Most Intriguing Spring Competitions

In terms of playing time, which players will have the upper hand?

As spring training exits its first full week, teams continue to approach their final version every day. If you surveyed every team in Florida and Arizona, you would likely see that around 20 roster spots in every squad are set in stone, while the rest are up in the air and to be decided over the spring. However, not every roster or positional battle is created equal. Teams not expected to compete may give more leeway to prospects and lottery tickets, while potential contenders may agonize when it comes to assigning a full-time job to one player over another. In any case, March will be full of internal competitions that provide flavor and intrigue to what are considered meaningless games. Today, we take a look at a few of them, focusing on the ones that could shape the early season and identity of their teams.


Rays Shortstop


Considering Tampa Bay’s never-ending quest for value, every spring consists of a number of unclaimed positions and players looking to make their mark. This year’s version of the Rays appears to be set over the diamond, except at a key defensive position, where three major leaguers of very different circumstances are battling to become the primary shortstop. With the likely absence of Wander Franco for a long, long time (if not forever), a position of strength has become a pressing matter for the franchise.

The first option appeared to be Junior Caminero, a homegrown talent who made his MLB debut in 2023 and is supposed to be the future, though he will only be 20 years old on Opening Day. Then the team made a shrewd move to bring in a potential late bloomer in José Caballero, who was acquired from the Mariners early in the offseason. While the original battle appeared to be set, a new player joined the fray, with former Guardian Amed Rosario signing a dirt-cheap contract as a free agent. While the projection systems see them splitting time in some way or another, the Rays could benefit from someone stepping up and becoming the frontline shortstop. Rosario may have the highest floor if employed as a platoon specialist, but Caminero’s upside and Caballero’s OBP skills may prove more valuable for a franchise that will be battling in a crowded AL East from day one.


Cubs Third Baseman


The recent re-signing of Cody Bellinger provides plenty of stability for a Cubs team that is seeking revenge after its late-season collapse in 2023. Counting on the former MVP to man first base or center field is a good step forward, but other positions need sorting out. With new manager Craig Counsell starting to imprint his style on the team, he is counting on an old-fashioned battle for the third base job, with two versatile players trying to establish themselves in a full-time position instead of playing all over the field.

On one hand, there is veteran Patrick Wisdom, who appears to be aging like fine wine. He will enter his age-32 season with a combined 76 homers during the past three seasons. That may not look impressive, but he achieved it in only 1,211 plate appearances, for a solid rate of a homer every 16 plate appearances. The downside of that ratio is that he has struggled to stay on the field, as he played in only 97 games in 2023. On the other hand, Christopher Morel may have only logged 39.1 innings at third base, but he is expected to compete for the job, which could be his best path toward consistent at-bats. He impressed with 26 homers and a .821 OPS in his sophomore season, so his bat may give him an edge over Wisdom, though Morel’s defense could be the deciding factor to start the year. Regardless, it would behoove Chicago to find playing time for both, as they need all the power they can get.


Orioles Shortstop


One of the most important amendments to the last CBA involved giving teams a higher incentive for fast-tracking their top prospects into the majors. We already saw it last year, with Arizona breaking camp with eventual Rookie of the Year Corbin Carroll, and now every spring should be filled with excitement for teams (even the ones who would benefit from additional control) starting the season with heralded youngsters in their lineups. This brings us to the current situation of the Orioles, who are also slated to battle for the AL East, meaning that every marginal advantage could prove huge when it’s all said and done.

Uber prospect Jackson Holliday, merely 20 years old, is already knocking on the door despite his limited professional experience. He is clearly the future at the position, with second base as a fallback worst-case scenario, but reports out of camp are still conflicted regarding his status as the Opening Day starter. His defense can be described as raw, while his bat would immediately be subject to facing the toughest pitching he’s ever seen. Even for such a high-pedigree prospect, reaching the majors at 20 still represents a steep learning curve. Baltimore has the option to go with the incumbent Jorge Mateo, who played 110 games at the position in 2023, albeit with an uninspiring .607 OPS that included average defense. While the long-term scenario is clear that Holliday will get the chance to start at shortstop and Mateo will go back to his utility-type status, the following month will give us a clearer idea of how the Orioles will handle the start of 2024.


Blue Jays Rotation


The underrated top four of Kevin Gausman, José Berríos, Chris Bassitt, and Yusei Kikuchi may be one of the best combinations in the AL, but the unforgiving nature of the division means that a solid option must be considered at the fifth spot in the rotation. A year ago, it would have seemed crazy to think that Alek Manoah, fresh off a third-place finish in AL Cy Young voting, would be battling for a spot in the rotation. And yet, here we are, with the Blue Jays trying to decide what is best for their pitching staff.

Manoah’s fall from grace in 2023 has been well documented, but the franchise still hopes that he can recover some of his former ace status, even if it means a complete revamp both physically and mentally. The problem with Manoah is that last season’s fall had no silver lining, with the righty coming apart at all facets of the game. His 6.01 FIP was even worse than his ERA, and the road back to competitiveness will require a full rebuild. His most direct competition should come from the enigmatic Yariel Rodriguez, who excelled as a reliever in Japan and will now try to become a starter in MLB. While Rodriguez may get spot starts regardless of this battle, Manoah could represent the ultimate X factor for Toronto, and his status should be monitored throughout the whole spring.


Rangers Designated Hitter


Normally, a team’s designated hitter is not much of a relevant factor in terms of a spring battle. Few squads employ a full-time DH, with most of them mixing and matching the spot in the lineup according to matchups, rest days, and so forth. However, the defending champs are facing a very interesting scenario, as their 2023 first-round draft pick appears ready for the Show much faster than expected, and they have no other spot for his bat outside of the DH role.

Wyatt Langford, whose cool name is bound to become well-known around baseball, made a brief cameo with the Rangers in 2023 after demolishing minor-league pitchers and appears to be the team’s best option at designated hitter. However, just like with Jackson Holliday, the plan may be too ambitious for an inexperienced player at the highest level, especially when the team has a competent hitter like Ezequiel Duran to take over, not to mention the option of giving maintenance days at DH for their many veterans, especially after Corey Seager comes back from injury. Nevertheless, Langford may continue to impress this spring and leave Texas no choice, as he would become an immediate front-runner to become Rookie of the Year. Not bad for a guy who was still in college less than a year ago.

Pablo Figueroa

Pablo Figueroa is a Baseball Writer here at Pitcher List, with experience as a writer since 2013. He lives in Aguascalientes, Mexico - proud home of Los Rieleros. When he´s not thinking about baseball , he's a husband, owns two dogs, watches random episodes of The Sopranos , plays padel, and works on his day job to pay the bills.

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