Predicting the Outcome of the Biggest Position Battles of MLB Spring Training
Spring training is about a lot of things: stretching muscles, working on swings and limbering up arms. But it's also about something far more intriguing, and that would be position battles.
Every year in Florida and Arizona, clubs sort out their depth charts. Sometimes, it's obvious. Mike Trout will be the Los Angeles Angels' Opening Day center fielder. No question there.
Other times, though, a club must choose between two or more ostensibly worthy players, and that's where the drama kicks in.
Let's examine a half-dozen of this spring's most interesting position battles and predict the winners based on injury history and recent results, but also plenty of informed speculation.
Atlanta Braves: Fifth Starter
The top three spots in the Atlanta Braves rotation will almost certainly be filled by Mike Soroka, Mike Foltynewicz and Max Fried. Veteran free-agent signee Cole Hamels is out with a shoulder injury and won't be ready for Opening Day, though he says it's "nothing serious," per The Athletic's David O'Brien.
That leaves the fifth spot, and the defending National League East champions have options.
They could go with any number of up-and-coming youngsters, including Kyle Wright, Sean Newcomb and Ian Anderson. All are ready or close to ready to make a significant impact at the highest level. If Hamels' injury lingers, one or more may get the call.
Then there's Felix Hernandez. The 33-year-old 2010 Cy Young Award winner hasn't posted a sub-5.55 ERA since 2017 and was a shell of his former self during his final two years with the Seattle Mariners. But he's still a legendary starter and a six-time All-Star. The Braves will give him every opportunity to prove there's gas in the tank after signing him to a minor league deal with a spring training invite this winter.
This one's a toss-up, but we'll go out on a limb and say King Felix does enough in the Grapefruit League to earn a spot in Atlanta's starting corps while the young guys cut their teeth in the bullpen or get a little more seasoning in the minors.
New York Mets: Final Two Rotation Spots
The New York Mets have three locks for their starting rotation: reigning two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman. After that, it's anyone's guess.
They signed 2016 American League Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello this winter, hoping he could rebound from the 5.52 ERA he posted last season in 32 starts with the Boston Red Sox. They also inked Michael Wacha, who registered a 4.76 ERA last year with the St. Louis Cardinals but was an All-Star in 2015.
Then there's 28-year-old left-hander Steven Matz, who has made 30 starts for the Mets each of the last two seasons and posted a 3.97 ERA with 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings in 2018. Oh, and toss in Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman, both of whom have experience as starters for New York.
This figures to be a wide-open competition, with most or all of the losers helping to flesh out the Mets bullpen and provide depth in case of injury.
We'll bet on Matz, who has flashed excellent stuff and brings southpaw balance, and Porcello, who has the pedigree to earn a shot if he doesn't get completely shelled.
Philadelphia Phillies: Second Base/Third Base
This one is less of a battle and more a conundrum.
The Philadelphia Phillies signed shortstop Didi Gregorius this offseason. The rest of the infield will be fleshed out by first baseman Rhys Hoskins, Scott Kingery and Jean Segura.
The question is: Who's on third?
Segura is moving from shortstop to make way for Gregorius. He's played second but never third at the big league level. That could change, according to manager Joe Girardi.
"I think when you talk about someone like Jean Segura, he's played second before, so obviously he's going to have more comfort level at second than he is at third base," he told reporters. "But that doesn't mean we're not going to talk about it and take a look at him at over there."
Kingery, meanwhile, has seen time at third, second, shortstop and all three outfield positions since breaking into the big leagues in 2018. He could develop into a Gold Glove talent at second, but given his versatility, it seems probable the Phils will go with Segura at the keystone.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Back End of the Rotation
The Los Angeles Dodgers' big offseason acquisition was, obviously, outfielder Mookie Betts from the Boston Red Sox. But they also lost pitchers Hyun-Jin Ryu (the NL ERA leader), Kenta Maeda and Rich Hill.
Sure, they reeled in lefty David Price in the Betts trade and are hoping that a change of scenery will reinvigorate his career. That still leaves two spots to fill behind the locked-in trio of Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Price.
Young lefty Julio Urias has shown flashes in the rotation but seems a better bet as a late-inning bullpen arm who can harness his considerable stuff in small doses. Prospect Dustin May is banging down the door but could use more seasoning at the age of 22. Ross Stripling is in the mix after a trade to the Los Angeles Angels involving outfielder Joc Pederson fell through.
That leaves free-agent signees Jimmy Nelson and Alex Wood as the most likely candidates. Both have battled injuries and will be pushed by the Dodgers' younger arms. But assuming they stay healthy and show enough in the Cactus League, they ought to break camp as L.A.'s Nos. 4 and 5 options.
Washington Nationals: Second Base
After losing third baseman Anthony Rendon to free agency, the Washington Nationals are reshuffling their infield.
Veterans Asdrubal Cabrera, Starlin Castro and Howie Kendrick will all get a crack at Donaldson's old job. But keep your eyes on young Carter Kieboom.
The 22-year-old sipped his cup of coffee with the Nats in 2019 and could be ready to make the leap. He's mostly played shortstop in his MiLB career but has taken reps at third and posted a .902 OPS last season at Triple-A.
He'll have to hit the cover off the ball in spring to win the job outright, but we're going to bet he does exactly that.
New York Yankees: Fifth Starter
Newly signed ace Gerrit Cole, Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino are written into the New York Yankees rotation with Sharpie. Veteran J.A. Happ will likely join them.
It would have been James Paxton, but his recent back surgery slams the brakes on that notion.
Luis Cessa, who has spent time in the rotation but has also been used extensively as a reliever, is an option. Top prospect Deivi Garcia will undoubtedly get a long look, though he's still raw at age 20. Prospect Michael King made his MLB debut last September and is more polished at age 24.
But put your money on 27-year-old Jordan Montgomery, who pitched just four innings last season while coming back from Tommy John surgery but has the experience to seize the moment. He finished sixth in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2017 and owns a 3.91 ERA with 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings in 37 big league appearances, 36 of them starts.
That's enough to gain a slot in New York's starting five.