Despite scouts, statistics, high-definition video, Klout scores, and Buzzfeed personality quizzes, teams still show up every March with their opening day lineups not yet in focus. It's one of the remaining flaws when dealing with the random, chaotic animals known as humans.
But with the opening of the season just a few short weeks away, what are the positional battles that we should be looking out for? Which players could get hot and steal away the position before April 1 rolls around? And which predictions should I make that, in three weeks time, will make me look as out of touch as a Dad watching MTV? Let's find out:
SEATTLE MARINERS: Brad Miller vs. Nick Franklin
You know how chaos theory says that a butterfly flapping its wings in Kansas means that you burn your grilled cheese in Poughkeepsie? Well, the same thing has happened in Seattle. With the addition of Robinson Cano, one of the promising, young up-the-middlers of Brad Miller or Nick Franklin will be out of a starting job, beginning the season either in Tacoma or with another team.
Going into the spring, Brad Miller seemed to have the inside track for the shortstop job, his gorgeous high stirrup-ed socks and premier defense giving him the edge. It doesn't hurt that Miller played the position at the end of last year, hitting eight home runs with a .737 OPS in 335 PA.
But Miller's foe, Nick Franklin, comes with a premier pedigree, twice showing up on top 100 prospect lists and with the greater offensive future despite a .696 OPS last season. Unfortunately for Franklin, with a fringy arm and limited range, he's been outhit this spring, his impressive .964 OPS dwarfed by Miller's 1.037. While spring numbers, especially this early are meaningless, that Miller has come out of the gate strong, should give him the edge.
Edge: Brad Miller
PIRATES: Jose Tabata vs Travis Snider vs Gregory Polanco
If this matchup seems familiar, it should. Last year, it was nearly the same with Jose Tabata and Travis Snider vying for playing time as two post-hype prospects.
Tabata and Snider, both looking to make good on the promise they showed in 2010, floundered for the first four months of the season, Tabata eventually going down with injury and Snider watching his power dry up, perhaps because of an injured toe.
But at the end of the year, Tabata got hot, hitting .312/.357/.490 with four of his six home runs from August 1st on, while Snider finished the year with a woeful .614 OPS and 5 home runs. Tabata came into the spring with the opening day job seemingly his to lose and he's doing what he can to give it away, a .158/.158/.158 line in 19 plate appearances not doing much to inspire confidence.
Of course, both players are considered nothing more than placeholders for Gregory Polanco, the Pirates' top prospect coming off a Dominican Winter League Rookie of the Year and MVP award. Having made little moves of consequence in the market, leaving a big, gaping hole at first base and a potential hole in right field, the team is hopeful that Polanco can be the midseason balm, helping the 20th best offense last season score a few more runs.
However, even if the Pirates are a better team with Polanco starting the year in right field, it's unlikely that he will, the team trading two months of this season for a full year of team control down the line. It's not the line that fans want to hear, but it's likely the truth, no matter how well Polanco plays the rest of the month.
Edge: Barring a Jose Tabata revelation, the job is Polanco's...in June.
DODGERS: Dee Gordon vs. Alexander Guerrero
For a team with a payroll just south of all the accumulated wealth across the globe, you'd think their second base battle would be a little more inspiring. Not that the Dodgers didn't try.
Guerrero, a Cuban import who signed a four year, $28 million contract this offseason, was expected to be a serious threat for the position given his raw power and the hope that he could prove at least competent at the second base bag. However, some teams don't project Guerrero to ever be an everyday major league player ($), highlighting his pull happy approach and shaky infield defense.
That has allowed Dee Gordon to worm his way back up the Dodgers depth charts. Across parts of the last two seasons, Gordon has hit an absolutely dreadful .229/.289/.285 with 2 HR in 436 PA. And sure, he's got plenty of speed, stealing 42 bases in that span, and sure, watching Gordon hit the occasional home run is very fun, but there are nine pitchers in the last two seasons with a higher slugging percentage than Gordon's. When you should consider pinch-hitting for your shortstop with Zack Greinke, you know there's a problem.
