A week into March, spring training is well under way. Many veteran players lament having to go through the grind, but for others, this time of year provides hope in many forms.
Be it a career revival after a down season, a former standout looking to bounce back from a key injury or an unproven player fighting for a roster spot or starting position, spring training provides plenty of reasons for baseball fans to start paying attention early.
Most teams have at least a handful of players who fall into one or more of the aforementioned categories, leading to some intriguing position battles as we work toward opening day. Here I’ll break down eight of the most interesting competitions heading into the 2012 MLB season.
Arizona seemed to be set in the outfield with rising star and 2011 MVP candidate Justin Upton in right, perennial 20/20 threat Chris Young in center and 2011 Gold Glove winner Gerardo Parra in left. Apparently the team feels that Kubel’s liability as a defender is offset by his above-average bat, one that increases in value with a move to the hitter-friendly confines of Chase Field.
Young would appear to be the biggest loser in this potential platoon as Parra is going to get a lot of work in center field this spring, as the team tries to keep his spectacular glove, solid average and plus-speed in the lineup regularly.
While reaching the 20/20 mark three out of his five full seasons in the majors, the 28-year-old Young has yet to hit better than .257 or strike out fewer than 133 times, and Arizona’s brass has made a concerted effort to purge the lineup of players with low contact rates over the past two seasons.
Young appeared to be on his way to a career year before a thumb injury sapped his power last June. Unfortunately for him, the acquisition of Kubel could spell the end of his days as a full-time starter in Arizona.
This probably ends up being a platoon, with both Young and Kubel getting four to five starts per week and Parra spelling them the other two days.
Having four quality outfielders would seem to be a good problem to have; however, what remains to be seen is how Kubel will adjust to the National League, and how any of the three will respond to a decrease in regular at bats.
Given the $21 million that Vernon Wells is owed this season, it’ll be nearly impossible for Trout to win this job outright during the spring, and the Angels have insisted that they will not open the season with Trout on the Major League roster if they don’t have a place to play him everyday.
Given his struggles during his MLB debut last year, that’s not a bad approach for the team. However, it isn’t the performance of any of Anaheim’s other outfielders that is blocking the future star’s path to the big leagues.
Bobby Abreu finally appeared to lose his battle with Father Time last year, and at 38 is nothing more than a platoon player at this point in his career.
Wells regained some of his power last season, producing 25 home runs in only 131 games. But his .218 average and .248 OBP are absolutely unacceptable for a team expecting to contend for a World Series this year, and at 33 his days as a 15 to 20 stolen base threat are far behind him.
Peter Bourjos emerged as a solid starter in center field, providing unexpected pop to go along with stellar defense and 22 stolen bases. The Angels would love for him to get on base a little more, but Trout has zero chance of taking his starting job out of camp barring an injury.
Torii Hunter proved that he still has a bit left in the tank, even at 36. Like Wells, he’s no longer a legitimate stolen base threat, though his .262 average makes him look like Tony Gwynn compared to Wells. He doesn’t get on base frequently enough, and he no longer flashes the elite glove that was his calling card throughout his 15-year career, but he's also far from a liability.
Any outside shot that Trout has of getting regular playing time with the Angels to start the year has been slowed by a bout with the flu, causing him to lose 10 pounds and miss valuable spring at bats.
Like Harper, expect Trout to spend at least a month or two in the minors before reemerging in the Majors for good, but be aware that a slow start by any of Anaheim’s geriatric outfield crowd could accelerate Trout’s Rookie of the Year campaign.
Garcia and Hughes had vastly different 2011 seasons, but the final spot in New York’s rotation would appear to be Hughes’ to lose heading into 2012.
Garcia was a pleasant surprise for the Yankees last year, delivering a much-needed 12-8 record and 3.62 ERA in only 25 starts. His WHIP (1.34) and batting average against (.268) were nothing to write home about, but his steadiness was a major component to the team’s regular season success.
Hughes, on the other hand, failed miserably in his attempt to make progress toward becoming the front-of-the-rotation starter that the Yankees have long expected him to be.
Following a promising 2010 campaign during which he won 18 games with a 1.25 WHIP, a 2.5:1 K:Walk ratio and a .244 batting average against (BAA), 2011 was absolutely abysmal from both a health (only 17 appearances, including 14 starts) and performance (5.79 ERA, .283 BAA, 1.49 WHIP) perspective for Hughes.
He's still only 25, so it’s far too early to give up on his career, but if the Yankees are too have a legitimate shot at repeating as AL East champions and reaching the World Series, Hughes is going to have to pitch like a strong No. 3 starter at worst.
With 2010 NL MVP Joey Votto blocking his path to the Majors, Alonso was the main catch for the Padres in the offseason deal that sent starter Mat Latos to the Reds. Given the caliber of starter they gave up to get him, and following two strong seasons at the Triple-A level, Alonso would appear to be the favorite to break camp as the starter at first base for San Diego.
Jesus Guzman will certainly force Alonso to earn this job. After a career spent organization hopping and toiling in the minor leagues, Guzman came out of nowhere to post a strong second half in 2011. His .312 average, nine stolen bases and 22 doubles in less than 250 at-bats were a welcome sight for fantasy owners needing a late-season call-up to carry them down the stretch.
