Spring Training Position Battles to Watch

Every Spring, all 30 Major League Baseball (MLB) clubs gather at their respective Spring Training locations for a month of practice and games against other teams. Spring Training generally has a more relaxed environment than the regular season. Most starting players only play the first part of the games to avoid injury and give prospects or those fighting to make the opening-day roster needed playing time. Meanwhile, fans get to ask their favorite players for autographs and watch the games from lawn seats. 

Spring Training Overview

While most teams try to fill 26-man roster holes through trade or free-agency acquisitions, some enter Spring Training with final roster spots they need to sort out. It does not help that five valuable free agents — Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery, Cody Bellinger, Matt Chapman, and JD Martinez — remain on the open market. Whichever team lands them will pencil their names into the open starting positions for the foreseeable future.

Teams these days can never have enough pitching depth, but that often leads to coaches determining who will fill out their club’s starting rotation to begin the season based on their pitchers’ health availability and preseason performance. The same goes for teams deciding who to start at open positions in the infield or outfield. Here are five significant position battles to watch this Spring.

Spring Training Battles

1) San Francisco Giants’ Shortstop 

For the first time since 2012, the San Francisco Giants are preparing to open the season without Bay Area native Brandon Crawford at shortstop. The team is moving on from the declining 37-year-old free-agent who batted .194 with seven home runs and 38 RBIs last season.

Crawford, who hopes to continue playing this year, had a decorated decade-plus tenure with his hometown team, winning two World Series, four Gold Glove Awards, and participating in three All-Star Games. The elite defensive shortstop had his best offensive campaign in 2021, helping the Giants win 107 regular-season games by achieving a career-best .298 batting average, 24 home runs, and 90 RBIs. If he does get another chance, he can contribute at least as a defensive replacement and valuable veteran presence in the locker room. 

Meanwhile, the Giants are turning towards the future at this position, with top prospects Marco Luciano and Casey Schmitt set to vie for the role this Spring. According to the team’s local beat writer, Susan Slusser, Luciano is currently atop the depth chart, although that could change in the coming weeks. Both players are coming into camp seeking to make the Opening-Day roster and make their mark over the 162-game season. Schmitt preceded his teammate in getting the call-up to the Majors last year.

The talented defender proved his versatility by playing third base, shortstop, and second base, yet struggled at the plate in his initial exposure to Major League pitching. On the other hand, Luciano, long seen as the club’s top-hitting prospect and Crawford’s successor, just got his feet wet at the end of the season, getting 45 plate appearances in 14 games. Given his power potential and prospect pedigree, Luciano can emerge as a stud for a San Francisco lineup that desperately needs more offensive impact to return to contention.

2) Oakland Athletics’ Starting Rotation Fifth Spot

Over the past two years, the Oakland Athletics have employed many starting and relief pitchers, few of whom have been successful at preventing the other team from scoring, a key reason the team has suffered more than 100 losses in back-to-back seasons.

Oakland’s 2022 All-Star game representative Paul Blackburn and durable, consistent left-hander JP Sears will lead the team’s rotation. The A’s offseason acquisitions, Alex Wood and Ross Stripling, who moved across the Bay from the Giants to the A’s, will take up two more slots. That leaves one spot available in the team’s initial starting five.

24-year-old Luis Medina, who experienced ups and downs in his inaugural MLB season, is the favorite to snatch the final spot because he is out of options. Medina must be traded or waived and can not be demoted to Triple-A if he does not make the Major League roster. Pitching prospects Joe Boyle and Joey Estes are two other candidates who debuted in the MLB last year.

Boyle, acquired from the Cincinnati Reds for left-handed reliever Sam Moll at the 2023 Trade Deadline, made a great first impression as he went 2-0 with a 1.69 ERA in his first three Major League starts. Lastly, Mason Miller might be the best pitcher on this team but will spend the season in the bullpen as the team wants to limit his innings to reduce the risk of injury for this injury-prone hard thrower.

3) Cincinnati Reds’ Infield Logjam

The Cincinnati Reds, who are looking to make the leap from surprise to legit division and playoff contender this season, have a good problem in that they feature more talented, young infielders than there are spots on the diamond. The club recently extended 2021 National League Rookie of the Year second baseman/infielder Jonathan India for two years.

Last year, Cincinnati surged into playoff contention thanks to the positive performances of rookie infielders Matt McLain, Noelvi Marte, Christian Encarnacion-Strand, and Elly De La Cruz. Not content with all these players, the club signed solid corner-infielder Jeimer Candelario in free agency. All of these players are too talented to be demoted to the minors. So the Reds must ensure the best all-around infield setup since their infielders struggled defensively last season.

4) Tampa Bay Rays’ left side of the infield

Uncertain of whether Wander Franco will be able to return to MLB, the Tampa Bay Rays pivoted to plan B, acquiring José Caballero from the Seattle Mariners as their intended starting shortstop this year. Isaac Paredes, who crushed 31 home runs last year, is the projected starter at third base. However, the third player in the picture, Junior Caminero, has the most potential.

The team’s top prospect and one of the best in baseball did not look that overmatched when the 20-year-old made his MLB debut last September. He displayed the power potential to annually hit 30 or more home runs in his minor league ascent. Defensively, he can play shortstop but may be better suited for third base in the long term.

5) New York Mets’ Third Base 

For the New York Mets to stay close to their division rivals, Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves, they will need more production out of their third basemen to support first baseman Pete Alonso and shortstop Francisco Lindor.

Brett Baty and Mark Vientos are the two internal candidates vying for the position. Ronny Mauricio would have been an option here, but the prospect tore his ACL playing winter ball this offseason. The Mets drafted and developed Baty and Vientos, who have shown flashes of offensive firepower but have yet to unlock their full potential.

As a result, 2024 looms as a crossroads season, and Spring Training will be telling to see which of these players has made the necessary strides to improve and potentially seize the majority of playing time in this position. An alternative possibility is unsigned free agent Matt Chapman if he does not go to the Giants, Chicago Cubs, or return to the Toronto Blue Jays.

With players all reporting to their respective camps over the coming week, this year’s Spring Training promises some plot twists along with the usual excitement that the return of live baseball brings to fans and players alike. Stay tuned to see where the remaining free agents land and how the other battles play out.  

Main Image: Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

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