D.J. Short

Preseason Position Battles

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Open Competition

Thursday, March 18, 2010


We've entered the third week of the exhibition schedule, which means that position battles are starting to become all the rage. You know, like foursquare or something. By the way, I just became the mayor of my basement apartment. Long story. Anyway, a number of these competitions may have an impact on how you will draft your team. Others won't, depending on what format you play in. The important thing to keep in mind is that even if you own the player who wins the Opening Day nod, you shouldn't rest on your laurels.

Sure, someone will inevitably scoop up the jobs detailed below, but that doesn't mean they will keep them. If anything, you should know that if I am highlighting them here, that means their grip on the job will probably tenuous at best. For example, last year Jason Motte, Kevin Gregg, Brandon Morrow and Brad Ziegler, were officially or unofficially named their team's closers by Opening Day. And we all know how that turned out.

One of the best ways you can prepare yourself for the season ahead is to purchase the new Rotoworld Draft Guide. Besides having the opportunity to read more thoughts by me, you can hook yourself up with tons of player projections, cheat sheets and of course, the ever-valuable, constantly-updating Average Draft Position (ADP).

With that out of the way, let's meet the participants.

Blue Jays closer

One of the more hotly-contested battles, Jason Frasor, Scott Downs and the aforementioned Gregg are all candidates for ninth-inning duties in Toronto. And appropriately, they all put zeros on the board against the Orioles on Wednesday. On the very same day, manager Cito Gaston said two rather noteworthy things to Jordan Bastian of MLB.com. One, he stated his intention to announce a primary closer before the start of the season, killing the notion of a closer-by-committee. And perhaps most interestingly, he at least suggested that Downs would be comfortable with returning to his familiar set-up role. And wouldn't you know it, Downs is the only one of the three to not allow a run this spring.

Gregg, of course, was signed to a one-year, $2.75 million contract in February, meanwhile Frasor's name has been tossed around in numerous trade rumors over recent weeks. Thus, logic dictates that Gregg should be the favorite for saves, right? Not so fast. According to Bastian -- who covers the team on a daily basis -- he thinks that Frasor will ultimately win the job. Get that? There's a reason neither are currently among the top 250 players off the board according to our current ADP data. We're nowhere close to a resolution here.

Yankees fifth starter

Alfredo Aceves, Chad Gaudin and Sergio Mitre are all being given chances, but we all know it will likely come down to Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain. And if you've listened to the New York tabloids this week, it appears Hughes (2.08 ERA in 8 2/3 spring innings) is the early favorite. Many believed Chamberlain was on the ropes before his appearance against the Phillies on Wednesday, and while I don't believe that to be the case, he turned in four strong unofficial innings to at least silence the critics.

However the Yankees intend to make this decision, you shouldn't pay too much attention to the boxscores. Why? Because even though Hughes tossed four scoreless innings against the Astros on Tuesday night, he did so against what was effectively the team's "B" squad -- i.e., Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman (obviously) weren't even in the lineup and many of the regulars had left by the time Hughes had entered the game.

The Yankees are reportedly more focused on Hughes utilizing his changeup more effectively and Chamberlain's ability to be more economical with his pitches, something he did quite well on Wednesday. Even if Hughes wins this job, I'm not convinced he'll actually spend the entire year in the rotation. Remember, Hughes has never thrown more than 146 innings in a season -- and that was way back in 2006 -- so eventually he'd be subject to an innings limit. Just something to keep in mind. Though Hughes has yet to crack the Top 250 according to our ADP data, I believe both pitchers are worthy of being selected in the later rounds. Obviously, whoever starts the season in the Bombers' rotation has immediate value in mixed leagues.

Rockies catcher

You know, it might be unfair to call this a battle exclusive to spring training, because I have a feeling they will be jockeying for the starting job all season long. Manager Jim Tracy basically said as much on Wednesday, stopping short of calling it a platoon, but hinting that both Chris Iannetta and Miguel Olivo will get significant playing time. It's obviously a blow for those who planned to select Iannetta as a possible sleeper.

