Spring Training Job Battles
by Kenn Ruby, RotoWire Writer
Here are some of the position battles we'll be looking at this spring:
ANGELS CLOSER: Fernando Rodney will get the first crack at the job after finishing last season with it, but his control issues mean he's not a lock. If Rodney gets replaced, Scott Downs, Kevin Jepsen, and the intriguing Jordan Walden would be considered for the role.
ANGELS 3B: Alberto Callaspo and Maicer Izturis figure to see the most work. Manager Mike Scioscia wants Izzy to lead off, which could give him a boost in this duel. Brandon Wood may get yet another chance to man the hot corner, but he needs to make significant improvements at the plate and show he can hit big league pitchers before the Angels hand the job over to him.
ANGELS C: Jeff Mathis, Hank Conger, and Bobby Wilson are fighting for two spots. Conger has the best bat, but Scioscia loves Mathis' defense and experience. If Conger does not seize the starting spot, he will likely head back to Triple-A. Wilson is probably not competing for the starting spot, but he'd go back to Triple-A if Conger starts.
ATHLETICS FIFTH STARTER: It used to be that Rich Harden was great, as long as he was healthy, but last season in Texas he was neither, and already he's going to be shut down for a few weeks with a lat injury. Brandon McCarthy, who didn't even pitch in the majors last season, may win the job by default. Bobby Cramer, who finished last season as the fifth starter, is also in the picture.
BLUE JAYS CLOSER: The Blue Jays have no shortage of experienced contenders, but new manager John Farrell does not want a bullpen committee to develop. "We'll use spring training to come out of camp and head north with an identified closer," Farrell said. Frank Francisco limited lefties to a .549 OPS last season, which gives him the edge over Octavio Dotel, Jon Rauch, and Jason Frasor. "When you look at the three or four guys in that mix, the fact that he (Francisco) can attack lefties with that kind of success rate kind of gives him the edge coming in, at least on paper," Farrell said.
BLUE JAYS FIFTH STARTER: Marc Rzepczynski's chances potentially hurt if the Jays need a lefty in the bullpen, so Jesse Litsch probably has the inside track. The 24-year-old Zach Stewart is a dark horse, but he might need a bit more seasoning after posting mediocre numbers with Double-A New Hampshire last year.
INDIANS 3B: Jason Donald's glove might give him the edge over Jayson Nix, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Cord Phelps, but Nix's power is intriguing and could win the job with a good spring.
INDIANS FIFTH STARTER: There are a number of options for the role, but none are too inspiring. The top contenders are Jeanmar Gomez and Josh Tomlin, but David Huff and even Anthony Reyes could see time in the rotation this year. Tomlin is probably the best choice by default.
MARINERS FIFTH STARTER: Nate Robertson has the early edge over David Pauley and Luke French. Not that Robertson's that great, but he's an improvement over the other two. Of course, if Erik Bedard proves to be healthy (no minor task, given his history), this battle will be moot.
MARINERS CLOSER: David Aardsma is out through April, which leaves Brandon League, Manny Delcarmen and Chris Ray vying for the job. Prospects Dan Cortes and Josh Lueke could conceivably figure into the race too, but they are long shots. League clearly has the inside track after filling in for Aardsma last season. Though Delcarmen has closing experience, and both he and Ray can throw mid-90s, expect League to get the job.
ORIOLES FOURTH AND FIFTH STARTERS: System jewels Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta are mild favorites. Each has proven himself in the minors, but struggled in the majors. Tillman was wild in his starts with the Orioles, while Arrieta was not able to strike out big league hitters at the same rate as he did in the minors. Meanwhile, Arrieta has struggled with control even in the minors. Soft tosser Bradley Bergesen, who started more games than any other candidate last year, is also in the mix, while Rick VandenHurk, Troy Patton, Ryan Drese and Chris Jakubauskas are in camp and are considered dark horses.
ORIOLES CLOSER: Several pitchers - Kevin Gregg, Koji Uehara, Mike Gonzalez, J.J. Johnson and Jeremy Accardo - have closing experience. This looks like it is Gregg's job to lose, as he was the only one to consistently hold down the job for a long period of time. Uehara, Gonzalez and Johnson all have the usual health concerns, as each of the three was shelved for significant time in 2010. However, Uehara's season was strong when he was healthy, especially for a soft tosser. Look for Uehara and Gonzalez to play key setup roles.
