MLB spring training: Breaking down the most intriguing position battles for all 30 teams
As we work our way toward Opening Day, let's have a look at the jobs up for grabs
Battles! For positions and roles! As we work our way toward Opening Day, teams are sorting out their active rosters and depth charts, and that means metaphorical armed conflict with at-bats and innings at the highest level as spoils. To celebrate such hostilities -- such ... battles -- we're here decked out kevlar ready to run down each team's most notable spring training position battle. Will there be blood? People, there will be blood.
Here is each team's most intriguing spring training position battle. Teams sorted alphabetically precisely because society insists we can't do that.
Catcher: This is really more "crowded situation" than outright battle. Carson Kelly has the inside track, as the 24-year-old was one of the key pieces the D-Backs received from the Cardinals in exchange for Paul Goldschmidt. Kelly's a good defender, but his bat has stalled out in part because of spotty playing time when he's been up. Veteran Alex Avila is also in the mix, and the D-Backs are actually poised to carry a third catcher in John Ryan Murphy. Arizona doesn't profile as a contender this season, so it makes sense to let Kelly sink or swim. Three catchers on the active, though, means a duel for playing time.
Fifth starter: The top four spots are likely committed to Julio Teheran, Kevin Gausman, Sean Newcomb, and Mike Foltynewicz. For the fifth spot, there's a huge competing fray, even after Mike Soroka has been ruled out for the start of the season because of shoulder troubles. That's a reflection of the Braves' deep stores of pitching. Touki Toussaint is the likely favorite to nail down the job. Also in the running are Max Fried, Kolby Allard, Luiz Gohara, Kyle Wright, and Bryse Wilson.
Shortstop: It's exceedingly rare for a team to dig up a starting shortstop via the Rule 5 Draft, but that may be what the 2019 Orioles have done. They plucked 24-year-old Richie Martin from the Athletics, and he's likely to win the starting shortstop job coming out of spring training. If the O's decide that's asking a bit much of Martin, who hasn't played above Double-A, then veteran gloveman Alcides Escobar will get the nod. No doubt, though, the O's want to see what they've got in Martin.
Boston Red Sox
Catcher: It seems a bit odd for a defending champion to be unsettled at a position like catcher, but that's the case with Boston. Sandy Leon got a plurality of the reps behind the plate last season, but he managed an OPS of just .503 -- not acceptable even in light of his other merits. Going into the 2019 regular season, he'll be competing with Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez for the starting job. Complicating matters is that none of the three have options remaining. Swihart has the strongest offensive profile of the trio.
Center field: The Cubs, of course, will mix and match with their roster and give core players meaningful time at multiple positions. In that sense, there may not be a true battle to be found. One interesting subplot, however, will be who winds up getting the regular reps in center. Ian Happ offer more offensive upside, particularly in terms of power, but Albert Almora is the better fielder in center. Also note that Happ, in addition to playing all three outfield positions last season, also saw significant time at third. In other words, he's got a number of paths to regular playing time outside of center. Jason Heyward may also see some time in center, as he has in each of his seasons with the Cubs. Again, Joe Maddon will tailor his choices to the given game and make the most of the positional flexibility up and down his roster. Who settles in as the primary in center, though, will be something to watch.
Chicago White Sox
Outfield corners: Very likely, Jon Jay and Daniel Palka will open the season as the White Sox's outfielder cornermen. This is because the Sox will very likely make up a reason to start off Eloy Jimenez at Triple-A and keep him there long enough to wrench an extra-year of team control out of him. The 22-year-old Jimenez last season put up a .925 OPS at Double-A before putting up a .996 OPS at Triple-A. He's been ready for the highest level, but the Sox will almost certainly choose to manipulate his service time rather than to proceed based on merit. For a team that soured its fan base this offseason by whiffing on Manny Machado and, to a lesser extent, Bryce Harper, that's missing the opportunity to reinvigorate them for Opening Day. Sure, Jimenez will be up soon enough, but it's a cynical decision that deserves to be ridiculed. To be fair, it's not certain that the Sox will indeed demote Jimenez to start the season, but the heavy expectation is that they will.
