MLB spring training: The biggest position battles to watch for all 30 teams
Grapefruit and Cactus League play is underway, and major-league jobs hang in the balance
Have you noticed? Yes, you have. You have noticed that Cactus League and Grapefruit League play is now in our midst. While the games do not out, they do constitute actual examples of This, Our Baseball. Spring training of course also occasions roster battles for various positions and roles of some esteem. The 2017 season is no exception. So let us now enjoy a brief walking tour of each team’s most prominent “camp battle” as we barrel toward the regular season ...
Arizona Diamondbacks - Second base
The trade of Jean Segura to Seattle left a hole at the keystone, and right now Brandon Drury appears to have the inside path. The 24-year-old Drury was a primary third baseman coming up through the system, but across two seasons in the majors he’s logged 120 innings at second. Last season, he filled more of a utility role, but Drury’s potential with the bat has him in line for regular duty in 2017. If he proves unable to handle the move up the defensive food chain, at least on a regular basis, then Daniel Descalso likely becomes the next option. Descalso’s lefty bat would also work nicely in a lineup that skews a bit too right-handed. Nick Ahmed might also be a “glove first” option at the position, although he’s a natural shortstop.
Atlanta Braves - Fifth starter
To slot in behind ace Julio Teheran, the Braves this offseason brought in three veteran arms: Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey, and Jaime Garcia. That leaves one rotation spot for all those high-upside young arms to fight over. Give Mike Foltynewicz the edge going in, but he’ll get spring competition from Matt Wisler, Aaron Blair, Lucas Sims, and perhaps even Sean Newcomb. Also don’t forget that Kris Medlen and John Danks are in camp on NRIs.
Baltimore Orioles - Back of the bullpen
Yeah, not the most compelling showdown, but the good news for O’s rooters is that the roster is among the most settled and stable in all of baseball. So the back of the bullpen it is. The team not long ago acquired Vidal Nuno in trade and then DFA’d T.J. McFarland to create a roster spot for him. So Nuno looks like a lock. Elsewhere, Oliver Drake is out of options, so that potentially gives him an inside path to a spot. The question is whether Logan Verrett, Tyler Wilson, or Mike Wright can win a spot coming out of spring. Vance Worley was non-tendered earlier this offseason, and that means a swingman type might be needed on the 25-man. Nuno, however, can fill that role. It might take a Nuno spring collapse or injury for one of those three names to get a crack at a job.
Boston Red Sox - Catcher
Give Sandy Leon the edge, of course, but manager John Farrell not long ago acknowledged that the catcher position is a bit of a competition this spring. Christian Vazquez is probably Leon’s top competition for the starting job. Consider Blake Swihard to be the longshot. Unlike Leon and Vazquez, he’s got options left, and he’s also endured some problems returning the ball to the pitcher this spring. Whatever the case, the Sox are rich with options at this critical position.
Chicago Cubs - Left field/second base
Consider all of this to be a function of the Cubs’ having too many options as opposed to no single standout solution. Not a bad problem, that. The “offense first” option would be to deploy Kyle Schwarber as the left fielder and shift Ben Zobrist back to second base. The “defense first” arrangement would have Zobrist in left and Javier Baez at second (in this instance, “defense first” does not imply a lack of offense -- the Cubs are good, you know). In reality, you’ll see some of both. Schwarber will be the go-to DH in interleague road games, and he may also see limited time behind the plate and at first base on the rare day off for Anthony Rizzo. Baez, meantime, should see time at second, third, and short as a “super utility infielder” of sorts. Likely, manager Joe Maddon will sort this out by deploying different arrangements based on the tendencies of his starting pitcher and the opposing lineup. Think of this as more of a logjam than a true battle. Since the Cubs seem to have Schwarber in mind as their primary leadoff hitter, look for his potent bat to be in the lineup as often as possible.
Chicago White Sox - Catcher
Barring a late addition (like, perhaps, the suddenly superfluous Derek Norris in Washington), the White Sox will open the season with Geovany Soto as their primary catcher. The problem is that Soto recently turned 34 and hasn’t played in at least 100 games since 2011. Suffice it to say, he’s unaccustomed to the workloads of regular catchers. That opens up an opportunity for Omar Narvaez, who could rise up the depth chart with an impressive spring. Kevan Smith and Alfredo Gonzalez are also candidates to make the active roster. Long-term, prospect Zack Collins is the answer at this most vital position, but he’s likely ticketed for Double-A to start 2017.
