Position battles spice up spring training

Gordon Edes

Besides the fact that nearly every team is still trying to identify its No. 5 starter, several other positions are up for grabs with just over two weeks to go before the regular season. Some of the jobs still in play:

• Center field, New York Yankees

General manager Brian Cashman explored trading for Milwaukee's Mike Cameron during the offseason, and he may yet revisit that deal. In the meantime, Brett Gardner, who started 12 of the Yankees' last 15 games in 2008, has had an excellent spring and appears to have an edge over incumbent Melky Cabrera. The biggest knock on the speedy Gardner (37 stolen bases in Triple-A) is his lack of power (no home runs in 141 plate appearances last season with the Yankees), but he has hit three homers this spring.

Carlos Marmol

Carlos Marmol was a dominant setup man in 2008.

(Getty Images/Jonathan Daniel)

• Closer, Chicago Cubs

Having let Kerry Wood sign as a free agent with the Indians, GM Jim Hendry traded for Marlins closer Kevin Gregg, who saved 61 games the last two seasons. Gregg is competing against closer-in-waiting Carlos Marmol, who was dominant as a setup man last season, holding lefties to a .180 average and righties to a .098 average). Marmol will have to live down losing to the Netherlands while pitching for his native Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, but unless manager Lou Piniella decides a shutdown reliever is more valuable to him in the eighth, Marmol should have a new job description before long.

• Infield, San Francisco Giants

Outside of shortstop Edgar Renteria, added as a free agent, the Giants came into spring training with the infield unsettled. The picture is clearing at first base, where 25-year-old rookie Travis Ishikawa looks like he's won a job. The left-handed hitting Ishikawa, who showed signs of developing his power stroke last season with 24 minor-league homers, hit two home runs in the Giants' first exhibition game. There has never been any question about his glove, but manager Bruce Bochy would still like to see whether he can hit lefties.

The rest of the infield remains a crapshoot. The Giants love Pablo Sandoval's bat – he hit .345 after being called up in mid-August – but third base typically is not a place to hide a poor glove. Sandoval fielded a ball with his face earlier this week – he needed stitches after the ball pushed his braces into both of his lips. Rookie Emmanuel Burriss and 27-year-old Kevin Frandsen, who ruptured his Achilles tendon in 2008, are in the running at second base. The big surprise at camp has been Jesus Guzman, the MVP of the Venezuelan Winter League who jumped from the Athletics as a six-year minor league free agent. Guzman had a 14-game hitting streak this spring and earlier this week hit a ball 430 feet over the 35-foot center-field fence in Scottsdale Stadium. But like Sandoval, Guzman is a defensive liability. The Giants were working him at first base, giving him a better chance to stick as a utilityman.

• Leadoff batter, Chicago White Sox

This is a competition between center fielders Jerry Owens and DeWayne Wise, though manager Ozzie Guillen suggested this week he might use Josh Fields, who takes over for Joe Crede at third, or outfielder Brian Anderson against left-handers. With the White Sox moving Alexei Ramirez from second base to shortstop, his natural position, second base was a contest between rookie Chris Getz and former Rockies prospect Jayson Nix, who played for Team USA in the Beijing Olympics. Nix's strained quadriceps muscle has cleared the way for Getz, but it won't be long before Gordon Beckham, the team's No. 1 pick in 2008 who had a terrific Arizona Fall League, claims the job.

• Rotation, Baltimore Orioles, Oakland Athletics

The Orioles opened camp with 14 contenders for the starting rotation, and they are certain of just two starters – Jeremy Guthrie, who has been with Team USA in the WBC, and new Japanese import Koji Uehara. Rich Hill, picked up from the Cubs, has had arm problems, while journeyman Brad Hennessey has a sore shoulder. Hayden Penn is out of options and could stick, but the Orioles obviously have issues.

The Athletics received encouraging news Friday when ace Justin Duchscherer, who has been shut down all spring with a sore elbow, threw off a mound for the first time, but he won't be ready to open the season. Sean Gallagher, who came from the Cubs in the Rich Harden deal, figures to have a spot, but lefty Gio Gonzalez, who came from the White Sox in the Nick Swisher deal, has been set back by shoulder trouble.

The talk of Oakland's camp has been the kids – right-handers Trevor Cahill, right-hander Vince Mazzaro and left-hander Brett Anderson. None of them is older than 22, and all of them are so inexperienced that they're not even on the 40-man roster. Anderson, who also came in the Haren deal, shut down Friday after two innings with forearm stiffness, which he insisted was not serious.

"Cahill is the quiet assassin, with a devastating, Brandon Webb-like sinker,'' one Oakland official said. "Physically, he reminds me of Mike Moore – big strong legs and broad shoulders."

Mazzaro can aggressively push his stuff up to 96 mph. He was Texas League pitcher of the year and has already worked on a better soft game, with an excellent slider and curve, and he has developed a changeup this spring. Anderson has it all – the stuff, moxie and command.''

• Outfield, Minnesota Twins

Left fielder Delmon Young was rumored to be offered in trade talks last winter, but he showed up in camp in better shape and has had an excellent spring. Denard Span, who snatched the center-field job from Carlos Gomez, has a fight on his hands this spring to hold onto the position, as Gomez, 23, is showing why the Twins wanted him in the Johan Santana deal. Michael Cuddyer hit just three home runs in an injury-plagued 2008, far below the production the Twins hoped for when they signed him to a three-year, $24 million deal before the season.

• Catcher, Baltimore Orioles

If phenom Matt Wieters opens the season in the minors, it will be only because the move enables the Orioles to retain contractual control over him for an extra season. Here's one AL player development man's take on Wieters: "From a pure talent standpoint, he's better than [Evan] Longoria [the Tampa Bay third baseman who was AL Rookie of the Year in '08]. He's Joe Mauer with more power and switch-hits.'' Gregg Zaun may open the season as the starter, but his eventual role will be to back up and groom Wieters.

• Shortstop, Boston Red Sox

An injury decided this one in favor of Jed Lowrie, who has had a scintillating spring after an up-and-down rookie season. Julio Lugo, a bust in his first two seasons with Boston but with two years remaining on a four-year, $36 million albatross of a contract, underwent surgery for a torn meniscus in his knee and is expected to be out at least a month. Lugo reclaims the spot only if the Red Sox decide the versatile Lowrie is more valuable as a utilityman.

• Closer, Seattle Mariners

New GM Jack Zduriencik's first major move was a three-team, 12-player trade in which closer J.J. Putz was shipped to the Mets. The Mariners decided Brandon Morrow was more useful as a starter, which has left new manager Don Wakamatsu sorting through six candidates. The dark horse may be the oft-traded David Aardsma, but Mark Lowe, Tyler Walker, Roy Corcoran, Miguel Batista and Randy Messenger are also in play. Can anyone say bullpen by committee?

• Catcher, Texas Rangers

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who came in the Mark Teixeira trade in 2007, has the inside track, even though most scouts say Taylor Teagarden is superior defensively. As opening day draws closer, expect a revival of trade rumors involving teams looking for catching that have pitching to offer in return (hello, Red Sox).