D.J. Short

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AL Position Battles

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

White Sox closer

The White Sox traded Sergio Santos to the Blue Jays in December in exchange for prospect right-hander Nestor Molina, so we're looking at an open competition between Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain and Addison Reed for Chicago's closer role.

Reed has the least experience of this trio, but the 23-year-old right-hander has "closer of the future" written all over him. The 2010 third-round pick cruised up the organizational ladder by compiling a sparkling 1.41 ERA and 155/20 K/BB ratio across 108 1/3 innings between four different levels in the minors and allowed one run over 7 1/3 innings while striking out 12 and walking just one as a September call-up last year. His fastball-slider combo could make him a dominant late-game option for years to come.

My guess is that Reed will be closing games for the White Sox before long, but that a veteran like Thornton or Crain will be handed the job to begin the year. Thornton blew four saves last April before being yanked from ninth-inning duties, so I understand the skepticism from fantasy owners, but the southpaw's trade value could get a nice boost if he is successful with a second opportunity. Crain has a 2.84 ERA and a strikeout rate of 8.9 K/9 over the past two seasons, but his shaky command (3.9 BB/9 over the past two seasons) and increasing fly ball rate (49.1 percent last season) could be problematic.

Red Sox shortstop

The Red Sox traded not one, but two shortstops this offseason, first dealing Jed Lowrie to the Astros in December as part of the deal for reliever Mark Melancon and then Marco Scutaro to the Rockies in January in what was essentially a salary dump. This leaves Mike Aviles, Nick Punto and prospect Jose Iglesias among the possibilities at shortstop.

It would seem that this is Aviles' job to lose. Iglesias is an excellent defender, but he needs more seasoning in the minors after posting a woeful .554 OPS at the Triple-A level in 2011. And while Punto managed an impressive .278/.388/.421 slash-line with an .809 OPS over 166 plate appearances last season, we're talking about a guy with a  .249 career batting average and a .652  career OPS. New manager Bobby Valentine appears to value him more as a utility man, anyway.

Avilies doesn't take many pitches (4.2 percent walk rate), but owns a .288 career batting average, makes contact (85.3 percent) and has a little bit of speed and pop. He probably isn't as good a defender as his UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) would have you believe -- he has played just 1,212 innings at the position in the majors, the bulk of which came in 2008 -- but he should at least be competent. With Boston's powerhouse lineup around him, Avilies could actually be a sneaky value pick in mixed leagues which use a MI (middle infielder) spot.

Rays' fifth starter

The Rays gave Matt Moore the Evan Longoria treatment over the winter, signing him to a five-year, $14 million contract with club options for 2017, 2018 and 2019. With his service time no longer an issue, Moore is virtually assured of a rotation spot along with David Price, James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson.

Rays manager Joe Maddon has already dismissed the possibility of a six-man rotation -- something the club utilized for a stretch last year -- so either Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis will be headed to the bullpen to begin the season. That's a pretty nice problem to have.

Davis has been adamant about his desire to remain a starter, but I'm not sure he'll get his wish after putting up a mediocre 4.45 ERA (4.82 xFIP) and 105/63 K/BB ratio over 184 innings last season. Meanwhile, Niemann had arguably his best season in 2011, posting a 4.06 ERA (3.73 xFIP), 46 percent ground ball rate and a 105/37 K/BB ratio over 135 1/3 innings. He deserves to be the favorite right now.

Davis' strikeout and swinging strike rates have declined significantly since he fanned 36 batters in 36 1/3 innings as a rookie in 2009, so it might be worth it to see if he could be more useful out of the bullpen. The Rays didn't deal him for a bat over the winter, but since he's potentially under team control through 2017, he could also be attractive trade bait around the deadline.

Blue Jays' left field

Travis Snider and Eric Thames appear to be two players who are headed in different directions. Snider opened last season as the Blue Jays' starting left fielder, but poor performance and injuries limited him to just 49 games at the major league level. Meanwhile, Thames took advantage of the situation by making a very favorable first impression.

The Jays plan to have Snider and Thames to compete against each other for the starting left field job during spring training, with the loser likely opening the season with Triple-A Las Vegas. A platoon isn't really an option since they are both left-handed hitters.

Snider has regularly mashed minor league pitching, but the 2006 first-round pick owns a lousy .248/.307/.423 batting line and a 26.9 percent strikeout rate over 877 plate appearances in the majors. Thames didn't show much patience in his first taste of the big leagues last season (5.8 percent walk rate), but he collected 41 extra-base hits (12 homers), 37 RBI and 58 runs scored in just 95 games.

Snider is still only 24 years old, so he's far from a lost cause at this point, but I suspect he'll be the choice to start the season in the minors. He could really benefit by just staying healthy for a full season, no matter where he's playing. Thames could be a really nice sleeper in AL-only and deeper mixed leagues if he bats No. 2 in front of slugger Jose Bautista on regular basis, though the right-handed hitting Ben Francisco will likely get most of the at-bats against left-handed pitching.

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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