Cincinnati Reds - Fifth starter
Definitely give the edge going in to Robert Stephenson, who’s among the Reds’ top pitching prospects. However, spring struggles could open the door for Cody Reed or, most intriguingly, Amir Garrett. (Garrett’s a consensus top-100 overall prospect going into 2017). Sal Romano is also in the mix, and Rookie Davis may be the longshot candidate.
Cleveland Indians - Catcher
Yan Gomes’ shoulder injury last season meant that Roberto Perez stabilized the position for the Indians down the stretch and through their pennant run. Perez progressed at the plate as the season wore on, but Gomes is the incumbent. Manager Terry Francona sucked a bit of the life out of this one when he stated the job belonged to Gomes. However, Gomes’ recent injury history is hard to ignore, and his hitting has completely cratered since he won the Silver Slugger in 2014. Perhaps this one’s more in play than Francona is letting on.
Colorado Rockies - Fifth starter
The Rockies and rotation depth? That’s a rare pairing, but it indeed appears to be case this spring. Right now, consider Jeff Hoffman to be the favorite. Hoffman boasts a mid-90s fastball, and he was one of the big parts of Colorado’s haul from the 2015 Troy Tulowitzki trade. Consistency, however, has been an issue. German Marquez figures to be his stiffest competition for the fifth spot, and with the Rockies angling to contend they’ll likely favor here-and-now results over long-term ceiling. Shane Carle also has a shot at the job.
Detroit Tigers - Center field
The November 2016 trade of Cameron Maybin to the Angels leaves a void in center for the Tigers. The expected offseason teardown didn’t really happen, so the Tigers, at least at the outset, will be looking for production in the here and now as opposed to development on the job. Right now, Tyler Collins, Mikie Mahtook, and JaCoby Jones look like the serious contenders. None of those guys figures to lock down the position on a full-time basis, so don’t be surprised if a Collins-Mahtook platoon arrangement comes out of the wash. If that’s the case, then Jones will likely open the year in the minors.
Houston Astros - Fifth starter
Had the Astros added a frontline guy this offseason, then that stability would’ve cascaded down through the rest of the rotation. Things as they are, though, there’s some uncertainty at the back end. Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, and Lance McCullers (health allowing) are locks, and Charlie Morton’s job as the fourth starter is likely secure. That leaves Mike Fiers and Joe Musgrove as the primary competitors for the fifth spot in the rotation. This is classic case of the veteran known quantity (Fiers) against the youngster with more tantalizing stuff (Musgrove). On the fringes of the battle is likely Chris Devenski. Don’t be surprised if Musgrove comes out on top.
Kansas City Royals - Back of the rotation
Following the tragic death of Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy are the lone sure things in the KC rotation. For the remaining three spots, it’s a competition among Jason Vargas, Jason Hammel, Travis Wood, Chris Young, and Nate Karns. Mike Minor seems bound for the pen, but he could be on the periphery of things. Vargas and Hammel are strong favorites to win spots, but consider the fifth slot to be an open derby.
Los Angeles Angels - Closer
You don’t often see spring closer competitions (see below for one other example), but there appears be one brewing with the Halos. Huston Street has the tenure and the 324 career saves, but he’s also coming off a 2016 season in which he pitched to a 6.45 ERA and 1.17 K/BB ratio in 22 ⅓ innings (injuries had a lot to do with those outputs). In camp, Street will get competition from Andrew Bailey and Cam Bedrosian.
Los Angeles Dodgers - Outfield corners
Yes, the Dodgers still have a surfeit of outfielders, and that’s the case even after trading away Howie Kendrick and seeing Josh Reddick depart via free agency. In all likelihood, L.A. will open the season with Andrew Toles in left and Yasiel Puig in right. That means backup/pinch-hitting detail for Andre Ethier, Franklin Gutierrez, and Scott Van Slyke (Van Slyke is no guarantee to crack the 25-man roster to open the season). However, neither Toles nor Puig can be characterized as “entrenched,” so a troublesome spring by either could lead to changes in the depth chart. Either way, it’s once again on manager Dave Roberts to keep all these outfielders happy.
Miami Marlins - Almost the entire rotation
In essence, the Marlins have Edinson Volquez as a sure thing in the rotation. After that, you can think of it as six pitchers competing for four sports. Those pitchers are: Wei-Yin Chen, Dan Straily, Adam Conley, Tom Koehler, Jeff Locke, and Jose Urena. Chen and Straily are strong bets to crack the starting five, but after that it’s fairly unsettled. As well, Justin Nicolino and Odrisamer Despaigne could assert themselves with strong camps. Something to keep in mind is that Conley and Koehler still have options remaining. Consider this to be one of the most wide-open battles of all.
