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This is one of my favorite spring columns. Like any baseball fan, I love arguments over the relative merits of players and how teams should be aligning their talent. And each spring, those arguments get played out on fields across Florida and Arizona.

This March brings a fresh batch of players dueling for playing time. I’ve picked out some of the more interesting ones for today’s column.

Reds’ third-base job

Brandon Larson was given this job entering camp last year, only to hit .091/.208/.091 and get demoted before April was done. He’s back this year, after three months of pounding Triple-A pitchers and a torn labrum that cut short a July return to the majors. He’s supposed to be competing for the job this time, along with Tim Hummel and a host of other Reds infielders. Larson bounced back from a strained foot to hit a homer and a double Wednesday, and remains safely ahead of Hummel and Ryan Freel.

Whoever wins the job isn’t likely to have it for long. The Reds’ top prospect is 21-year-old third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, who hit .310/.363/.462 during his second trip to Double-A last summer. He’s a solid defender who is making rapid progress at the plate, and could be ready for the majors as soon as late summer. He’s one of my favorite prospects.

Who should win: Larson. A platoon would be nice, but the Reds have no left-handed-hitting third basemen. Hummel is a different kind of player with less upside and less potential for a 2003-style meltdown.

Who will win: Larson, for at least half a season. Encarnacion is coming hard.

Padres’ shortstop job

On the surface, this is a ridiculous situation. The Padres have a top-tier shortstop prospect in Khalil Greene, who reached the majors last year and hit .215/.271/.400 in September. Over the winter, the team imported veteran ego/LimpBat Rey Ordonez, nominally as an insurance policy. Now, manager Bruce Bochy has put the two in competition with one another for the starting job.

I should be railing at the idea, but it’s only half bad. Employing Ordonez, who can’t hit and whose fielding has always been more style than substance, is a waste of time. But Greene was rushed last season, and his 126 strikeouts against 40 walks last year suggest that he would benefit from some more time at Triple-A. The problem is choosing Ordonez as his stopgap, rather than the adequate Ramon Vazquez. Vazquez can provide a .340 OBP from the left side, and his defense isn’t that much worse than that of Ordonez.

All three players are off to strong starts in limited playing time, which helps Ordonez more than the others. If he can just get some singles to drop in, keeping his average up, he’ll probably assuage enough of Bochy’s concerns about his offense to win the job. Vazquez has no chance to be anything but a reserve, and if Greene loses out, he’ll start the year at Portland.

Who should win: I’d play Greene, but acknowledge that he’s a bit shy of ready by sitting him in favor of Vazquez against tough right-handers. I wouldn’t let Ordonez near Petco Park without a ticket or a broom.

Who will win: Ordonez, in part because the Padres are starting just two above-average defensive players (Sean Burroughs and Ramon Hernandez), and they can perceive themselves to be addressing this with Ordonez.

Rockies’ second-base job

Fun fact: no one who played even an inning at second base for the Rockies last year is in camp with them this year. Vying for the starting job this year are trade pickup Aaron Miles and veteran utility man Damian Jackson.

I like Miles more than I should. He looked like he could be a decent bench player when he was in the White Sox system, with the potential for a David Eckstein-like short peak. However, I think his put-it-in-play batting style (about one strikeout every 10 at-bats) should be helped by the physics of playing at altitude, and could make him a decent three-year solution on the cheap in a place that rewards line drives. (That’s one argument that needs to be reopened, I guess.)

Every effort to make Jackson an everyday player has failed. Now 30, and having established himself as a light-hitting reserve, he seems unlikely to recast himself as an everyday second baseman. He’s a little better than Miles with the glove, and more likely to perform within an expected range of mediocrity with the bat. He’s a safe choice, and one who wouldn’t do anything to help the Rockies surprise in this division.

With both players off to lousy starts (Miles: .222 with a triple; Jackson: .133 with no extra-base hits), it remains anyone’s ballgame.

Who should win: Miles, for the singles and the upside.

Who will win: The first guy to have back-to-back good games. Miles is in the lead.

Expos’ left-field and center-field jobs

Fun fact #2: PECOTA projects the Montreal Expos to lead the National League in runs scored in 2004. That’s partially the result of hitting environments, but it’s also because the Expos should replace a thousand sub-replacement-level at-bats at third base and catcher with adequate performances, and that makes a big difference.

