Early line on key position battles

As camps open in Arizona and Florida, nearly every team has at least one key spot in its lineup, rotation or bullpen that is up for grabs, whether due to a legitimate vacancy, an injury or an artificially created "competition" ensuring that nobody takes promotion to a pivotal role lightly. Here's a PECOTA-based look at some of the spring's significant battles and their best solutions, with an emphasis on the teams the system sees as contenders, rather than pretenders.

Boston Red Sox: Fifth Starter, Shortstop

Touted as the game's top pitching prospect going into last year, Clay Buchholz thoroughly flopped (2-9, 6.75 ERA), plagued by mechanical woes. Hot stove rumors had him Texas-bound in exchange for a young catcher, but he returns to compete for the rotation's fifth spot against Brad Penny and John Smoltz, two veteran free agents attempting comebacks from shoulder injuries. PECOTA remains optimistic about the 24-year-old Buchholz, forecasting a 4.56 ERA and 8.0 strikeouts per nine. Penny, who made a miserable showing in Los Angeles (6-9, 6.27 ERA) after a Cy Young-caliber 2007, was initially forecast for a 4.47 ERA, but that adjusts to 4.85 in the move to Fenway. Smoltz, who needed labrum surgery after just 28 innings pitched last year, is forecast for the best ERA of the three (3.57), but he won't return until June; and the number of innings left in the 42-year-old's arm is an open question, so the additional depth is a bonus. As for shortstop, PECOTA is bullish on the 25-year-old Jed Lowrie (.260 BA/.341 OBP/.432 SLG, 2 Fielding Runs Above Average) outdoing Julio Lugo (.255/.325/.347, -2 FRAA), though the $18 million remaining on the latter's deal is a tough pill to swallow.