Milwaukee Brewers - Back of the rotation
There’s not a lot of rotation stability here as we head into the meat of spring training. Junior Guerra will be a fixture, and Zach Davies is probably a lock to start the year. Veteran incumbent Matt Garza will probably be among the five, as well. Elsewhere, though, it could be an open competition for those final two spots. Candidates include Chase Anderson, Wily Peralta, Jimmy Nelson, Taylor Jungmann, and Tommy Milone. Milone may have an edge for one of the spots in part because he’s the lone lefty in the mix.
Minnesota Twins - Fifth starter
Jose Berrios is an important part of the future in Minnesota, but he’s coming off a very disappointing age-22 season (an ERA of 8.02 in 14 starts for the Twins). The Twins would love for Berrios to seize the job, since he has so much potential. However, continued struggles may open the door for a host of other candidates -- Trevor May, Ryan Vogelsong, Tyler Duffey, Adalberto Mejia, and Nick Tepesch among them. Based on long-term ceiling, tough, the organization will be looking for any excuse to give the job to Berrios.
New York Mets - Outfield
The Mets haven’t done anything to ease their outfield logjam. That means they’re poised to open the season with Yoenis Cespedes, Jay Bruce, Curtis Granderson, and Juan Lagares all competing for playing time. Oh, and let’s not forget about Michael Conforto, who figures to begin the year in the minors. Obviously, Cespedes is going to be in the lineup when healthy. If Terry Collins wants to go the defensive route, then Lagares will patrol center, and Granderson will be bumped to a corner. Otherwise, it’ll be Granderson (who soon turns 36) in center and the defensively limited Bruce at the remaining corner. Conforto still has upside and could force his way on to the active roster with a strong camp. Collins, however, has indicated that Conforto won’t see time at first base, so he’ll have to crack the outfield mix.
New York Yankees - Back of the rotation
Not so long ago, first base looked like a pretty compelling showdown. However, the injury to Tyler Austin let the air out of it. Now it’ll likely be a straight platoon of Greg Bird and Chris Carter. That brings us to the back end of the rotation. Right now, the Yanks have two openings (the fourth and fifth spots, of course), and have five candidates for those two spots. Said candidates are Luis Severino, Chad Green, Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell, and Adam Warren. (Jon Niese is also in camp, but he seems ticketed for a relief role.) This is one of those true spring battles in which performance during Grapefruit League play will determine who gets those last two rotation slots.
Oakland Athletics - Second base
The default setting seems to be to give the job to veteran Jed Lowrie. However, Lowrie’s soon to turn 33, and he’s endured a number of injuries in recent seasons. He also hasn’t been healthy and productive in the same year since 2013. Utility man Adam Rosales could pressure Lowrie, but the A’s may also give looks to prospects Chad Pinder and Joey Wendle.
Philadelphia Phillies - Shortstop
This likely isn’t a spring battle in the traditional sense of the term. Rather, it’s a matter of how long it takes J.P. Crawford to stick in the majors. Crawford, 22, is the Phillies’ top prospect and one of the most highly regarded prospects in all of baseball. On the downside, he’s coming off a somewhat disappointing 2016. Crawford last season put up strong OBP numbers at Double-A, but he stalled out in his first taste of Triple-A, as he authored an OPS of .657 in 87 games. Freddy Galvis has a hold on the position to start the year, but he’s not much of a hitter. If Crawford thrives in spring and gets off to a good start back at Triple-A, then he could force some upheavals at the position pretty quickly.
Pittsburgh Pirates - Fifth starter
This could be an interesting one. Drew Hutchison probably has the inside track, but he’s struggled with health and consistency throughout much of his career. He’ll be pressed heavily in camp by Tyler Glasnow, who’s one of the Pirates’ top pitching prospects. That’s especially the case if Glasnow’s changeup shows improvement. Elsewhere, Steven Brault and Trevor Williams might also emerge as candidates. Brault, if he cracked the rotation, would be the Pirates’ only left-handed starter. As for Glasnow, he was highly impressive in his first spring appearance.
