- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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One never knows when a spring battle could turn into something really big, which is why fantasy baseball owners should keep tabs on what's happening. After all, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Chase Utley were in "spring battles" once upon a time, so we can't really ignore the 2009 spring battles of Daric Barton, Matt Joyce and Chris Getz, can we?
Let's check out the most fantasy-relevant spring-training battle to watch at each position, focusing on the ones that actually could make a difference for you on draft day, and then predict the winners.
Texas Rangers: First, let me rule out the Orioles because it doesn't fit the definition of a battle at all. Matt Wieters is better than Gregg Zaun, and I don't think Zaun himself would debate that. The Orioles, however, might let their top pick in the 2007 draft percolate in the minors for a month, or a few months, or maybe not at all. I foresee Wieters doing an Evan Longoria impression, figuratively, winning the AL Rookie of the Year award with top-10 catcher numbers, maybe even top-5, so even if Zaun starts at catcher the first week of April, it's not as though Wieters has lost the battle. But with the Rangers, we don't know. Jarrod Saltalamacchia shouldn't be forgotten. He has played 154 games at the major league level, and he delivered 14 home runs and a .261 batting average. Taylor Teagarden is a superior catcher; knows how to take a walk; and seems like he's ready for the majors as well, at least as part of a platoon. Finally, there's Max Ramirez, who, for you old-timers out there, reminds me of 1990s Cubs backstop Hector Villanueva. As in, Ramirez isn't much of a catcher, but he can hit. His minor league numbers are tremendous. Maybe Ramirez ends up at first base, like a Pablo Sandoval, or at designated hitter. Regardless, all three Rangers catchers are young and can hit. In two-catcher leagues, I'd make any of them my backup. I'll predict that Saltalamacchia wins the job and hits double-digit homers with a .260 batting average; Teagarden plays the backup role; and Ramirez mashes in Triple-A, waiting for an opportunity.
Other battles: We shouldn't merely dismiss J.R. Towles in Houston; if he hits, he should play. Humberto Quintero doesn't offer much at the plate, and now Toby Hall is gone. The Red Sox signed Jason Varitek, but is Josh Bard any worse? He'll start out catching Tim Wakefield but could play a lot more. For the Mariners, I doubt Jeff Clement is long for the position, and he'll see time at first base and DH. And on a related note, don't bother drafting Kenji Johjima. The Padres signed Henry Blanco. You can check his numbers. Even at Coors Field, I wouldn't expect much. Rookie Nick Hundley should play more, and he actually hit a bit in the minors. Not a bad sleeper in a 30-team league.
Cleveland Indians: I seem to stand alone on this prediction, but I think Kelly Shoppach is going to be the Tribe's primary backstop. Then again, I just stole Victor Martinez in a mock draft. I'll explain. Shoppach's 21 home runs last season really weren't a fluke, as he displayed power through the minors and while he was wallowing as an overqualified reserve for the Red Sox and Indians. Meanwhile, Martinez is critical to the Cleveland lineup and has experience at first base. While Ryan Garko hit .319 after the All-Star break and finished with 90 RBIs, he's not guaranteed playing time, certainly not over Martinez. Ultimately, I think it comes down to how well Shoppach and Travis Hafner perform. If both hit, Martinez and Garko will fight it out for first-base time, and Martinez will win. Thus, I think Martinez and Shoppach are both top-10 fantasy catchers this season, and can coexist because there will be at-bats elsewhere. Martinez could recapture his past success at the plate and keep catcher eligibility for 2010 as well, which would be nice. On the flip side, I wouldn't expect Garko to approach 90 RBIs again.
Other battles: I was all aboard the Daric Barton bandwagon a year ago; his minor league numbers and plate discipline suggested a strong batting average was coming. Instead, Barton was awful. Jason Giambi is not a good first baseman, but he's going to play most games at either first base or DH. Jack Cust should DH quite a bit, so Barton, a left-handed hitter like those other two, could be left out. The Mariners are scheduled to go with, believe it or not, Russell Branyan; Bryan LaHair; Clement; Mike Carp; Jose Lopez; and maybe, at some point, Bruce Bochte, now 58. (I jest, of course.) Branyan always tantalizes us, but he can't stay healthy and kills your batting average anyway. I think Carp, a former Mets prospect, can hit a bit, but for this season I think second baseman Lopez will play quite a bit at first base, opening the door for Ronny Cedeno at second. There's also Florida. Nobody hit more home runs in the minors last season than Dallas McPherson. Gaby Sanchez is more of a gap hitter, but one who I think can be more productive than Casey Kotchman in 2009.
