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February 26, 2015

The Lineup Card

Nine Spring Training Job Battles to Watch

by Baseball Prospectus

1. The A's rotation
Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir are as locked into Oakland's top two rotation slots as anybody can ever claim to be locked into a roster spot in Oakland. They're hardly perfect options at the top, what with Gray's size and inexperience and Kazmir's significant fade in the second half in 2014, but they're a decent top two nonetheless. The rest of the rotation is a rat's nest of youthful indiscretion, reclamation cases, and frayed ligaments, all adding up to significant uncertainty and a genuine spring melee. One could imagine almost any combination of Kendall Graveman, Jesse Chavez, Drew Pomeranz, Jesse Hahn, Chris Bassitt, Arnold Leon, and Barry Zito finding its way into the Opening Day rotation.

Chavez and Pomeranz both pitched well enough last year (though Pomeranz looked hit-lucky and Chavez may have run out of gas in the summer) that they should have an inside track; they're also both out of options. If we can assume they're nos. 3 and 4 (we can't, but let's anyway), the battle for no. 5 begins with whether Zito shows enough to force his way back into the majors. Journeyman catcher Luke Carlin caught Zito's first bullpen of camp and claimed his fastball was in the upper 80s. (No radar guns were present.) That's probably not true (Zito has thrown in the mid-80s for the entirety of the PITCHf/x era; he's also 37) but if he's miraculously throwing 87-88 with his old curve and a decent change, then we can pencil him into the fifth spot right now. More realistically, Jesse Hahn has the most big league time, the best resume, and probably the best stuff of the young competitors.

In any event, given the remaining depth, the pitfalls waiting to befall any professional hurler (e.g. Sean Nolin would have been in the list above had his recovery from offseason sports hernia surgery gone well, but it hasn't), and possible June returns from Tommy John surgery for Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, all of this is temporary: The war of the next six weeks isn't going to write these roles in stone so much as foreshadow an ongoing evaluation of all the players involved and the team's competitive context. —Jason Wojciechowski

2. The last spot in the Royals bullpen
No Major League Baseball team has had its bullpen be such a visible and integral part of its success as the 2014 Kansas City Royals since… um… the 2013 Kansas City Royals, I guess. Huh. Anyways, the three-right-armed monster of Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera that helped Kansas City blitz through the playoffs last season is still intact, barring any spring training injuries. Luke Hochevar, a hyped draft pick turned disappointing starter turned relief revelation, makes his return after missing all of 2014 due to Tommy John surgery. Righty Louis Coleman, righty Jason Frasor, and lefty Tim Collins are other strong candidates to fill spots on the bullpen bench, per Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star.

But all is not so simple: Hochevar’s present ability to handle a full workload is still in question. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to see an eight-man bullpen, which is one more arm than teams normally carry but which would provide extra support for a still-delicate Hochevar. The possibilities outside the aforementioned cast of names, to fill the eighth spot or supplant somebody else, are myriad: Could Brandon Finnegan, the team’s 2014 first-round pick who went from pitching in the College World Series in June to throwing in the (world) World Series in October, slide back into that middle-relief role, or does the team want to further develop him as a starter in the minors? Could Ryan Madson, who hasn’t pitched in a game since 2011 but who put up 1.3 WARP in 60 2/3 innings for the Phillies that year, regain his past form and a consistent spot on the club? Could another semi-familiar name, like Franklin Morales or Joe Blanton or Joe Paterson, make waves? Could Ned Yost just go for broke and employ the “Johnny Wholestaff” approach, normally property of college teams with an awkwardly scheduled midweek game or an injury to a weekend starter? (Okay, that last one might be a reach. Maybe.) —Ian Frazer

3. The Nationals' fifth starter
After signing Max Scherzer, the Nationals rotation has gone from impressive to… something better than impressive. Silly? Scrumtrelescent? I don’t know. Whatever you call it, adding the 2013 AL Cy Young winner to a rotation of Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, and Stephen Strasburg is a repeated frying pan to the face to opposing hitters.

When I first thought about this, I thought the biggest story was who starts on Opening Day. But Opening Day, wonderful as it is, is ceremonial. What’s really important is who gets the most starts over the course of the season. So, really, the most important thing isn’t who starts first, it’s who starts fifth. A starting rotation is in that way much like a batting order, the primary function of which is to dole out plate appearances.

