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Early Predictions for Top 2017 Spring Training Position Battles

We're several cold, soggy weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training. Baseball remains an abstraction—a distant, beautiful dream.

Still, it's not too early to gaze through the winter haze toward a few key spring position battles and make some premature predictions.

We'll stay away from bullpen and fifth-starter skirmishes since the remaining free-agent targets are sure to reshape many of those. Instead, let's zero in on three high-profile playoff hopefuls with question marks and logjams in the outfield and at the hot corner, keeping in mind that injuries and trades can quickly change the calculus. 

Until the hot stove crackles again, warm your hands with the following.


The Los Angeles Dodgers' Outfield Glut

From a quantity standpoint, the Los Angeles Dodgers are set in the outfield. Their depth chart includes Joc Pederson, Yasiel Puig, Andrew Toles, Andre Ethier, Trayce Thompson and Scott Van Slyke.

Pederson, who turns 25 in April, hit 25 home runs last season and has the speed and on-base capabilities to evolve into a star player despite his .224 career MLB average.

After that, it's a disconcerting jumble.

Puig is just 26 years old and possess five-tool potential, but he's a mercurial enigma whose future with the Dodgers was recently in grave danger

Toles is a great story, but he's got a grand total of 115 big league plate appearances under his belt and was briefly out of baseball and working in a grocery store in 2015.

Ethier broke his leg in spring training and wound up posting a .208/.269/.375 slash line in 16 games. Thompson showed flashes in an 80-game stint but dealt with a back injury and hit .225. Van Slyke posted an identical .225 average in 52 games.

"There are only so many at-bats to go around," Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts said, per's Doug Padilla. "As we sit here with six or possibly seven guys who are major league players, those at-bats are hard to divvy up right now."

Assuming Los Angeles doesn't deal away and/or trade for an outfielder before the start of spring, who emerges?

Toles looks like the front-runner in left field, provided his .314/.365/.505 slash line wasn't a mirage. 

In right, it'll likely come down to Puig and Ethier. The latter turns 35 in April but was a solid contributor in 2015, hitting .294 with 14 home runs.

Don't count out Puig, however. He posted a .900 OPS with four home runs in the season's final month. The Dodgers would also benefit from his success no matter what.

Either Puig starts raking again and helps them win or he puts up strong numbers and they trade him for a significant haul at the deadline or next next winter.

Prediction: The Dodgers begin the season with Toles in left, Pederson in center, Puig in right and Ethier and Thompson as the fourth and fifth outfielders.


The Boston Red Sox's 3rd-Base Gamble

The Boston Red Sox are rolling the dice at third base. They sent Travis Shaw to the Milwaukee Brewers in the deal that netted reliever Tyler Thornburg. They shipped out top prospect Yoan Moncada in the Chris Sale blockbuster.

That leaves Pablo Sandoval as the front-runner to win the job. It makes sense from a financial perspective; Sandoval is owed at least $59.8 million over the next four seasons. Boston wants him to succeed.

Whether he will is another matter. 

Sandoval was an unmitigated disappointment in 2015, his first year with Boston, slashing .245/.292/.366. Last season, he showed up to spring training notably out of shape and made just seven plate appearances before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.

The Kung Fu Panda appears to have slimmed down. He's just 30 years old and only a few seasons removed from All-Star-level production with the San Francisco Giants.

As Boston seeks to repeat as division champion and atone for last season's division series sweep, however, a little competition at third seems like a good idea.

Enter Brock Holt, who made 11 regular-season starts for the Red Sox at third base in 2016 but started all three of Boston's playoff games at the position. 

The 28-year-old hit .255 last season with seven home runs in 94 games. He may be best suited for a utility role. That's undoubtedly where Boston will stick him if the svelte Sandoval delivers.

A scalding spring from Holt, however, coupled with further decline from Sandoval, could force the Red Sox's hand.

Prediction: Sandoval wins the job, but Holt keeps nipping at his heels.


The Chicago Cubs' Kyle Schwarber Conundrum

The Chicago Cubs are the World Series champs and one of the most complete teams in baseball.

They've also got some things to unravel in the outfield, particularly surrounding young slugger Kyle Schwarber.

It begins at second base, where Javier Baez is ready to take over. That pushes versatile veteran Ben Zobrist to left or right field and creates a traffic snarl at the other two outfield spots.

Center field could be a righty-lefty timeshare between Albert Almora Jr. and newly signed Jon Jay. Despite his offensive futility, Jason Heyward checked in as the best defensive right fielder in the National League last season.

Where does that put Schwarber?

The 23-year-old grades out as a below-average defender at both corner outfield spots. He's also had experience behind the dish but sits behind Willson Contreras and Miguel Montero on the depth chart.

Schwarber's stick, however, is too stout for a part-time role. He hit 16 home runs in 69 games as a rookie in 2015 and returned from a devastating knee injury to post a .971 OPS in the 2016 World Series.

As Steve Rosenbloom of the Chicago Tribune put it: "He's dangerous to himself and his team in the outfield, but oh, that bat." 

The obvious answer is that Cubs manager Joe Maddon likes to mix and match, so all the players mentioned will get time.

Assuming everyone stays healthy, however, someone will get squeezed.

Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein gave Heyward, who is owed more than $28 million in 2017, a vote of confidence. 

"We believe in Jason Heyward and his ability to tackle things head-on and make the necessary adjustments," Epstein said, per Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago. "And I think you're going to see a much different offensive player next year."

Heyward can also play center field. He logged 171 innings there for the Cubs last season and posted four defensive runs saved. 

Again, Maddon will shuffle his chess pieces. If we're betting on an Opening Day alignment, however...

Prediction:  Zobrist will start in right field, Heyward in center and Schwarber in leftwith ample mixing and matching.


All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs. All contract information courtesy of

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