Rosters are starting to take shape as we inch closer to spring training. The trade market has been relatively quiet this off-season and the free agent market is dwindling. Some teams are rather comfortable with their rosters as they currently stand but many spots are still in question. Let’s take a look at the most important position battles for each American League team this spring:
Orioles- LF: The Orioles have put together a stellar offense that also has great depth on the bench. Besides left field, the lineup is set. Felix Pie is only 25 and finally realized some of his potential last season after a rough start to his career in Chicago. He provides great defense in left field and a left-handed bat for the bottom of the order. Nolan Reimold is two years older and made his debut last year. As a rookie, Reimold put up 15 homers and 45 RBIs in only 104 contests. They could form a platoon but Pie may be the early favorite to start more games.
Red Sox- IF: The Red Sox are completely set as far as hitters besides maybe another bench player. The bench is currently made of Jason Varitek, Jed Lowrie, Bill Hall, and Jeremy Hermida. One player who could still find his way onto the team is former starting third baseman, Mike Lowell. The Sox nearly traded Lowell to the Rangers earlier this off-season but his injuries kept the deal from being finalized. Adrian Beltre was signed to play third base. First base is already set with Kevin Youkilis. It seems like the only way for Boston to handle this is to trade Lowell for whatever they can get after he proves his health during spring training.
White Sox- BENCH: After shaking up the lineup earlier this winter, the batting order seems to be set. The White Sox have a veteran bench including Ramon Castro, Omar Vizquel, and Mark Kotsay. Whoever else is on the bench will have a tough time finding at bats. Jayson Nix has a shot at making the team as the primary right handed pinch hitter. Jayson, like his brother Laynce of the Cincinnati Reds, doesn’t hit for a high average but does provide raw power. Brent Lillibridge would give the team more versatility but has disappointed in all phases at the plate during his two years in the pros. Others who will get a look this spring include catcher Tyler Flowers, infielders Jason Botts and Freddie Bynum, and outfielders Brady Clark and Alejandro De Aza.
Indians- C: The Indians have many spots that are not set heading into camp. First base, second base, and left field could potentially have competitions this spring. However, the most important battle this spring in Cleveland’s camp could be that for the job of starting catcher. Lou Marson was brought in when the Indians traded Cliff Lee to Philadelphia. Carlos Santana is another candidate. Santana is one of the game’s top prospects and his switch-hitting skills profile similar to those of former Cleveland catcher, Victor Martinez. Lou Marson has already played at the top level but Santana has a higher ceiling. Mike Redmond was signed to mentor both prospects and help a young pitching staff.
Tigers- LF: The Tigers seem to be set with rookie Austin Jackson in center field. The left field competition will include front runners Clete Thomas and Ryan Raburn along with rookie Wilkin Ramirez. Raburn, who can play all over the field, has had the most success including a strong showing in 2009. The Tigers have also been linked to Johnny Damon this off-season. He would be a nice upgrade at the top of their order because none of the in-house options are ideal for the two spot in the lineup.
Royals- 2B/SS: The Royals have two huge battles this spring and both need to be mentioned here. Alberto Callaspo was a great find last year and spent most of the year around the top of the lineup. He is a very well-rounded hitter with good pop and a good eye. His defense was very poor, however, and that prompted the Royals to acquire Chris Getz in the Mark Teahen trade. Getz is a good defender with more speed than Callaspo. Early in the off-season it didn’t seem to be a log-jam as Callaspo could slide into the DH spot but the Rick Ankiel acquisition moves Jose Guillen to DH. The Royals will have to decide between defense and offense when it comes to their second baseman. The shortstop battle will be just as competitive this year. Yuniesky Betancourt was brought in via trade last summer. That deal left many questioning the front office because Betancourt has been declining in every facet of the game and is under contract through 2011. Mike Aviles was possibly the team MVP in 2008 before injuries derailed his 2009 campaign. The loser of the shortstop competition could very well be traded this spring.
