Under-the-Radar MLB Position Battles That Will Have Big 2014 Impact
Every team will enter camp with at least a handful of decisions to make in regards to its Opening Day roster. Certain position battles, however, could have a much bigger impact on the 2014 season than others.
While these spring battles might not all be highly publicized, players slated for a backup role or the minor leagues could take advantage of an opportunity this spring and work their way into much bigger plans than originally anticipated by their respective team. Some players, in particular, have the potential to turn that spring training competition victory into a breakout season.
Here are six under-the-radar position battles that could have a big impact on the 2014 season.
Arizona Diamondbacks: No. 5 Starter
The signing of free agent Bronson Arroyo would appear to eliminate any chance that top pitching prospect Archie Bradley (pictured) has at winning a rotation spot for the Arizona Diamondbacks. As Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic pointed out after the signing, Bradley and Randall Delgado appear to be out of the running with five veteran starters ahead of them on the depth chart.
Yet general manager Kevin Towers continues to leave the door open—at least slightly—for the 21-year-old Bradley, who posted a 1.84 ERA in 26 starts between High-A and Double-A last season.
"We need to win games; we want to win games," said Towers, per Piecoro. "If we think he's ready coming out of the spring and that we're a better ballclub with Archie being on it, he's going to be there."
While it's still a long shot, the team's inability to land a frontline starter this offseason could make Bradley's ace potential stand out even more if it can translate to dominance in his spring outings. And if he makes it impossible for the D-Backs to break camp without him in their starting rotation, who would be the odd man out?
It would certainly not be Arroyo, who just inked a two-year, $23.5 million deal and is one of the more durable and consistent starting pitchers around.
Pat Corbin was their best pitcher in 2013. Wade Miley was their best pitcher two seasons ago and had a strong follow-up season as well. Trevor Cahill and the oft-injured Brandon McCarthy both finished strong last season after rough starts.
With no clear-cut "odd man out," it's safe to say that all five projected starters should be looking over their shoulder if it's evident that Bradley is ready for the majors.
Chicago Cubs: Third Base
Luis Valbuena (pictured) was one of the few bright spots for the Chicago Cubs in 2013, performing well above expectations as the team's primary starting third baseman. But his overall .708 OPS with 12 homers—while good for a 27-year-old utilityman who came into the season with a career .635 OPS and several failed opportunities to lock down a regular gig while with the Cleveland Indians—is very likely his ceiling.
Top competitor Mike Olt, on the other hand, has a much greater ceiling—an .850 OPS and 25-30 homers wouldn't be out of the question if reached his potential—and there might be no better time to throw him into the fire and see what he can do than during what will likely be the Cubs' final rebuilding season before going into "win-now" mode in 2015.
While the 25-year-old Olt had a poor season in 2013, posting a sub.-700 OPS between Triple-A Round Rock and Triple-A Iowa, he'll have a chance to show the Cubs that he's their future at the hot corner. If he is able to do so, the impressive crop of prospects who are in the mix to be the team's "Third Baseman of the Future"—Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Christian Villanueva—could start looking for a different path to the majors.
If both Olt and Valbuena struggle in the spring, however, don't count out either of their elite prospects, Baez or Bryant, from making a surprise run at the starting job.
Baez is still a shortstop, though, and probably won't change positions until he's closer to the majors, and Bryant, the No. 2 overall pick in last year's draft, has just 36 minor-league games under his belt between High-A, Low-A and Rookie Level. The Cubs aren't likely to turn to either of them prior to the middle of the 2014 season at the earliest.
Kansas City Royals: No. 5 Starter
The two most talented pitchers for the Kansas City Royals this spring are likely to begin the season in the minors. But Yordano Ventura (pictured) and Kyle Zimmer, the team's top two pitching prospects, aren't likely to go down without a fight.
Following James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas in the Royals rotation will probably be two pitchers from the group of Bruce Chen, Wade Davis and Danny Duffy. Chen just signed a contract that guarantees him $4.25 million for one season, Davis has a $4.8 million salary in 2014 and Duffy was once an up-and-coming starter whose career was sidetracked by Tommy John surgery but is now back at full strength and deserving of another chance.
So while Ventura, who impressed in three late-season starts in 2013, and Zimmer, who spent most of last season in High-A, appear to be on the outside looking in heading into camp, they'll be tough to ignore with their mid-90s fastballs and electric secondary pitches.
Having either in the rotation from Day 1 will certainly be tempting for a team hoping to take the next step from an 86-win third-place team in 2013 to a playoff ballclub in 2014.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Right Field
At one time, Jose Tabata (pictured) was a top New York Yankees prospect with the potential to be a five-tool player in the majors. Now, at age 25 and four years into his big-league career, it's safe to say he'll never be what some experts thought he could be and that he's nothing more than a solid regular on a second-division team or a fourth outfielder on a contender.
The Pirates, contenders throughout the 2013 season, seem to think so, or else they wouldn't have acquired Marlon Byrd in August and moved Tabata to the bench. And just because they appear content to enter 2014 with him back in the starting role doesn't mean they've changed their minds.
In fact, it's evident that he's just keeping the position warm for Gregory Polanco, one of the top outfield prospects in the game.
The 22-year-old may be ticketed for Triple-A after having split a majority of his 2013 season between High-A and Double-A—he had a two-game stint in Triple-A late in the season—but he'll be in big-league camp this spring, and the Pirates will have a hard time explaining to their fanbase why they sent down the better player in what should be a pivotal season for an expected World Series contender.
Should Tabata struggle in camp and Polanco prove he's not quite ready, keep an eye on Andrew Lambo, a left-handed hitter who belted 32 homers between Double-A and Triple-A last season. As of now, the 25-year-old might have a better chance to win a share of the first base job with Gaby Sanchez, but the Bucs could give him a long look in the outfield as well.
San Diego Padres: Center Field/Right Field
Seth Smith might fit the profile of a left-handed bat off the bench, occasional starter and insurance for injury-prone left fielder Carlos Quentin, but he could be much more valuable on this Padres team.
While the Padres showed that they were committed to Cameron Maybin (pictured) as their starting center fielder when they signed him to a five-year, $25 million contract extension after a solid 2011 campaign, that is likely to have changed after a disappointing 2012 season and an injury-plagued 2013.
Maybin's absence last season allowed the team to see what Will Venable could do in center field—he started 52 games at the position—and he was likely good enough to where they'd feel comfortable sacrificing some range in the outfield in order to get Smith's bat in the lineup on a regular basis against right-handed starting pitchers.
Unless Maybin puts up big numbers in camp, Smith could be the primary starter in right field, with Venable in center, when the team breaks camp.
St. Louis Cardinals: First Base/Right Field
If not for an ankle injury that limited him to just 46 Triple-A games in 2013, Oscar Taveras wouldn't be headed to camp trying to win a job. There's a good chance he would have been in the majors late last season, possibly even having a big impact in the postseason. In turn, that would have likely made him the hands-down favorite for the starting right field job in 2014.
As things stand, it would probably make more sense for the 21-year-old Taveras to return to Triple-A after his lost 2013 season, while Matt Adams (pictured) would get a well-deserved opportunity to play regularly in the majors. However, Adams is currently projected to be the starting first baseman with Allen Craig expected to play right field.
But when you give a hitter as talented as Taveras—he might be the best pure hitting prospect in the minors—a chance to compete for a job, there's always a chance he can come out on top. That's why Adams, despite a terrific rookie season (.839 OPS, 17 HR in 108 games), will have to be at his best in the spring, or he may lose out on what could be a very small window to be a lineup regular for the Cardinals.
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