Outfield: Some battles are the result of not having enough good options. In the case of the Cincy outfield, it's the residue of having too many. The likely primary arrangement, at least to start the season, will be Scott Schebler in center, Jesse Winker and Matt Kemp platooning in right, and Yasiel Puig in left. But what if Kemp, as an accomplished veteran, seems to merit full-time duty? As well, top prospect Nick Senzel is on the way -- he's ready for the bigs right now -- and he's already switched to the outfield. The Reds may start him off in the minors in order give him more reps, but either way he'll force his way to Cincy soon enough. At that point, things will get even more crowded.
Outfield corners: For a heavy division favorite, the Indians' outfield is certainly a mess right now. Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall departed via free agency, and that's left a void. Assuming health, Leonys Martin will be the starting center fielder. The Tribe will fill left and right most likely with some combination of Tyler Naquin, Jake Bauers, and Jordan Luplow. Also in the mix are Oscar Mercado and Greg Allen, who each have options remaining. Bradley Zimmer will also return from shoulder surgery at some point early in the season, and his glove will surely put him in the discussion. There's also NRI Matt Joyce. None of these potential solutions is particularly inspiring, you'll note.
Second base: Daniel Murphy is new to the fold, but he's not longer anything resembling an adequate defensive second baseman, which is why he's going to be the primary at first base for Colorado. Meantime, at Murphy's old position Garrett Hampson is probably the favorite, but he'll be pushed by Ryan McMahon. A platoon arrangement fronted by the lefty-swinging McMahon makes some sense, but the Rockies probably won't have the roster space for both if Mark Reynolds cracks the active. That means the stakes are high for Hampson and McMahon in this battle.
Center field: JaCoby Jones is probably the leader in this one, but he's yet to prove he's capable of being an adequate hitter at the major-league level. Mikie Mahtook isn't exactly a big producer at the plate, but he's certainly got more offensive upside than Jones does. If the Tigers decide to prioritize bat over glove, then Mahtook could win the job. Both are right-handed hitters, so there's no natural platoon arrangement. Side note: Both Jones and Mahtook are LSU products.
Fifth starter: The rotation was a strength for Houston last year, and it may be once again. However, they lost Charlie Morton to free agency, and presumably Dallas Keuchel will be elsewhere (it's of course possible he winds up back in Houston, however). Throw in the loss of Lance McCullers Jr. to Tommy John surgery, and you've got some holes to fill. The addition of Wade Miley helps, assuming his tuned-up cutter keeps doing work, and Collin McHugh seems bound for a spot. Framber Valdez is probably the favorite to open the year as the fifth starter, but he could be pressed by Josh James once he returns from a quad injury. As well, Forrest Whitley -- regarded by many to be the top pitching prospect in all of baseball -- will likely be at Double-A to open the year, and he could be a consideration in short order. Brad Peacock's also still a factor, but the Astros probably prefer him in the bullpen. Of course if there's a Keuchel reunion, then consider this spot spoken for by virtue of Miley's and McHugh's sliding down to make room.
Kansas City Royals
Backup catcher: This is a battle mostly because stalwart catcher Salvador Perez underwent Tommy John surgery and will miss all of 2019. The recently signed Martin Maldonado will be the regular behind the plate, and the battle for backup reps will be between Cam Gallagher and Meibrys Viloria with Gallagher probably having the edge. Just twice has Maldonado caught more than 900 innings in a season, so the winner of this one will likely see some reps.
