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This week, let’s take a look at some of the position battles for the teams
in the division, whether the fight is for a starting job or just a spot on
one of the rosters.

Chicago Cubs

For a bad team that won’t be contending, there really isn’t that much up in
the air. Among position players, there are really only three potential
questions.

First, there’s Willie Greene‘s admittedly slender shot at pushing
his way into a platoon role with Shane Andrews at third base. While
it might make sense on paper, the Cubs have already said they’re not
excited by the idea. Greene’s presence as the team’s top left-handed
pinch-hitter makes it that much less likely that Roosevelt Brown
will win a roster spot, which brings us to the second position battle.

While Damon Buford is the center fielder for the time being, the
Cubs have said they want a lefty-hitting center fielder to platoon with
him. Brown can’t really play center, which means that Buford is
shadow-boxing for regular playing time against Ed Lynch’s chances of
acquiring anybody else, such as ex-Baylor Rockie Quinton McCracken,
who has no role with the Devil Rays. By guessing that Brown goes back down
to Iowa to play regularly, that leaves the last three roster spots open. If
Lynch gets his platoon center fielder, that leaves two spots.

One of those jobs will probably go to non-roster invitee Jeff Huson
to back up in the infield. The last roster spot? That should be Chad
Meyers
‘s job to lose, and he’ll win it if he demonstrates the
flexibility to move back and forth between the outfield and second base, in
addition to giving Baylor a pinch-runner. That still leaves a bench short
on middle-infield backups, and also short of power. Meyers might lose out
if Baylor gets twitchy about either weakness, creating a spot for someone
like Chris Hatcher for some sock or Chris Peterson for a
spare glove.

On the pitching side of things, whether there are one or two jobs open in
camp depends on Kerry Wood‘s status. Because it’s still unlikely
that he’ll be ready to go on Opening Day, there’s a battle for the fifth
starter spot. Todd Van Poppel, Micah Bowie, Andrew
Lorraine
and Brian McNichol all have chances. Because the Cubs
are already carrying two left-handed relievers (Felix Heredia and
Mark Guthrie), only Van Poppel will have a good crack at the last
spot in the bullpen, fighting Greg McMichael and Steve Rain
if he loses the fight for the temp job in the rotation.

Cincinnati Reds

Among position players, there’s almost no chance for a job fight at all.
Jack McKeon might decide to split right field among Dmitri Young,
Alex Ochoa and Michael Tucker. It’s within the realm of
possibility that Chris Stynes will lose the 14th position player
roster spot to someone undeserving, like Pine Time Sanders, or to
someone who has a hot camp. While neither Mark Lewis nor Hal
Morris
should be handed jobs, chances are neither of them will have to
sweat challenges from people like D.T. Cromer, Ron Wright or
Brooks Kieschnick for pinch-hitting roles.

While the fourth starter’s slot belongs to Ron Villone–something
that might rightfully be open to question considering Villone’s dominant
performance as a long reliever–the interesting battle is for the fifth
starter job now that Brett Tomko has been traded. A lot of
commentators are jumping on the Mark Portugal bandwagon, but even
when healthy he’s been a disaster for several years.

The remaining candidates include a couple of last year’s bullpen stars,
Dennis Reyes and Gabe White, either of whom could push past
Villone and Steve Parris to be the third-best starter in the
rotation this year. Longer shots are Scott Williamson and Rob
Bell
. The interesting opportunity is that if Williamson opens in the
rotation, Bell might inherit his role in the bullpen.

There are a lot of dark horses: import Elmer Dessens, a rehabbing
Heath Murray, Scott Winchester or Terrell Wade, or
minor-league workhorse Larry Luebbers. They’re all waiting on things
to go badly for the others to create real opportunities for them.

Houston Astros

The fun thing about the Astros’ camp is the extent to which there’s an
interrelationship among all of the position-player roster spots and what
happens in the really big battle for the job in left field between
Daryle Ward and Lance Berkman. The loser of that fight is
going down, but then the remaining roster spots depend on whether or not
Larry Dierker wants to carry a sixth outfielder as a platoon mate and
defensive caddy (either Glen Barker or Matt Mieske), or
whether he’ll want to keep all three of his catchers (Paul Bako,
Tony Eusebio and Mitch Meluskey). I’m guessing Meluskey has
to go back down to start the year.

Russ Johnson is out of options, so chances are he’ll get to win the
job of backing up Tim Bogar at shortstop. In camp, it’ll be
interesting to see whether Adam Everett pushes past Julio
Lugo
for the shortstop job at New Orleans. With Bogar the incumbent, a
good month is going to be enough to stake a claim on the job.

The Astros also have an interesting set of choices for fifth starter and
fifth and sixth relievers. Now that Scott Elarton is going to miss
the first month of the season, Chris Holt should have a firm grip on
the fourth slot. The fifth slot could go to Doc Gooden, but all
concerned would probably be happier if Wade Miller has a good camp
and wins the job. The fifth relief spot will probably go to hard-throwing
Jose Cabrera. The last relief spot could go to any of several
journeymen: Mike Maddux, Rick Huisman, Joe Slusarski,
Kip Gross or even Japanese import Travis Driskill.

