The 2021 Major League Baseball regular season is a little more than one month away. Teams around the league will use these next five 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 that will take place around the league this spring, with an emphasis on contending teams. These aren't the only ongoing position battles this spring. Not even close. But they are the most important (and they're listed alphabetically by team).
1. Braves: Fifth starter
Center field is a bit up in the air in Atlanta as well, though top prospect Cristian Pache would have to really fall on his face to lose the job to Ender Inciarte at this point. The fifth starter's job is much more wide open because Mike Soroka is still on the mend following last year's Achilles injury, and he's yet to run at full speed.
"Obviously my response to that is I'll tell you I could be ready to compete right now," Soroka told the Associated Press when asked whether he'll be ready for Opening Day, then added, "It's not where exactly I need to be [when running]. I need to get a little strength so I can come out of the gate hot."
As an extreme ground ball pitcher, Soroka must be able to field his position and cover first base, so running is important (plus he'll have to hit this year too). The Braves are not going to push him to be ready for Opening Day. Their priority is making sure he's ready for October, and if that means getting a late start on the regular season, so be it.
Ian Anderson, Max Fried, Charlie Morton, and Drew Smyly are locked into the top four rotation spots in whatever order. Wright was much better after making mechanical adjustments at the alternate site last year, and Wilson of course had that incredible start in Game 4 of last year's NLCS. Toussaint and Newcomb in particular seem best suited for the bullpen at this point.
The front runner: Wright. Last year's adjustments, specifically shifting to the first base side of the rubber and altering his pitch selection, led to real improvement and I think the Braves are ready to give the No. 5 pick in the 2017 draft a longer look. That said, Soroka is on the mend, and Wright will have to pitch well to keep the job with Wilson looming.
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2. Brewers: Third base
The Brewers declined Jedd Gyorko's club option over the winter even though he led the team's regulars in OPS+ last year, leaving a great big opening at third base. Shaw is back on a minor-league contract and will get every opportunity to win a roster spot this spring, and Urias, a recent top prospect, is probably who the Brewers want at the hot corner given his upside.
"We're still evaluating that position," president of baseball operations David Stearns told reporters, including Andrew Wagner of the State Journal, recently. "...This is going to take some time for everyone to find a seat. Sometimes, patience can be a virtue in those scenarios. I'm comfortable that once we get to Opening Day we're going to have a good grasp on what third base will look like and be pleased with where it is."
Urias, the centerpiece in the Trent Grisham trade, injured his wrist in winter ball last year and never got going during the regular season, even after the shutdown gave him more time to recover. He is a career .226/.315/.320 hitter in 422 MLB plate appearances but is still only 23, and sending him to Triple-A to begin 2021 wouldn't be crazy. It might be the best thing for him long-term.
Milwaukee signed only three free agents to major-league contracts over the winter and Robertson was one of them (Brett Anderson and Luke Maile were the others). He had a nice 13-game cameo with the Giants last year and is very versatile, so while he is an option at third base, Robertson is most valuable the team moving all around in a super utility role.
The front runner: Shaw. The offense badly needs a jolt and Shaw will still take a walk and put a mistake in the seats. He gives the Brewers the opportunity to remain patient with Urias and leave Robertson in a utility role.
3. Cardinals: Leadoff hitter
Okay, leadoff hitter is not a "position," necessarily, but it is a role and the Cardinals don't have an obvious leadoff hitter now that Kolten Wong has departed as a free agent. Wong started 47 of the team's 58 games in the leadoff spot last year (Edman started the other 11), and the team's current leadoff mix includes a collection of imperfect solutions:
- Bader hits lefties well (career .855 OPS) but struggles against righties (career .668 OPS).
- Edman's 2020 (87 OPS+) was a considerable step down from 2019 (122 OPS+).
- Carpenter has been ineffective the last two years and doesn't have a full-time lineup spot.
- Ideally Carlson's and DeJong's power would slot in toward the middle of the lineup.
