Dark Horses Who Could Win MLB's Hottest Upcoming 2016 Spring Position Battles

Karl BuscheckContributor IIIJanuary 25, 2016

Dark Horses Who Could Win MLB's Hottest Upcoming 2016 Spring Position Battles

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    Trayce Thompson will be looking to make his mark with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2016.
    Trayce Thompson will be looking to make his mark with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2016.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    One of the best parts about MLB spring training is getting the chance to watch dark horses like Trayce Thompson and Aaron Sanchez, who will be angling to steal jobs from more-established teammates.

    Surveying the bigs, there is an array of low-key guys like Thompson and Sanchez who don't have the inside track to a regular gig but who have the potential to make it happen.

    All of the players who cracked this list offer tremendous upside, and all but one posted superb numbers—either in the minors or the majors—in 2015. They're all about to be embroiled in big-time position battles this spring.

    In the case of Sanchez, he's not only got the stats to back up his bid but also a vote of confidence from one of his higher-profile teammates.

SP Archie Bradley, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Archie Bradley is a wild card for the D-backs in 2016.
    Archie Bradley is a wild card for the D-backs in 2016.Matt York/Associated Press

    2016 Opening Day Age: 23

    The Job Opening: The No. 5 spot in the rotation

    The Arizona Diamondbacks' headline splashes for Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller not only give the club one nasty pair at the top of the rotation but also send Archie Bradley tumbling down the organizational depth chart.

    In addition to the new guys, the righty is also stuck behind Patrick Corbin, Rubby De La Rosa and Robbie Ray.

    Even after he endured a miserable 2015 when he took a line drive off his face, missed time with a shoulder injury and ran up a 5.80 ERA in eight starts, Bradley isn't wallowing in a pool of self-despair.

    “I’m feeling really good,” Bradley said, per John Ferguson of the Broken Arrow Ledger (h/t Tulsa World). “[Mentally,] I’m the best I’ve been in a long time. The confidence never left me.”

    He's on the outside looking in with camp set to open Feb. 20, but Bradley has good reason to maintain his confidence. The No. 7 overall pick in 2011 entered last season as Baseball Prospectus' No. 11 farmhand and doesn't turn 24 until August.

    Bradley is still young and seriously talented. Now he just needs a little luck.

1B A.J. Reed, Houston Astros

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    2016 Opening Day Age: 22

    The Job Opening: First base

    What A.J. Reed did to minor league pitchers last year was downright mean.

    Take a look at his numbers, as he split the season between High-A and Double-A on the Houston Astros farm:

    • High-A: .346 AVG, 1.088 OPS, 23 HR
    • Double-A: .332 AVG, .976 OPS, 11 HR

    Altogether, the 2014 second-round pick piled up 69 extra-base hits in 135 games. Those are the kind of numbers that should be giving Jon Singleton—the incumbent at first base—nightmares.

    Jim Callis of MLB.com, who tabbed Reed as the best first baseman in the minors, pointed out that the 22-year-old does have one box he still needs to check off his developmental to-do list.

    "Reed could claim Houston's first base job as soon as he proves he can hit advanced left-handers."

    Last season in Double-A, lefties held Reed to a .238 average and a .397 slugging percentage in an admittedly limited sample size (63 at-bats). But Reed absolutely dismantled right-handers, logging an unreal .373 average and a 1.092 OPS.

    With those stats on his resume, there's no question Reed is ready to contribute at the Juice Box—if only in a platoon role—as soon as Opening Day.

CF Tommy Pham, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Tommy Pham doesn't get cheated at the dish.
    Tommy Pham doesn't get cheated at the dish.Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    2016 Opening Day Age: 28

    The Job Opening: The starting job in center field

    Barring a train wreck of a Grapefruit League campaign, Tommy Pham will be on the roster when the St. Louis Cardinals break camp.

    According to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Cards have penciled in Pham as the No. 4 outfielder. Matt Holliday is entrenched in left, Randal Grichuk is the front-runner in center and Stephen Piscotty (who will also see time at first base) will patrol right.

    But don't sleep on Pham.

    The Las Vegas native, whom the Cardinals picked in the 16th round way back in 2006, was a legit contributor last season, logging an .824 OPS in 52 games. Heading into the upcoming campaign, the versatile outfielder also will be the beneficiary of a new diet plan.

    “Apparently I don’t eat enough vegetables,” Pham said, per Goold at the team's Winter Warm-up. “I like to eat meat. Sorry to any vegetarians in here. I guess that’s not the right way to eat. I need to eat a lot more vegetables.”

    That's some funny stuff from the right-handed hitter, but when he connects on a pitch, it's no joke. According to MLB.com, Pham posted an average launch speed of 93.57 mph in 2015, more than four mph faster than the major league norm.

SP Aaron Sanchez, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Aaron Sanchez has been training with Marcus Stroman as he aims to win a rotation spot.
    Aaron Sanchez has been training with Marcus Stroman as he aims to win a rotation spot.Associated Press

    2016 Opening Day Age: 23

    The Job Opening: The No. 5 spot in the rotation

    If you want to know how fifth-starter-hopeful Aaron Sanchez's transition back to starting is going, just ask Marcus Stroman.

    “I’m excited for you guys to see Aaron," Stroman said, per Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star. "We’ve been working at it pretty hard. He’s put on some really good weight, and he’s really strong in areas where he wasn’t strong in the past, and I think you’re going to see a different Aaron this year."

    The Aaron who the baseball world saw last year was a relief ace.

    In 30 appearances out of the pen, the Toronto Blue Jays righty sported a 2.39 ERA and limited the opposition to a .178 average. As Griffin wrote, Sanchez said he's packed on 25 pounds this winter in an effort to bulk up for a run at a rotation job.

    Sanchez will be jostling with Jesse Chavez and Drew Hutchison for the fifth and final starting gig. Based on the club's decision to bring setup man Drew Storen to the Rogers Centre this winter via trade, it sure seems like the Jays would like to see last year's eighth-inning stopper taking the hill every five days.

CF Trayce Thompson, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Trayce Thompson has the bat to make a name for himself.
    Trayce Thompson has the bat to make a name for himself.Andrew Nelles/Associated Press/Associated Press

    2016 Opening Day Age: 25

    The Job Opening: A spot in the outfield rotation

    Trayce Thompson, the younger brother of NBA star Klay Thompson, was one popular dude during the winter meetings.

    The little bro's name was so widespread in trade speculation that Klay couldn't help but check in on the rumor mill.

    "I actually heard that my little brother might be in a trade, so I was on Google all day refreshing, searching [for] Trayce Thompson," the older Thompson said on the Dan Patrick Show, via Larry Brown Sports. "Lucky enough the [Chicago] White Sox hung onto him.”

    Ultimately, the South Siders flipped the center fielder to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a three-way swap that also included the Cincinnati Reds.

    With Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson, Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Scott Van Slyke also on the roster in LA, Thompson will need an injury or trade of a vet to facilitate his ascension up the depth chart.

    But there's a reason that the Dodgers brought in the right-handed hitter.

    Simply put, Thompson has a bat that will demand the attention of rookie skipper Dave Roberts. Last season for the Sox, Thompson posted an .896 OPS in a late-summer cameo, slaying southpaws to the tune of a .998 OPS.

     

    Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and MLB.com. All salary information courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts on BaseballProspectus.com.

    If you want to talk baseball, find me on Twitter @KarlBuscheck.