LJ Rader

Preseason Position Battles

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Spring Training Battles: AL

Monday, February 14, 2011

Temperatures across the U.S. jumped this weekend and are scheduled to rise rapidly over the coming days. This past Sunday I walked outside of my apartment in Nashville with shorts on for the first time since winter began. Spring is close, and along with it baseball. Pitchers and catcher are scheduled to report today, and spring training is slated to start in less than two weeks. We've finally reached the point where the term "too early" no longer applies. With that in mind, here is a look at the most important position battle each AL team is facing heading into spring training.

Angels: Catcher
Candidates: Jeff Mathis, Hank Conger, Bobby Wilson

Mathis sports a career .199 AVG over 1,079 major league plate appearances and below average defensive skills, though for some reason he's always been one of manager Mike Scioscia's favorites. With Mike Napoli out of town Mathis' main offseason competition is Hank Conger, a promising youngster with a major league ready bat but question marks surrounding his defense. Wilson is a career backup with some pop but little else.

Predicted outcome: G.M. Tony Reagins made it clear that Conger would be given a chance to win the starting job with a strong spring, though the odds are slim. Mathis will likely open the year as the team's starter with Wilson as his backup, forcing Conger down to Triple-A. Owners outside of dynasty leagues that draft early can safely avoid the Angels' catching situation, but should keep Conger's name in the back of their mind. The rookie has the talent to make a fantasy impact, though only with a full slate of at bats. It's hard to see that happening before mid-season.

Athletics: 5th starter
Candidates: Brandon McCarthy, Rich Harden, Josh Outman, Bobby Cramer
Darkhorse: Tyson Ross

Both McCarthy and Harden were brought in during the offseason on incentive based one-year contracts. Outman was working on a breakout sophomore campaign in 2009 that saw him post a 128 ERA+ over 14 games and 12 starts, but had to undergo Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow in June and hasn't pitched in the majors since. Cramer pitched 6 seasons in the minors before earning a September call-up in 2010. Ross, who battled through injuries and rookie blues in 2010, was named by Baseball America as Oakland's top pitching prospect heading into 2011.

Predicted outcome: Harden and McCarthy chose the A's over other teams because Oakland was willing to let them compete for a rotation spot. While Harden has the better stuff, his style makes him a prime target for bullpen duty, and he's said to be open to taking on a bullpen assignment if he can't land the 5th starter gig. McCarthy heads into spring training as the favorite to win the job, and as a homerun prone pitcher he could fit nicely in the spacious Coliseum if he secures the position in spring training. Outman would prove to be the better fantasy investment if he shows no ill effects from surgery, but that's far from a sure thing. He's worth keeping an eye on considering the promise he showed pre-injury. The odds of Cramer winning the job are miniscule, and Ross is best served starting 2011 in the pen or minors. In the end McCarthy may get the first crack, but he'll be on a short leash with the depth behind him.

Blue Jays, Closer
Candidates: Octavio Dotel, Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch, Jason Frasor

The last time a player led the Blue Jays in saves for two consecutive seasons was between 2000-2001, with Billy Koch holding the honor. The streak will continue in 2011, as 2010 leader Kevin Gregg signed an offseason contract with the Orioles. Jays G.M. Alex Anthopoulos brought in Dotel, Rauch, and Francisco this offseason, giving the bullpen four players with at least 32 career saves to their name (the aforementioned trio and Jason Frasor). Dotel was the favorite to win the job before Francisco joined the ranks late in the offseason, though he has the worst career numbers of the group. Last year Francisco bridged the gap for Neftali Feliz, and Rauch saved 21 games for the Twins before moving to a set-up role for Matt Capps. Frasor has been a consistent bullpen arm, but has never been a closer for an entire season.

Predicted outcome: Assuming new manager John Farrell favors going with a traditional closer, spring training will be the deciding factor in determining who gets the first crack. Anthopoulos revealed that he made an agreement with John Buck regarding playing time when he signed Buck last offseason, and it remains to be seen if a similar promise was made to Dotel. Even if Dotel gets the first chance, he's far from a guarantee to end the season as the team's closer. History suggests Francisco will end up posting better numbers, and right now it wouldn't be crazy to draft him over Dotel, even if he starts the season as the set-up man.

