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Update on each club's top position battle

@mattkellyMLB and @MannyOnMLB
March 12, 2019

As we get closer to the 2019 regular season, it's a good time to check in on position battles around MLB. There are several intriguing competitions taking place during Cactus League and Grapefruit League play, from top prospects making bids to earn spots on their clubs' Opening Day rosters, to

As we get closer to the 2019 regular season, it's a good time to check in on position battles around MLB. There are several intriguing competitions taking place during Cactus League and Grapefruit League play, from top prospects making bids to earn spots on their clubs' Opening Day rosters, to entire outfield configurations that need to be sorted out. Updated from our initial look at the beginning of Spring Training, here's the latest on the most interesting position battle(s) for each team around baseball.

AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST

Blue Jays: Left field

The battle between Tesocar Hernandez and Billy McKinney could wind up as a stalemate of sorts, as MLB.com’s Gregor Chisholm reported that the Blue Jays are leaning toward employing them in a platoon split as opposed to sending one of those players down to Triple-A. General manager Ross Atkins told MLB.com on Friday that he’s seen encouraging signs from both players.

“The biggest thing with Teo is how good his at-bats have been; not trying to do too much,” said Atkins. “McKinney is just another guy that everyone just loves to watch play, easy to pull for and plays as hard as any young player you’ll see."

Atkins added that while it’s hard to judge defense in Spring Training, Hernandez’s play-to-play routines in the outfield “seem to have improved” in camp. The Dominican native has showed plenty of pop in the big leagues, but he’s looking to avoid being pigeonholed as a designated hitter.

Front-runner: Hernandez

Orioles: Right field

This race still appears to be wide open. MLB.com’s Joe Trezza reports that Joey Rickard has outplayed DJ Stewart to this point of camp, but Austin Hays had also slashed .321/.345/.750 with three homers through Sunday’s Spring Training action. Even Anthony Santander has forced his way into the mix with a spring OPS hovering near 1.500.

Mark Trumbo (knee) could open the season on the injured list, meaning one more spot could open up if Trumbo’s injury moves Trey Mancini to designated hitter. In the meantime, Mancini will occupy left and Cedric Mullins seems to have a hold on the center-field job, meaning these four players -- all of whom have big league experience -- are likely competing for one spot.

Front-runners: Rickard, Hays

Rays: Bullpen

The Rays’ best race going into camp appeared to be the three-way competition between Ji-Man Choi, Yandy Diaz and Brandon Lowe at first base. But Matt Duffy’s hamstring injury means Diaz is seeing more time at his natural position over at third, and all three players will likely make the team.

That means the most intrigue in Tampa likely lies in the team’s bullpen, thanks in part to the club’s tactics. Manager Kevin Cash plans on using two bullpen days per every turn through the rotation, so he and the Rays’ front office will be looking for relievers who can flourish in multiple roles. Particular focus is being paid to the “bulk guy”, aka the pitcher who follows the opener and gives the Rays three to five innings before the club shifts to their back-end options.

There are plenty of candidates for that role, including Jalen Beeks, Yonny Chirinos, Jake Faria, Wilmer Font, Andrew Moore, Austin Pruitt and Ryan Yarbrough. Chirinos and Yarbrough are near-locks, while Font is out of options and pitched well after his trade to Tampa Bay last season. That likely leaves Beeks and Faria battling for the final spot.

Front-runners: Font, Faria

Red Sox: Catcher

Three catchers. Two spots. The Royals’ need for catching depth in the wake of Salvador Perez’s Tommy John surgery places further emphasis on Boston’s backstop battle since one of the Red Sox’s three catchers is likely to be moved before Opening Day.

Blake Swihart has hit well in camp while Christian Vazquez has struggled, though Sandy Leon’s defensive reputation could make him the most desirable trade piece. But one could also argue that Swihart’s upside represents the highest trade value of the trio. With little determined, this competition remains one to watch.

Front-runners: Swihart, Vazquez

Yankees: First base

Manager Aaron Boone raised the stakes Thursday when he said it was “tough for me to envision us having two first basemen” on the Yankees’ Opening Day roster. Boone and general manager Brian Cashman stated that Voit had “a leg up” at the start of camp, and the Missouri native had carried much of his late-season surge into camp with a .970 OPS and two homers through Sunday. But Bird has also put together “terrific” at-bats, in the words of Boone, and has also been red-hot in Grapefruit League action.

