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MLB Barometer: Smoke Signals

Howard Bender

Howard Bender has been covering fantasy sports for over a decade on a variety of web sites. For more from him, you can find his personal musings on his blog or follow him on Twitter at @rotobuzzguy. For questions, thoughts or comments you can email him at

The driving force behind the MLB Barometer is the streak. We're looking for the hot ones to ride, the cold ones to avoid, and the knowledge and understanding of which ones, at either temperature, will most likely be sustained. During the season, once the stats begin to really count, legitimate streaks become easier to identify as we watch our fantasy teams rise and fall in the standings. But right now, while most pundits are telling you to take spring stats with a grain of salt, the task at hand becomes a little more difficult. Just because Yasiel Puig is batting .521 with three home runs, it doesn't mean that you're making him an early-round pick. Conversely, just because Dillon Gee has an 8.31 ERA with nine walks this spring, it doesn't mean that you're avoiding him like the plague. While you can't ignore spring numbers altogether, determining what is real and what may be just wishful thinking is as much about the situation as it is about the player.

Opportunity is the key.

Puig is having a monster spring and he is establishing himself as a rising star whose talent level is such that he should be atop everyone's prospect watchlist. However, with a Dodgers outfield made up of Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and one very expensive project in Carl Crawford, there's just no room for Puig now or even in the not-so-distant future. Sure, he could make the team, but as a fourth outfielder, not a starter. And if that's the case, how much value will he really have to you? We see that he is a very talented player and that tasty .521 average and may earn him a spot on the 25-man roster, but with little opportunity to play every day, it's doing absolutely nothing for you or your fantasy team.

Gee's spring ERA looks atrocious and there have been a few times this spring when watching him pitch was the equivalent to a four-hour root canal session, but with R.A. Dickey in Toronto and Johan Santana starting the year on the disabled list, Gee's spot in the rotation remains relatively secure no matter how bad his spring numbers look. He still warrants late-round consideration as the opportunity to go out and pitch every fifth game is there, which then allows you to investigate and learn that he's tweaking mechanics and spending entire mound sessions throwing nothing but changeups. If the Mets' rotation were stacked, perhaps Gee's future wouldn't be so easy to map out.

So with that all in mind, let's take a look and see what some of these really sweet, and really sour, spring performances are bringing us.

Burning Up

Nolan Arenado, 3B COL - While some soured on the third base prospect after watching him struggle at the Double-A level last season, Arenado is turning their heads again this spring. Over 35 plate appearances, the soon-to-be 22-year-old is batting .314 with four home runs and 11 RBI and has also been flashing some nice leather out in the field. Supposed starter Chris Nelson has looked less than spectacular at the dish and according to reports, the Rockies are giving serious thought to handing him the starting job. Though last season wasn't what was expected, Arenado is known for his strong plate discipline and good power potential. Should he earn the starting nod, he should be bumped up on drafts boards in all formats.

Justin Smoak, 1B SEA - It seems like every year we're looking at the Smoak Monster and wondering if this is finally the year he breaks out. Well, we, and the Mariners, are standing at those same crossroads again as the switch-hitting first baseman is batting .386 with four home runs and 10 RBI this spring. He showed some nice promise late last season when he tweaked his approach at the plate and shortened up his swing. It seems to have carried over so far and it looks like he's doing more than enough to keep Kendrys Morales over at the DH spot while he continues to man first base. Between a hot spring and the fences moving in at Safeco Field, there's a lot of potential here as Smoak enters his age-26 season.

Julio Teheran, SP ATL - The 22-year-old right-hander is having himself quite the spring this year as he states his case for the fifth starter's job in Atlanta. In five starts, Teheran is sporting a 1.35 ERA with a 25:6 K:BB over 20 innings and seems to have more than just the inside track as manager Fredi Gonzalez said that it would take “something crazy” for him to not open the season in the rotation. The youngster was tinkering with his mechanics last season and lost some velocity, but things seem to have settled in now and many of the concerns that arose last season are officially in the past. He'll have his ups and downs like any young pitcher does, but his value has increased in both NL-only and even mixed league formats.