Who is it going to be? We know it won’t be Scherzer, Zimmermann, or Strasburg. They’re too good. You could make an argument that all should start on Opening Day. The leftovers are Fister and Gonzalez. Right now, it seems the guy on the bottom of the ladder is probably Gonzalez just based on how ordinary, especially comparatively, he was last season. That said, the guy with the most WARP in the starting rotation last season is Tanner Roark, and he’s been bumped from the rotation, so last year is last year.

As you probably knew, I don’t have an answer to this question. The Nationals will though, at least by the end of spring training. Thing is, the more I think about it, the less it matters. Normally it would probably matter, but with this rotation, good gosh, if everyone stays healthy and Gonzalez or Fister get a couple fewer starts, well, call me crazy, but I think the Nationals will be just fine. —Matthew Kory

4. Brad Miller vs. Chris Taylor for the Mariners shortstop gig
The Seattle Mariners enter the 2015 season with loftier hopes than they’ve had in over a decade. The club’s postseason ambitions rest not only on a strong pitching staff but also on the best crop of position players the organization has fielded under Jack Zduriencik’s watch. While some question the long term merits of Zduriencik’s expedient spending sprees these past two off-seasons, he’s undoubtedly strengthened and stabilized Seattle’s once moribund lineup. The Mariners finished their offseason shopping early, largely settling eight of the nine starting positions before the calendar flipped to 2015.

The battle at shortstop, however, could last as long as spring training itself. Brad Miller, the starter for most of the past year and a half, will compete with fellow ACC alum Chris Taylor. Of the two, Taylor is the better fielder, and after hitting well following an early August call-up, he likely enters the spring as the slim favorite to win the job. While the Virginia product won’t replicate the .398 BABIP he posted last year, he has a good feel for the strike zone and should tap into his gap power more often than he did as a rookie.

Despite poor numbers at the plate last season, Miller has the more offensive upside of the two. A brutal start to 2014 obscured a strong finish—he batted .265/.326/.447 over the last four months of the season—and even with the bad start, Miller posted a higher ISO than all but one American League shortstop. The Florida native has also demonstrated that he can consistently handle the routine plays that plagued him as a minor leaguer, alleviating concerns about his ability to handle shortstop.

While it might make sense to platoon the left-handed hitting Miller with Taylor, the presence of Willie Bloomquist—seriously—likely forces the loser of this battle to Triple-A. The stakes are particularly high because playing time won’t come much easier in Tacoma, where 21-year-old Ketel Marte will nip at either player’s heels for innings at short. Good shortstops don’t grow on trees, so while the Mariners have two players who could start there in the majors right now, there’s a decent chance one of them is suiting up for someone else by season’s end. —Brendan Gawlowski

5. Mookie Betts (and others) vs. Shane Victorino for the Red Sox' right-field job
Hanley Ramirez is going to play pretty much every day in left field for the Red Sox. On February 25th, that’s really all we can say we definitively know about the talented but crowded group of outfielders the Sox are taking to camp. Sure, most figure the Red Sox will go with Rusney Castillo in center and Mookie Betts in right field. But that would leave Shane Victorino as a very good and very expensive fourth outfielder, making this a more complex situation than it might seem.

Castillo adds an element of speed to the lineup, seems a strong defender in center and signed a huge contract last season. He’s not going to be a bench player, so he’ll either be starting every day for the Red Sox or, less likely, gaining more experience in Pawtucket. Betts figures to serve as the team’s leadoff man on most depth charts, but like Castillo, he needs to be playing every day somewhere. Already blocked at second base and now in left field, he needs to roam either right field or center.

The temptation is to brush Victorino aside in favor of youth, but let’s not forget he earned 5.2 WARP as recently as 2013. He’s often hurt, yes, but he’s arguably the best defensive right fielder in baseball when healthy, and he’s good enough with the bat that he can’t be brushed aside. John Farrell recently came out and said Victorino would be the everyday right fielder, and while that’s a pretty big “if” and could simply be posturing to keep his veteran happy, it’s also probably true if he’s healthy and still a Sox.

