The football season is over, the basketball season as it is midway point and the NCAA Tournament is still a month away. Yup, it's almost March and that means it's finally time for spring training baseball.
After an exciting offseason, fans everywhere are eager to get the 2011 season going. Pitchers and hitters are scheduled to report to their respective spring training facilities in Florida or Arizona over the next few days, and games will begin in a couple of weeks.
But as fun as it is to see a dozen different players you've never heard of share the field with MLB superstars, most eyes should be planted squarely on a handful of players who will be playing for their baseball lives. Spring training is usually just a time to get back in the habit of playing the game, but for these few players it's a chance to prove that they deserve a starting spot on the roster.
Check out the 10 biggest position battles in the AL this spring training, and see which player has the early lead.
Click here to read about NL position battles.
The Angels solved their logjam at catcher by trading away C/1B/DH Mike Napoli to the Toronto Blue Jays in a deal for OF Vernon Wells. But that doesn't mean there's a clear-cut starter at backstop just yet.
Jeff Mathis, 27, is the leading incumbent after starting 62 games at catcher for the Halos. However, injuries derailed a promising season and the six-year veteran finished with just a .195 batting average and a .497 OPS, the lowest of his career. He's never been anything more than a part-time catcher, despite being a capable defender.
Hard on Mathis' heels is 22-year-old prospect Hank Conger, who made his major league debut in 2010, appearing in 13 games and driving in five runs. Conger isn't considered any better defensively than Mathis, but his bat should keep him in the big leagues for a long time.
The Angels have no reason to rush Conger, so Mathis will likely be the Opening Day starter with career backup Bobby Wilson filling out the roster. But if the youngster has a big spring, then it'd be hard to see manager Mike Scioscia deny him a roster spot. Conger will get his shot—it's just a matter of when.
Theo Epstein made an attempt to halt the Boston carousel at shortstop by signing Marco Scutaro last season after a career year. Scutaro rewarded the Red Sox by playing in 150 games, one of only two roster players to accomplish that, and hitting a respectable .275/.331/.388, which is about in line with his career averages. The 35-year-old also chipped in with solid defense at both shortstop and second base for an injury-riddled lineup.
But Scutaro was never intended as anything more than a stopgap for the Red Sox. Jed Lowrie, a 26-year-old, power-hitting infielder, was supposed to be the shortstop of the future after making his major league debut in 2008. However, a laundry list of injuries prevented Lowrie from staying on the field long enough to secure a starting spot.
Lowrie returned to the Red Sox lineup after an early season bout with mono, and finally proved scouts right. He launched nine home runs and 14 doubles in just 171 at-bats, good for a 907 OPS. He also played a competent shortstop with Scutaro sliding over to second to replace the injured Dustin Pedroia.
But with both Scutaro and Lowrie healthy, who will be given the starting nod? Scutaro has to be the early favorite based on experience and longevity, but there's little doubt that Lowrie is the better all-around player. The picture gets even more muddled when we take into account slick-fielding, 21-year-old Jose Iglesias, who is all but guaranteed to be Boston's starting shortstop by 2012 at the latest.
So do the Red Sox have Lowrie play one season at shortstop and then move him into a super utility role once Iglesias is ready? Do they keep Scutaro at short until Lowrie can prove he can stay healthy? Do they trade Lowrie for help elsewhere?
Lots of possibilities here. Odds are that there will be a winner by default in the likely event of an injury, but if both Scutaro and Lowrie stay on the major league roster long enough, then Lowrie should eventually win the job.
The top of the rotation is set with CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes returning for their second consecutive season together. But after Cliff Lee picked the Phillies for less money and Andy Pettitte announced his retirement, the Yankees were left scrambling to fill the back end of their rotation.
Ivan Nova was impressive as a 23-year-old rookie, making seven starts and earning a 4.50 ERA. He should have a firm grasp on the No. 4 spot to start the season, but he's not a long-term solution with his underwhelming arsenal of secondary pitches.
