Spring camps feature tight battles at every position
The rare bird that is the legitimate Spring Training position battle can be a sign of depth and strength or a sign of desperation and weakness, depending on the specific situation.
Because of contractual commitments and Minor League options (or lack thereof) and the basic weight put on performance in actual games vs. exhibition games, most clubs enter spring camp with virtually all but the finer points of their rosters complete -- barring injury, of course. But that doesn't mean motivation by threat of competition isn't oft-employed, with varying degrees of seriousness. Some clubs have a wealth of options at a particular position and must make hard choices; others have a dearth and wish they had hard choices.
The hard choices are, indeed, the most captivating ones. So with camps beginning to hit the home stretch, let's take a stroll around the diamond and look at some of the most intriguing battles and where they stand.
Starting pitcher: As usual, a multitude of back-end rotation jobs have been on the line in Grapefruit and Cactus League play.
The returns have been particularly good for Yordano Ventura, whose 100-mph fastball helped compel the Royals to avoid the arbitration conundrum and give him a rotation spot. Same goes for Michael Pineda, who has looked sharp in his efforts to return from right shoulder surgery and make good on his status as a highly touted trade target back in 2012.
But the most interesting remaining race rests in Cardinals camp, where Joe Kelly, last seen holding his own in a start in Game 3 of the World Series, came in with no guarantees and has found himself embroiled in a battle for the No. 5 slot with Carlos Martinez -- in the wake of Jaime Garcia's injury.
Kelly might have saved the Cards' 2013 season with his steady performance in the rotation. ("You know what, I could use him," quipped Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose rotation has been besieged by injuries.) But Martinez's electric arsenal intrigues, and he has had a dominant spring camp, allowing just three runs in 15 1/3 innings. He stands a good chance of bumping Kelly to the bullpen.
Catcher: As with back-of-the-rotation spots, backup catching slots are often subject to spring competition.
What is not so common is what's going on in White Sox camp. Tyler Flowers claimed the starting job over Josh Phegley early on, but now Phegley has been optioned out of big league camp and Rule 5 draftee Adrian Nieto is hanging in there, competing with Hector Gimenez for the backup job.
Nieto is an interesting story because he hadn't played above the high-A level in the Nationals organization. But the White Sox, impressed with his receiving and his offensive improvements, might allow him to take a major leap to the Majors rather than offer him back to the Nats at the end of the month.
Another possibility is that the White Sox make a move for one of the Yankees' backups -- Francisco Cervelli, Austin Romine or John Ryan Murphy -- depending on what direction the Yanks go in choosing Brian McCann's backup.
First base: The Mets tried to avoid a first-base logjam with their efforts to trade Ike Davis this winter, and the possibility of them finding a deal for Davis remains in play.
In the meantime, the calf injury that slowed Davis and the hamstring problem endured by Lucas Duda put a cramp in the Mets' ability to make up their mind, and now precious few games and at-bats remain.
What could ultimately settle this situation is whether the Mets find a suitable return for Davis. But his value is difficult to gauge because of his disappointing 2013 and, now, the injury that has slowed his spring.
Second base: This position has probably been the source of more earnest competitions than any other.
Cuban import Alexander Guerrero reported to Glendale, Ariz., as the frontrunner for the Dodgers' job, but his shaky defensive play opened the door to Dee Gordon's opportunity to start this weekend in Australia. Gordon's reliable glove and blazing speed -- one scout had him at 3.57 seconds to first base on a bunt -- seem to have won the Dodgers over for now.
In Cardinals camp, 23-year-old Kolten Wong started slow at the plate but has come on as of late and appears to have the upper hand on veteran Mark Ellis, who has been hampered by knee issues. Still, a platoon is a possibility.
It's also a strong possibility for the Brewers, who have the young Scooter Gennett and the veteran Rickie Weeks on hand. While Gennett is undoubtedly the Brew Crew's future at the position, they're not expected to pay Weeks $11 million to fill a bench role, so he'll likely get starts against lefties -- unless they find a trade partner for him, which seems unlikely.
In Nats camp, Anthony Rendon is looking to solidify the second-base job he swiped from a struggling Danny Espinosa last season. New manager Matt Williams has flip-flopped Espinosa between second and shortstop, likely grooming him for an infield utility role.