RANGERS FIFTH STARTER/CLOSER: The Rangers have made a lot of noise about moving Neftali Feliz into the rotation. He was mostly a starter in the minors and is still just 22, but considering that he was one of the best closers in the league last year, it would seem that the Rangers would be better off keeping him where he is. If Feliz stays as the closer, Derek Holland would earn the starting job. If Feliz moves into the rotation, Alexi Ogando might be the choice to close.
RAYS CLOSER: Manager Joe Maddon has stated that he wants to go to a committee approach that would involve some type of combination of Jacob McGee, Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta. While McGee has the most upside, he is a lefty and the Rays only have two other lefties - Cesar Ramos and Cesar Cabral - in the bullpen, and both are unproven. Of course, someone could be signed or emerge between now and Opening Day, but right now, McGee is the best pitcher to target for the closer's role.
RAYS 1B/2B/LF: Sean Rodriguez, Dan Johnson, Ben Zobrist, and Matt Joyce are all competing for at-bats at three positions. Look for Joyce to get the majority of starts as the left-handed bat in a left field platoon, but the other three will likely be used based on matchup. Any of these four are capable of putting up a solid fantasy season at a very cheap cost, so watch how they perform and are used during spring training.
ROYALS FIFTH STARTER: Sean O'Sullivan's spot as the fifth starter isn't rock solid, as the 6.11 ERA he posted in 14 appearances last year might indicate. He has options remaining, which might pave the way for veteran Bruce Chen to earn the job. The 33-year-old Chen pitched well for the Royals in 2010, posting an ERA+ of more than 100 for the first time since 2005 after three consecutive sub-80 seasons. His 2010 BABIP of .272 is in line with his career average, so a regression isn't necessarily a given.
TIGERS 2B: Carlos Guillen is the favorite, but after his September microfracture surgery he may not be ready in time for Opening Day. Will Rhymes and Scott Sizemore will battle it out until he returns. Sizemore has a bit more upside than Rhymes, but considering that Guillen won't be out for too long, neither of the backups will offer much value.
TIGERS LF: Ryan Raburn is slated to be the everyday left fielder, but Brennan Boesch or Casper Wells could challenge him with solid springs. As long as Raburn can avoid his usual early-season struggles, he should be able to hold them off.
TWINS CLOSER: Joe Nathan said he was already throwing 91 mph in workouts before spring training, so he seems poised to win back his closer role. However, pitchers often struggle with command initially when coming back from Tommy John surgery, and the Twins may not want to rush him back into the closer role since they have confidence in Matt Capps, who they traded a top prospect for to take over the role last season. Still, Nathan was arguably the best closer in the game before the surgery, so the Twins may accelerate his timetable with a strong spring.
TWINS FOURTH AND FIFTH STARTERS: If Scott Baker's elbow is healthy, the battle for the final two spots in the rotation likely comes down to Brian Duensing, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn. Blackburn's four-year, $14 million contract would seem to give him a leg up in the competition. Duensing had success out of the bullpen last season, so pressure may mount to make him a reliever if few options behind Nathan and Capps emerge this spring.
TWINS 2B/SS: Alexi Casilla is the leading candidate to start at shortstop or second base, whichever role Tsuyoshi Nishioka doesn't win. It's thought that Nishioka doesn't have the arm strength to play shortstop in the majors, but the Twins will make a decision in spring training. If he gets regular time, Casilla has the speed to produce stolen base totals that can help fantasy teams. He faces competition for the job from Trevor Plouffe, Matt Tolbert and Luke Hughes, but the Twins are more likely to acquire talent from outside the organization if Casilla isn't seen as ready for an everyday job.
WHITE SOX 3B: This is Brent Morel's job to lose, but Mark Teahen's paycheck could earn him a look. Teahen could also hop in if Morel's bat struggles. Dayan Viciedo is probably headed to the outfield, but he could also be a factor at the hot corner if Morel isn't up for the job.