Domonic Brown, OF PHI - While it may feel like Brown has been disappointing us forever, he's still just 25 years old and now, finally, seems to be putting everything together at the plate. With six home runs, 12 RBI and a ridiculous 1.179 OPS this spring, Brown has put himself in the position to take over left field full time and get the shot many fantasy owners had been looking for over the last few seasons. The minor league track record says strong power with decent speed and now that the plate discipline has improved, he looks primed for a breakout season. He's done more than enough to keep John Mayberry on the bench and Darin Ruf in the minors and should be a fantastic late-round pickup as he still remains off many radars.

Pete Kozma, SS STL - With Rafael Furcal's season already over, the Cardinals have some interesting decisions to make with regard to their middle infield. Heading into the spring, the plan called for Furcal at short while utility men Daniel Descalso and Matt Carpenter battled it out for second base. The battle has favored Carpenter thus far. Without Furcal, though, the team could easily go with Carpenter at second and the versatile, slick-gloved Descalso at short. But hold the phone right there as Kozma and his bat have something to say. The 24-year-old former first-round pick is hitting .340 this spring with a pair of home runs and seven RBI; more than enough to earn Mike Matheny's confidence apparently. He may still be an afterthought on draft day, given the uncertainty of his ability to hit consistently, but he could be one of the hottest waiver claims should he start the season strong.

Cooling Off

Johnny Giavotella, 2B KC - Fleeting hope of Johnny G running away with the second base job this spring is starting to get dashed as he continues to slump over the last two weeks. He's batting .273 with a home run and 11 RBI this spring, but has just a .286 on-base percentage and has eight strikeouts to zero walks over 44 plate appearances. Meanwhile, his primary competition, Chris Getz, is batting .359 with a home run and three stolen bases and as things stand right now, it's going to be a straight platoon to open the year. Manager Ned Yost has done everything he can to afford Giavotella the opportunity, but he just can't seem to separate himself from the overly-blah Getz.

Jonathan Broxton, RP CIN - With five shutout innings this spring, Broxton has done everything he can do to maintain his spot as the Reds' closer. Unfortunately, it looks as if he could still lose the job even before Opening Day. Dusty Baker and the Reds are in quite the pickle as Aroldis Chapman announced that he'd rather be the team's closer than work in the rotation this season. Reports of his move back to the bullpen were already reported but there's also been some backtracking going on as well. Chapman wants to be in the pen, Dusty wants Chapman in the pen, but general manager Walt Jocketty seems to be holding onto hope that the Cuban fireballer will emerge as a frontline starter. Meanwhile, Broxton is left to just twist in the wind. Monitor the situation, but it already seems to be a foregone conclusion. If you've already drafted Broxton, it's time to search for alternative closers.

David Phelps, SP NYY - Opportunity knocked, but instead of opening the door, the 26-year-old right-hander shut off the lights, ducked under the coffee table and pretended like he wasn't even home. Even after Ivan Nova, his primary competition for the fifth starter's job, opened the door for him with a series of mediocre outings, Phelps continued to falter. His last time out, he coughed up five runs in 3.2 innings and is sitting on a 3.97 spring ERA with 23 hits allowed and seven walks issued over 22.2 innings. He'll likely return to the bullpen as a swingman thus limiting any value he may have had. Unless he lands in the rotation at some point during the season, he can probably be forgotten.

Bruce Rondon, RP DET - There is still plenty of hope that the hard-throwing right-hander will still earn the closer's job for the Tigers this season, but for a guy who hits triple digits on the gun but was dealing with command issues, he sure has been hittable this spring. His 3.72 ERA isn't awful, but he's given up 12 hits now over just 9.2 innings. If it was just the seven walks we were looking at, we could understand that command was just the problem, but now that hitters are teeing off on him, the concern is much greater. Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel and Brayan Villarreal have all been much more effective this spring, so it's difficult to know how much of an opportunity Jim Leyland will give his young hurler when the games begin to count.

Juan Francisco/Chris Johnson, 3B ATL - As neither Francisco nor Johnson have distinguished himself over the other, it looks as if Fredi Gonzalez will use them in a straight platoon this season, thus killing the fantasy value of both players. It is more than likely that, eventually, one will earn the full-time gig over the other, but once they open the season sharing the job, it's going to be tough for either to find any sort of consistency as they will rarely see multiple starts in a row. It's possible that Francisco, the left-handed bat of the platoon, sees more action, so if he can start flashing more power, perhaps he'll separate himself sooner than later. Johnson has always been streaky, so one run of cold starts could be all we need here. Downgrade both on your draft board for now, but keep a careful watch.