Remaining to be seen is what the outfield will look like. Endy Chavez‘s inability to hit cost him the regular center-field job late in ’03, with Brad Wilkerson sliding over from left field to handle some duties. This year, Chavez is again being given a chance to claim the slot. If Chavez can even hit passably, he’ll hold down the position, because he’s a legitimate center fielder who helps the Expos’ defense considerably. Last year’s .251/.294/.354 wasn’t passable.

Terrmel Sledge is first in line to inherit Chavez’s playing time, and the corner outfielder has actually played some center field this spring. He’d be more likely to play left is he wins some at-bats, with Wilkerson again sliding over to center. Val Pascucci, another promising older hitting prospect, isn’t likely to be a factor this spring. Peter Bergeron had a huge first week of exhibition games, and could push his way into the job if he keeps it up. I don’t think anyone is left in the organization who was burnt by him the last two times.

Who should win: Chavez. As good a hitter as Sledge is, the Expos don’t strike people out and need to be concerned about their outfield defense.

Who will win: Chavez, once he’s healthy (he’s been fighting a stiff neck). It’ll be some combination of Sledge, Wilkerson, Bergeron and perhaps even Juan Rivera until then.

Pirates’ infield jobs

After the Pirates traded for Bobby Hill and Freddy Sanchez last summer, you had to expect it would mean a reasonably productive infield in 2004. Then the team signed Chris Stynes, offered Jack Wilson arbitration, and invited Randall Simon back to play some first base.

Tell me again about revenue disparities.

Now, Hill and Sanchez appear to be competing for just one job, at second base, and neither has been able to play enough in March to lay claim to it. Both players are suffering lingering effects from injuries that ended their ’03 season–Hill his back, and Sanchez his right foot. Prospect Jose Castillo had been getting most of the reps at second base, without doing anything to force himself into the conversation.

Who should win: Hill or Sanchez, with Stynes losing out to the other at third base. Or Wilson losing out at shortstop. One way or another, both should play.

Who will win: Stynes, Wilson and whoever gets healthy first.

Marlins’ catching job

Free Ramon Castro! Well, it could happen, as the loss of Ivan Rodriguez creates an opportunity for the power-hitting backstop. He’s been the team’s #3 catcher for two seasons, behind Mike Redmond, but Castro is much more suited than Redmond for an everyday job. He can hit, and the Marlins, whose offense got a big boost from some surprise performances last year, will need runs in ’04. Redmond isn’t a bad player, just a good #2 catcher who shouldn’t be asked to start 80+ games.

Who should win: Castro.

Who will win: Castro, who’s started the spring like a house on fire. I fully expect Jack McKeon to make yet another correct decision.

Cardinals’ rotation

Rotation battles are never that sexy, as they’re rarely mano-a-mano for one spot, and more often consist of five guys, none of them that exciting, for two jobs.

The Cardinals have an interesting situation, though, with Dan Haren and Chris Carpenter in the running for the #5 slot, and Alan Benes and Jason Simontacchi standing around waiting for a chance. (Adam Wainwright appears to be slated for Triple-A.)

Carpenter threw two innings on Tuesday, his first competitive baseball since the summer of ’02. If his shoulder holds up, he has the inside track on a job. I’m not a big Haren fan; I think he was rushed last year, and needs 15-20 starts in Triple-A to work on his repertoire and approach. If he starts the season in the rotation, he’ll be out of it by July.

Other teams with similar situations at the back of the rotation include the Diamondbacks (Steve Sparks/John Patterson/Andrew Good/Edgar Gonzalez) Giants (Kevin Correia vs. Dustin Hermanson) and Brewers (Chris Capuano vs. Wes Obermueller).

Who should win: Carpenter, as long as he can throw, with Jimmy Journell waiting in the wings.

Who will win: Carpenter, as long as he can throw, with Haren waiting in the wings.

I’m up to 1,600 words and I’m not even out of the National League yet, am I? OK, I’ll pick up some of the AL situations on Monday. Drop me a line if you think I missed an interesting NL battle.

Thank you for reading

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