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.
The Hot Stove League had barely been simmering until earlier this week when a flurry of moves was able to keep it cooking. The Matt Hollidays and John Lackeys are already off the market. So, that leaves us with the Jon Garlands and Ronnie Belliards to spark the interest of myself and fellow transaction junkies. Nonetheless, these moves deserve some notoriety and I’m here to do just that with a quick synopsis of this weeks moves:
Rich Hill LHP- The former star prospect of the Chicago Cubs has signed on with the St. Louis Cardinals with the hope that pitching coach Dave Duncan can work his magic again. Duncan has gotten solid production out of many pitchers who were facing career declines before arriving in St. Louis. His revamping projects have included Jeff Weaver, Todd Wellemeyer, Ryan Franklin, Joel Pineiro, and Kyle Lohse, just off the top of my head. Hill has a nice repetoire including a plus curveball which makes him an enticing project for Duncan and a candidate for the 5th spot in the rotation.
Jim Edmonds OF- Edmonds is a former All-Star for the Cardinals who resurrected his career once already with the Cubs after a rough start in San Diego two years ago. After not receiving much interest last winter, Edmonds took the year off. He now returns to the NL Central on a minor league deal with the Brewers in search of a part-time role in Milwaukee. It’s a great signing for the Crew given the low risk contract.
Fernando Tatis UT– Tatis finally was able to find a home in the Majors with the Mets the past couple of seasons after being away from The Show for a while. This off-season he re-signed with the Mets to primarily serve as the platoon partner for Daniel Murphy at first base. His return seemed unlikely until recently as the Mets were rumored to be interested in higher profile first basemen like Russell Branyan, Adam LaRoche and Carlos Delgado. The Mets continue to miss out on their targets this off-season but this signing is a nice fallback plan.
Jon Garland RHP- Garland has never been great and has never been bad. That means he should have a pretty steady salary of about $5M on one year deals for a while. You know what you’re going to get with Garland and it’s usually a chance to win ball games. He goes to San Diego who I believe will make some noise this season in the NL West. The Padres were an over-achieving team in the second half. Garland’s arrival gives San Diego time to mold their abundance of young starters. If they do fall out of the race, however, Garland will be dealt along with closer Heath Bell.
Randy Winn OF- Above all else, Randy Winn signing with the Yankees finally ended the nagging drama between the Evil Empire and Johnny Damon. Whether the Yankees or Damon should’ve lowered their demands is finally behind us. Now back to Mr. Winn. He will provide plus defense and is perfect for the nine spot in an already dangerous lineup. Winn displayed durability last year and was added on a relatively inexpensive contract. This was the best destination for the veteran outfielder.
Ronnie Belliard 2B– Belliard turned out to be a difference maker down the stretch and even stole the starting gig from Orlando Hudson for the month of September. After re-signing with the Dodgers, it will be tough for him to produce at the same level but I doubt that the Dodgers are expecting that. A return to form by Russell Martin and a full season of Manny Ramirez will give the Dodgers plenty of offense. Belliard will start most of the time but Jamey Carroll will also get starts at second.
Jim Thome DH– Last year Thome put up 23 home runs along with a .366 OBP in 124 games for the White Sox and Dodgers. Much of those numbers came while Thome was starting at DH for the White Sox but he got a taste of being a pinch hitter in limited time with Los Angeles. Pinch hitting will be his main role with the Twins as the DH spot is already held down by fellow lefty Jason Kubel. However, Thome is one injury to Kubel, Michael Cuddyer or Delmon Young from the starting DH job. If Cuddyer or Young were to get injured, Kubel would take over in a corner outfield spot and Thome would inherit the DH job while quietly continuing his chase for 600 career home runs.
Eric Byrnes OF– Byrnes’ time in Arizona did not go as well as he or the Diamondbacks would’ve hoped and it resulted in his release this week. Byrnes has always been known as a stand-up guy who gives everything he’s got on every play. That attitude will embraced by both the fans and players in Seattle. He will not be a starter which may help him stay away from the DL. What he will be is a pinch runner/hitter and a part-time left fielder when the club wants to give Milton Bradley a day at designated hitter. This signing fits well for the Mariners and Byrnes.
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?