MLB spring training: 10 crucial position battles for contending teams, including Cubs and Yankees

The 2020 Major League Baseball regular season is roughly three weeks away. Teams around the league will use these next three weeks to evaluate their players and eventually finalize their roster. Spring training games don't count but they do matter. For many players, spring training is their best opportunity to win a big-league roster spot. It might be their only opportunity, really.

With that in mind, let's break down 10 important position battles taking place around the league this spring, with an emphasis on contending teams. These are not the only ongoing position battles this spring. Not even close. But they are the most important.

Atlanta Braves: Fourth and fifth starters

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Sean Newcomb ATL • RP • 15
2019 stats
ERA3.16
WHIP1.32
IP68 1/3
BB29
K65

Candidates: Felix Hernandez, Sean Newcomb, Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright

Mike Soroka, Max Fried, and Mike Foltynewicz is about as promising a 20-something rotation trio as you'll find in the game. Lefty Cole Hamels was signed to a one-year contract to be a veteran stabilizer, but he went down with a shoulder injury early this spring, and there's no firm timetable for his return. The fifth-starter competition has morphed into a fourth- and fifth-starter competition.

Atlanta's rotation candidates include four exciting young pitchers and a veteran reclamation project in Hernandez. King Felix had a strong first spring start, but it was just one start, and he has a lot to prove this spring after three dreadful seasons to end his tenure with the Mariners. Remember, the Braves revived Anibal Sanchez's career in 2018. They've had success doing this before.

Wilson and Wright made the Opening Day rotation last year and are two of the Braves' best prospects. Newcomb and Toussaint are former top prospects as well. They spent much of last season in the big league bullpen and will give the rotation another go in 2020. For Newcomb, this might be his last chance at starting. He turns 27 in June and control issues have held him back.

"I had talks with (GM Alex Anthopoulos about starting), just kind of keeping that dialogue open," Newcomb recently told The Athletic's David O'Brien. "I know I got that spot start (last June), so that kind of put that in motion ... The whole year it was kind of, 'I'm a starter, but if (the bullpen) is where I fit this team right now and it's working well,' so I couldn't really complain about it."  

Moreso than any other team in this post, the Braves are in position to extend their position battle into the regular season. Whoever wins the Opening Day fourth- and fifth-starter spots will have to pitch well to keep them, because some really talented young players will be lurking in Triple-A. The depth and the internal competition is a good thing. These guys will push each other.

The front runners: I think Hernandez and Newcomb are most likely to open the season in the rotation but this position battle is very wide open. I would not be surprised to see Wilson and Wright get those rotation spots instead. The Braves are hopeful Hamels can return early in the regular season, adding another layer of depth. Until then, there is opportunity abound.

Chicago Cubs: Second base

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David Bote CHC • 3B • 13
2019 stats
BA.257
R47
HR11
RBI41
SB5

Candidates: David Bote, Daniel Descalso, Nico Hoerner, Jason Kipnis

Due mostly to self-imposed payroll limitations, the Cubs had a very quiet offseason. They signed only three major-league free agents (Jeremy Jeffress, Steven Souza, Ryan Tepera) and did not make a single trade. The Cubs have to sort out their center field (Albert Almora? Ian Happ?) and fifth starter (Tyler Chatwood? Alec Mills?) situations this spring, among other things.

Chicago also must figure out second base this spring. Eight different players started a game at second base last year, including four players who started at least 20 games at second, but none who started as many as 40. Addison Russell, who led the team with 39 starts at second last year, was non-tendered in December. He remains unsigned. So does Ben Zobrist. He may retire.

The Cubs have four second base candidates in camp and we can neatly drop them into four different buckets. Hoerner is the team's top prospect and they brought him to the big leagues straight from Double-A last season. He is the long-term future at the position. Give the Cubs a truth serum though, and I think they'd tell you they want him to get some Triple-A seasoning in 2020.