Sergio Mitre, 30, has made 12 starts for the Yankees over the last two seasons, but he's also surrendered 114 hits and 17 home runs. Bartolo Colon, 37, hasn't pitched more than 100 innings since 2005 and sat out 2010 altogether. Freddy Garcia, 35, made just 23 starts from 2007-2009 and returned in 2010 to make 28 starts for the White Sox. He may finally be healthy, but those 23 home runs he gave up in a Chicago uniform (and career 1.1 HR/9) don't bode well for his future in Yankee Stadium.
The minor league options aren't much better. Andrew Brackman, 25, reinvented himself in 2010 with decent control numbers, but he's still never pitched above the Double-A level and only has two major league pitches. Dellin Betances, 23, was a top prospect for the Yankees in the low minors but sat out almost all of 2009 with a ligament injury. He pitched well in limited action in Double-A and definitely looks like a future starter, but he still needs some refinement.
The Yankees have some great pitching prospects, but most of them won't be ready to contribute until at least 2012. In the meantime the Yankees will have to make do with what they have. Garcia is probably the best option for a No. 5 starter if he doesn't collapse in spring training, with Brackman and Betances making a few spot starts later in the season. Don't be surprised to see the Yankees go after Francisco Liriano or Joe Blanton on the trade market either.
Jason Frasor, 32, has been waiting his entire career for his chance to be Toronto's closer. He had an opportunity in 2010 but a shaky start to the season prompted manager Cito Gaston to go with Kevin Gregg instead, who finished with 37 saves and a 3.51 ERA. Frasor, meanwhile, chipped in with four saves of his own and a 3.68 ERA.
Gregg bolted from the Blue Jays and signed with the Baltimore Orioles to be their closer, leaving Frasor as his apparent replacement. But GM Alex Anthopoulos wasn't convinced Frasor could handle the job either and went out and acquired three more relievers to compete for the spot.
Octavio Dotel, 37, is the most experienced of the group with 105 career saves under his belt, but the righty hasn't had an ERA under 3.00 since 2003 and gives up a few too many walks (career 4.1 BB/9) and home runs (career 1.2 HR/9).
Frank Francisco, 31, was traded to Toronto late in the offseason for Mike Napoli. He spent most of the 2009 season as the Rangers' closer (25 saves, 3.83 ERA) and in 2010 became the primary setup man for AL Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz. Francisco is an outstanding strikeout pitcher (career 10.0 SO/9), but like Dotel hehas control problems (career 4.0 BB/9).
Jon Rauch, 32, got a chance to close for the Minnesota Twins temporarily when Joe Nathan went down. The big righty enjoyed modest success (21 saves, 3.12 ERA) before moving back into a setup role because of inconsistency. He's not an overpowering pitcher, but he doesn't make too many mistakes either.
Francisco is considered the early favorite because of his combination of experience and ability, while Dotel, Rauch and Frasor seem best suited for a setup role. But with new manager John Farrell (former pitching coach for the Boston Red Sox) in Toronto, this is a job that will likely have to be won in spring training.
Rafael Soriano had a historically great season as the closer for the Tampa Bay Rays last season, leading the league in saves with 45 and winning the AL Rolaids Relief award with a 1.73 ERA and 0.80 WHIP. But the cash-strapped Rays couldn't afford to keep Soriano, who signed with the Yankees to be Mariano Rivera's setup man. Nor could they keep any of Soriano's top setup men, including Dan Wheeler, Joaquin Benoit, Randy Choate, Grant Balfour and Chad Qualls.
The Rays had one of baseball's best bullpens in 2010 and now must rebuild almost from scratch.
The top holdover is J.P. Howell, a 28-year-old lefty who missed the entire 2010 season with a torn labrum. But before undergoing surgery, Howell was one of the top lefty relievers in the game. He appeared in 133 games over the previous two seasons and saved 20 games with a high strikeout rate and a low ERA. He walks too many batters (career 4.1 BB/9), but if healthy he's certainly capable of closing.
The Rays also brought in Kyle Farnsworth to compete for the closer's job. The 34-year-old righty has great stuff, but has struggled to pitch consistently and hasn't recorded a save since 2008. Farnsworth is also known for folding in high-pressure situations and has a tendency to get wild.
Adding to the intrigue is 24-year-old super prospect Jake McGee, a lefty who dominated minor league batters after moving to the bullpen. He earned a brief call up to the majors in 2010, making eight appearances and holding his own, and he should be back in Tampa Bay bullpen in 2011. The Rays won't want to push McGee into pressure situations before he's ready, so expect him to spend his first full season as the primary setup man (a la Daniel Bard).