Los Angeles Angels
Fifth starter: Who slots in behind Tyler Skaggs, Andrew Heaney, Matt Harvey, and Trevor Cahill? Twenty-two-year-old Jaime Barria will probably lock down the job coming out of camp. Righty Felix Pena will challenge him. Looking forward a bit, highly regarded prospects Griffin Canning and Jose Suarez could be ready to contend for a spot in short order. Depth pieces like Nick Tropeano and Dillon Peters are also around.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Fifth starter: The Dodgers have plenty of starting pitching depth, but it's a matter of sorting it out. With Clayton Kershaw likely out for Opening Day, Kenta Maeda, Ross Stripling, Julio Urias figure to fight for the two spots behind Walker Buehler, Hyun-jin Ryu, and Rich Hill. After Kershaw returns, the battle will be for the fifth spot. The two "losers" will likely land in the bullpen.
First base: The stripped-down Marlins are fairly settled at most positions, but first base is a competition of sorts. Veterans Neil Walker and Martin Prado are competing for the job. Since Walker is a switch-hitter who's historically been much stronger from the left side and Prado bats righty, there's a natural platoon fit. That may be what manager Don Mattingly winds up doing. Walker can also play second, and Prado can still man third.
Fifth starter: Brandon Woodruff is probably the guy here, but the Brewers have other options for that last job in the rotation. To wit, Freddy Peralta, Corbin Burnes, and maybe even Aaron Wilkerson could be considered. As well, veteran Josh Tomlin is in camp on an NRI. Not in the mix is Brent Suter, who will likely miss all of 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Fifth starter: The top four spots in the rotation are locked up with Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi, and Michael Pineda. In the fifth and final slot, lefty Martin Perez is the favorite, but he could pressed by Adalberto Mejia. Stephen Gonsalves is also on the 40-man and still highly regarded within the organization.
New York Mets
First base: Here's a pretty interesting one. The Mets of course aspire to contend in the tough NL East, and they've made significant roster improvements. Getting more from first base, however, will be key. What seems mostly likely is a platoon arrangement with left Dominic Smith getting primary duty. Once veteran Todd Frazier returns from an oblique injury, he could be the right-handed half of such a platoon. One to watch is Pete Alonso, who boasts big-time power from the right side. Smith still has potential, but his development has seen some fits and starts. If he stumbles, then Alonso could get an extended look as the regular first baseman.
New York Yankees
Back of the rotation: Ace Luis Severino is doubtful for the start of the season because of shoulder troubles, and CC Sabathia's status is uncertain after knee and heart procedures. That means question marks abound after James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, and J.A. Happ. Right now, Luis Cessa, Domingo German, and Jonathan Loaisiga seem to be competing for one or possibly two spots at the back end, at least for the early days of the season. GM Brian Cashman seems less inclined to go outside the organization for help. Another possibility is that the Yankees go with a Rays-style "opener" for a while in order to paper over any weaknesses at that back end.
Fifth starter: The competition for the final spot in the Oakland rotation likely comes down to Frankie Montas, Chris Bassitt, Jesus Luzardo, Parker Bridwell, and Aaron Brooks. The job is probably Montas' to lose, but Luzardo, the top prospect in the Oakland system, has the most upside. The 21-year-old lefty reached Triple-A last season, so barring the unexpected he'll make it to the majors in 2019. Once he does arrive in Oakland, he'll have a rotation spot waiting on him. In the meantime, bet on Montas. Once they get healthy, Jharel Cotton, Andrew Triggs, and Sean Manaea will challenge for spots.
Outfield depth: The splash addition of Bryce Harper has created a bit of a packed outfield situation in Philly. Harper will be in left, Andrew McCutchen will be the right fielder, and Odubel Herrera will likely open the season as the regular center fielder. Herrera, obviously, has the weakest grip on his job. As for depth, Nick Williams, Aaron Altherr, and Roman Quinn will compete for what figures to be two available roster spots.
Shortstop: Walk into Mordor? Sure, but one does not simply "replace" Jordy Darned Mercer. The Pirates will do their level best, however, with Erik Gonzalez or Kevin Newman. Gonzalez, whom the Pirates acquired from Cleveland last November, is probably the frontrunner, but the younger Newman could emerge as the placeholder. At some point in 2019, prospect Cole Tucker, who has more upside than Gonzalez or Newman, will likely arrive at the highest level and take over the job for the near- to mid-term. Whoever settles in, expect them to bat eighth.