"We have a number of good players on our roster at second," president of baseball operations Theo Epstein told reporters, including MLB.com's Jordan Bastian, last month. "We've said that we're not closing any doors on Nico. We're open-minded, and we'll use spring training and put our heads together on what we think is best for him and the best for the team."

Bote is a productive and versatile player who is most useful as a super utility guy who can move around rather than be married to a single position. He's a great "tenth man," so to speak. Descalso is a utility guy and nothing more. He shouldn't start for a contending team. Kipnis, a local Chicago guy, is in camp as a non-roster player. He's trying to prove he has something left in the tank.

So the Cubs have a top prospect (Hoerner), a super utility guy (Bote), a utility guy (Descalso), and a veteran hanger-on (Kipnis) all competing for the second base job in spring training. I guess we can't rule out Happ as a second base candidate, though he seems more likely to man center field. It's quite the collection of second base candidates, that's for sure.

The front runner: Bote and Kipnis in a platoon, at least until Hoerner gets called up for good, whenever that happens. If Descalso gets regular at-bats at any point this year, it means either something is going very right (he's crushing the ball) or things have gone horribly wrong (everyone else is hurt or underperforming).

Cincinnati Reds: Left field

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Jesse Winker CIN • LF • 33
2019 stats
BA.269
R51
HR16
RBI38
SB0

Candidates: Aristides Aquino, Phillip Ervin, Mark Payton, Scott Schebler, Josh VanMeter, Jesse Winker

Thirteen different players appeared in the outfield for the Reds last season. The revolving door will not be as severe this season with Nick Castellanos locked into right field and Shogo Akiyama expected to be the everyday center fielder. The left field job is wide open though, and don't forget about Nick Senzel. He could factor into the race once he completes his shoulder surgery rehab.

Aquino made all sorts of home run history last season before collapsing in September -- he had a .619 OPS in the season's final month -- but the power gives him big upside. Winker has been an excellent hitter in the big leagues (career .285/.379/.466), albeit one dogged by injuries and defensive limitations. Ervin punishes left-handed pitching and doesn't really do anything else well.

The Reds selected Payton in the Rule 5 Draft before signing Akiyama and Castellanos, so he's likely to be pushed off the roster. Schebler, like Ervin, is out of minor league options, meaning he can't go to Triple-A without passing through waivers. Squeezing both Schebler and Winker, two lefty bats, on the roster won't be easy. VanMeter can play the infield, which works in his favor.

In an effort to make all the pieces fit, the Reds played Aquino in center field last week, just to see whether he can handle it. Truth be told, Cincinnati's best healthy center field alternative to Akiyama might be reliever Michael Lorenzen, who dabbled as a two-way player last year. Aquino being able to play center, even on a limited basis, could keep him on the roster at least until Senzel returns.

"I feel confident about everything that's going on with the team," Aquino told reporters, including the Cincinnati Enquirer's John Fay, last week. "It's good for me to compete against everyone else. It's going to be for the best for the team. It's also competing against myself as well. I've got to prove something to everyone -- that I will be great."  

The front runner: Winker. I expect him to get the lion's share of the left field at-bats given his offensive ability and the fact there are way more righty pitchers than lefty pitchers. Ervin is an obvious candidate to get at-bats against lefties, and there's room for Aquino and VanMeter on the bench. Payton and Schebler are the odd men out.

Cleveland Indians: Right field

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Franmil Reyes CLE • RF • 32
2019 stats
BA.249
R69
HR37
RBI81
SB0

Candidates: Greg Allen, Jake Bauers, Delino DeShields, Jordan Luplow, Franmil Reyes

It seems like we've been talking about the Indians having a subpar outfield for a decade now. Their starting outfield in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series was Coco Crisp in left, Rajai Davis in center, and Lonnie Chisenhall in right (Michael Brantley was hurt at the time). It's been a long time since Cleveland fielded an outfield unit that could be considered even league average.