Indians, Third Baseman
Candidates: Jayson Nix, Luis Valbuena, Jared Goedert
Darkhorse: Lonnie Chisenhall

The Indians did little this offseason to position themselves for success in 2011, signing just one player (Austin Kearns) to a major league deal. While they head into the season with a number of question marks, their biggest spring training battle will take place at third base. Jayson Nix was a below replacement level player over 78 games in 2010, but he remains the current favorite to man the hot corner come opening day. Valbuena is a light hitting utility man that is best served providing versatility off the bench. Goedert, 25, has flashed serious power in the minors but has yet to play at the major league level. Chisenhall is BA's No. 36 prospect heading into 2011 and has the skills to be the team's third baseman for the next decade, though he's never played above Double-A.

Predicted outcome: Nix is the favorite to walk away from spring training as the starter, though he could quickly be pulled in favor of Valbuena or Goedert. It's a bit of false labeling on my part calling Chisenhall a "darkhorse," as the youngster is widely expected to begin the season at Triple-A. That being said, a strong spring training could convince the Tribe to call him up sooner rather than later, potentially before the end of the season. He's still a year away from being draft worthy outside of Dynasty and Keeper leagues, but he's certainly worth monitoring during the season. Standard fantasy leaguers should stay away from the Indians' third base situation come draft day if Nix indeed wins the job, though AL-only owners in deeper leagues needing power could scoop up Goedert as a $1 flier if he does enough to supplant Nix during the spring.

Mariners, Left Fielder / Designated Hitter
Candidates: Michael Saunders, Jack Cust, Milton Bradley

Bradley is currently in the midst of legal trouble stemming from his mid-January arrest for allegedly making a threat against an unidentified female. The 32-year-old veteran is a big health concern, and at this point in his career is little more than a backup corner outfielder/ part time DH. Cust is fresh off a .834 OPS for the Athletics as their primary DH in 2010. He'll serve in that same role for the Mariners in 2011. Saunders is a former prospect that I detailed in a AL-only post hype piece.

Predicted outcome: There's a strong possibility that Saunders starts in left and Cust at DH, with Bradley as a platoon player behind both. None of the three currently projects as having anything more than marginal fantasy value given the threat of lost at bats, though Saunders could come into play in AL-only leagues if Bradley's legal woes force the M's to move on. It's not the sexiest spring training battle, but Saunders' potential as a HR/SB threat makes it one worth monitoring.

Orioles, 5th starter
Candidates: Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman

The Orioles showed a lot of fire under skipper Buck Showalter, going 34-23 to finish out the season after playing under Dave Trembley and Juan Samuel. It's not crazy to think the team could approach .500 in 2011, something they haven't accomplished since 1997. Fueling the excitement in Baltimore is the emergence of some legitimate young pitchers, two of which will battle it out in spring training for the team's final rotation spot. Arrieta made BA's top-100 prospect list the previous two seasons, and made his debut in 2010, pitching to a 4.66 ERA and 1.535 WHIP over 100 1/3 innings. Tillman was a big piece in the Erik Bedard trade and was named BA's No. 67 and No. 22 prospect in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Like Arrieta, Tillman has struggled in his brief time in the majors, posting a 5.61 ERA and 1.542 WHIP over 118 2/3 innings over the course of two seasons.

Predicted outcome: This one may never come to fruition, as there's a decent chance either Brad Bergesen or Justin Duchscherer – both slated to begin the season in the rotation – suffers an injury in spring training. Knock on wood for O's fans, both will stay healthy, leaving the No. 5 gig for the taking by either Arrieta and Tillman. Arrieta is the early favorite, as he throws four pitches and consistently sits his fastball in the 90s. Both pitchers have great minor league pedigrees that would suggest potential early season success isn't a fluke, but for now keep their names stashed as future waiver wire adds.

Rangers, Closer
Candidates: Neftali Feliz, Alexi Ogando, Mark Lowe, Darren Oliver, Arthur Rhodes

The Rangers are intent on stretching out Feliz as a starter during spring training, meaning players will be auditioning for the closer role in case the club is serious about moving their superstar into the rotation. Ogando is a converted outfielder that burst onto the scene in 2010 with a 1.128 WHIP and 1.30 ERA over 41.2 innings, all out of the pen. Lowe had a terrific 2009 in Seattle and was dealt along with Cliff Lee to Texas at the 2010 deadline. A back injury forced him to miss the remainder of the 2010 regular season. Oliver and Rhodes are veteran lefties that are still extremely effective despite their age (40 and 41, respectively).

Predicted outcome: As of now it would be surprising if Feliz moved to the pen, as the Rangers have plenty of depth to fill their final two rotation spots. If the Rangers do decide to use Feliz as a starter and go with a tradition single closer, Ogando would likely be their first choice. He's still extremely raw, but the upside is immense. Lowe would likely be the next choice if he proves to be healthy, while Rhodes and Oliver would step in if needed. Even if Feliz stays as a closer, Ogando is worth owning in leagues that use holds as one of the AL's top set-up men.

