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?