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February 12, 2013

Overthinking It

Spring Position Battles, National League

by Ben Lindbergh

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General managers put most of their roster pieces in place by the time pitchers and catchers report, but the majority of major-league teams still show up at spring training with a position or two where their plans aren’t set in stone. What their depth charts will look like on Opening Day depends in part on what transpires over the next two months. Who’ll show up in better shape? Who’ll convince the manager that he wants it more? And yes, who’ll have a couple weeks of hot hitting, even if history has shown that spring training performance isn’t predictive of regular-season success?

The following five National League contenders have questions about the division of labor at one or more positions that need to be answered by the time they break camp. Here’s how those positions should shake out. (We covered the American League on Monday.)

Arizona Diamondbacks, Shortstop
Didi Gregorius vs. Cliff Pennington

The Diamondbacks traded for two defense-first shortstops this winter: the veteran Pennington, whose double-digit negative BRAA and double-digit positive FRAA last season were emblematic of his career contributions, and Gregorius, a 22-year-old with a similar future profile who broke in with Cincinnati last September and impressed in the Arizona Fall League.
Who should win? Pennington. Gregorius hasn’t spent a full season above Double-A, and his .243/.288/.427 line for Triple-A Louisville suggests that he could use some offensive seasoning. He wouldn’t make major strides on the big-league bench, so he’ll likely start the season in Reno. Chase Field will be a better fit for the flyball-hitting Pennington than the Coliseum was, so he might even be a little less useless with the stick in addition to gobbling up grounders.

Atlanta Braves, Third Base
Juan Francisco vs. Chris Johnson

After toasting Chipper Jones’ retirement and shipping Martin Prado to Arizona in the Justin Upton trade, the Braves will try to maximize their returns from two players who can’t compare to their predecessors at the position.
Who should win? Johnson. The two players hit from opposite sides of the plate, so both will likely make the roster in some sort of platoon. This spring will be about jockeying for portions of the playing time pie, and a well timed hot streak could earn someone a larger serving. Francisco is the better defender, but his extreme strikeout issues last season coupled with Johnson’s experience make Johnson more likely to get the bulk of the at-bats. Although Johnson would be the right-handed half of the platoon, he’s hit better against righties over the past several seasons.

Cincinnati Reds, Catcher
Ryan Hanigan vs. Devin Mesoraco vs. Miguel Olivo
Mesoraco has been Cincinnati’s heir apparent at catcher since the Reds traded Yasmani Grandal to San Diego in the Mat Latos trade. The only unknown has been his timetable for taking over. Mesoraco has managed only a .205/.274/.353 line in his first 200-plus plate appearances, and the Reds would prefer to see more success before making him the starter, but burying him in a backup role could hinder his development. He could be ticketed for Triple-A to start the season, since Olivo's invitation to spring training suggests that even the second-string spot might be a stretch.
Who should win? Hanigan. He’s patient enough to be at least a league-average offensive catcher, and his strong arm (which produced a league-leading 48 percent caught stealing rate last season) and talent for framing pitches make him the safer play for a competitive team. However, a hot start could have Mesoraco nipping at Hanigan’s heels, since Olivo is unlikely to offer any more than his usual impatience with occasional pop.

Los Angeles Dodgers, Fifth Starter
Chris Capuano vs. Aaron Harang vs. Ted Lilly
Signing Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu gave Los Angeles a surplus of starters. With Chad Billingsley’s health status uncertain, the Dodgers have thus far refrained from trading any of their extra arms, though they might still deal one during spring training.
Who should win? Harang. Capuano is the only one of the trio who’s had an extended stay in the bullpen in the last decade, and with Scott Elbert unlikely to be back from offseason elbow surgery by Opening Day, the Dodgers could lessen the logjam by using him in long relief. In light of his age and shaky shoulder, Lilly too would be better deployed in short bursts, at least until he’s proven that he’s intact enough to attract interest from other teams.

St. Louis Cardinals, Fifth Starter
Shelby Miller vs. Trevor Rosenthal vs. Joe Kelly
Chris Carpenter’s potentially career-ending nerve injury made a little more room in the rotation, ensuring that Lance Lynn would have a spot to himself. Even so, there’s room for only one member of the trio of hard-throwing pitchers who debuted in St. Louis last season. All three are viable starters, but unless Jaime Garcia’s sore shoulder proves to be debilitating, two are ticketed for relief.
Who should win? Miller. The 22-year-old ace-in-waiting showed he could miss bats in the bullpen last season, and there’s no reason to delay the start of his ascension to the top of the rotation. Although the worm-killing Kelly is the only one with more than a single major-league start, he’s also the one with the lowest ceiling. His command is shaky, his secondary stuff is nothing special, and left-handed hitters posted a higher TAv against him last season (.333) than they did against any other 100-inning starter aside from Jason Marquis. Both he and Rosenthal, whose late-inning dominance during the playoffs must have made an impression on Mike Matheny’s mind, are better short-term fits for the bullpen.

​Thanks to Jason Martinez for research assistance.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  National League,  Spring Training

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