WHITE SOX FIFTH STARTER: Manager Ozzie Guillen might only use this spot a couple of times in the first month until Jake Peavy returns from the DL, and it's possible that Peavy's stay on the bench will be brief. If the Sox are forced to go to a fifth starter, expect Phil Humber to beat out Lucas Harrell, Charlie Leesman, and Jeff Gray.
WHITE SOX CLOSER: Two southpaws are battling it out on the south side. While Matt Thornton is the frontrunner, young Chris Sale is an intriguing option. There was some thought of putting Sale into Peavy's spot early in the season, but his funky delivery might be better suited to a relief job.
YANKEES FOURTH AND FIFTH STARTERS: Starting pitching is clearly the Yankees' biggest concern entering 2011. The competition is essentially a four-man battle between Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia, Sergio Mitre and Bartolo Colon, although a dark horse - perhaps Hector Noesi - could emerge. Nova, despite throwing just 42 major league innings last season, is the favorite for one of the spots based on his potential and the moxie he demonstrated in his limited experience in 2010. Garcia posted a mediocre 4.64 ERA last season, but seems to be the best bet for the second spot, since Mitre is better suited for the bullpen and Colon hasn't thrown 100 major league innings in a season since his 2005 Cy Young campaign.
ASTROS FIFTH STARTER: Nelson Figueroa has the early lead, but one would expect Ryan Rowland-Smith to compete, and to a lesser degree, Aneury Rodriguez and Rule 5 pick Lance Pendleton. Jordan Lyles, who should eventually be better than them all, will likely begin the year in the minors.
ASTROS 1B/LF: Carlos Lee will start at one of these spots, but the Astros hope that Brett Wallace steps up and claims first base as his. The question is: is Wallace ready? If he needs more time in the minors, Lee will start at first and Brian Bogusevic may start in left, with help from Jason Michaels and others.
BRAVES FIFTH STARTER: Mike Minor may be battling Brandon Beachy, and Rodrigo Lopez, but Minor has to be the heavy favorite in this competition given his pedigree (seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft) and strong 2010 minor league numbers (3.44 ERA and 146:46 K:BB ratio in 120.1 innings). Beachy had a breakout season last year in the minors (1.73 ERA and 148:28 K:BB ratio between Double-A and Triple-A) and was a surprise call-up to the Braves in September, so he does have a bright future as a starter - it just might not be this year.
BRAVES CLOSER: Craig Kimbrel has an out-of-this-world strikeout rate (2010: 40 strikeouts in 20.2 IP with the Braves, 83 strikeouts in 55.2 IP in Triple-A), but manager Fredi Gonzalez stated that he could share closing duties with Johnny Venters this year. Kimbrel is the closer of the future and is expected to take over the role eventually, but it sounds like Gonzalez could ease him into the job. Venters is left-handed, and while he may be more suited for a setup role, he could get the ball in the ninth against tough lefties.
BREWERS CF: Carlos Gomez is slated to start, but after posting an abysmal .247/.298/.357 line last year, the Brewers may be looking for other options. Chris Dickerson should get a long look this spring, and Logan Schafer, who was supposed to compete for the role last year before injuries limited him, may figure into things as well.
CUBS 2B: Though Blake DeWitt is the likely choice, the Cubs could decide to platoon him with Jeff Baker. DeWitt's modest .719 OPS vs. right-handed pitchers last year is no match for the .945 that Baker put up against southpaws.
CUBS FIFTH STARTER: Carlos Silva was a surprising 10-game winner for the Cubs last year and is the clear frontrunner for the last spot in the rotation, but Andrew Cashner and James Russell will each get a shot to unseat him.
DIAMONDBACKS LF/1B: Of the contenders, Brandon Allen should be the favorite to win the job, but Xavier Nady's presence is troubling if Arizona sees him as anything more than an insurance policy. In a lineup that will need to recoup the pop lost in offseason departures of Mark Reynolds and Adam LaRoche, Allen could be a viable replacement after playing the position at Triple-A Reno last season. Gerardo Parra, at least for now, looks like a fourth outfielder given his lack of power and nasty platoon splits. Nady could also contend for the first base job, though he'll have to beat out Juan Miranda and the recently-signed Russell Branyan. It doesn't really seem like a battle, but if Miranda were to struggle mightily in spring training, the D-Backs would probably be open to the idea of getting Nady or Branyan or even Allen time at first base.
