Spring Training games might go largely unnoticed, as pre-season exhibitions tend to do, but many, if not most, teams have a big spot on the depth chart that’s up for grabs. That’s what these games are for, figuring out who’s going to be starting come Opening Day, and seeing if any prospects are further along in their progress than expected.
Baltimore Orioles: With long-time starter (when healthy) Brian Roberts gone to the Yankees, second base is up for grabs. Currently, MLBDepthCharts.com (an indispensable resource) has Jemile Weeks in the starting role, with Alexi Casilla on the bench. But will Weeks immediately continue to be as ineffective as he was in Oakland, forcing Casilla to move into the full-time role? Or will Buck Showalter be willing to accept Weeks’ subpar defense in favor of a higher upside at the plate? It’s important to note the Orioles brass may be higher on Weeks than most, trading away All-Star closer Jim Johnson plus a PTBNL to acquire him. I’d also be willing to mention that Baltimore’s consensus #5 prospect Jonathan Schoop has an outside shot of securing a major league spot from day one.
Boston Red Sox: One outfield spot will be held by Shane Victorino, and the other will likely be held by Daniel Nava, who proved himself to be a quality hitter last season. While it’s expected that Jackie Bradley, Jr. will take over the third starting spot this year, there are questions about whether he’s ready. Given that Jonny Gomes has had a bit of a career renaissance as of late, if Bradley- who turns 24 this season- doesn’t show his value early on, don’t be shocked if Gomes works his way back into the everyday lineup.
Chicago White Sox: Is this the year the White Sox give up on their current middle infield? Alexei Ramirez turned 32 in September, and despite once being a valuable contributor, his best days are behind him, both at the plate and in the field. Gordon Beckham, his double play partner, has never been the player he was expected to be, but he’s in his physical peak, and the White Sox might not be willing to part with him so quickly. On the other hand, top-ten prospects (according to Baseball Prospectus) Carlos Sanchez and Marcus Semien are almost ready for a call-up, and they both have experience playing multiple positions in the infield. It’s a long shot that they’ll be on the major league roster for Opening Day, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.
Cleveland Indians: Is Trevor Bauer ready? That’s all it will come down to for the third-overall draft pick in 2011 and former league-wide top-ten prospect. Carlos Carrasco is currently projected to take the fifth slot in the rotation (I would have to imagine that the other four pitchers are entrenched into their spots), and he has also had a disappointing start to his career. The obvious differences between them, though, are the three-year age dropoff from Carrasco to Bauer, and the fact that Bauer has long been thought of as a player with much upside. Even with his unimpressive stats through 33.1 MLB innings, I’d have to think of Bauer as the frontrunner here.
Detroit Tigers: They don’t really have one. These are the perks of being a really good team without a strong farm system.
Houston Astros: Recently-acquired Dexter Fowler will man center field no matter what, but the real question is where Houston’s consensus #2 prospect George Springer will start the season. Yet to make his MLB debut, it is hard to give him a statistical curve, but his competition for the MLB spots will be L.J. Hoes, Robbie Grossman, and J.D. Martinez, none of whom have nearly the upside of Springer. In 62 games in AAA last season, Springer hit .311/.425/.626, with 18 home runs and 22 stolen bases- only being caught on the basepaths three times. I think it’s time to see what he can do for the major league squad.
Kansas City Royals: For the final two spots in the rotation, the Royals have a choice between Bruce Chen, Danny Duffy, and Yordano Ventura. Chen turns 37 in June, and has been mostly average for the bulk of his career, but put together 15 quality starts for Kansas City last season, while Duffy and Ventura looked good in limited time in the MLB. I’m guessing Spring Training will be an opportunity to see which looks best at the moment, and see if they can notice any red flags. If all works out well, though, don’t be surprised if one of these three starts the season in the bullpen.
Los Angeles Angels: Raul Ibanez vs anyone else for the DH spot. Ibanez can’t stay an effective hitter forever, right? Let’s ignore the part where his OBP was barely above .300 and focus on the fact that he hit the third-most HR in a season of his career last season playing in a very pitcher-friendly ballpark, at the age of 41. But what if Albert Pujols can’t play the field anymore with his nagging injuries, or if Ibanez has a precipitous dropoff in value? The backup options for first base/DH would have to come down to Carlos Pena, who is far from the player he used to be, or J.B. Shuck or Hank Conger, neither of whom have either played a professional game at first base.
New York Yankees: Will David Phelps or Michael Pineda be given the last spot in the rotation? Due to injury, Pineda hasn’t thrown a major league pitch since 2011, but he looked damn good when he did, and he’s still only 25. Meanwhile, Phelps was not good in 2013, but his peripherals looked awfully similar to his productive 2012 season. It might come down to whether the team thinks Pineda is 100% in terms of health at the start of the season.
Oakland A’s: It’s not so much a battle as it is figuring out how quite-valuable fourth outfielder Craig Gentry will fit in to the rotation of players in the day-to-day starting lineups. With Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick all having questions about their viability as everyday players in 2014 (And, wow, that sounds weird to say), Gentry will be a big factor in any outfield platoon the A’s might decide upon.
Seattle Mariners: Nick Franklin, currently listed as Brad Miller‘s backup for the starting shortstop role, is constantly mentioned in trade rumors these days, so let’s not focus on him as much as that, unless something unexpected happens, top prospects Taijuan Walker and James Paxton will probably both be in the Seattle rotation on Opening Day. Walker has been experiencing discomfort lately, so Mariners officials are keeping an eye on him, and anything can happen with young pitchers, so I’m not willing to call the job theirs just yet. It’s just that Seattle doesn’t exactly have (m)any other viable options to throw into the rotation.
Tampa Bay Rays: Which of their many terrific pitching prospects will get the fifth rotation spot? Will it be Jake Odorizzi, or Alex Colome, or Enny Romero? This is actually kind of ridiculous, and I think I’m beginning to hate this team. (PS: It’ll be Odorizzi.)
Toronto Blue Jays: The only prospect that seems close to major league play is southpaw Sean Nolin, who may make somewhat of an impact in the Spring Training games. Another battle worth keeping an eye on is Ryan Goins vs. Maicer Izturis at second base, but even I can’t get excited for that one.