Each team’s biggest Spring Training decision

Detroit Tigers

With less than two weeks until Opening Day, teams are starting to trim their rosters closer to the 26-player limit — though every big league club seemingly has a player or two still very much “on the bubble.”

To break it all down, MLB.com’s beat reporters took a closer look at the biggest remaining decision for each club before the April 1 season opener.

BLUE JAYS: Backup catcher

Alejandro Kirk broke through in late 2020 and immediately accelerated his timeline, but the Blue Jays are faced with the decision of whether the 22-year-old can round out the rest of his development at the Major League level backing up Danny Jansen or if he’d benefit from regular playing time in the Minors. Kirk hadn’t played above Class-A Advanced prior to his Major League promotion, but that, along with his time at the alternate training site and two full offseasons since 2019 need to be factored into his development timeline. Kirk has been hitting well early in camp, but will he get the call over Reese McGuire?

No Oriole has played more games under Brandon Hyde since the manager took the reins in 2019 than Rio Ruiz, who has hit .229 with 21 homers and an 85 OPS+ as the O’s third baseman. But Maikel Franco joining the club gives the O’s two third basemen, and it remains to be seen how things will shake out at the hot corner — with plenty of options on the table. Will the left-handed-hitting Ruiz and righty Franco platoon? Will it be an ongoing battle for at-bats? Or could Ruiz concede the spot to Franco altogether?

The defending American League champions don’t really have any position battles to settle. Their position player group returned intact and it seems like they’ll start the season with Tyler Glasnow, Ryan Yarbrough, Chris Archer, Rich Hill and Michael Wacha as their top rotation/bulk-inning arms. The Rays are still making decisions when it comes to the composition of their bullpen, but their top high-leverage options are all back and they have plenty of good options beyond “The Stable.” At this point, their toughest decision might be sticking to one they’ve already made: opening the season without hard-throwing young studs Shane McClanahan and Luis Patiño, who were optioned to Minor League camp on Tuesday.

RED SOX: Final bench spot

While the Red Sox are excited about their offseason acquisition of Franchy Cordero, the outfielder missed the first half of camp due to COVID-19, and he is rushing against the clock to make it back in time for Opening Day. Because Cordero already has a long history of injuries, it might make more sense not to rush him. If Cordero does make the roster, the Red Sox have a tough decision to make for the final bench spot between Michael Chavis — the club’s No. 1 prospect heading into 2019 — and Christian Arroyo — a former top prospect for the Giants who the Red Sox feel good about. Arroyo is out of options, but Chavis is not.

With Gerrit Cole, Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon and Jordan Montgomery entrenched in the starting rotation, manager Aaron Boone is considering several tantalizing options for the fifth spot. The leader appears to be Domingo Germán, who has notched 13 strikeouts against one walk in nine scoreless Grapefruit League innings. The 28-year-old right-hander has not pitched in a Major League game since Sept. 18, 2019, due to a violation of the league’s policy against domestic violence, but he seems to have the edge on fellow righty Deivi García, the club’s No. 3 prospect, as well as right-hander Michael King and others.

The Tribe has many more position battles to sort through in the final two weeks of camp than it’s been used to over the past few years. While there’s still no certainty as to who will start in center field or who will earn the final spot in the rotation, first base may be the toughest decision the club will have to make. While the Indians have said they’re ready to give Bobby Bradley — the club’s No. 20 prospect — his chance to prove what he can do with consistent playing time at the big league level, the Tribe also wants to see what it has in 25-year-old Jake Bauers, who’s now out of Minor League options. In order to unleash Bradley’s power bat regularly at first base, Cleveland would likely have to designate Bauers for assignment or move him back into the outfield mix — a pair of options the Indians probably aren’t quite ready to entertain.

ROYALS: Promoting the kid

Bobby Witt Jr., the club’s top prospect and the No. 7-ranked prospect overall, is making this decision harder every day he plays this spring. Witt has impressed in all facets of the game, including his power, speed, defense and high baseball IQ. Realistically, the Royals will have Witt — who has not played a Minor League season above Rookie ball — start the season in Double-A or Triple-A, allowing him to hit his way to the Majors at some point in 2021 — but if Witt continues to shine, especially deeper into spring, he might make some decisions hard for Royals brass.