DIAMONDBACKS FOURTH AND FIFTH STARTERS: Two spots in the rotation will likely go to someone from this group: Armando Galarraga, Zach Duke, Barry Enright, Aaron Heilman. Do you really want to invest in any of these guys? Ultimately, one of the rotation spots will likely go to top prospect Jarrod Parker once he proves that he's 100 percent healthy again following Tommy John surgery. Until then, this uninspiring cast of hittable veterans will duke it out for the opportunity to take the ball every fifth day. Enright probably has the most upside, but his late-season numbers suggest that he still needs to add polish at Triple-A before he's ready to be a fixture as the No. 5 man. Don't be surprised if Duke and Galarraga secure the final two spots out of spring training with Heilman going to the bullpen and Enright to Reno.
DODGERS LF: Realistically, it looks like a Marcus Thames/Jay Gibbons platoon, with the latter getting 60-70% of the at-bats as long as he's hitting. However, Thames homered seven times in 82 at-bats versus right-handed pitchers last year, so it's certainly possible he could be in line for full-time duty given a strong spring. Tony Gwynn Jr. could figure into things, but he's more likely to be used as a defensive replacement/pinch-runner. Jerry Sands and Trayvon Robinson both need a little minor league seasoning, but given the unattractive options ahead of them on the organizational depth chart, it won't be long until either - or both - are ready to rake in the majors.
DODGERS CLOSER: This job is Jonathan Broxton's to lose, and if you saw him over the second half of 2010 (7.13 ERA after the All-Star break a year ago once his command and confidence abandoned him), he could certainly lose it this spring. Hong-Chih Kuo's mere 56 games pitched last year were a career-high, as he was treated with kid gloves due to the four elbow surgeries (two Tommy John's) on his charts. The Dodgers really don't have another reliable left-handed relief option so it's far more likely that Kuo stays as one of the best setup men in the game.
GIANTS 1B/LF: A lot of this hinges on rookie Brandon Belt, one of the brightest prospects in the game. If he goes nuts this spring, he could claim first base outright, moving Aubrey Huff to left field. However, if Belt starts the year in the minors, Huff will man first base and Pat Burrell and Mark DeRosa will duke it out in left. Burrell is the favorite there, as DeRosa is versatile enough to handle a number of other positions, including third base (if Pablo Sandoval's struggles continue).
MARLINS CF/3B: What the Marlins want is to have Chris Coghlan in center field and Matt Dominguez at third. There's a couple of problems with that plan though. One, Coghlan is coming off knee surgery and has sub-par range for a left fielder; the chances of him being able to handle center defensively are pretty remote. Two, Dominguez wasn't able to make any kind of impact with his bat at Double-A last year, so asking him to make the jump straight to the majors and hold his own at the plate is just a little bit crazy. If Coghlan flops in center, that likely solves the third base problem as well, as Coghlan would move to second and bump Omar Infante over to the hot corner (and Dominguez back to the minors, where he probably belongs). The other internal options in center, Scott Cousins and Emilio Bonifacio, aren't anything special, but at least they can cover some ground. If Coghlan holds up and Dominguez doesn't, though, the team could use Wes Helms and Bonifacio in a time-share at third or give Osvaldo Martinez, who had a breakthrough season at Double-A last year but is blocked at shortstop, a look at either second or third (with Infante manning the other spot). Got all that?
METS FOURTH AND FIFTH STARTERS: With Johan Santana out the first three months of the season, the Mets will be auditioning a cast of thousands for the last two spots. Chris Young, who is coming off a shoulder injury, was signed to a one-year deal, as was Chris Capuano. The two oft-injured veterans are the favorites to fill those two slots. Others in the mix include Dillon Gee, who pitched well after he was promoted last season, D.J. Carrasco, who was signed as a free agent and will more than likely be in the bullpen, Pat Misch, who saw time with the team the last two years, Jenrry Mejia, who is expected to be sent back to Triple-A for more seasoning, and Boof Bonser, who is on a minor-league deal.
