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Updating Who Leads Each of MLB's Most Critical Position Battles

Jason MartinezContributor IMarch 6, 2014

Updating Who Leads Each of MLB's Most Critical Position Battles

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    Jackie Bradley Jr. is trying to hold off former star Grady Sizemore for the starting center field job in Boston.
    Jackie Bradley Jr. is trying to hold off former star Grady Sizemore for the starting center field job in Boston.Associated Press

    All MLB teams have at least a handful of position battles going on in camp, though most are of the No. 5 starter, middle relief and bench variety.

    Not that all of them are boring. As a matter of fact, some are very intriguing, especially those with top pitching prospects involved. 

    But the most critical battles are for everyday starting jobs. And the candidates can range from young prospects to minor league journeymen to veterans trying to bounce back from an injury or poor season to former All-Stars who are on the downside of their career.

    Will a team go with a young player with big upside over a veteran who is considered a safer pick? A better defender over one who can possibly provide more offense? A player with a guaranteed salary and who may be out of minor league options over a young player who can be sent to the minors without being placed on waivers? Will it come down to which player performs best in camp? 

    Here's a look a eight of the more intriguing battles going on in camp.

Astros Left Fielder and Right Fielder

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    The two outfielders who will flank center fielder Dexter Fowler are up in the air, although top prospect George Springer (pictured) will likely be manning right field by midseason, if not much sooner. 

    Robbie Grossman (4-for-7, 2 2B, BB) and Marc Krauss (5-for-11, 2 HR) are playing as though they are well aware of the small window they have before Springer takes over, leaving only one corner outfield spot available.  

    The 24-year-old Springer, who posted a 1.010 OPS with 37 homers and 45 stolen bases between Triple-A and Double-A last season, is also doing impressive things. He only has one single in five at-bats, but he's walked five times and stolen three bases. He's struck out twice.

    While the Astros already know Springer can hit, a more disciplined approach at the plate could be the key to his breaking camp with the team. 

    Others in the mix for a corner outfield spot are L.J. Hoes (1-for-5, BB, 2 K) and non-roster invitee J.D. Martinez (2-for-7, 2B, BB, K).

    In reality, there is room for all five on the roster. If the season started today, Grossman could start in one corner, Krauss and either Hoes or Martinez would platoon at the designated hitter spot and Springer would start in right field.

    Sending Springer to the minors would alter those plans, however, and Martinez would likely be the beneficiary.  

Cubs Third Baseman

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    Until Mike Olt once again shows off the talent that made him one of the top prospects in the game two seasons ago, it's hard to give him much consideration for the starting third base job. His booming pinch-hit homer earlier in the week was a good start. 

    His competition this spring isn't strong. Luis Valbuena (pictured) is the favorite after far exceeding expectations by posting a .708 OPS with 12 homers last season. He's 1-for-8 with a double so far this spring, although even a solid performance over the next few weeks won't be enough to hold off Olt if he shows he's back to his pre-2013 form. 

    The 25-year-old Olt's inclusion in the Opening Day lineup following a strong spring would push the Matt Garza trade of last July even further into the Cubs' favor. In addition to Olt, the Texas Rangers gave up three right-handed pitching prospects: C.J. Edwards, Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez. 

    With Christian Villanueva, who posted a .787 OPS with 19 homers in Double-A last season, and a pair of elite prospects, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez, being possibilities to play third base in the majors as early as mid-2014, the Cubs would love to find out what Olt could do. But they also don't want to hand him the job if he doesn't earn it this spring. 

    If the season started today, I think they'd go with Olt, with Valbuena in a utility role and ready to step in if Olt struggles. 

Diamondbacks Shortstop

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    Rob Tringali/Getty Images

    The Arizona Diamondbacks have two young shortstops capable of starting for many big league teams. In fact, the loser of the spring battle for the starting job could hit the trade block and would not have a shortage of suitors. 

    For now, Didi Gregorius and Chris Owings (pictured) are focused on becoming the starter for the D-backs. Neither is off to a blazing start—Gregorius is 3-for-15 with a double, two walks and three strikeouts; Owings is 4-for-16 with two doubles, two walks and three strikeouts. 

    With Gregorius the incumbent, it would appear that Owings would need to separate himself with his performance this spring, and he hasn't done that quite yet.

    If the season started today, Gregorius would be in the majors and Owings would likely find himself back in Triple-A, where he posted an .841 OPS with 12 homers and 20 stolen bases in 2013. 

Dodgers Second Baseman

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    With one swing of the bat in Wednesday's exhibition game, Alexander Guerrero (pictured) may have put himself back into the conversation as the Los Angeles Dodgers' Opening Day second baseman.

