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Five AL spring training battles to watch

3/20/2015
Did Rusney Castillo's injury create enough of an opening for Mookie Betts (50) in Boston's center-field battle? Elsa/Getty Images

While spring training is mostly about players getting in gear for the regular season, there are are also jobs at stake. Not just back-end bullpen or bench gigs, but outright fights for spots that involve serious playing time. With two weeks to go until Opening Day, we're heading into crunch time, when teams must make their initial decisions about who to break camp with. Here are the five fiercest camp battles among American League teams:

Boston Red Sox, CF and RF: Given that the Red Sox have $72 million invested in Cuba's Rusney Castillo, the oblique injury that has kept him out of big league spring games until this weekend should not cost him his job in center field. But what his absence did was open up plenty of March playing time for Mookie Betts to keep building on last season's .812 OPS in 52 games after an .877 OPS in the minors. And that doesn't even include Boston's third wheel in center, the best defender of the bunch in Jackie Bradley Jr.

With that much talent at one position, perhaps there's playing time to be had elsewhere? Maybe, but manager John Farrell has already announced that Shane Victorino is his right fielder, so at least on paper there's just one job at stake. The problem is, the 34-year-old Victorino hasn't looked good so far in his comeback from an injury-abbreviated 2014 season, and has had to rest because of "general soreness." Betts is looking too good to sit, and has the track record to validate what folks are seeing now. As much as everyone likes to repeat the mantra that spring stats don't matter, if they provide management with reminders of what a guy can do with an opportunity, they start to.

Who should win: Betts and Castillo.

Who will win: Betts and Castillo, at least initially. The fight for the next two weeks should now really be between Castillo and Victorino to determine who looks ready, and who might need time in extended spring training. But if Betts keeps hitting, the Red Sox may need to explore dealing Victorino, even if that involves eating considerable cash from the $13 million remaining on a deal that ends after the 2015 season.

Cleveland Indians' middle infield: It's obvious that shortstop Francisco Lindor can play. He's one of Keith Law's top-10 prospects, and -- on the heels of last year's .727 OPS between Double- and Triple-A during his age-20 season -- he looks almost ready right now. A hot spring hasn't inspired any Kris Bryant-grade buzz over when Lindor will be added to the 40-man roster, but some of that reflects the Indians' understandable faith in their current duo, second baseman Jason Kipnis and shortstop Jose Ramirez. Kipnis is trying to rebound from a season in which injuries to his oblique and thigh contributed to an OPS tumble from his previous career clip of .773 to last year's .640, while the addition of Ramirez's glove work at short was a big part of Cleveland's stretch-run rebound to contend for a playoff slot. Ramirez has his limitations and strengths at the plate, including an unintentional walk rate below 7 percent and a .105 ISO in the minors, but he makes a lot of contact -- and he's just 22 years old. He's certainly good enough in his own right to be somebody's shortstop, but he has the misfortune of having Lindor coming up behind him.

It's a nice problem to have if you're the Indians, because you can expect Kipnis to hit -- and you can expect Ramirez to be an asset. But complicating matters is Kipnis' stiff back, which has limited his availability. An injury might be the only wild card that could advance Lindor's timetable ahead of "sometime this year," but he has the talent to work on his own clock.

Who should win: Kipnis and Ramirez.

Who will win: Kipnis and Ramirez, but if Lindor has a huge first month at Triple-A Columbus, you can expect some grumbling over setting aside Super-Two considerations for a Tribe team expected to contend right now.

Oakland Athletics' rotation: With the addition of four good young arms, the A's have an expanded menu to choose from when deciding who will round out their front five behind Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir. Sean Nolin's recovery from a sports hernia keeps him out of the immediate picture, but that leaves Jesse Hahn, Kendall Graveman and Chris Bassitt, as well as two good swingmen in Jesse Chavez and Drew Pomeranz -- plus a promising spring flyer on Barry Zito as a non-roster invite.

So the A's have plenty of options for the early going before Jarrod Parker and eventually A.J. Griffin come back from Tommy John surgery this summer. But Oakland has just three slots to fill, and as assistant general manager David Forst said last week, not everybody can handle moving back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation at the big league level. And with no off days among their first 10 games of the season, the A's April schedule won't allow them to put off picking players to fill all five slots.

