Updating Who Leads Each of MLB's Most Important Spring Position Battles
Spring training is now closer to its end than to its beginning, and that means two things.
One: Opening Day will be here soon. Huzzah.
Two: We're beginning to get some clarity on various position battles going on in Arizona and Florida—which is good, especially when it comes to the really important ones.
You know, as in the position battles for key roles on likely 2014 contenders. These clubs' position battles matter a little more than those of other teams, so they're going to be our focus today.
Scroll ahead for status updates on 10 of the spring's most important position battles.
Cardinals 5th Starter: Joe Kelly vs. Carlos Martinez
The Cardinals came to spring training with an excess of starting pitchers, but one of them fell out of the mix early on. Lo and behold, oft-injured lefty Jaime Garcia got injured again.
Garcia's injury served to narrow manager Mike Matheny's choice for the fifth spot in his rotation down to Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez. And as things stand now, there appears to be a front-runner.
After playing a starring role in last year's postseason, Martinez has picked up where he left off. He's pitched 10 innings in three starts, allowing just two earned runs on five hits with five strikeouts.
"He's had a nice spring. He's throwing very well," Matheny told Steve Dorsey of MLB.com. "He has a very good approach to what he wants to do. I think he's got a nice mix. He certainly has the arsenal."
While Martinez has pitched well, Kelly has pitched not so well. He's made two starts and has allowed seven runs on nine hits and four walks.
Kelly still has the edge in experience, and he also has the conventional wisdom that spring performances mean little going forward. But if Martinez keeps pitching like he has been, Kelly will likely be in the bullpen on Opening Day.
Diamondbacks Shortstop: Didi Gregorius vs. Chris Owings
The Diamondbacks will open their season sooner than most, as their date with the Los Angeles Dodgers in Australia on March 22 is fast approaching.
Even then, their competition at shortstop may still be ongoing. D-Backs manager Kirk Gibson told Steve Gilbert of MLB.com that the team is likely to bring both Didi Gregorius and Chris Owings to Australia, where the battle between them would continue.
It's been a good one to this point. Entering Thursday's action, Gregorius had a .250/.300/.321 line in 13 games and Owings had a .278/.316/.333 in 14 games.
Since Gregorius is considered the better defender while Owings is considered the better hitter, it might mean something that Owings has slightly better offensive numbers this spring. At the same time, that might not matter at all given that Gregorius has a clear edge in major league experience.
It's a race that's too close to call right now. But if all things are still more or less equal after the two games with the Dodgers in Australia, you have to figure Gregorius' experience will earn him the nod while Owings goes back to the minors.
Dodgers Second Base: Dee Gordon vs. Alex Guerrero
When the Dodgers signed Cuban infielder Alex Guerrero for $28 million last October, they were primarily paying for his bat. And thus far in spring training, that bat has been solid.
It might not matter, however. Though Guerrero entered Thursday's action with a solid .269/.321/.462 line in 12 games compared to Dee Gordon's .172/.250/.310 line through 14 games, the competition between the two players for the Dodgers' second base job could already be over.
According to Mike Baxter of the Los Angeles Times, Gordon is looking "more and more" like the Dodgers' man at second base. Judging from Don Mattingly's comments, Gordon's defense is the reason why.
“He’s been really good,” Mattingly said. “Defensively, I think he looks a lot more comfortable. We continue to try to just help him understand exactly who he is as a hitter, how he’s going to be most effective. Make sure he’s putting his tools to work all the time.”
This isn't surprising given that it was being reported in late January that the Dodgers were concerned about Guerrero's defense. Nor would it be surprising if the Dodgers chose for Guerrero to continue his on-the-job training at second base in the minors instead of the majors.
So for now, consider Gordon the man to beat.
Indians Third Base: Lonnie Chisenhall vs. Carlos Santana
Yours truly will be honest and say that he wasn't taking Carlos Santana's work at third base this winter seriously. It was a nice idea, but it seemed like an experiment that wouldn't go anywhere.
As it turns out, it might after all.
ESPN's Jerry Crasnick has a piece up about how seriously Santana has taken his transition to the hot corner, and he's played well enough there this spring to make Paul Hoynes of The Plain Dealer write that the Indians' third base battle between Santana and Lonnie Chisenhall is "getting interesting."
To boot, Tribe manager Terry Francona isn't leaning one way or the other, telling MLB.com that he's not about to rush a decision on whom to start at third base.
However, Francona's decision may have gotten a bit easier on Thursday. With veteran slugger Jason Giambi having suffered a broken rib, the Indians have one less option for their DH role.
Since Chisenhall is hitting well—to the tune of a .308/.400/.462 line in nine games—it's not hard to imagine him being named Cleveland's third baseman while Santana is stashed at DH.
Nationals Second Base: Danny Espinosa vs. Anthony Rendon
If what happened in 2013 was all that mattered, the Nationals' second base job would have gone to Anthony Rendon in a heartbeat. He wasn't great with a .725 OPS in 98 games, but all Danny Espinosa did was post a .465 OPS in 44 games.
All the same, new Nationals manager Matt Williams was determined to stage an "open competition" at second base this spring, for which he had "no favorite" heading into the proceedings, per Mark Zuckerman of Nats Insider.
He might now, though.
Rendon has looked very good in eight spring games, hitting a solid .350/.391/.600 with a home run and a couple doubles. Espinosa, meanwhile, has sputtered along to the tune of a .167/.310/.208 line in 10 games.