    The reports on the 27-year-old Guerrero—who hit a grand slam against Jeff Francis of the Cincinnati Reds—have not been glowing, especially in his transition from shortstop to second base, which is why a Triple-A stint to begin his pro career was beginning to seem like a strong possibility.

    But until Dee Gordon (3-for-15, 2 3B, 3 SB), Chone Figgins (2-for-13) or Justin Turner (4-for-13, 2 2B) do more to separate themselves, each big hit by Guerrero will increase his chances of winning the job. He's now 5-for-17 with a walk and four strikeouts. 

    If the season started today, I think Gordon would get the second base job, with Turner on the bench and Guerrero in Triple-A to work on his defense.

Nationals Second Baseman

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Danny Espinosa's struggles during the 2013 season, in which he posted a .465 OPS in 44 big league games and .566 OPS in 75 Triple-A seasons, could have been injury-related. The 26-year-old switch-hitter (pictured), who averaged 19 homers and 18 stolen bases per season in 2011-2012, played with a partially torn rotator cuff and was also hampered by a wrist injury. 

    So it's only fair that the Washington Nationals are giving Espinosa a chance to win his job back from Anthony Rendon, who had a .725 OPS with seven homers in 98 games as a rookie. 

    If not for Rendon's 0-for-7 start with no walks and five strikeouts, Espinosa would be in danger of being buried in the race with his 0-for-10 start. 

    It's way too early to name a leader, but their combined 0-for-17 has at least opened up the slight possibility that Zach Walters, who is off to a 6-for-7 start with two doubles, triple, homer and walk, can win the job. 

Pirates Right Fielder

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Pirates won't come out and say it, but they fully expect Gregory Polanco to start the season in the minors.

    Not only could he benefit from the Triple-A experience—he had nine at-bats there at the end of 2013—but the small-market Pirates aren't interested in paying the several million dollars he'd make under team control if he were to accumulate enough service time to become arbitration-eligible after the 2016 season. Hold him back until around mid-June, and he wouldn't be eligible for the several million-dollar raise through arbitration until after the 2017 season. 

    Still, the 22-year-old is on the 40-man roster. He's in camp. He's one of the most talented prospects in the game. And he's already making an impact this spring with five hits, including two doubles and a homer, in 15 at-bats. 

    The Bucs owe it to their fanbase to break camp with the best 25 players, and that might include Polanco in right field and Jose Tabata (pictured), who is 2-for-13 with no walks and four strikeouts this spring, on the bench. 

    If the season started today, Tabata would still get the job with Polanco headed to Triple-A. But Polanco still has several weeks to make it clear who the better player is right now. 

Red Sox Center Fielder

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    If Grady Sizemore (pictured) can make it through camp healthy after missing the past two seasons and much of the previous three with injuries, it should be considered a victory for the former Cleveland Indians superstar. But the 31-year-old also has a chance to break camp as the starting center fielder for the world champion Boston Red Sox. 

    He'll need to beat out talented rookie Jackie Bradley Jr., who is 2-for-10 with a double, walk and three strikeouts this spring, but if he can just have a solid and injury-free few weeks, Sizemore will be on a big league roster before long. 

    With a single and a walk in his first six plate appearances, Sizemore still hasn't proven he's anywhere close to his previous form, which produced an .868 OPS with 27 homers and 29 stolen bases per season from 2005-2008. He doesn't need to be that player again to win this job, but Bradley is no slouch. 

    Although he struggled as a rookie, the 23-year-old is considered a terrific defender in center field with potential to be an above-average hitter in the majors. He has a career .876 OPS in 218 minor league games. 

    If the season started today, the Sox would go with Bradley simply because it will take a few weeks to evaluate Sizemore after his long layoff.

Twins Center Fielder

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    If MVP awards were handed out in the spring, Aaron Hicks (pictured) may have won it in 2013. The switch-hitting center fielder hit .370 with four homers, six doubles and three stolen bases with 18 runs batted in and 18 runs scored in 22 games. His performance won him a spot on the Minnesota Twins' Opening Day roster, making the jump from Double-A.

    Hicks was completely overwhelmed in the majors, which is why the team isn't prepared to hand him the job this spring. His competition isn't that strong, though, as former Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Alex Presley is his biggest threat. 

    In reality, this might only be a temporary gig, as Byron Buxton, the top prospect in baseball, is talented enough to force his way to the majors by midseason. If Hicks can prove himself as an everyday big leaguer by then, he would shift to a corner spot. 

    As of now, neither Hicks (2-for-9) nor Presley (2-for-12) have done much to separate themselves. Figure Presley is the safe pick if the season started today, although the Twins would love to have Hicks give them another reason to grant him the starting job once again. 

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