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Early Predictions for Each MLB Team's Top Spring Training Position Battles

Jason MartinezContributor IJanuary 6, 2017

Early Predictions for Each MLB Team's Top Spring Training Position Battles

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    While many established players already have a defined role on their team's Opening Day roster and will utilize spring training as a time to fine tune their swings or build up arm strength, several others will be battling for a job. 

    That job could be as a regular third baseman, No. 5 starter or last man on the bench. Regardless of the role, it's better than the minor leagues, or even worse, being out of a job if a player fails to earn a big league gig. 

    Scott Kazmir, who had been out of the majors and pitching in an Independent League in 2012, was the surprise winner of the Cleveland Indians' No. 5 starter job. He cashed in on a very good season by signing a two-year, $22 million deal with the Oakland A's this offseason. 

    The leading candidate to be the A's starting third baseman in 2013, Josh Donaldson held off his competition with a strong spring (.884 OPS, 3 HR) on his way to a breakout season in which he was 4th in AL MVP voting. 

    Aaron Hicks was so impressive last spring, hitting .370 (27-for-73) with four homers, six doubles and three stolen bases, that the Minnesota Twins made him their Opening Day center fielder despite the 23-year-old having no experience above the Double-A level.

    It turned out that the rookie was in over his head, finishing the season with a .597 OPS in 81 games. But it was hard to argue with what he did in the spring. Numbers can be deceiving, but it's hard to send a player back to the minors after putting up those kinds of numbers. 

    There are plenty of interesting position battles heading into this spring. Who will be the next Kazmir? Is there a player without a guarantee of starting gig that will emerge as a big league star in 2014? Which prospect will force his way onto a roster as Hicks did? 

    Here's a close look at each team's top spring training position battle.

Arizona Diamondbacks: No. 5 Starter

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    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

    This could be a moot point if the Arizona Diamondbacks succeed in their goal to sign either Masahiro Tanaka or one of the remaining top free agent starters—Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported earlier this month that the D'backs consider Tanaka their top priority—but an interesting battle for the last rotation spot could be an interesting one. 

    Randall Delgado, the incumbent, is a solid back-of-the-rotation starter who posted a 4.17 ERA in 19 starts last season. With top prospect Archie Bradley (pictured) inching towards the big leagues, though, Delgado will have a hard time holding him off. 

    The 21-year-old Bradley, who posted a 1.91 ERA with a 4.3 BB/9 and 8.7 K/9 in 21 Double-A starts in 2013, will have a shot to make the big league club this spring. General manager Kevin Towers said that Bradley could exceed 170 innings on the season, according to Jon Morosi of Fox Sports.

    If Bradley starts the season in Triple-A, it's just a matter of time before he knocks down the door to the majors. Delgado and the other D'backs starters should be looking over their shoulder if they struggle.

    Charles Brewer, Alex Sanabia and Zeke Spruill are long-shot candidates who won't have much of a chance unless the team is set on sending Bradley back to the minors and either of the three impresses enough to beat out Delgado.


    Honorable Mention:
    Didi Gregorius vs. Chris Owings, Shortstop 

Atlanta Braves: No. 5 Starter

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    As of now, the only starting pitcher that the Atlanta Braves have brought in this offseason, Gavin Floyd, is returning from Tommy John surgery and isn't expected to contribute early in the season. That leaves a handful of young starters, led by lefty Alex Wood (pictured), vying for the final spot behind Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy.

    Wood, the team's 2nd-round draft pick in 2012, was impressive as a rookie last season. In 11 starts, he had a 3.54 ERA with 22 walks and 54 strikeouts in 56 innings. He was even better in relief, posting a 2.08 ERA with five walks and 23 strikeouts in 21.2 innings. 

    After compiling a total of 139.2 innings on the season between the majors and minors, the Braves likely feel comfortable enough to allow the 23-year-old to begin the season in the big league rotation without worrying too much about limiting his workload. 

    With the expectation that Floyd will be able to help at some point, they should feel comfortable that help is on the way should Wood begin to wear down. 

