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March 7, 2014

Painting the Black

Spring Flings

by R.J. Anderson

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With the first week of the exhibition season in the books, teams now have less than a month before their Opening Day rosters are due. Most clubs have an open spot or two up for grabs, typically in the bullpen or off the bench, but a few are staging auditions of greater importance this spring. Here are 10 intriguing positional battles along with a prediction of who we believe ought to win the jobs.

Arizona Diamondbacks, Shortstop
Didi Gregorius vs. Chris Owings
Gregorius, the prize of the Trevor Bauer trade, opens his sophomore season in Arizona with his second spring competition. Last season he started hot then stalled around midseason, batting just .207/.314/.314 after the All-Star break. Once September rolled around the D'Backs split playing time between the young shortstops, with Owings providing an offensive spark.

Who should win? Owings. Gregorius' second-half fade obscures his status as a decent starting option. Despite the offensive struggles, he remained a solid defender who performed fairly against right-handed pitching. Still, Owings profiles as the better hitter—even if PECOTA suggests otherwise—and possesses enough defensive ability to avoid giving the advantage back in the field. Kevin Towers has made overtures about a potential shortstop-for-catcher trade this spring, so whoever finishes second could be on his way out of town.

Baltimore Orioles, Second Base
Ryan Flaherty vs. Jonathan Schoop vs. Jemile Weeks
After losing Brian Roberts to free agency, and failing to close a trade for Daniel Murphy, the Orioles will turn to an unproven talent to fill their second-base hole.

Who should win? Weeks. Schoop needs additional time on the farm, leaving Weeks to scrap with Flaherty for the spot. A former Rule 5 pick, Flaherty served as Baltimore's primary second baseman last season during Roberts' absence. His expansive defensive history and so-so offensive game suggests he fits on a roster best as a super-utility type. Weeks is a slightly better hitter, according to PECOTA, and could benefit from a fresh slate following two disappointing seasons in Oakland. Dan Duquette had Flaherty on the roster when he traded for Weeks, which could hint at how he ranks the players.

Chicago Cubs, Third Base
Mike Olt vs. Luis Valbuena
The Cubs have Javier Baez and Kris Bryant on the way, but need someone to man the position in the interim.

Who should win? Olt. The onetime top prospect had a forgettable 2013 thanks to concussion- and vision-related woes. Those issues are reportedly behind Olt, providing hope that the 25-year-old can regain his lost luster. When right, the Connecticut native provides defense, power, and strikeouts in spades. He won't develop into an all-star-caliber player, but he could become a trade chip in the near future, making it important for the Cubs to find out what they have. For now, Olt just needs to be an upgrade over Valbuena—author of a respectable 2013, albeit one more desirable from a bench player.

Chicago White Sox, Left Field
Alejandro De Aza vs. Dayan Viciedo
Rick Hahn remade two-thirds of the White Sox outfield last year through trades: first acquiring Avisail Garcia in a three-team deal, then adding Adam Eaton during the offseason. The final piece could come as a result of a trade as well, with both Viciedo and De Aza garnering interest from other teams.

Who should win? De Aza. Viciedo is younger and has the highest offensive ceiling, yet he is the inferior player based on expected production. The 30-year-old De Aza is a better fielder and baserunner, and has outperformed Viciedo at the plate in each of his first two seasons with Chicago—PECOTA anticipates the streak will increase to three, albeit narrowly. Expect Hahn to field plenty of calls concerning De Aza heading into the season, with a fair chance he parts with his ex-leadoff hitter.

Houston Astros, Closer
Matt Albers vs. Josh Fields vs. Chad Qualls
A battle with more relevancy in fantasy leagues than the real world. Whoever wins the ninth-inning job in spring might lose it whenever Jesse Crain returns from the disabled list.

