- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Spring training is under way, and J.D. Drew's back is achy, Alex Rodriguez is clearing his throat for the introductory news conference and Manny Ramirez and the Dodgers are still enmeshed in those ongoing contract discussions.
We're also about to embark on a ceremonial rite of February and March -- the vaunted "position battle'' at camps throughout Florida and Arizona.
In this early Cactus and Grapefruit League installment of Starting 9, we take a snapshot of some competitions that could range from spirited to downright intense over the next few weeks. May the best man win.
Red Sox shortstop
Julio Lugo's first experience as a utility man was one to forget. Before signing a four-year, $36 million contract with Boston, Lugo spent two months feeling uncomfortable and miscast as a bench player with the Dodgers.
"I couldn't catch a rhythm because they would have me playing one day, then I wouldn't play for two or three days, and I'm not that type of guy,'' Lugo told reporters upon joining the Red Sox in the spring of 2007. "I have to get out there and play.''
To earn more time in Boston, Lugo might want to consider actually playing well. He followed up a terrible first year in Boston with a .685 OPS in 82 games last season. When Lugo suffered a torn quadriceps, rookie Jed Lowrie stepped in, played a proficient shortstop and drove in 46 runs in 260 at-bats.
Lowrie, a selfless, fundamentally-sound "dirtbag,'' wouldn't be offended with bouncing around in a utility role at this stage of his career. And since Lugo is owed $18 million through 2010, the Red Sox would love to recoup their investment in him as their regular shortstop. But manager Terry Francona went into camp with an open mind, and the situation will play out over the next few weeks in Fort Myers.
The sense of anticipation in Mesa, Ariz., isn't as pronounced as last year, when manager Lou Piniella was resigned to giving daily updates on where Kerry Wood, Bob Howry and Carlos Marmol stood in the Cubs' closer derby.
Now Wood is in Cleveland and Howry is a Giant, so it's natural to assume that Marmol will ascend to the closer role. But Piniella loves competition in spring training, so the Cubs haven't ruled out former Marlin Kevin Gregg as closer and Marmol continuing to do the heavy lifting in the seventh and eighth innings.
Marmol is probably more valuable as a set-up man, working out of jams with all those strikeouts. But a move to closer might be the best thing for his future, if only as a hedge against overuse. Marmol ranked third in the National League with 82 appearances last year, and showed the strain in June when his control took a hiatus and he posted a 7.36 ERA.
The Cubs need to handle Marmol with care. After his busy workload last season, Marmol shut it down early at the club's request in winter ball. Now he's scheduled to close for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic.
Cardinals second baseman
The Cardinals set the stage for a second base free-for-all when they released Adam Kennedy last week after general manager John Mozeliak tried unsuccessfully to trade him.
The candidates to replace Kennedy include Skip Schumaker, Brendan Ryan, Jarrett Hoffpauir and former Dodgers prospect Joe Thurston, who impressed the Cardinals with his performance in winter ball in Puerto Rico. Problem is, Thurston is 29 years old and with his sixth professional organization.
Schumaker is the most intriguing candidate. He hit .302 in 540 at-bats last season, but is in danger of getting squeezed by the team's outfield glut. A move to second would help ease the congestion, but Schumaker hasn't played in the middle infield since his Cal-Santa Barbara days.
"We're trying not to put any undue pressure on him,'' said Cardinals GM John Mozeliak. "He's a very athletic player, and if we could find a way to get his bat into the lineup, it would be a very big boost for us.''
There are plenty of external options, from Orlando Hudson to Ray Durham to former Cardinal Mark Grudzielanek. But the Cardinals are close to tapped financially, and they don't want to surrender a draft pick as compensation for signing Hudson. Manager Tony La Russa and the front office plan to see how things shake out in spring training before the Cardinals seriously consider a trade or a signing.
Johnny Damon, whose 118 OPS+ a year ago tied the best single-season mark of his career, will get the bulk of the left field at-bats, which leaves Xavier Nady and Nick Swisher in the mix in right and Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner competing for time in center.
With the arrival of Mark Teixeira and expectations for a stronger season from Robinson Cano, the Yankees should have enough offense that they can emphasize defense and speed in center field. GM Brian Cashman explored the trade market for Swisher and Nady with no success, so manager Joe Girardi will have to find a way to keep them both sharp and productive.
Hideki Matsui is in line for most of the DH at-bats, but Nady will see some time there against tough left-handers. And Teixeira will get periodic breaks at DH while Swisher fills in at first base.
Braves fifth starter
A lot of teams have healthy fifth starter competitions going into spring training. Atlanta's main National League East competitors, the Phillies and Mets, both have some decisions to make at the back end of their rotations in camp.