Both players’ limited defensive versatility means that the loser of this matchup will almost certainly begin the season in Triple-A. Their handedness (Bird bats lefty; Voit is a righty) is not a big factor in New York’s decision, according to Boone.

Front-runner: Voit

AL CENTRAL

Indians: Left field

The signing of Hanley Ramirez produced some ripple effects across the rest of the Tribe’s roster. If he makes the team as a designated hitter, Carlos Santana would likely slot in at first base, leaving a competition primarily between Jake Bauers and Greg Allen in left. Cleveland traded for Bauers with confidence in his bat, so it would make sense that the club would want to see him in the lineup even while he’s still polishing his outfield defense. But Allen has impressed in camp and doesn’t appear to be handing the starting spot over easily. Veterans Tyler Naquin, Matt Joyce, Trayce Thompson and trade acquisition Jordan Luplow are all waiting in the wings.

Front-runner: Bauers

Royals: Bullpen

The Royals’ outfield situation is a little more clear since Brian Goodwin is out of options and will likely get the call over Jorge Bonifacio and Brett Phillips. So attention turns to the back of Kansas City’s bullpen -- especially the final three slots. Veteran Drew Storen is being stretched out for a longman role, while Kevin McCarthy has seemingly surged ahead of Brian Flynn. Kyle Zimmer represents a great feel-good story at camp after he recovered his velocity during the offseason at Driveline Baseball, while righty Josh Staumont impressed with a 1.69 ERA before a rough outing Sunday. Southpaw Richard Lovelady, the Royals’ 16th-ranked prospect per MLB Pipeline, has impressed in camp. So has non-roster invite Michael Ynoa. This race should be wide open as camp winds down.

Front-runners: McCarthy, Zimmer

Tigers: Final rotation spots

Josh Harrison’s signing cleared up question marks at second base, likely pushing Niko Goodrum into a super-utility role where he could provide a lot of value. With the Tigers’ lineup more or less set, attention turns to the back of Detroit’s rotation. Offseason signing Matt Moore (2-1, 3.97 ERA) has had an up-and-down spring and Tyson Ross (0-3, 13.50) has been largely ineffective in Grapefruit League action, but so has incumbent Daniel Norris (0-1, 7.36). So, whoever is able to take a step forward between now and Opening Day will likely separate himself for Detroit’s fourth and fifth slots.

Front-runners: Ross, Moore

Twins: 25th roster spot

Ehire Adrianza (out of options) and Willians Astudillo still seem like probable roster candidates based on their versatility -- particularly with Astudillo’s ability to spell Jason Castro behind the plate from time to time. But infielder Ronald Torreyes is making a legitimate push and could get a boost from his revered clubhouse presence, while Tyler Austin, another former Yankee, has power that can play in any ballpark. Righty Matt Magill could take advantage of an early spot in the back of Minnesota’s bullpen if the club chooses to stash Fernando Romero until mid-April, and outfielder Michael Reed is hanging around as well. This could come down to how many relievers the Twins prefer to carry on Opening Day.

Front-runners: Adrianza, Astudillo

White Sox: Bullpen

Chicago probably has five near-locks in its bullpen mix in Alex Colome, Kelvin Herrera, Nate Jones, Jace Fry and Ian Hamilton, assuming everyone is healthy. If the team takes eight relievers, then there should be a good battle for those final three spots between Manny Banuelos, Caleb Frare, Dylan Covey, Juan Minaya and Carson Fulmer. Banuelos and Covey are in the fifth starter’s mix with Ervin Santana, while Banuelos and Minaya are out of options. The team certainly will need a second southpaw to pair with Fry, as well as a long reliever.

Front-runners: Banuelos, Frare, Fulmer

AL WEST

Angels: Second base

Second base remains David Fletcher’s to lose, but he’s getting a good push from Luis Rengifo, the club’s No. 7 prospect. Zack Cozart’s left calf strain could put him on the injured list on Opening Day, so the battle is really down to these two players.

