Oh, the wonders of spring. It's a time of rebirth, little bunnies prancing around in the meadows, colorful flowers blooming, and baseball. Mainly baseball.
However, the part of spring that has the most importance is the position battle. During Spring Training, teams will be faced with crucial decisions about who plays where that could possibly have a major impact on how the team will fare during the regular season.
Every team has a position battle, with the importance of these battles varying from team to team. No matter what, these battles are fun to watch as players duke it out for the right to get a majority of the at-bats or starts.
Here is each team's biggest position battle heading into Spring Training.
Competitors: Gerardo Parra and Jason Kubel
This is a classic battle of a speedy defensive-minded outfielder against a power-hitting one. Kubel was a nice free-agent signing for the Diamondbacks, but he'll have to beat out Parra, an excellent fielder and great at getting on base, in order to get major at-bats in Arizona.
Competitors: Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, Julio Teheran
With Brandon Beachy pretty firmly in the position of fourth starter, the five slot is up for grabs for a team with incredible pitching depth. Minor, Delgado and Teheran are all tremendously talented pitchers, but unless Atlanta chooses to go with the ever-popular seven-man rotation, not all of them will start this year in the majors. My early favorite is Minor.
Competitors: Kevin Gregg, Jim Johnson
Gregg was ineffective last year (but then again, which Oriole wasn't?), and that may have cost him the "incumbent" label going into this year. Johnson, on the other hand, was very effective. In 69 appearances, he was 6-5 with a 2.67 ERA and nine saves. I doubt Gregg has such a firm grasp on the closer position that Johnson can't pry it away from him in March.
Competitors: Ryan Kalish, Darnell McDonald, Cody Ross
All three of these guys have a legitimate shot at winning the starting job. You have to imagine that Josh Reddick would have been the favorite, but he's gone now and the door is wide open. The Red Sox like McDonald to be a platoon guy, but he could easily start. Kalish has been itching for a shot for a while now, but Ross has some good experience. This could be interesting.
Competitors: Bryan LaHair and Anthony Rizzo
This is an intriguing battle, mainly because both of these guys are pure power hitters who absolutely tore up minor league pitching but have struggled in the majors. Jed Hoyer loved Rizzo so much that he brought him to Chicago. That makes me think Rizzo might be the favorite going into Spring Training. Other than that, it's a wide-open race.
Competitors: Jesse Crain and Matt Thornton
With Chris Sale moving to the rotation to fill the void left by Mark Buehrle, the race for closer of the White Sox is wide open. The two clear favorites are Crain and Thornton, a pair of battle-tested and effective relievers. Neither of them is going to be a shutdown closer, but one of them has to assume the ninth-inning role. My early pick would be Thornton.
Competitors: Ryan Hanigan and Devin Mesoraco
The real factor in this battle is experience. Hanigan certainly has it, but Mesoraco is a young gun who would be seeing his first major experience in the bigs. However, after the Reds shipped off two top prospects to San Diego this winter, the Reds might want to put Mesoraco in the fire first to show fans that they are still committed to player development. Either would be a good option, though.
Competitors: Jack Hannahan and Lonnie Chisenhall
These two guys split time last year at third base, and neither of them blew anyone away. Chisenhall is obviously younger and has a much higher ceiling than the veteran Hannahan. Right now, Hannahan is listed as first on the team's depth chart. However, a strong spring from Chisenhall might win him more at-bats and possibly even the majority of the playing time. He's certainly got the talent to do it.
Competitors: Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Tyler Chatwood, Guillermo Moscoso
The first two guys are the prospects acquired by the Rockies in exchange for Ubaldo Jimenez last July. The second two are former AL West products who will get their first taste of Coors Field this year. The favorites going in are probably Pomeranz and White, but Chatwood certainly has the talent to unseat one of them (probably White). Moscoso is a dark horse, but probably won't see much time starting.
Competitors: Andy Dirks and Don Kelly
By far Detroit's weakest position, the spot in left field will belong to one of these two guys, neither of whom will put up big numbers. This battle might honestly come down to who has the better spring, but Jim Leyland may also choose to platoon the two based on lefty/righty splits. With Delmon Young now likely to DH, this position battle will be Detroit's only one.
Positions: Right Field, Third Base, Catcher, etc.
The Astros are obviously still searching for somewhat of an identity, and much of the product they put on the field on Opening Day will be determined by Spring Training. It's going to be interesting, but the Astros have a good amount of talent and, if anything, these battles should make players better.
Competitors: Brayan Pena and Salvador Perez
Neither of these guys lit it up in 2011, but of the two, Perez was the one who hit slightly better. However, it wasn't nearly convincing enough for me to think he has a firm grasp on the starting job. Depending on how the Royals feel about their respective defensive abilities and what they can contribute offensively, either of these guys could probably win.
Competitors: Mark Trumbo, Bobby Abreu, Kendry Morales, Vernon Wells
Here's the deal—with Albert Pujols at first base, Trumbo and Morales are suddenly displaced (cue ASPCA commercial music). Trumbo will probably be moved to third, which means that Morales is still homeless. If he plays DH, Abreu will have to battle Vernon Wells in left field. If not, Abreu will be DH, Wells will play left field, and Morales is the odd man out. It's an awkward situation, but one most teams would die to have.
Competitors: Javy Guerra and Kenley Jansen
Guerra assumed the closer's role last year, and did remarkably well for someone with little prior closing experience. However, Jansen was by far the Dodgers' most effective reliever, and showed that he deserves a shot at closing. Jansen and his 16.1 K/9 ratio might unseat Guerra sooner rather than later, but how each guy pitches in spring might determine who starts as closer.
