MLB Spring Training 2016: Mid-Spring Breakdown of 10 Key Position Battles
Spring training in Major League Baseball may be little more than a glorified practice session, but it does serve one practical purpose. Without it, teams would have a tough time resolving their position battles.
And with the 2016 exhibition season basically half in the bag, now's a good time to check on the big competitions.
We're going to look at 10 of the spring's key position battles and provide a few updates about how they're shaking out. This will include who's involved and how they're performing, as well as any commentary that's coming out of the given team's camp.
We'll begin with what looks like the least consequential of the 10 and work our way toward the most critical.
Toronto Blue Jays Left Field
Ben Revere was slated to open 2016 as the Toronto Blue Jays' left fielder, but the January trade that sent him to the Washington Nationals opened the door for Michael Saunders and Dalton Pompey to scrap it out.
Given the depth and power of Toronto's lineup, this isn't a hugely important competition. But midway through the spring, here's how the two combatants are hitting:
The numbers give the clear edge to Saunders, and Mark Zwolinski of the Toronto Star makes it sound like they might not even be telling the whole story. Earlier this week, he wrote Saunders has "hit the ball harder, and more consistently, than any of the starting nine."
Considering the fact Toronto's starting nine features names like Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin, that's no small feat. If Saunders can keep it up, he may earn not only the club's left field gig, but perhaps the leadoff spot that the Revere trade also vacated.
However, be warned that Saunders' spring dominance comes with a catch. By Baseball-Reference.com's calculations, the competition he's faced has been roughly Double-A quality. If he begins to struggle as the competition gets tougher, Pompey is in a position to make a push for the gig.
Toronto Blue Jays Closer
Left field wasn't the only position put up in the air when the Blue Jays traded Revere. The trade brought back Drew Storen, who was slated to battle with Roberto Osuna for the club's closer role.
So far this spring, it's been a tight competition:
Osuna has missed a few more bats, but neither of the two hard-throwing right-handers is doing significantly better than the other. It doesn't help that Storen and Osuna also faced similar competition by doing battle with slightly better than Triple-A-level batters.
However, a dead heat in the competition may favor Storen more than Osuna. Though Osuna was excellent in pitching to a 2.58 ERA last season, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons indicated in February that, all things being equal, he would lean toward Storen as his closer.
"Storen is pretty much a one-inning guy. And I think you can stretch Osuna out a little bit, say maybe an inning-plus," Gibbons told Jayson Stark of ESPN.com. "So if that's the case, I don't know, maybe that gives the edge to Storen as the closer. And maybe you can use Roberto some different ways."
Gibbons may start leaning away from Storen if he begins to struggle while Osuna dominates. But for now, Storen is likely leading the race by default.
Tampa Bay Rays Shortstop
If we're being honest, the Tampa Bay Rays' entire lineup looks like a battleground. But if we have to choose one position battle, we'll go with shortstop.
It's Brad Miller versus the field: Nick Franklin, Tim Beckham, Taylor Motter and Daniel Robertson. Here are the numbers so far:
Goodness knows Miller's bat hasn't been a problem. And considering that the Rays are trying to replace Asdrubal Cabrera, who was one of baseball's best hitting shortstops in 2015, that may be good enough.
Then again, it may not be. If the Rays don't want to sacrifice any defense at shortstop, Miller may not cut it. As Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times noted, the throwing issues that have plagued Miller this spring could push the Rays toward a plan B.
Due to his own defensive shortcomings at shortstop, that may not be Franklin. It could be Beckham, but his cold bat isn't helping his cause. This means there could be a chance for either Motter or Robertson, two prospects who are known more for their defense than their offense.
Basically, if Miller's throwing doesn't shape up, anybody has a chance of winning this battle.
Toronto Blue Jays Rotation
Back to the Blue Jays again, where the battle for the club's No. 5 spot is turning into the most hotly contested of their three main position battles this spring.
Vying for the spot are Drew Hutchison, Jesse Chavez, Aaron Sanchez and Gavin Floyd—all four of whom are making an impression this spring:
Only Chavez has had a tough time this spring, and Gibbons isn't even down on him. As far as he's concerned, everyone in the race for the No. 5 spot in his rotation has looked good.
“They’re all doing a good job," Gibbons told Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet.ca. "It’s not like anybody has necessarily separated themselves, and nobody’s having a tough time. It’s going to be a tough decision, but it’s going to come down to what makes the team the strongest.”
On performance alone, though, Sanchez looks like the man to beat. He has more than performance going for him, too. The former top prospect showed up to camp with 20 extra pounds of muscle, and it's helped him sustain electric stuff.
The Blue Jays may have come into camp hoping that Hutchison or Floyd would earn the No. 5 spot, as that would have allowed them to install Chavez as a long reliever and Sanchez as a late-inning setup man. But right now, it looks like they may have to make other plans.
Houston Astros First Base
The Houston Astros lineup isn't lacking in depth, but the team does need to figure out first base. Jon Singleton entered camp as the de facto favorite, but Houston also offered Matt Duffy and top prospects Tyler White and A.J. Reed a shot at it.
And so far, all three are giving Singleton a run for his money:
Though he boosted his numbers a bit with a big day on Wednesday, the Astros still must be less than thrilled with Singleton. They needed him to give some kind of sign that he could live up to his former status as a top prospect, but he's looking no different from the hitter with a .621 career OPS in the majors.
