Predicting the Winners of MLB's 10 Most Intriguing Position Battles

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2021

Predicting the Winners of MLB's 10 Most Intriguing Position Battles

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    The MLB roster crunch is coming, and for most teams, that means making final decisions on a handful of roster battles.

    For some, that decision comes at the end of the roster where guys are fighting for the last spot in the bullpen or a utility role off the bench. For others, the decision carries far more weight as they try to settle on an everyday spot in the lineup or one of the five slots in the starting rotation.

    Earlier this month, I wrote an article highlighting each team's most compelling roster battle.

    Now we're zeroing in on the 10 most intriguing battles and predicting who will break camp as the winner with a spot on the roster.

No. 5 Starter, Atlanta Braves

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    Kyle Wright
    Kyle WrightJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    Predicted Winner: Kyle Wright

    With Max Fried, Charlie Morton, Ian Anderson and Drew Smyly locked into the first four spots in the Atlanta Braves' starting rotation, young right-handers Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson entered camp fighting to round out the staff.

    Eventually, the fifth spot will go to Mike Soroka.

    However, he'll start the season on the injured list while he continues to recover from a torn Achilles tendon and subsequent surgery, which opens the door for Wright or Wilson to make their case.

    Both pitchers have thrown the ball well this spring:

    • Wright: 11.0 IP, 10 H, 5 ER, 5 BB, 10 K
    • Wilson: 9.0 IP, 10 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 6 K

    After serving as the No. 3 starter in the playoffs last year, Wright probably has the upper hand, but don't rule out the idea that both could break camp with a roster spot.

    The Braves have two off days in the first eight days of the season, so they could roll with a four-man rotation to open the year while using Wright and Wilson in bulk relief roles as needed.

    But once it comes time to fill that fifth spot, expect Wright to be the guy.

Shortstop, Cincinnati Reds

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    Eugenio Suarez
    Eugenio SuarezRoss D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Predicted Winner: Eugenio Suarez

    After failing to land a proven shortstop via trade or free agency this offseason, the Cincinnati Reds started the spring with a wide-open competition between utility man Kyle Farmer, Rule 5 pick Kyle Holder, prospect Jose Garcia and non-roster invitee Dee Strange-Gordon.

    With Opening Day fast approaching, it looks like the answer might be outside that group.

    Longtime third baseman Eugenio Suarez began his career as a shortstop with the Detroit Tigers, and after he showed up to camp down 15 pounds, the team is now considering a shift back to his natural spot.

    "I do think it did have something to do with how he came into camp just lighter and in really good shape," Reds manager David Bell told reporters. "That's when it was first considered. Over the course of the last three weeks, he's gradually started working a little bit more on the back fields, and I've seen him a few times. I've had conversations with him, feeling out the situation, and he was open to it."

    A move back to shortstop for Suarez would mean Mike Moustakas slides back to his natural position at third base, while second base could open up for top prospect Jonathan India, who is 7-for-21 with two doubles and one home run this spring.

    It's a bold move, but one the Reds forced themselves into by not addressing the position during the winter.

Shortstop, Cleveland

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    Andres Gimenez
    Andres GimenezRoss D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Predicted Winner: Andres Gimenez

    The blockbuster trade that sent Francisco Lindor to the New York Mets also brought back his replacement at shortstop.

    The question was whether it would be Andres Gimenez or Amed Rosario.

    Both players have hit the ball well this spring, but the fact Rosario has been used in center field looks like a good indication Gimenez has a leg up on the everyday shortstop job. Manager Terry Francona hinted at that while talking with the media last week.

    "Part of the reason we felt comfortable enough to move Amed is because of what we see in Gimenez. ... This kid is a really bright spot for us," Francona told reporters.

    The 22-year-old hit .263/.333/.398 with eight extra-base hits in 49 games while finishing seventh in National League Rookie of the Year voting. Between his hit tool and his glove, he has the potential to be a staple at the position.

    There is still a case to be made that Rosario has the higher ceiling offensively, and he'll see regular playing time even if it's in a super-utility role. But Gimenez looks like the primary guy at shortstop.