    With that said, Wood is no lock to win the spot. He'll have competition from a group of starters who each had success in the upper minors in 2013. David Hale (3.22 ERA in Triple-A), Cody Martin (3.16 ERA between Triple-A and Double-A), Aaron Northcraft (3.42 ERA in Double-A) and Gus Schlosser (2.39 ERA in Double-A) should all get a close look in the spring and could push Wood for the final spot. 


    Honorable Mention: David Carpenter vs. Jordan Walden vs. Anthony Varvaro, Primary Setup Man

Baltimore Orioles: Left Field

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    John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

    With openings in left field and the designated hitter spots, the Baltimore Orioles have stayed away from the big-name acquisitions. They've compiled a long list of candidates, however, which should make for an interesting spring. 

    The group includes Nolan Reimold, who hasn't been able to stay healthy over the past few years, and Henry Urrutia, a 26-year-old Cuban who hit .347 between Double-A and Triple-A but struggled in the majors. 

    Tyler Colvin and Francisco Peguero were signed to big league deals, and David Lough (pictured) was acquired in a trade with the Kansas City Royals. 

    Those five players all have 40-man roster spots, which could give them a slight edge over non-roster invitees such as Quintin Berry, Julio Borbon and Xavier Paul

    Delmon Young was also brought in on a minor league deal, though he's more likely to factor into the mix as a platoon option at designated hitter if he makes the club.

    None of the nine aforementioned candidates really stand out enough for there to be a clear favorite. All have big league experience. Only Young has had a full season of success, while Reimold has shown flashes of being a very good player when healthy. The 30-year-old had an .831 OPS with 15 homers in 104 games as a rookie back in 2009. 

    Lough gave the Royals a shot in the arm when he joined the everyday lineup in 2013, posting a .724 OPS with five homers, five stolen bases and terrific defense in his 96 games. 

    My bet is on some combination of Lough, Reimold and Urrutia getting a fair share of time in left field with Young getting a majority of at-bats as the designated hitter against left-handed starting pitchers. 


    Honorable Mention: Alfredo Aceves vs. Zach Britton vs. Kevin Gausman vs. others, No. 5 starter

Boston Red Sox: No. 5 Starter

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    Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

    Not only do the Boston Red Sox still have six big league starters on their roster, they have plenty of depth in the upper minors. As much sense as it would make to trade one of the six, they have yet to do so and might not at all. 

    In the case that they hold onto all of them, there would appear to be a battle between lefty Felix Doubront, who had a 4.32 ERA with a 3.9 BB/9 and 7.7 K/9 last season, and veteran Ryan Dempster (pictured), who had a 4.57 ERA with a 4.1 BB/9 and 8.2 K/9.

    The runner-up would land in the Red Sox bullpen, though it's hard to see that role being very significant. Craig Breslow, Andrew Miller, Edward Mujica and Junichi Tazawa all appear to be in place as the top four choices to bridge the gap to closer Koji Uehara. 

    While Dempster would have a hard time earning his $13.25 million salary in a middle relief role, the team could prefer to have a second lefty in the rotation to go along with Jon Lester, which would bode well for Doubront. 


    Honorable Mention: Daniel Nava vs. Jonny Gomes vs. Mike Carp, Left Field

Chicago Cubs: Third Base

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    For a 27-year-old utility man who could never seem to lock down a starting job while with the Cleveland Indians, Luis Valbuena (pictured) did a decent job as the Chicago Cubs' starting third baseman with a .708 OPS and 12 homers in 2013.

    He'll be back in the mix, but there should be plenty of competition for him this spring. 

    The Cubs would be ecstatic if former Texas Rangers prospect Mike Olt, acquired in the Matt Garza trade last summer, rebounded from a rough year and beat out Valubena with a strong spring. The 25-year-old, who made his major league debut in 2012 after posting a .977 OPS with 28 homers in 95 Double-A games, struggled in the majors and could never get in a groove in Triple-A last season. 

    If he fails to rebound, the Cubs can start to look to the future. While their future positions have yet to be determined, elite prospects Javier Baez and Kris Bryant could factor in at third base by the time they reach the majors. 2015 is a more realistic ETA, but both players are talented enough to make some noise this spring. 

    Christian Villanueva, who had a .787 OPS with 19 homers in Double-A last season, will also get a look. 