Rays, Closer
Candidates: Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, J.P. Howell
Darkhorse: Jake McGee

Rafael Soriano, Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour, and Joaquin Benoit have all moved on, leaving Tampa Bay with a bevy of bullpen question marks. Who gets the ball to end games is the biggest decision looming for Joe Maddon. Farnsworth has the most closer experience among the new-look bullpen (27 saves over 12 seasons). Howell had 17 saves in 2009, but missed all of 2010 after tearing his labrum. Peralta put up incredible numbers in 2010 but was aided by fluky outside variables. McGee is a top starter prospect that saw time in 2010 (5 innings over 8 games) out of the pen after earning a September call-up.

Predicted outcome: The Rays are planning to use a closer-by-committee approach, and one has to figure they'll open the season mixing the righty Farnsworth and the lefty McGee in the ninth. Howell, a lefty, won't be ready for opening day, and it remains to be seen if he can recapture his pre-surgery form. Peralta will start the season in a set-up role and should see his statistics quickly regress. The Rays are concerned about McGee's lack of experience in high leverage situations, not necessarily his ability. While spring training won't give them the opportunity to evaluate him in such a setting, his performance during the late innings during the first few weeks will. If he starts strong and continues to succeed as the team phases out Farnsworth, he'll be an asset for the remainder of the season.

Red Sox, Shortstop
Candidates: Marco Scutaro, Jed Lowrie, Jose Iglesias

The battle for the shortstop job in Boston figures to be one of the league's bigger storylines this spring given Boston's label as the early favorite to win the AL pennant. It's an interesting battle too, as it pits one of Theo Epstein's rare transactional mistakes against the team's former shortstop of the future. Lowrie, the latter, played well over 260 at bats in 2008, but missed a majority of 2009 due to wrist surgery and a knee ailment. His health concerns were enough to prompt the signing of Scutaro to a two-year, $12.5 million deal that offseason. Scutaro struggled in 2010, while Lowrie - who missed the start of the season due to mono - excelled to the tune of a .907 OPS and 9 HRs over 171 at bats. Iglesias could step into the lineup and win a gold glove, yet his hitting still needs to be refined.

Predicted outcome: Scutaro and Lowrie will duke it out, as the slick fielding Iglesias will likely start the season in Triple-A. Scutaro currently stands as the starter, though a motivated and healthy Lowrie could easily make a case during spring training to be on the field come opening day. This one will likely come down to Boston's willingness to admit their mistake in signing Scutaro. Should they chose to move Scutaro to the bench, Lowrie would become a great late round option in mixed leagues as a MI, given his eligibility at SS and 2B, ability to hit for average, and position in Boston's potent lineup.

Royals, Centerfielder
Candidates: Melky Cabrera, Lorenzo Cain

A majority of Cabrera's hype with the Yankees came not from consistent play but from his ability to muscle out timely hits. That being said, his awful .671 OPS with the Braves in 2010 (.045 points below his career average) came as a surprise. The Royals are banking on a rebound in 2011 after signing him to a low-risk, one-year, $1.25 million deal following his offseason release by the Braves. Cain was a mid-level prospect that became highly touted after he posted an impressive .306/.348/.415 slash line and stole 7 bases in 8 attempts as a 24-year-old rookie in 2010. The Brewers sold high during the offseason, including him as a major chip in the Zack Greinke trade.

Predicted outcome: This one will likely play out over the course of the entire spring training, though it's hard to imagine Cain not being the opening day starter. He's more talented, has the higher upside, and fits the profile of the new look Royals. If he does win the job and a full season worth of at bats, he has the potential to post 40-plus steals. He won't kill you in batting average, either, but don't expect big HR or RBI numbers. Cabrera shouldn't be drafted even if he wins the starting job.

Tigers, Set Up Man
Candidates: Joel Zumaya, Joaquin Benoit, Ryan Perry

Fantasy leaguers that use holds as a category will be paying close attention to see who emerges as the Tigers set-up man ahead of closer Jose Valverde. Joel Zumaya had his 2010 cut short after he fractured his throwing elbow in July, yet claimed to be 100% healthy and ready to go in early January. Benoit was signed to a monster three-year, $16.5 million contract this offseason after posting a solid 1.34 ERA and 75/11 K/BB ratio over 60 1/3 innings for the Rays last season. Perry was drafted in the first round in 2008 as the team's closer of the future. He made his debut in 2009 pitching in garbage time, but saw a jump in high leverage situations in 2010 and still managed to maintain solid numbers.

