D.J. Short

Draft Strategy

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AL Position Battles

Friday, February 22, 2013

Believe it or not, the exhibition schedule is set to begin tomorrow. While the long wait is almost over, let's take a look at some of the position battles in the American League. There are many position battles going on around the league, so please note that you will not find every one of them detailed here. That's why I encourage you to keep refreshing our player news page for all the latest information from the camps in Arizona and Florida. I'll take a look at some of the National League position battles in a future column.

You can find projections for all of the players below in the new 2013 Rotoworld Baseball Draft Guide. And while you're at it, sign up for a free fantasy baseball league with our partners at Yahoo! Sports. There's simply no better way to play.

Rangers' center field

The competitors - Craig Gentry, Leonys Martin

The Rangers let Josh Hamilton walk over the winter and didn't get involved in a pursuit for Michael Bourn, so that leaves Gentry and Martin as the favorites to take over in center field. Julio Borbon may also get some consideration, as he is out of options this spring, but he's a distant third on the depth chart at the moment.

Gentry is a skilled defender and offers some speed, but he has only hit two home runs in 476 plate appearances in the major leagues. Martin is short on experience with only 32 games to his name in the big leagues, but he's a highly regarded prospect who batted .359/.422/.610 with 12 homers, 10 stolen bases and a 1.033 OPS in 55 games last season for Triple-A Round Rock. Granted, those numbers were produced in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League -- and he had strong numbers in another favorable environment in the Texas League in 2011 -- but the Cuban defector has more upside than Gentry from an offensive perspective.

I don't think there will necessarily be a flat-out winner coming out of spring training, as the right-handed Gentry and left-handed Martin have the makings of a pretty nifty platoon. Still, Martin figures to get more at-bats under this potential arrangement, so he's absolutely worth a look in deeper mixed leagues.

Tigers' fifth starter

The competitors - Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly

When the Tigers signed Anibal Sanchez to a five-year, $80 million contract in December, Porcello immediately became the subject of trade rumors and speculation. While the former first-round pick survived the offseason without being part of a deal, he's going to have to fend off Smyly for the fifth spot in the starting rotation.

Porcello burst onto the fantasy scene with a 3.96 ERA in 31 starts as a 20-year-old rookie in 2009, but he has a mediocre 4.75 ERA since. While he saw an uptick in his velocity last season and finished with a career-best 5.5 K/9, it was still well below the league average. Of course, it didn't help that the Tigers' infield defense was terrible, as he was victimized to the tune of a .344 BABIP.

As for Smyly, he's coming off an intriguing rookie season in which he posted a 3.99 ERA and 94/33 K/BB ratio over 99 1/3 innings. Sure, it was a small sample and it was interrupted by injuries, but those secondary numbers fly in the face of those who doubted whether his stuff would translate to success in the big leagues.  

While I think Smyly would make for an intriguing flier if he wins the competition, I would be surprised if Jim Leyland didn't stick with Porcello. Yes, this is partially because of his $5.1 million salary for 2013, but there's also real-life value in getting 170 innings out of your fifth starter. Unfortunately, I just don't see him holding much fantasy value unless there's a better infield defense behind him. And he would need to be traded for that to happen.

Blue Jays' second base

The competitors - Emilio Bonifacio, Maicer Izturis

When the Blue Jays signed Izturis to a three-year, $9 million deal back in November, the assumption was that he was brought on board in order to be the team's starting second baseman this season. However, Toronto acquired Bonifacio later that month as part of a blockbuster deal with the Marlins and now the pair is set to battle it out for starting duties this spring.

Izturis has primarily functioned a utility player during his career, posting a .273/.337/.381 batting line and a .718 OPS. He's more skilled defensively at second base than Bonifacio and also offers more pop. Of course, Bonifacio has the big edge in speed, swiping 30 bases last year despite being limited to just 64 games due to a thumb injury. He finished tied for third in the majors with 40 stolen bases in 2011.

I'd be rooting for Bonifacio from a fantasy perspective, as his speed and multi-position eligibility can be very useful, but it's no sure thing that a winner will be declared coming out of spring training. The good news is that both players are versatile enough where they should see plenty of playing time no matter what. This is especially the case with Bonifacio, as he could be a backup option in case Colby Rasmus continues to struggle or Melky Cabrera regresses significantly.

Twins' center field

The competitors - Darin Mastroianni, Aaron Hicks, Joe Benson

Not only did the Twins trade Denard Span to the Nationals this offseason, but they also dealt Ben Revere to the Phillies. As a result, Minnesota's starting center fielder job is wide open this spring.

Mastroianni has the most experience of the trio and was fantasy relevant last year when he stole 21 bases in just 77 games, but the Twins probably wouldn't mind if one of the youngsters forced their hand. I'm just not sure it will happen right away. Hicks is an interesting prospect, as he bounced back from a disappointing 2011 season by hitting .286/.384/.460 with 13 home runs, 32 stolen bases and an .844 OPS last year, but he has never played a game above Double-A. As for Benson, he's coming off a year where he hit just .202/.288/.336 in the minors and missed half the season following hamate bone surgery. He could benefit by staying healthy, regardless of the setting.

Hicks could easily play his way into the starting job with a strong spring, so he should be monitored closely in AL-only leagues over the next six weeks, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Twins decide to have him get more development time in Triple-A. At 27 years old and with little in the way of pop, Mastroianni might not be anything more than a fourth outfielder in the long run, but he'd be useful in deeper mixed leagues if the Twins give him an opportunity.

Tigers' closer

The competitors - Bruce Rondon, Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Al Alburquerque, Brayan Villarreal

After saying goodbye to Jose Valverde and resisting making a run at Rafael Soriano before he signed with the Nationals, the Tigers' closer job is unsettled going into spring training. It's a pretty interesting situation for a team that many see as a favorite to return to the World Series in 2013.

By all accounts, the Tigers would love if Rondon made the choice an easy one, but manager Jim Leyland recently said that it wasn't his job to lose. And that's understandable since the 22-year-old right-hander has never thrown a pitch in the big leagues. Rondon can dial it up over 100 mph and averaged 11.2 K/9 last season between High-A, Double-A and Triple-A, but his control and command remain a work in progress. He has averaged 5.1 BB/9 over five seasons in the minors, though he took a modest step forward last year.

Leyland has stated that there might not be a clear winner out of spring training and that he isn't afraid to mix and match, so this could open the door for the likes of Coke, Benoit, Dotel, Albuquerque and Villarreal to get save chances. Since Coke is left-handed, Benoit might be my favorite option out of this group.

It's tough to have a ton of faith in Rondon and the Tigers are built to win now, so be careful to invest too heavily in the young fireballer. This has all the makings of a very fluid situation, so be prepared to stay active on the waiver wire. Heck, I wouldn't rule them out as a destination for Brian Wilson if he eventually proves his health.

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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