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February 11, 2013

Overthinking It

Spring Position Battles, American League

by Ben Lindbergh

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General managers put most of their roster pieces in place by the time pitchers and catchers report, but the majority of major-league teams still show up at spring training with a position or two where plans aren’t set in stone. What their depth charts will look like on Opening Day depends in part on what transpires over the next two months. Who’ll show up in better shape? Who’ll convince the manager that he wants it more? And yes, who’ll have a couple weeks of hot hitting, even if history has shown that spring training performance isn’t predictive of regular-season success?

The following five American League contenders have questions about the division of labor at one or more positions that need to be answered by the time they break camp. Here’s how those positions should shake out. (We'll tackle the National League on Tuesday.)

Detroit Tigers, Left Field
Brennan Boesch vs. Andy Dirks
Dirks hit .322/.370/.487 in left last season; Boesch hit .240/.286/.372 in right, where he’s been displaced by Torii Hunter. Those stats would seem to make this a clear-cut case, but PECOTA’s offensive projections for the pair are comparatively close, and Jim Leyland has indicated that Boesch will have a chance to compete for a starting role.
Who should win? Dirks. Both hitters are left-handed, and neither has shown any platoon split to speak of at the major-league level, so this isn’t a problem a platoon would solve. Dirks’ recent success and Boesch’s issues with impatience make Dirks both the better and the more likely choice. The Tigers also have potential position battles at closer, where rookie Bruce Rondon needs to prove he has the control to be a closer, and at the back of the rotation, where Rick Porcello will probably prevail over Drew Smyly.

Oakland Athletics, Second Base
Grant Green vs. Scott Sizemore vs. Adam Rosales vs. Jemile Weeks

According to manager Bob Melvin, the starter at second will be the winner of an “open competition” between Weeks, who followed a strong 2011 rookie season with a disastrous sophomore slump that busted him back to Triple-A, and Sizemore, who missed all of 2012 after tearing his ACL last spring. Prospect Grant Green and utility guy Adam Rosales have an outside chance to work their way into the mix. The A’s acquisition of Jed Lowrie earlier this week raised the stakes even higher, since his presence means there will be fewer at-bats to go around elsewhere in the infield.
Who should win? Sizemore. The A’s have a lot of emotional capital (not to mention a sizeable signing bonus) invested in Weeks, a former first-round pick, but they’ll be wary of commitment after being burned when his bat went backwards last season. The real Weeks lies somewhere in the middle of the models we saw in the past two seasons, but PECOTA projects Sizemore to be a better, above-average bat. If he shows that his knee can handle the strain of everyday play, he’ll likely receive the lion’s share of the early-season starts.

New York Yankees, Catcher
Chris Stewart vs. Francisco Cervelli vs. Austin Romine
Scan the names, and this looks like a battle between backup catchers. Such is the state of the Yankees’ starting catcher competition in the post-Russell Martin era, which includes only rookies and career second-stringers.
Who should win? Stewart. The veteran excels at framing pitches, which allowed him to save his staff 13 runs in under 400 innings behind home plate last season. That goes a long way toward making up for his offensive inadequacies, and since neither Cervelli nor Romine is a safe bet to be much better with the bat, Stewart’s glove gives him an edge. Cervelli has a solid shot to break camp as the backup, assuming his ties to Biogenesis don’t become a bigger story , but Romine is a threat to unseat either player at some point this season if he proves he’s fully recovered from the back issues that sidelined him in 2012.

Texas Rangers, Center Field
Craig Gentry vs. Leonys Martin

Josh Hamilton’s departure left a glaring hole in center field for Texas, and they’ve thus far resisted any temptation to replace him with Michael Bourn. Instead, they’ll try to cobble together an in-house solution with Gentry, last year’s understudy in center, and Martin, the 24-year-old Cuban rookie who tore up Triple-A last season but has only 60 subpar big-league plate appearances to his name.
Who should win? Martin. According to a recent report by Rangers beat writer T.R. Sullivan, Ron Washington views Martin as “raw and unpolished, especially on the defensive end.” The rookie’s work with outfield instructor Gary Pettis should help, but he’s unlikely to be better with the glove than Gentry, who might be one of the best defenders in baseball. However, Martin has the higher offensive upside—PECOTA projects a .265 TAv, compared to .248 for Gentry—and as a left-handed hitter, he’ll match up well with more opposing starters. Barring a big difference in spring training stats, neither player is truly likely to “win,” since the odds are that this will be a straight platoon. The real winner might be the Rangers, who stand to get solid production from the pair at a fraction of the cost of a high-priced free agent.

Toronto Blue Jays, Second Base
Emilio Bonifacio vs. Maicer Izturis

The Jays will replace Kelly Johnson at the keystone with some combination of their two switch-hitting, multi-position-playing, offseason infield acquisitions.  Both players are used to filling in all over the field, and neither has started more than 64 games at second in any single season, but one of them is likely to top that total in 2013.
Who should win? Izturis. Based on early indications, both Alex Anthopoulos and John Gibbons prefer the player who’ll be making more money (Izturis). But forget the salaries: the stats support their preference, too. Both players can take a walk, and Bonifacio has better speed, but Izturis makes more contact, has superior power, and is also a stronger defender.

Thanks to Jason Martinez for research assistance.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  American League,  Position Battles

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