Front-runner: Fletcher

Astros: Fifth starter

A three-man race for this spot became two once flamethrower Josh James suffered a quad injury, but starter-reliever hybrid Brad Peacock and rookie Framber Valdez are still competing for the final slot. Valdez impressed in his 2018 cup of coffee, posting one of the Majors’ best soft-contact rates in a small sample, but Peacock’s experience from starting for the bulk of the summer for the 2017 World Series champions figures to be the difference-maker.

Front-runner: Peacock

Athletics: Fifth starter

Oakland’s rotation was as wide open as any club in baseball when the offseason began, and the club has filled some of those spots by signing Brett Anderson, Marco Estrada and Mike Fiers. Righty Daniel Mengden was in the running for the fourth spot in the rotation, but he was optioned to Triple-A Las Vegas on Monday.

Fighting for the final two spots in the rotation, Chris Bassitt, Aaron Brooks and Frankie Montas are all in contention -- as is top prospect Jesus Luzardo, who can’t be counted out. Minor League options will likely decide the outcome, meaning Brooks and Montas could have an advantage if the A’s are afraid of losing them to the waiver wire.

Front-runners: Brooks, Montas

Mariners: First base

Edwin Encarnacion has played more first base than many expected this spring, to the point where he looks like he could be the Opening Day starter and the more defensively-limited Daniel Vogelbach will slot in at designated hitter. Ryon Healy would have been the odd man out because he has Minor League options remaining and could have started the year with Triple-A Tacoma. But Kyle Seager's impending wrist surgery opened up a spot for Healy at third base, where he'll now fill in at least through April.

Front-runner: Encarnacion

Rangers: Fourth outfielder

This spot remains a mystery because it’s unclear whether Texas will carry an extra reserve outfielder or opt instead to employ a utility infielder or an eighth reliever for its opener against the Cubs. Hunter Pence hasn’t logged any innings in the outfield while dealing with a right shoulder injury, meaning Willie Calhoun could have the inside track.

Front-runner: Calhoun

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST

Braves: Bench

The primary roster question for the Braves is whether they will carry Adam Duvall as a bench player again this year. Duvall had a pair of 30-plus home run seasons in 2016 and ‘17 while with the Reds, and is considered an above-average outfielder. But he struggled after a trade to Atlanta last year, hitting just .132 with a .344 OPS in 57 plate appearances for the Braves down the stretch.

Though he started off the spring slow, Duvall broke out for a two-homer performance last Sunday, keeping him on the roster. The question remains, however, whether Duvall will make it a real turnaround, or regress again to the point where Atlanta may have to look externally for a fourth outfielder. Even with the big game Sunday, Duvall is 4-for-21 (.190) during Grapefruit League play.

Marlins: Shortstop

Miguel Rojas' versatility created enough playing opportunities for himself and JT Riddle at shortstop in 2018. But the final three weeks of Spring Training will likely determine if the club settles on just one. The way things are looking at the moment, the choice would be Rojas, who is hitting .450 (9-for-20). Riddle is hitting .111 (3-for-27) with a home run.

Last year, Rojas played in 153 games, but moved around to third base, second and was a late-inning defensive replacement at first. Riddle, who played in 103 games, opened the year on the injured list as he recovered from shoulder surgery. Riddle hits left-handed, and posted a .707 OPS vs. right-handers, whereas Rojas’ OPS against righties was .647, making a platoon situation plausible.

Front-runner: Rojas

Mets: First base

The battle in Mets camp for a roster spot at first base is one of the most intriguing in the Majors this spring, with No. 2 prospect Pete Alonso and fellow prospect Dominic Smith each raking at the plate, and veteran Todd Frazier currently dealing with an oblique injury.

Alonso has been blistering hot at the plate, so far hitting .414 with three doubles and three homers in 10 games. Smith isn’t far behind, hitting .423 with a double and a homer in 10 games. Depending on whether Frazier can get some reps at first base, his presumed position now that the club has Jed Lowrie at third, or is on the injured list come Opening Day, we could see any combination of two of these three players.

Front-runners: Alonso, Smith

Phillies: Center field

With the addition of superstar Bryce Harper, the Phillies’ surplus in outfielders is the main focus regarding roster construction this spring. Fellow newcomer Andrew McCutchen will play regularly in left field, with Harper in right. The question is: Who will be the starting center fielder on Opening Day?