    Honorable mention: Chris Coghlan vs. Ryan Kalish vs. Junior Lake vs. Justin Ruggiano vs. others, Left Field

Chicago White Sox: Third Base

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The acquisition of prospect Matt Davidson in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks this offseason is an indication that the Chicago White Sox aren't satisfied with Conor Gillaspie (pictured) as the long-term answer at third base.

    Despite a solid debut season with the Sox, at least versus right-handed pitching (.727 OPS, 12 homers), the 26-year-old Gillaspie will now have to try and hold off the 22-year-old Davidson in order to keep his job as the left-handed hitting share of a platoon with Jeff Keppinger.

    If Davidson, who posted a .768 OPS with three homers in 31 games during a late-season call-up with Arizona in 2013, can't beat out Gillaspie for the Opening Day job, it could still only be a matter of time before he takes over the regular job. 

    Marcus Semien, who started 13 games at the hot corner as a rookie last season, has an outside shot of being Gillaspie's platoon partner to start the season.

Cincinnati Reds: Center Field

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    If the Cincinnati Reds are worried about how Billy Hamilton's mediocre Triple-A performance in 2013 will translate to his first full big league season, they're not showing it.

    The center field job appears to be Hamilton's to win, but they can't possibly just hand him the job if he struggles this spring.

    The 23-year-old switch-hitter (pictured) impressed during a late-inning call-up in 2013, flashing the blazing speed that will continue to force teams to game-plan around him. But he also posted a .308 on-base percentage in his first season at Triple-A. The guy he's replacing, Shin-Soo Choo, had a .423 on-base percentage in the majors. There is a potential for a disastrous drop in production at the top of the order. 

    Thus, Chris Heisey and/or Skip Schumaker could be better options to start the year and will likely be considered for the job should Hamilton fail to impress. 

Cleveland Indians: No. 5 Starter

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    Eric P. Mull-USA TODAY Sports

    It's hard to imagine the Cleveland Indians going into the season with their current group of starters, which includes just one (Justin Masterson) who has pitched more than 150 innings in a big league season.

    If they do bring in one more veteran starter to pair with Masterson ahead of Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister, the last spot will still be up for grabs. Danny Salazar will have the edge, however, after he impressed down the stretch last season. 

    His competition, which currently has a clearer path to a big league spot with the current roster makeup, would include Trevor Bauer (pictured), Carlos Carrasco, Shaun Marcum and Josh Tomlin

    Bauer, a former top prospect of the Arizona Diamondbacks, remains a work in progress and didn't do much during his first year with the organization to think he'll rise above the rest of the candidates this spring. The 22-year-old might be the most talented, though, so he shouldn't be ruled out. 

    Carrasco might have run out of chances in the rotation and showed late in the season that he might be a better fit in the bullpen (8.2 IP, 2 ER, 6 H, 2 BB, 7 K in seven relief appearances). He's still only 26 and has a good arm, though, so he's at least worth a look. 

    Marcum, if healthy, would give the Indians the veteran innings-eater they sorely need. But after back-to-back injury-riddled seasons, it's tough to count on him.

    Tomlin returned from Tommy John surgery to make one relief appearance late last season. In his only full big league season, he went 12-7 with a 4.25 ERA in 25 starts back in 2011. 

Colorado Rockies: No. 5 Starter

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    Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

    After trading for Oakland A's starter Brett Anderson, the Colorado Rockies head into the spring with one rotation spot up for grabs.

    The leading candidates are Juan Nicasio, who had a 5.14 ERA in 31 starts last season, and Jordan Lyles, who was acquired from the Houston Astros in the Dexter Fowler trade. The 23-year-old had a 5.59 ERA in 2013, making him a very unlikely candidate to make a smooth transition to the thin air of Colorado.

    Don't count out Franklin Morales, once a hard-throwing Rockies prospect whose lack of consistency caused the organization to give up on him. Still only 27 years of age (he'll be 28 later this month), Morales is back after being acquired from the Boston Red Sox. He still has a very good arm and put up solid numbers as a starter when given a chance in 2012 (4.14 ERA, 45.2 IP, 39 H, 18 BB, 47 K in nine starts). 

    Regardless of who wins the job, it's likely that they're just keeping the spot warm until one of the team's top two pitching prospects are ready for the majors. 

