The crack of the bat, the pop of the glove, the snap of the hamstring … and the thrill of competition. That’s what spring training is all about. And now that most pitchers and catchers are in camp – along with plenty of position players who have reported early – it’s time to get to work.
With playing time up for grabs, there is plenty to evaluate over the next seven weeks, especially for these seven contenders:
USA TODAY SportsJayne Kamin-Oncea
As usual, manager Joe Maddon will do a masterful job of maximizing the versatility of his players. But the task will be even tougher this season, even after trading Jorge Soler and losing Dexter Fowler in free agency. Ben Zobrist is battling Kyle Schwarber – the best argument yet for the DH in the NL – for playing time in left field, with Zobrist also trying to earn at-bats at second base place at the expense of Javier Baez.
One possible solution: Occasionally use Jason Heyward in center – where Jon Jay and Albert Almora are set to platoon – with Schwarber in left and Zobrist in right.
USA TODAY SportsKen Blaze
The somewhat surprising return of Yoenis Cespedes for the second consecutive offseason means New York literally can field two completely independent starting outfields. The first has Cespedes in left, Curtis Granderson in center and Jay Bruce in right; the second features Brandon Nimmo, Juan Lagares and Michael Conforto.
A trade still seems like the best – and most likely – solution, but that has been the case for months now.
USA TODAY SportsBrad Penner
Even after the departures of Howie Kendrick (trade to Phillies) and Josh Reddick (free agency to Astros), there’s a logjam. Joc Pederson is starting in center, and Andrew Toles should get the majority of playing time in left. That leaves Yasiel Puig, Andre Ethier and Trayce Thompson to compete in right field. And then there’s Scott Van Slyke and newly-signed Franklin Gutierrez.
Right field is likely Puig’s to lose, but that’s obviously something he’s done before.
USA TODAY SportsGary A. Vasquez
The plan last spring was for Greg Bird to transition into the starting role with Mark Teixeira serving as a mentor and still getting at-bats. However, that changed when Bird discovered in early February that he needed season-ending shoulder surgery.
Fast-forward one year: Bird is healthy and Teixeira is retired, but rookie Tyler Austin has entered the picture. And so has veteran Chris Carter, who tied for the NL lead with 41 homers last season before being let go by the Brewers and snatched up as a bargain by the Yankees.
USA TODAY SportsBrad Penner
Red Sox No. 5 SP
Boston all but ended the competition at third base by trading Travis Shaw, though Brock Holt still has a slight chance to win the job over the trimmed-down Pablo Sandoval. But even after shipping Clay Buchholz to the Phillies, the Red Sox still have a rotation surplus. Chris Sale, Rick Porcello and David Price are locks, with Steven Wright likely the No. 4, and the fifth spot possibly being decided by who is healthier between Eduardo Rodriguez (knee) and Drew Pomeranz (elbow).
Each lefty is as likely to win the No. 5 job as he is to begin the season on the DL.
USA TODAY SportsKim Klement
Cardinals No. 5 SP
Carlos Martinez’s offseason extension signals that he is transitioning to the ace role, moving veteran Adam Wainwright into the second spot. Mike Leake is a solid No. 3, but then comes the uncertainty. After missing the 2016 season after Tommy John surgery, Lance Lynn – sixth in the majors with 60 wins from 2012-15 – is ready to return.
However, phenom Alex Reyes is next in line for elbow surgery, leaving one rotation spot for Michael Wacha, Luke Weaver, Marco Gonzales, Tyler Lyons and perhaps former closer Trevor Rosenthal. Because he has battled injuries and has durability issues, Wacha actually could swap roles with Rosenthal.
USA TODAY SportsJeff Curry
Back when it still has visions of rebuilding, Detroit traded Cameron Maybin to the Angels and created a void between Justin Upton in left and J.D. Martinez in right. It will be filled by Mikie Mahtook, Tyler Collins or JaCoby Jones – or some combination of that trio. None impressed in part-time duty in the majors last season, though Mahtook could emerge as the favorite because of his combo of experience (41 games in 2015 with the Rays) and defense.
One thing is for sure: The Tigers won’t be leaning on any of these guys offensively.