Final Predictions for MLB's Most Hotly Contested Spring Position Battles
The Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues are winding down. The 2015 Major League Baseball season approaches. We said baseball! Can you taste it?
Yet with less than two weeks remaining in the exhibition slate, some of the spring's most hotly contested position battles linger, unresolved. And there's no guarantee they'll be resolved once the games count; a few could stay fluid well into the regular season.
Still, someone's going to get the Opening Day nod at all nine positions for all 30 teams. It's simple math, people.
In many cases, it's obvious by now who that someone will be. In other cases, it's clear as pine tar, even with the calendar nudging toward April.
Let's examine a handful of those ongoing diamond auditions, break down the competition and pick winners based on the best available evidence and a dash of gut feeling.
What follows isn't an exhaustive list; we're leaving off fifth-starter skirmishes and focusing on position players. Even then, these aren't the only competitions going on around the league.
But they are among the most interesting, either because of the names involved, the potential impact to the team in question or both.
OK, enough preamble—on to the battles.
San Diego Padres: Third Base
With all the offensive firepower San Diego brought in this winter—Matt Kemp, Justin Upton—it's easy to forget about Will Middlebrooks.
This spring, Middlebrooks is hoping to remind the Padres, and everyone else, about the guy who hit .288 with 15 home runs and an .835 OPS in 2012 for the Boston Red Sox.
That season, his rookie year, was the high point so far for the 26-year-old, who hit just .191 in 63 games last year and was traded to San Diego for catcher Ryan Hanigan.
Middlebrooks, who is hitting .317 in the Cactus League, has gotten the bulk of the starts at third this spring. But on March 21, manager Bud Black told Dennis Lin of U-T San Diego that the competition at the hot corner is "still open."
The other contender, Yangervis Solarte, profiles as more of a super-utility type. Black, though, insists Solarte's versatility won't work against him.
"The beauty of Solarte is that he's able to move all over the field, and we've moved him all over the field," the Friars skipper told Lin. "That doesn’t discount the fact that he’s still vying for the spot at third base."
Barring an injury or a major late-spring meltdown, it'll be Middlebrooks.
Los Angeles Angels: Second Base
We're dealing with a crowded field here. Four—count 'em, four—players have a reasonable shot at the Halos' second base job, and none have done enough this spring to fly ahead of the pack.
Let's just go ahead and stack them up, along with their Cactus League lines:
Taylor Featherston: .256/.286/.308, 0 HR, 7 RBI
Johnny Giavotella: .351/.400/.595, 1 HR, 5 RBI
Grant Green: .306/.306/.333, 0 HR, 3 RBI
Josh Rutledge: .200/.256/.225, 0 HR, 3 RBI
Giavotella jumps out, both because he's having the best spring and because he's out of options, meaning if he doesn't make the 25-man roster, the Angels could lose him. Manager Mike Scioscia insists that won't be a factor, per Kevin Baxter of the Los Angeles Times.
"Just because a guy doesn't have options doesn't put him in a different position to make our club," Scioscia told Baxter. "We're going to go with the guys that we feel give us the best look."
We'll bet on Giavotella, though a scalding final week by anyone could tip the scales.
Chicago White Sox: Second Base
White Sox skipper Robin Ventura intends to let this keystone showdown between rookies Carlos Sanchez and Micah Johnson extend to the end of spring training, per Colleen Kane of the Chicago Tribune.
Sanchez, the more polished defender, entered camp as the nominal favorite. But Johnson has made a strong case at the plate, hitting .357 with a home run, a triple and three stolen bases.
Sanchez, meanwhile, owns an identical batting average, though he's yet to collect an extra-base hit.
"Both of those guys come to play," Ventura told Kane. "When you’re young and in a competitive position battle like this, it’s good not only for them but for everybody else to see it."
Johnson, who swiped 84 bags in the minor leagues in 2013, wins based on the allure of his speedy upside.
Minnesota Twins: Center Field
First, let's get this out of the way: Whoever wins the center field job in Minnesota is just keeping it warm for Byron Buxton, the much-hyped prospect Bleacher Report's Scott Miller recently compared to one Michael Nelson Trout.
Still, an Opening Day gig is an Opening Day gig.
Will the honor go to Aaron Hicks or Jordan Schafer? Both are once-touted players who haven't lived up to their potential.
Hicks got the Opening Day nod in 2013 and 2014, but wound up hitting .192 and .215, respectively. Schafer showed flashes in parts of five seasons with the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros, and hit .285 with 15 stolen bases in 41 games with Minnesota last year.
So far this spring, Hicks owns a .226/.324/.355 slash line, while Schafer sports a .257/.350/.371 line.
It's a push, then, as evidenced by comments manager Paul Molitor made Thursday, per Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Molitor told Reusse that Hicks has "made improvements" and offered tepid praise for Schafer, before concluding that a platoon is "one of the options."
The Twins open April 6 against the Detroit Tigers and left-hander David Price. So expect the switch-hitting Hicks, who has hit better against southpaws, to get the nod. In the long run, look for a mix-and-match approach until Buxton is ready.
Chicago Cubs: Third Base
Maybe you haven't heard, but Kris Bryant mashes baseballs. The 23-year-old has hit nine home runs already this spring, and last season cracked 43 between Double-A and Triple-A.
At the same time—and stop us if this is familiar—the Cubs might start Bryant in the minors, theoretically to work on his defense, but practically to avoid starting his service-time clock.
On the fringes of this hot-button discussion is Mike Olt, who started at third on Thursday and launched a home run and a triple. Bryant, meanwhile, starting in left field, whiffed three times.
ESPNChicago.com's Jesse Rogers thinks the answer is to stick Bryant in the outfield semi-permanently:
Here’s the crux of the situation: If Olt starts out well and Bryant is called up, Bryant should play left field as he did on Thursday. It’s the smart move. Olt is superior at third base while Bryant handled his duties on defense in the outfield more than capably.
Bryant will begin the season in Iowa and Olt will start at third. Fans, pundits and possibly the players' union will grumble, then Bryant will take the field at Wrigley well before the summer and all the worries will be forgotten—only to be replaced by new problems.
These are the Cubbies, after all.
Boston Red Sox: Center Field
First, the Boston Red Sox's center field competition was supposed to be the hottest in baseball. Then, Rusney Castillo strained his oblique and it looked like the matter was resolved, at least temporarily.
Rookie Mookie Betts would take over in center, veteran Shane Victorino would grab the right field gig, Castillo would rehab and start the season in Triple-A and that would be that.
Betts has done his part, hitting .472 in the Grapefruit League. But Castillo has complicated matters since returning to action, banging out four hits in 10 at-bats, including a pair of home runs, and generally serving notice that he's very much a factor.
"He's a good player, and we’ve got a number of good players," manager John Farrell said Thursday, after Castillo launched a walk-off jack, per Rick Weber of ESPNBoston.com. "We'll take every day of spring training to settle on what our Opening Day roster is going to be."
Betts wins the center field gig and Victorino starts in right, but Castillo crashes the party (likely replacing Victorino) before the All-Star break.
All statistics current as of March 26 and courtesy of MLB.com.