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Intriguing position battles to keep an eye on this spring

February 18, 2017

There are always some eternal questions -- the theological ones and the smart-aleck ones.For instance, why does a round pizza come in a square box? Why do we park in a driveway and drive on a parkway? You've heard 'em.There are also, it seems, eternal questions in baseball -- including,

There are always some eternal questions -- the theological ones and the smart-aleck ones.
For instance, why does a round pizza come in a square box? Why do we park in a driveway and drive on a parkway? You've heard 'em.
There are also, it seems, eternal questions in baseball -- including, "What's going on in the Dodgers' outfield?"
For years now, the Dodgers have been balancing the past, present and future in the outfield. This spring is no different.
While the Dodgers have won the National League West four years in a row -- and look like the biggest threat to the Cubs' chance to repeat -- they continue to sort out a crowded outfield.
All that's certain is that Joc Pederson starts in center field against right-handers and Yasiel Puig starts in right field against left-handers. President of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and manager Dave Roberts would like them to become everyday guys, but they need strong springs to earn that distinction. Puig is being evaluated closely following issues that led to him spending most of last August in Triple-A.
Left field is wide open. Alvin Toles, one of the biggest surprises in baseball last season, is the front-runner, but Andre Ethier seems healthy after missing last season with a broken right leg. Ethier is in the last guaranteed year of his $85-million contract, and could be deemed expendable if he doesn't reassert himself. Scott Van Slyke returns as an option, while Franklin Gutierrez was signed to help address the Dodgers' .213 team batting average against left-handers in 2016.

Don't forget Trayce Thompson, either. He's continuing to rehab from stress fractures in his back, but had looked like at least a solid fourth outfielder, before being sidelined after 80 games last season.
Spring Training also gives the Dodgers a chance to take a look at prospects Alex Verdugo and Clay Bellinger. While Bellinger is a first baseman, he could get a look in the outfield at some point, as he's currently blocked by Adrian Gonzalez.
The Dodgers would benefit from establishing some clarity by Opening Day.
Here are some other positional battles that could help determine the strength of contenders:
Center field, Tigers
Cameron Maybin hit well last season, but wasn't the defender the Tigers wanted. He was traded to the Angels, with Michael Mahtook imported from Tampa Bay to replace him. Mahtook and Tyler Collins could open the season in a platoon, but manager Brad Ausmus is going to take a hard look at holdover Anthony Gose and prospect JaCoby Jones. Word around Lakeland, Fla., is that this is a wide-open, four-way competition.

Catcher, Red Sox
With Rick Porcello, Chris Sale and David Price on hand, Boston needs a catcher worthy of its starting rotation. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski showed his confidence in the catchers in camp by not signing Matt Wieters or another available catcher, but it's unclear who will be behind the plate on Opening Day. The options are Sandy Leon, who came out of nowhere to be a force in 2016, and homegrown guys Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart. Vazquez is the best pitch-framer of the bunch, and that could go a long way. Swihart reported to camp with throwing issues.
Closer, Nationals
It's Blake Treinen's devastating sinker versus Shawn Kelley's experience, as manager Dusty Baker looks for a long-term answer in the role that was previously filled by Mark Melancon, Jonathan Papelbon and Drew Storen over the past two seasons. Treinen had a breakout campaign in 2016, getting a higher percentage of ground balls than every reliever except Zach Britton. That's worth pondering. However, Treinen and Kelley need fast starts, as the Nats have veteran Joseph Nathan in camp on a Minor League deal, and figure to continue scouting Player Page for David Robertson and other trade candidates.

First base and right field, Yankees
Chris Carter tied for the NL lead with 41 home runs last season, but was signed more as an insurance policy than a guy slated for extended at-bats. General manager Brian Cashman would love for Greg Bird to bounce back from right shoulder surgery to be the player he was in 2015, when he seemed set to be a leader in the Yankees' youth movement. Christopher Austin was considered a first-base option until breaking a bone in his left foot. Aaron Hicks is getting a second chance to hang onto his job in right, but if Aaron Judge hits, he'll be a regular. Judge will head back to Triple-A if he doesn't cut down on his strikeouts from a trial last season, when he hit .179 with 42 whiffs in 27 games.
Second base, Cubs
Is Wrigley Field big enough for both Benjamin Zobrist and Javier Baez? Of course it is, given that Baez is strong defensively at shortstop and third base, while Zobrist has been a nomad throughout his career. Baez played second so well during the 2016 postseason that you'd think it would be automatic to give him the job. But Zobrist, who protects Anthony Rizzo in the lineup, won't be able to play left field with Kyle Schwarber healthy. One thing to watch is if Jason Heyward hits well enough to keep manager Joe Maddon from platooning him with Zobrist, which would open up time at second for Baez.
Outfield, Indians
The health of left fielder Michael Brantley is huge. He's continuing his recovery from right biceps surgery, and isn't expected to be ready when Cactus League games begin. That will give Brandon Guyer an opportunity to state his case to be more than a platoon right fielder with Lonnie Chisenhall. Center fielder Tyler Naquin was third in American League Rookie of the Year voting last season, but knows he needs to improve his defense to keep glove man Abraham Almonte off manager Terry Francona's mind. The Indians signed Austin Jackson to a Minor League contract, but he is still recovering from left knee surgery.
Fifth starter, Pirates
Few teams are truly set with their rotations. These are the conversations that will play out through March in Florida and Arizona. But does any team have a more interesting mix than Pittsburgh? There's a job for Tyler Glasnow, but the 23-year-old prospect is going to have to earn it. He stands 6-foot-8, and throws in the high 90s, making it especially tricky to consistently repeat his delivery. If he's not throwing strikes, that could open the door for Andrew Hutchison, Steven Brault or ground-ball getter Trevor Williams.

Left field, Rangers
Shin-Soo Choo is expected to be a full-time DH, which facilitates a wide-open competition for a starting job between a fascinating cast of characters. Ryan Rua and Delino DeShields are in the mix, along with former top prospects Joey Gallo and Jurickson Profar, both of whom have played mostly infield. The wild cards in the mix include Travis Snider, who was signed to a Minor League contract, and, perhaps, Josh Hamilton. It's unclear if Hamilton's knees will let him do more than swing the bat and play first base, but a strong spring could elevate his profile.
Closer, Rockies
Greg Holland is 15 months removed from Tommy John surgery, and has looked great throwing bullpens early in camp. But can he handle the workload of throwing consecutive days or four or five times a week, as closers are called upon to do? Adam Ottavino, Jake McGee and Carlos Estevez, who all earned saves last season, are options that will be considered if Holland doesn't grab the job.

Second base, Royals
Raul Mondesi burned up his rookie status last season without establishing himself as a regular. Whit Merrifield returns as the primary second baseman, but there's competition that includes Cheslor Cuthbert, who played well at third base while Mike Moustakas was sidelined in 2016. Cuthbert has power that could give him an advantage, but he's learning a new position.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for