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Let the position battles begin!
2013 Spring Training camps are open and many players will compete against teammates for jobs before taking on other baseball teams in April. Here are some position battles to keep an eye on this spring.
American League East
The fifth starter spot is wide open. Candidates include Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Steve Johnson, Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter. Japanese pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada, who underwent Tommy John surgery on his left elbow last May, is ahead of schedule in his recovery and could join the fray. Nolan Reimold isn’t ready to concede left field to Nate McLouth. The last bench spot won’t be handed to Danny Valencia. Infielders Yamaico Navarro and Ryan Flaherty and outfielder Steve Pearce, among others, will try to avoid the minors. Executive VP Dan Duquette speaks highly of first basemen Conor Jackson and Travis Ishikawa and has indicated that they could contribute to the big-league club.
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox aren’t opening too many starting spots to competition. The main area to watch will be catcher. With David Ross already announced as a backup who’ll play more than average, that leaves Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway battling for the starting spot. If the former wins, the latter will return to Triple-A. If Lavarnway wins, Saltalamacchia immediately becomes trade bait. The fifth starter’s spot should be a dogfight, too, with Felix Doubront and Franklin Morales battling newcomers like Rubby De La Rosa. The bullpen will be a free-for-all as well, with former dominant setup man Daniel Bard on the outside looking in at the moment.
New York Yankees
It was notable that the Yankees chose David Phelps for a postseason roster spot over Ivan Nova. True, Phelps worked 22 games as a reliever and Nova worked none, but there was no mistaking that the Yankees had more confidence in Phelps to get big outs. Nova was 12–8 in the regular season, but he had a 6.38 ERA after July 1. Phelps flopped in October, losing twice, but he had a solid rookie season and at the very least should challenge Nova for a rotation spot. Michael Pineda, a 2011 All-Star for Seattle, is recovering from shoulder surgery and could be a factor by May or June. Travis Hafner and Eduardo Nunez will compete for at-bats at the DH spot.
Tampa Bay Rays
If super-prospect Wil Myers makes the roster, it’s to play every day. If he doesn’t, four (instead of three) utility spots will be available to contestants Sean Rodriguez, Kelly Johnson, Ryan Roberts, Mike Fontenot and Tim Beckham. Rookies Brandon Guyer and Stephen Vogt will battle Luke Scott for DH duties. An all-out scrum for two of the six bullpen jobs is anticipated, with Cesar Ramos standing the best chance of survival because he’s left-handed and out of options. Most intriguing of all is who, out of at least four serious suitors, will be the fifth starter. Jeff Niemann is the pre-injury incumbent; Jake Odorizzi is the most polished rookie; Chris Archer has the highest ceiling; and the brass thinks it can resuscitate Roberto Hernandez’s star-crossed career.
Toronto Blue Jays
It seemed a little redundant for the Blue Jays to trade for Emilio Bonifacio shortly after signing Maicer Izturis. Both are switch-hitters with little power, and both could start at second base. Izturis has more experience there and is considered a better fielder. But Bonifacio profiles as a better bat and is more of a threat to steal bases. Bonifacio plays more positions, having started at least 17 career games at all three outfield positions and at least 65 at third, short and second. There’s room on the team for both, so expect John Gibbons to use their versatility to mix and match, with a slight edge to Bonifacio as the starting second baseman if he shows enough skill in the field.
American League Central
Chicago White Sox
Carlos Sanchez is ticketed to open the season alongside Brent Morel, Tyler Saladino and Andy Wilkins in the Triple-A infield but could make life uncomfortable for Gordon Beckham and Alexei Ramirez in his first big-league spring. As a switch hitter with speed and strong base-running skills, he could add some balance to a lineup that will lean to the right side without A.J. Pierzynski. John Danks’ health will determine if there are one or two openings for a group of starting pitchers including Jose Quintana, Hector Santiago, Dylan Axelrod, Andre Rienzo, Charlie Shirek, Simon Castro and Nestor Molina.
Backup catcher Lou Marson could be pushed by newcomer Yan Gomes, who hit .328 with the Blue Jays’ Class AAA affiliate last year. If lefthander Scott Kazmir, once one of the most promising young pitchers in the game, has anything left, he’ll get a chance to crack the rotation. Trevor Bauer, Zach McAllister, Carlos Carrasco and Corey Kluber should have a hotly contested competition for the last two spots in the rotation.
