Analyzing baseball’s spring position battles

If spring training is just about over, the position battles must be, too. In most cases, they are. How one key battle from each division has played out so far:

Sean Rodriguez has wielded a hot bat this spring.
Sean Rodriguez has wielded a hot bat this spring.

AL East: Rays second base
The competition: Sean Rodriguez vs. Reid Brignac (and others)
The verdict: Both guys came to camp just hoping to make the club. But in addition to making manager Joe Maddon’s decision difficult, their play has shown the rest of the majors something else: The Rays have one deep roster. Rodriguez, 24, has slugged his way into the lineup by ranking among the Grapefruit League leaders most of the spring (.467 average, six homers, 17 RBIs in 60 at-bats before Thursday). Brignac has nearly kept pace, with a .351 average and 18 RBIs.
What it means: Maddon has plenty of options. Earlier in camp, he said he would use All-Star Ben Zobrist at second or in right, wherever he was needed most. With right fielder Matt Joyce (wrist) expected to begin the season on the disabled list, Zobrist appears headed for the outfield. How long he stays there remains to be seen because Maddon since has said that Rodriguez also can play outfield.

Moving back and forth works for Zobrist, who wasn’t even in the lineup on opening day last year but made his first All-Star team. "I love getting the different looks at the game," he said. "If I had to choose, I’d choose infield. But as long as they don’t make me choose, I want to be flexible. I want to do what we need."

AL Central: Twins closer
The competition: Jon Rauch vs. every non-starter
The verdict: TBD. Manager Ron Gardenhire hasn’t issued too many hints about how the club will replace All-Star Joe Nathan, out for the season after Tommy John surgery. "We’ll figure it out," the manager said. It appears the team will use a closer-by-committee approach early in the season. Although Rauch has the most experience finishing games, Gardenhire has mentioned Matt Guerrier first when talking about his relievers. Jesse Crain and Jose Mijares also could get their chances.
What it means: Who knows? Gardenhire hasn’t had to worry about the ninth inning since Nathan became the closer in 2004, his first season with the Twins. How long Gardenhire mixes and matches likely will depend on how long it takes someone to prove he is the guy. The Twins also are exploring trade possibilities. A trade would make sense because the rest of the relievers could remain in their customary roles.

AL West: Angels third base
The competition: Brandon Wood vs. Maicer Izturis
The verdict: When Chone Figgins was talking to the Angels about returning, he got the feeling the club was ready to give Wood a real chance. "He has been in their eyes for a while now," Figgins said. Wood, 24, has disappointed in limited major league stints but is batting over .300 and looking good defensively this spring.
What it means: Wood will hit ninth while shortstop Erick Aybar assumes Figgins’ role as leadoff hitter and Izturis becomes arguably the best utilityman in the game. The switch-hitting Izturis hit a career-best .300 in 114 games last season, playing second base when Howie Kendrick was optioned to the minors. Izturis figures to spend time at second, shortstop and third this season, but manager Mike Scioscia already has issued a warning to Wood about getting too comfortable and assuming third base is his.

Gaby Sanchez beat out Logan Morrison for the Marlins first-base job.
Gaby Sanchez beat out Logan Morrison for the Marlins first-base job.

NL East: Marlins first base
The competition: Gaby Sanchez vs. Logan Morrison
The verdict: Neither player hit like he wanted the job early this spring, but Sanchez eventually heated up and Florida’s decision became obvious as Morrison struggled. More time in the minors won’t hurt the 22-year-old Morrison. Sanchez, 26, is expected to hit eighth, partly because the Marlins believe Cameron Maybin has a better chance of success batting second.
What it means: Going with Sanchez helps in two other areas: third base and the bench. Jorge Cantu, an option for first if Sanchez and Morrison both had flopped, is more comfortable at third. Also, moving Cantu to first would have meant relying on Wes Helm or Emilio Bonifacio at third. Both are viewed as part-time players.

NL Central: Cubs second base
The competition: Mike Fontenot vs. Jeff Baker
The verdict: Fontenot made this easy for the Cubs. After tweaking his stance — courtesy of new hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo — he has hit this spring more like he did in 2008 (.305) than 2009 (.236). Baker, meanwhile, entered Thursday’s action with a .229 average this spring. Worth noting: Fontenot had a good spring last year, too, but it didn’t carry over.
What it means: The Cubs will start with the same infield they started with last season. Baker, a righthanded hitter acquired from the Rockies last July, still should get plenty of at-bats because the lefthanded-hitting Fontenot struggles against southpaws. Fontenot also is expected to play shortstop when Ryan Theriot sits.

NL West: Dodgers second base
The competition: Blake DeWitt vs. Ronnie Belliard
The verdict: Dodgers manager Joe Torre has been hesitant to declare a winner, but DeWitt will be the choice. He has hit too well to not be in the lineup, even though Torre isn’t convinced DeWitt’s defense is good enough to warrant an everyday role. Belliard grabbed the job from Orlando Hudson last August but needed most of March just to get his weight down to the 208 pounds needed to guarantee his contract. His batting average remains below his weight. Jamey Carroll, who signed a two-year deal this offseason, never had much of a chance to start.
What it means: DeWitt can say he has started on opening day at two positions after beginning 2008 at third. Beyond that, DeWitt, 24, knows he can’t be comfortable with Belliard behind him. Torre never has needed much of a reason to opt for veterans.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

If spring training is just about over, the position battles must be, too. In most cases, they are. How one key battle from each division has played out so far:

Sean Rodriguez has wielded a hot bat this spring.
Sean Rodriguez has wielded a hot bat this spring.