Still, few managers have more options at their disposal than Atlanta's Bobby Cox.
After Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, Javier Vazquez and Kenshin Kawakami slot into the first four spots, Cox will take a look at 10-game winner Jorge Campillo, Charlie Morton, Jo-Jo Reyes and James Parr. Tommy Hanson, the organization's top prospect, is almost ready to kick in the door, while Tim Hudson is expected back from Tommy John surgery in August.
Things will get even more complicated this week when Tom Glavine, as expected, returns to the Braves for a final go-round at age 43.
Rays right field
The contingent of Gabe Gross, Eric Hinske and Jonny Gomes helped Tampa Bay rank fifth in the majors with 28 homers from the right field spot last season. Now manager Joe Maddon will have a new cast of characters to divvy up the at-bats.
The early signs point toward an all-Gabe platoon of Gross and Kapler in right. Gross has a .786 career OPS against righties, while Kapler checks in at .828 vs. lefties.
Maddon recently said defense could be a factor, and Perez, who can fly, covers the most ground of anybody in this group. But the Rays have enough depth that they might send Joyce and Perez to Durham, where they'll combine with Justin Ruggiano to make up a very good Triple-A outfield.
The Rays still have Carl Crawford in left field and B.J. Upton, recovering from shoulder surgery, in center. Ben Zobrist is capable of playing all three outfield spots, and new DH Pat Burrell will keep his glove within reach in case of emergency.
One of manager Jim Leyland's principal goals is getting a better performance from his bullpen, which went 22-30 with a 4.69 ERA last year and ranked fourth in the majors in blown saves.
Now that Todd Jones is kicking back and writing columns for the Sporting News, newcomer Brandon Lyon will get first crack at the job. Lyon is primarily a contact guy, which could be worrisome for an aging team that ranked 24th in the majors in defensive efficiency in 2008.
If Lyon doesn't seize the job in Florida, Fernando Rodney is next in line. He's had health issues, and walked a whopping 30 batters in 40 1/3 innings last season.
Joel Zumaya, of course, has the best stuff of anybody. He arrived in camp sporting a beard, looking trimmer and tinkering with a new changeup to offset his arsenal of hard stuff. But the Tigers would rather not push him too hard after injuries limited him to a total of 57 innings in 2007 and 2008.
Zumaya also has 81 walks in 140 1/3 career innings. Think Leyland won't be nervous in the dugout watching that?
Manager Ron Gardenhire caused a stir during the Fargo, N.D., leg of the Twins' winter caravan, when he ruminated publicly about an outfield alignment of Michael Cuddyer in right field, Carlos Gomez in center and Denard Span in left. That must have come as a surprise to Delmon Young, who has to wonder where he fits in the equation.
Gardenhire has since made it clear that he's open-minded, but he has some work to do in sorting through his options.
Cuddyer has two years and $16.25 million left on his contract, and the Twins aren't accustomed to giving that kind of coin to bench guys. He also provides some needed power from the right side. But he missed 91 games with injuries last season, and with the exception of a big 2006 season, he's yet to fulfill his early promise as a former first-round draft pick.
Gomez might cover more ground than any center fielder in baseball, but he strikes out a ton and has a .295 on-base percentage in the majors. Young picked up the pace after the All-Star break, but slugged an unimpressive .405. And while Span was terrific last season, it's always a little more challenging the second time around the league.
The Twins could solve the problem by shifting Cuddyer to third base, the position at which he broke into pro ball. While Cuddyer might take some ground balls in spring training, no one in Minnesota is very enthused over that scenario.
The Texas organization is sufficiently flush with catching that general manager Jon Daniels could afford to trade Gerald Laird to Detroit in December. That still leaves Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Taylor Teagarden and Max Ramirez in the mix for at-bats in Arlington this season.
Barring a surprise, the Rangers will probably break camp with a Saltalamacchia-Teagarden combination, with Saltalamacchia in line for 60-70 percent of the at-bats. Teagarden, who has endured Tommy John surgery and a wrist injury, hit a combined .211 with Double-A Frisco and Triple-A Oklahoma in 2008.
Huston Street and Manny Corpas for closer in Colorado; Jonathan Sanchez and Noah Lowry for the final spot in San Francisco's rotation; St. Louis's closer competition; a surplus of outfielders and first basemen in Washington; Aaron Boone and Geoff Blum at third base in Houston; Matt Wieters' bid to make Baltimore's Opening Day roster; Chris Getz, Jayson Nix and Brent Lillibridge for the White Sox second base job; Oakland's first base/DH/right field mix.
1dKevin Van Valkenburg