MLB: Position battles abound on AL rosters this spring
Old faces in new places will face spring challenges from fresh-faced youngsters as full squads report to spring training this week. Among the more intriguing spring questions is whether first baseman Ike Davis can land a regular role with the Oak...
Old faces in new places will face spring challenges from fresh-faced youngsters as full squads report to spring training this week.
Among the more intriguing spring questions is whether first baseman Ike Davis can land a regular role with the Oakland A’s, if Asdrubal Cabrera can capture the shortstop job with the Tampa Bay Rays.
A look at the most notable position battles for each American League team this spring, according to The Sports Xchange’s network of baseball correspondents.
American League West
Unlike OF George Springer, who took the AL by storm during his injury-abbreviated rookie season, 1B Jon Singleton struggled mightily following his promotion on June 3, 2014. The Astros invested $10 million guaranteed in Singleton, who promptly hit .168/.285/.335 with 134 strikeouts in 362 plate appearances. With the offseason acquisition of C/LF/1B Evan Gattis, Singleton might lose his spot to Gattis or DH/1B Chris Carter, proven power producers capable of manning his position. Even if Singleton regains his confidence at the plate, there is no guarantee that he will remain unchallenged at first.
Josh Rutledge, 25, is the early favorite with win the starting job at second base following the trade of Howie Kendrick to the Dodgers. Rutledge, acquired from the Rockies in a trade for RHP Jairo Diaz, has the most big league experience among the four vying for the job. He batted .269 with a .323 on-base percentage, a .405 slugging percentage, four homers and 33 RBIs in 105 games for Colorado last year. The others in the mix are Grant Green, Johnny Giavotella and Taylor Featherston. Green and Giavotella have big league experience, but Featherston has not played above Double-A.
Ike Davis, a left-handed hitter, is expected to get the majority of starts at first base, but he is far from a sure thing. Davis hit 32 home runs for the Mets in 2012, but he hit a combined 20 home runs over the next two seasons. The Mets sent Davis to Triple-A Las Vegas for 21 games in 2013, then traded him to Pittsburgh early last season. The Pirates dealt him to Oakland for international bonus pool money, a sign of how far he fell. Rookie INF/OF Mark Canha could push for playing time at first, and Nate Freiman is another option. Left-handed-hitting Stephen Vogt, the No. 1 catcher, also can play first base, and DH Billy Butler should get some time at the position.
SS Brad Miller broke onto the scene as a midseason call-up in 2013 and looked like the Mariners’ shortstop of the future before struggling to finish his rookie campaign. SS Chris Taylor’s rookie season in 2014 followed a similar progression. The young duo is expected to battle each other for the starting job this spring. Miller, 25, hit .221 with a .288 on-base percentage, a .365 slugging percentage, 10 homers and 36 RBIs in 123 games with Seattle last year. Taylor, 24, wound up batting .287/.347/.346 with no homers and nine RBIs in 47 major league games in 2014.
Left field is going to be where all the action is at this spring for the Rangers. Ryan Rua, who hit .295 in 28 games with the Rangers last year, created the most offseason buzz and drew rave reviews from GM Jon Daniels. Jake Smolinski also hit .349 for the Rangers last year in 24 games, but his fractured left foot opened the door for Rua. While Rua may have the inside track in left, the Rangers still brought in veteran Ryan Ludwick on a minor league deal. Ludwick, 36, began his career with Texas, and he still has some pop. Of the three, Rua has the most upside. He totaled 20 home runs and 88 RBIs in his three stops last season.
American League Central
It is too soon to tell whether Micah Johnson or Carlos Sanchez will emerge with the starting job at second base. The White Sox also have veteran INFs Gordon Beckham and Emilio Bonifacio on the roster, but they would prefer one or both players to serve utility roles while one of the younger players seizes a regular spot. Johnson, 24, hit .294 with 22 stolen bases in Double-A and Triple-A last season. Sanchez, 22, is skilled defensively, and he batted .250 in 22 games with Chicago in 2014.