Credit where it's due: Espinosa was a quality player in 2011 and 2012, racking up a total of 6.6 fWAR. But with Rendon following up a solid 2013 with a good spring, he'll very likely be out there at second base on Opening Day.
Orioles Second Base: Ryan Flaherty vs. Jonathan Schoop vs. the Field
Speaking of second base competitions, there's a good one going on with the other of the two Beltway teams. The Orioles came into camp with a host of options for second base, and the competition is still hot.
"I told you before, we came in here with that completely wide open there. Still is," O's manager Buck Showalter told Brittany Ghiroli of MLB.com this week.
Ryan Flaherty is the incumbent among Showalter's options, and he's having a good spring with a .286/.344/.464 line in 10 games. However, there's 22-year-old prospect Jonathan Schoop hitting .450/.500/.750 in 11 games.
Jemile Weeks, meanwhile, is not hitting so well with a .158/.370/.211 line in eight games. That might not mean that Flaherty and Schoop are in the clear, though, as Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com has reported that the Orioles are one of several teams in on Seattle Mariners infielder Nick Franklin.
There's no easy answer here. Flaherty will likely get the job if Schoop cools down, but the Orioles might also pull the trigger on Franklin if that happens. I'd consider it Flaherty's job to lose for now, but don't be surprised if he does indeed lose it.
Pirates Right Field: Gregory Polanco vs. Jose Tabata vs. Travis Snider
The Pirates have homegrown stars in left field and center field. If Gregory Polanco keeps hitting like he's hitting so far this spring, they may have no choice but to put another one in right field.
Polanco's been one of Pittsburgh's more impressive players this spring, hitting .273/.304/.500 with a homer and a couple doubles in 10 games. Jon Morosi of FoxSports.com spoke to one scout who said simply, "He's ready."
The trouble is that, according to Morosi, Pittsburgh's plan all along has been to start Polanco off in the minors so as not to start his arbitration clock too early. They're not going to break camp with him on the big roster unless they have no choice.
There's a chance it will come to that. Travis Snider is hitting a solid .286/.286/.500 in seven games, but Jose Tabata is only hitting .136/.136/.136 in 10 games. If Snider joins him in the land of the ice cold before Opening Day arrives, the Pirates may apologize ahead of time to their wallets and go with Polanco.
It's not Polanco's job to lose, but don't think he can't win it.
Red Sox Center Fielder: Jackie Bradley Jr. vs. Grady Sizemore
The Red Sox's signing of Grady Sizemore had a gimmicky feel to it. More than anything, it felt like they were bringing him aboard just to light a fire under top prospect Jackie Bradley Jr.'s rear end.
It doesn't look so gimmicky now.
Contrary to what he did last spring, Bradley is struggling at the plate with a .185/.267/.296 line in nine games. That looks a lot like the .189/.280/.337 line he posted in the majors last year, which is not a good look.
Sizemore, meanwhile, is hitting .308/.357/.308 in five games. That's over a very small sample size, granted, but that sample size is due to increase with Sizemore having shown this week that he can handle playing in back-to-back games.
That was a big step for Sizemore, who has missed the last two seasons recovering from assorted surgeries. If you ask Ian Browne of MLB.com, what was once a long shot now looks like a legit possibility: Sizemore starting in center field for the Red Sox on Opening Day.
Royals 5th Starter: Danny Duffy vs. Yordano Ventura
The Royals entered camp with a large array of options for the No. 5 spot in their rotation, but the field soon shrunk. Luke Hochevar got hurt, Wade Davis was moved to the bullpen and Brad Penny was released.
It's a two-man competition now, with hard-throwing lefty Danny Duffy on one side and hard-throwing righty Yordano Ventura on the other. One, however, has looked significantly better than the other.
Ventura has been one of the most exciting players at any camp this spring, using his electric stuff to rack up nine strikeouts in 9.1 innings while also allowing just three runs, six hits and one walk. In his most recent outing against the Oakland A's, he was clocked at 102 miles per hour.
“That was pretty darn good, boy,” Royals manager Ned Yost told Andy McCullough of The Kansas City Star.
Duffy, on the other hand, has struggled. In seven innings, he allowed six earned runs on 10 hits. Four of those have left the ballpark.
The Royals rotation needs more than just a fifth starter. It also needs a high-upside arm to replace Ervin Santana. Right now, Ventura matches that description much more than Duffy.
Yankees 5th Starter: Michael Pineda vs. the Field
The Yankees entered spring training with four serious options for the fifth spot in their starting rotation: Vidal Nuno, David Phelps, Michael Pineda and Adam Warren.
In the last week, however, one guy has emerged as the likely favorite for the role: Pineda.
With his 2012 shoulder surgery nearly two years in the rearview mirror, Pineda dazzled in his spring debut against the Detroit Tigers last week. In two innings, he threw 21 of his 27 pitches for strikes and struck out four, with the highlight being a whiff of two-time defending AL MVP Miguel Cabrera.
According to Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York, Yankees skipper Joe Girardi hinted before Pineda's second outing on Thursday that the right-hander had the upper hand in the race for the fifth spot in his rotation. If true, Pineda likely has even more of an upper hand after shutting out the Orioles through 2.2 innings.
Granted, Phelps and Warren have also looked pretty good this spring. Phelps has a 1.86 ERA in three starts, and Warren has a 2.08 ERA in two starts. They're not out of the running just yet.
But if Pineda keeps looking like the guy the Yankees hoped they traded for way back in 2011, expect them to go with him.