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Chicago Cubs

Key Undecided Roles

Second Base: Ben Zobrist or Javier Baez

Fifth Starter: Mike Montgomery or Brett Anderson

The defending World Series champions enter the 2017 season with few question marks on their roster. One position battle worth watching in Cubs camp is second base. The obvious options are Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez, and both bring different skill sets to the table. Zobrist started at second in 116 games for Chicago a year ago. On the plus side, he’s coming off the third best offensive season of his career by TAv (.306). However, he did finish the season with -10.3 FRAA.

Baez comes with some obvious offensive limitations. He’s done a good job of decreasing his strikeout rate each season, but he’ll likely never have a patient approach at the plate. Over the course of 142 games he racked up 3.9 FRAA, and he’s the best defensive option the Cubs have at the position. The decision really boils down to the kind of lineup Joe Maddon wants to employ. Both will likely see their fair share of playing time, and Zobrist could see some time in the outfield as well.

The other clear question mark for the Cubs is which pitcher will be the fifth starter. Mike Montgomery was acquired by Chicago in July, and he made 17 appearances for the team in the regular season (five starts). Between Seattle and Chicago, he ended the year with a 2.52 ERA (3.54 DRA) over 100 innings of work.

Brett Anderson signed with the Cubs in January after being limited to 11.1 innings with the Dodgers in 2016. He dealt with back, wrist, and finger issues throughout the season, and Anderson’s health has been a major concern throughout his career. He’s shown the ability to be an above-average major league starter, but he’s only pitched more than 100 innings once in eight years.

Cincinnati Reds

Key Undecided Roles

Catcher: Devin Mesoraco or Tucker Barnhart

Third/Fourth/Fifth Starter: Some combination of Tim Adleman, Cody Reed, Robert Stephenson, Luis Castillo, Sal Romano, and Amir Garrett (or Bronson Arroyo…yes, he’s still pitching).

The Reds had to feel confident about Devin Mesoraco following the 2014 season. He had just put together one of the best offensive seasons in baseball at the position. Over 114 games he racked up a .333 TAv to go with 25 HR and 80 RBI. However, it’s all been downhill since that season. Mesoraco has only played in 39 games since the end of the 2014 season. Injuries to his hip and shoulder have kept him off the field, but it looks like he might finally be healthy. If he can catch, he will be the starter in Cincinnati (although the team is sure to be cautious).

Tucker Barnhart received the bulk of the playing time behind the plate last year. On offense he wasn’t a disaster, but he’s shown some clear deficiencies on defense. If Mesoraco can’t go, expect Barnhart to be the starter. Rob Brantly or Stuart Turner could see time as the backup if Mesoraco is forced to the DL.

As of now, Brandon Finnegan and Scott Feldman are the only “sure things” in the Reds rotation. The team’s second-best starter from 2016, Dan Straily, was traded to Miami in January. Homer Bailey has undergone a third surgery on his elbow that will keep him out until June, and Anthony DeSclafani was recently diagnosed with a UCL sprain that will keep him out until at least mid-May. The team needs to fill three starting rotation spots, and there isn’t a clear front runner for any of the positions.

Tim Adleman seems like a safe bet to get some work at the beginning of the season. He started 13 games for the Reds in 2016, and finished with a 4.00 ERA over 69.2 IP. The final two rotation spots could be filled by some combination of Robert Stephenson, Cody Reed, Amir Garrett, Sal Romano, Luis Castillo, or Rookie Davis. Garrett, no. 2 on BP’s Reds Top 10 Prospects list, has impressed this spring. The 24-year-old has struck out nine hitters over 11.1 innings of work. Sal Romano also looks like he could be in line to crack the rotation at the start of the season.

Milwaukee Brewers

Key Undecided Roles

Catcher: Andrew Susac, Manny Pina, or Jett Bandy

Third, Fourth, and Fifth Starter: Some combination of Wily Peralta, Jimmy Nelson, Matt Garza, Chase Anderson, and Tommy Milone

Since 2011, there was a pretty easy answer to the question, “Who is starting at catcher for the Brewers?” Jonathan Lucroy was playing if he was healthy as he was a safe bet to provide positive value at the plate or behind it. However, Milwaukee now finds themselves in a post-Lucroy world, and three players are vying for the spot of starting catcher.

Andrew Susac spent 2014 and 2015 in San Francisco as the backup to Buster Posey. He’s never had more than 148 PA in a season, and he’s recently been dealing with neck stiffness. Manny Pina is a 29-year-old who’s only played in 38 major league games. He’s shown a solid approach at the plate (the results are mixed), but as Ryan Romano writes Pina has significant deficiencies on defense. Jett Bandy appeared in 70 games for the Angels last season. Bandy offers “some pop in the bat,” and he’s been good enough behind the plate to be worth a look this spring.