San Diego Padres
Catcher: The incumbent Austin Hedges is a skilled defender who's coming off a solid-enough offensive season in 2018. He'll be challenged by Francisco Mejia, one of the top catching prospects in baseball whom they acquired from the Indians last July in exchange for Brad Hand and Adam Cimber. Mejia is likely the long-term answer at the position, but it's entirely possible that Hedges keeps his job for now. Don't be surprised if both are rostered and share time behind the plate.
San Francisco Giants
Outfield: The Giants' outfield is a bit of a mess right now. If the season opened today, then a starting arrangement of Steven Duggar, Mac Williamson, and Gerardo Parra seems likely. Veteran Cameron Maybin is also in the mix, and he could easily win a spot. Other candidates include Mike Gerber, Austin Slater, Chris Shaw, and Rule 5 pick Drew Ferguson. President of baseball ops Farhan Zaidi has hinted that upgrades via trade are also possible. That's understandable because at the moment the Giants may have the worst outfield in baseball.
Outfield: It's a potentially crowded situation in Seattle. Mitch Haniger will of course have a starting job, and Domingo Santana seems likely to own one of the corners. Mallex Smith is sidelined presently with a sore elbow and may not be ready for Opening Day. Once he returns, he should settle in as the center fielder. There's also veteran slugger Jay Bruce. He'll man right for the time being, but what about when Smith returns? The M's no doubt want to give Santana full-time duty, but could Bruce force a platoon arrangement with a hot start? Braden Bishop and Ichiro are also on the fringes of the mix.
St. Louis Cardinals
Right field: The job is Dexter Fowler's to lose. The Cardinals are heavily invested in Fowler, but he's coming off a terrible and injury-compromised 2018. It's possible that he's suffering steep decline, but St. Louis is banking on a rebound from Fowler. No doubt, he'll be pressed by Tyler O'Neill, who has tremendous raw power and can man all three outfield positions. There's also Jose Martinez. While he's stretched as an outfielder -- or at any defensive position, really -- he's one of the best pure hitters on the Cardinals' roster. Fowler has the inside path, as noted, but if struggles to start the season, then manager Mike Shildt may make a prompt change.
Tampa Bay Rays
Right field: Lefty-hitting Austin Meadows, who not so long ago was a highly regarded prospect, is likely going to be the primary in right field to start the season. Avisail Garcia, however, could also see some time in right, at least against lefties. Garcia will likely be the DH most of the time, but if the Rays lose confidence in Meadows then Garcia could settle in as the go-to man in right.
Backup outfielder: Titillating, no? Barring injury, the Texas starting outfield is going to Delino DeShields, Nomar Mazara, and Joey Gallo. The battle for backup is between Willie Calhoun and veteran NRI Hunter Pence. Pence has been dealing with shoulder issues this spring, but he's also rebuilt his swing, which makes him an intriguing option. This one may be determined by spring performance.
Toronto Blue Jays
Fifth starter: Toronto's front four in the rotation are pretty much set: Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Clay Buchholz, and Matt Shoemaker. The fifth spot, though, is in play. Veteran Clayton Richard is certainly in the mix and may be the favorite. The Jays also have a number of starter prospects in the high minors and on the 40-man roster. The most likely to crack the active is probably 24-year-old lefty Ryan Borucki. Other prospects with a shot include Sean Reid-Foley, Trent Thornton, and T.J. Zeuch. Richard likely has the edge.
Fifth starter: The Nats have paid mind to their rotation this offseason, most especially with the signing of Patrick Corbin. Also new to the fold is Anibal Sanchez, who slots in as the fourth man behind Corbin, Stephen Strasburg, and ace Max Scherzer. The fifth spot, though, is at least a little uncertain. Jeremy Hellickson is the heavy favorite to pin down the spot, but he could be tested by Erik Fedde, Joe Ross, Austin Voth, and veteran NRI Henderson Alvarez.
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