St. Louis Cardinals: Detroit's Placido Polanco is the No. 10 second baseman in our rankings, is a perennial .300 hitter, and doesn't offer much in the way of power or speed. He just hits. Well, this season the Cardinals are trying out a similar player, Skip Schumaker, at second base after the abrupt release of Adam Kennedy in January. Schumaker has just one season in the bigs as a regular, but it was impressive, as he hit .302, including a National League-leading .340 against right-handed pitching. Like Polanco, Schumaker didn't reach double digits in homers or steals, but he came close, with eight homers and eight steals. So now can you see how Schumaker's potentially winning the Cards' second-base job matters? Polanco is top-10, and Schumaker could be as well. He's learning how to play the position this spring, and his winning the job could open up an outfield spot for top prospect Colby Rasmus. Competing with Schumaker are Brendan Ryan and Joe Thurston, but neither profiles as a leadoff hitter like Schumaker. I'll take the next Polanco to win the role, and the hearts of fantasy owners.
Other battles: Mike Fontenot had very nice numbers in 2008, but there are some who think he'd be exposed as a regular. Manager Lou Piniella appears to be one of those, as he keeps talking up ordinary second baseman Aaron Miles as his second baseman and No. 2 hitter now that Mark DeRosa is in Cleveland. In a way, whoever wins the second-base job is battling for that No. 2 spot in the lineup with shortstop Ryan Theriot, something else to watch. The White Sox are moving Alexei Ramirez from second base to shortstop, opening up his old spot for Chris Getz, Jayson Nix or Brent Lillibridge. Nix won the Colorado second-base job last April but didn't hit well enough to keep it. He and Getz are scrappy types who get on base and could be big sleepers, while Lillibridge has steals potential. The Royals, like their Missouri brethren, are trying an outfielder at second base, but can Mark Teahen handle it? He's not much in fantasy anyway. If he can't, Alberto Callaspo, Willie Bloomquist and Esteban German will battle for the spot. Callaspo is the best bet, and he can run a bit. The Nationals could go with Ronnie Belliard or Anderson Hernandez at second base, although neither of them is very interesting in fantasy. The Giants seem to be treating Eugenio Velez as a utility guy, mainly in the outfield. Well, he's not much of a defender anywhere, especially at second base. Kevin Frandsen, Juan Uribe and Emmanuel Burriss are the other choices. Uribe has power, but it will hurt your batting average. Burriss could steal 25 bases.
Boston Red Sox: I understand why Julio Lugo seems to be so disliked in fantasy baseball, but until his injury-shortened 2008 season, he had averaged nine homers and 32 stolen bases the three seasons prior. He might lack the upside of Jed Lowrie, but does anyone think Lowrie can steal 32 bases? Lowrie would likely post a better batting average, but he doesn't profile as Dustin Pedroia, either, having hit .287 in 1,270 minor league at-bats. I think fantasy owners might be a bit disappointed in a full season of Lowrie. In 2008, he hit two home runs and stole just a single base in 81 games. Lugo is the one with the big contract, and he's the one who can help fantasy owners more. I think he will win the job, with Lowrie concentrating on helping Mike Lowell at third base. Lugo might not hit first or second in the order, but expect at least 25 stolen bases. Don't hate him so much.
Other battles: Pay attention to the Angels, who could play it safe with some combination of slap-happy Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis, or take a chance and finally give former top prospect Brandon Wood 500 at-bats. I vote for letting Wood play. He might hit .230, but the power is legit. When the Twins signed Joe Crede to play third base, it meant Brendan Harris would no longer be needed there, and he could steal at-bats from Nick Punto, who at least offers base-stealing ability. The middle-infield situation in San Diego is a mess. David Eckstein will play somewhere, but he offers little for fantasy, especially with his home games coming at Petco Park. We'll withhold naming the other candidates to play middle infield to protect the innocent.
