One Position Battle All 30 MLB Teams Must Watch Very Closely in Spring Training
Spring training is traditionally a time when each MLB team works to ready themselves for the upcoming regular season. It's also when many position battles take shape.
While each team has worked diligently throughout the offseason to set its lineups for the upcoming year, not every position is set in stone.
Prospects and utility players alike do their best to not only earn a roster spot, but to convince managers and coaches that they deserve a chance to play every day.
Here is a breakdown of the most pivotal position battle for each MLB team to watch during spring training.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Outfield
Will outfielder Jason Kubel still be with the Arizona Diamondbacks on Opening Day?
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With the trade of Justin Upton last week to the Atlanta Braves, the Arizona Diamondbacks somewhat alleviated a logjam in their outfield.
There are still six outfielders on the roster, however.
Gerardo Parra, Cody Ross, Jason Kubel, Adam Eaton, A.J. Pollock and Eric Hinske comprise the current Diamondbacks outfield. Hinske was signed strictly as a utility option, leaving five to fight for extended playing time.
Parra is likely penciled in for now as the starting center fielder, with Ross manning right field and Kubel continuing in left.
With Upton's trade, the chances of Kubel now being dealt by Arizona are far less likely. Prior to the trade, Kubel was generating interest from the Baltimore Orioles.
With Kubel still in town, it's also likely that either Pollock or Eaton will start the season in Triple-A.
However, the defensive alignment of Kubel, Parra and Ross is not optimal. Six weeks in spring training could go a long way in determining the Diamondbacks' starting outfield.
Atlanta Braves: 3rd Base
Third baseman Chris Johnson will vie for playing time in Atlanta along with Juan Francisco.
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With the trade that sent Martin Prado to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for outfielder Justin Upton, the Atlanta Braves now have an outfield set in stone.
However, third base is still in question.
The Braves also received Chris Johnson in the deal. Johnson impressed in his short time with Arizona, hitting .286 with seven HR and 35 RBI in 44 games.
In Atlanta, Johnson will be competing with Juan Francisco, and the possibility of a platoon certainly exists. However, general manager Frank Wren left open the possibility that one could emerge over the other during spring training.
Baltimore Orioles: Left Field
The competition for left field between Nolan Reimold and Nate McLouth will indeed be spirited.
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Earlier this month, the Baltimore Orioles signed left fielder Nolan Reimold to a one-year, $1 million contract. He doubled his previous salary despite playing in just 16 games in 2012.
Throughout his brief career, Reimold has shown some pop in the bat and the ability to help the offense. However, injuries have marred his progress.
Reimold will be vying for playing time along with Nate McLouth, who provided a boost for the Orioles last season in Reimold's absence. McLouth was signed this offseason for one year and $2 million.
Reserves Trayvon Robinson, L.J. Hoes and Xavier Avery are also in the mix, but Reimold and McLouth will be the two to watch as spring training unfolds.
Boston Red Sox: Left Field
Can outfielder Jonny Gomes play every day for the Boston Red Sox?
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The Boston Red Sox signed outfielder Jonny Gomes to take on a regular role in left field. However, his splits suggest he may not be up for the task.
Gomes murders left-handed pitching, posting a .299 average with a .974 OPS against southpaws last season for the Oakland A's. However, when facing right-handers, Gomes is anemic.
He hit just .209 with a .715 OPS last year against right-handed pitching, and considering how often righties pitch, that could certainly be an issue.
The Sox were further hurt by the news that Ryan Kalish will undergo surgery on his right shoulder. Kalish will miss all of spring training and it's unclear when he'll be able to start the season.
The Sox signed Ryan Sweeney to a minor league deal, and they also have Daniel Nava as an internal candidate to platoon with Gomes.
More moves could come before the Sox open spring training, but there's no question that left field will be the hot topic of conversation in terms of position battles.
Chicago Cubs: 3rd Base
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Chicago Cubs third baseman Ian Stewart firmly believes that his lingering wrist issues from the past two years are behind him.
The Cubs are banking on that as well.
