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Burning questions

Eleven spring training position battles to watch

Posted: Monday February 19, 2007 11:51AM; Updated: Monday February 19, 2007 2:03PM
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After 18 years in the majors, Ken Griffey, Jr. will begin his 19th by trying to get over a hand injury.
After 18 years in the majors, Ken Griffey, Jr. will begin his 19th by trying to get over a hand injury.
Steve Grayson/WireImage.com

Spring training lasts a scant six weeks, so it's a tad unreasonable to expect that teams come up with all the answers before Opening Day. Simply figuring out what needs to be figured out is hard enough to do.

Still, there are teams with deficiencies so glaring (and, possibly, so damaging) that addressing them at the start of spring training, head on, is the only chance these teams have at ever finding the right answer. Here are 11 potholes on 10 different teams that need some urgent attention as teams begin their first full-squad workouts this week:

1. Red Sox closer
This is the most high-profile position battle on any roster. With last year's closer, Jonathan Papelbon (35 saves in '06), pegged for the rotation, the Sox are searching for a capable replacement. This spring, they'll be looking hard at veterans Brendan Donnelly, Mike Timlin, Joel Pineiro and Julian Tavarez. But if either Craig Hansen or Manny Delcarmen (or longshot Devern Hansack) can pull a Papelbon, the Sox will have a deep, dangerous 'pen. Hansen, a closer at St. John's with a mid-90s sinking fastball and a nasty slider, projects as the closer sooner rather than later.

2. Cubs center field
The folks in charge of the Cubs would much rather put Alfonso Soriano in a corner outfield spot. At least he's played left field before. But with Jacque Jones still on the roster and a right fielder, Cliff Floyd newly signed and in left and the team still unsure about phenom-in-waiting Felix Pie, center field may be Soriano's starting point. Things could change, though. Pie could come on in spring, Soriano could look lost covering more ground in center and -- who knows? -- if Mark DeRosa slips at second, Soriano might be back in the infield. Could happen.

3. Mets' rotation
Truth is, there's not a whole lot to the front end of this starting staff, with Pedro Martinez still rehabbing. That leaves Tom Glavine (soon to be 41), Orlando Hernandez (already there) and three spots open. Among the hopeful rotation pluggers are Oliver Perez, Chan Ho Park, John Maine and two youngsters who could use this spring as a springboard: Mike Pelfrey (a 6-foot-7 drool-inducer, if you're a Mets' fan or a big-league scout) and Phil Humber (his surgically repaired elbow remains a concern) .

4. Yankees' fifth starter
The Yankees have a nice threesome to start with in Mike Mussina, Chien-Ming Wang and lefty Andy Pettitte. After that, Japanese newcomer Kei Igawa is all but guaranteed a spot, leaving the No. 5 slot open this spring to a wide-open competition that will include youngsters Jeff Karstens, Humberto Sanchez and Philip Hughes. Put Carl Pavano -- supposedly healthy this spring, if you believe that -- where you will.

5. Royals third base
Everybody in Kansas City badly wants to hand this job to young Alex Gordon (a 1.015 OPS in Class AA Wichita last season), but considering how important he is to the future of the franchise, if he has a bad spring, don't expect the Royals to rush things too much. K.C. already has Mark Teahen coming off a very good year, and he can stay at third until Gordon gets his spikes under him. If Gordon is good off the bat, Teahen will move to the outfield.


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