Colorado signed Olivo to a one-year, $2.5 million contract in early January after talks with Yorvit Torrealba reached a stalemate. So far, Olivo has impressed his new manager, going 8-for-20 (.381) with one home run and five RBI. However, Iannetta has been equal to the task, batting .389 (7-for-18) with six RBI, including a two-run triple against an Indians' split-squad team on Wednesday.

We all know the immense power that Iannetta possesses -- he homered once every 18.1 at-bats last season -- good enough for third among MLB catchers. But did you know that Olivo homered once every 17 at-bats? You shouldn't have to ask who the better catcher is in reality. Iannetta's .361 career on-base percentage and this study by Driveline Mechanics should provide some obvious clarity there. But Olivo was the more valuable catcher in fantasy terms last season. That being said, if Tracy continues to give Iannetta the Torrealba treatment, you should consider tempering your expectations.


Cubs and Dodgers second base

I'm lumping these together because none of the candidates involved are expected to be relevant in mixed leagues, however they could have some obvious value in NL-only leagues. Right now, it appears Mike Fontenot, who struggled to a .236/.301/.377 batting line last season, will be Lou Piniella's primary second baseman against right-handers, while Jeff Baker, who batted .305/.362/.448 after coming over to the Cubs last season, will play against lefties.

It looks like an ideal platoon situation. Granted, it was only 52 at-bats, but Fontenot batted .212/.246/.308 against southpaws last season while the righty-swinging Baker has an 889 career OPS in 256 at-bats against left-handed pitching. Remember that Fontentot managed a .276 batting average on balls in play last season, as opposed to his .310 career mark in the majors and .342 in the minor leagues, so even though he was exposed as everyday player, we should see at least some improvement in that area this season. He doesn't steal bases, but there's real double-digit home run upside here. He's worth an investment.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Blake DeWitt is starting to emerge as the favorite for the starting second base job, batting .360 (9-for-25) with one home run and three RBI during exhibition action. His main competition, Ronnie Belliard, has just nine at-bats this spring and his $850,000 contract will not become guaranteed unless he weighs 209 pounds or less at some point during spring training.

Now, DeWitt shouldn't be a stranger to fantasy owners. The former first-round pick batted .264/.344/.383 with nine home runs and 52 RBI as a 22-year-old with the Dodgers in 2008 while Nomar Garciaparra was on the mend. His stock has fallen over the past year – and the sporadic call-ups to the big leagues probably didn't help his .256/.349/.426 batting line at Triple-A Albuquerque -- but fantasy owners should look for some hope in his fluky .273 batting average in balls in play and the fact that he walked (48) more than he struck out (44) for the first time in his professional career. Don't let a mere 49 at-bats at the big league level last season scare you away. DeWitt's transition to second base will ultimately tell the tale, but if he beats out Belliard, he has the potential to reward you with double-digit home runs at a bargain basement price.

Royals second base and third base

Here's one for the AL-only set. Alex Gordon's recent thumb injury has provided an opportunity for two players who otherwise would have been sharing time at second base – Alberto Callaspo and Chris Getz. Now, the displaced Callaspo – who surprisingly batted .300/.356/.457 with 11 homers and 73 RBI last season -- will have at least a brief window to prove he is capable of playing third base. God bless Dayton Moore, but according to Bob Dutton of the Kansas City Star, there's a growing sentiment among club officials that Callaspo might actually be a better option at the position than a healthy Gordon. I'm skeptical if he can hit more than 10 home runs again, but whether it's at second or third base, Callaspo is obviously too good of a hitter to be sitting on the bench. By the way, he's batting .448 (13-for-29) this spring.

As for Getz, let's just say he's not making the most of his opportunity thus far. The 26-year-old second baseman has just two hits in his first 20 at-bats this spring (.100). And generally speaking, his .261/.324/.347 batting line with a measly two homers and 31 RBI in 375 at-bats with the White Sox last season was pretty underwhelming. But in fantasy terms, the most intriguing part of Getz's game was that he went 25-for-27 in stolen base attempts. Getz never stole that many bases at any level before last season and he isn't exactly a speed demon, but with that kind of success rate, it's worth wondering what he could do with a full season.


D.J. Short is a Rotoworld baseball editor and contributes to NBCSports.com's Hardball Talk blog. You can also find him on Twitter.
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