Like many teams, the Arizona Diamondbacks have a preponderance of candidates for the No. 5 starter. What makes their situation somewhat unique is the likelihood that Randy Johnson will not be ready to begin the season. This means that two starters will make the club out of a group, which includes Dustin Nippert, Micah Owings, Enrique and Edgar Gonzalez, Evan MacLane, and Dana Eveland.
If southpaws MacLane or Eveland make the initial cut, they will almost certainly move to the bullpen once The Big Unit is ready. But with so many intriguing candidates, this is a positional battle that will last far beyond April. The ‘Fifth Starter of the Month' will constantly be looking over his shoulder and pressured to perform at a high level.
San Diego Padres
Left field or leadoff man – they are linked together but not linked at all. The Padres will try Terrmel Sledge, Jose Cruz Jr. and Paul McAnulty in left field, expecting Sledge to win the battle and assume the leadoff position. But that might be a heavy demand on Sledge, despite his patience at the plate and solid speed.
Instead, and this will eliminate the continued juggling of the lineup if a platoon in the left field occurs, the Padres would prefer to see someone stick in the leadoff position. Brian Giles is a candidate because of his on base prowess, his brother Marcus Giles is also a viable option but many believe he was miscast in that role last season and suffered – which inevitably leads back to Sledge. If he can win the job outright, Sledge is the natural candidate to assume leadoff duties and what shouldn't be overlooked is the fact that the Padres spent two years trying to acquire Sledge – he is their man.
San Francisco Giants
There are a few positions up for grabs in the City by the Bay, but the most intriguing one is the fifth starter's job. The Giants have two talented youngsters with legitimate chances to win the job, Jonathan Sanchez and Tim Lincecum. Sanchez excited fans last year, and Lincecum is only that much more exciting.
However, don't expect either of them to start the season with the job. The job is likely to go to veteran Russ Ortiz. Ortiz was nearly run out of the league after his 2006 season, but he has come back to camp a couple of dozen pounds lighter with renewed velocity and intensity. That, combined with the youngsters' need to tweak just a little more while in the minors, makes Ortiz the likely winner of the job. That said, he may just end up being a place holder, because when Lincecum's ready, nothing will keep him from a spot in the rotation.
The biggest battle at the Pirates spring training camp is the Battle of the Joses. If Castillo wins, he keeps his job at second. If Bautista wins, he plays third and National League batting champ Freddy Sanchez shifts to second. It is the only undecided element to the Pirates' starting lineup, and it carries additional weight for the two involved: Castillo is 25, Bautista 26, and neither wants to enter a critical year for his career in a bench role. The Bucs have, incidentally, tried Castillo's hand a third in spring drills.
St. Louis Cardinals
The biggest battle brewing in Spring Training for the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals is the big battle royal, with the last man standing, earning the title; the Cardinals' No. 5 Starter.
The ring is full of contenders and pretenders, former relievers and swingmen, looking for a chance to pull off perhaps the biggest save of their career – saving the Cardinals starting rotation.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa will tell you that once you get past Chris Carpenter and Kip Wells, that the battle is wide open for the other positions, with right-handers Adam Wainwright, Anthony Reyes, Braden Looper, Ryan Franklin, Brad Thompson, and Josh Kinney, and left-hander Chris Narveson all being given a fair shot at the title.
The bottom line is, the rotation is and will be, Chris Carpenter, Kip Wells, Adam Wainwright, Anthony Reyes and Braden Looper, like battle royals in professional wrestling, this fight is fixed.
Ruiz seemed to be the heir apparent, but the Phillies weren't infatuated enough with him to hand him the job and signed Barajas as a free agent to fight for the spot. Once Ruiz gets settled in, he will show better talent than what Barajas has shown in his career, but the question is how long will it take Ruiz to get comfy? Each time that Ruiz has moved up a level, he's had to go through a learning process and it showed last season when he got some time with the big league club. That bit of experience should go a long way to helping him this season and he'll likely come out with the lions' share of the playing time behind the plate.
The biggest position battle in Oakland A's camp right now is between Shannon Stewart and Dan Johnson. Ironically, they don't play the same position, but how one does will dramatically affect the other. Nick Swisher's ability to play left field and first base gives the A's some lineup flexibility. If the veteran Stewart, signed to a one-year deal late in the off-season, plays well this spring, he will start the year as the team's left fielder and possible number two hitter. However, if Johnson has a hot spring, he will begin the year as the team's sixth or seventh-place hitter and starting first baseman.
