Tuesday February 15th, 2011

Spring training is for reporting in the best shape of one's life, believing that this year is the year, getting back into the baseball grind and -- depending on your stature as either an entrenched starter or a hopeful up-and-comer -- either hitting the tees and greens in the afternoon or fighting to have your named inked on the regular-season lineup card.

Of the top 10 most hotly contested and most impactful position battles this spring, none will be scrutinized more closely than the one for the final two spots in the Yankees' starting rotation behind CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett. The attention bestowed on the competition is a result of whom New York doesn't have in camp (Cliff Lee opted to sign with the Phillies and Andy Pettitte retired); how finding adequate starters could mean the difference for the Yankees between contending for a 28th World Series title or just trying to contend for their 16th playoff spot in the last 17 years; and how remarkable it is that a $200 million payroll hasn't bought better starting pitching alternatives.

The four candidates in Tampa hoping to be in the rotation by the time the Yankees return to the Bronx are Ivan Nova, Sergio Mitre and two veterans signed to minor league contracts with camp invitations, Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia.

Four days after Pettitte formally announced his retirement on Feb. 4, the quartet received a nickname, courtesy of Star-Ledger Yankees beat writer Marc Carig -- Sergio Garciacolonova -- which, he joked, sounded as much like an "ambitious Spanish tennis pro gunning for [Rafael] Nadal" as it did an "amalgamation of middling rotation choices." (So unlikely is this position battle that the fictional creation of Sergio Garciacolonova has its own Twitter account.)

For as much attention as has already been placed on New York's rotation, it may not be as dire as it looks. Garcia won 12 games for the White Sox last year while making home starts at U.S. Cellular Field -- roughly an equal homer haven as the new Yankee Stadium -- and the Yankees won five of Nova's seven starts, including both that the then 23-year-old made against the division-winning Rays. Those two would, on paper, make the best fits in New York.

Elsewhere, the baseball world will likely be deprived of several compelling position battles involving rookies looking to begin their big league tenure because clubs fear paying a fourth year of arbitration to budding star Super 2's. Just a hunch here, but up-and-comers such as Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, Giants first baseman Brandon Belt and Mariners second baseman Dustin Ackley will probably start the year in Triple-A under the guise of needing more seasoning -- which will be only part of the story.

Here are the rest of the top 10 position battles this spring:

Team: Cincinnati Reds Position: Fourth and fifth starters Competitors: Homer Bailey, Travis Wood, Mike Leake

The Reds did next-to-nothing to add to their club this offseason, figuring improvements would come from within. They locked up key players to extensions -- MVP first baseman Joey Votto, as well as rightfielder Jay Bruce and two righthanded starters in Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto -- and expect further development from the young players nearing or entering their prime. Among them are the aforementioned three starters, each a first- or second-round draft pick, competing for the back two spots in the Reds' rotation.

As a rookie in 2010, Leake was a feel-good story in the season's first half. He came to the majors without a single day spent in the minor leagues, then started the year 7-1 with a 3.45 ERA in 18 starts before hitting a wall. Bailey and Wood, meanwhile, were very impressive in the second half when they went a combined 8-5 with a 3.72 ERA in 24 starts. That Wood had a high K/BB ratio (3.31) and that he's the starting staff's only lefty candidate means he's the leader, leaving Bailey and Leake to, in all likelihood, duke it out for the No. 5 spot. (And that does not even include flamethrowing lefty Aroldis Chapman, a former starter in Cuba who in a couple years may get his shot in Cincinnati's rotation.)

Team: Minnesota Twins Position: Fourth and fifth starters Competitors: Brian Duensing, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey

This position battle comes with the caveat that the club doesn't trade ace Francisco Liriano, a possibility recently reported by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Duensing would seem to be a great fit for the rotation -- and his placement there has been endorsed by manager Ron Gardenhire -- thanks to his 7-2 record and 3.05 ERA in 13 starts last season. But the lefty also went 3-1 with a 1.80 ERA in 45 relief innings, making him the best candidate for both the rotation and for the seventh-inning role in front of Matt Capps and Joe Nathan.

While Blackburn pitched great down the stretch after his minor league demotion (3.05 ERA in his last eight starts), Slowey struggled with a biceps strain late in the season and has shown a propensity for getting hit disproportionately harder and harder each time through the lineup, suggesting he could be the best fit in the bullpen.

Team: Philadelphia Phillies Position: Rightfield Competitors: Domonic Brown, Ben Francisco, John Mayberry

There's little question Brown is the Phillies' rightfielder of the future and even of the second half of 2011, but it's no guarantee he plays every day beginning in April. Brown dominated minor league pitching last year, batting .327/.391/.589 with 20 homers and 17 steals in 93 games at Double-A and Triple-A. He was less impressive in the majors (.210/.257/.355) but received only sparing playing time (70 plate appearances over the club's final 62 games) and played through a couple nagging injuries. Brown didn't help himself by batting only 2-for-29 in nine games in the Dominican Winter League, so the veteran Francisco and third-year player Mayberry -- both righthanded -- could at least platoon with Brown in the early going.

