Picking the five biggest position battles to watch in spring training

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Tuesday February 28th, 2017

For most players, spring training is a chance to get in shape, shake the rust off, tinker with a new pitch or a new stance and otherwise get ready for the six-month grind ahead without worrying too much about batting average or ERA. But for some players, real jobs are at stake—even key ones in the starting lineups of contenders. Their teams will use the next five weeks to figure out Plan A at those positions, with an eye toward other options if things go south after they head north.

What follows here is a look at five of the most interesting decisions ahead, ones where who will emerge with even a slice of the job is something of a mystery. For this, I’m steering clear of fifth-starter battles (seemingly half the teams have one) and explicitly rebuilding teams. Teams are listed alphabetically.

Boston Red Sox: Catcher

Most teams struggle to produce a single catching prospect, but a few years ago, the Red Sox came up with a pair in Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart. What’s followed since then has been something of a mess. In early 2015, former general manager Ben Cherington resisted the chance to trade Swihart to the Phillies in a deal for Cole Hamels, and soon afterward, Vazquez, who was slated to start, lost his entire season to Tommy John surgery. With his return in 2016, the team sent Swihart to the minors to learn leftfield, but he suffered a severe ankle sprain in June, one that required season-ending surgery. Vazquez, meanwhile, hit just .227/.277/.308 in 184 plate appearances, spending most of July and August back at Triple A and getting just eight plate appearances in September.

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Into the breach stepped Sandy Leon, who came into 2015 sporting a career .187/.258/.225 line in 235 PA. Somehow, at the age of 27, he emerged as a force, hitting .310/.369/.476 with seven homers in 283 PA, though late-season regression threw water on even gaudier numbers. A switch-hitter who was seven runs above average in pitch framing via Baseball Prospectus' stats, he's likely to start 2017 with at least a share of the job. Vazquez, now 26, is considered the best defender of the bunch, but whether he can hit enough for regular duty is in question. For the 24-year-old Swihart, who owns a career .271/.328/.386 line in 383 PA, the bigger concern is defense, which lately has included a bout of the yips. For a team that has championship aspirations but longstanding issues with pitchers coming to Boston and struggling in their first year—including Rick Porcello in 2015 and David Price last year, with Chris Sale looking to buck the trend—sorting this out is a major priority.

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Los Angeles Dodgers: Outfield

Ever since Yasiel Puig burst onto the scene in 2013, Dodgers managers Don Mattingly and successor Dave Roberts have been forced to juggle outfielders and egos, albeit in a manner that's changed significantly over that timespan. Gone are the expensive contracts and frequent injuries of Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp; in fact, the only outfielder making more than $9 million in 2017 is Andre Ethier. Still, it's clear that there aren't even enough roster spots, let alone starting jobs, for the various candidates, and the analytically-inclined front office is likely to favor some amount of platooning for the final arrangement.

The most certain assumption is that Joc Pederson (who turns 25 on April 21) will start in centerfield at least against righties, given that he owns a .178/.275/.324 line versus lefties in 213 plate appearances. Lefty-masher Franklin Gutierrez (.289/.351/.495 in 1,175 career PA against lefties with 12 homers in 217 PA last year) was brought in to help shore up the team's struggles against southpaws, but he hasn't played centerfield in the bigs since 2013, so the equation isn't so simple. Righty Trayce Thompson is the more likely fit if in center if he's healthy, but he missed all of the second half of last season due to a pair of stress fractures in his back, and righty utilityman Kiké Hernandez struggled against southpaws last year after destroying them in 2015.

The lefty-swinging Ethier, who was limited to 26 PA last year after fracturing his right tibia via a foul ball and turns 35 on April 10, will likely find himself on the bench against lefties given his .234/.291/.343 career line against them. Platooning him in right with Puig seems like a waste of the latter's talent, but the enigmatic 26-year-old Cuban has hit just .256/.316/.394 in 469 PA against same-siders over the past two years; suffice it to say that he has to earn back the playing time—and trust—that he's squandered. Then there's lefty-swinging rookie Andrew Toles, righty holdover Scott Van Slyke and perhaps eventually top prospect Cody Bellinger, a 21-year-old first baseman who's blocked by Adrian Gonzalez.

You can see how this is going to be dizzying for Roberts. Health permitting, an Ethier-Pederson-Puig alignment supplemented by some combination of Gutierrez, Thompson and/or Toles is the likely outcome, and a house-cleaning trade isn't out of the question. But stay tuned, because this one promises drama.