Odubel Herrera, Roman Quinn, Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams are the candidates. Herrera has the best track record, with 59 homers, 54 steals and a 104 OPS+ over four seasons with Philadelphia. He’s currently sidelined with a hamstring injury, but manager Gabe Kapler is optimistic he’ll be ready for Opening Day.

Quinn is also injured, dealing with a mild right oblique strain. He’s only appeared in two Grapefruit League games, going 2-for-5 with a pair of singles. Quinn and Altherr are out of options. Altherr had a strong campaign in 2017, but struggled offensively last season. Still, he is a very good defensive outfielder, and can play all three spots.

There’s been speculation that Williams would be traded after the Harper signing, particularly because he profiles best as a corner outfielder, but according to MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki, it doesn’t appear the Phils are shopping any of their outfielders at the moment.

Front-runner: Herrera

Nationals: Utility players

With the question of Washington’s fifth starter all but answered, as Jeremy Hellickson has pitched well this spring and is a virtual lock for the rotation, the focus shifts to whom the Nats will carry as utility players. It was initially thought that veteran Howie Kendrick and Wilmer Difo would lock down the two spots, but that was recently thrown into doubt given Kendrick’s health and Difo’s spring performance thus far.

Kendrick, who had Achilles surgery last May and will be entering his age-35 season, has a mild hamstring strain, but MRI results indicated that was all, and manager Dave Martinez expects him to be ready for Opening Day. Difo, meanwhile, is just 5-for-22 (.227) at the plate during Grapefruit League play. That opens the door for Adrian Sanchez, who is also 5-for-22 (.227) this spring but with a pair of doubles. Washington is trying to convert Sanchez into a super-utility player.

Front-runners: Kendrick, Difo

NL CENTRAL

Brewers: Rotation

Entering Spring Training, there were several starting rotation spots up for grabs. The picture has become a bit more clear since, with Chase Anderson and Zach Davies likely slotted in at Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, by virtue of their experience, and Brandon Woodruff likely taking the fourth slot. Jimmy Nelson experienced forearm discomfort that set him back a few days, meaning Corbin Burnes would be Milwaukee’s fifth starter if Nelson isn’t ready by Opening Day.

Then there is the wild card of free agency, with left-handers Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez still on the market. All that being said, the Brewers actively manage their pitching staff, meaning we will likely see several others make starts in 2019.

Front-runner: Burnes

Cardinals: Outfield

Dexter Fowler is the presumed favorite in right field, with the Cardinals hoping he can bounce back from a career-worst season at the plate in 2018. So far, he hasn’t shown signs of beginning that trek back to productivity, hitting .136 (3-for-22) with a double. Jose Martinez was St. Louis’ most consistent offensive player last season, so he’s a virtual lock to be, at minimum, the fourth outfielder.

Marcell Ozuna and Harrison Bader figure to be the other two starters in the outfield, but there are some question marks there as well -- Ozuna has to prove his shoulder will be strong enough to play in the field come Opening Day, and Bader is just 3-for-22 (.136) this spring.

Beyond that, Tyler O’Neill has belted four home runs in nine games this spring, putting him into Opening Day roster consideration after having a solid 61-game stretch as a rookie last year, posting an .803 OPS with nine homers. The question then becomes: Will the Cardinals consider going with a seven-man bullpen in order to carry O’Neill on the roster?

Front-runners: Ozuna, Bader, Fowler

Cubs: Bullpen

The biggest question mark for the Cubs remains how the bullpen will shake out, with the main focus being on whether Tyler Chatwood or Tony Barnette will be part of the relief corps on Opening Day. Chatwood is being stretched out as a starter and wants to pitch in that role, but the rotation is currently set with Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana.

Chatwood has pitched well this spring, posting a 2.25 ERA over three outings (one start), walking only one while striking out five. It remains to be seen whether he’ll be a starter (should one of the current starters be injured), a reliever, or with another club come Opening Day. That will likely determine whether Barnette, who has given up three runs in two outings (13.50 ERA) this spring, nabs the eighth spot in the bullpen.

Front-runner: Chatwood

Pirates: Shortstop

Shortstop remains up for grabs between two internal candidates, Kevin Newman and Erik Gonzalez. Gonzalez may be the favorite given his superior glove, but although it’s nothing to write home about, Newman has hit better so far this spring, batting .211 with a double compared to Gonzalez’s .150 with a homer.