Angels- C: The Angels’ starting catcher will probably be Mike Napoli but expect Jeff Mathis to give him a run for his money. Napoli has more power but his numbers did not go up with the increase in playing time he had last year. Napoli also struggled in the post-season. Mathis is a career .200 hitter but still gets plenty of playing time under Mike Scioscia. Mathis’ great post-season may give him a boost in confidence heading into spring training.
Twins- 3B: The Twins entered the off-season with holes at second, short, and third. Orlando Hudson will play second and J.J. Hardy was traded for to play short. Nick Punto is the favorite to play third given his great defense and the presence of many other prominent bats to pick up his slack at the plate. If Ron Gardenhire needs another bat, however, Brendan Harris could get some playing time. Others who will get a chance to audition at third base this spring are Matt Tolbert, Luke Hughes, and Danny Valencia.
Yankees- BENCH: Like many other AL teams, the Yankees’ defense is set. New York’s All-Star lineup is amazing, as usual, but every team needs depth. Juan Miranda is a first baseman that has been blocked by Mark Teixeira after solid play throughout the minors. He will fight for a bench spot with the big league team as a left-handed pinch hitter. Marcus Thames will also compete for a pinch hitting role but he is right-handed. Rule 5 Draftee Jamie Hoffman has a slim chance at making the team as a reserve outfielder and may need an injury to either a starter or to Brett Gardner in order to make the roster. Mike Rivera will compete with Francisco Cervelli for the chance to backup Jorge Posada.
Athletics- LF/RF: Coco Crisp is the only outfielder that is a lock for a starting position in Oakland’s outfield. Rajai Davis and Ryan Sweeney are the early favorites to start in left field and right field, respectively. Davis finally got consistent playing time and was able to produce runs in many clutch plate appearances last season. Sweeney is best known for plus defense but since arriving in Oakland he also has a .349 OBP. Sweeney still lacks power and speed. Travis Buck enters spring training with a chip on his shoulder after the club brought in Gabe Gross, Michael Taylor, and re-signed Jack Cust. Michael Taylor is one of the top prospect in baseball and many think he is ready for a full-time role in Oakland.
Mariners- C: Most of Seattle’s lineup will be different from opening day 2009 (catcher, first base, shortstop, third base, and left field). Catcher is the leading question mark entering 2010. Adam Moore is the catcher of the future but the Mariners see now as their best chance to take the division from the Angels. Will they let Moore grow in the midst of a pennant chase? Josh Bard is a veteran that was invited to camp with a chance to make the roster. Bard had two fairly good seasons in 2006 and 2007 but struggled at the plate last year in 90 games. Moore and Bard will battle Eliezer Alfonzo and Rob Johnson for playing time this year but the Mariners should not expect too much offense from this spot in 2010.
Rays- C: In 2008 Dioner Navarro was an All-Star catcher for the American League Champions. In 2009 Dioner Navarro lost playing time and saw his OBP drop from .349 to .261 while the Rays missed the playoffs. Navarro is still young but the Rays project to again be one of best teams in baseball and need production from the entire lineup to keep pace with Boston and New York. Kelly Shoppach was brought in to compete with Navarro. He is another young catcher who experienced a drop-off in production last year. The Rays hope the competition between the two will spark better play in 2010.
Rangers- 1B: The Rangers will again have a good offense with players like Ian Kinsler, Michael Young, Vladimir Guerrero, Josh Hamilton, and so on. One spot that isn’t so great is first base. Chris Davis played well as a rookie in 2008 but his ability to get onbase completely fell off the chart last year. The Rangers have their eyes set on the playoffs and tried to acquire Mike Lowell as insurance for first base. Lowell’s nagging injuries didn’t allow the deal to be completed. Justin Smoak is a switch-hitting prospect but is still very young. The Rangers may still look to free agency for a hitter like Russell Branyan, Carlos Delgado, or, longtime Ranger, Hank Blalock.
Blue Jays- LF: The Blue Jays are in rebuilding mode and are looking to stopgaps to fill in all over the field. Utility-man Jose Bautista may end up being the stopgap in left field. He has the ability to hit for power but will not have a high average. Bautista is the favorite but Jeremey Reed is another option along with speedster Joey Gathright. The Jays had a potential five tool left fielder in Michael Taylor but traded him for corner infield prospect, Brett Wallace. Free agents Johnny Damon and Willy Taveras could be brought in to play left and provide top-of-the-order experience as well.
