Spring Training battles to watch
Fantasy owners can gain early edge if they pick wisely
Fantasy baseball titles are rarely won in February or March, but astute fantasy owners can certainly gain an edge on their competitors during those early months.
With so many big-league jobs on the line heading into Spring Training, fantasy managers could hit the jackpot at season's end by making the right decisions before Opening Day.
Let's take a look at the top position battles heading into the spring, as well as the player who could emerge as the starter in each case:
Battle: Cubs LF -- Matt Murton vs. Cliff Floyd
Projected winner: Murton
Reason: The Cubs signed Floyd to a one-year, $3 million contract in January as their fourth outfielder, but this has platoon situation written all over it. The injury-prone Floyd was limited to 332 at-bats in 2006 as he battled an Achilles tendon injury and a bum knee. He also hit just .179 with three homers and 16 RBIs against left-handed pitchers, so he's not even a candidate for a full-time job anymore.
Murton was the full-time left fielder last season for the Cubs, and he set career highs with 13 homers and 62 RBIs while hitting .297. He hit .319-9-35 after the All-Star break and will prove once again to the Cubs that he deserves 400-plus at-bats. Floyd will struggle to stay healthy again, so look for Murton to remain a vital part of this young offense.
Battle: Closer's job for Red Sox
Projected winner: Joel Pineiro
Reason: The best choice for this job would be Jonathan Papelbon, but that won't happen in 2007. Doctors have advised the Red Sox to move Papelbon into the starting rotation so his shoulder can handle the load every five days. Papelbon will definitely be in the starting rotation this season, not the bullpen. So that leaves Joel Pineiro as the front-runner for the closer's job heading into Spring Training.
Pineiro signed a one-year, $4 million deal this offseason after going 8-13 as a starter with Seattle in '06 with a 6.36 ERA. He gave up an amazing 209 hits in 165 2/3 innings with only 87 strikeouts, but general manager Theo Epstein believes he can handle the job. Somehow, he probably will struggle through it enough to be effective. But don't be surprised if Mike Timlin gets some saves this year. The real $1 wonders in this bullpen could be Brendan Donnelly -- he limited opposing hitters to a .217 average last season with the Angels -- and Julian Tavarez. Roll the dice with both guys and hope that they can land the job at some point this year.
Battle: Royals 3B -- Mark Teahen vs. Alex Gordon
Projected winner: Teahen
Reason: Gordon was the Royals' top player in the Minors in '06 as he hit .325 at Double-A Wichita with 29 homers, 100 RBIs and 22 stolen bases. Kansas City was patient with him and opted not to promote him to Triple-A Omaha during the season or to the Majors in September. It's possible that Gordon could still win the starting third-base job this spring, but I think the Royals will send him to Triple-A to start the season and let him progress for at least the first half of the season down there. I'm not one to pay high on draft day for his rights as the Royals don't seem eager to rush him, but that's just me.
Teahen hit .313 with 16 homers and 60 RBIs during his last 80 games with the Royals last season and seems entrenched at third base for now. Either Teahen or Gordon will be moved to the outfield in the future -- which will cut into the at-bats for Joey Gathright or Emil Brown -- but for now, count on Teahen to start at third.
Battle: Devil Rays' starting third-base job
Projected winner: Akinori Iwamura
Reason: The Devil Rays paid $4.5 million for the rights to sign this six-time Gold Glove winner from Japan, and manager Joe Maddon has all but handed him the starting third-base job. There was some thought that he could move to second base to allow B.J. Upton to grow at third, but look for Iwamura to stay at that corner spot, Jorge Cantu to stay at second base and Ty Wigginton to start at first base. Iwamura hit 106 home runs during the past three seasons in Japan, including 44 in 2004. He hit .311 with 77 RBIs in '06, and scouts believe that he can reach 20 homers in the Majors in '07. All of this shuffling, however, leaves Upton out in the cold as he will have to battle for a utility role across the infield. You have to wonder if the Devil Rays will ever give this talented youngster a starting job and let him blossom, possibly even in the outfield. Maybe Upton will platoon with Jonny Gomes at designated hitter and provide some value with his bat and speed. One can only hope.
Battle: Cardinals LF -- Chris Duncan vs. Preston Wilson
Projected winner: Duncan
Reason: The Cardinals signed Wilson to a one-year, $1 million deal in late January to platoon with Duncan in left field, but Duncan will get most of the at-bats. Duncan will strictly play against right-handed pitchers as he hit .318 with 20 homers and 40 RBIs against righties and only .170-2-3 against lefties. Wilson hit .292-6-22 against southpaws and only .255 against right-handers, so this is a natural platoon situation with Wilson being limited to less than 300 at-bats. As long as Duncan can handle the job defensively, he should see most of the playing time in 2007.