None of the above pitchers are good enough to win the job in spring training, so all signs point to Tampa Bay going with a bullpen-by-committee, alternating between Farnsworth and McGee until Howell is fully recovered. The Rays also have a loaded farm system so a trade for a rental closer is possible.
Reports out of Rangers camp indicate that Neftali Feliz, the reigning AL Rookie of the Year and holder of the rookie saves record, will be stretched out and tried out as a starter. That means the Rangers will need a new closer.
While nobody in the Texas bullpen is likely to match Feliz's production in 2010 (40 saves, 2.73 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 9.2 SO/9), there are several candidates who should be able to handle the job.
Alexi Ogando, 27, was a reclamation project who converted to pitching five years ago and rocketed through the Rangers minor league system. The righty made his debut in 2010 and pitched in 44 games, toying with hitters to the tune of a 1.30 ERA and 8.4 SO/9. He's still short on experience, but his power arsenal of pitches will make him a fixture in the Texas bullpen whether he closes or not.
Mark Lowe, 27, joined the Rangers as a part of the Cliff Lee deal. The lefty was a mega prospect for the Seattle Mariners and was one of baseball's best relievers in 2009, earning a 3.26 ERA over 80 innings of work. He also finished 18 games that season and chipped in with three saves. Lowe missed most of the 2010 season with a back injury, but should be back healthy for 2011.
Ogando has the raw upside to one day match Feliz's production, so there's no reason to rush him into a high-pressure role. Lowe, meanwhile, has nearly 200 major league innings under his belt and is due for a promotion. Look for Lowe to take over as a closer with Ogando assuming the eighth-inning role. Then again, both these pitchers could bomb in spring training and force Feliz back into the bullpen.
This wasn't supposed to be a competition until the Twins re-signed Carl Pavano to give them six capable starters for five rotation spots. Francisco Liriano figures to be the ace, with Pavano and Scott Baker sliding in behind him. After that it's anyone's guess.
Nick Blackburn, 29, has the most experience of the remaining options with 92 starts in the last three seasons in Minnesota. But after a promising start to his career the righty struggled in parts of 2010 and finished with a 5.42 ERA. Blackburn has a good combination of pitches, but is not overpowering and tends to give up big hits (career 1.2 HR/9). Still, he's signed through at least 2013 so the Twins can't exactly sit him on the bench.
Kevin Slowey, 26, has spent his entire career as a starter for the Twins, making 82 starts over parts of four seasons. But although he's 23-9 in the last two seasons, the righty's 4.41 career ERA and 1.28 WHIP leaves much to be desired. Slowey was the beneficiary of huge offensive support (7.4 runs/game in 2009 and 6.2 runs/game in 2010) and he doesn't really have a single plus pitch, so it's debatable he should ever have been in the Twins rotation in the first place.
Brian Duensing, 28, made his major league debut for the Twins in 2009 and was impressive in nine starts, compiling a 3.64 ERA over 84 total innings. The lefty split time between the rotation and the bullpen in 2010, but was still good enough to pitch 130 innings with a 2.62 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. Duensing doesn't have phenomenal stuff, but he's proven that he's competent enough to be a back-end starter for a long time.
The Twins also have a collection of minor league options that could spot start or maybe join the rotation later in the season, including Deolis Guerra, Jeff Manship, Ryan Mullins, Glen Perkins and Anthony Swarzak.
Duensing figures to have a firm grasp on the No. 4 spot and, while neither Blackburn nor Slowey inspires much confidence, Slowey at least has a recent history of success. This will be a very difficult decision for manager Ron Gardenhire to make, and one he's hoping will be made for him via an injury or a trade.
The Angels enjoyed one of the best bullpens in baseball for the better part of the past decade, anchored by the likes of Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields and Troy Percival. But what was once a strength became a major weakness for the team in 2010, with Brian Fuentes struggling to shut down opposing hitters as the Angels closer.