As of now, Junior Guerra and Zach Davies are locks for the Brewers rotation. Beyond that, there are a lot of question marks. It’s likely that Matt Garza will take one of those empty rotation spots. Garza signed as a free agent with the Brewers prior to the 2014 season. Last year, he started 19 games for Milwaukee and finished with a 4.51 ERA (5.22 DRA). Even with those results, Seth Victor of BP Milwaukee expects him to be in the rotation to help build any trade value he might have.

Peralta has started at least 20 games for the Brewers in each of the past four seasons. He finished with the highest ERA of his career in 2016 (4.86). Peralta really struggled in the first half of the season, and he was eventually sent to Triple-A. He was called back up in August, and had much more success. Nelson has started at least 30 games for the Brewers in each of the past two seasons. His control was an issue last year as his BB/9 rose to 4.32. Not only that, but his K/9 decreased slightly, and his HR/9 jumped over one (1.25) for the first time. Unlike Peralta, Nelson started off well and then stumbled toward the end of the year.

Chase Anderson made 30 starts for Milwaukee after spending two seasons in Arizona’s rotation. The move to Milwaukee did little to help his home run issues (a career 13.2 HR/FB%), and his K/BB hit its lowest mark (2.26). Last season, Milone made 12 starts for the Twins, and the results weren’t pretty. His HR/FB% jumped to 21.4 percent, and he ran a 5.71 ERA. A 6.26 DRA only exacerbated those results.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Key Undecided Roles

Fifth Starter: Tyler Glasnow, Drew Hutchison, and Steven Brault

There really isn’t a major playing time battle among Pittsburgh’s position players. It’s still yet to be seen what will come of Jung Ho Kang’s legal issues, but if he’s available to play he’ll be in the lineup. There is some question about who will fill the fifth starter spot. Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Ivan Nova, and Chad Kuhl appear to have their spots locked up. That leaves three pitchers competing for one open spot in the rotation.

Tyler Glasnow checked in at no. 14 on Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101 Prospects of 2017. He made his major league debut a season ago, and the results were mixed. He showed an ability to strikeout batters (9.26 K/9), but his control was a major issue (5.01 BB/9). Glasnow’s production in Triple-A was better (2.80 DRA), but the walks were still a problem (5.0 BB/9). Eventually, Pittsburgh expects him to be a regular fixture in the rotation, but it’s yet to be seen if that will start this season.

Hutchison started at least 28 games in back-to-back seasons for Toronto (2014 and 2015). Pittsburgh acquired the right hander last year in the Francisco Liriano trade. Hutchison is yet to have an above-average major-league season by ERA+. Last year, he only appeared in nine games at the major-league level, and his performance in Triple-A didn’t inspire much confidence. Brault is a 24-year-old who made his major-league debut a season ago. Prior to being called up, he started 15 games in Triple-A and struck out 10.22 batters per nine. His control was a bit shaky (4.42 BB/9), but so far, he’s looked good this spring. He’s only allowed one earned run in nine innings of work.

St. Louis Cardinals

Undecided Roles

Third Base: Jhonny Peralta or Jedd Gyorko

Fifth Starter: Micahel Wacha or Trevor Rosenthal

The biggest question mark for the Cardinals is what they’re going to do at third base this season. Jhonny Peralta underwent thumb surgery in March that kept him out of action until June. Once he returned, he had his worst offensive season since 2012 (which is understandable given the nature of his injury). Still, he’s put together a track record of 14 seasons of solid production. Over the course of his career he’s racked up 19.2 FRAA.

Competing with Peralta will be Jedd Gyorko. Gyorko bounced around the field in his first season with the Cardinals, and he showed the best power numbers of his career. He ended the season with 30 home runs, but his OBP still left something to be desired (.306). 2016 was the first time he’s accumulated positive FRAA in a season. Gyorko’s ability to be used in a utility role might ultimately be the factor that gives Peralta the starting nod at third.

The Cardinals also appear to have an opening in the starting rotation. Michael Wacha started 24 games for the Cardinals in 2016, but suffered through the worst season of his young major-league career. Over 138 innings, he amassed a 5.09 ERA, and his WHIP rose to 1.478. Part of Wacha’s struggles can be attributed to shoulder issues he suffered through during the season. If he’s healthy, he’s the most likely candidate to win this job. His 13 innings of work are the most by any Cardinals pitcher this spring.

Trevor Rosenthal would have been an unlikely candidate for this role at the start of last season. He spent two full years as the Cardinals closer, but ultimately lost his job to Seung Hwan Oh in 2016. St. Louis determined at the end of last year to try and make Rosenthal a starter. He did get experience as a starter in the minors (2010-2012), but he’s never started a game at the major-league level. Rosenthal also dealt with a shoulder injury last season.