Both players come into camp with big question marks. Stewart has battled foot injuries for the past three years and has seen his production drop dramatically. Once one of the league's elite leadoff men, Stewart has managed only to post OPS' in the low 700s in each of the last two seasons. Johnson was outstanding during his rookie season in 2005 with Oakland, hitting 15 homers in 109 games and winning the spot on the Topps All-Rookie team over Ryan Howard. However, his 2006 season got off to a horrible start, and he ended up spending more than a month of last season in Triple-A. This battle will likely go down to the end of camp, barring injury.
With Rangers manager Ron Washington recently stating that Sammy Sosa is nearly a lock to make the team's opening day roster, the focus turns to the back end of the starting rotation. Four of the Rangers' starting rotation spots are seemingly filled, but there is a plethora of competition for the fifth and final spot. The Rangers will be taking a look at young guys such as John Koronka, Kameron Loe, Josh Rupe, and Edinson Volquez. However, the club has also invited veterans Bruce Chen and Jamey Wright to Spring Training.
At this point, it would be nearly impossible to pick a clear-cut favorite. Because the Rangers do not currently have a left-handed pitcher in the starting rotation, some believe Koronka and Chen have the upper hand. But arguments can be made for every candidate. Loe started last season in the rotation, Wright has impressed pitching coach Mark Connor early on this spring, and the Rangers like what Rupe and Volquez bring to the table. The tight race for the final rotation spot should make this season's spring training one of the more interesting in recent memory.
There's little competition for jobs at Cleveland's camp. The starting rotation is set, Joe Borowski inherited the closer's job when Keith Foulke retired, and manager Eric Wedge plans to platoon at several spots (left field, right field, first base). All that's left is to sort out the final three relievers on the staff and whether or not Wedge will keep one or two utility infielders.
If good-hitting Ryan Garko's defense has improved enough to warrant keeping him as a first baseman, then Wedge will carry only one utility player. Veteran Hector Luna has the inside track there, with Triple-A tested Mike Rouse, Joe Inglett and non-roster invitees Luis Rivas and Keith Ginter getting a look.
Vying for bullpen spots are veterans Jason Davis, Matt Miller and Fernando Cabrera along with young Rafael Perez, Tom Mastny, Juan Lara, Edward Mujica, Brian Slocum and Tony Sipp. Barring injuries, Garko, Luna and the three veteran relievers should go to Cleveland and the others back to Buffalo.
Kansas City Royals
Among the position player battles, the only intriguing uncertainty for the Royals is the question of who will get the nod as the starting catcher. John Buck has been relatively disappointing in the two and a half years since being acquired in the Carlos Beltran trade, and the Royals, during the offseason, traded for veteran catcher Jason LaRue. Buddy Bell hasn't dropped any hints about who he expects to win the job, but he made it clear that he prefers to have a regular starting catcher, so the odd man out figures to have a limited role on the club.
It's still a tough call as to who the favorite is. Buck is six years younger than LaRue, and both have shown flashes of decent power during their careers. LaRue has a better reputation as a game-caller, which is an aspect of Buck's game that Bell was often unhappy with. Nevertheless, since Buck is still just 26-years old, he'll likely be given every chance to retain his job this spring, especially given the void of any significant catching depth in the minor league system. Therefore, the smart money is probably still on Buck to win the job outright, but given Bell's history of favoring veterans, nobody would be shocked if LaRue emerges from spring training as the starting catcher.
This off-season, the Orioles signed two outfielders to multi-year contracts – Jay Payton and Aubrey Huff. Although both play multiple positions, each will vie for the bulk of playing time in left field this season.
Huff has only played eight games in left field since making his major league debut, but every indication is that the job is his to lose. Payton is superior defensively and has more experience in left field, but he will most likely serve as a defensive replacement and platoon partner for Corey Patterson in centerfield.
Toronto Blue Jays
One position up for grabs for the Toronto Blue Jays this spring is in the back end of the starting rotation. John Thomson, Tomo Ohka, Shaun Marcum, Casey Janssen and even Dustin McGowan are all battling for those spots, but the key favorite to land the fourth spot in the rotation is John Thomson. The right-handed pitcher has the most experience out of any of the aforementioned and the Blue Jays are looking for a veteran presence in the back end of the rotation to provide some stability and give them a chance to win those crucial games.