Who should win? Qualls. Though the resurgent Qualls has not saved a game since June 2010, he should get the nod to begin the year thanks to refined mechanics and the best individual season of the trio. Fields assumed the ninth for the Astros late last season following the Jose Veras trade, and at times looked the part due to his fastball-curveball combination. His wildness and extreme fly-ball tendencies limit his reliability, however, and he profiles better as a set-up man. Albers is nearly the inverse: batters seldom lift his pitches, but he doesn't miss enough bats to close.

Miami Marlins, Fourth and Fifth Starters
Brian Flynn vs. Brad Hand vs. Andrew Heaney vs. Tom Koehler vs. Jacob Turner
Miami spent the offseason assembling a veteran-laden lineup, yet their rotation will consist of all young or otherwise inexperienced starters.

Who should win? Turner and Koehler. Process of elimination points to Turner and Koehler reprising their roles as back-end starters. Hand and Flynn have low ceilings and failed to perform well during past stays in the majors, while Heaney has just six starts above Double-A under his belt. Koehler is boring and Turner is frustrating, but at the moment they represent the best choices for the Marlins.

New York Mets, First Base
Ike Davis vs. Lucas Duda
Nothing occurred after a winter of Davis-related trade rumors, forcing the Mets to run another first-base competition. By adding Curtis Granderson and Chris Young this winter, the Mets ensured they could not slide Duda to a corner-outfield spot, as they had done in the past. That means the winner gets the cold corner, and the loser gets left in the cold.

Who should win? Duda. Sandy Alderson seems to prefer Duda, anonymous scouts seem to prefer Duda, yet PECOTA prefers Davis. The margin is slim—four points of True Average—but there are other valid reasons to prefer Ike, such as his better glove and younger birth year. Perhaps a team in need of an upgrade at first base—ahem, Pittsburgh—decides to pull the trigger and end the competition before the Mets have weighed in.

Pittsburgh Pirates, First Base
Travis Ishikawa vs. Andrew Lambo vs. Chris McGuiness vs. Gaby Sanchez
The Pirates have two decisions to make this spring about their first-base situation: 1) Do they want Sanchez to play daily? And, if not, 2) Who would they prefer as his dance partner?

Who should win? Sanchez and Lambo. Allowing Sanchez to play everyday would go against what Pittsburgh has done in the past. Instead, the Pirates seem likely to pick the best of the three left-handed choices. Both Lambo and McGuiness are on the 40-man roster already, giving them a leg up on the journeyman Ishikawa. PECOTA considers the pair equal, but Lambo's power potential and ability to play the corner outfield could serve as the x-factors.

Seattle Mariners, Shortstop
Nick Franklin vs. Brad Miller
Franklin was considered the better prospect entering last season, but fell behind Miller thanks to the latter's successful debut. For as much as this competition feels like a shell game due to the trade rumors surrounding Franklin, the Mariners continue to promote the shortstop job as an open contest. Willie Bloomquist is the club's utility man, so the loser will head to Tacoma (or perhaps another team).

Who should win? Miller. Sometimes these decisions come down to the best fit. The Mariners need a shortstop, and last season Miller showed he can play tolerable defense there. Franklin can't (due in part to a fringe arm), which leaves him as the odd-man out. Even if the two were considered offensive equals—and PECOTA favors Miller by a fair margin—the defensive edge gives Miller the nod.

Tampa Bay Rays, Fifth Starter
Erik Bedard vs. Alex Colome vs. Nathan Karns vs. Jake Odorizzi vs. Cesar Ramos
Jeremy Hellickson's absence means the Rays will have either an unproven youngster or an unexciting veteran starting every fifth game through May.

Who should win? Bedard. Neither Colome nor Karns is a serious candidate, leaving Bedard, Odorizzi, and Ramos as the remaining combatants. The Rays never rush young arms to satisfy short-term needs, so while Odorizzi is the most exciting of the trio, he could be headed to Durham to work on his command. Ramos is a versatile southpaw, but he might fit best in the bullpen. That leaves Bedard; he's not good, or particularly interesting, yet he can give Joe Maddon five innings each time out until Hellickson returns.

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

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