Rosters are starting to take shape as we inch closer to spring training. The trade market has been relatively quiet this off-season and the free agent market is dwindling. Some teams are rather comfortable with their rosters as they currently stand but many spots are still in question. Let’s take a look at the most important position battles for each National League team this spring:
Diamondbacks- 2B: Kelly Johnson was brought in to play second base but the starting job will not be given to him. After playing 150 solid games for the Braves in 2008, Johnson struggled mightiliy in 2009 and lost the job to Martin Prado. Ryan Roberts played second base down the stretch for Arizona and hit to a .279/.367/.416 line. Johnson is a lefty while Roberts is a righty so a platoon may be in their future. Tony Abreu is a younger option in case both struggle.
Braves- LF/RF: Nate McClouth will be the team’s center fielder but the corners are far from set. Melky Cabrera was acquired in the Javier Vazquez trade and will probably start at one of the corners after playing 154 games for the Yankees last year. He is a winner, a switch hitter, and capable of playing all three outfield spots. Matt Diaz is a quiet .310 career hitter but has never had 400 at-bats during his 7 years in the pros. Diaz is best suited for left field. The wild card in all of this is Jason Heyward, the number one prospect in baseball. He will be a franchise player soon, but how soon? Heyward is only 20 years old but could very well be ready for The Show.
Cubs- 2B: Mike Fontenot disappointed after beating out Aaron Miles for the second base job last year. His struggles, along with the injury to Aramis Ramirez, prompted a Jeff Baker acquisition. In 69 games with the Cubbies, Baker hit .305 and took over the second base job. Similar to Arizona’s situation, the Cubs have a left handed option with Fontenot and a right handed option with Baker. A straight platoon situation seems unlikely after Baker’s solid showing last September.
Reds- LF: Chris Dickerson will be the early favorite to start in left field due to a career .383 OBP in 128 games the last two years. He is a lefty with some speed and the potential for 15 homers a year. He will be challenged by Wladimir Balentien who has under-performed after being tabbed as a great prospect earlier in his career. Laynce Nix hit 15 home runs but the Reds would rather use him as a reserve. The Reds could still look to the free agent market for a guy like Jonny Gomes or even Johnny Damon.
Rockies- PH: Colorado’s starting lineup is basically set and they have a great bench. Ian Stewart will split time at third with Melvin Mora while Chris Iannetta and Miguel Olivo each get time behind the plate. Ryan Spilborghs will get plenty of playing time with lefties Carlos Gonzalez and Brad Hawpe starting in the outfield corners. The bench will also have Seth Smith and Jason Giambi to pinch hit late in the game. Even with their strong depth, the Rockies’ most interesting question entering the 2010 season may be if they carry six bench players. It is unlikely that they would carry another bench bat, but the front office has brought in some notable veterans including catcher Paul LoDuca, first baseman Josh Phelps, and outfielder Jay Payton, who will all be considered.
Florida- 1B: Mid-season acquisition Nick Johnson has moved on and Jorge Cantu may move to first base. If Cantu stays at third, the Marlins will have competition between Gaby Sanchez and prospect Logan Morrison. Sanchez has not developed as fast as the Marlins had hoped and Morrison may not be ready. Wes Helms will get some at-bats at first base but the free agent market still has a couple of possibilities. Russell Branyan, Carlos Delgado, and Hank Blalock are hoping for starting jobs.
Astros- C: This battle points to a potentially tough road ahead for the Houston Astros. Humberto Quintero will be the veteran in camp but has never played well. J.R. Towles was supposed to be the team’s catcher a few years ago but has hit .188 in 234 career at-bats. The bright spot at catcher is a great prospect by the name of Jason Castro. Castro is the top prospect in the organization but is only 22 and may need another year in the minors. Will the team get a guy like Rod Barajas to be a stopgap until Castro arrives in Houston?