    Jonathan Gray, the 3rd overall pick in the 2013 draft, and Eddie Butler, who posted a 1.80 ERA in 28 starts between Double-A, High-A and Low-A last season, both have frontline starter potential and could reach the majors rather quickly.

    While that's likely to be early in 2015, it will be fun to see if they can force the Rockies' hand by dominating this spring.


    Honorable Mention: Corey Dickerson vs. Charlie Blackmon vs. Drew Stubbs vs. Brandon Barnes, Left Field 

Detroit Tigers: Left Field

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    Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

    Unless the Detroit Tigers can sign free agent Nelson Cruz, the left field situation doesn't appear to be much different from last season.

    Andy Dirks will play against right-handed pitchers. Free agent signee Rajai Davis should get the majority of at-bats against left-handed pitching.

    The difference is that top prospect Nick Castellanos is no longer waiting in the wings as the "Left Fielder of the Future." He's now projected to start at third base with Miguel Cabrera moving to first base as a result of the Prince Fielder trade. Avisail Garcia, who probably would've been ready to take the job from Dirks, was traded to the White Sox last season. 

    If there's a young player who could possibly make a run at the starting job, it could be soon-to-be 23-year-old Daniel Fields, who posted a .791 OPS with 10 homers and 24 stolen bases in Double-A last season. Non-roster invitees Ezequiel Carrera and Trevor Crowe, both former big leaguers, could also get a close look if Dirks struggles as he did for most of 2013.

Houston Astros: Right Field

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    The Houston Astros, while improvement is expected, aren't likely to compete for a playoff spot in 2014. So placing top prospect George Springer (pictured) on the Opening Day roster, which will have financial ramifications due to the eligibility he'll likely earn for Super-Two arbitration status, doesn't seem like the best idea. 

    But Springer, a 24-year-old center fielder who hit 37 homers and stole 45 bases between Triple-A and Double-A last season, will get a shot to force his way onto the roster. And there's a chance that's he is just too good to send back to the minors, and breaking camp with anyone else besides him as the starting right fielder would be a mistake. 

    If not Springer, right field will likely be manned by either Robbie Grossman, L.J. Hoes, Marc Krauss and J.D. Martinez. In reality, they will be Springer's place-holder until the team decides it's a good time for him to become a major leaguer.


    Honorable Mention: Jesse Crain vs. Chad Qualls, closer

Kansas City Royals: No. 4 and 5 Starter

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    Yordano Ventura (pictured), during his three-start stint in the majors last September, showed flashes of why he's considered such a good pitching prospect. But there's a good chance that the 22-year-old wasn't in the big leagues to stay. At least not yet. 

    With only 14 Triple-A starts under his belt, it wouldn't hurt to at least have him return to the minors for the start of the season while they find out if guys like Wade Davis, Danny Duffy, P.J. Walters and possibly even veteran Brad Penny, could hold down a rotation spot until they know Ventura is ready.

    Another very good pitching prospect, Kyle Zimmer, might not be far behind.

    Still, the Royals will need to decide which two pitchers are the best fit for the early-season roster. 

Los Angeles Angels: No. 5 Starter

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    The Los Angeles Angels did well to re-acquire pitching prospect Tyler Skaggs (pictured) from the Arizona Diamondbacks this offseason, more than two years after they traded him away in a deal to acquire Dan Haren. 

    If they rush him into their starting rotation before he's ready, though, it won't be a good thing. 

    Battling the 22-year-old Skaggs for the No. 5 starter job will be former Oakland A's star Mark Mulder, who has been out of baseball since 2008, Joe Blanton, Michael Roth and Matt Shoemaker.

    It's a long shot, but there isn't likely to be a better story than the 36-year-old Mulder winning a rotation spot out of spring training. The Angels also wouldn't mind if Blanton, who signed a two-year, $15 million deal prior to a disastrous 2013 season, had a strong spring and won the job. 

    Skaggs will be there, eventually. But look for the Angels to lean towards one of the veterans if it's a close call.  

Los Angeles Dodgers: Second Base

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    For the most part, the Los Angeles Dodgers' roster for 2014 appears pretty much set. The only real question mark could be at second base, where no one quite knows exactly how good of a player that Cuban Alexander Guerrero will be in the majors.