As might be expected from a team with championship aspirations, there are few job battles in the truest sense of the term. There is still some uncertainty at the front end of the bullpen and the far end of the bench. But the biggest question could be the fifth starter’s job, where Rick Porcello is the incumbent and Drew Smyly the challenger. However, knowing what we know about the attrition rate with pitchers, it is almost certain the Tigers will need both of them at some point.
Kansas City Royals
Two to watch: second base, where Chris Getz and Johnny Giavotella continue competition for the third straight year; and the fifth spot in the rotation between Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar, who spent last season as the club’s top two starters. Getz was having a career-best season in 2012 until injuries intervened, but Giavotella is generally viewed as having the higher upside. There are other possibilities — Miguel Tejada and Christian Colón — but it’s likely to be Getz or Gio. Either Chen or Hochevar could be traded to fill another need. Otherwise, their battle shapes up as a choice between back-of-the-rotation consistency (Chen) against unfulfilled upside (Hochevar).
Brian Dozier should be a man on a mission this spring. After being named the Twins Minor League Player of the Year in 2011, he had a disappointing 2012 both offensively and defensively. The Twins gave him an 84-game audition at shortstop, and he made 15 errors and posted a .271 on-base percentage. He’ll get another chance to win a starting spot this spring, either at shortstop or second base. Pedro Florimon is the favorite to land the shortstop job, and veteran Jamey Carroll can play either position if the others aren’t ready, so it should lead to some healthy competition.
American League West
The Astros have no shortage of candidates for the final two spots in the pitching rotation, with lefty Dallas Keuchel and righthanders Philip Humber, Alex White, Edgar Gonzalez, John Ely and elite prospects Brad Peacock and Jarred Cosart among those battling for innings. The outfield also figures to be a battle in the spring. Justin Maxwell is likely to start at one of the three outfield spots, but the other two starters will come from a group that includes Brandon Barnes, Trevor Crowe, J.D. Martinez, Fernando Martinez and Jimmy Paredes or even Rick Ankiel. As expected with a team predicted to lose 100-plus games, there should be plenty of interesting battles from among the youngsters in the bullpen, as well.
Los Angeles Angels
Young righthander Garrett Richards nearly pitched his way into the rotation last spring and seemed poised to step into a spot in 2013. The Angels’ offseason moves, adding veteran starters Tommy Hanson, Jason Vargas and Joe Blanton, have pushed Richards out of the picture. He might be in the position of battling a handful of other pitchers for the final spot in the bullpen rather than make a return trip to Triple-A. Offensively, the Angels will have some decisions to make about their batting order this spring, most prominently who gets the enviable task of batting between Mike Trout and Albert Pujols at the top of the lineup.
If you trust OPS as the definitive measure of offensive value, then Jemile Weeks was the worst hitter in the majors last season, with a .609 mark that ranked last among qualifiers. Weeks has talent; he was a first-round pick with a brother in the big leagues, and hit .303 as a rookie in 2011. But he also has competition at second base in Scott Sizemore, who tore his ACL last spring but should be healed now. It’s tough to say who has the edge — a player like Sizemore who missed all of last season, or a player like Weeks who performed so poorly. Spring training will decide it, but the early bet is on Sizemore, who has shown more power. Jed Lowrie and Hiroyuki Nakajima will compete for time at shortstop. The odd man out could see some time at second as well.
If Justin Smoak isn’t dealt, he’ll battle Kendrys Morales for first base time and Raul Ibanez and Michael Morse for DH duty. Left fielder Jason Bay needs to show something to make the team. He’s guaranteed only $500,000, and Casper Wells can fill his role. Lucas Luetge shined as a rookie situational lefty, but fellow southpaws Oliver Perez and Charlie Furbush might force him to Class AAA. Luetge might stay if the team keeps only one of the two fireballing righties — Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps. Non-roster invitee Jeremy Bonderman hasn’t pitched since 2010 and will compete for a fifth starter job with Hector Noesi and top minor leaguers.
The most interesting question will be what the team does with super prospect Jurickson Profar. He just turned 20 and showed signs last September that may be ready for the bigs, middle infielders Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler are well-established. It wouldn’t make sense to keep the youngster, who has never played at the Triple-A level, as a bench player in lieu of getting him regular playing time at Round Rock. Martin Perez enters camp as the fifth starter. The lefthander has been one of the Rangers’ top prospects almost since the day he was signed as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela. He’ll be 22 on April 4, and the Rangers are expecting him to deliver on all the promise they have seen. The Rangers want Perez to be in the rotation, but he could pitch himself out of the job if he struggles with his command. It’s not just throwing strikes, but quality strikes. Righthander Justin Grimm, another top prospect who also debuted in 2012, could land the job if Perez slips.
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