The right field/first base/DH situation will bear watching. 1B/OF Nick Swisher and OF/1B Brandon Moss are both returning from operations. Swisher, at age 34 and coming off double knee surgery, would seem to be a strong candidate to see less action in the field, although manager Terry Francona said, “We don’t necessarily want an everyday DH.” The others in the mix at one or more of those three positions are OF David Murphy and 1B Carlos Santana. Santana is the most secure of the group. He will be the starter at first base, but could also see some time at DH.
Rookie C James McCann is looking to unseat incumbent Bryan Holaday for the job as Alex Avila’s backup. Both are solid receivers who throw well and call a solid game. McCann is supposedly the better hitter, although Holaday is a weapon as a bunter. McCann, 24, went 3-for-12 in his major league debut with Detroit last September after hitting .295 in 109 games with Triple-A Toledo. Holaday, 27, has a .241 major league average through parts of three seasons with the Tigers.
The Royals enter spring training with the starting nine, the rotation and the back end of the bullpen set, so the most intriguing battle will be for a left-handed bullpen spot. Will the Royals keep rookie Brandon Finnegan in that role or send him back to the minors to pitch multiple innings and be a starter? Finnegan went from pitching in the College World Series last summer to pitching in the major league World Series in the fall. Tim Collins regressed last year and spent more time in the minors than in the Kansas City bullpen. However, he finished strong.
Former top prospect Aaron Hicks and journeyman Jordan Schafer are the leading candidates to fill the center field job. Schafer was acquired by Minnesota off waivers in August and was solid -- hitting .285 with a homer, 13 RBIs and 15 stolen bases. Hicks has all the tools but has been unable to put it together at the major league level. Hicks is a career .201 hitter (467 at-bats the past two seasons) but is a switch hitter and plays great defense. A dark horse in the race could be prospect Eddie Rosario, one of the organization’s most talented hitters.
American League East
The main position that will be up for grabs should be right field. With the loss of RF Nick Markakis, it looks as if Steve Pearce and Travis Snider will be rotating there in some form. Alejandro De Aza and David Lough probably will share time in left field. De Aza likely will start in left with Snider doing the same in right with manager Buck Showalter moving Pearce between DH and the outfield. Lough is a good late-inning defensive replacement in any outfield spot.
Heading into spring training, the Boston outfield wasn’t at all set. Longtime shortstop Hanley Ramirez was moving to left field, and there really was no other place for him to play. That leaves center field and right field for Shane Victorino, Mookie Betts and Rusney Castillo. Victorino is coming off back surgery, and while many assumed he would be moved by the end of spring training, it is easy to forget how important he was to Boston’s 2013 championship team. Don’t count him out.
Second base is a three-man competition between Stephen Drew, Jose Pirela and Rob Refsnyder. Drew, 31, has the defensive range to play second, but he batted a combined .162 for Boston and New York last year. Pirela, 25, hit .305 in Triple-A and .333 in a seven-game cameo for the Yankees in 2014. Like Drew, he is a former shortstop. Refsnyder, 23, rose quickly through the system after starting out as an outfielder. He batted a combined .318 with Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre last year. It isn’t often that a Yankees prospect wins a job out of spring training, so the team may start him off in the minors while going with Drew on Opening Day.
The Rays’ most intriguing spring training situation this year is the middle infield. Tampa Bay signed Asdrubal Cabrera to a one-year, $7.5 million deal when it traded away INF/OF Ben Zobrist. Cabrera was once a solid shortstop, but his defense declined to the point that the Nationals used him as a second baseman when they traded for him last year. However, the Rays don’t have any true shortstop options after trading Yunel Escobar. Nick Franklin, part of the David Price trade, enters camp as the favorite at second base, but don’t count out former No. 1 overall pick Tim Beckham or former top shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, who was slowed by injuries the past two years.
The most contentious competition figures to be at second base, with as many as six contenders. Maicer Izturis is the favorite based on experience, but he is returning from knee surgery that brought an early ending to his 2014 season. Ryan Goins opened 2014 at second and is excellent defensively, but his problem is a lack of hitting. The Blue Jays would like to see rookie Devon Travis, acquired in the offseason in a trade with the Tigers, take the job and run with it, but he played Double-A last season. Steve Tolleson and Ramon Santiago could find time at second base as bench players, while Munenori Kawasaki figures to open the season at Triple-A Buffalo.