There’s also the matter of Daniel Nava and Allen Craig, who’d form a logical platoon but become duplicative as 1B/OF bench players, and Jackie Bradley Jr., who’s likely to start in Triple-A but who a lot of teams would probably like to take a chance on should he be made available. Ben Cherington’s strategy of acquiring talent first and worrying about fit later makes sense, and has led to the Sox projecting to lead the world in runs this year with 795, per PECOTA. But something has to give here, whether it’s Victorino moving to a team needing outfield help or Betts getting moved for a pitcher or an injury forcing someone to the DL by mid-March. The Red Sox have a good problem on their hands, but if these names are all on the roster in four weeks, it’ll still be a problem. —Ben Carsley

6. The Cubs' keystone and hot corner
Let's get one thing out of the way early, Kris Bryant isn't going to be on the Opening Day roster for the Chicago Cubs. As much as some fans may want it to happen, the chances of it happening are so miniscule, that it really isn't worth considering at the moment.

The key this spring for both these position battles will be strikeouts. The presumed leaders for these roles, Javier Baez and Mike Olt, struck out 42 percent and 39 percent of the time, respectively. If either looks completely overmatched or if their confidence shows signs of wearing thin, there's a strong chance one, or both, could start the season in the minors. Then the question becomes who takes over and where? Tommy La Stella is the antithesis of Baez at the plate, he takes his fair share of walks, rarely strikes out, is known for his contact ability, and hits for little power. General manager Jed Hoyer has admitted that sending Baez down to the minors to start the season--which could be necessary if the swing-and-miss issues continue to be an issue in the spring--is certainly a possibility.

With the addition of Dexter Fowler, Arismendy Alcantara finds himself without a regular spot and has positioned himself as an option to take over at either second or third if either Baez or Olt falter this March--though his time at the hot corner has been limited to 51 games in the minors, the most recent of which came in 2012. Alcantara had his own issues in his inaugural campaign (.248 TAv, 31 percent strikeout rate), but has the potential to be one of the games rare power-speed combos, while playing all over the field. La Stella has zero game experience at third, but the organization hasn't ruled out that he'll could possibly see time there as well. It's the earlier mentioned contact prowess that has the Cubs brass intrigued by La Stella, and makes it possible that he finds himself the starter at second (or third) when the Cubs kick the season off against the Cardinals.

The ideal scenario for the Cubs is that Baez and Olt show more of the good--power and solid defense--and less of the bad--strikeouts, oh so many strikeouts. In that scenario, Baez can contribute while also continuing to develop and work on his approach at the big-league level, Olt can keep the corner hot for Bryant, La Stella can be solid depth for what could be a very strong infield, and Alcantara fills the super-utility role like Ben Zobrist did for Joe Maddon in Tampa. But this is baseball, and things rarely go as hoped. Add the names Starlin Castro and Addison Russell into the mix and the only infield spot that one should feel confident seeing penned into the Cubs lineup April through September is Anthony Rizzo. Sahadev Sharma

7. Micah Johnson vs. Carlos Sanchez vs. Emilio Bonifacio vs. Gordon Beckham vs. Never-ending Sadness for the White Sox' 2B job
The White Sox have done a commendable job of upgrading their team in key areas during the offseason. They’ve added bona fide assets on offense in Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche. They shored up a weak bullpen squad with the additions of Zach Duke and David Robertson. They even added a solid starting pitcher in Jeff Samardzija. In spite of Rick Hahn’s efforts, there is one glaring weakness that remains on the team that will be compelling to monitor all spring: the black hole of production known as second base.

As it stands Micah Johnson, Carlos Sanchez, Emilio Bonifacio, and the prodigal son, Gordon Beckham (who the White Sox could not bear to be without for more than half a season), will all fight it out in a depressingly bland battle for supremacy. Each player has their extreme limitations and provides only the scantest of positive value to the team. Johnson and Sanchez provide speed and a questionable at best ability to hit. Bonifacio provides positional flexibility so he can be mediocre everywhere and Gordon Beckham has a supreme glove, tremendous hair and severe bouts with consistency that render his final season lines less than inspiring.