Dodgers- 2B: Ronnie Belliard worked hard and stole the job from Orlando Hudson last season during the playoff push and was re-signed. He’s going to have to work just as hard to get the majority of starts at second this year. Along with Belliard, the Dodgers have plenty of other veteran options at second base: Nick Green, Alfredo Amezaga, Jamey Carroll, Angel Berroa. There are some younger guys who are looking for a chance this spring as well: Blake Dewitt, Chin-Lung Hu, Ivan DeJesus. Belliard is definitely the favorite but he will have to earn it.
Brewers- 3B: One of Milwaukee’s top prospects has been third baseman, Mat Gamel. He got some playing time last season and did OK. Meanwhile, Casey McGehee got a chance to play and did very well. McGehee provided a spark with his bat and posted a .859 OPS in 116 games. A huge spring from Gamel may be earn him a platoon role at third base but everyday at-bats in the minors would be helpful at this point in his career.
Mets- C: The Mets will have plenty of options at catcher and each comes from a very different background. Henry Blanco’s abilities to mentor a pitching staff and his great defensive attributes make him the backup catcher. Chris Coste was a long-time minor leaguer who finally broke into the Majors with the Phillies a few years ago. He struggled last year but has been useful as a pinch hitter. Omir Santos took over for Brian Schneider last year with the Mets to drive in 40 runs with only 281 at-bats. Josh Thole is the catcher of the future and may be ready after finding success in the big leagues last season. Even with all of this depth, the Mets have been linked to many other veteran catchers this off-season.
Phillies- OF: No, I’m not talking about a starting outfield spot. Those should be held down by Raul Ibanez, Shane Victorino, and Jayson Werth. I’m not even talking about the opening day bench for that matter of fact. Ben Francisco and Ross Gload will be the backups. I’m talking about September. The Phillies have positioned themselves to make a playoff run again this year and having a speedy pinch runner when the rosters expands never hurts. The Phillies have brought in Dewayne Wise, Freddy Guzman, and Chris Duffy to compete in the minors for that opportunity. Freddy Guzman held that role with the Yankees in the playoffs last year.
Pirates- SS: Ronny Cedeno was the Pirates’ late-season shortstop after being acquired from Seattle. With Pittsburgh he hit .258 with 5 home runs. That performance was enough to make him the early favorite for this season but the team brought in veteran infielder, Bobby Crosby, to compete. Crosby has hit over .239 only once since 2004. Either way, the Pirates don’t project to get a lot of production from their shortstop this season.
Padres- C: The team is about to sign veteran Yorvit Torrealba to a Major League deal. He will battle incumbent Nick Hundley for innings at catcher. Torrealba had a similar situation in Colorado and the starting job went back and forth between himself and Chris Iannetta. Torrealba hit .291 last year but had only 2 home runs in 213 at-bats. In similar playing time last year, Hundley hit .238 with 8 homers.
Giants- LF/RF: Mark DeRosa moves to the outfield with the signing of Aubrey Huff who will play first base and keep Pablo Sandoval at third. It is still to be seen if DeRosa will play left or right but who will play in the other spot? They have a pair of lefties in Fred Lewis and Nate Schierholtz who have not gotten to their potential yet. Lewis is better suited for left field and offers more tools with his speed. Schierholtz is better suited for right field and is younger. Andres Torres and Eugenio Velez will fight for playing time in the outfield too. Could the Giants still sign Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, or Jonny Gomes?
Cardinals- OF: The Cardinals don’t have an obvious option as their fourth outfielder. The starters are set from left to right for a while and that puts the Cardinals in an interesting position. The team doesn’t have to worry about grooming an outfielder and giving him everyday at-bats in the minors as much as most other teams do. So while other teams sign veterans to pinch hit, the Cardinals may just promote their next-best outfield prospects to get those at-bats and innings. They have plenty of minor league outfielders who are good but not great such as Jon Jay, Allen Craig, Daryl Jones, Joe Mather, Shane Robinson, and Nick Stavinoha.