"There's an old adage in baseball: 'If you hit, you play.' And so I think we have to approach this camp being very open-minded to that," president of baseball operations John Mozeliak told reporters, including MLB.com's Zachary Silver, about Carpenter recently, but he might as well have been referring to the leadoff spot in general. Whoever hits is going to get it.
The front runner: Edman. Personally, I would love to see Carlson get a crack at the job because he's a disciplined hitter and teams are willing to employ a power threat in the No. 1 lineup spot these days (Mookie Betts, George Springer, etc.). I say give the young man a chance to blossom with all those at-bats. My guess is St. Louis will go with Edman though. He's essentially the incumbent, and hey, there is merit to giving him a chance to show 2020 was a fluke and 2019 was the real him.
4. Cleveland: Shortstop
Cleveland has a lot -- a LOT -- of position battles this spring. The outfield alongside Eddie Rosario is wide open. The fifth starter's spot is up for grabs. First base is unsettled. We're going with shortstop here because, well, someone has to replace Francisco Lindor, and that player will be under the microscope through no fault of his own. It's not his fault the team traded Lindor.
With all due respect to non-roster invitee and defensive wiz Mike Freeman, Gimenez and Rosario are the only realistic candidates for the shortstop job. Both were acquired in the Lindor trade and it's not a lock Rosario will remain at shortstop. There have been rumblings about a position change for years, and if Cleveland does move him elsewhere, the job is Gimenez's.
"The great thing is that both players have versatility to fill different infield spots and potentially even other spots on the diamond," president Chris Antonetti recently told reporters, including Cleveland.com's Paul Hoynes. "So that gives us opportunities as we seek to build the best team we can. Again, we've got time before the start of the season so that will allow us to explore all those opportunities to improve the team and figure out how do we align the guys that we have best around that."
Gimenez jumped from Double-A to MLB last year and more than held his own -- he was better at the end of the season than the beginning -- but we can't rule out Cleveland sending him to Triple-A to manipulate his service time. All it takes is 15 days in the minors to get another year of control. Rosario could play short in the interim. I'm not saying it's right. I'm saying it's possible.
The front runner: Gimenez. I don't think Cleveland is going to manipulate his service time. The team is more likely to sign him to a long-term extension that buys out free-agent years, I think. Gimenez is certainly a better defender and possibly a better hitter than Rosario, and I think Cleveland will go with him at short. Where Rosario fits, I'm not entirely sure.
5. Cubs: Second base
The Cubs were unsettled at second base going into last spring training and they addressed the position with a late free-agent signing. They gave Jason Kipnis to a low cost one-year contract and he had a solid season with his hometown team, putting up a 101 OPS+ and starting 31 of Chicago's 60 games at second. No such signing is coming this year though.
"By and large, I would expect this is what our team's going to look like," president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer recently told reporters, including MLB.com's Jordan Bastian. "For the most part, this is going to be the group that we open up against Pittsburgh with (on Opening Day)."
The Cubs rushed Hoerner to the big leagues in 2019 -- he debuted 15 months after being drafted and with only 70 Double-A games (and zero Triple-A games) under his belt -- and he's mostly struggled at the plate since then, including hitting .222/.312/.259 during the bizarre 2020 season. Hoerner is still only 23. Is a Triple-A stint in order to get the bat on track?
Bote, 27, is entering the second year of the five-year, $15 million extension he signed in April 2019 and is the top alternative to Hoerner. He played only seven games at second last year but appeared in 50 games at the position in 2019, so Bote is familiar there. Moreso than spring performance, this battle will be determined by whether Chicago is willing to send Hoerner to Triple-A.
The front runner: I think it's Hoerner despite last year's struggles. Bote fits best as someone who moves around in a super utility role and Vargas is strictly a bench guy at this point in his career. For better or worse, giving Hoerner a full-time lineup spot and a chance to sink or swim in 2021 appears to be in the cards.