If both players perform well during the spring, Guzman could emerge as a solid backup, or a valuable trade chip for the Padres. Otherwise, Alonso would have to struggle mightily for the organization to deny him the shot that he never could get in Cincinnati. The presence of Guzman and the frustration of sitting behind Votto for the last two years should be sufficient motivation for the next Adrian Gonzalez.
I previewed this competition in my Dodgers vs. Giants position-by-position comparison a couple of weeks ago, and this presents itself as a huge opportunity for Belt to prove that he deserves more regular time in the Giants' lineup in 2012.
Though he struggled during his initial stint with the big-league club last season, Belt flashed some of the power the Giants expected from him during his second tour after being called up for good in July. His emergence, combined with the season-long struggles of Aubrey Huff following a resurgent 2010, have created a possible opening at first.
Left field, the position at which Belt spent most of his time playing in 2011, is settled with the acquisition of Melky Cabrera in the trade that sent lefty Jonathan Sanchez to Kansas City. That leaves first base and right field—tentatively held by incumbent Nate Schierholtz—as the only positions where Belt can get meaningful playing time this year.
If Huff struggles to regain his form in the spring and Belt continues to build on a solid end to 2011, the first base job could be his.
Given his clear path to immediate playing time in 2012, Montero has emerged as the No. 1 prospect in baseball based on his combination of talent, and opportunity.
The Mariners surprised many when they dealt young fireballer Michael Pineda to the Yankees in exchange for Montero, especially since Pineda seemed a better fit in the pitcher-friendly confines of Seattle’s Petco Park.
The deal received more skepticism because it was believed that Montero would emerge as a career DH, but the Mariners have insisted that they will give him every opportunity to earn regular time behind the plate.
Montero’s ability to catch on a semi-regular basis has consequences all over the Seattle lineup. If he can prove to be serviceable defensively, it could drastically improve the team’s offense as it would allow projected left fielder Mike Carp to gain more at-bats in the DH role, and open up playing time in the outfield for Trayvon Robinson, another promising young talent.
While lacking elite skills in any category, Robinson’s solid average, surprising power and plus-speed would be a major offensive upgrade over catcher Miguel Olivo.
The moves won’t make the Mariners contenders anytime soon, but it could go along way toward making them resemble a competent Major League offense.
With the talent that Texas has at every other position on the diamond, the center field competition would seem to come down to an audition featuring the lesser of three evils. But given the tenuous health of corner outfielders Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz, solidifying center could go a long way toward helping the Rangers make a third straight World Series appearance.
Craig Gentry enters camp as the favorite if for no other reason than the alternatives come with considerably more question marks. Gentry showed off sound defense and superb baserunning skills during limited opportunities last season, and the Rangers are hoping that he can duplicate that performance over a larger sample size.
The ideal scenario would be for either onetime center fielder of the future Julio Borbon to finally take charge of the position for good, or for current flavor of the month Leonys Martin to show that he is capable of handling a full-time Major League position, but neither of those is likely to occur.
Borbon teased Texas during the 2009 season with his elite speed, sneaky power and a .312 average during a 46-game stint in the Majors. He failed to build on that performance when given the full-time job in 2010, and his 2011 season was reduced to 32 games because of hamstring and ankle injuries.
Still only 26, and with less than 700 career at-bats at the major league level, it’s way too early to give up on Borbon’s upside. With that said, this could be his last good chance to earn a regular spot in the Texas lineup.
Martin is a long shot to even break camp as part of the Major League roster, but given manager Ron Washington’s preference for an open competition for the center field job, a spectacular spring could put him on the fast track to becoming the long-term answer in Texas.
Yes, there is folly in putting too much stock in spring statistics, but the Rangers have a strong enough lineup to endure a slow start by Martin, and they could easily go back to Gentry or Borbon if the Cuban defector’s struggles were too pronounced.
The Nationals have maintained since the day they drafted Harper in 2010 that they would not rush him to the Majors at the risk of jeopardizing his long-term development. To this point, they have given no indication that they are backing off of that claim.
But a strong spring by the most hyped prospect since A-Rod could force the Nats’ hand.
Washington brought first baseman Adam LaRoche in as a free agent prior to the 2011 season, following a 2010 during which he hit 25 home runs and drove in a career-best 100 runs for the Diamondbacks.
But LaRoche got off to a wretched start in 42 games last year, hitting .172 with only three HRs before being shut down following surgery to repair a torn labrum.
LaRoche claims to be 100 percent recovered from the shoulder injury, but if he struggles to demonstrate that he can be productive again and Harper is lights-out over the next few weeks, Washington may have no choice but to give Harper a shot in left field. That would shift last year’s breakout star and interim first baseman Mike Morse back to the infield.
The Nationals have a much improved rotation led by a fully recovered Stephen Strasburg and former Oakland A’s left-hander Gio Gonzalez. If Ryan Zimmerman can stay healthy and justify his massive contract extension, this team can contend for at least a Wild Card spot this season, and Harper may be the player to put them over the top.