There is one more contender that I think Chicago fans should consider as a strong possibility given recent events: never-ending sadness. Yes, never-ending sadness is considered a darkhorse here but when you consider the rest of the field I can’t really make an argument that rules out never-ending sadness.

Regardless of the outcome, the battle will be intense. —Mauricio Rubio

8. Yu Darvish throwing left-handed vs. the Rangers' other lefty relief options (including a surprise)
The Rangers lost a left-handed bullpen arm not a week into spring training, which isn't exactly great news for a team hoping to have left the injury bug in 2014. Though Michael Kirkman is supposedly only out temporarily, this leaves Texas with Martire Garcia (spent a good part of last year suspended, pitched across High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A when not), changeup specialist Alex Claudio, and one-game-in-the-majors new addition Edgar Olmos as the marked-for-relief bullpen lefties.

Of course, since I am a writer with an interest in the absurd, I think there's a choice not involving waiting for Kirkman to heal up or being sensible about acquiring help.

You see, Yu Darvish is known and loved by all as a extremely good right-handed pitcher. He can also throw with his left hand. A left-handed Darvish would give the Rangers their answer to the A's acquisition of Pat Venditte, except you'd get two pitchers for the price of one. Darvish can start—right-handed—on his normal every-five-days schedule. Then, put him into the pen as your designated non-Claudio lefthander, not only giving you a bit of depth, but freeing up a roster spot as well. Additionally, it'd be a great revenue booster for the club: Not only would Darvish nights continue to be top-ticket-sellers, but people would surely shell out to see the novelty of his left-handed pitching.

But wait! I've got one more idea! If you're not hot on double-pitching one of the best starters in the American League, there's another option for the Rangers to consider.

We all saw what Mitch Moreland could do on the mound last year, when the first baseman and former college star showed a 90-plus mph fastball in Colorado.

This becomes another case of killing two birds with one stone. Moreland's natural position is home to a recovered Prince Fielder, he's not shown himself to be particularly adept in the outfield, and he's too young to become a permanent DH. The Rangers really could use some left-handed depth, and this plan doesn't even involve Yu Darvish throwing multiple times a week. Put Mitch Moreland in the bullpen. It's still the beginning of spring training, plenty of time to get the lefty up to speed and into the majors by, say, the end of May.

I mean, ignore the fact that being a platoon player this year may allow Moreland to make the most of his bat (and the prodigious power within). Ignore the fact that there's some worrying injury correlations for conversion jobs. Just think back to that summer night when a position player did this (or, for video evidence, this).

Not that any of this will happen, but that would be quite the spring training competition to watch. —Kate Morrison

9. The career .230 hitter who hits .650 in spring training vs. common sense
This is the position battle that no one is talking about yet, because it hasn't happened yet. But it will. Someone who, up to this point, has been a fringy fifth outfielder for most of his career will have a three-week stretch in spring training where he hits .650 with seven home runs (or some other insane number). And there will be calls for him to be inserted as the team's starting left fielder because last year's left fielder wasn't all that interesting to begin with and is hitting a pedestrian .250 during his spring warm-ups. People will swear that "he's turned the corner"

Let's repeat. Spring training stats mean nothing. Spring training stats mean nothing. Spring training stats mean nothing.

Our surprise guy compiled those stats facing primarily guys who pitched in Triple-A last year and guys who shaking the rust off. Spring Training games, despite what they are sold as, are live practice sessions It doesn't count. The pitcher is out there figuring he just wants to get a feel for his changeup. He's throwing changeups in situations he never would during the regular season. Because it doesn't count. The batter in the batter's box is just a prop he can use. The third baseman is out there because his manager wants to see if he could play there in a #WeirdBaseball game in July. The outfielders, if they already have jobs secured, are running but not running to where they might get hurt. Because it doesn't count. And our surprise guy probably put those numbers up over 50 plate appearances. Hardly a proper sample. Now, the coaches will be watching him closely. If there's something different that he's actually doing, they'll likely pick up on that. But it could just as easily be a small sample size fluke. The point is, in Spring Training, do not watch the stats. Watch the player.

Or just enjoy being in Florida in March while your co-workers are freezing. —Russell A. Carleton

Related Content:  Spring Training,  MLB,  Position Battles,  Job Battles

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