St. Louis Cardinals - Fifth starter
This was probably one to watch even before phenom Alex Reyes underwent Tommy John surgery. Now, it likely comes down to Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal (who’ll be stretched out in camp), and Luke Weaver, with Marco Gonzales and Tyler Lyons eventually serving as depth options. Wacha is the tenured option, and he’s the one with a past history of success as a starter at the big-league level. The concern, though, is Wacha’s shoulder and the extent to which that bum wing has degraded his performance since the second half of the 2015 season. Vintage form or something close to it for Wacha means he’s got a lock on the job to start the year. If he still seems to be pitching through something, then things get interesting. Rosenthal wants to start, as he did in the minors, so he’s probably the next in line.
San Diego Padres - Almost the entire rotation
The Padres’ rotation straits are such that the club has floated the idea of becoming the latest team to go with “piggyback” starters. Jhoulys Chacin, Trevor Cahill, and Clayton Richard seem likely to occupy three spots, but even that’s not certain. Candidates to fill out the corps include Jered Weaver, Christian Friedrich, Zach Lee, Tyrell Jenkins, Luis Perdomo, Cesar Vargas, Paul Clemens, and Jarred Cosart. Are there others? Sure, there could be others. This is the “let God sort ‘em out” approach to rotation-building, and this particular example doesn’t figure to work out too well.
San Francisco Giants - Fifth starter
San Fran’s front four are set, what with Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, and Matt Moore in the fold. The fifth spot, however, will be an open competition this spring. Give veteran Matt Cain the inside track based on tenure and other soft factors, but competing with him will be Ty Blach and Tyler Beede. Beede has the highest ceiling of the contenders, as the former first-rounder has appeared on at least one top 100 prospects list. On the other hand, the Vanderbilt product has yet to pitch above the Double-A level.
Seattle Mariners - Right field
Jarrod Dyson seems like a strong bet to pin down left field most of the time, but the other corner slot is less settled. Mitch Haniger is likely the favorite, thanks to his power potential and plus glove-work. Guillermo Heredia and Mat Gamel are also candidates, and Shawn O’Malley could also fight for time. All the names above (besides Dyson) have options remaining, so the M’s can try different arrangements if no one locks down the job by the time the team heads north.
Tampa Bay Rays - Fifth starter
Even after trading away Matt Moore and Drew Smyly in recent months, the Rays still have solid rotation depth. Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, and Alex Cobb certainly have spots secured, and Blake Snell is a strong bet to claim the fourth starter’s job. That leaves a bit of a fray for the last slot. Matt Andriese is probably the early favorite, but he could be pressed in camp by the likes of Jose De Leon (recently acquired in the Logan Forsythe deal with the Dodgers) and Erasmo Ramirez.
Texas Rangers - Left field
The Rangers aren’t short on options in the outfield, but there’s not a clear-cut solution in left. Right now, Jurickson Profar is likely in line to get most of the reps in left, but he could fall into a platoon arrangement with Ryan Rua. Delino DeShields also figures to make the active roster out of camp, so he’s a candidate in left (in reality, he’s probably going to be the fourth outfielder). One intriguing possibility is top prospect Joey Gallo, who’s got one of the biggest power bats in the minors. He’s the fallback at third base in case Adrian Beltre gets hurt, but Gallo’s seen time in left in each of the past two seasons. He definitely offers the most offensive upside of any of the candidates. Consider his status worth following during spring.
Toronto Blue Jays - Outfield corners
Obviously, Jose Bautista will be the fixture in right. However, injuries could be a concern for Bautista in his age-36 season, and it’s possible that his declining range in the field could cause him to see occasional DH duty. On the other flank, Michael Saunders departed via free agency this past offseason, and that leaves a bit of a void in left. Right now, Ezequiel Carrera looks like the favorite to get most of the time in left. Melvin Upton Jr. is a candidate, but he may be line to be the heavily used fourth outfielder (in particular, he may see quite a bit of time in right if Bautista settles in as more of a DH than outfielder). Dalton Pompey is also in play, as he’s fighting to make the roster out of camp.
Washington Nationals - Closer
Atop the Nats’ offseason to-do list was adding a lockdown closer. Maybe they’d bring back Mark Melancon, whom they traded for prior to last year’s non-waiver trade deadline, or maybe they’d be players for Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen. Well, none of those things happened, and the Nats despite being squarely in contending mode have uncertainty in the late innings. Shawn Kelley’s been outstanding over the last two seasons, and he picked up seven saves for Washington last season. Consider him the favorite. Elsewhere, Joe Nathan is in camp on an NRI. He ranks eighth on the all-time saves list, but he’s also 42 years of age. Blake Treinen is probably Kelley’s most serious competition for the job, and prospect Koda Glover could also insert himself into the fray with a strong spring.
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