Team: Florida Marlins Position: Third base Competitors: Matt Dominguez, Wes Helms, Emilio Bonifacio

The Marlins are one team that's not as shy about starting rookies on Opening Day, and so this seems less likely a position battle than an evaluation of Dominguez's readiness. If Dominguez, Florida's first-round pick in 2007, shows that he can hit as well or better than his career minor league line of .257/.330/.422, then he'll be the everyday third baseman on the virtue of his slick-fielding. If Dominguez falters in the spring, look for the Marlins to employ some combination of Helms and Bonifacio -- potentially with second baseman Omar Infante too -- at third.

Team: Detroit Tigers Position: Leftfield Competitors: Ryan Raburn, Brennan Boesch

Had the Tigers been able to put Boesch's first half (.342/.397/.593 with 12 homers and 49 RBIs) and Raburn's second half (.315/.366/.534 with 13 homers and 46 RBIs) into one player, that new creation would have had the monster batting line of .328/.381/.563 with 25 homers and 95 RBIs -- in other words, a fictional player who would have ranked second on the team behind Miguel Cabrera in every category. Detroit will spend the spring trying to determine which player can sustain which half of their 2010 season. Boesch is only 25 and may start the year in Triple-A, while the 29-year-old Raburn is a lock for the major league roster even if Boesch beats him for leftfield, as Raburn is versatile, having played six of eight fielding positions in the majors (everything except shortstop and catcher).

Team: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Position: Closer Competitors: Fernando Rodney, Jordan Walden, Kevin Jepsen, Scott Downs

All four have the stuff to close games -- the three righties, Rodney, Walden and Jepsen, all threw fastballs last year that averaged between Rodney's 95.6 and Walden's 98.8 -- but only Rodney has meaningful experience in the role, saving 37 games for the Tigers in 2009 and 14 for the Angels last year. That will make him the early leader for the gig even if Walden, who had 23 strikeouts in his first 15 1/3 major-league innings, will probably assume the job in years to come. Downs, the club's top free-agent acquisition, will primarily get lefthanded outs in the seventh and eighth innings but could see some save opportunities against a string of lefties in the ninth.

Team: Toronto Blue Jays Position: Closer Competitors: Frank Francisco, Octavio Dotel, Jon Rauch, Jason Frasor

The four options at the disposal of new manager John Farrell all have experience as closer, and it could be the candidate who has the fewest career saves (32) and who saved the fewest games last year (two) that's the leader. But that man is Francisco who saved 25 games for the Rangers in 2009 before Neftali Feliz unseated him in the role last year.

The Jays flipped the power bat of catcher Mike Napoli to get Francisco from Texas even after having added Dotel and Rauch via free agency, suggesting that Toronto's management placed a premium on Francisco's talents, which include a 10.0 career K/9 thanks to a 94-mph fastball and a biting splitter. The man with the most career saves -- Dotel with 105 -- has a skewed split that shows he dominates righties but gets torched by lefties, making him a better fit as a righty specialist. Also, look for one of the four to get traded during the year.

Team: Chicago White Sox Position: Third base Competitors: Brent Morel, Mark Teahen, Dayan Viciedo

The rookie Morel, whose sharp fielding in a September call-up impressed manager Ozzie Guillen, seems to be the frontrunner to play third base in Chicago this year, though Guillen declined to confirm that stance at the team's FanFest, saying, "If I say that Morel is going to be our third baseman, that's a slap in Teahen's face." The White Sox signed Teahen to a three-year, $14 million contract before last season, so there could be pressure to find him at bats somewhere, whether it's at third or as a fourth outfielder or even second base in case Gordon Beckham starts slowly again.

Morel's bat was spotty in the big leagues (.231/.271/.415) but he hit .320/.348/.503 with eight homers in 81 games at Triple-A last year. Viciedo, the Cuban defector, has the most upside with his bat but his defense is suspect -- so much so that, when the idea of Viciedo converting to a corner outfield position arose, Guillen joked, ''We might ask the commissioner to use a golf cart to play [Viciedo] in rightfield."

Team: Boston Red Sox Position: Shortstop Competitors: Marco Scutaro, Jed Lowrie

Manager Terry Francona has been quick to dismiss this as a position battle, proclaiming to Boston writers, "Scutaro's our shortstop." Certainly Scutaro will be in the Opening Day lineup -- he's in the second-year of a two-year, $12.5 million contract -- but if Lowrie, who had an impressive second half of 2010, plays well this spring, the shortstop position could become a timeshare.

After the All-Star break, Lowrie hit .287/.381/.526 with nine homers in 197 plate appearances; his .907 OPS ranked third on the team. During the second half, Scutaro hit just .265/.312/.400 with seven homers in 295 plate appearances but did so while battling a painful shoulder injury. Both Lowrie and Scutaro can play multiple positions so either could fill the fifth-infielder role and, of course, one or the other might be slotted into second base if Dustin Pedroia's foot acts up again.

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