Second Base, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Gavin Lux
    Gavin LuxRoss D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Predicted Winner: Gavin Lux

    The second base job was Gavin Lux's to lose last spring, and he lost it.

    After arriving late to Spring Training 2.0, he struggled at the plate and in the field. When Opening Day finally arrived, he was watching from the team's alternate site.

    He eventually joined the MLB roster at the end of August but never got things going at the plate, hitting .175/.246/.349 with 19 strikeouts in 69 plate appearances before he was a non-factor in the postseason.

    Despite those early struggles, the future is still extremely bright for a player who emerged as one of baseball's top prospects in 2019. He hit .347/.421/.607 with 25 doubles and 26 home runs in 113 games between Double-A and Triple-A.

    With Chris Taylor capable of handling everyday second base duties, Lux had to win the job this spring, and he's made his case by going 10-for-24 at the plate.

    The departure of Enrique Hernandez arguably makes Taylor more valuable to the team in a utility role, so expect to see Lux at second when the season begins.

Third Base, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Travis Shaw
    Travis ShawSue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Predicted Winner: Travis Shaw

    The Milwaukee Brewers began last season with a platoon of Jedd Gyorko and Eric Sogard tasked with handling the third base position, and after both players had club options declined at the start of the offseason, the hot corner was a clear hole.

    Luis Urias and Daniel Robertson were the leading candidates on the 40-man roster, but non-roster invitee Travis Shaw became the favorite to claim the job as soon as he was signed on Feb. 23.

    After stellar seasons in 2017 (121 OPS+, 31 HR, 3.5 WAR) and 2018 (119 OPS+, 32 HR, 4.2 WAR), Shaw's production fell off a cliff in 2019, and he spent part of the season at Triple-A before he was non-tendered at season's end.

    The 30-year-old hit .239/.306/.411 with 10 doubles and six home runs in 50 games with the Toronto Blue Jays last year, and now he's back in Milwaukee and poised to reclaim his starting spot.

    "It's early, but I'm happy he's healthy and moving well," president of baseball operations David Stearns told reporters. "He is swinging the bat well. For all these players, getting through these first few weeks healthy and feeling good in their bodies is important. I think that's where Travis is."

Left Field, Minnesota Twins

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    Alex Kirilloff
    Alex KirilloffJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    Predicted Winner: Alex Kirilloff

    It was not hard to connect the dots after top prospect Alex Kirilloff made his MLB debut in the playoffs and then left fielder Eddie Rosario was non-tendered at the start of the offseason.

    However, that doesn't mean Kirilloff is guaranteed a starting spot on Opening Day.

    The addition of veteran shortstop Andrelton Simmons in free agency created a logjam in the infield, and Luis Arraez can now slide to left field to start the season if it is determined that Kirilloff would benefit from further development time in the minors.

    The 23-year-old is just 3-for-22 with seven strikeouts this spring, but he has still impressed manager Rocco Baldelli with his intangibles.

    "We always talk about the way he goes about things, his type of personality that he has, the low heart rate kind of guy, not much affects him," Baldelli told reporters. "Great way about him for the game of baseball. He shows that every day. He's a very consistent individual in the clubhouse and out on the field. So yeah, he's been fantastic."

    The fact that the start of the Triple-A season is delayed should actually work to Kirilloff's favor since there's no game action for him to benefit from at the minor league level in April.

No. 5 Starter, New York Yankees

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    Domingo German
    Domingo GermanGene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Predicted Winner: Domingo German

    Domingo German has not thrown a pitch in an MLB game since Sept. 18, 2019.

    The right-hander went 18-4 with a 4.03 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 153 strikeouts in 143 innings during a breakout 2019 season, but he spent the entire 2020 campaign serving a domestic violence suspension, and his teammates were not quick to welcome him back into the fold this spring.

    According to Dan Martin of the New York Post, addressing the team early in camp went a long way, and his strong performance on the mound has put him in a position to win the No. 5 starter job.