METS 2B: Luis Castillo is in the final year of his three-year contract and Mets fans would love to see him gone. Right now, the spot is considered wide open with Castillo part of the mix to fill the job. Others fighting for the role include Daniel Murphy, Brad Emaus, Justin Turner, and Ruben Tejada. Murphy suffered an injury in spring training last year, costing him the spot at first base. After recovering, he played some second base when a take-out slide ended his year. Emaus is a Rule 5 pick from Toronto with solid power and good eye at the plate, Turner was acquired off waivers from Baltimore last May and played well at Triple-A Buffalo and Tejada filled in last year at both second and short and is likely ticketed to spend the year in the minors.
NATIONALS FOURTH AND FIFTH STARTERS: Washington can't wait to get Steven Strasburg back. Until then, they'll have to make do with the likes of John Lannan, Tom Gorzelanny, Luis Atilano, Yunesky Maya, and Chien-Ming Wang (if he ever gets healthy) at the back of their rotation. Gorzelanny, acquired from the Cubs in January, figures to have one job, with John Lannan holding down the other. The 25-year-old Atilano, who started 16 games for the Nationals before getting shut down with bone chips in his elbow in July, has already been sent down. The Cuban Maya didn't pitch so well last year in his pro debut, but he didn't have long to acclimate himself after he was signed by Washington right around the same time Atilano got hurt. There is potential here, and he'll be given a chance to earn his way onto the team.
PADRES FOURTH AND FIFTH STARTERS: The Padres didn't sign Aaron Harang to make him a reliever, but he hasn't been good since 2007 and may still have to audition for a starting role. Wade LeBlanc, Cory Luebke and Dustin Moseley are all in the running for starting jobs as well. Given how well Petco Park seems to help pitchers, the winners of these jobs could be worth $1 darts in NL-only leagues.
PHILLIES RF: The Phillies really want Domonic Brown to win this job, and he has a bright future, but he's still just 23 and has just 62 big-league at-bats under his belt. He's expected to get a very long look this spring. Ben Francisco seems like a safer short-term bet in right, though he's just keeping the seat warm for Brown. John Mayberry and Ross Gload are also in the mix.
PIRATES RF: Although Garrett Jones and Matt Diaz are both competing for the right field job, the best thing that could happen for the Pirates would be a strict platoon, with Jones as the left-handed hitter and Diaz as the a righty. Jones considered the signing of Diaz to be a “demotion,” but considering how poorly he hit against lefties, it makes sense.
PIRATES FIFTH STARTER: Scott Olsen and Charlie Morton are the main competitors, with Brad Lincoln also in the mix. A week ago, Olsen would have been considered the leader, especially when you consider the awful season Morton had last year, but he's been shut down for a week with a tight hamstring, so he'll be a little behind once he starts pitching. Ultimately, the Pirates would prefer to have the left-handed Olsen in the rotation, so he'll just need to get and stay healthy to earn the spot.
REDS FOURTH AND FIFTH STARTERS: Homer Bailey is out of options and surely would not be able to pass through waivers, so he figures to get one of these spots. That leaves Travis Wood and Mike Leake to battle it out for No. 5. Leake started out like gangbusters last year before fading in the second half, while Wood pitched much better, first in Triple-A Louisville and then with the Reds in the regular season and postseason. If Wood wins the job, Leake will get the much-needed minor league experience he bypassed last year.
REDS LF:Jonny Gomes is nominally the starter, but the Reds brought in Fred Lewis, who could at least platoon with him and would be the leadoff hitter the Reds are looking for. Chris Heisey is also in the picture, and in the long run, the Reds hope that Yonder Alonso could hack it out here, but he's probably not ready to become a full-time outfielder yet.
ROCKIES 2B: Jose Lopez is clearly the favorite to take the job, but could be supplanted in the early stages of the season. Eric Young Jr. was only able to steal four bases last season before a stress fracture in his lower leg sidelined him until mid-August. When he came back, he picked up where he left off, stealing 13 bases in 38 games. He's extremely fast, but still learning the art of base stealing, as evidenced by the six times he was caught stealing in 23 attempts. His plate discipline needs work, but given enough at-bats, he should help any owner in need of speed. Jon Herrera wasn't bad during his time in Colorado last year, but he's more likely to be a utility infielder this year.