AL East: Rays second base
The competition: Sean Rodriguez vs. Reid Brignac (and others)
The verdict: Both guys came to camp just hoping to make the club. But in addition to making manager Joe Maddon’s decision difficult, their play has shown the rest of the majors something else: The Rays have one deep roster. Rodriguez, 24, has slugged his way into the lineup by ranking among the Grapefruit League leaders most of the spring (.467 average, six homers, 17 RBIs in 60 at-bats before Thursday). Brignac has nearly kept pace, with a .351 average and 18 RBIs.
What it means: Maddon has plenty of options. Earlier in camp, he said he would use All-Star Ben Zobrist at second or in right, wherever he was needed most. With right fielder Matt Joyce (wrist) expected to begin the season on the disabled list, Zobrist appears headed for the outfield. How long he stays there remains to be seen because Maddon since has said that Rodriguez also can play outfield.

Moving back and forth works for Zobrist, who wasn’t even in the lineup on opening day last year but made his first All-Star team. "I love getting the different looks at the game," he said. "If I had to choose, I’d choose infield. But as long as they don’t make me choose, I want to be flexible. I want to do what we need."

AL Central: Twins closer
The competition: Jon Rauch vs. every non-starter
The verdict: TBD. Manager Ron Gardenhire hasn’t issued too many hints about how the club will replace All-Star Joe Nathan, out for the season after Tommy John surgery. "We’ll figure it out," the manager said. It appears the team will use a closer-by-committee approach early in the season. Although Rauch has the most experience finishing games, Gardenhire has mentioned Matt Guerrier first when talking about his relievers. Jesse Crain and Jose Mijares also could get their chances.
What it means: Who knows? Gardenhire hasn’t had to worry about the ninth inning since Nathan became the closer in 2004, his first season with the Twins. How long Gardenhire mixes and matches likely will depend on how long it takes someone to prove he is the guy. The Twins also are exploring trade possibilities. A trade would make sense because the rest of the relievers could remain in their customary roles.

AL West: Angels third base
The competition: Brandon Wood vs. Maicer Izturis
The verdict: When Chone Figgins was talking to the Angels about returning, he got the feeling the club was ready to give Wood a real chance. "He has been in their eyes for a while now," Figgins said. Wood, 24, has disappointed in limited major league stints but is batting over .300 and looking good defensively this spring.
What it means: Wood will hit ninth while shortstop Erick Aybar assumes Figgins’ role as leadoff hitter and Izturis becomes arguably the best utilityman in the game. The switch-hitting Izturis hit a career-best .300 in 114 games last season, playing second base when Howie Kendrick was optioned to the minors. Izturis figures to spend time at second, shortstop and third this season, but manager Mike Scioscia already has issued a warning to Wood about getting too comfortable and assuming third base is his.

Gaby Sanchez beat out Logan Morrison for the Marlins first-base job.
Gaby Sanchez beat out Logan Morrison for the Marlins first-base job.

NL East: Marlins first base
The competition: Gaby Sanchez vs. Logan Morrison
The verdict: Neither player hit like he wanted the job early this spring, but Sanchez eventually heated up and Florida’s decision became obvious as Morrison struggled. More time in the minors won’t hurt the 22-year-old Morrison. Sanchez, 26, is expected to hit eighth, partly because the Marlins believe Cameron Maybin has a better chance of success batting second.
What it means: Going with Sanchez helps in two other areas: third base and the bench. Jorge Cantu, an option for first if Sanchez and Morrison both had flopped, is more comfortable at third. Also, moving Cantu to first would have meant relying on Wes Helm or Emilio Bonifacio at third. Both are viewed as part-time players.

NL Central: Cubs second base
The competition: Mike Fontenot vs. Jeff Baker
The verdict: Fontenot made this easy for the Cubs. After tweaking his stance — courtesy of new hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo — he has hit this spring more like he did in 2008 (.305) than 2009 (.236). Baker, meanwhile, entered Thursday’s action with a .229 average this spring. Worth noting: Fontenot had a good spring last year, too, but it didn’t carry over.
What it means: The Cubs will start with the same infield they started with last season. Baker, a righthanded hitter acquired from the Rockies last July, still should get plenty of at-bats because the lefthanded-hitting Fontenot struggles against southpaws. Fontenot also is expected to play shortstop when Ryan Theriot sits.

NL West: Dodgers second base
The competition: Blake DeWitt vs. Ronnie Belliard
The verdict: Dodgers manager Joe Torre has been hesitant to declare a winner, but DeWitt will be the choice. He has hit too well to not be in the lineup, even though Torre isn’t convinced DeWitt’s defense is good enough to warrant an everyday role. Belliard grabbed the job from Orlando Hudson last August but needed most of March just to get his weight down to the 208 pounds needed to guarantee his contract. His batting average remains below his weight. Jamey Carroll, who signed a two-year deal this offseason, never had much of a chance to start.
What it means: DeWitt can say he has started on opening day at two positions after beginning 2008 at third. Beyond that, DeWitt, 24, knows he can’t be comfortable with Belliard behind him. Torre never has needed much of a reason to opt for veterans.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

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