After last season's 12-start spin with the San Diego Padres, Hahn is the hands-down favorite to win one of the three open slots. Both Graveman and Bassitt have big-time sinkers, but can either push their way past the swing duo of Chavez and Pomeranz? None of Oakland's options are well-established workhorses, so keeping either of the swingmen in a long role to help cover mid-game needs could also make sense.

Who should win: Hahn, Pomeranz and Bassitt. Pomeranz looked excellent once he got stretched out, while Bassitt was similarly stellar last fall and should have nothing left to prove.

Who will win: Hahn, Pomeranz and Chavez. It's a conservative, defensible choice since Bassitt and Graveman are optionable.

Chicago White Sox second base: Super-utility man Emilio Bonifacio is the veteran option, with prospects Micah Johnson and Carlos Sanchez in the mix. Former first-rounder Gordon Beckham and utility man Leury Garcia are also present and accounted for.

Johnson seems to have the inside track on the job, having gotten a long look and as much playing time as anyone else in camp. It's easy to understand Chicago's attraction to the college-groomed Indiana product: Given his .787 OPS from the left side in his two-plus seasons in the minors, plus 125 steals in 170 attempts, it's easy to see how he might make an electric "second leadoff" option in the lineup from the No. 9 hole. The two concerns are his readiness, with just 107 games above A-ball, and his defense, particularly his footwork around the bag and his hands (perhaps reflected in his minus-5.8 Fielding Runs in the minors last season, per Baseball Prospectus).

Johnson hasn't been named the Opening Day starter yet, and it's worth remembering the White Sox don't have to pick him because they have good alternatives. While the expectation is that Bonifacio will be the primary outfield reserve, J.B. Shuck might help Chicago fill that role. That could free up Bonifacio for more reps in the infield, especially if Johnson's defense becomes an area of concern in Arizona. Sanchez may not wow people with his speed or power, but he's heading into his age-23 season with a .353 career OBP in six minor league seasons, and he's an excellent defender at second base.

Who should win: Johnson. The upside is totally worth getting excited about, and the White Sox should be able to afford to put him at the bottom of the order and settle in.

Who will win: Johnson, and expect fans from Chicago's South Side to have something else to rag on Cubs fans about: all that needless drama about adding a top prospect to the active roster and starting his service-time clock.

Los Angeles Angels' second base: It's a four-headed scrum between Josh Rutledge from the Colorado Rockies, former A's prospect Grant Green, former Kansas City Royals prospect Johnny Giavotella and Rule 5 pick Taylor Featherston. If that doesn't sound like an exciting set of choices or the kind of thing that suggests a deal for "TBD" by Opening Day, that's understandable -- each of them comes with wrinkles.

Rutledge has the glove to play second or short effectively, but with a career .230/.274/.354 line in the majors outside of Coors Field, and a tendency to get eaten up by off-speed stuff, he shouldn't be counted on to add much on offense. Giavotella's .816 OPS in the minors has his .612 OPS in the majors to undermine it, beyond a couple of blown opportunities in Kansas City. Green's defense has been suspect, and he seems slotted for a utility role. Featherston didn't dominate at Double-A Tulsa last season.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia has been willing to play matchup games with his middle infielders in the past, but that was when he had switch-hitter Maicer Izturis in his prime and good to go at second, short and third. The aforementioned four all bat righty, so it isn't like a platoon solution suggests itself anyway.

Who should win: In this group, Giavotella at least has a track record of producing at Triple-A and, entering his age-27 season, is as ready as he'll ever be. But these pickings suggest GM Jerry Dipoto should keep his eyes peeled on the waiver wire or be ready to swing a deal before Opening Day.

Who will win: Rutledge, for the glove.

Honorable Mention: Toronto Blue Jays' second base: Yes, there are a lot of keystone camp combats, and speaking of Maicer Izturis, he's looking like the Jays' first choice at second if he can stay healthy. But a strained groin suffered on Friday might create the opening that rookie Devon Travis needs to stake a claim on the job after posting an .818 OPS at Double-A Erie last season.