StrategyJuly 16, 2012

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Players Worth Owning: Middle Infield

By Ian Devine

It is more difficult to stream middle infielders than corner infielders and outfielders, so when this kind of roster management is best employed, you will trade your marginal corner assets for stable middle infielders and stream at the corners. In other words, if you own Adam Dunn, Mark Trumbo, Yadier Molina, or Bryan LaHair, you should be packaging two or three of them for one of the top middle infielders. That said, middle infield is interesting this year, as the spread of talent is small. After the very elite options, there are some questionable high-risk propositions but very little difference between options seven and 17, so the cost of retaining a marginal player is less than it might be.

Tier One

Robinson Cano
Ian Kinsler
Jason Kipnis

At this point, with Troy Tulowitzki hurt and out indefinitely, it seems pretty clear that the top infield options are all second basemen. You’ll get elite production – not elite infield production, but elite total production – from three second basemen, after which all the options get very similar very quickly. Essentially, if you don’t own one of these three players, you probably shouldn’t sweat it because everyone else is the same. Kipnis provides the closest thing to five-category production in the infield, and while he’s probably more a .280/20/20 hitter, that’s plenty valuable right now. Kinsler has a longer track record and hits in a better lineup but has less batting average upside. Cano won’t steal bases, but his production in the other four categories offsets this. Kipnis has ascended rapidly, and he’s doubly valuable in keeper leagues as he was almost certainly obtained at low cost or late in drafts.

Tier Two

Asdrubal Cabrera
Elvis Andrus
Starlin Castro
Jose Altuve

These four provide limited categorical value but strong total production. Cabrera comes out ahead as power is so scarce at second base and shortstop. The other three are nearly identical: strong batting average with some steals and runs, but little in the way of power or RBIs. Line up their ROS projections and I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Tier Three

Hanley Ramirez
Jimmy Rollins
Trevor Plouffe
Dan Uggla

The third tier consists of lottery tickets, and the risk inherent in each of these players is such that none will be on any of my teams. Ramirez has established a new level of production which is useful but far below his perceived value. At this point, he’s a batting average liability. If Ramirez is a liability, there isn’t a word for Uggla. Rollins will have streaks of productivity but is past the point of usefulness in mixed leagues. The interesting name here is Plouffe, whose swing as reconstituted seems to be legitimate. He is not Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion, but he may be Michael Morse, and with the positional eligibility, that’s immensely valuable.

Tier Four

Dustin Pedroia
Andrelton Simmons
Emilio Bonifacio
Chase Utley
Troy Tulowitzki

Pedroia, Bonifacio, Utley, and Tulowitzki should all be owned on the off chance that they can return from injury. Simmons is interesting and merits a post of his own, which I had planned to write before he broke his finger, but his batted ball data indicates he’s currently capable of .280-.300 with 20-30 steals over the course of a full season. Not someday, but right now. If you have an open DL slot and a hole at shortstop, think about stashing him; otherwise, monitor his progress closely as he could return in a month.

This leaves several prominent players outside “must own” status, and it may be worthwhile to look at some of them.

Ian Desmond: Desmond is currently the top ranked infielder on the Player Rater. He did not, however, suddenly turn into a .285/35 power hitter with shortstop eligibility. The difference between Desmond of the last three years and Desmond of 2012 is clear. This year he is walking marginally less often while striking out at the same rate he did in 2010. His BABIP is nearly identical to what it was the last two years, and should remain static going forward. His line drive percentage is 17.9% (after sitting at 17.5% last year), his ground ball percentage is 48.5% (51.9% last year), and his fly ball percentage is 33.6% (30.5% in 2011 and 31.6% in 2010). He is popping out somewhat less often, with 6.5% infield flies compared to 9.0% last year and 9.2% the year before. All those numbers are within a reasonable margin, however, and none is really unsustainable. The number that jumps out is his home run-per-fly ball percentage. In 2010, 7.7% of Desmond’s fly balls went for home runs. Last year, 7% of his fly balls went for home runs. This year: 18.5%. This is not an unheard of number, but it places him in the same vicinity on leader boards as David Ortiz, Joey Votto, and Edwin Encarnacion. Even accepting improvement from Desmond from last year, his ZiPS projection of .266/8/35/33/10 (BA/HR/RBI/R/SB) looks generous. And quite simply, that’s not terribly valuable, certainly not valuable enough to separate him from a dozen other shortstops. Desmond’s projections present liabilities in all five categories. In other words, sell while you can.

Ben Zobrist: Zobrist has been a liability in batting average each year since 2009, when he produced the highest BABIP of his Major League career. In an OBP league, he has more value, but in standard formats, his poor average combined with projections of only nine home runs and eight steals means you can find a reasonable facsimile on the wire for free.

Derek Jeter: Derek Jeter will not hurt you in batting average or in any category, really, so there is a place for him. If your team is generally strong and all you want is to avoid a black hole at the position, he can fill in, but while he won’t hurt, neither will he help. Again, as with Zobrist, it’s not that he has no value, it’s that the value he provides is readily available.

Aaron Hill and Brandon Phillips: Again, this is not to disparage the contributions of Hill and Phillips. The two are, respectively, projected to put up lines of .277/9/33/34/6 and .278/9/41/40/7. There is a place for that on your roster. The problem arises when we look at the projections for Neil Walker (.276/7/38/41/5), Daniel Murphy (.292/3/22/28/3), Marco Scutaro (.286/4/34/24/4), Taylor Green (.257/6/28/23/3), Jed Lowrie (.255/6/21/21/1 in very limited at bats), and Howie Kendrick and Omar Infante and Jhonny Peralta, and Yunel Escobar and J.J. Hardy and Alcides Escobar and Erick Aybar and so on and so forth. Play them while the matchups warrant it, then release them, because their production can be had with a dozen different names attached. Their numbers are anonymous.

Middle infield is difficult this year. There are only seven options worth playing every day. After the top seven, there is an indistinguishable mash of mediocrity you want no part of. Pay for Kipnis, Kinsler and Cano. Take on Andrus, Altuve, and Castro if you need speed or Cabrera if you need power. Everyone else is irrelevant, and you should trade corner assets to obtain the seven infielders mentioned.

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