Competitors: Hanley Ramirez, Hanley Ramirez's ego
This is more about whether Hanley can really play third base. It was a move that had to happen the moment Jose Reyes was signed. The mystery now is whether Ramirez can handle the switch.
We know the offense will still be there, but Ramirez may or may not be a defensive liability. Plus, will being kicked out of his natural position cause Ramirez to beg for a trade? We'll have to see.
The biggest question will be who fills in for Ryan Braun while the slugger is suspended, but in all likelihood, that will probably be Carlos Gomez. Mat Gamel will fill in at first base for Prince Fielder, and aside from that, most positions are firmly settled. This is a very solid team, but don't confuse not having position battles with being an elite team.
Competitors: Jamey Carroll and Tsuyoshi Nishioka
Carroll hit .290 last year in 140 games for the Dodgers, which is solid production from a solid shortstop. Nishioka hit .226 in his 68 games last year. On paper, it seems to not be a contest. But the Twins do love Nishioka, and perhaps bringing in Carroll would serve as encouragement for the Japanese import to play to his potential. Either of these guys could start Opening Day.
Competitors: Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch, Bobby Parnell, others
That the MLB.com website has Francisco penciled in as closer is a joke to me. He was hardly effective in Toronto last year, and to call him the closer already is pretty foolish. The Mets should at least give Rauch and Parnell a shot. And though I think Francisco will ultimately win the job, it should not be a foregone conclusion by any means.
Competitors: A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes, Freddy Garcia
Now that the front four of New York's rotation is set, the focus will turn to filling the fifth spot. With three viable options, one of whom is owed more than $10 million this year, the Yankees will face a tough decision. Burnett, Hughes and Garcia are all good pitchers, but it's going to be tough to pick just one, especially early. This will likely be a season-long battle that will be constantly changing based on how they pitch.
Competitors: Grant Balfour, Brian Fuentes, Fautino De Los Santos
Any of these guys could honestly win the job, but Fuentes sticks out as an early favorite to me because of his prior experience. However, it should be a wide-open race to start. In a season where the A's probably won't be competing, this might be a time to experiment with De Los Santos in the closer role.
Competitors: John Mayberry, Domonic Brown, Laynce Nix
This should be a really interesting competition to watch, especially because of Brown. In a sense, he is at risk of losing his "blue-chip prospect" status simply because he hasn't gotten playing time and when he has, he hasn't produced. This could be his make-or-break year, but he'll have to beat out Mayberry, who is the likely favorite, and the outsider Nix.
Competitors: Pedro Alvarez, Casey McGehee
I think the early favorite here has to be McGehee, the former Brewers third baseman who can put up some good offensive numbers. Alvarez, though, is a homegrown product who has shown flashes of brilliance in the majors. He's a good player, but so is McGehee. If the Pirates give them both equal opportunities this spring, the winner may be determined during the month of March.
Competitors: Jesus Guzman and Yonder Alonso
This is going to be interesting because of the price the Padres paid for Alonso. Guzman had a great year in limited time last year, showing a good bat and a tremendous glove. However, Alonso is a blue-chip prospect with the potential to be a middle-of-the-lineup fixture for years. The longer they wait on him, the more of a chance that he gets upset or stagnates. We'll have to see.
Competitors:Aubrey Huff and Brandon Belt
With the talk of Belt moving to the outfield, this might become a noncompetitive battle. However, I think Belt's best fit is at first base, and an aging Aubrey Huff might have to give way to Belt. It's going to be a battle for a while, but I think the Giants are itching to give Belt the full-time job at first base. If there's any sort of slump from Huff, I'd watch for Belt to get more and more playing time.
Competitors: Blake Beaven, Charlie Furbush, Hector Noesi
Right now, Beaven and Furbush have the fourth and fifth slots in the rotation locked down. However, Noesi, the former Yankees pitcher, is now in the mix. He could definitely unseat one of the two, depending on how he pitches during the spring and early in the season. I wouldn't count on it being a real heated battle, but Noesi could surprise.
Craig, one of the Cardinals' big-time postseason heroes, will enter 2012 without a starting job. He is going to be on the bench to start the year, but you know Mike Matheny would love to get him some playing time. Craig is a great player who is simply in a situation where there are better players ahead of him. He could platoon, but that might be the only way for him to get significant at-bats.
Competitors: Matt Moore, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, Alex Cobb
With baseball's best rotation (yeah, I said it), the Rays have a happy problem here. James Shields, David Price and Jeremy Hellickson are firmly the top three pitchers in the rotation. Beyond that, there are four good options for two spots. Many people have wanted Moore to start the season in the minors, but personally, I'd put him in the majors. The other spot is likely Niemann or Davis, and Davis is probably the more likely choice.
The flame-throwing righty is in a precarious position. He did very well last year as a starter in the regular season and as a reliever in the postseason. With the addition of Yu Darvish and the possibility of Neftali Feliz moving into the rotation, Ogando could be either a starter or a reliever. To start, I think the Rangers will put him in the bullpen, but with an injury or slump in the rotation, the big righty could easily become a starter again.
Competitors: Travis Snider and Eric Thames
Thames saw a majority of the playing time last year, and probably will enter Spring Training as the favorite. But Snider is a better hitter and probably will be a more valuable player. This could be a platoon, especially with Snider being a lefty, but one of these guys could very easy catch fire and secure the job all to himself.
Here's the thing— everyone wants the Nationals to let Bryce Harper start the season in the majors. The question is where to put him. The obvious choice is to unseat Roger Bernandina in center field, shift Jayson Werth to center, and put Harper in right field. However, whether that's in Washington's best interest remains to be seen. The Nationals higher-ups have a big decision to make on Harper, and we'll know soon what will happen with the super prospect.