    Signed to a four-year, $28 million deal, the 27-year-old is the leading candidate to win the job. But just as Yasiel Puig was better than advertised, international acquisitions can often be a lot worse. 

    In Guerrero's case, there is enough uncertainty where he'll have to prove that he can play in the spring. He'll have competition from the speedy Dee Gordon (pictured), a 25-year-old who started playing second base in Triple-A last season after spending is entire career as a shortstop. 

    The Dodgers gave Guerrero a lot of money. They'll want him to win the job. But Gordon can be really good in short stints and his speed can be disruptive for opponents. If Guerrero struggles, Gordon will have a chance to take the job from him.

Miami Marlins: Center Field

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    Marcell Ozuna (pictured) had just 10 Double-A games under his belt when he got the call to join the Miami Marlins. Still considered a very raw prospect, it was a huge surprise that he held his own as a big leaguer. 

    But after posting an .843 OPS through his first 36 games, the 22-year-old rookie struggled until a thumb injury ended his season in late July. He's the frontrunner for the starting center field job, but he'll have to beat out Jake Marisnick, who also made the jump from Double-A last season. Unlike Ozina, he was overwhelmed at the plate from the time he arrived in Miami. 

    The Marlins are in rebuilding mode and allowing one of the young prospects to play everyday in the majors isn't a bad idea. But in case they feel that Ozuna and Marisnick would both benefit from more time in the upper minors, they can go with Brian Bogusevic, who was acquired from the Chicago Cubs this offseason. 

    Bogusevic, 29, is coming off of a solid season as a part-time player (.784 OPS, 6 HR in 47 games) and would probably be a solid stop-gap for a month or two. 

Milwaukee Brewers: Second Base

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    In what could be one of the more interesting position battles this spring, former All-Star Rickie Weeks will be trying to take back his job as the starting second baseman of the Milwaukee Brewers from Scooter Gennett (pictured), who earned the right to be the front-runner after he posted an .834 OPS with six homers in 69 games as a rookie in 2013. 

    While Weeks has struggled badly during the first half of the last two seasons, he can be a force at the plate when he's going well. He had an .800 OPS with 13 homers and 10 stolen bases in the second half of 2012. He didn't play much down the stretch last season because Gennett was in the lineup, but he did manage to post a .725 OPS with six homers in his last 48 games. 

    What could give Weeks the edge if Gennett doesn't completely outplay him this spring is his $11 million salary, which doesn't have a good chance of being earned from the bench.

    Ideally for the Brewers, Weeks earns the starting job and plays well enough where they can trade him for something of value by mid-season and hand the job over to Gennett.

Minnesota Twins: Center Field

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    Aaron Hicks (pictured) won't be sneaking up on anyone as he did last spring when he forced his way onto the Minnesota Twins' Opening Day roster as their starting center fielder. The Twins will also be more cautious when deciding whether to give him the job if he impresses once again. He clearly wasn't ready for the majors in 2013. 

    While their other options aren't great—Alex Presley and either Darin Mastroianni or Wilkin Ramirez are the likely backup plan—a second consecutive season of being overwhelmed at the plate by major league pitching could do long-term damage to the 24-year-old Hicks' confidence. 

    What could make this more interesting is if Byron Buxton, widely considered the top prospect in the game, gets a chance to play a lot in major league camp and proves he's either ready or close to being ready. It is very unlikely that the Twins start his big league clock in April, but it would be a huge story if he's still in major league camp in late March. 


    Honorable Mention: Vance Worley vs. Kyle Gibson vs. Scott Diamond vs. Andrew Albers, No. 5 Starter

     

New York Mets: First Base

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

    In regards to trade talks involving first baseman Ike Davis (pictured), New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson recently told Anthony DiComo of MLB.com that they're "not going to move Ike just to move Ike."

    In other words, just because they have a crowded situation at first base with Lucas Duda, Josh Satin, Andrew Brown and Zach Lutz all in the mix for playing time, doesn't mean they have to trade away Davis. 

    If Alderson doesn't find a trade that's suitable, the 26-year-old Davis will likely head into camp as the favorite for the starting job despite an awful 2013 season (.661 OPS in 103 games). It's his 32-homer season in 2012, a year in which he struggled badly before heating up in the second half, that keeps him in the position as the front-runner. 

