If you’ve been watching the World Baseball Classic, you have probably noticed the lower third ticker that conveniently provides updates on team positional battles. While I would prefer you to get your battle news, um, right here, it has been a useful tool to pass the time between dramatic WBC moments. According to the ticker, there’s a heated competition for the Astros at first base between Yuliesky Gurriel, A.J. Reed, and Tyler White. I would disagree.
Gurriel is going to be the starter, and he’s very likely going to hit. He didn’t set the world on fire in his first stint as a major leaguer, but Gurriel is one of the best hitters to ever come from Cuba and judging him based on 137 plate appearances isn’t very optimal. That said, he has seen some time in the outfield for the Astros, so if post-hype prospect Reed continues to rake in Triple-A, it would be easy to imagine a scenario where Gurriel patrols left field to make room for Reed’s bat in the lineup for 2017, or at least until Papa Smurf, er, Carlos Beltran retires.
Mike Fiers entered the spring with the unenviable role of defending the title “fifth starter” against all comers. Fiers is a perfectly fine fifth starter, but he lacks upside, cracking a 4.00 ERA just once since 2013. He will eat innings, but there’s not much else, as he fanned under a batter per inning last season for only the second time in his six year big league career. Hot on his heels is 24-year-old Joe Musgrove who was solid in his first 62 big league innings. Musgrove is allergic to walks, issuing only 16 free passes last season and never averaging more than 1.2 BB/9 at any minor-league stop since 2012. While Musgrove definitely has a place in the future rotation, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Fiers open the season as the fifth start in an attempt to limit Musgrove’s innings. We will definitely see Musgrove at some point in 2017.
When the Angels acquired Martin Maldonado this winter in one of the most lukewarm stove moves of all time, it was expected that he would be the starting catcher. However manager Mike Scioscia may have other ideas, insisting that Carlos Perez will have every opportunity to break camp as a fixture behind the dish. The decision should be fairly straightforward. Perez had a .198 TAv last season, and can be classified as a very bad hitter. Maldonado is also not great, but he hits “some”, which in this case is enough. In addition, Maldonado has been slightly better behind the plate according to FRAA, eliminating defensive prowess as an argument in Perez’s favor.
Last week, Scioscia emphatically declared that Cameron Maybin would be the starter in left field for the Angels. Case closed, right? For now. It’s probably not a great that the manager has to make an impassioned case for your job this early. It’s very reminiscent of an angry NFL head coach pledging loyalty to the fledgling starter only to toss the keys to the backup the next week. Maybin has been very good over the last two seasons, but he’s never been a beacon of health. If Maybin struggles, or gets hurt, another newly acquired Angel, Ben Revere, could see his playing time increase.
Entering spring, a legit battle for the ninth inning was set to take place for the Halos. Sure, Huston Street was probably going to win, because he’s a Proven Closer (™) and old school managers like that sort of thing, but still. Then Street suffered a lat strain and all bets were off. Neither Cam Bedrosian nor Andrew Bailey has pitched much so far this spring (5 2/3 innings between them), but both are in the running for the closer role. Early indications favor Bedrosian, who was sneaky really good last season, striking out 51 batters in 41 1/3 innings en route to a sparkling 1.12 ERA and 81 cFIP.
Catcher, First Base, Designated Hitter
It feels like the entire A’s organization is one huge roster battle. Stephen Vogt enters the season as the incumbent behind the plate, and he should maintain that role despite being well below average according to FRAA. It’s likely that he could also see time at first base and DH. By all accounts Josh Phegley will start the season as the backup catcher, but he could eventually usurped by 26-year-old Bruce Maxwell who hit .283/.337/.402 last year in 101 plate appearances while also providing average defense. If Maxwell continues to improve, the A’s could even go with Vogt at first base with Maxwell getting most of the reps behind the plate.
Yonder Alonso has never cracked double digit home runs in any big league season, yet he still finds himself as the A’s presumptive first baseman to enter 2017. His defense has been solid, and it needs to be in order to justify keeping the punchless bat in the lineup. Behind Alonso is sophomore sensation (Is sensation too strong? I guess sophomore solid contributor is too bland.) Ryon Healy, who was great in limited action last season, slashing .305/.337/.524. He doesn’t walk much, but he definitely offers the pop that Alonso lacks which should earn him regular reps as the DH to open the year. The true backup could be Mark Canha, who missed the majority of 2016 with injuries. Canha had a nice 2015, with a .270 TAv and .741 OPS, and could see time in the outfield as well.