Oscar Mercado arrived last season and stabilized center field, and the Indians recently signed Domingo Santana to roam left field. Santana is not a gifted defender, not at all, but the alternatives are unappealing. Reyes spent most of his time with the Indians at DH last year, but he dropped 20 pounds over the winter because he wants to be an option in the outfield going forward.

"I'm just trying to be quicker in the outfield if I get the opportunity," Reyes told Cleveland.com's Joe Noga recently. Manager Terry Francona added: "If he's able to play the outfield on a fairly consistent basis, that opens us up to do some different things with our roster where you can move the DH around a little bit and keep guys off their feet but keep their bat in the lineup."

A back injury will keep setup man Emmanuel Clase out until May or June, meaning DeShields is the only piece of the Corey Kluber trade who can help the Indians right now. He's a classic fourth outfielder type who shouldn't start in a corner for a contender. Allen is a very good gloveman who hasn't hit much and Luplow annihilates lefties. Marvel at his career splits:

  • Luplow vs. RHP: .207/.276/.320
  • Luplow vs. LHP: .276/.385/.635

If nothing else, the Indians have the right-handed half of a right field platoon in place. Bauers is a natural first baseman who has shifted to the outfield in deference first to Ji-Man Choi with the Rays, and now to Carlos Santana with the Indians. The former top prospect has not hit much in the show. If he hits even a little bit this spring, Bauers would put himself in position to make the team.

The front runner: Reyes. I really think it'll be him. Not all the time -- Luplow has to play against lefties, obviously -- but most of the time. Mercado will be responsible for covering a lot of territory on the days he's flanked by Santana and Reyes, at least until Allen and DeShields take over as defensive replacements.

Milwaukee Brewers: Third base

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Eric Sogard MIL • 2B • 7
2019 stats
BA.290
R59
HR13
RBI40
SB8

Candidates: Jedd Gyorko, Ryon Healy, Brock Holt, Eric Sogard

The Brewers had a very active offseason. Did they get better? I'm not sure, exactly, but they made a lot of moves, and their roster is quite a bit different than it was last year. Milwaukee will attempt to replace Mike Moustakas (and to a lesser extent Travis Shaw) at the hot corner with an ensemble cast, all of whom inked one-year contracts over the winter.

The four third-base candidates all bring different skills to the table. Healy will put a mistake in the seats but is a liability defensively, so much so that he fits best at first base (or even at DH). Holt and Sogard are pesky lefty bats with little power who will instead grind out at-bats and give pitchers fits. Sogard can play all over the infield. Holt can play pretty much anywhere.

"I don't care where I play as long as I'm out there and able to help the team out," Holt told reporters, including MLB.com's Adam McCalvy, after signing with the Brewers last month. "That's kind of what's helped me stay in the big leagues and create a career for myself. It's something I enjoy doing, and I look forward to doing the same thing here."  

Gyorko has a chance to be a sneaky-good role player (I don't think it's a coincidence the uber smart Dodgers picked him up at last year's trade deadline). He has historically punished lefties and is good enough defensively to man second base and even fill-in at shortstop. If he's healthy, which he wasn't last year, Gyorko could claim this job outright. He has to show he's healthy though.

The front runner: Sogard, though this figures to be a revolving door with Gyorko and Holt each getting a good amount of playing time at third. Keep in mind shortstop Luis Urias is on the mend following wrist surgery. He figures to take someone's roster spot once he returns. Even with a 26-man roster and Urias out, the numbers crunch may push Healy to Triple-A to begin 2020.

"I do see a lot of players getting a pretty good number of at-bats (at third base), and only maybe one or two players getting to a really high number," manager Craig Counsell told McCalvy. "That's how it's shaping up to be. That means we're sharing a lot of it, almost similar to how the pitching has looked. If there's a comparison there, that's it."  