    Duda has proven to be a solid major league hitter—he has a .773 OPS and 13 homers per season since 2011—but he has nowhere near Davis' power potential.

    With a career .602 OPS against left-handed pitching, it's likely that Davis would have a platoon partner should he win the starting job. Satin, Brown and Lutz all hit right-handed and are more likely vying for that role as opposed to the starting job over Davis or Duda. 

    Satin, 29, could be a dark-horse candidate, though, after posting a .781 OPS in 75 games as a rookie.


    Honorable Mention: Jenrry Mejia vs. Carlos Torres vs. Rafael Montero vs. others, No. 5 Starter

New York Yankees: No. 5 Starter

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    Unless they plan on keeping their 2014 payroll under the $189 million luxury tax threshold, the New York Yankees are a near-lock to land one of the remaining top starting pitchers available. They might even add two of the top remaining starters, although the number of teams still pursuing frontline starting pitchers makes it highly unlikely.

    In that case, they'll have several pitchers vying for the final spot behind CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova. 

    The most intriguing candidates from that group include former top prospect Manny Bañuelos, who is returning from Tommy John surgery, and Michael Pineda (pictured) who hasn't pitched in the majors since the Yankees acquired him prior to the 2012 season because of a shoulder injury.

    The 22-year-old Bañuelos was closing in on the majors when he suffered the elbow injury in mid-2012. Prior to that season, he was ranked the 29th best prospect in the game by Baseball Prospectus. He'll be close to 18 months removed from surgery on Opening Day. 

    Pineda, who will turn 25 on Saturday, had a terrific rookie season with the Seattle Mariners in 2011. He had a 3.74 ERA with 2.9 BB/9 and 9.1 K/9 in 28 starts, earning an All-Star selection along the way. It's been a long road back, however, and it's yet to be seen if he can return to form.

    David Phelps, David Huff, Adam Warren and Vidal Nuno have nowhere near the upside of Bañuelos or Pineda, but they offer some safer options to fill the spot. 

Oakland Athletics: Catcher

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    With John Jaso's status up in the air after he missed the last two months of the 2013 season with a concussion—he could be limited to designated hitter duties—the A's are likely to go with the same duo that they finished last season with. 

    But which of Derek Norris or Stephen Vogt (pictured) will get the majority of playing time if Jaso is unable to catch very often, if at all?

    Vogt, who had been 0-for-25 in his first big league season with the Tampa Bay Rays back in 2012, received a majority of the team's starts down the stretch as Norris was out with a toe injury. The left-handed hitter had a .698 OPS against right-handed pitching.

    Norris, on the other hand, had a .445 OPS against right-handed pitching on the season, which is why he appears relegated to platoon duty. He had a .990 OPS versus left-handed pitching with all nine of his homers. 

    Expect a platoon that favors Vogt slightly, but Norris has a chance to flip that scenario with a strong spring.

    Chris Gimenez, who was acquired from Rays this offseason, will also be in the mix. 

Philadelphia Phillies: Third Base

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    Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

    Cody Asche's big league debut in the second half of last season wasn't terrible—the 23-year-old (pictured) had a .691 OPS and five homers in 50 games—but it's unlikely that his performance was the biggest reason why the Philadelphia Phillies didn't find an upgrade this offseason.

    For one, options were limited and none were much of an upgrade, if any at all, over Asche. Secondly, they have Maikel Franco, one of their top prospects, waiting in the wings and capable of forcing his way onto the major league roster sometime in 2014. 

    While the 21-year-old, who posted a .926 OPS with 31 homers between Double-A and High-A last season, will be hard-pressed do win a major league job this spring, he could be Asche's biggest threat. 

    If Asche struggles and Franco has a huge spring, the Phillies will be forced to make a decision. Give the job to Franco much earlier than expected or go with some combination of Freddy Galvis, Kevin Frandsen and possibly even Ronny Cedeño

     

Pittsburgh Pirates: Right Field

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    It's less clear who will man first base for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2014, but the short list of candidates to battle Gaby Sanchez isn't very impressive. In fact, it's very likely that they'll look to fill that spot through a trade or even free agency if Kendrys Morales will accept a deal that is team-friendly enough for the Bucs. 

