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Monday, March 12, 2012
The decline of the camp battle

By Christina Kahrl

Whether you catch some Cactus or Grapefruit League action or not, we all reap the benefits of the rites of spring. Time-honored stories on the pitchers being ahead of the hitters (in Florida's damp, more often than not), or the hitters being ahead of the pitchers (in arid Arizona). We get games we can see or listen to, and box scores that say next to nothing beyond who's getting some work in, who caught the travel bus and maybe who's getting a courtesy look or mop-up glory.

But there's one thing spring isn't giving us a lot of: knockdown, drag-out camp battles.

It wasn't even the last day of February and Mariners skipper Eric Wedge had let the world know that Mike Carp was his left fielder, not even bothering with the benefit of any actual spring ballgames. Not that this would have been the stuff of a January news release, but if you thought Michael Saunders or Trayvon Robinson had a chance, guess again.

Or consider the Kansas City Royals, winners of 71 games last season. In the broadest of broad brushstrokes, that might seem like the sort of team you'd expect camp fights and people playing for their professional lives. Rookies from last year, such us second baseman Johnny Giavotella and third baseman Mike Moustakas, might have given you reason for concern, between Giavotella's .273 OBP and Moustakas' .676 OPS. And with veteran regulars such as Yuniesky Betancourt and Kevin Kouzmanoff in camp, you might think there are camp battles between kids and vets to be won.

Far from it. As Royals GM Dayton Moore placidly noted, Betancourt could become the Royals' starting second baseman but, “I don't think it'll be on Opening Day. Giavotella would really have to struggle.” That doesn't even sound like a camp skirmish, let alone a fight.

Look around camps and you'll see a lot of that kind of commentary and a lot of that kind of planning. There just aren't that many slots beyond those areas in which financial commitments to veterans or organizational commitments to prospects don't already determine the overwhelmingly likely outcomes.

And that's really as it should be, because teams don't want to come into camps looking to resolve a large number of unknowns. Instead, what we're seeing play out in camps is based on a couple solid management techniques.

Contingency Planning. Moore's comment about Betancourt is important, not because it reflects any resignation, but because it reflects the mindset of what goes into team-building. Giavotella isn't in any danger of losing his job to Betancourt, any more than Moustakas is to Kouzmanoff -- unless they flat-out fail.

Can that happen? Of course, but the initiative is in the hands of the players to deliver on the opportunities they get. If Moustakas builds on his September breakout, nobody needs to remember that Kouzmanoff was in camp. Giavotella could build on the blend of patience and pop he's shown the organization in his four years in the minors and hold down the keystone for the Royals for years. But appreciation of his ability was built up in those years of development and scouting, which brings us to the next key to the decline of the camp battle ...

Sample size matters. Everyone gets that when you're talking about spring stats, none of it means that much. People just don't get that much playing time to say anything conclusively about their ability, and three good weeks in March don't outweigh what a player's done in his previous three years.

That isn't to say performance is meaningless, just very nearly so. When you're talking about a pitcher showing off a new cut fastball or a batter making better adjustments, those things may well be true, but there isn't enough opportunity in spring training to show that new skill off, at least not statistically. Players and scouts, coaches, managers and executives might see it, might know about it or might give credit where credit's due, but spring games don't generate that much opportunity for a player to show it off.

Perhaps paradoxically, the one place where sample size or past history plays less of a role can be the back end of a bullpen. Look at almost any reliever long enough and you can come up with ways he might help a team. If a previously nondescript reliever shows his team something in camp, maybe he sticks because he's caught his manager's fancy; if he then has a bad April, he'll get shipped out on just as little information to make way for the latest hot hand.

Times have changed. A lot of this has to do with how players get treated by their organizations, because in today's media environment you just don't get all that much red meat. In the days of a Casey Stengel or Billy Martin or Earl Weaver, maybe managers could indulge in a bit of public psychodrama over their players' job security. These days, not so much.

Now, all of this isn't to say that camp battles for regular jobs are extinct -- far from it. The Rays and Rockies are on opposite ends of the kind of exciting fights for rotation jobs that could go in any direction, with the Rays picking from among a front six that could start for anybody while the Rockies try to find five plausible big league starters from among at least 10 candidates. The Red Sox have a shortstop situation to sort out -- at least until they decide if the gloveliness of Jose Iglesias is their brand of coffee. The A's have corner-job pecking orders to sort out, with both infield corners wide open. The Angels will have to find a way to squeeze all those outfield bats into very few jobs.

Those are all going to be fun to watch play out to their bitter conclusions. But most of what you'll see from spring training's final cutdowns is going to involve the more everyday kinds of discretionary selections that teams will start undoing just a few short weeks into the season: Picking the last man or two in the bullpen, or maybe determining the identity of a fifth starter for at least the first half-dozen turns through the rotation.

So as much joy attends spring training and spring ballgames, most of the big questions any team has were already answered by their actions in December or January. It's April that we'll start to get the answers that really mean something.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.