Commentary

Six Grapefruit League position battles

Originally Published: March 3, 2008
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN.com

VIERA, Fla. -- Nick Johnson spent most of his days last year with his Washington Nationals teammates, at home or on the road, enjoying clubhouse camaraderie and rehabbing his surgically repaired right hip while eyeing a return to his job. As Johnson sat on the sideline, his replacement at first base, Dmitri Young, played so well that he earned National League comeback player of the year honors.

Young was so exceptional, in fact, that Nationals general manager Jim Bowden gave him a two-year, $10 million extension midway through last season. Johnson, meanwhile, continued fielding ground balls, taking batting practice on a wobbly leg and hoping he'd have a chance to reclaim his old job this spring.

Nick Johnson

Johnson

Dmitri Young

Young

Johnson, of course, does have a shot, but Young's got an opportunity to win the slot, too. So one of the more complicated and interesting position battles is being fought this spring in this obscure town filled with farmland. What's more, both men consider themselves close.

"He's a good player, a good friend," Johnson says as he and Young trade lighthearted barbs. "I like hanging out with him. He's fun, real fun. … We both want to play every day. So we just go out and have fun and let things happen. We both want to be here but there's only one spot."

Will the spot go to the 29-year-old Johnson, who hit .290 with 77 RBIs and 23 homers in 147 games in 2006 before breaking his leg? Or to Young, 34, who batted .320 with 74 RBIs and a .387 on-base percentage as an All-Star last year?

"It's out of both our control," says Young, who adds he's been asked too much about it already this spring. "Quite frankly, it gives people something to talk about. It's not my problem and it's not his problem."

Mets catcher Brian Schneider, who spent his entire career with the Expos/Nationals until joining New York this past offseason, is good friends with both players and declined to handicap the fight for first base.

"How do you sit either one of those guys on the bench?" Schneider says. "They're both guys that play every day and put up numbers. People forget how good of a year Nick had in 2005. People forgot what kind of year he had in '06. We all know what he's capable of doing."

Schneider also saw Young have an All-Star season up close in 2007.

"Dmitri asked to play at first base, and when he did, there was a reason he was comeback player of the year," Schneider says. "He came back and did amazing things. It meant a lot to him to make that All-Star team. And I was happy to see him get that. It's a tough situation they have there because they're both great ball players and both very good at what they do."

The tough decision will now fall on Bowden and manager Manny Acta. For now, they're willing to let it play out. And as many players point out, last year the team struggled with depth on the bench. But can it really come to that?

"We have so much time in front of us," Acta says, "we're just going to wait until the end of spring."

The favorite: Johnson

MORE GRAPEFRUIT LEAGUE BATTLES
CINCINNATI REDS
Position: Center field Contenders: Jay Bruce vs. Norris Hopper/Ryan Freel
This is spring training theater at its greatest: The Best Prospect in Baseball (Bruce) versus two guys who have done nothing to merit losing their jobs. "Society in our country has a need for new stars and to tear down old stars," says Reds manager Dusty Baker. "We're always looking for new stars, whether it's damaging to the new star or not." So the Reds have to weigh whether Bruce (hitting .500 this spring) is ready at age 20 -- and, if so, what the ripple effects are on the rest of their roster. -- Jayson Stark
THE FAVORITE: Hopper, for now
TAMPA BAY RAYS
Position: Third base Contenders: Evan Longoria vs. Willy Aybar/Joel Guzman
If this were just a baseball decision, with no dollar signs attached, it would seem easy. Remember, this team rearranged its whole infield to make room for Longoria, moving its starting third baseman (Akinori Iwamura) to second base. So you don't need to consult Miss Cleo to understand who's going to occupy third at some point. But these are the Rays we're talking about -- a team that has to consider all the financial ramifications of installing Longoria at third on Opening Day. It's hard to find anyone who has seen this guy who thinks he can't handle the big leagues at age 22, even after just 104 Triple-A at-bats. But if the Rays send Longoria (.400 this spring) out for half a season, it prevents his arbitration clock from ticking too soon. If they farm him out for even two weeks, it would delay his free-agent eligibility for an entire extra year. So it will be fascinating to see how they play this. -- Jayson Stark
THE FAVORITE: Longoria
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Position: Third base Contenders: Nomar Garciaparra vs. Andy LaRoche
The Dodgers' world is overstuffed with decisions like this: When is the time to move aside a big 30-something name for a potential star of tomorrow? What complicates this one is that Garciaparra is coming off such a mediocre year that it's tough to know what to make of him. And while LaRoche has a hefty offensive upside, he's still a defensive work in progress.
-- Jayson Stark
THE FAVORITE: Garciaparra (barely)
BOSTON RED SOX
Position: Center field Contenders: Jacoby Ellsbury vs. Coco Crisp
What the Red Sox really preferred to do was trade Crisp over the winter. But the slow-moving free-agent market screwed up Plan A. So he's back in Fort Myers, where the Sox have no choice but to give him a chance to keep his spot -- if only to maintain some semblance of his trade value. But we wish him luck trying to beat out a 24-year-old folk hero who hit .353 in 116 big-league at-bats and then batted .438 in the World Series. -- Jayson Stark
THE FAVORITE: Ellsbury
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Position: Left field Contenders: Shannon Stewart vs. Reed Johnson/Matt Stairs
Technicalities forced us to include Stairs in this competition. But in reality, he's already set as the left-handed half of this platoon, after a season in which he had a better slugging percentage (.552) than Vladimir Guerrero, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Lee. "He saved us last year," says manager John Gibbons. So this battle really comes down to Stewart, who just signed a minor league deal a week ago, versus Johnson, who's trying to return from back surgery. -- Jayson Stark
THE FAVORITE: Stewart