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Top 10 position battles to watch in spring
The calendar flipped. The offseason ended. February is here.
The time is here to trade oven mitts for catcher’s gloves. Must we keep a burner warm for Jarrod Washburn? Brandon Webb? Milton Bradley? Manny Ramirez? (OK, maybe Manny.)
We’re T-minus three weeks to pitchers-and-catchers workouts. February blockbusters are rare. So I hope you like your team. (Chin up, Mets fans. No tears on the keyboard.)
Within many front offices, the question has moved from ‘Who can we get?’ to ‘What do we have?’ That portends competition for a number of key jobs that could influence contending clubs.
Here’s a look at 10 horse races you’ll hear about this spring.
Phillies: John Mayberry Jr. vs. Laynce Nix vs. Domonic Brown
For all their resources, the Phillies will enter spring training with uncertainty in the everyday lineup. Star first baseman Ryan Howard won’t be ready for the start of the season after rupturing his left Achilles. And there’s an open competition in left field, where Raul Ibañez once roamed.
Mayberry, who amassed a .931 OPS in the second half last year, should get every opportunity to win the job. But the Phillies gave Nix a two-year contract after he hit 16 homers with 44 RBI for Washington last year, and continue to profess a strong belief in Brown, the top prospect who batted .245 with little power in 2011.
Another consideration: The Phillies just signed Juan Pierre to a minor league deal. He can still run. Stay tuned.
Red Sox: Daniel Bard vs. Various and Sundry Arms
The Red Sox almost have more pitchers competing for rotation spots than the Celtics have players on their active roster. New manager Bobby Valentine must fill two openings — and that’s assuming Clay Buchholz is healthy.
Even if the Red Sox sign a veteran starter like Roy Oswalt or Edwin Jackson, there’s considerable uncertainty about the No. 5 spot. Bard, the converted setup man, is a fashionable candidate. But he never has started a game in the majors. In fact, Bard’s last attempt at starting came at Class A in 2007; he finished that year with a 7.08 ERA.
Red Sox, Part II: Nick Punto vs. Mike Aviles
Valentine told reporters in Boston this week that he’s comfortable with a spring competition at shortstop. Neither of the top internal candidates, Nick Punto (six error-free starts with the Cardinals) and Mike Aviles (six error-free starts with the Red Sox), saw much action at short last year.
We are sure to hear the very rational argument that Punto (.278) and Aviles (.255) will not determine the success or failure of a lineup that includes Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, et al. But at a time of such uncertainty for the Boston rotation and outfield corners, the Punto/Aviles question is another real dilemma for the Red Sox following last year’s disappointment.
Rays: Wade Davis vs. Jeff Niemann vs. Matt Moore
The Rays, like an elite defensive back, always seem to be in impeccable position. Once again they will arrive at spring training with more than five qualified starting pitchers.
Will the 22-year-old Moore, who pitched seven shutout innings in Game 1 of the ALDS, go from postseason sensation to the minor leagues, as David Price did in ’08-’09? Or will he break camp in the major leagues, at the expense of Davis (11-10, 4.45) or Niemann (11-7, 4.06)?
The Rays could trade one of the pitchers for a corner bat. Even after adding Carlos Peña and Luke Scott, it wouldn’t hurt to add a little more power to a lineup that proved inadequate during the past two Octobers.
Maybe this won’t be a direct competition in the truest sense. But Kubel and Parra will be closely watched in spring training, as Arizona manager Kirk Gibson figures out how to distribute at-bats among his outfielders.
Parra won a Gold Glove last year for his work in left field. He had the finest offensive season of his career (.292, 8 HR, 46 RBI). He is only 24. The Diamondbacks rewarded him by … signing another left-handed-hitting corner outfielder.
Kubel (.273, 12, 58) has played only right and left field in the major leagues, and he isn’t taking Justin Upton’s job. So he will enter spring training penciled in as the everyday left fielder. Parra is suddenly a fourth outfielder. That won’t be awkward at all.
Marlins: Hanley Ramirez vs. Third Base
Ramirez wasn’t overly enthused — right away, at least — about the Marlins’ nine-figure investment in Jose Reyes. Ramirez wants to play shortstop. With Reyes around, he can’t.
Let’s face it: Ramirez is talented and moody and coming off the worst season of his career. A trade would have removed some drama from the 2012 Marlins, but where’s the fun in that? At last check, Ramirez was very much a member of the Marlins’ roster. It’s time for him to learn a new position.
If Ramirez dedicates himself to third base this spring, he could become an immediate All-Star. Between Reyes and Ozzie Guillen, he will have more than enough advice about how to handle the situation. Now it’s up to him.
Nationals: Bryce Harper vs. The Timetable
Harper is 19, and 19-year-olds aren’t supposed to play in the major leagues. Then again, teenagers aren’t supposed to leave high school early to enroll at a junior college and become the No. 1 draft pick.
Harper is a swinging, swaggering exception. His OPS nearly topped .900 in his first professional season. This spring he will be catnip to the Nationals fans who wanted their team to sign Prince Fielder. How about an Opening Day outfield of Michael Morse in left, Jayson Werth in center and Harper in right?
Yankees: A.J. Burnett vs. Freddy Garcia vs. Phil Hughes
Oh, right: The Yankees and their pitching staff. One month ago their inactivity was a story. Now they’re sorting through abundant rotation options in a Rays-like manner.
One has to assume CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova will be in the starting rotation as long as their arms remain sound. So then the Yankees must decide on a fifth starter, with Hughes a sensible candidate to be sent to the bullpen because of his experience there.
So, it may come down to 2011 underachiever Burnett (11-11, 5.15) or 2011 overachiever Garcia (12-8, 3.62). Prepare for the inevitable trade rumblings near the end of spring training if good health and strong performances create a roster crunch.
Angels: Mark Trumbo vs. Kendrys Morales vs. Bobby Abreu vs. Vernon Wells
Trumbo played first base. Morales played first base. Note the past tense. Neither plays first base anymore.
The Angels signed a new first baseman. You may have heard of him: Albert Something. Anyway, there won’t be many first-base starts available to those other guys now. So Trumbo and Morales must find something else to do.
Trumbo (29 HR, 87 RBI) will try to play third. Morales (34, 108 in ’09) will try to be a DH, at the very least, after the halting recovery from his infamous leg injury. Abreu (.353 OBP) may be relegated to DH duty, too, given a crowded outfield that includes the underperforming Wells (.218, 25, 66).
Translation: The situation is ripe for someone to be traded for a pitcher.
Twins: Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau vs. Themselves
The American League Central Opposition Party is looking for someone to run against the Detroit Tigers. The Twins, who thwarted them in 2006 and 2009, usually are worthy. But it’s hard to know if Minnesota’s inept 2011 was a one-year fluke or something far more alarming. We may know by checking the Twins’ Opening Day lineup; if Mauer and Morneau are in it, the team has a shot.
Yes, the pitching is mediocre, but the pitching was mediocre when the Twins won the division in 2010. There isn’t enough space on this webpage to catalogue all the woes Mauer and Morneau endured over the past two seasons. The former MVPs combined for just seven home runs last year. If they aren’t healthy at the end of this spring, it will be another long year.
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