One of the more speculative and often rewarding aspects of the spring and baseball is trying to determine just who will own what position, where, hopefully for this year.
I learned early on, believe or not, from early fantasy guru John Benson, that exploiting the uncertainly can certainly pay off both in at-bats, and with a low/inconsequential cost or draft pick. Of course, it is easier to get the most out of a position battle in a deep format, but plucking a starter from your league mates as a value is always satisfying.
However, instead of simply looking at positions, let's look at some players who might have to scuffle for playing time despite a fine resume and a good showing in the majors. Starting with the Tampa Bay left field situation between Johnny Damon and Desmond Jennings - as of now, that spot must be Damon's, for Jennings to grab, and, the results are not so much hinging upon Damon's experience, as opposed to Jennings. Jennings’ .190-02 over a brief look last September and whether the outfielder is ready to step it up. Damon did go .271-8-51 as a full time player last year, so, Jennings needs to prove he can do it, and the starting gig becomes his. Until that time, Damon will rule. Both will likely nab 400 at-bats this year, or thereabout.
In the big Apple, there will be those screaming for the wonderful prospect Jesus Montero to claim the backstop gig from long timer Jorge Posada. However, that will not be so simple with newly acquired Russell Martin, despite Martin's declining numbers over the past few years. And, for now I would certainly give the edge to Martin for a number of reasons. First, Martin gets paid more. Second, he has a lot more experience. Third, though somewhat worn, Martin is still just 28, and should technically be entering his peak production years, and fourth, moving to the American League, and the Yankees, should be the grounds for a resurgence. Not to dismiss Montero, but Martin needs to fail miserably, while Montero succeeds brilliantly in 2011 for the youngster to take the gauntlet from the vet. Well, unless Martin is really ready for a wheel chair.
Possibly one of the best and most lucrative battles around is between Cardinals outfielders Jon Jay and newbie Lance Berkman. Jay is ostensibly the fourth outfielder, with Matt Holliday in left, and Colby Rasmus owning center, while for now Berkman has right. And, while Berkman may still have some stick, and good on-base numbers, he has not played the outfield in eons, and has not been that fleet afoot for the past couple of years (not to mention oft injured over the same span). Jay, ten years younger than Berkman, at 26, certainly does not boast the power (.300-4-27 over 287 at-bats last year), but, he certainly has the wheels. However, this is another spot where it is reasonable to expect both players to earn 350-plus at-bats. Although, keep an eye out for dark horse Allen Craig. He could steal the thunder from everyone.
Atlanta has done well with advancing prospects for years, now, and Freddie Freeman is next in line, with his sites on first base. However, Freeman has to take the starting gig away from veteran Eric Hinske, who went .256-11-51 over 281 at-bats covering first for the Braves last year. Hinske will get his at-bats for sure, however he has only held a full time job once--in 2008--over the last five years. Not to mention Freeman, coming off his .319-18-87 year at Gwinnett last year at age 21, will step up as his young brethren of the recent past, Tommy Hanson and Jason Heyward, and there will be no looking back. Expect Hinske to get his 250 at-bats, and finish with .250-8-39 totals or thereabout. But Freeman is where you want to put your money.
Oakland and Billy Beane have, as Monty Python would put it, "presented us with a poser." They have Ryan Sweeney and David DeJesus dueling for right field time, while Josh Willingham gets left field. I actually think Sweeney and DeJesus, both accomplished hitters who always seem to get hurt, will get their licks in, but I would keep an eye on for now back-up first baseman Conor Jackson. True, Jackson is as brittle as his team mates, but Jackson is also right-handed. I see all three of these guys culling 350 or so at-bats. And, the Athletics actually being a better team for it.
In Boston, two more injured outfielders will be fighting it out for center field time, in Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron. Cameron is the vet, did hit 24 homers in 2009, and 25 in 2008, so the now 38-year old will get a chance to show his pop, especially since he hits righty. However, we really have to toss Ellsbury's brief totals--he played only 18 games--of 2010, and look back at the great table setting season Ellsbury had in 2009 (94 runs, 70 swipes). Cameron simply cannot deliver like that, and there is no reason to dismiss Ellsbury's recent resume until he gives us a season or more to justify it. However, Cameron will see some playing time helping out fellow vet J.D. Drew, in right field, meaning again, both should deliver some good plate time, and that time should be productive.
Arizona has another pretty good outfield duel going on as well, in left field, between Gerardo Parra and Xavier Nady. Parra went .264-3-30 over 364 at-bats for the D-Backs in 2010, though, and that is not much production, while though oft-injured, if Nady's .256-6-33 numbers over 317 at-bats, pointing to stronger full time production. Nady did clobber 25 taters for Pittsburgh over a full complement of games in 2008, and you simply have to give the edge to him. Parra, like it or not, is a fourth outfielder, if that.
Rick Ankiel was signed by the Nationals to play left field in 2011, after at best mediocre numbers in 2009 (.230-11-38) and 2010 (.232-6-24), and while we have to admire Ankiel's skill in being able to shift from pitching to position player, he cannot hit like Mike Morse. Of course Morse's issue has been staying healthy, but even Milton Bradley puts up a full year once in a while, and Morse, who was .289-15-41 over 289 at-bats for Washington last year, is due. Then he will sign a mega expensive long term deal, and Morse's body will break in half. In the mean time, Morse is the guy I would bet on.
I really like Pablo Sandoval. I really wanted him to do well last year, but grew increasingly frustrated watching the third sacker flail so often at first pitches, and especially bad pitches. True, he can hit. True, he has a quick bat. Untrue, he will adjust. The Giants do have Conor Gillaspie, a great looking prospect out there for their third base future, but I would look to Mark DeRosa, injured most of last year, and versatile as all get up, to get a look. And, if Pablo truly cannot adjust--for it was after May that his numbers tumbled--the vet DeRosa will be there to hold the hot corner till Gillaspie is ready. Which won't be long (keep an eye on future Giants first sacker Brandon Belt, too).
Finishing with one other third base situation, Wilson Betemit owns that spot in Kansas City, where a slew of good young players are assembling, and Betemit had a terrific 276 at-bats with the Royals last year, going .297-13-43. Betemit is still just 29, believe it or not, but Betemit has not started for a full season since 2006, and even then he only managed 373 at-bats, a career high. I am guessing before the season is through Mike Moustakas will own the third base gig, and Betemit will be back to backing up.