8 Predictions for the Biggest Position Battles in Spring Training
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Spring training doesn’t just decide the winners and losers of the exhibition games; it decides the position battles as well.
This spring, there are several intriguing position battles that include rookies, veterans and everyone in between. Whether it’s a spot in the starting rotation or the starting left fielder role, there are several voids up for grabs, and the winners will be determined in the next few weeks.
As there always is in a battle, each situation has a favorite and an underdog. In some instances, the candidates are quite similar; in others, there’s already a clear winner unless something happens to him.
Here’s a look at the best position battles this spring with a prediction of who comes out on top by the time Opening Day rolls around.
Atlanta Braves: Starting Third Baseman
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Outlook: Chipper Jones left quite the hole at third base for the Atlanta Braves when he decided to retire after the 2012 season. That void is pretty much guaranteed to be filled by either Chris Johnson or Juan Francisco.
Atlanta acquired Johnson this past offseason when it sent a slew of prospects to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the deal that made Justin Upton a Brave. The move gave Francisco, a holdover from last season, immediate competition for the spot he thought he had already won.
Johnson is the superior offensive threat, while Francisco has the upper hand on defense. The Braves can allow giving up a couple of runs with Johnson at the hot corner as long as he makes up for it at the plate. At the moment, Johnson should have the advantage.
Predicted Winner: Chris Johnson
Oakland A's: Starting Second Baseman
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Outlook: Jemile Weeks was the primary second baseman for the Oakland Athletics for most of the 2012 season before he lost his job to Cliff Pennington. With Pennington now gone, there’s an opening at second with a lot of candidates.
After a solid rookie campaign, Weeks had a poor sophomore season that has ruined his basic chances of regaining the role he once owned. Adam Rosales served as a backup last season in Oakland but is nothing spectacular. Grant Green is one of the top prospects in the organization but may need a little more seasoning before getting the call to the big leagues.
That brings us to Scott Sizemore, who missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL. Sizemore played extremely well, however, in 2011 between the Detroit Tigers and Oakland. He isn’t great on defense but is an above-average hitter and is probably the safest bet at this point.
Predicted Winner: Scott Sizemore
St. Louis Cardinals: No. 5 Starter
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Outlook: The numbness in Chris Carpenter's throwing arm has opened up a spot in the St. Louis Cardinals’ starting rotation. St. Louis seems comfortable giving that new opening to one of two young pitchers who are sure to have bright futures.
The first candidate is Trevor Rosenthal, who spent a chunk of 2012 in St. Louis. He started the season in Double-A and was later promoted to Triple-A before getting the call to join the Cardinals. In the minor leagues he was a starter, but once he headed to St. Louis he was used as a reliever. He’ll be effective in either role going forward.
And then there’s Shelby Miller, who’s arguably the top pitching prospect in St. Louis’ minor league system. Miller spent nearly all of last season in Triple-A, starting 27 games and throwing over 136 innings. He did get some exposure with the Cardinals later in the year, including in the postseason, and has a very high ceiling.
Predicted Winner: Shelby Miller
Detroit Tigers: Starting Left Fielder
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Outlook: The one thing about the Detroit Tigers’ left field position is that it’s never certain who’s going to be playing there each day. There hasn’t been much consistency over the years, but in 2013, we should be able to get a clear vision of who is there to stay for the long haul.
Brennan Boesch has been the definition of inconsistent. He played very well in his first two seasons in Detroit but then fell off the face of the earth last season. Boesch was a major liability in the outfield and at the plate compared to his prior years with the Tigers. It’s going to take a lot to get his starting job back, and he is clearly the underdog heading into spring training.
Andy Dirks took over after Boesch lost his job. Dirks was spectacular once he started to play regularly, both in general and compared to the guy who used to play the outfield consistently in Detroit. Dirks also played a big role in the Tigers’ run through the postseason and will have quite the head start when Jim Leyland is evaluating his impact this spring.