Minnesota Twins: Fifth starter

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Jhoulys Chacin MIN • RP • 45
2019 stats
ERA6.01
WHIP1.56
IP103 1/3
BB46
K101

Candidates: Jhoulys Chacin, Randy Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer, Lewis Thorpe

Rather than go for a big name like Madison Bumgarner or Dallas Keuchel, the Twins spread the wealth around this winter to bolster their rotation. Jake Odorizzi accepted the qualifying offer, Homer Bailey signed a low-cost one-year deal, and they added Kenta Maeda in the Mookie Betts trade. Also, Rich Hill (elbow surgery) and Michael Pineda (suspended) are due back at midseason.

Bailey, Maeda, and Odorizzi join Jose Berrios to form a solid rotation front four. The fifth spot is open until Pineda or Hill return and the Twins have no shortage of options. Chacin signed a minor-league deal last month and was the ace of a Brewers team that went to Game 7 of the NLCS just two years ago. He's looking to get back to that level following a terrible 2019.

"He's taken that accountability for (last) season," president of baseball operations Derek Falvey recently told reporters, including MLB.com's Do-Hyoung Park. "But the prior seasons were really good, and I think he's excited about the chance to come back and prove himself and show that he's much more like a pitcher from previous seasons than he was last year." 

Dobnak is a great story and he was excellent late last season, so much so that the Twins trusted him to start ALDS Game 2 at Yankee Stadium. Smeltzer was very good too, though he split his time with Minnesota between the rotation and bullpen. Thorpe had a bumpier season with most of it coming in relief. None of these three have had extended success as an MLB starter.

The Twins accumulated so much rotation depth this past offseason that the fifth-starter battle will extend beyond spring training. Hill and Pineda are coming, and the guys are Triple-A will always be a phone call away. Going into the season with, say, Dobnak and Smeltzer in the rotation would've been suboptimal. The Maeda trade and Bailey signing pushes them into more appropriate roles.

"The odds that we use multiple guys in that role over that period of time, that could definitely happen," manager Rocco Baldelli told reporters, including Betsy Helfand of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "The (spring) results, frankly, they're not the highest priority. And then a lot of it is going to come down to the particulars of each guy's situation. Who we're playing, our roster situation going into the season, how each one of them fit. There's a lot factored in there."

The front runner: Chacin. The Twins talked him up quite a bit after signing him and I think they want to give him a chance to show he's back to where he was in 2018 (or at least something close to it) before turning to guys like Dobnak and Smeltzer. Thorpe, it should be noted, has left spring training to deal with a personal matter and there's no timetable for his return.

New York Mets: Fifth starter

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Steven Matz NYM • SP • 32
2019 stats
ERA4.21
WHIP1.34
IP160 1/3
BB52
K153

Candidates: Steven Matz, Michael Wacha

Start your rotation with back-to-back Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom, and you're in very good shape. Add in the upside of Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman, and the Mets have a lot of reasons to be excited about the top of their rotation. Rick Porcello will chew up innings as the fourth starter, if nothing else, and hey, that's valuable. The fifth spot? That's a little more unsettled.

Reports indicate the Mets could employ a creative fifth starter's solution in which Matz and Wacha essentially share the role, and the club chooses the starter based on matchups. That includes possibly employing an opener (Seth Lugo?) at times as well. Asking two pitchers to share a swingman/fifth-starter role sounds great, but may be much more difficult to put into practice.

"I heard I'm coming in as a starter and right now that's really all we have," Matz said when he reported to spring training, according to SNY's Scott Thompson. What about Wacha? "They told me I'm a starter, so that's what I'm here for," he said, again according to Thompson. Awkward! But not unusual. Matz and Wacha aren't oblivious. They know they're competing for the same rotation spot.

Wacha joined the Mets as a free agent and his contract includes incentives tied to starting and relieving. Frankly, his performance last season doesn't warrant a guaranteed rotation spot. Matz has been good the last two years, not great but not terrible either, and he made 30 starts each season. He's the incumbent and would seem to be better positioned to win the job in camp.

