D.J. Short

Draft Strategy

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NL Position Battles

Friday, February 17, 2012

We're just a couple days away from pitchers and catchers reporting to their respective camps in Florida and Arizona, so here's a preview of some National League position battles to keep an eye on this spring. This isn't meant to be a comprehensive list, so stay tuned to our player news page for all the latest updates. I'll have a preview of American League position battles before the exhibition schedule gets underway.

You can find projections for all of the players mentioned below in Rotoworld's Online Draft Guide. It's chock full of nearly 1,000 player profiles, customizable and printable cheat sheets, ADP (Average Draft Position) reports, positional tiers, keeper and prospect rankings, depth charts and much, much more. By the way, you can also pick up the draft guide on the iPhone or iPad this year. You officially have no excuse for being unprepared on draft day.

Giants' first base

Nate Schierholtz, Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera currently look like the favorites to start in the Giants' outfield this season, which means Aubrey Huff and young Brandon Belt will battle it out for the starting first base job during spring training.

Huff is coming off a terrible year in which he batted just .246/.306/.370 with 12 homers and a .676 OPS, but he has made an effort to get back into shape this winter after being called out publicly by manager Bruce Bochy. The 35-year-old is owed $10 million this season while his contract includes a $10 million option for 2013 or a $2 million buyout, so while it pains me to say it, he'll probably have to be pretty awful during Cactus League action for the Giants to give up on him completely.

Belt batted just .225/.306/.412 with nine homers and a .718 OPS over 209 plate appearances in his rookie season, but I wouldn't take those numbers too seriously as an aggregate since he received sporadic playing time at the big league level and also dealt with a hairline fracture in his wrist at the end of May. "The Baby Giraffe" has a 147/140 K/BB ratio over 825 plate appearances at the minor league level and his power appears to be very real.

Belt is clearly the more appealing option from a fantasy perspective, so the hope is that he gives the Giants no other choice but to make him the primary starter at first and push Huff to the bench or possibly a time-share in left field. Bochy tends to lean toward veterans, so I'm not holding my breath there. But one can hope, right?

Dodgers' closer

OK, so maybe it's unfair to call this an official position battle. All indications are that Javy Guerra will enter spring training as the favorite for the closer role, which is probably how it should be after he posted a 2.31 ERA, 21 saves and a 38/18 K/BB ratio over 46 2/3 innings last year. But I'm not so sure he'll be able to hold off Kenley Jansen for much longer.

While Jansen was overshadowed by NL Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel last season, his strikeout rate (16.10 K/9) was actually the highest ever for a pitcher with at least 50 innings pitched. And though he got off to a bit of a slow start, he had a ridiculous 0.55 ERA over his final 31 appearances. The converted catcher also had DL stints with shoulder inflammation and an irregular heartbeat, so he doesn't come without some health concerns, but it's easy to see why he's going higher than Guerra in a lot of mock drafts right now.

Guerra's success last year was largely built on unexpected progress with his command relative to his underwhelming minor league numbers and a pretty fortunate home run rate (two allowed over 46 2/3 innings), even though he doesn't profile as a ground ball specialist. His strikeout rate wasn't all that special either (7.33 K/9), so If he regresses even a little bit and Jansen picks off from where he left off last year, the job could switch hands pretty early. Heck, it might happen even if Guerra manages to duplicate his peripherals.

Rockies' No. 3-5 starters

Some people collect baseball cards. Others collect stamps or antique radios. But Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd? He collects arms. Lots of them. That doesn't sound creepy at all.

Jhoulys Chacin and the newly-acquired Jeremy Guthrie appear to have spots in the Rockies' rotation locked up, but beyond that, well, it gets a little tricky. Juan Nicasio, Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Guillermo Moscoso, Tyler Chatwood, Josh Outman, Esmil Rogers and Jamie Moyer are all in the mix for the final three spots. By, the way, Nicasio and Rogers were the only ones who were even in the Rockies' organization this time last year.

We've heard nothing but good things so far about Nicasio, who suffered a fractured C-1 vertebrae when he took a line drive off the head last August. He began facing hitters last month and Rockies manager Jim Tracy said Thursday that he'll have no restrictions during spring training. Keeping things in perspective, it's pretty amazing that he's even healthy enough to play baseball again, but if he can recapture the form that led to a promising 4.14 ERA and 58/18 K/BB ratio over 71 2/3 innings as a rookie last year, he could end up being a nice sleeper in mixed formats.

Pomeranz and White, who were acquired from the Indians in the Ubaldo Jimenez deal last July, are two names who should be on your radar for the long haul. One or both could make the rotation out of camp, but given their inexperience and the wealth of options in camp, it's possible they'll be sent down to the minors to begin the season.

There's a good chance that Moscoso ends up with a spot after posting a superficially impressive 3.37 ERA and a 74/38 K/BB ratio over 128 innings with the A's in 2011, but he had a 4.70 ERA away from pitcher-friendly O.co Coliseum. He's primarily a fly ball pitcher, so things could ugly in Colorado pretty quickly. Chatwood logged 142 innings as a 21-year-old with the Angels last season, but he also had an underwhelming 74/71 K/BB ratio to go along with a 4.75 ERA and probably needs more seasoning in the minors. Outman dealt with some command issues last season in his first year back from Tommy John surgery, but he has pretty good stuff and owns a  3.75 ERA over 151 1/3 innings in the big leagues. If the southpaw doesn't win a rotation spot, he could be a good fit for the bullpen. Rogers and the 49-year-old Moyer (who missed last season following Tommy John surgery) are unlikely to make an impact in fantasy leagues.

One name to keep an eye on is Jorge De La Rosa, who is working back from Tommy John surgery last June. He's expected to throw bullpen sessions during spring training and should begin a minor league rehab assignment shortly after the regular season begins. If all goes well, he could be back with the Rockies in May or June. De La Rosa was never a control specialist to begin with (career 4.5 BB/9, 4.0 BB/9 since 2007), so it will be interesting to see whether he struggles with his command initially.

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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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