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Breaking Down Which Fill-ins Could Make the Most of Greater Opportunity

By: Taylor Bechtold

On July 4, David Price became arguably the most prominent player to date to opt out of the shortened season due to COVID-19 concerns. Price had joined the Dodgers in February as part of the deal in which Los Angeles acquired Mookie Betts from Boston.

Price’s decision came five days after Mike Leake became the first Major League Baseball player to announce his intention to sit out, and others have followed suit out of concern for themselves and their families amid these unprecedented circumstances.

And while fans are getting the chance to finally enjoy baseball again from the safety of their homes, some players have also tested positive for the coronavirus upon their arrival at summer camp. They are required to quarantine for two weeks, be free of symptoms and test negative twice before rejoining their clubs.

As a result, a handful of teams are set to open the season counting on young prospects and potential fantasy league sleepers to step in at least temporarily for, in some cases, valuable members of the lineup or pitching staff.

With an Opening Day we feared might not ever arrive now upon us, we’re using Stats Perform’s proprietary metrics to analyze which players might be best suited to take advantage of their opportunity.

Los Angeles Dodgers: David Price –> Ross Stripling

Ross Stripling warms up before a spring training game on Feb. 24, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz.

With a deep, talented staff, the Dodgers are as equipped to replace a starting pitcher as any team in the majors. Stripling is a prime candidate to get the first shot at filling Price’s vacancy after posting a 3.60 ERA with 71 strikeouts and only 14 walks in 70 innings over 15 starts last season. The right-hander also led the Dodgers with a 115 Command+ among pitchers who faced at least 200 batters.

Highly touted 22-year-old Dustin May could eventually be an intriguing option. But he’s gotten off to a slow start in summer camp because of soreness in his side and is likely to start the season as a swingman.

New York Yankees: Aroldis Chapman –> Zack Britton

Zack Britton delivers against the Mets on July 18, 2020, in New York.

Chapman seems to be feeling well and has posted images of himself working out despite testing positive for COVID-19, but the team has confessed that the flamethrower isn’t going to be around for a while. Manager Aaron Boone has already hinted that Britton is his first choice in save situations over Adam Ottavino until Chapman returns.

Ottavino (1.90 ERA, 28 holds) and Britton (1.91, team-high 29 holds) finished with near identical impressive numbers for the New York bullpen last season. Ottavino has limited experience as a closer and is still likely to get some save chances, but Britton was one of the game’s best closers for a stretch – 120 saves (fourth most in MLB) between 2014-16 – and he should miss more bats after finishing with a much better Whiff+ at 112 to Ottavino’s 91.

Colorado Rockies: Ian Desmond –> Sam Hilliard

Sam Hilliard celebrates after hitting a two-run home run during a spring training game on March 2, 2020.

If Desmond’s decision not to take part in the 2020 season doesn’t seem that impactful, consider this: Desmond finished last season with 20 home runs and 31 doubles in just 482 plate appearances and ended up with a 131 Raw Value+ – higher than star teammates Nolan Arenado (129), Charlie Blackmon (126) and Trevor Story (117).

Raimel Tapia is a contender for Desmond’s playing time, but Hilliard is the clear sleeper here if he’s able to emerge with the starting job. The 26-year-old Hilliard matched Arenado with a 129 RV+ and had a 136 BIP+ with a 1.006 OPS in 87 plate appearances last season. He also swiped 22 stolen bases in the minors.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Mike Leake –> Merrill Kelly

Merrill Kelly throws against the Giants on March 2, 2020, in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Leake went a modest 12-11 with a 4.29 ERA in 32 starts with Seattle and Arizona last season. But he owned a 116 Command+, which both ranked first among D-backs pitchers who faced at least 400 batters. When the veteran right-hander elected not to play just before summer camp, it opened up an opportunity in the club’s starting rotation.

Zac Gallen appeared to have already earned a starting role after posting a 2.89 ERA, 110 Command+ and 108 Whiff+ over eight starts in 2019. But our metrics also like Kelly, who won the rotation spot Leake left behind. He was 13-14 with a 4.42 ERA in a team-high 32 starts last year, but above-average command (108 Command+) could lead to greater things in 2020.

San Francisco Giants: Buster Posey –>Tyler Heineman

Tyler Heineman catches a pop fly during a spring training game on Feb. 23, 2020, in Mesa, Ariz.

It doesn’t sound like the Giants are ready to call on 2018 No. 2 overall pick Joey Bart to replace Posey. One of MLB’s top catching prospects, Bart is on the 60-man roster but has yet to play above Double-A, where he played just 22 games in 2019. And after backup Aramis Garcia underwent hip surgery, San Francisco is left with Rob Brantly and Tyler Heineman behind the plate.

If he’s able to grab at-bats away from Brantly, Heineman could bring some value as a catcher who can swing the bat. The switch-hitting rookie batted .336 with a .990 OPS and hit 13 home runs and 17 doubles in 244 Triple-A at-bats between Reno and New Orleans last season. According to Stats Perform’s Major League Equivalency model, that’s the equivalent of a .276/.330/.456 big-league slash line. He then posted a 110 BIP+ while going 9 for 30 (.300) with a homer and a double in a September callup with the Giants.

Atlanta Braves: Nick Markakis –> Adam Duvall

Adam Duvall watches his two-run homer during Game 2 of a best-of-five NLDS in Atlanta.

 

Markakis was likely to get regular playing time with the arrival of the designated hitter in the National League after he finished fourth on the team with a 131 RV+ in 2019.

Top prospect Austin Riley could move into the DH role, or start at third base. But look for the Braves to find a way to get Duvall’s bat into the lineup after he posted a 110 RV+, 103 Discipline+, and a 145 BIP+ last season. Duvall, who also homered and drove in five runs in the Braves’ NLDS loss to the St. Louis Cardinals last October, should be on fantasy players’ radar in 2020. He could serve as the DH, play first base on occasion or start every day in left field.

Washington Nationals: Ryan Zimmerman –> Howie Kendrick

Howie Kendrick prior to a spring training game on March 10, 2020, in Jupiter, Fla.

Though they’ll be without Mr. National this season, the defending champs appear to be in good shape at first base and DH between the NLCS MVP Kendrick and Eric Thames, who finished with a 116 BIP+ and 25 home runs in 396 at-bats for the Brewers in 2019.

Kendrick, though, is the player to watch now that he figures to be in an everyday role. The veteran hit .344 with 17 homers in just 334 regular-season at-bats in 2019 before starring in the playoffs. Kendrick led Washington in both RV+ (171) and BIP+ (163) while finishing above average in Discipline+ (101) and Contact+ (109). It was no fluke: Kendrick has batted .325 in 791 at-bats over the past three seasons, best in the majors over that span among players with at least 700 ABs.

 

Advanced analytics and data analysis provided by Lucas Haupt