Positions up for grabs

From the Yankees' center-field job to the Cardinals' second-base job, position battles are in store this spring.

Originally Published: January 30, 2004
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

Spring training is so good for so many reasons, including positional competition on several teams.

Here are several of the position battles that are to take place this upcoming spring:

POSITION BATTLES
Yankees center fielder
Owner George Steinbrenner so badly wanted Kenny Lofton (he hasn't felt this wanted in years), he gave him a two-year contract. Lofton will go to spring training as the center fielder, Bernie Williams as the DH and Jason Giambi as the first baseman.
Bernie Williams
Williams

Williams was hobbled so badly last year, he could barely play center field. Lofton is not a good defensive center fielder; if Williams gets healthy, he could win back the job. It's unusual to find everyday center fielders in their mid-30's. Williams is 35. Lofton is 36.
Twins closer
With Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins gone, the Twins have turned to Joe Nathan, who was acquired in the deal for A.J. Pierzynski.
Joe Nathan
Nathan

Giants manager Felipe Alou and closer Robb Nen have said they believe that Nathan's stuff -- he throws hard -- and demeanor make him a good candidate to close. If he can't, J.C. Romero and Juan Rincon are options. The Twins look at it this way: two years ago, they had an inexperienced bullpen and a first-time closer in Guardado, yet their bullpen went on to become the strength of the team. Maybe it will happen again. Or maybe the strength becomes a weakness.

Dodgers first baseman
L.A. missed out on acquiring Richie Sexson because the Brewers wanted young pitching in return, and the Dodgers didn't think Sexson would hit nearly as many homers playing 81 games at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers also missed out on acquiring Derrek Lee and Paul Konerko.
Shawn Green
Green

That leaves them with Paul Lo Duca, who is their No. 1 catcher. And Robin Ventura, who mostly is a third baseman. Or they might move Shawn Green from right field, where he likely wouldn't be missed on defense. Or maybe they'll make a trade for a first baseman. Now that the sale of the club to Frank McCourt finally has been approved, the Dodgers no longer will be handcuffed in their negotiations with free agents and with trades.

Mets catcher/first baseman
Late last season, the Mets essentially decided that Mike Piazza would be their first baseman in 2004, and Jason Phillips would catch. But it's not that simple.
Mike Piazza
Piazza

Piazza is five home runs away from being the all-time leader as a catcher (not that he needs that record; he's already the best hitting catcher ever, and a Hall of Famer). Phillips is better defensively, as is Vance Wilson, but moving to first base will be difficult for Piazza, who isn't a very good athlete. After watching him play first base on an extended basis in spring training, they might decide they're better off with him behind the plate. It's possible that Piazza and Phillips could share time between catcher and first base.

Orioles second baseman
Jerry Hairston is probably the leader given how well he was playing before he got hurt last year. But the switch-hitting Brian Roberts proved last season that he is a major leaguer with his speed and defense.
Brian Roberts
Roberts

One of these guys probably will be traded. Roberts seems to have more value given his lower salary, and the fact that his upside might be a little higher.

Cardinals second baseman
Marlon Anderson might have a slight edge because of experience, but Bo Hart hit .277 in 296 at-bats last year, and became a fan favorite with his hustle and enthusiasm.
Bo Hart
Hart

Plus, Hart is better defensively. Anderson possibly could play some left field given the uncertainty at that position. There doesn't seem to be an everyday left fielder among Kerry Robinson, So Taguchi, Ray Lankford, Greg Vaughn, Mark Quinn and Colin Porter.

Red Sox second baseman
It's pretty much Pokey Reese's job. All the Red Sox need is a guy to bat ninth, hit .250 and make the plays in the field -- Reese can do all that.
Pokey Reese
Reese

Tony Womack and Terry Shumpert will be in camp on minor league contracts, but Womack is coming off Tommy John surgery, and might not be 100 percent for the start of the season. Mark Bellhorn is an outside possibility, but he's not the defensive player the Red Sox need. There is no doubt about Boston's fifth starting pitcher. That job is Byung-Hyun Kim's.

White Sox closer
The Sox signed Shingo Takatsu, 38, the all-time saves leader in Japan. But he throws 88 mph tops, he throws from down under, he's a trickster who lives on the outside corner and doesn't appear to have much to get left-handed hitters out.
Billy Koch
Koch

Billy Koch remains an option if he can find whatever he lost. Damaso Marte has wicked stuff, but there's a real question whether he is mentally ready to close.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail tim.kurkjian@espnmag.com.

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