Jed Lowrie will probably begin at the keystone on Opening Day, and actually was slightly above average defensively last season. His power numbers went from “some” to “none”, however, so he definitely isn’t the long term answer. Journeyman Adam Rosales tinkered with his swing last season, resulting in production that Tim “The Toolman” Taylor would be proud of (because more power, get it?). Rosales hit more homers last year than he did in the previous five seasons combined. He should be able to fill in during the inevitable Lowrie injury, and he could also spell guys at any infield spot. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see Joey Wendle or Chad Pinder get some run at second base during the season.
The A’s rotation battle looked a little murkier just a few short weeks ago. Injuries to Sonny Gray and Daniel Mengden have opened up starting spots that will probably be filled by Andrew Triggs and Jesse Hahn. Triggs had started only one minor league game in his career before being thrust into a starting role for the A’s last season, and he was pretty good in six starts striking out 22 batters while walking only one in 25.2 innings. Triggs offers some serious deep league potential now that his rotation spot looks a little more secure. For Hahn, it’s always been about health. Injuries derailed two separate breakout campaigns in 2014 and 2015, and though he managed over 112 innings last season between Triple-A and the big leagues, he wasn’t particularly impressive. Hopefully a full season of health can get him back into his 2014 form.
Ryan Madson saved 30 games for the A’s last season and was perfectly fine in the role. He didn’t strike many hitters out and his 1.28 WHIP was the highest in his career since he converted to a full-time reliever. Madson will be pushed by Sean Doolittle and Santiago Casilla. While both have some experience in the role, Doolittle offers more promise. After battling injuries for the better part of two years, Doolittle’s velocity started to come back as last season progressed. He finished the season with 10.4 K/9 to go along with a 3.23 ERA in 44 appearances. If Doolittle can continue to find his 2014 magic, he’s going to be manning the ninth for Oakland (or a contender) sooner rather than later.
General Manager Jerry DiPoto emerged from his offseason laboratory with a deeper and yet more defined roster than he inherited. One of the few position battles features some DV vs. DV competition at first base. In all likelihood, Dan Vogelbach and Danny Valencia will share time at the cold corner in a straight platoon. That said, even though Valencia has been productive in this type of role, he has also shown a propensity to wear out his welcome rather quickly. Vogelbach is much better against righties, but his career .256 batting average against southpaws in the minor leagues could make him playable at least in an eventual full-time role.
Former top prospect Jurickson Profar wasn’t great last season, but he was healthy enough to stay on the field, albeit in a limited role. It was obviously a step in the right direction. Last year he saw time at every infield position, as well as left field, and graded out as basically an average defender. While Profar, a switch-hitter, doesn’t need a platoon partner by definition, he hit much better against right-handed pitching.
Profar’s potential deficiencies against lefties could make either Delino DeShields, Jr. or Ryan Rua a natural platoon partner. DeShields battled ineffectiveness for most of the year after a solid 2015 campaign, but he was on his way to turning it around in the second half, hitting .255/.321/.431 before an ice cold September and October sunk his season. Rua has struggled with injuries and strikeouts for the past two seasons, but did hit .284/.353/.441 last year against lefties.
Speaking of strikeouts, lurking in the battle for playing time is former uber prospect Joey Gallo. Gallo has been really bad thus far in his young big league career, but hasn’t gotten much of an extended run, compiling only 153 major league plate appearances in two seasons. He strikes out all the time, but did make some slight improvements last year, whittling his strikeout rate down to 34.6 percent in Triple-A (I agree, this is still not great). If Gallo can somehow find a way to only strike out around 30 percent of the time, he will be a serious power option for the Rangers, whether it be in left field, third base, first base, or DH.
Shin-Soo Choo could also patrol left field for the Rangers in stints, but it is more likely that he will spend the majority of his time as the team’s DH.