WTNYFebruary 05, 2004
The Real Battles
By Bryan Smith

Yesterday I detailed the problem I have with baseball magazines, and the despair that a poor rookie section gives me. Another annual I get excited about is the ESPN.com Hot Stove Heaters, which unfortunately has a new style this year. Rather than write about each team individually, in which they gave great previews in my opinion, they've gone to questions ranging from "What will Bud Selig's legacy be?" to "When will there be an openly gay Major Leaguer?" I just can't say this got my juices flowing.

But when reading the overview of questions when this system was presented, I circled the date January 30 in my head. On that day, the question "Where will there be position battles in 2004?" would be answered. I think the two single greatest things about Spring Training are the fights for starting roles and the chance to see youngsters against Major League talent. I thought ESPN would go all out on this article...I was wrong.

Tim Kurkjian, a vastly overrated baseball reporter, gave us EIGHT battles that will be fought out in Spring Training. Granted, they all are true (we're not talkin' about Phil Rogers here), but eight? That's akin to buying first-row seats at Wrigley Field only to see the game rained out after five innings. But, just like yesterday, I decided to answer my own question. First, I'll show the eight Kurkjian presented, and then add on to his list:

1. Yankees CF- Well, is this really a position battle? I think there's no question that Kenny plays center except when southpaws are on the mound, in which Bernie moves back to his old position, Giambi hits in the DH slot and Tony Clark plays the infield. This could possibly change in Spring Training, but I don't think there's too much to be fought out.

2. Twins closer- This is a better battle. The favorite is Joe Nathan, the newest Twin, who held right-handers to a .136 average last season. Juan Rincon and J.C. Romero have done great things in bullpens in the past, and both could fill in. Top 100 prospect Jesse Crain will get a chance, although he's likely to end up starting the year in Rochester. Finally, expect Ugueth Urbina's name to be tied to this team, remember, they like signing players in February/March, a.k.a. Kenny Rogers?

3. Dodgers 1B- We'll see how this plays out, but at this point, is anyone but Robin Ventura even logical? Sure, Jeremy Giambi could always have a great camp, but chances are that Ventura would get the job if the Dodgers opened the season February 6. But, they don't, giving whomever becomes the GM a chance to fix this terribly weak hole.

4. Mets C/1B- Jason Phillips earned the right to play everyday last year, posting an OPS over .800. And, Mike Piazza is obviously guaranteed a slot. What's the controversy? Sure Art Howe has to decide who catches who and when, but either way the Mets won't have a Gold Glover behind the plate. Ask the pitchers, let them decide.

5. Orioles 2B- The battle between Jerry Hairston Jr. and Brian Roberts will be a good one. I think Hairston is the better player of the two, and chances are that he earns the job here. In that case, Roberts should be dealt to a team like the Cardinals or White Sox. The Orioles can't make a bad decision here, but it is a tough one.

6. Cardinals 2B- Ahh, Bo Hart. If the kid wasn't so lovable, would he even be in AAA this year? Kurkjian points out that Hart held hit own hitting .277 last year, but doesn't point out a .317OBP, or the fact that he tailed out in the second half (226/267/332). Marlon Anderson, hands down.

7. Red Sox 2B- Theo Epstein might just be testing Terry Francona here, hoping he weeds out Tony Womack and Terry Shumpert before they really get a chance. I've heard the idea of putting Pokey, the defensive specialist, in the lineup when Derek Lowe and Byung-Hyun Kim are starting. With Wakefield or Schilling on the mound, go with Bellhorn. Then, go with the hot hand for Pedro.

8. White Sox closer- I've pointed out why Shingo Takatsu is a bad idea, citing the large statistical differences between him and Kaz Sasaki preceding their journey to America. Billy Koch could get the job back with a great camp, and even Cliff Politte might get a look. But I would go with Damaso Marte, who draws the inevitable "lacks closer mentality" crap.

