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Early 2023 Spring Training Standouts: Cactus League

Just two weeks into spring training, teams are starting to get a good idea of how their Opening Day rosters will look. Nothing is set in stone, but big performances can push players that were on the cusp of making the team over the edge. While there’s still plenty of time for position battles to be sorted out, some players are already deserving some extra attention.

Of course, all spring training performances, both good and bad, should be taken with a grain of salt. Last spring, Kyle Higashioka belted a whopping seven homers with a 1.695 OPS in 28 plate appearances before slashing .227/.264/.389 in the regular season. Spring training is less about the actual stats and more about watching key position battles as well as young players and past-prime veterans trying to make the MLB roster.

The season is not here yet, but why not get a head start and jump in a Fantrax Classic Draft contest? Get a jump on the season with a Best Ball league or maybe a Draft and Hold. Or put some green on the line with a new season-long league to try and conquer. There’s no better time than now to get your baseball on!

2023 Cactus League Spring Training Standouts

Christian Encarnacion-Strand – Cincinnati

I highlighted Christian Encarnacion-Strand as a key player to watch this spring and he’s absolutely lived up to the expectations. He’s boasting an outrageous .600/.571/1.200 slash line with three homers, 10 RBI, and just one strikeout through 21 plate appearances. That one punchout came back on February 26 in his very first plate appearance. Only one of  Encarnacion-Strand’s three home runs was tracked by Statcast, a 448-foot, 109.4mph rocket off of Oakland started Drew Rucinski.

Spencer Steer is expected to begin the year as the Reds’ third baseman and his strong spring performance so far (1.113 OPS with four extra-base hits) has further solidified that. Encarnacion-Strand is still a long shot to break camp with the team but he’ll most likely begin the year with Triple-A Louisville and debut at some point in 2023. The 23-year-old posted a .955 OPS with 32 home runs and 31 doubles across 538 plate appearances last season.

Ryne Nelson – Arizona

Ryne Nelson has stood out this spring but not for the right reasons. He came into Cactus League play with a leg up in the competition for the Diamondbacks’ fifth starter role. In two spring appearances, he’s allowed seven runs on eight hits over just 2.2 frames. The 6-foot-3 righty has posted a 2:4 K:BB during that stretch. Nelson recently threw another 2.2 innings in a “B” game against the Rangers, yielding another four runs but punching out six.

Meanwhile, one of the most popular fantasy prospects of the offseason, Brandon Pfaadt, has dominated so far. The 24-year-old has struck out six across five shutout frames. He’s about as MLB-ready as a prospect can be after hurling 167 innings with 218 strikeouts in 2022. Nelson still has time to turn things around but Pfaadt and Drey Jameson are neck-and-neck with him in this spring competition.

Jarred Kelenic – Seattle

Back to a more positive standout, Jarred Kelenic is tied for the most home runs this spring with four. He’s slashing .368/.400/1.000 with a steal and six strikeouts in 20 plate appearances. The 23-year-old, once a top prospect in baseball, has struggled mightily to begin his MLB career. After posting a .615 OPS as a rookie in 2021, Kelenic registered a .510 OPS with 36 strikeouts through his first 96 plate appearances in 2022 before being demoted to Triple-A Tacoma. He rebounded in the minors with a .296/.366/.557 slash line and 53 extra-base knocks.

As seen with his six spring punchouts, the strikeout issue is still prevalent. Kelenic has posted a brutal 29.9% strikeout rate through 147 career MLB games. Unless he’s able to better manage that, his ceiling will always be limited. That number fell to 20.8% during his time with Triple-A Tacoma in 2022, which is probably a realistic goal, albeit an optimistic one. Based on his name value as a prospect and Seattle’s need for another impact lefty bat, Kelenic will continue getting opportunities. He’s far from a guarantee to bounce back, but his hot spring is a good sign.

CJ Alexander – Kansas City

Acquired from Atlanta last season in a deal that included Drew Waters, CJ Alexander finally had a bit of a breakout in 2022. The corner infielder slashed .264/.302/.477 with 25 home runs and 19 steals through 490 Double-A plate appearances. This spring, he’s made the most out of his limited playing time. Alexander has gone 8-for-11 with four extra-base hits (two home runs) and a 2.331 OPS. He’s also drawn two walks and has yet to strike out.

Unless you’re playing in the deepest AL-only league ever seen, Alexander isn’t much of a fantasy name just yet. He’ll turn 27 in June and hasn’t even reached the Triple-A level. However, this big spring performance has put eyes on him, and if he continues showing some of that power/speed combo, his MLB debut could come soon. The Royals don’t have a very deep infield and he’s mostly blocked right now by Hunter Dozier and Nick Pratto.

Michael Conforto – San Francisco

Unlike the other names on this list, there’s no question about Michael Conforto’s MLB role in 2023. He landed a two-year deal with the Giants after missing the entire 2022 campaign due to shoulder surgery. He’s settled right into spring action, knocking three homers while registering a 1.322 OPS through 17 plate appearances. Those three long balls have come in three consecutive games, including Thursday against Milwaukee when he made his first appearance in the outfield.

It’s worth noting that all three of his home runs have come against righties. As one would expect, the lefty-swinging Conforto doesn’t have great career numbers against left-handed pitching (.695 OPS through 793 plate appearances). He’ll likely lose playing time to someone like Austin Slater against lefties. Conforto’s power numbers could shrink in Oracle Park but it’s important to see that he can still drive the ball effectively after the shoulder injury.

Quick Notes

  • Oscar Colas has gone 9-for-23 with a double and one stolen base with the White Sox. He’ll debut in 2023 and is building a more compelling case to break camp with the MLB squad.
  • Fernando Tatis Jr. is still shaking off some rust after missing the entire 2022 season. He’s 0-for-16 with three walks and five strikeouts through six spring games.
  • Hunter Greene was named the Opening Day starter for Cincinnati despite a rough start to spring. He’s allowed five runs on 10 hits and three walks with just five strikeouts through 8.1 frames. The 23-year-old fired four shutout innings against the Cubs on Thursday.
  • Tim Lopes is slashing .440/.464/.680 with four steals and four extra-base hits through 28 plate appearances. The Padres could use more cheap utility depth at the MLB level and the 28-year-old is putting his name in the mix.
  • Adam Oller is expected to begin 2023 in Oakland’s bullpen but the starting rotation certainly isn’t set in stone. He’s looked impressive with a 14:4 K:BB and a 1.86 ERA through 9.2 innings.
  • Nick Martinez is expected to convert from the bullpen to the starting rotation in San Diego this season. He’s recorded an 11:2 K:BB with a 0.96 ERA across 9.1 frames this spring.
  • Elehuris Montero and Nolan Jones have combined to go 8-for-47 with 14 strikeouts this spring. Colorado recently signed Mike Moustakas and the Opening Day lineup doesn’t look like it’ll be decided for a few more weeks.

For more great analysis check out the 2023 FantraxHQ Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit!

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