Early Predictions for the Winners of MLB's Hottest Spring Position Battles
Spring training has arrived, as players around the league are making their way to sunny Arizona or Florida to gear up for the 2014 MLB season.
Teams will now evaluate their talent and determine who will make up their 25-man roster when Opening Day rolls around.
For some teams, there's a big decision to be made, be it a battle between two everyday guys at the same position or a number of guys for the No. 5 starter job. For others, it's just a matter of rounding out the bench or picking the final bullpen arm.
With that in mind, here is a look at 10 of the biggest position battles going on around spring training as well as my early predictions for who will win each of them.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Shortstop
Candidates: Didi Gregorius, Chris Owings
With the departure of Stephen Drew at the trade deadline in 2012, the Arizona Diamondbacks had a clear hole at shortstop heading into last offseason. That was addressed when they acquired Didi Gregorius from the Cincinnati Reds in a three-team, nine-player deal.
The 23-year-old held his own as the team's primary shortstop last season, hitting .252/.332/.373 while playing plus defense up the middle. GM Kevin Towers spoke incredibly highly of Gregorius after he was acquired, comparing him to a young Derek Jeter, via Steve Gilbert of MLB.com:
When I saw him, he reminded me of a young Derek Jeter. I was fortunate enough to see Jeter when he was in high school in Michigan. He's got that type of range, he's got speed, more of a line-drive-type hitter, and I think he's got the type of approach at the plate and separation to where I think there's going to be power there as well.
However, the team is fortunate enough to have another promising young shortstop option in 22-year-old Chris Owings, and he is expected to give Gregorius a run this spring.
In a full season at Triple-A last year, Owings hit .330/.359/.482 with 31 doubles, 12 home runs and 20 stolen bases. He's not as great of a fielder as Gregorius, but he has a much higher offensive ceiling.
Prediction: Didi Gregorius is named the starter, while Chris Owings makes the roster as a utility infielder.
Baltimore Orioles: Left Field/Designated Hitter
Candidates: Jack Cust, David Lough, Steve Pearce, Francisco Peguero, Nolan Reimold, Henry Urrutia, Delmon Young
With Nate McLouth gone via free agency and Danny Valencia traded to the Kansas City Royals, there are holes to be filled in left field and at designated hitter, respectively, for the Baltimore Orioles.
Valencia was dealt to the Royals for outfielder David Lough, and the latter looks like the front-runner to earn the bulk of the at-bats in left field for the O's. The 28-year-old hit .286/.311/.413 and finished eighth in AL Rookie of the Year voting last year.
Incumbent Nolan Reimold dealt with injuries last year, but he should get a chance to earn significant at-bats as well if he proves healthy this spring. Veteran Delmon Young was added in free agency, and he looks like a solid platoon option against left-handed pitching at one of the spots.
The X-factor here is Cuban defector Henry Urrutia, who hit .347/.406/.506 in 314 at-bats between Double-A and Triple-A last year before a late-season call-up. He has the potential to play his way into everyday at-bats, and he looks like a potential breakout candidate as a 27-year-old.
Prediction: David Lough and Nolan Reimold will platoon in left field, Henry Urrutia will be the primary DH, and Delmon Young will earn a bench spot.
Cleveland Indians: No. 5 Starter
Top Candidates: RHP Trevor Bauer, RHP Carlos Carrasco, RHP Shaun Marcum
Other Candidates: RHP Tyler Cloyd, RHP Josh Tomlin
The Cleveland Indians starting rotation was among the biggest surprises in the league last year, but there will be some turnover heading into 2014, as Scott Kazmir signed with the Oakland A's and Ubaldo Jimenez looks to be headed elsewhere as well.
Danny Salazar and Corey Kluber look poised to take the next step, while Justin Masterson is back atop the staff. Also, Zach McAllister should be a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. The final spot in the rotation is yet to be determined, though, and there is no clear front-runner at this point either.
Non-roster invitee Shaun Marcum will get a long look this spring, and while his 1-10 record and 5.29 ERA in 12 starts with the New York Mets last season were not great, a 3.64 FIP, per FanGraphs, suggests that he pitched better than his numbers indicated.
If he doesn't step up, incumbents Carlos Carrasco and Josh Tomlin both have a chance to surpass him. Top prospect Trevor Bauer may be the X-factor here, though, and while his first season in Cleveland was a disappointing one, he still has the upside to be an impact arm.