Stewart was re-signed to a one-year, $2 million deal by the Cubs last December. Traded by the Colorado Rockies to the Cubs prior to last season, Stewart hit just .201 in 55 games with five HR and 17 RBI before landing on the disabled list in June with wrist pain.
Stewart will be given every opportunity during spring training to show that he is indeed capable of returning to the form that saw him produce 25 HR and 70 RBI for the Rockies in 2009.
However, he'll likely face competition from Luis Valbuena and Josh Vitters this spring. Valbuena hit just .219 with four HR and 28 RBI, and Vitters completely spit the bit in his debut, hitting just .121 in 36 games.
Stewart can claim the job outright if in fact the wrist was the reason for his poor offensive showing the past two seasons. If not, it could be another long year for the Cubs at the hot corner.
Chicago White Sox: 5th Starter
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The Chicago White Sox have depth in their starting rotation. Jake Peavy, Chris Sale, Gavin Floyd and Jose Quintana make up a solid top four.
With the uncertainly surrounding John Danks' health, the fifth spot could be intriguing to watch.
Danks is returning from surgery to repair a capsular tear and minor debridements of the rotator cuff and biceps in his left shoulder. He posted a 5.70 ERA in just nine starts last season before being shut down.
He is expected to ready for spring training. Just in case, the White Sox also have Hector Santiago ready to fill in if necessary.
Starting last year as the closer, Santiago eventually lost that role to Addison Reed and was sent down to the minors. While in Charlotte, Santiago was converted back to a starter. In four September starts for the White Sox, Santiago posted a 1.86 ERA.
Danks will be given every opportunity to prove he's ready. Considering the Sox's large investment in Danks, that's certainly not a shock. But Santiago will be out to prove he's ready for the role as well.
Cincinnati Reds: 5th Starter
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Last year, the Cincinnati Reds had five starters post at least 30 starts, a rarity in modern times.
Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake proved to be durable all year, with all but Leake pitching more than 200 innings.
In 2013, the Reds will be looking to move Aroldis Chapman to the starting rotation, meaning that Leake is the odd man out.
If Chapman is successful in his transition from his closer's role, Leake will likely be moved to the bullpen.
The move makes sense in some ways. Chapman would represent the only lefty in the starting rotation. He also posted a 2.12 ERA in 17 spring innings last year before moving back to the bullpen because of injuries.
It will all depend on Chapman's effectiveness this spring. Considering his great success as a closer last year, the Reds likely won't hesitate to halt the starting experiment if he falters.
Cleveland Indians: Designated Hitters
Could Jim Thome find himself back in Cleveland for a third stint with the Indians?
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The Cleveland Indians certainly addressed some needs this offseason, making moves to shore up their outfield (Nick Swisher), first base (Mark Reynolds) and the starting rotation (Brett Myers, Trevor Bauer).
But who will be their everyday designated hitter?
As of right now, no one will fill that role.
According to Indians beat reporter Jordan Bastian of MLB.com, the Tribe could use the position to provide rest for regular position players.
This from Bastian:
One thing that the Tribe has done this winter is continue to create an extremely versatile roster. All three starting outfielders can play multiple outfield positions, and right fielder Nick Swisher can even slide to first base if needed. First baseman Mark Reynolds can shift to third base in a pinch. Super sub Mike Aviles can play everywhere, and catcher Carlos Santana can play first. Yan Gomes, a catcher by trade, has experience at both corner infield spots, as well as the outfield.
All this positional versatility gives Cleveland the ability to give various players a day as a DH to provide rest for their legs, while keeping the regular lineup intact. Unless you have a bona fide run producer in hand who is willing to serve as the full-time DH, a revolving door featuring versatile players seems like the way to go.
While it's not an optimal solution, Bastian raises an important point. There is no viable solution on the open market unless the Tribe were to consider bringing back Travis Hafner or Jim Thome, as was suggested by Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com.
Even then, neither would likely play every day. The Indians would need additional help against left-handed pitching.
No question that first-year manager Terry Francona will look for the best possible solution as he readies his team during spring training.