TIGERS: Starting rotation

While Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull are locked in, and José Ureña is just about there, the other spots are pretty much up for grabs. Tarik Skubal, Detroit’s No. 4 prospect, has done his best to claim one, looking the best of any pitcher in camp. Julio Teheran has shown signs of his All-Star form from his days in Atlanta, but adding the non-roster invitee comes with a $3 million base salary. Michael Fulmer has had a rocky spring, but the Tigers are hoping his second year back from Tommy John surgery yields improvement as the year goes on. Then, there’s top pitching prospect Casey Mize, who has shown swing-and-miss stuff but has struggled to locate this spring.

Much of this essentially boils down to one question: Will Minnesota be open to putting Alex Kirilloff on the Opening Day roster? He’s the club’s No. 2 prospect, and the Twins have indicated that they think his bat is more than ready to impact the Majors, to the point that they had him make his big league debut during the 2020 postseason. Still, with the 23-year-old having never previously played a game above Double-A, it could come down to Kirilloff, Brent Rooker or Kyle Garlick for that final spot in the outfield — and Garlick, too, has made his case with three Spring Training homers.

The roster is pretty well set for this deep and talented team, aside from maybe a decision coming on the final bench spot. But that choice could be influenced by the team’s ultimate call on Vaughn, the club’s top prospect and the No. 14-ranked prospect overall. Vaughn has looked like a Major Leaguer since he came to big league camp in 2020, with an advanced plate approach beyond his 22 years. That said, he’s yet to play a game at even the Double-A level. Still, if the White Sox are set on putting the best team on the field to win a championship from the outset, then Vaughn belongs.

ANGELS: Fourth outfielder

The competition for the Angels’ fourth outfield spot is between a group of non-roster veterans in Juan Lagares, Jon Jay and Scott Schebler. Lagares appears to be the favorite based on his strong Spring Training so far, but Jay previously played under manager Joe Maddon and is seen as a clubhouse leader. Schebler is also faring well this spring but isn’t a true center fielder like Lagares or Jay.

ASTROS: Starting rotation

Between Framber Valdez‘s fractured left ring finger, Cristian Javier missing valuable time while quarantining per COVID-19 protocols and Jake Odorizzi likely not having enough time to get built up for Opening Day, Houston has to fill out its rotation.The Astros will spend the final two weeks trying to find another starter or two from a group that’s led by Luis Garcia and Brandon Bielak.

ATHLETICS: Backup catcher

The A’s have three quality backstops in camp vying to back up Sean Murphy this season. Aramis Garcia, who arrived to the A’s along with Elvis Andrus in a trade with the Rangers last month, is finally healthy and hitting well in the Cactus League. Meanwhile, Austin Allen made the 2020 Opening Day roster as the main backup and has developed a good rapport with the pitchers on the staff, while veteran Carlos Pèrez, who brings some Major League experience, has impressed the big league staff with his work with some of the club’s younger pitchers.

Jarred Kelenic is coming sooner than later. But how will the Mariners handle his long-term position in the immediate future? MLB Pipeline’s No. 4 overall prospect should be back in Seattle’s Cactus League lineup by the end of the week, fully recovered from the Grade 2 adductor strain he suffered two weeks ago. But with the limited number of at-bats available until the end of Spring Training, Kelenic’s drive and determination to prove he’s MLB-ready and the Mariners maintaining that they believe the 21-year-old needs more Minor League development regardless, Seattle is in somewhat of an odd spot when it comes to left field on Opening Day. The new favorite is Taylor Trammell, the club’s No. 6 prospect, but Jake Fraley is also in consideration — and there is always the outside possibility that the Mariners go to the waiver wire over the final weeks of camp.

When the Rangers signed Nate Lowe this offseason, president of baseball operations Jon Daniels said the plan was for Lowe to be the starting first baseman. But Ronald Guzmán has made the competition much closer than many expected, swinging a hot bat this spring while Lowe struggles at the plate. Guzmán’s willingness to play other positions bodes well for him, too.

