5 Most Meaningful Spring Training Position Battles
Here we are, right back where we started.
As March approaches and actual games are on the horizon, the time to break down position battles is upon us. As far as Cactus and Grapefruit League games go, they might not count toward reaching October, but for players involved in these toss-ups, they are ever meaningful.
But instead of breaking down all the position battles, or the ones for each team, let’s make this more relevant. Which fights matter? Which ones carry the most weight for their team’s eventual success? Where are the battles with the most at stake?
That typically means the battles that are happening within clubs with lofty expectations. While every franchise has some kind of position uncertainty hovering over their spring camp, these are the five most important.
Dodgers’ Outfield Logjam
The Matt Kemp trade was supposed to clear this thing up, but the defending National League West champions are right back where they were last season, with four outfielders and three spots to fill them.
Yasiel Puig was one of the most valuable outfielders in the entire league last season, as he has been for his first two years, as measured by FanGraphs WAR. He is the lock. And when Carl Crawford was healthy, he was a potent force around the top of the Dodgers’ order as his 118 OPS+ proves. So, as long as he can stay on the field, he will be in the lineup.
With Kemp gone, a spot opened for one of the game’s best prospects, center fielder Joc Pederson. He was the Pacific Coast League MVP last season, the PCL's first 30-30 guy in 80 years and will be 23 years old in April. It is time for the Dodgers to give him his shot.
That leaves, once again, Andre Ethier as the fourth outfielder, a role he was unhappy with last season and one he is unwilling to man this summer. He has every intention of upending one of the other three for a starting job, preferably one of the corner guys.
Ethier met Monday with members of the front office and manager Don Mattingly. The point?
“Just that I’m serious in my intentions of what I have planned to do, how I plan on playing this year and the rest of my career,” Ethier told reporters (via Yahoo! Sports’ Tim Brown). “I feel that I’m not overstepping my boundaries. I’m just being honest with where I’m at.”
If Ethier does not start, he would prefer the opportunity to do so somewhere else.
The problem is Ethier’s declining production—his OPS has dropped from .812 to .783 to .691 in the last three seasons—and that he is still owed $53.5 million over the next three years. No general manager is jumping at the chance to have an aging outfielder (32) who seems to be on the decline but is still being paid like a high-level contributor.
Pederson would have to fall flat on his face this spring, or Puig or Crawford would have to get hurt, in order for Ethier to lock in a starting job. Beyond that, expect the Dodgers to actively seek a trade for him and have to eat a good chunk of his salary.
If they do not, Ethier is not likely to be as quiet about his discontent as he was last year.
Red Sox's Outfield Shuffle
What we know: Hanley Ramirez will play left field. There are at least five other outfielders.
That’s it. That’s all we are sure about.
What will probably happen: Rusney Castillo will win the center field job, leaving four guys—Allen Craig, Shane Victorino, Mookie Betts and Daniel Nava—for one starting spot. Two other guys could occupy bench roles.
However, that lone starting spot might already be claimed before a Grapefruit League at-bat is taken.
“If Shane Victorino is fully capable and fully healthy, he’s our right fielder,” manager John Farrell told reporters at Red Sox camp Feb. 20. “That’s pretty simple. He was one of the best right fielders in the game two years ago.”
Victorino had a hamstring issue and then back surgery last season, playing in only 30 games. His health at age 34 is tenuous.
The Red Sox are not in a position to sit around and wait. They are fully expecting to compete for a World Series, and if Victorino is not healthy or productive out of the gates, Betts seems to be the most promising backup option. He got 213 plate appearances last season and hit .291/.368/.444 with an .812 OPS, five homers and a 128 OPS+ as a 21-year-old.
As of now this might not be a battle, but by the end of March, that could very well change.