Colorado Rockies: Entire Starting Rotation
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Given the state of the Colorado Rockies' current starting rotation, no job is safe.
As of right now, the Rockies will go to spring training with Jorge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin, Juan Nicasio, Drew Pomeranz, Christian Friedrich, Jeff Francis, Tyler Chatwood, Batista and Volstad. A host of other characters will likely get a look, too.
The Rockies are hoping for good health from De La Rosa, Chacin and Nicasio going into the 2013 season. The three combined for just 28 starts last year.
Still, it's difficult to imagine that trio can bounce back enough to combine for 600 innings at this point. Considering their alternatives, the Rockies will audition just about any live arm this spring.
Detroit Tigers: Closer
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The Detroit Tigers armed themselves with reinforcements this offseason, signing free agents Torii Hunter and Anibal Sanchez to help them try to return to the World Series.
Much of the same team will be back, including designated Victor Martinez, who missed all of last year with an ACL injury. Hunter replaces Delmon Young in the offense, and Sanchez returns to try to build on a successful final two months of last season following his trade from the Miami Marlins.
However, the Tigers are without an established closer. Jose Valverde wasn't invited back after imploding during the postseason. The plan for now is to hope that promising prospect Bruce Rondon is ready for prime time.
There's only one problem: Rondon has yet to throw a pitch at the major-league level.
Rondon certainly has the ability. He saved 29 games across three minor-league levels last season using his signature 100 mph-plus fastball. How that translates to the majors will play itself out in Lakeland, Fla., when the Tigers open camp in mid-February.
Manager Jim Leyland has options in Brayan Villarreal and Al Albuquerque as well.
However, for now, the job is Rondon's to lose.
Houston Astros: Outfield
Rick Ankiel was signed to a minor-league contract by the Houston Astros in January.
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The Houston Astros go to camp in two weeks with a whole lot more questions than answers.
The back ends of the bullpen and starting rotation are up for grabs, but their outfield is definitely considered thin.
Fernando Martinez, Justin Maxwell, J.D. Martinez and Brandon Barnes will all be vying for playing time. The Astros even signed Rick Ankiel to a minor league deal, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle.
The biggest issue is whether any of the above four can contribute consistently on an everyday basis. Ankiel struggled last season with the Washington Nationals, hitting just .228 with five HR in 68 games.
It's also unlikely that help will be arriving anytime soon. While the Astros fortified their farm system with a multitude of trades in the past two seasons, many of the prospects are still a year or two away from impacting the major league club.
Kansas City Royals: 2nd Base
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The Kansas City Royals—for better or worse—changed the face of their team, largely within their starting rotation.
The additions of James Shields, Wade Davis, Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie gives the Royals a rotation they hope can help them compete for an AL Central Division title in 2013.
Offensively, the Royals have weapons as well. Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez and Lorenzo Cain all offer plenty of promise.
However, it's uncertain who the starting second baseman will be in 2013.
Chris Getz, Johnny Giavotella and Irving Falu will all be in the mix when spring training opens in February. Getz hit .275 in 60 games at the position last season, but Falu also showed promise, hitting .360 in 13 games at second base.
It's a possibility that whoever takes over at second is just holding the position temporarily. Christian Colon, drafted in the first round of the 2010 MLB draft, is thought to be the long-term answer. Colon hit .289 at Double-A Arkansas last season and will likely start the year at Triple-A Omaha.
Los Angeles Angels: Closer
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The Los Angeles Angels certainly made a splash this offseason with their acquisition of slugger Josh Hamilton.
However, general manager Jerry Dipoto made big changes in his bullpen as well.
Dipoto signed both Sean Burnett and Ryan Madson to help support Ernesto Frieri, Scott Downs and Kevin Jepsen in the bullpen.
It's largely expected that Madson will take over as closer, with Frieri moving back into a setup role. Frieri saved 23 games for the Angels last year following his trade from the San Diego Padres, posting a 2.32 ERA, 0.957 WHIP and 13.3 K/9 rate.
Madson is well ahead of schedule in his rehab from Tommy John surgery, throwing off the mound for the first time two weeks ago. He's expected to be ready for spring training.