Milwaukee Brewers: Bill Hall had his monster season already, mashing 35 home runs and scoring 101 times in 2006. Since then he has hit 29 home runs over 856 at-bats, with a.240 batting average and 109 runs scored. Hall can't hit right-handed pitching anymore, and the Brewers know it, having brought in lefty-hitting Mike Lamb to help him out. Craig Counsell remains a Brewer as well. Does any of this matter to us? Well, the faster prospect Mat Gamel can learn to play reasonable defense at third base, the sooner he can do his Ryan Braun impression and help fantasy owners. It really could be a similar situation. Gamel was rated the No. 15 fantasy prospect by our own Jason Grey, who sees big things for this power hitter. Keep an eye on what Hall and Lamb do in April, presuming Gamel starts the year in the minors, because it might not be very long before we see the slugging prospect.
Other battles: The White Sox had a battle a year ago between Joe Crede and Josh Fields, but now the former is a Twin, so the latter should have no problem, right? Well, Fields had a lost 2008: He hit .156 in 14 games with the big club and battled injuries in the minors. He did hit 23 home runs in 100 games with the White Sox in 2007. He should beat out Wilson Betemit and Dayan Viciedo for now, though. The Cardinals won't have Troy Glaus much of April, as he recovers from shoulder surgery. David Freese hit for power in the minors, and Brett Wallace probably isn't ready for the majors yet. Don't avoid Freese, though; Glaus has a history of injuries and could be out longer.
Minnesota Twins: There are quite a few outfield position battles around the majors, most notably center field for the Yankees, Braves and even Rockies, but the Twins have five proven major-league-ready outfielders for four spots (including DH). Manager Ron Gardenhire created a winter stir when he didn't name once-heralded Delmon Young as one of the starters. Could it happen? I'd be shocked if Young, a career .292 hitter and still only 23 years old, sits. Gardenhire is trying to motivate him, but really, all Young has failed to do in two full seasons is hit for power. It's coming. Carlos Gomez is a young defensive whiz and base stealer in center field, so who sits between Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel? I'm thinking 20-homer guy Kubel is safe for most of the designated hitter at-bats, though Cuddyer could face some of the tougher left-handed pitchers. So basically, it's Span's speed and batting average versus Cuddyer's power. I'd expect Span to win out (but ultimately disappoint fantasy owners) and Cuddyer to be trade bait for the Twins.
Other battles: The Yankees have to know Johnny Damon needs to play in left field, not center, right? When Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner don't hit, however, that could change things. Nick Swisher also can fake center field if he needs to. Really, all the Yankees' outfield (and the DH) spots are up for grabs. I'd be a bit worried about expecting Hideki Matsui and Xavier Nady to get more than 450 at-bats. The Reds could leave Chris Dickerson alone in left field, but chances are they'll let Jerry Hairston Jr., Jonny Gomes, Jacque Jones and maybe even George Foster fight it out. Tampa Bay has former Tiger Matt Joyce, Gabe Kapler, Gabe Gross and Fernando Perez fighting for at-bats in right field. Joyce has legit power, and we saw how well Eric Hinske did in 2008 hitting just against right-handers. Joyce could hit 20 home runs. The Braves could go with Josh Anderson and Gregor Blanco while waiting for prospect Jordan Schafer in center field. Anderson and Blanco are cheap sources of speed. The Mariners went the sentimental route with Ken Griffey Jr., meaning Wladimir Balentien must fight for at-bats. This might have actually done fantasy owners a favor. Conor Jackson is an everyday player for the Diamondbacks, but Eric Byrnes (left field) and Chad Tracy (first base) are competing for a starting spot. Byrnes' speed would outweigh Tracy's moderate power in fantasy. Watch the Rockies. Seth Smith is said to be in the lead for the left field job, and rookie Dexter Fowler could steal bases in center field. Carlos Gonzalez, Ryan Spilborghs and Matt Murton are in the picture as well, and this is Coors Field, so everyone should be considered interesting. Ian Stewart is likely waiting for Todd Helton to miss games so he can get playing time.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.
Eric Karabell takes a look at each position's top spring battle to watch, highlighted by the Indians' catcher/first base situation.