Mix of vets in heated battle for Angels' bench
Pena, Boesch, Stewart, seven others look to secure utility spots on 2014 roster
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Spring Training will be about Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols getting their groove back. It'll be about Tyler Skaggs, and whether the 22-year-old right-hander is ready to claim a rotation spot. And it'll be about Sean Burnett, the lefty reliever who could be so valuable if he bounces back from August forearm surgery.
But no competition will be more intense than the one over who fills out the Angels' bench.
Five veteran position players were added on Minor League contracts over the offseason, a quintet that has accumulated 4,308 Major League games: first baseman Carlos Pena, corner outfielder Brennan Boesch, corner infielder Chad Tracy, third baseman Ian Stewart and utility infielder John McDonald.
Five intriguing in-house candidates are in the mix right along with them: outfielders J.B. Shuck and Collin Cowgill, utility infielders Andrew Romine and Grant Green, and third baseman Luis Jimenez.
That's 10 players fighting for three spots, making it one of the most competitive Spring Training competitions Angels manager Mike Scioscia has ever had to sort through.
"Competitive not only for making the team, but internally competitive for at-bats," Scioscia said. "That depth is going to help us on the offensive side. Eventually, you'd love to be in the position on our pitching side to have this much depth and this much competition. But I think on the offensive side, there are probably going to be some tough decisions down the road."
You'll notice some impressive track records as you scan the list of Minor League additions. But you'll also realize just how fickle this game can be.
Pena was an MVP candidate not too long ago, averaging 34 homers and 97 RBIs from 2007-11. But he had only a 93 OPS-plus in 2012. Last season, he batted .209/.324/.350 in 85 games with the Astros, got released on July 31, didn't sign again until Aug. 27 and appeared in only four games for the Royals before an appendectomy ended his season.
Pena, 35, would rather not even acknowledge that he's fighting for his career right now.
"I don't occupy my mind with those things at all," he said. "I'm more about being engaged in what is going on and just taking it all in, instead of making formulas of where I would fit, because that will take care of itself."
McDonald is used to this whole fighting-for-a-job thing. Last year, though, it was at a whole other level. He played on four Major League teams -- the Pirates, Indians, Phillies and Red Sox-- and collected three separate playoff shares when it was all said and done.
For the better part of a 15-year career, McDonald survived on his quick hands and sure glove, carving out a career in the role he's fighting to fill at least one more time in 2014, his age-39 season.
"I've never been to camp on a Minor League deal in my career," McDonald said. "I told my agent I just want to go to camp with somebody. I want to compete and show I can still play this game."
Boesch is at an age where he should still be effective in this game.
He's 28, and for a three-year span from 2010-12, the left-handed-hitting Southern California product got plenty of playing time for some good Tigers teams, batting .259/.315/.414 in 380 games.
But the Tigers released him less than three weeks before Opening Day last spring, then Boesch promptly signed with the Yankees, batted .275 in 23 games, got sent down to the Minors, hurt his rotator cuff diving for a ball, got released for a second time on July 19 and spent the rest of the season rehabbing on his own.
"When you're not healthy, it's tough," Boesch said. "But I plan on playing this game a long time. It's in the past, and I'm looking forward."
Stewart would like nothing more than to move forward from an ugly fallout with the Cubs, when he tweeted his frustrations over not being promoted from the Minor Leagues, got hit with a 10-game suspension for violating the loyalty clause in his contract in mid-June and was released shortly thereafter.
Stewart signed with the Dodgers on July 5 and finished his 2013 season with a .171/.303/.347 slash line in both teams' Triple-A affiliates. Before that, Stewart was a former 10th-overall Draft selection who batted .232/.319/.417 in 487 games from 2007-12. This offseason, he worked with former Angels great Rod Carew.
"He took me under his wing and worked his butt off for me," Stewart said. "He took time away from his family to help me the best he could, and I really appreciate that. He's a big reason why I am here with the Angels. I know he spoke up to the organization for me."
Twice before, Tracy has come into camp fighting for a spot and won a job. The 33-year-old left-handed hitter filled the backup role with the Nats the last two years, compiling a .230/.286/.374 slash line in a combined 241 plate appearances. Tracy is very familiar with general manager Jerry Dipoto from his days in Arizona, for which Tracy batted .291/.348/.470 as an everyday player from 2004-06.
But he knows that means very little right now.
"These guys are all good players," Tracy said of his in-house competition. "I think it just comes down to what this team needs. We're all big leaguers. We've proven that. It's just kind of about where they want everybody to fit in with the team. Let's see how it shakes out at the end."
Here are some things to keep in mind as you monitor the competition for bench spots this spring:
Pena's fate could be tied to Pujols: If the Angels aren't quite comfortable with having Pujols play first base on an everyday basis by the time camp breaks, Pena -- a solid defensive first baseman his entire career -- has a good shot of making the roster as a backup. If Pujols is ready to play every day, then the fact that Pena plays only one position could hurt his chances greatly.
Versatility will be key: The more positions you can play effectively, the likelier your chances of making the team. That applies to every bench, but especially here. Jimenez is going to get some time in the middle infield and first base to see if he can be useful at other spots. Green, most comfortable at second base, is expected to bounce all over the place. And Stewart needs to show he can play a solid first base.
Nothing is promised to Shuck: The scrappy left-handed hitter came out of nowhere to contribute a very solid rookie season last year, batting .293 with a .331 on-base percentage while leading all American League rookies in plate appearances. But there are a lot of left-handed hitters competing for spots in camp. Cowgill has an advantage because he can play all three outfield positions, and Shuck -- essentially only a left fielder -- has options left.
Backup infielder a two-man race: The Angels' backup infielder needs to be solid defensively at shortstop, and that essentially leaves two players -- Romine and McDonald. Both can more than adequately handle three infield positions -- shortstop, second base and third base -- and neither provides much with the bat. Romine is out of options, and McDonald is unlikely to accept an option, so it's a good bet that neither will be in Triple-A if they don't make the team. Romine is 11 years younger and is homegrown, but McDonald has an extensive track record. Tommy Field also lurks as a dark-horse candidate.
Very little is certain: Here's what we know about the Angels' bench: One spot will go to Hank Conger or Chris Iannetta, the two platooning catchers; another will go to a backup infielder, as mentioned above; and at least one left-handed hitter will be in the mix. Everything else is a question.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.