco in a utility role. Several sources indicate that Arenado could make the two-level jump from Double-A on Opening Day, though Rockies reporter Thomas Harding made an interesting case against the idea Tuesday: He noted that the victor of the third-base race would presumably bat eighth, a role that could be more challenging to a young power hitter because of the chance opponents might pitch around him with the pitcher's spot on deck. Do the Rockies agree? The answer is important in deep mixed and NL-only leagues, as the winner of this job could be anywhere from a $5 to $10 player in the latter so long as it's a clear victor. Trending toward: It's unclear, probably should be Pacheco, and probably will be Nelson.
St. Louis Cardinals fifth starter: As with the Tigers' fifth starter battle, this one is dually compelling, first, because Keith Law's No. 21 prospect Shelby Miller is one of the two combatants, and second, because the Cardinals are one of the teams rumored to be interested in the aforementioned Porcello. Miller and Joe Kelly have pitched back-to-back in each of their past two appearances, with Miller by far the winner of their most recent game (4 shutout innings, compared with 4 runs on 8 hits in 3 innings for Kelly), though manager Mike Matheny has yet to declare a winner. Could one emerge by the next rotation turn -- somewhere between Sunday and Tuesday? Miller's prospective fantasy owners have to be rooting for him; he's the one with the best potential at $10-plus earnings. Trending toward: Miller; that this competition continues favors him, because he has the better stuff and it shows the team is taking his candidacy very seriously.
Los Angeles Dodgers fifth starter: From the onset of spring training, it was safe to assume that Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, the latter if healthy, are the Nos. 1 and 2, and Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley, again the latter if healthy, are 3 and 4. If so, that left four pitchers -- Ted Lilly, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang -- fighting for one opening or, again like Porcello, auditioning for a trade to another team. Now the fun starts, as we'll list those four pitchers' spring ERAs in ascending order: Ryu 4.41, Capuano 7.20, Harang 8.10 and Lilly 9.45. So-so performance diminishes the chances of a trade, Capuano and Harang the most-rumored such candidates, and it makes it likely the team will make final decisions based upon contracts and health. For instance, Ryu cost a $61.7 million, six-year investment, boosting his odds, while Lilly could be stashed on the disabled list citing his ongoing recovery from shoulder surgery. This is quickly shaping up as a "fool's gold" of position battles, every one of these candidates an NL-only rather than mixed option. Trending toward: Ryu a starter, and the Dodgers sporting one of the more expensive long relief corps in baseball.
Tampa Bay Rays fifth starter: There's a Roberto Hernandez of interest in Tampa Bay once more! The former Fausto Carmona is up against Jeff Niemann for the gig, and after a Thursday performance including six innings of one-run, three-hit, ground ball-generating goodness, Hernandez seemed to take a step forward in the race. "They're both looking very good," Rays manager Joe Maddon told the Tampa Bay Times. "We have some nice difficult decisions to make." The Times notes that no decision is imminent, so Hernandez and Niemann will each pitch again next week before the final call is made. Trending toward: Hernandez, and don't be so quick to dismiss him as an AL-only late-rounder, considering the relative pitching wizardry in Tampa Bay these past few years.
Arizona Diamondbacks fifth starter: With Tyler Skaggs optioned to Triple-A Reno on Monday, this one's down to Patrick Corbin versus Randall Delgado, and Corbin (3.68 ERA, 3.75 K/BB) thus far has the slight spring statistical advantage (5.25 and 4.00 for Delgado). NL-only owners still need to track the battle, but Corbin's experience -- it coming in Arizona, that is -- might provide the advantage.
Baltimore Orioles fifth starter: Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz hold the advantage over Zach Britton and Steve Johnson, and Arrieta probably pulled ahead with his six-shutout-inning, nine-K, two-walk performance on Thursday. Still, there's a way the Orioles could get both leaders onto the roster -- that meaning besides No. 4 starter Chris Tillman suffering an injury setback: handing Arrieta this job and restoring Matusz to the lefty specialist role in which he pitched well late last year. Keep that in mind, if you're a fan of Matusz as an AL-only sleeper.
New York Yankees fifth starter: Back-to-back mediocre outings have dropped David Phelps behind Ivan Nova in the race, making it increasingly likely that Phelps will slot in the No. 6/injury fill-in starter -- a role the Yankees will surely need to call upon in-season. Phil Hughes (back) is due to make his Grapefruit League debut next week, so there's already enough health risk present in this rotation that Phelps warrants a final-round, $1-$2 AL-only bid.
Toronto Blue Jays second base: Though Emilio Bonifacio (.326/.367/.565 with 7 SB) has outplayed Maicer Izturis (.225/.295/.300) during the Grapefruit League, Izturis' defensive advantage could keep these two in a straight platoon to begin the year. In fact, manager John Gibbons admitted as such, telling The Globe and Mail, "It could turn out where we won't say, 'This guy is our second baseman.'" Still, Bonifacio should get at least half the playing time, more than enough to earn eligibility there, keeping him on the mixed-league bargain list.
St. Louis Cardinals second base: Matt Carpenter batted .299 during his minor league career, .294 for the Cardinals last year, and he has continued to hit for a high average -- .400, specifically -- this spring. That has put him in the lead for the starting second base gig, though it's interesting that both he and Daniel Descalso, his competition, have made starts at other positions in the past week. Descalso is shaping up as more the utilityman, meaning that Carpenter's stock has risen to the point where he's a worthy mixed-league late-rounder.
Cleveland Indians fourth and fifth starters: Zach McAllister (5.02 spring ERA) was named the fourth starter earlier this week, and there might have been some clarity on the fifth starter gig Thursday, as Trevor Bauer was optioned to Triple-A Columbus and Carlos Carrasco served up four runs on eight hits in five innings. As unbelievable as it might seem, Scott Kazmir (and his eight shutout spring innings) is probably in the lead, especially backed by manager Terry Francona's glowing reviews. Kazmir's command has long been a problem, but remember this: He has eight K's and one walk this spring. There's enough promise that he's worthy of a late-round gamble in AL-only formats.