Milwaukee Brewers

Similar to the Cub situation: a bad team’s lineup is basically already set.

The Brewers ought to have an open trial at catcher. Henry Blanco
will only inspire memories of the equally ineffective Mike Matheny,
while Tyler Houston can’t hit or catch especially well. Bobby
Hughes
may end up with most of the playing time, if only because he
resembles a major league catcher, while a non-prospect like Robinson
Cancel
has already gotten more attention than he deserves. Creighton
Gubanich
would have been a nifty alternative to give the team a little
bit of offense, but he’s already hurt.

Where the Brewers have more choices than they can sort through is the
rotation. There are few sure things: Steve Woodard, arguably
Jaime Navarro and Jimmy Haynes. After that, Jamey
Wright
, Jason Bere, John Snyder and Juan Acevedo
should all be fighting for the last two spots. Rafael Roque,
Rocky Coppinger and Jeff D’Amico will probably have to settle
for middle-relief jobs, while the organization’s pitcher of the year,
Allen Levrault, will settle for being Indianapolis’s ace. I like
Eric Ludwick as a sleeper, but I’m sort of pig-headed on some guys,
and his shot is slim at best.

The bullpen will start off with Bob Wickman, Curtis Leskanic
and David Weathers, and finish with a mix of leftovers from the
rotation fight. Because of the absence of an established left-handed
reliever, either Valerio De Los Santos or Horacio Estrada
should win a job, and possibly Rule 5 pick Matt Williams.

The journeymen dragged in are an ugly bunch, ranging from Ricardo
Jordan
and David West to Bob Scanlan and Mike
Rossiter
. If you’re an Indianapolis fan, you’re going to see a lot of
guys already intimately familiar with the workings of the International
League.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Bucs have quite a few camp fights, but your level of interest will
reflect your tastes. The big position-player fight will be Chad
Hermansen
‘s drive to convince Cam Bonifay to put Al Martin in
another team’s uniform. Whether or not Aramis Ramirez can finally
slay organizational prejudice and win the-third base job from this year’s
silly alternatives (Jarrod Patterson has struck some folks’ fancy)
remains to be seen. The petty battles will range from an open brawl for
utility-infielder jobs among Abe Nunez, Mike Benjamin,
Luis Sojo, Dale Sveum and Jason Wood. Because of
concerns about Jason Kendall‘s endurance in his post-injury season,
guys like Randy Knorr and Tim Laker may get to push aside
Keith Osik for the caddying job.

On the pitching staff, there’s another open audition for the fifth
starter’s job, with Pete Schourek the early favorite. I’d rather
take a look at Jimmy Anderson until Chris Peters heals, but
the organization would have to live down Bonifay’s poor decision to give
Schourek guaranteed money. Jose Parra is a potential dark horse, but
there isn’t a good opportunity for him going into camp. Scott
Sauerbeck
ought to get some consideration for the rotation, but the
bullpen is so shallow, the Pirates think they need him there.

That bullpen is more open, with only three jobs really sewn up (Mike
Williams
, Jason Christiansen and Sauerbeck). Mike Garcia,
Jeff Wallace and Marc Wilkins should be at the front of the
line to win the remaining jobs, but none of them are guaranteed roster
spots. In camp, Parra, Jason Boyd or even Dave Stevens or
Pep Harris might push them aside. Even then, there are no guarantees
because people like Jose Silva, Mark Leiter and Rich
Loiselle
will be healing as the season stumbles along, creating job
pressures.

St. Louis Cardinals

Tony LaRussa and Walt Jocketty won’t have that many decisions to sort out
in camp. At least 12 position-player roster spots are already sewn up. The
only potential excitement will come in the process of sorting out who will
be the fifth outfielder and last man on the bench. Hacks like Craig
Paquette
, Thomas Howard and Joe McEwing are already
guaranteed jobs, leaving worn-down vets like Brian McRae, Shawon
Dunston
, Ernie Young and Larry Sutton, or a minor-league
vet like Dante Powell, fighting for the last two spots.

The pitching staff is also basically set. There’s nominal competition for
the fifth spot, with Rick Ankiel the easy favorite, and Garrett
Stephenson
and Mark Thompson getting opportunities to push the
kid back down to Memphis. In the bullpen, five spots are already set with
Dave Veres, Scott Radinsky, Mike Mohler, Paul
Spoljaric
and Heathcliff Slocumb. The last spot could go to one
of the non-Ankiel rotation losers, Mike James or John Hudek.
The Cards are talking tough about an improved bullpen, and while I remain
convinced you can always put together a pen out of retreads and no-treads,
this group doesn’t inspire much confidence.