    Thus, the battle to be the team's right fielder, at least on Opening Day and until top prospect Gregory Polanco is ready to take over, is a much more intriguing one.

    Jose Tabata (pictured) had a solid 2013, posting a .771 OPS in 106 games, but he doesn't offer enough speed or power to be considered the long-term answer in right field. Polanco is considered to be the answer, although he'll likely return to Triple-A barring a huge spring that forces the Bucs to break camp with him in their lineup. 

    Tabata's main competition will come from Travis Snider, who has disappointed since being acquired from Toronto during the 2012 season, Jaff Decker, who had an .824 OPS with the San Diego Padres' Triple-A team last season, and Andrew Lambo, who hit 32 homers between Triple-A and Double-A. 

    If Tabata plans on handling the duties on his own, he'll need to hold off all three of those lefty hitters or be forced into a platoon.


    Honorable Mention: Gaby Sanchez vs. Andrew Lambo vs. Travis Ishikawa vs. Chris McGuiness, First Base

San Diego Padres: No. 5 Starter

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    Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

    After Ian Kennedy, Andrew Cashner, Josh Johnson and Tyson Ross, the San Diego Padres have a wide range of candidates to fill out their rotation.

    Matt Wisler, the team's No. 2 prospect, according to Baseball Prospectus, is the most likely dark-horse candidate to force the team's hand with a dominant performance. Robbie Erlin, Burch Smith and Joe Wieland, all young and talented pitchers with big league experience, are more likely to win the spot. 

    But the front-runner has to be Cory Luebke (pictured), who may have been the team's best starting pitcher when he suffered a season-ending elbow injury early in the 2012 season. 

    Nearly two years removed from Tommy John surgery, the 28-year-old will be looking to crack the rotation once again. At the time of his injury, he had a 2.61 ERA in five starts. He had just signed a long-term contract extension. 

    If Luebke isn't back to full strength, he could be eased back in a relief role—he pitched primarily in relief as a rookie in 2011 before finally getting a chance to start later in the season—while one of the aforementioned pitchers begins the season in the No. 5 spot. 

    Erlin, who had a 1.97 ERA in his final five starts of 2013, would appear to have the best shot if Luebke fails to win the job.

San Francisco Giants: Left Field

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    After signing Michael Morse (pictured) to a one-year, $6 million deal this offseason, the San Francisco Giants are going with power over defense in left field.

    But Morse's defensive limitations aren't worth it if he doesn't do much more at the plate than he did in 2013. While he did battle a series of injuries, the 31-year-old finished with a .651 OPS and 13 homers in 88 games.

    Gregor Blanco, who Morse is replacing as the starter, had a .690 OPS in 2013 and is a well above-average defender. 

    Don't count out a platoon just yet. 

Seattle Mariners: No. 4 and 5 Starter

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    The top three pitchers in the Seattle Mariners' rotation—Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker—are no walk in the park for opponents. In fact, they could be downright scary to face in a three-game series. And the M's could still bring in another frontline starter. 

    As far as the back of the rotation goes, it's still far from settled. 

    James Paxton's impressive four-start stint in September should give him a leg up on the competition, but he won't be handed a job. The 25-year-old (pictured), after posting a 4.45 ERA with 3.6 BB/9 and 8.1 K/9 in his first Triple-A season, will have to hold off Erasmo Ramirez, Hector Noesi, Brandon Maurer and Blake Beavan, all back-of-the-rotation types with big league experience. 

    Maurer might have the highest ceiling of that group, but Ramirez is probably the closest to being able to put together a solid big league season. 

St. Louis Cardinals: First Base/Right Field

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    Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

    With so many different directions the St. Louis Cardinals can go this offseason, it's not so much a straight position battle as it is a competition between first baseman Matt Adams (pictured) and outfielder Oscar Taveras to see who gets the most at-bats to start the season. 

    If Taveras, widely-considered as one of the top two prospects in baseball heading into last season, shows that he's back to form after battling an ankle injury that hampered him in 2013, he could win the right field job outright.

    The result would be less playing time for Adams, who had an .839 OPS and 17 homers in a semi-regular role as a rookie in 2013, with Allen Craig getting a majority of his at-bats in right field. 