Prediction: Shaun Marcum is the named No. 5 starter, while Carlos Carrasco and Josh Tomlin both earn bullpen spots.
Kansas City Royals: No. 5 Starter
Top Candidates: RHP Wade Davis, LHP Danny Duffy, RHP Yordano Ventura
Other Candidates: LHP Chris Dwyer, RHP Brad Penny, RHP P.J. Walters, RHP Kyle Zimmer
The Kansas City Royals entered the offseason in need of a veteran starter to replace Ervin Santana in the rotation, and they found their man when they signed Jason Vargas to a four-year, $32 million deal.
He joins James Shields and Jeremy Guthrie atop the rotation, with Bruce Chen also re-signed and is ticketed for a rotation spot, according to manager Ned Yost (h/t Dick Kaegel of MLB.com). That leaves the fifth spot open, and the candidates to secure the spot are an interesting mix of prospects and veterans.
Danny Duffy is probably the front-runner entering camp, as the former top prospect returned from Tommy John surgery to go 2-0 with a 1.85 ERA in five starts last year, and he's still just 25 years old.
Top prospects Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer will get a long look as well, and both could find themselves in rotation spots by the end of the year. Veteran Brad Penny is attempting a comeback, and right-hander Wade Davis is still trying to return to his Tampa bay form, but both look like long shots at this point.
Prediction: Danny Duffy is named the No. 5 starter.
Milwaukee Brewers: Second Base
Candidates: Scooter Gennett, Rickie Weeks
Once one of the top offensive second basemen in the game, Rickie Weeks has struggled to a .222/.320/.384 line over the past two seasons, including a career-worst .209/.306/.357 output over 350 at-bats last season.
Weeks went down with a hamstring injury in early August last year and wound up missing the rest of the season, and that opened the door for prospect Scooter Gennett.
The 23-year-old Gennett made the most of the opportunity, hitting .324/.356/.479 with 19 extra-base hits in 213 at-bats. That makes for an interesting situation this spring, as Weeks is set to earn $11 million in the final year of his contract and will likely get every chance to win the job, but Gennett may be the better option.
Manager Ron Roenicke weighed in on the situation in a Q-and-A article with Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
We're not exactly sure what's going to happen there. We have an idea. It's nice to have a couple of options there. Rick needs to get back where he was in 2011 and before. I'm hoping he can bounce back and be that guy again. If he does, then he makes it really tough on us. Last year, I thought the system worked really well. The first time we brought Scooter up, we platooned them and they both produced. I'm not saying it's going to be a platoon situation. If Scooter comes into camp and shows what he did last year; we liked his defense, also. He showed he can really hit. So, going into it, we're looking at two guys who we feel both can start in the big leagues. If it ends up being a platoon, fine.
Prediction: The two players will serve as part of a platoon, with Rickie Weeks being traded midseason.
New York Yankees: No. 5 Starter
Top Candidates: RHP David Phelps, RHP Michael Pineda
Other Candidates: LHP Manny Banuelos, LHP Vidal Nuno, RHP Jose Ramirez, LHP Nik Turley, RHP Adam Warren
The New York Yankees re-signed Hiroki Kuroda and landed Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka this offseason, and they will join CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova to fill the first four spots in the team's rotation.
The fifth spot, however, is up for grabs this spring, and there are a handful of candidates in the running. Michael Pineda and David Phelps look like the front-runners entering camp, though.
Phelps made 22 appearances and went 5-4 with a 4.93 ERA over 12 starts last year, while Pineda has not pitched in the majors since his rookie season with the Seattle Mariners in 2011 after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum back in 2012.
Vidal Nuno has an outside chance as well after posting a 2.25 ERA in five games (three starts) last season. The team will give Pineda every chance to win the job given his vast potential, but it's Phelps who may be the safer bet at this point.
Prediction: Michael Pineda is named the No. 5 starter, while David Phelps earns a bullpen spot.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Right Field
Candidates: Andrew Lambo, Gregory Polanco, Jose Tabata
The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Marlon Byrd for their postseason run in August, but with him departing in free agency this offseason, the right field position is a question once again entering the 2014 season.
Incumbent Jose Tabata dealt with some injuries last year, but he held his own when he was in the lineup, hitting .282/.342/.429 over 308 at-bats. He'll get the first crack at the job, but top prospect Gregory Polanco figures to push him.