Front-runner: Gonzalez

Reds: Center field

When the Reds non-tendered Billy Hamilton last offseason, the semi-surprising move left a vacancy in center field. Cincinnati acquired outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp as part of a blockbuster deal with the Dodgers, but those two profile as corner outfielders, and new manager David Bell has indicated Puig will mostly play in right. Jesse Winker will likely get the bulk of the playing time in left.

So the center-field job looks to be a competition between Scott Schebler and No. 6 overall prospect Nick Senzel, who is learning the position after being developed as an infielder. So far, so good for Senzel, who has acquitted himself well there this spring. He’s also been very good at the plate, hitting .389 (7-for-18) with three doubles over six games. Schebler has been hitting well, too, batting .357 with a homer in nine Cactus League games.

Still, it may be Senzel’s job to lose at this point given that Schebler has mostly played right field thus far in his career, and the Reds made some significant moves to improve their roster over the offseason, signalling the intent to be competitive right away.

Front-runner: Senzel

NL WEST

D-backs: Closer

Archie Bradley appeared to be the de facto closer before Arizona inked Greg Holland, and the two have been in competition for the role heading into the regular season. So far for the right-handers, Bradley’s 4.50 ERA in two games likely has him as the frontrunner given Holland’s ERA of 16.87 in three appearances.

Front-runner: Bradley

Dodgers: Catcher

With Yasmani Grandal’s departure via free agency, the starting catching job is up for grabs this spring. It’s a competition between Austin Barnes and veteran Russell Martin, whom the Dodgers reacquired after he spent the first five seasons of his career with Los Angeles. Both candidates will have to show they can bounce back from poor offensive campaigns last year. So far, Barnes is ahead in that department this spring, hitting .350 (7-for-20) with a pair of doubles in eight games. Martin, meanwhile, has been limited to four games due to a sore lower back, going 3-for-10 with a double.

Front-runner: Barnes

Giants: Backup catcher

The decision of who Buster Posey’s backup behind the plate will be this season is particularly critical given that Posey is returning from offseason hip surgery, and presuming the Giants will continue to play him at first base on occasion. The candidates this spring are rookie Aramis Garcia, and non-roster invitees Rene Rivera and Stephen Vogt. Rivera seems to have the inside track, given that he and Garcia have seen the most playing time in Cactus League games thus far, and Garcia could be optioned to Triple-A to begin the season. The Giants like Vogt’s defensive versatility, but coming off shoulder surgery, he hasn’t caught yet this spring.

Front-runner: Rivera

Padres: Outfield

With six outfielders competing for five roster spots entering camp, San Diego’s main roster battle involves the corner outfield positions after Travis Jankowski fractured his wrist, all but ensuring the five remaining candidates will head north with the club to open the regular season.

Manuel Margot, off to a strong start this spring with a .310 batting average, two doubles and a homer, will likely be the starting center fielder, leaving the starting role at the corner positions up for grabs between Wil Myers, Hunter Renfroe, Franmil Reyes and Franchy Cordero. So far this spring, only one in that group has stood out at the plate: Reyes is batting .250 with three doubles and a homer in 10 games.

The remaining trio has started slow -- Myers is hitting .263 with a double in eight games, Renfroe is hitting .185, although with a double and a homer in 10 games, and Cordero is hitting .238 with a double in eight games. At this point, Myers probably gets the nod given his track record of offensive production.

Front-runners: Myers, Margot, Reyes

Rockies: Second base

In a roster battle to fill the vacancy at second base after DJ LeMahieu joined the Yankees as a free agent, it’s been an eventful spring so far for the young trio of Ryan McMahon, Garrett Hampson and Pat Valaika.

In what will likely be at least a two-player position at the season’s outset, all three have been very impressive in early Cactus League play. A plus for the Rockies is that they all also have defensive versatility, meaning it isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game in their competition.

McMahon is slugging a scalding .781 with four doubles, a triple and two homers. Hampson -- who entered camp having hit 20 homers in 1,233 professional at-bats, already has three this spring. And Valaika, following a poor ‘17 campaign, leads the club with four roundtrippers, making a strong case to earn a bench role heading into Opening Day.

Front-runners: McMahon, Hampson

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.

Manny Randhawa is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @MannyOnMLB.