    While it's more likely that Taveras will be eased back into action down in the minors, he is as talented a hitter as there is in the minors and it wouldn't be a big surprise if he wins a big league job out of spring camp. 

    Honorable Mention: Joe Kelly vs. Lance Lynn vs. Carlos Martinez, No. 5 Starter

     

     

Tampa Bay Rays: Closer

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    If the Tampa Bay Rays can turn Fernando Rodney from mediocre journeyman reliever into dominant closer at age 35, then surely they can do the same with Heath Bell (pictured), who at least appears to be heading down the same path that Rodney was after a dominant run with the San Diego Padres from 2007-2011. 

    At age 36, Bell will try to get back on track after two disappointing seasons with the Marlins and Diamondbacks, respectively. Just in case he can't, the Rays have several backup options in place. 

    Joel Peralta and Jake McGee, the team's primary setup men for the past couple of season, figure to get a look if Bell struggles in the spring. The most likely candidate to be second in line, though, is J.C. Oviedo, the closer formerly known as Leo Nuñez.

    Prior to his true identity being revealed, Oviedo saved 92 games for the Marlins from 2009-11. A suspension for playing with a false identity and Tommy John surgery have kept him out of action since. 

    A dark-horse candidate could be lefty Alex Torres, who posted a 1.71 ERA with a 3.1 BB/9 and 9.6 K/9 in 39 relief appearances last season. The 26-year-old has always had a big league arm, but struggled with consistency as a minor league starter. He may have found his calling as a late-inning reliever, though. 

Texas Rangers: No. 5 Starter

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Derek Holland's knee injury, which will keep him out of action until at least the All-Star break, has opened the door for a potential battle for the final spot in the Texas Rangers' rotation behind Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Alexi Ogando and Martin Perez.

    If Colby Lewis (pictured), who was re-signed to a minor league deal after missing a season-and-a-half recovering from an elbow and hip injury, can return to his previous form when he posted a 3.93 ERA, 2.4 BB/9 and 8.1 K/9 between 2010-2012, he should have the edge. 

    His main competition will come from Robbie Ross and Tanner Scheppers, who have integral bullpen roles but will come to camp as starters, as well as Nicholas Tepesch, who had a 4.87 ERA in 17 starts as a rookie in 2013. 

Toronto Blue Jays: No. 5 Starter

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    Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

    There's a strong chance that the Toronto Blue Jays sign one of the top four remaining starting pitchers available, which would all but close the door on Kyle Drabek (pictured), Drew Hutchison or top prospect Marcus Stroman making the Opening Day roster. 

    As of now, that trio, along with lefties Ricky Romero and Sean Nolin, would all have a shot at winning the last rotation spot behind R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow and J.A. Happ. 

    Stroman is the most intriguing because of his frontline starter potential, though he has yet to play above Double-A. Hutchison, who made his big league debut at age 21 back in 2012, showed promise before Tommy John surgery put his career on hold. 

    Drabek, who was the centerpiece in the trade that sent Roy Halladay to the Philadelphia Phillies, returned from Tommy John surgery late in the 2013 season. He's still just 26 years old. 

    The Jays would love for Romero, who is still due over $15 million over the next two seasons, to return to his pre-2012 form when was an All-Star and was 10th in AL Cy Young voting. 


    Honorable Mention: Ryan Goins vs. Maicer Izturis vs. Chris Getz, Second Base

     

Washington Nationals: Second Base

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    Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

    Anthony Rendon (pictured) made the successful conversion from third base to second base just in time as Danny Espinosa, who had a .727 OPS with 19 homers and 18 stolen bases per season from 2011-2012, was struggling badly last year. 

    The 23-year-old Rendon held his own at the plate, posting a .725 OPS with seven homers in 98 games. And he has the potential to be much better, which is why Espinosa is a bit of a forgotten man these days. 

    But the game of baseball, in case you haven't figured it out, is very unpredictable. Sophomore slumps happen. Players can bounce back from poor seasons, especially one's that may have been affected by injuries.

    In Espinosa's case, he went into the season with a partially torn rotator cuff, then battled a wrist injury. Not a good combination.

    The outlook still weighs in Rendon's favor because he is such a talented hitter, but it would be a mistake to hand him the job and completely write off the 26-year-old Espinosa.  

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