6. Dodgers: Closer
Similar to the leadoff spot, "closer" is a role more than a position, and the role is up in the air more now than it has been at any point in recent memory with the Dodgers. Dodgers pitchers recorded six saves last postseason and Jansen was on the mound for only two of them. Presumed 2021 fifth starter Julio Urias recorded the final six outs of the 2020 World Series.
"I believe we're at our best if Kenley is closing for us," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts recently told reporters, including ESPN's Alden Gonzalez. "But with that said, we have a lot of great, viable options to finish a game. So right now, that's kind of where it's at ... I want the guys that are pitching the best to finish the game. And Kenley understands that, too."
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Jansen, who was good last year but not great, and has been declining in recent years. Los Angeles has no shortage of ninth-inning alternatives -- Knebel and Treinen have been All-Star closers and Graterol has some of the nastiest stuff in the sport -- and last year they showed they will go with someone other than Jansen in the ninth if necessary.
The front runner: Still Jansen. At least to start the season. I think Roberts and the Dodgers are going to give Kenley every chance to close out games and will only make a change when it is clear it is absolutely necessary. Give them a truth serum and I'm certain they would tell you they want Jansen to be the closer. I expect him to get another chance to do it to begin 2021.
7. Mets: Fifth starter
They may not have landed a big free agent, but few teams were as active as the Mets this offseason, and they greatly improved the rotation behind Jacob deGrom. Marcus Stroman returned via the qualifying offer, Carlos Carrasco came over in a trade, and Taijuan Walker came on as a late free-agent signing. Rick Porcello's and Steven Matz's departures can be seen as addition by subtraction.
New York also improved depth (an issue that hampered the team for years) with Lucchesi, who has 300 league-average innings to his credit, and Yamamoto, an analytics darling with promising spin rates. Those two will compete for a spot against Peterson, who was very effective as a rookie last year, but isn't guaranteed a rotation job this year. He'll have to earn it in camp.
"We're very proud, of course, of the job he did last year ... With his makeup, and him and I talked about being humble and staying hungry and how smart he is. Those are always going to help him to keep growing," manager Luis Rojas told reporters, including MLB.com's Anthony DiComo, adding he's spoken to Peterson about the "language of competing for a spot in the rotation."
Jordan Yamamoto on the Mets' overloaded fifth starter competition: "We're all fighting for spots here."— Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo) February 21, 2021
Spring training competitions don't end in spring training. Win a job in camp and you're going to have to perform during the regular season to keep that job, and that is especially true here. The Mets have enough rotation depth -- Noah Syndergaard is due to return from Tommy John surgery at midseason, remember -- to make a change if the fifth starter falters early in the season.
The front runner: I think it's Peterson but Lucchesi is a real threat. Peterson was awfully impressive last year and he's a recent first-round pick, and those guys usually get the benefit of the doubt. Lucchesi spent most of last season at the alternate site and is a pretty darn good No. 6 rotation option. Certainly better than the guys the Mets had in that role the last few years.
8. Phillies: Center field
Alec Bohm's emergence and the Didi Gregorius re-signing push Kingery, up to this point a career .233/.284/.393 hitter in the big leagues, back into a super utility role. He started nine games in center last year. Quinn started 28, Haseley started 19, Bryce Harper started three, and Ronald Torreyes (!) started one. It's sort of amazing the Phillies are sticking with that group in 2021.
"That's the one spot that we're not sure who's going to take hold of," president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told reporters, including Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia, earlier this month. "And in saying that, you could take hold of it in spring training, but you have to continue to produce, because there's going to be other guys that are trying to get that spot, so that will definitely be a competition."
Imperfect center field solutions abound in Philadelphia. Kingery hasn't hit much to date but he's owed at least $19.75 million the next three years, and you can be sure the team wants to get some return on that investment. Haseley is probably best suited for a corner, defensively. Quinn runs really fast and that's about it, and he turns 28 in May, so he's not that young anymore.
