Battles will be on for several open spots
From the Angels' first base job to the Red Sox's closer role, many starting spots will be up for grabs this spring.
Another frenetic winter of transactions has left holes and competitions at positions all across Major League Baseball. Not counting the open spots at the back end of rotations, which almost every team has, here are 10 position battles entering spring training.
They need another bat, and they're hoping it gets provided by Kendry Morales or Casey Kotchman. Morales returned from a terrific winter ball season in the Dominican Republic noticeably bigger and stronger. Kotchman was a nonfactor last season partly because he was sick (mononucleosis). He had a successful winter ball season, he has gained back the weight he lost and seems ready to make a run at an everyday job.
One GM said Kotchman reminded him of Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who, after a slow start to his big league career, blossomed in 2006. The Angels need either Morales or Kotchman to play every day because the DH spot likely will be taken by Shea Hillenbrand, and the other can be used to rest corner outfielders Vladimir Guerrero and Garret Anderson.
Upton is looking for a position. In pre-spring training workouts, Upton has been taking fly balls in the outfield, which might eventually be his best position. But the strength of the D-Rays is their outfield of Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Delmon Young (trading Baldelli for pitching help wouldn't be a bad idea).
Shortstop is no longer an option for Upton because of his defense (he has too long a stride, among other issues) and third base likely will be taken by Akinori Iwamura. Upton also will get a look at second base. Jorge Cantu has defensive problems (he especially lacks range) and had work ethic issues last year, but he appears to have a different attitude these days. Ty Wigginton, who could be the Rays' first baseman, will vie for the second base job. But even if all the jobs are taken, Upton will make the team if he does what he didn't do last season: hit.
If Brian Anderson (.225 batting average last season) has a good spring, he likely will keep the job. If not, Ryan Sweeney, one of the top prospects in the White Sox system, is waiting in the wings. So is Jerry Owens. Darin Erstad also will get a look in center, but there's a question whether he can still play such a demanding defensive position with his recent injuries.
Left field is uncertain because of the injury to Scott Podsednik (sports hernia). Erstad could be in that mix along with rookie Josh Fields, a third baseman who is such a good athlete, he is probably capable of playing left. Fields has a chance to be an impact hitter.
It still isn't clear where Soriano is going to play for the Cubs, but for now, it most likely will be another new position, center field. Wherever it is, he is going to have a hard time defensively given that Wrigley -- with its cold and sun and wind -- is perhaps the most difficult ballpark for a defensive player, especially one who is so new to the outfield.
It would be less of an issue if Soriano were to be surrounded by Gold Glove outfielders, but Cliff Floyd, Matt Murton and Jacque Jones ("he plays the heck out of right field, but he can't throw,'' one former teammate said) aren't Gold Glovers.
The non-tender of Marcus Giles (he was deemed too expensive, as his production had fallen off) left second base open to several candidates, led by Martin Prado, Kelly Johnson and Manny Aybar.
Prado, 23, is a career .299 hitter in the minor leagues, and showed well in two trips to the major leagues last year. Johnson is an outfielder, but began his professional career as an infielder. He or Prado could be the leadoff batter, which the Braves really haven't had since Rafael Furcal left after the 2005 season. Aybar is a third baseman who won't get much playing time unless Chipper Jones gets hurt. So, he'll get a look at second.
It was a sound decision to move Jonathan Papelbon to the rotation to prevent him from getting another tired shoulder, which ended his season a month early last year. Papelbon had trouble with arm fatigue in college, but with a more regimented schedule as a starter, the Red Sox expect him to be healthy for the entire season.
But without him, the closer role falls to several possibilities, including set-up man Mike Timlin; Joel Pineiro, who was non-tendered by the Mariners; Craig Hansen; Manny Delcarmen or perhaps someone else. The Red Sox went down this road in 2003 when their bullpen by committee caused great commotion early in the season. They are determined to keep Papelbon in the rotation, but if a closer doesn't emerge, they may have to consider putting him back in the bullpen.
We're not just talking about the fifth spot here, we're basically talking about four spots. John Patterson is the de facto ace, but he has never won 10 games in a season. Patterson, in fact, won one game last year and he has a history of injuries. But he's still way better than the rest.
There are roughly 17 pitchers who will vie for four spots. The top nine potential starters won 11 major league games among them last year, as many as Mark Redman. Who will be the No. 2 starter? Tim Redding has a shot at it. He didn't pitch in the major leagues in 2006.
Jose Castillo is tremendously talented; he has 25-home run power and Gold Glove ability (great range and hands) at second base. But he has a tendency to lose his concentration (he often has forgotten to cover first base on a bunt, or hasn't gotten lined up correctly on cutoff plays), and had a questionable work ethic (to get the most out of him, he needs to be tended to with much care).
The plan is for Dan Johnson to win the job so Nick Swisher can play left field and Shannon Stewart can be the fourth outfielder (that will be an important job given the recent injuries to center fielder Mark Kotsay and right fielder Milton Bradley).
But if Johnson struggles at the plate as he did last spring and into last year, Swisher will have to return to first base, Stewart would play left and the others would have to stay healthy.
Corey Koskie will get the first look, but he doesn't appear to be 100 percent after suffering a concussion last year. If he doesn't start, Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino will platoon at third base, a la Rance Mulliniks and Garth Iorg of the old Blue Jays.
Bill Hall will move from the infield to center field, but left field and right field aren't clear. Corey Hart is expected to get a lot of playing time in left field, which could mean a trade for one or two of the other eight major league outfielders on the Brewers' roster. Most likely to go in a deal would be right-handed hitting Kevin Mench or Brady Clark.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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