Nationals- PH: The Nationals have a lineup that is basically set. The bench, however, has a couple open spots. Jesus Flores will be the backup catcher unless he encounters a setback while rehabbing from an injury-plagued season. Willie Harris has become a fan favorite with versatility, speed, and some pop. Besides those two, there are no guarantees. Eric Bruntlett could make the team as a backup infielder after holding that role with the Phillies for a couple season. Chris Duncan is looking for a pinch hitting role. Justin Maxwell is a big outfielder who can play all three outfield spots and has had success in limited time with the Nationals. Others who will get a look are catcher Wil Nieves, infielder Alberto Gonzalez, utility men Pete Orr and Mike Morse, and outfielders Jerry Owens, Roger Bernadina, and Kevin Mench.
Adam LaRoche and Jose Valverde have signed while Bengie Molina is seemingly next to leave the free agent market. The rest of the players out there will need to seriously start thinking about lowering their salary demands before more and more jobs are filled. Here’s the top three remaining free agents at each position.
- Yorvit Torrealba, 31- The Giants would be the best fit for him.
- Rod Barajas, 34- Cleveland and Houston may have openings behind the plate.
- Jose Molina, 35- Still may head back to the Bronx to catch for A.J. Burnett.
- Russell Branyan, 34- Another 1 year deal will be his only option.
- Carlos Delgado, 38- Re-signing with the Mets is his best option.
- Xavier Nady, 31- The M’s would be a perfect fit to play some 1st, left and DH.
- Orlando Hudson, 32- It will come down to the Cubs and Nats.
- Felipe Lopez, 30- 2nd base for the Dodgers or 3rd base for the Cardinals.
- Ronnie Belliard, 35- May be Tigers backup plan if prospect Sizemore isn’t ready.
- Miguel Tejada, 36- Oakland and Minnesota could look at him.
- Orlando Cabrera, 35- Will play short in Cincinnati.
- Jerry Hairston Jr., 34- Many teams could use a veteran, speedy utility man.
- Melvin Mora, 38- The Angels could use him at 3rd and in left.
- Joe Crede, 32- Fits with the O’s who want to slide Atkins to 1st base.
- Adam Kennedy, 34- Similar to Hairston’s situation.
- Johnny Damon, 36- Atlanta seems to want him still.
- Jonny Gomes, 29- May have a platoon shot in Cincinnati or Detroit.
- Marcus Thames, 33- Tampa Bay, Toronto could give him playing time.
- Rick Ankiel, 30- Could land in Atlanta if Damon doesn’t.
- Reed Johnson, 33- Could get time at all three OF spots with the Yankees.
- Jeremy Reed, 29- The Cardinals could make him there 4th outfielder.
- Jermaine Dye, 36- His market is shrinking fast.
- Randy Winn, 36- Backup at this point in his career.
- Fernando Tatis, 35- Won’t get a starting job but will get a Major League deal.
- Jim Thome, 39- The White Sox are a great fit.
- Hank Blalock, 29- A backup role will be his best bet this spring; still very talented.
- Mike Jacobs, 29- Will have to sign a minor league deal and compete.
- Joel Pineiro, 31- Down to the Mets and Dodgers.
- Ben Sheets, 31- Most upside of all remaining free agents but very risky.
- Doug Davis, 34- In about a week he will have quite a few teams bidding.
- Kiko Calero, 35- A reunion with the Cards actually makes a lot of sense.
- Chan Ho Park, 37- Next best setup man left.
- Kevin Gregg, 32- Probably a 7th inning guy.
- Joe Beimel, 32- Kansas City doesn’t have a lefty in the pen yet.
- Will Ohman, 31- Hard to predict after a disappointing 2009.
- Mark Hendrickson, 36- Lots of teams could use a lefty starter/reliever.
So what openings are left on your team? And who will be signed to fill those spots?
My predictions of a free agent hitter each team will still sign this off-season:
Nationals: Chad Tracy to pinch hit and get some defense at 1st base for Adam Dunn.
Royals: Vladimir Guerrero to DH; maybe play some right to keep Jose Guillen rested. (I would say Scott Podsednik but it appears he is about to sign with them anyway.)