"I didn't read anything like that and they have mentioned anything like that," Wacha said regarding a potential fifth-starter timeshare with Matz. "My focus right now is going out here today, doing what I can out there and competing ... I just try not to worry too much about what others are saying."

The front runner: Matz. Again, he is the incumbent and he was quite a bit better than Wacha last season. Given the inherent injury risk associated with pitching, it's only a matter of time until someone gets hurt and both Matz and Wacha are in the rotation. I'm not picking on the Mets. Injuries are part of the game and someone will get hurt. I don't see the fifth-starter timeshare as viable.

New York Yankees: Fifth starter

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Jonathan Loaisiga NYY • RP • 43
2019 stats
ERA4.55
WHIP1.48
IP31 2/3
BB16
K37

Candidates: Chad Bettis, Luis Cessa, Deivi Garcia, Michael King, Jonathan Loaisiga, Clarke Schmidt

Up until about a month ago, the Yankees were set with Gerrit Cole, James Paxton, Luis Severino, and Masahiro Tanaka in the top four spots of their rotation. Paxton (back surgery) and Severino (Tommy John surgery) then went down with injuries, changing the team's rotation outlook considerably. The Yankees expect Paxton back in May or June. Severino is done for the season.

Prior to the injuries, J.A. Happ and Jordan Montgomery were expected to compete for the fifth-starter's spot in spring training. Now they are the New York's third and fourth starters. GM Brian Cashman doesn't expect to go outside the organization for rotation help and that's not surprising. Free agency has been picked clean and the trade market is always slow in March.

"We're certainly hopeful that we have a lot of hungry, talented personnel wanting to make a name for themselves or continue their journey," Cashman told reporters, including MLB.com's Bryan Hoch, following Severino's injury. "Losing high-caliber players like Paxton or Sevy is going to provide that lane or that opportunity for someone to step up and take. We'll play this spring out and see what it looks like."

Loaisiga and King are New York's most MLB-ready young pitchers, though King has just one big-league appearance under his belt. Loaisiga went up and down last season and has spent most of his time with the Yankees as a reliever. They are giving him a look as starter this spring, however. Bettis is working his way back from August hip surgery and may not be ready for Opening Day.

According to our R.J. Anderson, Garcia and Schmidt are the Yankees' top two pitching prospects. Garcia reached Triple-A as a 20-year-old late last year and moved to the bullpen in August in preparation for a call-up that never came. Schmidt reached Double-A late last season and was awfully impressive in his most recent Grapefruit League outing.

"That is tough to say," manager Aaron Boone told reporters, including George King of the New York Post, when asked whether Schmidt is MLB ready. "He doesn't have a lot of experience yet as a professional pitcher. He is clearly advanced for that lack of experience. He has got a lot of the intangible things as well as the raw stuff to move quickly."

The Yankees expect Paxton back about two months into the season and Domingo German is eligible to return from his domestic violence suspension in early June. The Yankees will stick with their internal options for that fifth-starter's spot until Paxton or German return, and if there are performance issues or new injuries, they'll adjust. For now, this is their fifth-starter group.

The front runner: Loaisiga. I don't think the Yankees will alter Garcia's or Schmidt's development plan without trying other options first. The Yankees used an opener several times last season (mostly Chad Green) and it worked well for them. Pairing Loaisiga (or Bettis or King) with an opener early in the season is presumably on the table until German or Paxton returns.

Oakland Athletics: Second base

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Franklin Barreto OAK • 2B • 1
2019 stats
BA.123
R6
HR2
RBI5
SB1

Candidates: Franklin Barreto, Tony Kemp, Vimael Machin, Jorge Mateo, Sheldon Neuse, Chad Pinder

According to Baseball Reference, the A's led baseball in WAR at first base, shortstop, and third base last season. They finished 22nd at second base thanks mostly to Jurickson Profar, who didn't hit and developed the throwing yips. He was traded away over the winter and Oakland is now trying to find a worthy complement to Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, and Marcus Semien.

