This article is part of our In Some Depth series.
Another season, another year of In Some Depth. This article is my weekly tour of MLB depth charts to decipher playing time situations that may lead to under-appreciated players. Spring battles decided the kings of many depth charts, but many of those kings will fall over the course of the season, be it because of health, fast-approaching prospects, performance decline, team transactions, clash of personalities or any other in a number of reasons.
There are two twists for this column for 2015. One, this article will appear on Tuesdays rather than Mondays. Two, I'll also take a bit of a dive into batting orders, as apparently that is important for those of you in DFS.
It might be hasty to draw too many conclusions from managers' decisions from the first week of the season, but below are a few situations I am tracking.
Blue Jays 1B
Edwin Encarnacion was the Jays' Opening Day first baseman, and he started Sunday against the Orioles, but he has shifted to designated hitter for the rest of the Jays' games. In his place, Justin Smoak has had the better side of a lefty-righty platoon with Danny Valencia. Smoak is a former uber-prospect who might have a bit more potential now that he no longer plays his home games at Safeco Field. However, he has slugged just .380 over nearly 2,000 at-bats, and he has already passed his 28th birthday. In other words, he probably will not offer much more than the overly-average Danny Valencia. Still, both Smoak and Valencia look to get some plate appearances in what figures to be an excellent Toronto offense.
Back in 2013, Rajai Davis was getting pushed for playing time in the Toronto outfield by a toolsy prospect named Anthony Gose. Not two years later, the same is happening in Detroit. While Gose may not keep up his otherworldly pace of the first week of the season, he does appear to be the Tigers' center fielder of choice against right-handed pitchers. Given that he is one of the few Tigers' regulars on the right side of 25, there is the possibility he will see time against left-handed pitchers as well. Davis should continue to see time against those lefties for now, and he posses enough speed in his feet to have value even as a fourth outfielder.
White Sox 2B
Both Micah Johnson and Carlos Sanchez had impressive springs, but Johnson's early lead and elite speed doomed Sanchez to Triple-A Charlotte after a week in the majors (while the White Sox had an extra roster spot open due to Chris Sale's injury). Johnson may have above-average speed, but his hitting ability remains to be seen and he's an awkward defender. The feet should keep him in the starting role for now, but Gordon Beckham or the hitherto unseen Emilio Bonifacio could take on bigger roles if Johnson's other tools don't play. Sanchez could also return from Triple-A later in the season if Johnson's bottom falls out.
Prior to the season, it looked like the Braves might have timeshares all over the field. One week into the season and the team's most prominent platoon has been at third base, where Alberto Callaspo has shared the position with incumbent Chris Johnson. Johnson is two years removed from his breakout .321 average campaign, he failed to OBP .300 last season, and he is already on the wrong side of 30. Callaspo also failed to OBP in 2014, and he is even further from 30 than Johnson. However, it has been the switch-hitting Callapso to make the most starts at third. Johnson could begin to see more starts if the defensively versatile Callapso begins to slide to other spots in the infield.
Will Middlebrooks and Yangervis Solarte entered spring training in a battle for the Padres' starting third base gig. Middlebrooks won that battle, and he has started all but one of the Padres' contests through Monday. Solarte, on the other hand, has started as well but exclusively on the left side of the infield. Cory Spangenberg made the start at third base in Middlebrooks' sole game off, but he appears to be in even deeper of a utility role than Solarte. Middlebrooks' bat has yet to do much other than miss the ball through one week's worth of games, and Solarte would likely be the heir to the position should Middlebrooks meet the bench.
The Dodgers are showing little loyalty to longtime catcher A.J. Ellis. He may have started two of the Dodgers' first five games, but Clayton Kershaw was his battery-mate for both of those starts. That latter fact should not be too surprising given that Kershaw publicly lobbied the Dodgers to retain Ellis in the offseason. Yasmani Grandal caught for the Dodgers' other four starters, and his offensive potential appears to interest the Dodgers more than Ellis' tenure with the club. Ellis may make a greater percentage starts behind the plate as the season wears on, but it would be hard to see him earning too much playing time after he posted a 67 OPS+ in 2014.
The Yasmany Tomas-to-third base experiment fizzled out in spring training, so the Diamondbacks have begun the season with a platoon of Aaron Hill and Jake Lamb at the hot corner (while Tomas has exclusively played the outfield for Triple-A
Albuquerque Reno). The right-handed Hill and left-handed Lamb have started against the appropriate starting pitchers, but I would not be surprised to see Lamb take a more dominant role if he continues to hit the way he has. He had equivalent OPS's against left- and right-handed starters last year at Double-A Mobile, and he did not have his drivers license when Hill made his MLB debut in 2005. Then again, he has limited experience above the Double-A level
Teams generally seem to be hesitant to offer prime lineup spots to rookies, especially in the first few weeks of the season. This has not been the case in Toronto, where Dalton Pompey replaced Russell Martin in the No. 2 hole by the fourth game of the season. Martin may have the OBP edge, but Pompey gives the team a speedy 1-2 combo with Jose Reyes. He should receive additional stolen base opportunities with the elevated lineup position.
Rays No. 3 - Asdrubal Cabrera
I was somewhat surprised to see Cabrera bat third in every Rays game thus far given that he has not posted an OPS+ above 100 since 2012, and has barely gotten on base at a 30 percent clip the past two seasons. He has a career .786 OBP from the third spot in the lineup, but the plurality of those at-bats came in 2011. Then I took a look at the rest of the Rays' lineup, and there does not appear too many candidates to push Cabrera from the heart of the order. Matt Joyce and Evan Longoria hit there most frequently in 2014, but the former is now in Anaheim and the latter hits fourth.
A's No. 9 - Marcus Semien
Marcus Semien had a knack for getting on base throughout his tenure in the White Sox's organization, so it seemed to reason that he might hit up in the lineup in Oakland. After all, he was a disappointing hitter last year in Chicago and still logged more than 100 plate appearances from the No. 2 spot. But it seems like it is not to be in Oakland, where he started the year hitting eighth and has since moved to ninth after Josh Reddick returned from the DL. He could move up in the lineup if Sam Fuld folds, but he appears to be stuck at the bottom for now.
Not only has Matt Joyce taken over for the injured/maligned Josh Hamilton in the Angels' outfield, but he has also taken over primary the primary duties of the Angels' cleanup hitter, at least against right-handed starting pitchers. David Freese has filled that role against left-handed starters. The Angels' offense has sputtered a bit through the season's first week, but both men should come to the plate with men on base while batting behind Mike Trout and Albert Pujols.
Brewers No. 2 - Jonathan Lucroy
Lucroy hit second 30 times for the Brewers in 2014, but it still surprised me to see him hit there in six of the Brewers' first seven contests. Perhaps it's just my innate bias that all catchers are slow-footed plodders who are better suited to bat the middle third of the lineup, while the No. spot might more logically be filled by someone like Jean Segura or Scooter Gennett. Still, Lucroy's high-.300's OBP should play in the No. 2 spot, and he could very well be among the positional leaders in runs scored if he sticks there for a while.