For the Orioles, the increasing likelihood that Manny Machado won't be ready for Opening Day probably means that second-base combatants Ryan Flaherty and Jonathan Schoop will both be in the lineup to start the season, with Flaherty keeping third base warm for Machado.
Third base: Some of the expected defensive warts have been exposed in the grand experiment that is Carlos Santana's shift from catcher to third base, but he's held his own enough that the Indians feel they can justify playing him at third at least a couple times a week. That qualifies as a success.
Lonnie Chisenhall was the incumbent at the position, and he, too, has had mixed results. For now, the Indians are still expected to give him starts there at the outset and see how the situation develops, because Santana hasn't done enough to overtake him outright, and Mike Aviles still profiles best as a part-timer.
The Indians have preferred, all along, a scenario in which Santana spells Chisenhall against lefties and serves as a designated hitter and Yan Gomes' backup behind the plate the rest of the time, eliminating their need to carry a third catcher.
Shortstop: The D-backs entered camp with enviable depth at short, with Didi Gregorius and Chris Owings fighting for the starting job. Either one would be a valuable trade chip for a D-backs team that suffered a huge blow to the rotation with the loss of Patrick Corbin to a torn UCL.
For now, the D-backs have the ability to carry both guys on the active roster because Cody Ross won't be ready to start the season on time. Manager Kirk Gibson has said he expects to give both Gregorius and Owings a start in the season-opening, two-game series against the Dodgers in Australia this weekend.
Gregorius didn't flash much of a bat, but his glove came as advertised in his rookie season. Owings had a .330/.359/.482 slash line at Triple-A Reno and probably has more offensive upside.
Outfield: Few Spring Training storylines compare to what's taken place in Fort Myers, Fla., where Grady Sizemore has reclaimed respect with a dramatic return from microfracture surgery on both knees. Sizemore was once a game-changing talent on both sides of the ball, but he's trying to overcome an unprecedented medical history. The returns have been stunning, and Sizemore's dynamic play on national television on St. Patrick's Day -- three hits and two sensational catches -- had the industry humming.
What does this mean for Jackie Bradley Jr., the young kid who had a leg up coming into camp but has struggled at the plate? A stressful situation is what it means. Bradley's Opening Day roster spot could be in jeopardy if the Red Sox keep Sizemore, as they are not likely to part with reserve outfielder Mike Carp.
That said, there are still questions about Sizemore's ability to hold up to the grind of everyday play when it counts. Maybe the Red Sox will opt to keep him in extended camp as he continues to build a base. But there would seem to be value to eking every ounce of value out of Sizemore while they can, and they have options on Bradley. It's hard to ignore what Sizemore has done this spring.
Of course, for an example of how spring performance and the agape jaws of opposing scouts don't always add up to much, look to the Pirates' situation with Gregory Polanco, who was optioned out of camp last week. Several scouts were convinced that Polanco, a physical specimen who had an .804 OPS in 23 plate appearances, was ready for the big leagues. But the Pirates, as expected, will give him more Triple-A seasoning while delaying his arbitration timetable.
That's left Jose Tabata and Travis Snider in competition for the right-field job, and Snider has had the superior camp. The Buccos have reportedly shopped Tabata, though either player might be a movable piece, with whoever remains serving as a Polanco placeholder.
Another outfield scenario worth watching is the cluster of center fielders the Rockies are sorting through. Drew Stubbs figures to get a good chunk of playing time by virtue of his defense, and trade-haul Brandon Barnes has impressed with his speed and defense. But don't overlook 24-year-old Chris Dickerson, who has had a strong spring at the plate while making what appears to be a successful conversion from the outfield corners.
Closer: The most interesting ninth-inning competition rested in D-backs camp. Arizona had traded for Addison Reed presumably to be their closer, but J.J. Putz entered camp intent on reclaiming the job, despite a difficult 2013 in which he struggled early and also endured two disabled-list stints.
Well, Kirk Gibson confirmed Thursday what was expected: If the D-backs have a ninth-inning lead in Sydney this weekend, Reed will be the one entrusted with it. Putz has struggled this spring (he said he has made a mechanical adjustment in recent days) while Reed flourished. Putz remains an important bullpen piece going into a contract year.
The White Sox have not yet publicly determined Reed's replacement in the ninth, but Nate Jones remains the odds-on favorite over Matt Lindstrom.