The A's have a lot of second-base candidates but those candidates have limited roster flexibility. Barreto and Mateo are two former top-100 prospects who are out of minor-league options and must pass through waivers to go to Triple-A. It's unlikely either would clear. Machin is a Rule 5 Draft pick who must stick on the 26-man roster all year or be offered back to his original team (the Cubs).

Kemp is out of options as well, though he's an established big-league role player at this point, and he's a safe bet to make the roster in some capacity. Pinder is very versatile -- he's played every position other than pitcher and catcher as a big leaguer -- and he had a strong offensive season in 2018. Not so much in 2019, but he'll get a chance to show he can be 2018 Pinder again.

Neuse might be facing an uphill battle. He has minor-league options remaining, so he can easily go to Triple-A, and he has not yet established himself at the MLB level (albeit in limited time). The best way to keep some combination of Barreto, Machin, and Mateo and preserving that depth is sending Neuse down to Triple-A for more seasoning. Roster flexibility factors into this race quite a bit.

The front runner: Barreto. He's a recent top prospect -- the A's got him from the Blue Jays in the Josh Donaldson trade back in the day -- who's shown flashes of impact potential and I don't think Oakland is ready to give up on him yet. Kemp, Mateo, and Pinder all land on the bench, Neuse goes to Triple-A, and Machin winds up back in Chicago per the Rule 5 Draft rules.

"We have to make some decisions on some guys. Very difficult decisions on some talented guys, unfortunately," manager Bob Melvin told NBC Sports Bay Area's Jessica Kleinschmidt. "(Pinder will) probably get more second base reps later and if we feel like we want to shorten it up, we don't carry as many guys that could potentially play that position, then he factors in there, too."

St. Louis Cardinals: Left field

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Tommy Edman STL • 3B • 19
2019 stats
BA.304
R59
HR11
RBI36
SB15

Candidates: Austin Dean, Tommy Edman, Brad Miller, Tyler O'Neill, Lane Thomas

The Cardinals lost Marcell Ozuna to free agency and traded away Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena (in the same trade), yet they're still loaded with outfielders. Harrison Bader is the presumed starter in center field with Dexter Fowler in right, leaving those five men above as left-field candidates. Don't forget top prospect Dylan Carlson too. He should arrive at some point in 2020.

Edman was impressive as a rookie last season but he has minimal left field experience. It's a new position for him and, truth be told, he may be most valuable as a super utility guy who moves around rather than settles into one position. Miller is a journeyman utility guy who has shown throughout his career he is not a viable starter for a contending team. He's a role player (and a solid one).

O'Neill benefits from the Arozarena/Martinez trade more than anyone. He's spent parts of the last three seasons in Triple-A and has proven pretty much all he can at that level. O'Neill turns 25 in June and it's time to get this show on the road, you know? His power is very real and he could give a not great Cardinals offense a nice little boost in the post-Ozuna era.

"The trade that we had to Tampa was a big move, I think, in my opinion," O'Neill told Jeff Jones of the Belleville News-Democrat recently. "We gave up two really good guys and there's going to be other guys like me that are going to have to step up and fill those holes. I'm coming down to spring with the intent to win that job and I'm going to do everything I can to."

Similar to O'Neill, Thomas has spent parts of the last two seasons in Triple-A and he's performed well at the level. He was very good during his brief MLB cameo last season too. If you're looking for a dark horse left field candidate in St. Louis, it's Thomas. He has a chance to be that Cardinals player who has a great season out of nowhere. There seems to be one every year.

The front runner: Edman, at least initially. I think O'Neill settles in at the position before long with Edman moving back into a super utility role. Whoever wins the job will only be keeping the seat warm for Carlson, however. That kid is coming for an outfield job with a vengeance.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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