Pirates: Rick Ankiel to play right field and hit 4th/5th.
Orioles: Hank Blalock to play first base though Baltimore may use Garrett Atkins there.
Indians: Jose Molina to mentor the team’s young catching prospects.
Mets: Bengie Molina who will start at catcher.
Diamondbacks: Randy Winn to play left field and mentor their young outfielders.
Padres: Brad Ausmus to backup Nick Hundley at catcher.
Astros: Jerry Hairston Jr. to start the season at short until Manzella is ready
Blue Jays: Endy Chavez is a great defender in the outfield.
A’s: Khalil Greene to possibly get some innings at short and third.
Reds: Miguel Tejada to start at shortstop and hit 2nd.
White Sox: Ryan Church to be insurance for oft-injured outfielders Andruw Jones and Carlos Quentin.
Brewers: Fernando Tatis to provide some pop off the bench from the right side.
Cubs: Orlando Hudson to play second base and hit 2nd.
Rays: Marcus Thames who can hit for power and start if Joyce/Perez need time at AAA.
Mariners: Xavier Nady has power and can split innings at first with Casey Kotchman.
Tigers: Alfredo Amezaga to spend time in center and at second while prospects learn.
Braves: Jeremy Reed who won’t cost to much and can play all three OF spots.
Twins: Orlando Cabrera fit right in last year and he’ll be back to play second base this time.
Marlins: Gabe Gross to provide a lefty bat off the bench.
Rangers: Russell Branyan who will have to sign another cheap, one year deal.
Giants: Yorvit Torrealba to share catching duties with Buster Posey like Torrealba did with Iannetta in Colorado.
Cardinals: Matt Stairs to pinch hit.
Rockies: Jason Giambi will re-sign after a fun run in Colorado last year.
Red Sox: Rocco Baldelli to backup the outfield because I believe they will trade Jeremy Hermida.
Dodgers: Felipe Lopez to play second base and thrive in that lineup.
Angels: Melvin Mora who will get time at third and left.
Phillies: Paul Bako to play catcher at AAA and wait for an opportunity like he got last year with the Phillies.
Yankees: Reed Johnson to split time with Brett Gardner in left.
On the eve of Matt Holliday signing with the St. Louis Cardinals, I would like to take a look at the other end of the free agent spectrum. Here are three players who hope the hot stove league simmers long enough for them to cash in too.
Melvin Mora 3B: Melvin is a more interesting candidate than most people would think. Playing in Baltimore didn’t bring him a ton of publicity but he’s put up good numbers in his ten year career. Mora has hovered around a .275 AVG and .340 OBP since 2003 while driving in 104 runs twice in that span. His power dropped bigtime in 2009 but he has dedicated himself to conditioning this off-season in order to have more defensive versatility. I see him going to the Angels as a 3B/LF option as they have never seemed too keen on giving Brandon Wood a whole season at third.
Hank Blalock 1B: Hank Blalock was once a highly touted third baseman for Texas until a string of injuries interrupted his career for parts of the 2007-2009 seasons. His progress was stunted but his pure talent came through this year as he hammered 25 homeruns as a first baseman and DH. He lost his third base job to Michael Young but his body may be healthy enough to get some more innings over there next year. He will be signed as a first baseman primarily with Baltimore being the best fit because he could DH now and then as well.
Braden Looper SP: In the spring of 2007 Cardinals manager Tony LaRusa decided to move Braden Looper into the rotation because the club needed another starter. He started 30 games and won half of his decisions. The move worked alright for the Cardinals but it wasn’t the best move for Braden Looper. That made him think he was a starter and the Milwaukee Brewers agreed by giving him a 2 year deal. Looper’s straight fastball and pitching machine motion led to a league worst 39 homers allowed in 2009. An idea for Looper this winter: Go back to the bullpen! Out of the pen he was extremely durable (8 consecutive years with at least 60 appearances) and rather effective (only one of those years with an ERA over 3.94). He will stay in the NL and sign with the San Francisco Giants as a middle reliever.
Are there better fits for these players? Who else will be flying under the radar as the hot stove moves on?