    "We haven't had eyes on him or seen him a lot, so not quite sure exactly what to expect," manager Aaron Boone told reporters. "I would say the lack of rust has been impressive. Really, since his first bullpen and every step of the way, he's been really sharp. This is a really good, experienced pitcher."

    The 28-year-old has thrown nine scoreless innings so far this spring, allowing just five hits and one walk while racking up 13 strikeouts.

    Young right-hander Deivi Garcia has impressed in his own right with a 2.25 ERA and 10 strikeouts in eight innings of work, but German has done everything required to reclaim his spot on the staff.

Center Field, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Odubel Herrera
    Odubel HerreraFrank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Predicted Winner: Odubel Herrera

    A Rule 5 success story in 2015 and an All-Star the following year, Odubel Herrera signed a five-year, $30.5 million extension with the Philadelphia Phillies and looked like a long-term piece of the puzzle as the starting center fielder.

    That all changed when he was arrested in May 2019 following a domestic violence incident, and he was ultimately suspended for the remainder of the season.

    The Phillies optioned him off the 40-man roster and sent him outright to Triple-A prior to the 2020 season, and he was not initially invited to MLB camp this spring.

    With Adam Haseley on the injured list with a groin strain and Roman Quinn struggling to hit his way into the regular lineup, the center field job is up for grabs this spring. Herrera has seized the opportunity by going 6-for-23 with two home runs.

    "He's definitely a big part of the conversation with the way he's played," manager Joe Girardi told reporters. "He's hit a couple home runs. He's done a lot of different things. He played some really good defense. He's played all over the place, mostly center and right. But his at-bats have been pretty darn good. And like I've said, he's seen most left-handed pitching. He's definitely in the mix."

    At the very least, it looks like he has played his way back onto the roster, and he is the team's best option in center field right now.

Left Field, Seattle Mariners

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    Taylor Trammell
    Taylor TrammellRoss D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Predicted Winner: Taylor Trammell

    The Seattle Mariners have American League Rookie of the Year winner Kyle Lewis in center field and a healthy Mitch Haniger in right field, but the other starting outfield spot is wide open.

    Top prospect Jarred Kelenic was in the mix before suffering a knee strain, but he is now likely ticketed for Triple-A to start the year. That leaves Jake Fraley, Braden Bishop and Taylor Trammell as the leading candidates on the 40-man roster to break camp with the starting spot.

    Trammell, who was acquired from San Diego in the Austin Nola trade last summer, is hitting .292/.370/.583 with four doubles and one home run in 27 plate appearances this spring, and that has led to some speculation that he'll be the guy.

    "I would say that he has a good chance of making the Opening Day roster, possibly as the starter in left field," Corey Brock of The Athletic wrote in a recent mailbag article. "In terms of the service-time issue, if Trammell makes the team, it's because he's earned it. I still think there's a small chance the Opening Day left fielder might not be with the team yet. We'll see how this shakes out."

    With many Mariners fans eyeing a future outfield of Kelenic, Lewis and Julio Rodriguez, this could be Trammell's chance to prove he belongs in the club's long-term outfield plans, as well.

Third Base, Washington Nationals

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    Carter Kieboom
    Carter KieboomLynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Predicted Winner: Carter Kieboom

    According to Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, the team never considered pursuing an alternative option to push Carter Kieboom at the hot corner.

    "You know, we really didn't," Rizzo told reporters. "We have confidence in Kieboom that he's going to be a good player."

    One of baseball's top prospects for several years running, Kieboom has little left to prove in the minors after hitting .303/.409/.493 with 43 extra-base hits in 109 games at Triple-A in 2019.

    However, he has hit just .181 with 49 strikeouts in 165 plate appearances at the MLB level over the past two seasons, and he is 4-for-22 with six strikeouts this spring.

    The Nats could opt to go with Luis Garcia at second base while sliding Starlin Castro over to the hot corner, or they could give veteran Josh Harrison regular at-bats to start the year in an effort to buy Kieboom a bit more developmental time.

    For now, it looks like Kieboom is the guy, and he still has the potential to be an impact contributor.


    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.