Those are the ones that Kurkjian gave you, but I have more. I've accumulated twelve hitting battles (and there are a few others I missed probably) he didn't talk about, and they go as follows:

1. Atlanta 3B (Branyan v. Derosa): Derosa will be better defensively, he'll strike out less, he'll be more consistent. And then there is Branyan, who will hit it to the steakhouse behind the centerfield bleachers at Turner Field. Derosa gets the job here, with the occasional break against ace right-handers.

2. Philadelphia 2B/3B (Utley v. Polanco v. Bell): Utley is full of potential, Polanco produces better than anyone else, and Bell has produced the most in the past and makes the largest paycheck. Will Carroll gave Bell a red-light yesterday in his THR of the Phillies, so this may be an easier decision than Larry Bowa had hoped for.

3. Montreal CF (Sledge v. Chavez): This comes down to the defensive versus offensvie argument. Should the Expos sacrifice defense to put sabermatric favorite Sledge in the lineup, or favor defense and go with Chavez. I think Frank Robinson will pick the latter, the Expos have a lot of offense as-is.

4. Cubs MI (Walker v. Grudzi v. Gonzalez): This also comes down to defense/offense. Gonzalez should have won the Gold Glove last year, while Walker computed for the Lead Foot award, given out to the worst defender at each position. A platoon of Walker/Grudzi and Grudzi/Gonzalez might be in order, depending on Grudzilanek's ability to handle shortstop.

5. Cincinnati SS (Larkin v. Youth): To further define Larkin's opponents, Ray Olmedo, Tim Hummell, and Ryan Freel will all be battling with the veteran for playing time. If Freel proves that he can play a good shortstop, give him the job. If not, I would let Larkin make one last tour around the Major League stadiums.

6. Milwaukee 2B (Ginter v. Spivey): We've all heard of Junior Spivey. He's the fun, slashing 2B that the Diamondbacks had represent them in the All-Star game in 2002, after an amazing first half. But in the three halves since then, he's sucked. Ginter is the better player, and displays a lot of the same attributes at Marcus Giles, who had to fight Keith Lockhart for a job once.

7. San Francisco RF (Mohr v. Hammonds v. Tucker): I would bet good money that Tucker and Mohr end up platooning this spot, as the Bay waits for Todd Linden to actually be ready for the Major Leagues. Tucker will struggle in Pac Bell (or what is it now?), and Felipe might be smarter to give the job to Mohr and have him run with it.

8. San Diego SS (Ordonez v. Greene v. Vazquez): Now the Padres have a justifiable response to sending Khalil Greene to AAA at season's beginning, which they likely wanted to do in the first place. Ordonez will most likely win this job, though it won't take long for Padre brass to realize last year was a fluke happening.

9. Colorado 2B (Miles v. Jackson): I've fought this battle 100 times on-line before, go with Miles. He was great in AA, great in AAA. The kid can hit, and he gives 100% on every single play. He could hit 10-20 jacks in Coors Field, and be a very important piece of a very threatening lineup.

10. Yankees 3B (???): The most talked about position battle on the Internet. I haven't written a story on this because I feel I have little to add to what the general public does. It will come down to Tyler Houston, Mike Lamb, and Almonte, with the Houston likely the most deserving. The Yankees haven't pursues a player for the hot corner as avidly as some predicted, but maybe George wants to build the suspense before releasing the clone he made of Mike Schmidt back in the day.

11. White Sox CF (Rowand v. Benard v. Reed): Jeremy Reed would have to prove a lot to me in camp before handing him an everyday job, but it seems like Reed is more than capable of leaving that impression. Benard can barely play centerfield at this point, so I think Rowand has the job until Reed makes a mockery of International League pitching.

12. Indians LF (Lawton v. Ludwick v. Crisp v. Escobar): Eric Wedge says that Lawton's paycheck won't affect his decision, which is a lie. Lawton will get the left field job, and hold it until Grady Sizemore is ready to handle Major League pitching full-time. That should be sometime in the summer months.

Tomorrow I'll handle the pitchers. Drop me a line with any suggestions, as well as positions that I missed today.