With Fuentes gone, the responsibility of closing out games will likely fall to Fernando Rodney. Rodney, 34, inherited Detroit's closing duties in 2009 thanks to injuries to other members of the bullpen. The veteran righty recorded 37 saves and was impressive at times, but does not have a closer's skill set. Rodney hasn't had an ERA under 4.00 since 2006 and his strikeout numbers were down to a career low in 2010.
All that means is that Rodney won't be the only one pitching in the ninth innings for the Halos. Kevin Jepsen, 26, was the team's most consistent reliever in 2010 and had an impressive 9.3 SO/9. His 3.97 ERA led all Angels relievers with a minimum of 25 appearances and he also finished four games.
Jordan Walden, 23, also had a good season in 2010, making his major league debut and wowing scouts with a 99-mph fastball. In 16 games the righty had a 2.35 ERA and 23 strikeouts in just over 15 innings. He could use a secondary pitch, but in terms of pure stuff he probably beats out anybody else in the Angels bullpen.
The Angels also brought in Scott Downs (16 career saves) and Hisanori Takahashi (eight career saves) to give the bullpen added depth, but neither lefty reliever has ever been a full-time closer. Rodney is the only one on the roster with that experience, but unfortunately for the Angels his career trajectory has him headed in the wrong direction. This likely means that manager Mike Scioscia will go with a bullpen-by-committee until either Jepsen or Walden emerges as a consistent lights-out reliever.
The Orioles took several big steps this offseason towards getting out of the AL East cellar, adding Vladimir Guerrero, Mark Reynolds, J.J. Hardy and Kevin Gregg to a roster full of up-and-coming talents. But one question surrounding the team is who will out the back of the rotation?
Jeremy Guthrie and Brian Matusz are the headline names, with Brad Bergesen and newcomer Justin Duchscherer filling out the No. 3 and No. 4 spots in some order. But the No. 5 spot is still up for grabs.
Chris Tillman, 22, had an uninspiring sophomore season in Baltimore, making 11 starts but getting knocked around to tune of a 5.87 ERA. The Orioles rave about the righty's future, but thus far Tillman has shown little to prove that he deserves to be on the major league roster. He has poor control (career 4.2 BB/9) and is prone to the long ball. The good should eventually outweigh the bad, but if the Orioles are serious about winning games then they might be better served by keeping Tillman in the minors.
Jake Arrieta, 25, made his major league debut in 2010 and enjoyed modest success over 18 starts. He finished with a 4.66 ERA and almost as many walks (48) as strikeouts (52), but showed flashes of serious potential late in the season with just two walks in his final three starts. Like Tillman, Arrieta needs some more seasoning before he's ready to contribute on a consistent basis.
Arrieta is probably a little bit further along right now, and should be the favorite to win the job. But Tillman will certainly have the chance to showcase his skills during spring training.
The White Sox had one of the best young closers in the game from 2006-2010. But a fallout between Bobby Jenks and manager Ozzie Guillen forced the emotional right-hander and his 173 career saves out of Chicago.
The White Sox also lost J.J. Putz, a 34-year-old righty who was the only other pitcher on the Chicago roster with closing experience. Putz had a strong rebound season in 2010 as a set-up man for Jenks, striking out 65 in 54 innings and compiling a 2.83 ERA. He was one of Guillen's most reliable relievers, but left as a free agent to be the closer for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Lucky for the White Sox, they still have southpaw Matt Thornton. Thornton, 33, is one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in all of baseball and has been remarkably consistent the last three seasons with at least 60 innings each year and an ERA that never got above 2.75. In 2010 he had a career year, earning his first All-Star appearance and sporting an unreal rate of 12.0 SO/9. Thornton took over as Chicago's closer when Jenks struggled and was eight-for-eight in save opportunities, making him the favorite to win the job in 2011.
But Thornton is far from a lock. He'll have to beat out 21-year-old Chris Sale, one of the top college arms in the 2010 MLB Draft who made his professional debut less than two months after being drafted. The lefty features an electric fastball and a plus change, good enough to earn him a 1.93 ERA and 12.3 SO/9 over 21 appearances in a White Sox uniform.
There's little doubt that Sale has the pure ability to be a closer, but question marks over Jake Peavy's health may force Sale into the starting rotation. Either way, Thornton should be the closer on Opening Day.
(Although with Guillen, anything's possible.)