Nationals’ Fifth Starter
Upon his signing, the odd man out of the suddenly super rotation seemed to be Tanner Roark. The same Tanner Roark who threw nearly 200 innings last season, had a sub-3.00 ERA and was 11th in the National League in FanGraphs WAR (3.0) and 10th in Baseball-Reference WAR (5.1).
For comparison, last season Gio Gonzalez was slightly above average in 27 starts with a 105 ERA+, although his 3.02 FIP was impressive. He is currently penciled in as the fifth starter, but that should not be a foregone conclusion. Not when Roark is the other option.
The advantage Gonzalez has is left-handedness. He is the only lefty rotation option, so if the Nationals don’t want to be completely right-handed, Gonzalez fixes that issue.
But when your rotation is as good as what the Nationals’ could be, does it even matter? And when you are gunning for a World Series, does it matter? The Nationals should go with their best options.
Right now, that is still undecided.
Cubs’ Third Base Dilemma
The Cubs don’t have a better option at third base than super prospect Kris Bryant, Baseball America’s reigning Minor League Player of the Year. Unless you win that award as a member of the lower levels, you have nothing left to prove in the minors.
Bryant won his while playing at the top two levels. Still, he is not expected to open the season with the Cubs. That is mainly because if he spends no more than 171 days in the majors, the Cubs gain an extra year of control on his service clock. While we are likely to see Bryant in a Cubs uniform in 2015, it probably won’t be the first week of April.
“I've never really put [making the Opening Day roster] as my sole focus,” Bryant told Tony Andracki of CSN Chicago. “Obviously, that's my ultimate goal, but I don't really want to think about that because it's up in the air. I don't really have any control over it.”
However, a good spring training is still meaningful. If Bryant can impress during March, it could mean a sure call-up once the Cubs know he won’t surpass 171 days on the 25-man roster, which would be about the third week of the season.
Until Bryant gets there, the Cubs’ options at third are Javier Baez, Mike Olt, Tommy La Stella and Arismendy Alcantara. Ideally, none of those guys will stick at third once Bryant reaches the majors, allowing the team to move/keep Baez to/at second base.
Among players with at least 250 plate appearances last year, Olt had the worst batting average (.160) and highest strikeout rate (38.8 percent) in the majors. La Stella does not strike out a lot and can take a walk, but he doesn’t do much else offensively. And Alcantara has played a total of 51 games at third in the minors.
Plus, the Cubs have not dismissed the idea of Baez starting the season in the minors with Bryant, per the Chicago Tribune. If those things happen, the options at third base are not appealing.
Padres’ Fifth Rotation Spot
With all the rebuilding the Padres did this offseason, the most important piece was clearly the final one—James Shields.
Not only did the signing give them a man to front their rotation, it also meant the Padres had just one rotation spot to fill. Now they have as many as eight guys fighting for one position. That’s depth.
Brandon Morrow seems to be a favorite despite pitching just 87.2 innings over the last two seasons because of injuries. The last time he was totally healthy, in 2011, he struck out an American League-best 10.2 hitters per nine innings with Toronto.
Odrisamer Despaigne is a holdover from last season after he made 16 starts and held a 3.36 ERA. However, while he was lights-out at Petco Park (1.83 ERA), he was bad on the road, with a 5.31 ERA and 1.559 WHIP.
Josh Johnson is coming off Tommy John surgery, but he is barely rehabbed enough to throw off flat ground. While the Padres hope Johnson can stay healthy and effective, he is too much of an uncertainty at this point. If he surprises, that would be a bonus.
Robbie Erlin, 24, and top prospect Matt Wisler, 22, are also in the mix. Erlin was unimpressive last season, his second in the majors, and was hampered by a sore elbow. Wisler dominated at Double-A San Antonio through six starts but struggled at Triple-A El Paso (5.01 ERA) in 22. He could compete for the spot, but he is more likely to take another run in the minors’ top level.
Considering the options, the race seems to be between Morrow and Despaigne. Whoever occupies that spot could be a meaningful piece to a postseason run, good or bad.