Predicted outcome: Zumaya may claim to be in perfect health, yet the team will want to see him go through spring training without any setbacks. If he does prove to be healthy, he'll begin the season as the favorite to pitch the 8th in front of Valverde. Benoit's 2010 was slightly fluky, yet the Tigers aren't paying him $16.5 million to pitch in blowouts. He should see some time in the 8th and could pick up a handful of wins. Perry figures to pitch the 7th and sometimes the 8th and may also tally some wins on late inning comebacks. All three pitchers have value in deep AL-only leagues that count holds, though as of now Zumaya is slated to be the primary set-up man and the best option of the trio.

Twins, 4th and 5th starter
Candidates: Brian Duensing, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey

All three candidates were expected to make the Twins rotation before the team's offseason re-signing of Carl Pavano. Duensing had an impressive 1.80 ERA in 45 innings out of the bullpen in 2010 before going 7-2 with a 3.05 ERA in 13 starts to end the season. Blackburn (pictured above) was one of baseball's biggest roller coaster rides in 2010, posting a 6.85 ERA in April, 2.65 mark in May, and 10.04 total over June and July. He was demoted late in July but ended the season with a 3.16 ERA in his final 57 innings. Slowey has a career 39-21 record with a 4.57 K/BB ratio but has been hampered by injuries and inconsistency throughout his major league tenure.

Predicted outcome: Duensing is a favorite to secure the 4th starter role, leaving Blackburn and Slowey to battle it out for the final gig in the rotation. Neither pitcher is extremely appealing draft wise, and the loser figures to find his name on the trading block. That being said, Blackburn would have some value as a spot starter during the season if he wins the job, considering his history of streakiness.

White Sox, Closer
Candidates: Matt Thornton, Chris Sale

The lefty Thornton has been a fixture in the White Sox's bullpen over the last five seasons, averaging a 3.19 ERA and 1.152 WHIP while pitching in high-pressure situations. His ERA and WHIP over the past three years are a cool 2.70 and 1.028, and he's shown time and again the ability to neutralize both lefties and righties. Sale was the Sox's first round pick in 2010 out of Florida Gulf Coast University and become the first draft pick of his class to make it to the majors, debuting on August 6th, 2010.

Predicted outcome: Ozzie Guillen intends to name a singular closer before the end of spring training, but this battle ultimately hinges on the health of Jake Peavy's shoulder. If Peavy is healthy enough to participate in spring activities and shows signs of being ready for opening day, Sale would be used in the bullpen and would be in the running to win the closer job. If not, Sale would take Peavy's spot in the rotation and Thornton would take over closer duties. Sale and Thornton are worth owning regardless of Peavy's health, yet both stand to gain a boost in value if given the closer job.

Yankees, 4th and 5th starter

Candidates: Ivan Nova, Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Sergio Mitre
Darkhorses: Andrew Brackman, Dellin Betances

Rotational depth has been the least of the Yankees' concerns in recent years, though the failed offseason courting of Cliff Lee and retirement of Andy Pettitte has left two open spots behind CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, and A.J. Burnett. Ivan Nova pitched well as a rookie in 2010 and figures to be the early favorite for the No. 4 job. Mitre was wildly inconsistent last year, while Colon and Garcia were both brought in during the offseason on minor league deals. Brackman is a former top prospect that had a bounce-back 2010 in the minors after previously suffering a rash of injuries. Betances is an impressive arm that will audition for the 5th starter job but should ultimately find himself starting the season in Triple-A.

Predicted outcome: Nova should nail down the No. 4 gig, leaving the main battle to be fought between Colon, Garcia, Mitre, and Brackman. Garcia gives up a ton of fly balls and figures to get torched in Yankee Stadium, while Colon hasn't been an effective pitcher since his 2005 Cy Young season. Both are uninspiring options and Mitre is no better, with a career 1.496 WHIP and 1.82 K/BB ratio. Brackman is a wildcard that should end up joining Betances in Triple-A. In the end it wouldn't be surprising to see the Yanks sign Kevin Millwood or make a run for Francisco Liriano, but for now consider Garcia the front runner heading into spring training. If any of the Yankees' current candidates wins the job out of camp, they remain a long shot to have it come mid-season. As of now Nova is the only one in the group with value, and even he's no more than a late-round AL-only pick.

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