Battle: Orioles LF -- Aubrey Huff vs. Jay Payton
Projected winner: Huff
Reason: You should also throw Kevin Millar into this discussion, because Huff will likely grab the most at-bats among this trio, hurting the other two. Despite a subpar 2006 campaign, Huff signed a three-year, $20 million contract this offseason and will start in left field. Huff suffered a knee sprain in April and never fully recovered, and his stint in Houston (.250-13-38) was extremely disappointing. But if he starts the season completely healthy, Huff could return to his 2004 form (.297-29-104). Payton should still get 400-plus at-bats platooning between left and center field with Corey Patterson, while Millar could lose some at-bats at first base if Huff moves there. Millar hit just .244 against lefties in '06.
Battle: Dodgers 3B -- Wilson Betemit vs. Andy LaRoche
Projected winner: LaRoche
Reason: The Dodgers really like Betemit, but he struggled during his time as the starting third baseman for them, hitting .241 in 55 games with nine homers, 24 RBIs and 45 strikeouts in 174 at-bats. Betemit has great physical skills and he will open the season at the hot corner, but eventually the Dodgers will realize that he's best suited for a utility role. LaRoche is the better pure hitter and last season in 117 games between Double-A and Triple-A, he hit .315 with 19 homers, 81 RBIs and a .409 on-base percentage. The 23-year-old had offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder, but he's expected to be ready for Spring Training and could be in the Majors soon. He's definitely a talent worth targeting as a sleeper pick on draft day.
Battle: Astros RF -- Luke Scott vs. Jason Lane
Projected winner: Scott
Reason: With Carlos Lee now in left field and Chris Burke set in center, the battle for the starting job in right field pits Scott against Lane. Scott should win the majority of the playing time, as he turned a midseason callup into a new career last season, hitting .336 with 10 homers and 37 RBIs in just 214 at-bats after the All-Star break. He tore up right-handed pitchers to the tune of .366-9-31, but hit just .241-1-6 against left-handers. Lane hit just .201-15-45 in 112 games in '06, but should get 200-plus at-bats against lefties. Still, with the emergence of Scott the value of Lane could be on the decline.
Battle: Indians RF -- Trot Nixon vs. Casey Blake
Projected winner: Nixon
Reason: Look for this to turn into another platoon situation as Nixon can't stay healthy for a full season, and he hit only .204-2-10 against left-handed pitchers in '06 while hitting right-handers to the tune of .288-6-42. The former Red Sox outfielder should get 400-plus at-bats starting against right-handed pitchers. Blake will also get 400-plus at-bats this year between right field and first base, as he will start in right field against southpaws and should see plenty of action at first base. Ryan Garko is a solid prospect, but he could be the one who loses at-bats thanks to last month's signing of Nixon.
Quick hits on position battles:
Nelson Cruz vs. Sammy Sosa, Rangers RF
I'll take Cruz, the former Milwaukee Brewers prospect, in this one. He has big-time power and 20-20 potential, and the Rangers would be unwise to waste this talent while hoping that Slammin' Sammy has found the Fountain of Youth.
Chris Duffy vs. Nate McLouth, Pirates CF
Duffy has the better upside here and he will start in center field on Opening Day, provided that he doesn't take a back seat this season if things turn south. Did you know that Duffy actually stole 26 bases in 27 attempts last year for a 96 percent success rate? At that rate, Pittsburgh should give him the green light all year long!
Chris Iannetta vs. Javy Lopez, Rockies C
Lopez's career has been in a freefall since 2004 and there's little hope for a rebound even in the thin air of Colorado. Take the rookie prospect, Iannetta, in this matchup as he has great potential to be the everyday catcher at Coors Field for the rest of this decade.
Seth McClung vs. Edwin Jackson, Devil Rays closer
McClung doesn't overpower folks and doesn't seem to have the makeup to be a dominant closer, but he will open in that role in 2007. Jackson has the better stuff, but his control problems could be lethal in this role. I'd like to see Jackson get a chance in this role, because I actually think he has the talent to succeed in late-inning situations.
Kelly Johnson vs. Willy Aybar, Braves 2B
Do the Braves really want to start a rookie at second base who played the outfield in '06 and another prospect such as Scott Thorman at first base? Wow, what an iffy right side of the infield. Look for Johnson to start at second, with Aybar as the utility infielder and Craig Wilson to battle Thorman for playing time at first.
It should be a very, very interesting spring for all 30 Major League Baseball teams. Let the games begin so that we can determine the winners and the losers in each battle.
Greg Ambrosius is the editor of Fantasy Sports Magazine and the founder of the National Fantasy Baseball Championship -- www.fantasybaseballchampionship.com -- the industry's only multi-city, high-stakes event/contest, with drafts set for March 17, 2007, in Las Vegas, New York, Chicago and Tampa.) This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.