All that makes me wonder why the Phillies aren't in on the still unsigned Jackie Bradley Jr.? Dombrowski has a history with Bradley dating back to their time together in Boston, and he'd be a significant offensive upgrade over Kingery and Quinn, and a colossal defensive upgrade over everyone. Barring a Bradley signing, the Phillies will continue with round pegs in square holes.
The front runner: Haseley and Kingery in a platoon, I think. Neither has crushed pitchers of the opposite hand -- Haseley owns a career .744 OPS against righties and Kingery a career .686 OPS against lefties -- but it seems like the best way to use the available personnel. Philadelphia should probably just sign Bradley at this point though.
9. White Sox: Fifth starter
Kopech was arguably the top pitching prospect in baseball not too long ago but he has not pitched in a competitive game since Sept. 2018. He had Tommy John surgery and missed 2019, then opted out of 2020. Kopech was refreshingly candid when discussing the decision to opt out earlier this week. From MLB.com's Scott Merkin:
"There are multiple reasons," Kopech said. "COVID being one of the reasons, with having some health issues with my family, but there were a lot of personal reasons as well.
"I've been pretty candid in the past about my mental health being important and prioritizing that so I can be the best version of myself on the field. That's a lot of what it came down to as well."
"My career doesn't just dictate my future anymore, but it dictates my son's. That's kind of all the motivation I need," Kopech said. "In the past, I've put a lot of unnecessary pressures and anxieties on myself.
The White Sox are planning to bring Kopech along slowly early in the season after two lost years -- there's some thought he could begin the year in the bullpen to limit his workload -- so while he technically is a fifth starter candidate, chances are the White Sox will stay away from him a bit early in the season. They have the big picture in mind, understandably.
That leaves Lopez and Rodon as the two leading candidates for the fifth starter's job. Rodon battled injuries and ineffectiveness last season and recently returned on a major-league contract, and guaranteed deals are often tiebreakers in position battles. Lopez can work out of the bullpen or even be optioned down to Triple-A.
The front runner: Rodon. He's healthy and that guaranteed $3 million contract works in his favor. Whoever wins the job this spring will only keep the fifth starter's spot warm for Kopech, whenever the White Sox are ready to turn him loose.
10. Yankees: Fifth starter
The Yankees have a rotation of Gerrit Cole and question marks. Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon are coming back from major injuries, Jordan Montgomery had a 5.11 ERA in 2021, German served a domestic violence suspension last year, and Garcia is a top prospects who figures to have a workload limit in 2021. The Yankees have pitchers with upside but also risk.
"Maybe it's a little bit routine but I do feel like this is hands down the deepest group of arms that we've had since I've been here," manager Aaron Boone recently told reporters, including NJ.com's Brendan Kuty. "And I thought last year we were a lot better than the year before. I certainly feel this way this year. Almost across the board guys are standing out that I've been impressed with these last few days."
Perhaps moreso than any other position battle in this post, the Yankees are set to throw numbers at their fifth starter situation. Beyond the four candidates listed above, they also have Jonathan Loaisiga and Michael King, who made starts for them last year, young righty Nick Nelson, who got into two postseason games last October, and journeyman Asher Wojciechowski.
Boone described the fifth starter situation as "fluid" last week and it's possible the Yankees won't have a set fifth starter until Luis Severino returns from Tommy John surgery at midseason. They may simply shuttle guys in and out as necessary. They would prefer someone to take the job and run with it, of course. Absent that, the last rotation spot could be a revolving door.
The front runner: Garcia is my guess. I'm not sure German makes it to Opening Day with the Yankees at this point. At least one teammate isn't pleased he's around -- "Sometimes you don't get to control who your teammates are," Zack Britton recently said -- and I'm guessing others feel the same way. Garcia impressed during his late season cameo last year and even started Game 2 of the ALDS (as an opener), so I'd say he has a leg up right now.