Over the next two weeks, the Braves must decide whether it’s time to give Cristian Pache the center-field job. The club’s top prospect (No. 12 overall) has shown why he’s considered a future Gold Glove Award winner, but he hasn’t produced much offensively. Ender Inciarte is a good insurance option, but if the Braves can rely on Pache as an everyday player, Inciarte’s presence would allow for more flexibility when constructing the bench.

In a veteran-laden lineup, second base will be manned by either Isan Díaz or Jazz Chisholm. Díaz, the former highly regarded prospect, has just 56 MLB games under his belt, while Chisholm, the club’s No. 4 prospect, debuted in 2020 and appeared in 21 contests. Neither has run away with the job quite yet, with manager Don Mattingly alternating the pair in the starting lineup each day.

With Carlos Carrasco sidelined by a torn right hamstring, the back of New York’s rotation remains an open competition. Carrasco’s placement on the injured list probably cements David Peterson‘s spot, while Joey Lucchesi and Jordan Yamamoto will continue competing for a starting job. Yamamoto has enjoyed the most consistent success in Grapefruit League play to date, but the Mets are going to take a closer look over the coming weeks. All three of those players have Minor League options, meaning they’ll all have to perform if they want to make the team.

With an abundance of depth, the Nationals could carry nine relievers — but the question is, who from their lengthy list of options makes the cut? There is a chance Brad Hand is the only left-hander in the ‘pen on Opening Day. If they go with two, Sam Clay could get the call for his Major League debut. Washington also has to evaluate if it wants to go with Hand in a traditional closer role or stick with the closer-by-commitee approach of Hand, Will Harris and Daniel Hudson. If the Nats choose to go with Joe Ross as their fifth starter, that would also toss Erick Fedde and Austin Voth into the bullpen mix.

The Phillies return almost everybody from an offense that tied for fifth in baseball in scoring last season, but they need a center fielder. It is a complicated decision because their most talented candidate is Odúbel Herrera, who has not played in the big leagues since May 2019 following his arrest and suspension for violating the league’s domestic abuse policy. The Phillies outrighted Herrera from the 40-man roster in January 2020, so they will have to make room for him, if he wins the job. He might be the favorite at this point with Adam Haseley injured, Roman Quinn and Scott Kingery yet to run away with the job and Mickey Moniak likely to begin the year in the Minors.

BREWERS: Daniel Vogelbach

Rather than non-tender Vogelbach amid uncertainty about whether the designated hitter would return to the NL in 2021, the Brewers opted to re-sign him for $1.4 million just in case they needed him to fill that spot. Now that it seems clear that there won’t be a DH in the NL, Vogelbach becomes a tough call. On one hand, he provided a jolt of power after coming over on waivers from the Blue Jays, but on the other hand, he’s best suited for DH duties. Even if you’re comfortable playing him at first base, he is limited to that single position — and the Brewers love defensive versatility. It looks like there is one roster spot available for a bench bat among a group including Vogelbach; non-roster utility-types Pablo Reyes and Jace Peterson, and outfielder Billy McKinney (out of options), Derek Fisher (out of options and sidelined by a hamstring injury) and Tyrone Taylor (has an option).

CARDINALS: Matt Carpenter

It’s not so much whether Carpenter will occupy a roster spot, because at his age and salary, that’s going to happen regardless. Rather, it’s what ripple effect does Carpenter’s role have on the rest of the roster? If he’s used as the starting second baseman, that’ll likely push Tommy Edman to the outfield — or shortstop some days. If that occurs, what happens to Tyler O’Neill (who’s absolutely raking), Harrison Bader, top prospect Dylan Carlson and fourth outfielder candidate Lane Thomas? Unless Carpenter starts producing, though, he is likely looking at a bench role to start the year, with some platoonships available. Even that would bring about a slew of other questions for players like John Nogowski, Edmundo Sosa and José Rondón.