Predicted Winner: Andy Dirks
Cincinnati Reds: Starting Catcher
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Outlook: The Cincinnati Reds will have a great battle from behind the plate this spring after the catcher position didn’t produce very well last season. Cincinnati catchers had the 20th-highest OPS in baseball last season while scoring the second-fewest runs.
Ryan Hanigan was the starter for most of season and is the favorite to start spring training. He’s very good defensively and holds his own in the batter’s box as well. He barely has any power in his swing but hits with consistency and doesn’t strike out very often.
Devin Mesoraco is the future catcher of the Reds but might not be ready to get the starting role just yet. He hasn’t hit well at all in his first 72 games as a big leaguer, split over the last two seasons. Sending him back to Triple-A until Cincinnati decides if he can hit well in the majors may be the likeliest path for the youngster.
Miguel Olivo will likely be the backup catcher should Hanigan win the job and Mesoraco be sent back to Triple-A. He would have to come into camp like never before in order for him to win the starting role in Cincinnati.
Predicted Winner: Ryan Hanigan
Texas Rangers: Starting Center Fielder
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Outlook: When a perennial MVP candidate leaves via free agency, clearly someone is going to have to pick up the slack. That’s the case this upcoming season in Texas after Josh Hamilton bolted to Los Angeles, and his job will probably be given to either Craig Gentry or Leonys Martin.
Gentry got a lot of time in the Rangers’ outfield last season, playing quite well through 122 games. He’s an extremely reliable fielder and wasn’t a liability at the plate. In fact, he was actually one of the better hitters for Texas in 2012 in terms of consistency, not power—he only has two home runs in over 475 career plate appearances.
Opposing Gentry will be Martin, who’s one of the top prospects Texas has control of. Martin got a taste of the big leagues last season—and even more briefly the previous year—but the sample size is much too small to judge him yet.
He’s expected to be a star in the future, but is the future now? The Rangers could end up going with the young gun and platooning him alongside Gentry at the start of the season, as the battle is likely to extend past the spring.
Predicted Winner: Leonys Martin
Arizona Diamondbacks: Starting Shortstop
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Outlook: The Arizona Diamondbacks are heading into spring training with two shortstops who weren’t in the organization last season. Last year, Willie Bloomquist, John McDonald and Stephen Drew all shared time, but are no longer options.
Arizona acquired Cliff Pennington in October in a deal that sent Chris Young to Oakland and Heath Bell to the Diamondbacks. Pennington doesn’t have the best bat by any means, but what he lacks offensively, he makes up defensively. He can hold his own at the plate at times, but Arizona shouldn’t expect to see a Silver Slugger should he win the job.
Didi Gregorius is the other shortstop Arizona acquired this offseason, and he looks to be the answer in the future. But is he the solution right now? I wouldn’t bet on it. Gregorius has a mild UCL sprain and is now doubtful for the start of the season.
The job is basically Pennington’s to lose. And if Pennington does lose, the job probably won’t even go to Gregorius since he’s injured.
Predicted Winner: Cliff Pennington
New York Yankees: Starting Catcher
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Outlook: What happens when the starting catcher of the New York Yankees gets a better offer from the Pittsburgh Pirates and decides to leave the Bronx Bombers? Well, you get a three-way battle for the starting job in spring training.
Chris Stewart is the easy favorite to win, and a game has yet to be played. Stewart doesn’t have a ton of experience, but compared to the other two candidates, he’s a star. He backed up Russell Martin last season and did a solid job. He knows what he’s doing behind the plate and knows all of New York’s pitchers.
Francisco Cervelli isn’t a starting catcher in any professional baseball league. He spent nearly all of last season in Triple-A, and if he was really being considered for the job, he probably would have been the backup last season over Stewart. But that wasn’t the case.
Austin Romine is the future catcher but still needs seasoning in the minor leagues before getting called up to the Bronx. His future looks promising, but it still may be too early to tell. Having him play next to Stewart and Cervelli during the spring couldn’t hurt, though.
Predicted Winner: Chris Stewart