However, it's entirely possible that Madson won't be ready. In that event, Frieri will likely be looked at during spring training as the closer once again.
Los Angeles Dodgers: 5th Starter
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The Los Angeles Dodgers now have a payroll that matches the gross national product of dozens of countries throughout the world.
However, the Dodgers now want a starting rotation that can match up with the best in baseball.
Currently, the top four starters consists of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett and Hyun-Jin Ryu.
Chad Billingsley would be the logical choice to round out the rotation. However, he's attempting to return from a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. Rather than go through Tommy John surgery, Billingsley attempted to rehab his elbow with rest and an injection of platelet-rich plasma.
Billingsley will be in spring training to test his elbow. The Dodgers also still have Ted Lilly, Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano in the mix as well should Billingsley falter in his recovery.
With just under two weeks left until pitchers and catchers report, it's possible a deal could be forthcoming. It's hard to imagine four veterans competing for one available slot.
It will certainly make things interesting at Camelback Ranch next month.
Miami Marlins: Bullpen
Steve Cishek will return to close for the Miami Marlins in 2013—maybe.
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After a complete re-shaping of their roster, the Miami Marlins will have plenty of questions to answer when spring training opens.
Aside from the fire sale that brought the wrath of an entire city against them, the Marlins purchased 35-year-old Juan Pierre to man left field and broken-down 37-year-old Placido Polanco to man the hot corner.
Whether you consider those moves to be lockdown measures for the two positions is up for considerable debate.
The Marlins received some promising prospects in return for their massive sell-off, but they won't offer much help in 2013. So, an audition will be held in Jupiter, Fla., in February.
One major audition will be for the bullpen. Steve Cishek, Mike Dunn, Ryan Webb, Chris Hatcher, A.J. Ramos, Evan Reed, Alex Sanabia and a host of others will be vying for spots.
Aside from possibly Cishek and Dunn, none of them are considered household names. Redmond will have his hands full in his first year for sure.
Milwaukee Brewers: Back End of Rotation
Milwaukee Brewers top pitching prospect Wily Peralta posted a 2.25 ERA in five starts last year.
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The Milwaukee Brewers return in 2013 with the goal of improving on their 83-79 record this past season. They'll be doing it with a starting rotation loaded with questions.
Yovani Gallardo is the unquestioned ace. Marco Estrada is penciled in as the No. 2. Chris Narveson is looking to return from shoulder surgery to take his place as the only lefty in the rotation.
That leaves Mark Rogers, Wily Peralta and Mike Fiers to fight it out for the remaining two spots.
Two prospects, Tyler Thornburg and Hiram Burgos, will also attempt to impress during spring training. Both will likely start the season in Triple-A.
There's no question upside is there for every name mentioned. It's whether that upside translates into results that matter.
Minnesota Twins: Starting Rotation
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The Minnesota Twins revamped their starting rotation over the offseason.
But will it actually be better?
The Twins added Vance Worley, Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey to the rotation. They'll join returning starters Scott Diamond, Cole De Vries and Liam Hendriks. Anthony Swarzak will be in the mix as well.
Pelfrey is returning from Tommy John surgery performed last May and is reportedly ready to take on a full load in spring training.
Diamond was the only starter to finish last season with an ERA under 4.00 for the Twins. The hope is that Worley, Correia and Pelfrey can join Diamond in the mix to give the Twins a chance to compete next season. De Vries and Hendriks will likely duke it out for the final slot.
Whether any of moves made by GM Terry Ryan will help is another issue entirely. Newcomers Alex Meyer and Trevor May will be worth watching, but their impact is more likely to be felt in 2014 and beyond.
New York Mets: Outfield
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The New York Mets may have pulled off a sweet deal in receiving terrific prospects back in the trade involving Cy Young pitcher R.A. Dickey, but it did nothing to solve their woeful outfield.
Lucas Duda, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Mike Baxter and Collin Cowgill will all be vying for playing time in 2013. None of them are considered viable everyday options.
