D.J. Short

Draft Strategy

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AL Position Battles

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The beginning of the exhibition schedule is mere days away, so here's a look at some position battles in the American League. This isn't intended to be a comprehensive list, so stay tuned for our player news page for all the latest developments.

I previewed some position battles in the National League two weeks ago, which you can find by going here, but keep in mind that everything I wrote about the Astros' closer job is irrelevant since Brett Myers is now expected to take the job. Thanks a lot, guys.

One excellent way to weigh your options with these various position battles is by picking up Rotoworld's Online Draft Guide. It includes over 900 player profiles, customizable and printable cheat sheets, depth charts, projected lineups, positional tiers and much, much more. Get prepared. Draft day will be here before you know it.

Yankees' fifth starter

Yankees manager Joe Girardi indicated Tuesday that CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda are the only starting pitchers locked into rotation spots, but it's pretty hard to believe that Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova won't also be there. With A.J. Burnett now in Pittsburgh, that leaves Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes vying for the final spot.

Garcia might look like the favorite on paper after posting a 3.62 ERA and 96/45 K/BB ratio over 146 2/3 innings with the Bombers last season. However, his velocity dropped for the third straight year and his strand rate (77.1 percent) was well above his career average and the league average. The Yankees brought him back on a one-year, $4 million deal over the winter, but he looks like a poor bet for a repeat.

Hughes is coming off a disappointing year in which he posted a 5.79 ERA and 47/27 K/BB ratio across 74 2/3 innings. The 25-year-old right-hander hit the disabled list last April with what was described as a dead arm, but he regained some velocity in the minors and compiled a 4.48 ERA and 44/23 K/BB ratio over 64 1/3 innings after being activated from the disabled list in July. Hughes reportedly dropped 20 pounds over the winter and while he's far from a lock to bounce back to his 2010 form, he's at least coming to camp motivated.

Part of me wonders whether the Yankees will go the safe route with Garcia since he has virtually no experience out of the bullpen (two relief appearances over his entire 13-year career), but it's probably unlikely unless Hughes' fastball is M.I.A. once again. I'd much prefer Hughes over Garcia based on upside and Girardi seems to be leaning the same way via some of his early comments down in Tampa. If Hughes ultimately gets the nod, he'll be worth a late-round flier in most mixed formats.

Athletics' closer

The Athletics traded Andrew Bailey to the Red Sox in December and rumors of a potential acquisition of Rangers' right-hander Koji Uehara failed to progress, so the club's closer job is expected to come down to a four-way battle between Grant Balfour, Brian Fuentes, Fautino De Los Santos and Joey Devine.

A's manager Bob Melvin has called Balfour and Fuentes "obvious candidates," which makes sense given that they have the most experience of the lot. Balfour only has 10 career saves to his name, but owns a miniscule 2.38 ERA and 115/37 K/BB ratio across 117 1/3 innings over the past two seasons. Fuentes has 199 career saves, but his velocity has declined in each of the past three years and he averaged just 6.5 K/9 in 2011.

I shouldn't have to explain in great detail why Devine is a poor fit. The 28-year-old right-hander finally made it back to the big leagues last season, but remains a tremendous health risk. The A's would be fortunate if he avoids the disabled list, so asking him to close games seems like a bit much. De Los Santos is the obvious long-term answer here. The 26-year-old right-hander reaches the mid-to-high 90s with his fastball and averaged 11.61 K/9 over 33 1/3 innings at the major league level last season, but he also averaged 4.59 BB/9 and walks were an issue for him in the minors. He's probably not ready yet.

Balfour and Fuentes could see their trade value increase with a move to the closer role, so I suspect one of them will ultimately get the nod. Balfour would be much easier to swallow in fantasy leagues. However, I wouldn't grab either until the late rounds of mixed league drafts. De Los Santos is one to keep an eye on for the second half of the season.

Indians' third baseman

When Indians' general manager Chris Antonetti said last month that Lonnie Chisenhall and Jack Hannahan would compete for the starting third base job during spring training, my first thought was that he was just trying to keep one of his young players motivated. However, with Manny Acta's recent declaration that he won't make a decision until late in the spring, it's increasingly clear that this is a legitimate position battle.

There's no doubt that Chisenhall is the third baseman of the future, but he was probably rushed to the majors last year. The 22-year-old showed good pop with 20 extra-base hits (seven homers) in 223 plate appearances, but his 49/8 K/BB ratio indicates that his plate discipline needs some work. Hannahan is an excellent defender, which is a nice luxury with such a ground ball-heavy staff, but his .675 OPS is obviously nothing to get excited about from a fantasy perspective.

I'd still target Chisenhall in AL-only leagues, but it's not impossible that he'll be sent down to Triple-A Columbus in order to continue his development. Remember that Opening Day rosters often come down to a roster crunch, so naming Hannahan the starter and sending Chisenhall to the minors could enable the Indians to carry a non-roster invitee like Jose Lopez as a right-handed bat off the bench. But let's hope Chisenhall hits enough during spring training to render this whole conversation moot.

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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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