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Spring squeeze: Cutting down roster no easy task

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In a simple world, Spring Training competition would hinge solely on which player performed the best during camp.

But in the battle for starting jobs and 25-man roster spots, simplicity is rare.

As Opening Day nears, numerous factors come into play for managers and general managers, who have to put spring statistics in the proper context and balance them against past performance. Then there are the outside forces that exert influence: a team's overall makeup and needs, and the complicated web of rules that govern rosters, the arbitration system and player contracts.

Put it all together, and it's enough to cause the decision-makers, and those affected, to start going gray. Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who knows a thing or two about that, summed up the complexity involved in talking about the fight for the final spot on Detroit's bench.

"We're pretty well set, but there are a couple things at the end that are going to be a little hairy," Leyland said. "A manager knows he's going to break a couple hearts before this is over."

The Tigers' situation illustrates the competing interests clubs face in awarding the final available jobs.

Nick Castellanos, MLB.com's No. 21 prospect, was cut on Tuesday despite hitting .360 in the Grapefruit League, as the team prefers him to play every day at Triple-A Toledo. Quintin Berry played 94 games for Detroit last season but is dealing with a knee injury.

Jeff Kobernus has no big league experience and a .672 career Minor League OPS, but he offers speed and bats right-handed, making him a logical complement to Andy Dirks in left field. Perhaps most significantly, the Tigers selected Kobernus from the Nationals in the Rule 5 Draft, meaning they must keep him on their 25-man roster all season, or offer him back to Washington. Leyland said late last week it was, "a long shot, but possible," that Kobernus and Berry both could make the team.

"The two questions you have to ask are: Which guy gives us the best chance to win a game, and which scenario gives us the best chance to win games? One is singular and one is plural," Leyland said.

The Tigers also are one of several teams trying to nail down the fifth and final slot in their starting rotation. The loser of the tight battle between righty Rick Porcello and lefty Drew Smyly could be ticketed for the bullpen, Triple-A or a trade.

The Cardinals are another club working to select a No. 5 man. The competition was narrowed to Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller on March 7, when the club elected to keep Trevor Rosenthal in the bullpen role he excelled at down the stretch and in the postseason last year.

Kelly has a leg up on Miller in terms of Major League experience, with Miller seemingly carrying more upside, as MLB.com's No. 25 prospect. Manager Mike Matheny has said last year isn't nearly so important as "where they are right now." Yet Matheny wasn't ready to decide anything Tuesday, after Miller threw four shutout innings against the Marlins and Kelly followed by giving up four runs on eight hits in three frames.

"They just keep making this [decision] tougher on us, and that's what they should be doing," Matheny said. "They continue to get their pitch counts built up, and everybody is moving forward in a good direction."

Of course, how much weight -- if any -- to put on Spring Training performance is an annual question facing teams and evaluators.

Still, hot streaks at this time of year tend to raise players' stocks. Take the Phillies' Domonic Brown, who has struggled to gain traction at the big league level in the past but now is in prime position for a starting outfield job after hitting .397/.465/.714 with six home runs in his first 22 Grapefruit League contests.

"I'd say right now he's got the lead," manager Charlie Manuel said Saturday.

For prospects, a strong spring performance isn't always enough.

They are easier to send back to Triple-A than older players, who might be out of options and would have to clear waivers. Other veterans might have clauses in their contracts allowing them to opt out and become a free agent if they are not on the roster by a certain date.

Prospects, on the other hand, often have to be added to the 40-man roster, a move that forces the team to clear a spot if one doesn't already exist. Then there is the issue of service time. The sooner a player reaches the Majors, the sooner he can reach arbitration -- and start making higher salaries -- and the sooner he can reach free agency.

Last season, the Angels started eventual American League Rookie of the Year Award winner Mike Trout at Triple-A. This season, the Cardinals will do the same with MLB.com No. 3 prospect Oscar Taveras, despite a strong spring. The Red Sox, meanwhile, have yet to commit on No. 32 prospect Jackie Bradley, who is hitting .439/.549/.561 and could provide a boost with David Ortiz hobbled.

"We have a whole year to determine how that service time would factor in going forward," Boston manager John Farrell said Sunday, alluding to the possibility of sending down Bradley later in the season to stall his service clock. "Can't deny the fact he's having a [great] Spring Training. The bottom line thing would be -- when any young player, whether it's Jackie or any young position player -- when they come to the big leagues, you want to be sure they get regular at-bats. If those are there, that becomes part of the equation. Most importantly, he's doing whatever he can to impact the decision."

Other spring battles don't have to reach a definitive conclusion by April 1.

Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart are competing to be the Yankees' starting catcher, but both figure to see significant time. The same goes for Blue Jays second basemen Emilio Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis.

Braves camp is home to a spirited battle between Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson to inherit the third-base job from Chipper Jones. Both have hit the ball well this spring, and manager Fredi Gonzalez has expressed a willingness to platoon the left-handed Francisco and right-handed Johnson.

It is, of course, not a simple decision.

"They both bring other pluses to the team," Gonzalez said Sunday. "For example, if Juan is playing, Chris could be the right-handed bat off the bench. When Chris is playing, Francisco is a dangerous bat off the bench left-handed. Chris could play a little first base, so it gives you that dynamic where you could give [Freddie] Freeman a day off against a tough lefty. It gives you versatility. It gives you pretty good weapons."

Andrew Simon is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"event":["prospect" ,"spring_training" ] }
{"event":["prospect" ,"spring_training" ] }