As for the other three, the Astros can't seem to go wrong with any of them. Reed is hitting for average, Duffy is hitting for power and White is hitting for average and power. But since each of them has had the luxury of facing weak competition, it's no wonder Astros skipper A.J. Hinch isn't ready to make a call yet.
"We still aren't drawing any conclusions because of how early we are in spring, but it becomes a little bit more stress on playing a little bit deeper into games, getting three or four at-bats as opposed to two or three," Hinch told Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle over the weekend. "Ultimately I'd like for somebody to take the job."
St. Louis Cardinals First Base
The St. Louis Cardinals don't have as much offensive depth as the Astros, so them figuring out their first base situation is fairly important. And in something of a surprise development, Matt Holliday has joined the fray alongside Matt Adams and Brandon Moss.
Here's how things are looking:
Holliday may not be lighting it up at the plate this spring, but that probably doesn't concern the Cardinals too much. With a .307 career average and .904 career OPS, they know Holliday can hit. What presumably interests them most is keeping the 36-year-old healthy. Assuming he can handle it, playing him at first base would be a good way to do that.
However, Jeff Gordon of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the Cardinals would probably only use Holliday as a platoon bat at first base. That would leave the question of who the left-handed bat would be, and Moss is carving out a nice edge over Adams in that competition.
That puts the pressure on Adams. If he doesn't find a way to perform better than he's already doing, he could become the odd man out.
Boston Red Sox Starting Rotation
The Boston Red Sox went into spring training only needing to figure out the fifth spot in their starting rotation. But thanks to Eduardo Rodriguez's knee injury, they now have two spots to square away.
Vying for those are Joe Kelly, Henry Owens, Roenis Elias, Steven Wright and Brian Johnson, who are performing like so this spring:
Though Kelly hasn't been great—that ERA is a bit suspect next to all of the baserunners he's allowed—he's been good enough to warrant the benefit of the doubt as Boston's de facto No. 4 starter. As for the No. 5 spot, well, it's a bit of a mess.
Owens was rated as an elite prospect as recently as last season, but his command struggles this spring are nothing new. In a related story, he admitted to Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal that he was way off with his pitch selection in his most recent start.
This is good news for Wright. The knuckleballer has enjoyed the most success of the four starters in line for Boston's No. 5 spot. Beyond that, Marc Normandin noted at Over the Monster that Wright is out of option years anyway. The spot may be his to lose.
Minnesota Twins Center Field
The Minnesota Twins have a pretty good competition going for the final spot in their rotation, but what everyone really wants to know is how Byron Buxton, MLB.com's No. 2 prospect, is faring in his bid for the center field gig.
Not so great, actually. Danny Santana, Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler are hanging in there with him:
This isn't quite what the Twins were hoping to see from Buxton. After OPS'ing just .576 in 46 major league games last year, it still looks like his bat has too much developing to do.
However, it helps that Buxton's manager isn't sweating his poor numbers.
"I think he's seeing the ball better," Paul Molitor said Sunday, per La Velle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Recognition has been better. That is going to be a huge part of how quickly he's going to be able to develop offensively. Bat speed and all those types of things."
What could also help is that none of the other horses in the race seem like realistic alternatives. Santana is also struggling. Rosario is already slated as the club's left fielder. And though Kepler is also a talented prospect, the Twins may prefer to give him some time at Triple-A before making him an everyday player.
So though Buxton isn't running away with Minnesota's center field job, it still looks like his to lose.
Los Angeles Dodgers Starting Rotation
The last two are up for grabs between Alex Wood, Brandon Beachy and Mike Bolsinger. Prospects Zach Lee and Jose De Leon seem to be in the mix as well. Here's how they're stacking up this spring:
The red flag is Wood, whose lousy performance looks all the more troubling in light of his bout with left forearm tightness. He's supposed to be OK, but the performances of Beachy and Bolsinger may require Wood to make an especially strong recovery in order to avoid a bullpen assignment.
And though the caveat is that he's done so against weak competition, Beachy seems to be making a particularly strong impression this spring.
"He threw well," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts told Ken Gurnick of MLB.com after Beachy's most recent outing. "Every time he goes out there, from the bullpen to each game, he continues to get better. His pitches were sharper today. Just another positive outing."
While Beachy and Bolsinger may have the inside track for now, keep an eye on De Leon. He's MLB.com's No. 24 prospect, and his ability to miss bats gives him a higher ceiling than most No. 5 starters.
Washington Nationals Shortstop
The Washington Nationals have eyes on an elusive World Series title in 2016. But first, they need to figure out one of the most important positions on the diamond.
Washington's shortstop gig is up for grabs, and top prospect Trea Turner and veteran Stephen Drew are easily outpacing Danny Espinosa, the presumed favorite for the job:
Espinosa is admittedly known more for his glove than his bat, but he surely needed to hit better than, well, not at all to earn the club's confidence. That seems like especially good news for Drew, who is no longer the forgotten man he was when spring training began.
Espinosa's struggles are also good news for Turner. MLB.com rated him as the No. 11 prospect in baseball, and Buster Olney of ESPN.com wrote the Nationals appreciate his ability to make adjustments just as much as his game-changing speed.
But knowing that Turner hasn't hit as much against notably weaker competition than Drew has faced, he probably needs to get his bat going to find himself manning shortstop on Opening Day. As much as the Nationals may like his ability, they have to know there's no need to rush him.