But Gordon, hitting only .185/.267/.333 this spring, showing roughly the same acumen with the bat that he has over the last two seasons, appears to have somehow already won the job, Ken Gurnick tweeting:
Dee Gordon seems to be the primary 2B. He's teamed with starting SS Hanley Ramirez in lineup, while Alex Guerrero is in intrasquad game.— Ken Gurnick (@kengurnick) March 10, 2014
It's possible that the Dodgers just want to give Guerrero some time to acclimate to the American game, similar to the way Yasiel Puig was sent to the minors to start the year. And with Guerrero's contract stipulating that he can only be sent to the minor leagues this season, the only time to work on his development is this season.
With questions revolving around Guerrero's glove and bat, and Dee Gordon's inability to drive the ball, I wouldn't be shocked if second base turned into a Saturday Night Live-esque rotating cast of characters and castoffs.
Edge: Dee Gordon, somehow
Dodgers: Matt Kemp vs. The Army of One Million Outfielders
Just as the Dodgers are thin at second base, they have the exact opposite problem in the outfield with roughly one million qualified players vying for playing. It's almost as if the Dodgers thought there was a war coming and the only way to win it was to assemble an army of power-hitting outfielders.
All the problems come down to the $160 million man, Matt Kemp. Despite battling shoulder injuries, ankle injuries, and the inability to drive the ball when he was on the field, Kemp still posted a 105 OPS+. Not that it wasn't a terrible let down of a year, the Dodgers looking for a better batting line than Marco Scutaro's for their massive investment, but even during a lost year, Kemp had some value.
But with Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, and Yasiel Puig all penciled into the outfield, and Joc Pederson biding his time in the minors, the Dodgers will need to come up with a solution. Fortunately, thanks to Matt Kemp's return from ankle surgery, the team can kick the can down the road a little ways, waiting until they return from Australia before they have to make up their mind.
With Kemp having the highest upside of any player not named Yasiel Puig, and the Dodgers desperate to either recoup their investment or rebuild his trade value, he should be given every chance to fail this spring, with Andre Ethier finally getting spelled against the lefthanders that he struggles to hit.
Edge: Matt Kemp
Last year, Kevin Towers unloaded Trevor Bauer as quickly as he could (despite, or perhaps because of, Bauer's mad flow) receiving Didi Gregorius from the Reds in the three-team trade. At the outset, it looked like a steal, Bauer struggling with command and pitching only 17 major league innings, and Didi Gregorius hitting .319/.374/.521 at the end of May.
Unfortunately, Gregorius couldn't keep up the hot start, hitting just .218/.311/.298 the rest of the way, albeit while playing above-average defense.
All the while, Owings tore up the Pacific Coast League, hitting .330/.359/.482 in Reno. (However, take those numbers with a Coors Field-sized grain of salt. Historically, you can expect nearly a 250 point drop in OPS when moving from Reno to Arizona).
While Owings is the superior prospect, being two years younger than Gregorius and with the much better bat, he's yet to show his offensive potential yet this spring, hitting .233/.281/.300 in his first 30 plate appearances, while Gregorius continues to prove his worth just with his glove.
Given Kirk Gibson's penchant for old school types, I would expect to see Gregorius open the year in Arizona.
Edge: Didi Gregorius
Ervin Santana offseason has been so wobbly that Dan Duquette has had question the very fabric of reality. But even with the Orioles and Blue Jays playing a game of The Last Piece of Pizza (No, no, you take him, I insist), things could get very interesting for Santana very quickly.
Thanks to the Atlanta Braves and the heat death of their starting rotation, a new buyer has entered the market. With Kris Medlen receiving some troubling news with an MRI discovering damage in his elbow ligament, Brandon Beachy exiting his start on Monday with elbow soreness, and Mike Minor possibly starting the year on the DL due to shoulder soreness and, umm, some other pain, the Braves have a gaping, Ervin Santana-sized hole in their rotation.
After winning 96 games last season and handing out massive contract extensions to anyone even associated with the Braves, it's a very bad time to be entering the year with a rotation of Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, David Hale, the remnants of Freddy Garcia, and the linger odor of Greg Maddux's locker. The addition of a league-average pitcher like Ervin Santana could go a long way to helping the Braves keep pace in the NL East.
Of course, Liberty Media, the Braves' owners, are traditionally a stingy, bottom line-focused lot, so it's possible that they won't want to extend Frank Wren a line of credit to go after any new players. But with a new, controversial stadium on the horizon and the team built to win this season, assuming that Wren hasn't figured out how to clone 1996-era Greg Maddux, I'd give them the necessary desire to outbid the Blue Jays or Orioles.
Edge: Ervin Santana