Nico Hoerner and David Bote are the primary options. Despite dealing with a minor back issue in recent days, the 23-year-old Hoerner has had an impressive camp, driving the ball with more authority and churning out hits. He’s appeared in 68 big league games over the last two seasons, but with just 375 career Minor League plate appearances to his name, the Cubs have to determine whether Hoerner might need more development. This decision will have also an impact on the bench. If Bote is the starter at second, Hoerner could potentially head to the alternate training site, opening up a bench spot for the likes of the switch-hitting Ildemaro Vargas (out of options) or veteran left-handed hitter Eric Sogard (non-roster invitee). If Hoerner earns the starting job, Bote would fill that utility role.

The Pirates have three main options in center — Anthony Alford, Dustin Fowler and Brian Goodwin — but the choices go deeper than that. Alford, the only player of the three who was with the club last season, played five games with the Pirates in 2020 before he had to undergo right elbow surgery due to a collision with the outfield wall. However, he’s healthy and has flashed power and speed in camp. Fowler was acquired during camp from the A’s, and the Pirates would like to see what he can do, while Goodwin has the most experience of the three — but he is on a Minor League deal. Jared Oliva (Pittsburgh’s No. 16 prospect), Bryan Reynolds and Oneil Cruz (the club’s No. 4 prospect and a shortstop by trade) are also in the mix.

With Sonny Gray unlikely for Opening Day, Cincinnati’s rotation has two spots up for grabs. Michael Lorenzen appears the best bet to land one of them, which would leave the others open for Tejay Antone, Jeff Hoffman and José De León. The club loves the stuff Antone has, but the belief is that he could be of more value as a multi-inning reliever. De Leon has demonstrated he can rack up strikeouts, but command can often be an issue. Hoffman, meanwhile, is out of Minor League options, which could improve his chances.

DODGERS: Starting rotation

The Dodgers’ biggest problem this spring was that they too had too many good players on the roster. Seriously. With the signing of Trevor Bauer and David Price returning after sitting out the 2020 season, Los Angeles has seven big league starters on the roster — with only five spots in the rotation. Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Bauer are locks, but things get trickier when talking about the last two spots. Price has shown the willingness to pitch in relief and he could be a real option for the Dodgers in the bullpen. Regardless, he figures to join Julio Urías, Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May on the Opening Day roster, with two filling out the rotation and the other two pitching out of the ‘pen.

It’s hard to predict how the Giants’ Opening Day bullpen will end up shaking out, though Jake McGee, Matt Wisler José Álvarez and Jarlín García should be locks if they’re healthy. Tyler Rogers was trusted to pitch high-leverage innings for the club last year, so he’s a solid bet to make the roster as well. Reyes Moronta is a bit of an unknown right now, as he’s coming off right shoulder surgery and showed diminished velocity in his Cactus League debut last week, and the Giants have a long list of candidates for the other slots in their bullpen, including Wandy Peralta and Sam Selman, as well as non-roster invitees James Sherfy, Jay Jackson, Silvino Bracho, Dominic Leone and Zack Littell.

It’s imperative that the Padres nail Lamet’s recovery from the elbow injury that forced him to miss the 2020 postseason. Considering he’s yet to throw in a Cactus League game, it’s a near certainty that Lamet will not crack the Opening Day roster. The Padres will be as cautious as they can possibly be with Lamet, so it figures to be a battle among three electric young left-handers for his spot — Adrian Morejon, Ryan Weathers and MacKenzie Gore, baseball’s top overall pitching prospect. Right now, Morejon feels like the favorite, but there might also be room for two of those guys if Gore or Weathers can make a statement.

The last bench position is turning into a down-to-the wire race, thanks to strong spring performances from two right-handed hitters who had brief Major League cameos in 2019 — outfielder Yonathan Daza and non-roster utility player Connor Joe. Neither put up big numbers in those MLB appearances (Daza with the Rockies, Joe with the Giants), but both have hit over .400 and flashed power this spring. Looking at the roster structure, there seems to be a place for left-handed-hitting Greg Bird (also a non-roster player), but while he has shown a solid approach in the box, his spring hasn’t been very productive. So do the Rockies go with someone who has proven big league power in Bird or a hot Spring Training hand in Daza (out of options) or Joe?

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