After a promising start to his rookie campaign last season, Nieuwenhuis went into a complete tailspin during the second half. Duda collected 15 HR, but at one point, was demoted to the minors. Baxter hit .263 with three HR in 179 at-bats.
Jordany Valdespin provided some promise as well, hitting .241 with eight HR in 94 games.
However, with no other options other than possibly signing Michael Bourn, the five players will work to keep the Mets afloat in the outfield during the 2013 season.
New York Yankees: Catcher
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Chris Stewart, Francisco Cervelli and Austin Romine will be headed to Tampa in a couple of weeks with the goal of taking over the everyday catching duties. The three will be vying to replace the departed Russell Martin.
Stewart served as Martin's primary back-up last season, hitting .241 with one HR in 55 games. Cervelli will be looking to make his way back to the big club after showing promise in a backup role in 2010 and 2011.
Romine is highly regarded as a defensive specialist, but played in only 31 games in the minors last season due to a back injury.
Springtime in Tampa will be interesting as the trio of catchers put on a spirited audition for the starting role.
Oakland Athletics: 2nd Base
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The competition for the starting second baseman's job for the Oakland Athletics will be a battle between three young stars.
Manager Bob Melvin made it very clear that the job is up for grabs.
As a Major League Baseball player, you have to look at it every day that this is my job; you have to fight all the time. So it's (Scott) Sizemore, Adam Rosales and I expect Jemile Weeks to come back and play to his ability. And just because a guy starts on Opening Day doesn't mean that (someone else) won't be in the lineup the next day based on matchups. We'll look to keep everybody part of it.
Yup, a good old-fashioned horse race in Oakland.
Philadelphia Phillies: Left Field
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Now that the Philadelphia Phillies have signed Delmon Young, one corner outfield spot is left up in the air.
Domonic Brown, Darin Ruf and John Mayberry, Jr. will all be in the mix for the everyday spot in left field when camp opens in two weeks.
The Phillies have given Brown ample opportunity over the past three seasons to show his stuff. However, Brown has yet to show he can handle major-league pitching at a consistent level, hitting just .236 in 147 games thus far.
Mayberry hit .245 with 14 HR and 46 RBI in 441 at-bats last season, and Ruf showed promise last year, hitting .333 in 12 September games.
The Phillies would love for Brown to step it up—they've invested more than enough time and money into his development.
It could become a platoon situation as well—Brown starts against right-handers, Ruf against lefties. Ruf could also spell Ryan Howard at first on occasion as well.
It's certainly not a long-term solution for the Phillies—one of them eventually needs to show they're ready for the everyday rigors of the job.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Right Field
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After signing a six-year, $15 million contract with three additional option years, outfielder Jose Tabata certainly isn't guaranteed anything.
Tabata hit .243 with three homers in 333 at-bats last season. However, prospect Starling Marte is likely the future in left field for the Pirates. Marte hit .257 with five HR and 17 RBI in 47 games last year in his debut.
As a result, Marte will likely be the Opening Day left fielder. Tabata will compete with Alex Presley, Garrett Jones and Travis Snider for the starting nod in right field.
Jones delivered last season, hitting .274 with 27 HR and 86 RBI. Jones spent much of his time at first base last year, but with the emergence of Gaby Sanchez, Jones finds himself in tight competition.
All four have a different range of skill-sets to offer. It will be up to manager Clint Hurdle to determine which player offers the skill-set that can best help the Pirates every day.
San Diego Padres: Right Field
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The San Diego Padres made no positional changes for the 2013 season, as they liked the current mix of players on the roster.
However, Will Venable and Chris Denorfia will likely continue to vie for additional playing time in right field during spring training. The platoon actually worked well last year, combining to hit .289 with 12 HR, 52 RBI and 29 stolen bases in 153 total games in right.
There's no reason for manager Buddy Black to break up a good thing at this point, but it still makes for a competitive spring as the two continue to vie for attention.
San Francisco Giants: Left Field
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The San Francisco Giants returned virtually their entire team from last year. The starters and bullpen are now essentially set, as are most of the position players.
One battle that could be interesting to watch is in left field.