Polanco hit .285/.356/.434 with 44 extra-base hits and 38 steals while splitting the 2013 season between High-A, Double-A and Triple-A as a 21-year-old. He followed that up by winning Dominican Winter League MVP honors, and he looks poised to make a splash.
Chances are the Pirates will start Polanco in the minors, with a midseason call-up being the most likely course of action for him. A big spring could change those plans, though, as they won't hesitate to get his impact bat in the lineup if he's ready.
Prediction: Jose Tabata is named the starter, and Gregory Polanco is called up to replace him by mid-June.
St. Louis Cardinals: No. 4 and 5 Starter
Top Candidates: LHP Jaime Garcia, RHP Joe Kelly, RHP Lance Lynn
Other Candidates: RHP Angel Castro, LHP John Gast, LHP Tyler Lyons, RHP Carlos Martinez
The St. Louis Cardinals are stocked with starting pitching options, and there figures to be at least one guy capable of cracking most rotations around the league who will wind up in their bullpen. The first three rotation spots will likely go to Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller, but the other two are still a question mark.
One would assume that if Jaime Garcia is healthy—he made just nine starts last season before undergoing shoulder surgery—he'll secure the No. 4 starter spot. The left-hander is 38-24 with a 3.38 ERA in 89 starts since his rookie season in 2010.
Joe Kelly started last year in the bullpen, but he finished the season 10-5 with a 2.69 ERA in 37 games (15 starts). That included a second half in which he went 9-2 with a 1.91 ERA in 12 starts. Still, he lost out on a rotation spot to Lance Lynn last spring and could find himself in a swingman role once again.
The X-factor is flame-throwing Carlos Martinez, who found a home in a setup role last postseason but was a starter throughout his time in the minors. He's likely too valuable in the eighth inning, but he could get a look as a starter this spring.
Prediction: Jaime Garcia is named No. 4 starter, Lance Lynn is named No. 5 starter, and both Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez earn bullpen spots.
Texas Rangers: No. 5 Starter
Top Candidates: RHP Tommy Hanson, RHP Colby Lewis
Other Candidates: RHP Armando Galarraga, LHP Michael Kickham, LHP Robbie Ross, RHP Tanner Scheppers, RHP Nicholas Tepesch
Getting Matt Harrison back and healthy is a nice boost for the Texas Rangers' rotation, but his return this spring has been offset by the loss of Derek Holland. That has left the back of the rotation as a question mark.
Harrison will join Yu Darvish, Martin Perez and Alexi Ogando to fill the first four spots in the rotation, while a pair of veterans in Tommy Hanson and non-roster invitee Colby Lewis look like the front-runners to win the final spot.
Lewis has been sidelined since July of 2012 with a torn flexor tendon in his throwing arm, and if he can prove healthy, he'll get every chance to make the rotation. If those two can't step forward, though, there are a handful of in-house options to consider.
Nicholas Tepesch made 19 appearances (17 starts) last season, going 4-6 with a 4.84 ERA, as he broke camp as the team's No. 5 starter. Prospect Michael Kirkman and setup men Robbie Ross and Tanner Scheppers will get a look as well, though those two are both important cogs in the late innings.
Prediction: Tommy Hanson is named the No. 5 starter, while Robbie Ross and Tanner Scheppers remain in the bullpen.
Washington Nationals: No. 5 Starter
Top Candidates: LHP Ross Detwiler, RHP Taylor Jordan, RHP Tanner Roark
Other Candidates: RHP Ross Ohlendorf, LHP Daniel Rosenbaum, RHP Chris Young
The Washington Nationals already had one of the best rotations in baseball thanks to the trio of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, and they got even better this offseason with the addition of Doug Fister.
As for who gets to join that impressive group in the No. 5 spot, it looks to be a three-horse race between Ross Detwiler, Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark. All three are solid options, and GM Mike Rizzo told Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post that he's pleased with the team's rotational depth.
“We feel that we’ve got the resources to have a quality guy sitting down there,” Rizzo said. “I think the difference this year from previous years, we’ve got great depth at that spot.”
Detwiler pitched to a solid 4.04 ERA in 13 starts last season, but he could be useful as a second left-hander in the bullpen. Roark was 7-1 with a 1.51 ERA in 14 games (five starts), and he looks to have the upper hand over Jordan, who had a 3.66 ERA in nine starts.
Prediction: Tanner Roark is named the No. 5 starter, and Ross Detwiler earns a bullpen spot.