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St. Louis Cardinals: Infield

Injuries to Jhonny Peralta's left thumb opened the door for Cuban defector Aledmys Diaz last year at shortstop, and the rookie turned out to be one of the Cardinals' most pleasant surprises, hitting .300/.369/.510 with 17 homers in just 460 PA. His play squeezed Peralta to third base, which bumped Matt Carpenter to second base (largely at the expense of Kolten Wong) and then first base (tough luck, Matt Adams). Now, the plan for 2017 is for Carpenter to be the regular first baseman, which isn't a bad idea given that he's a combined 18 runs below average (via Defensive Runs Saved) at second and third despite earning All-Star honors at both positions. He's got enough stick for the position (a career OPS+ of 129), and his glove may be a better asset there, though it's worth noting that the decidedly unathletic Adams is +13 DRS in 363 career games there.

If Carpenter is at first and Diaz at short, that still raises questions about how committed the team is to Wong, he of the $25 million extension and the 83 OPS+ (on .240/.327/.355 hitting) last year; he found himself in Triple A and the outfield, where he jammed his right shoulder late in the season, an injury that is still lingering. Peralta, who turns 35 on May 28, is ostensibly healthy but coming off a lousy .260/.307/.408 line and is in the final year of his four-year contract, making $10 million. Meanwhile, righty-swinging Jedd Gyorko is coming off a team- and career-high 30 homers in just 438 PA, accompanied by a lopsided .243/.306/.495 line. He can play all four positions, with second and third his strongest, and manager Mike Matheny needs to find him playing time. Don't overlook lefty-swinging utilityman Greg Garcia, who hit .276/.393/.369 in 257 PA. Suffice it to say, Matheny has options.

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Texas Rangers: Leftfield

With Shin-soo Choo limited to just 49 games last year and 320 over the past three seasons, the Rangers are considering using him as the regular designated hitter. The 34-year-old outfielder has yet to embrace the move, but it's one that could shore up a problem spot given that Texas got abysmal production from the spot (.240/.312/.389 in 2016) and that Choo's fielding leaves plenty to be desired (-28 DRS in 266 games as a Ranger). Assuming Nomar Mazara mans rightfield, that means that leftfield is the open spot.

The Rangers have no shortage of candidates, starting with righties Ryan Rua (.258/.331/.400 in 2016) and Delino DeShields Jr. (.209/.275/.313), but offensively, neither is guaranteed to produce. The same goes for two former top prospects who have otherwise been frozen out of the lineup: 24-year-old Jurickson Profar (.239/.321/.338) and 23-year-old Joey Gallo (just 1-for-25 with 19 strikeouts in the majors but .240/.367/.529 with 25 homers at Triple A). Blocked at their primary and secondary positions by the current starting infield, both have seen their stocks tumble with irregular playing time, and it's not clear where else they fit into the Rangers' plans. In camp on a minor league deal is another former top prospect who never could break through in his original organization: Travis Snider, who spent last year underwhelming at the Royals' Triple A affiliate but is still just 29. Don't wait up for Josh Hamilton, who just underwent his 11th knee surgery and will start the year on the DL after missing all of last season.

Washington Nationals: Closer

The Nats lost midseason acquisition Mark Melancon to free agency despite attempts to retain him, then struck out in pursuit of the even higher-priced Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. They've also been unable to pry David Robertson loose from the White Sox. Barring a move to bring in a more obvious candidate, that sets up a competition for the job, with veterans Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen and Joe Nathan and rookie Koda Glover as the apparent candidates.

Nathan, with 377 career saves, is the big name, but the 42-year-old has thrown just 6 2/3 major league innings over the past two seasons due to April 2015 Tommy John surgery, his second. He's in camp on a minor league deal, but if he demonstrates health and consistency, he could be the solution the team is waiting for. If not, Kelley, who saved seven games for the Nationals last year and struck out a robust 12.4 per nine to go with a 2.64 ERA in 58 innings, is probably the leading candidate. But his penchant for serving up homers (1.4 per nine in 2016, 1.2 per nine in his career) and his own health history—which includes two TJs—gives manager Dusty Baker pause. The sinker-balling Treinen, who's coming off a 2.28 ERA in 67 innings, shored up his previous problems with lefties, but he doesn't strike out a ton of hitters (8.5 per nine in 2016, 7.7 career) and tends to walk too many (3.0 per nine unintentional). Glover, an eighth-round 2015 pick who began last year in Class A and finished by throwing 19 2/3 innings in the majors, is a longshot due to his age (24 on April 13) and inexperience, and he's coming back from rehabbing a torn hip labrum. Even so, with high-90s heat and a hard slider, he's got closer-type stuff and probably figures to wind up working the ninth down the road.

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