Former World Series hero Andres Torres was brought back into the fold and will serve as the team's fourth outfielder. For now, the Giants plan to go with Gregor Blanco in left field.
That could easily change by Opening Day.
Blanco hit .244 with five HR in 393 at-bats for the Giants. Torres is another left-handed bat that will get some looks in left field as well.
General manager Brian Sabean would love to find a right-handed bat to complement both Torres and Blanco in left field. However, in the absence of that bat, manager Bruce Bochy will have to go with the hot hand.
Seattle Mariners: 1st Base, DH, Right Field, Left Field
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The Seattle Mariners made a bevy of moves to improve their anemic offense. Now, they just have to figure out where all the pieces fit.
Jason Bay, Raul Ibanez, Mike Morse and Kendrys Morales have all been brought in to Seattle to help an offense that's finished last in runs scored in the American League for the past four seasons.
Ibanez, Morse and Morales can all play first. However, Justin Smoak and Mike Carp can as well. Franklin Gutierrez is the likely center fielder, so the two corner outfield positions must too be worked out.
Bringing in the players is one thing—putting them into a lineup that makes sense and offers the most pop is another. Manager Eric Wedge will have approximately six weeks to figure it all out.
St. Louis Cardinals: 2nd Base
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Will the St. Louis Cardinals ever find a long-term solution at second base?
It seems like for years, the Cardinals have plugged and patched at the position. It's hard to argue the results—two World Series championships in six seasons.
Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak recently said that Daniel Descalso has the upper hand on the position—the job is "his to lose."
However, the Cardinals love the bat of Matt Carpenter, and he's been taking ground balls at second base. Nothing at this point is set in stone.
Tampa Bay Rays: Left Field
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The Tampa Bay Rays have done a bit of work over the past couple of weeks to shore up some offensive needs.
They appear to be on the verge of bringing back Luke Scott, who will try once again to give the Rays some offense from the designated hitter role.
They have also signed free-agent second baseman Kelly Johnson. Johnson could spell Ben Zobrist at second base and will also get some looks in left field. Johnson is not unfamiliar with left field—he logged 79 games there in 2005 with the Atlanta Braves.
Left field could come down to Johnson, Sam Fuld, Matt Joyce and Brandon Guyer. Joyce will man right field when Zobrist is at second.
However, manager Joe Maddon will no doubt be doing a lot of tinkering this spring to come up with a solution in left field that works.
Texas Rangers: Center Field
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The Texas Rangers are expected to head to spring training with the roster as currently constituted. As such, center field will be the position to watch.
Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry are the candidates—Julio Borbon would have to over-achieve in order to be considered.
Martin and Gentry offer different skill sets. Martin is more explosive, hitting .359 with 12 HR and 42 RBI in 231 at-bats for Triple-A Round Rock last year. Gentry doesn't have much pop, but hit .304 in 240 at-bats for the Rangers last year.
The Rangers would love it if Martin could follow the example of fellow Cuban Yoenis Cespedes.
Toronto Blue Jays: Closer
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Both Sergio Santos and Casey Janssen are returning from surgery to start the 2013 season. Janssen underwent cleanup surgery on his right shoulder to alleviate joint stiffness. Santos had surgery in July and is expected to be ready by spring training.
The closer's role is Janssen's to lose at this point. He posted a 2.54 ERA while converting 22 of 25 save opportunities last year.
However, Santos could make manager John Gibbons' decision much tougher with a huge spring.
Washington Nationals: None
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The Washington Nationals will begin spring training with an offseason that took care of all their "to-do's" on their wish list.
As a result, spring training could actually be bit dull.
Denard Span will be flanked by Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth in the outfield. The signing of Adam LaRoche gives the Nats a potent infield along with Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman.
Dan Haren helps fill out an outstanding starting rotation, and the addition of closer Rafael Soriano gives the Nationals a bullpen that will indeed be formidable.
Like I said—a boring spring training. But you can bet that fans will be champing at the bit to see what this team can achieve in 2013.
Doug Mead is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. His work has been featured on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, CBS Sports, the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle.