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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins

Thursday, March 31, 2005

2005 Season Preview - The Best Infields

Opening day's around the corner, so I think I'll get back to my old ESPN baseball-analyzing ways and take a look forward to the season by analyzing the best teams in the league by unit – namely, best infield, outfield, and pitching staff. I'm really missing baseball, not to mention my work at ESPN. In fact, I wrote a chunk of this during class. Today I'll break down the best infields in baseball, and in the coming days the other parts of the series will be posted. By the way, I'm not really taking defensive ability into much consideration here – this is more or less an analysis of the offensive output of the infield units.

1. Texas Rangers (1B Mark Teixeira, 2B Alfonso Soriano, 3B Hank Blalock, SS Michael Young)
There is no question in my mind that the best infield in the league plays in Arlington. Every other infield on this list has at least one question mark or weak link; there's nothing close to a weak link here. Each of these four guys is better than the best infielder on at least half the teams in the majors. Last season, one of these four led the Rangers in every offensive category except sacrifice bunts. They all had over 20 HR, 90 RBI and a .275 average. Teixeira was the only one who wasn't an all-star, and he led the team with 38 HR and 112 RBI. Maybe the most impressive thing about this infield is that they are all under 30 years old. Teixeira and Blalock were born in 1980. If the Rangers can hang on to this quartet, they've got a cornerstone around which to build a solid team for years to come.

2. New York Mets (1B Mike Piazza/Doug Mientkiewicz, 2B Kazuo Matsui, 3B David Wright, SS Jose Reyes)
I'm going out on a limb here by calling the Mets' infield the second-best in the bigs because it’s so heavily reliant on the performance of its prospects. I'm also cheating a little bit by calling Piazza part of the infield, since Mientkiewicz is sure to play a lot of time at first. Piazza did play more games at first base than he did at catcher last season, though, and he also led the Mets in games played at first. He also had the worst fielding percentage of any starting first baseman in the NL last season. Anyway, I’m going to call him a first baseman (in the loosest sense of the word) and plan on Kaz Matsui living up to his potential. Jose Reyes will score 100 runs and steal 40 bases as a regular this season. And David Wright will put up some big numbers as well - .290 avg., 30 HR, 90 RBI, I'm thinking.

3. New York Yankees (1B Tino Martinez, 2B Tony Womack, 3B Alex Rodriguez, SS Derek Jeter)
As much as he irritates me, I still say A-Rod is the best all-around player in baseball. Yes, he doesn't inspire Bonds-like fear in pitchers, but he is the quintessential five-tool player. He's 19 homers shy of 400 career, and it'll be interesting to see if he can reach that mark before he turns 30 on July 27 (He should). His career average is over .300. He stole 28 bases last season. And don't forget his smooth transition to third base last season as well. Derek Jeter rounds out the best left infield in baseball with his consistent offensive production and his intangibles over which everyone loves to gush. The Yanks filled up their second base hole with Tony Womack, who hit .307 last season, and they reacquired Tino Martinez, who had a .488 slugging percentage in his first stint with the Yankees – the 14th-best career slugging percentage in team history. Think about some of his competition in that stat.

4. Philadelphia Phillies (1B Jim Thome, 2B Chase Utley, 3B Placido Polanco/David Bell, SS Jimmy Rollins)
Thome and Rollins are the studs in this infield. Thome's almost a lock for 40 HR/100 RBI a season, and Rollins was in the top ten in the NL in runs, steals, hits, doubles, and triples last year. I'd say Rollins is the favorite to lead the NL in runs scored this season. Utley is waiting to blow up this year now that he's been handed the second base job full-time. And although the Phillies are far higher on Bell than they should be, Polanco is a solid player who will get time at third because Bell is hurt all the time. I’d rather see the Phils keep Polanco around than Bell, but it won’t happen because Polanco has a one-year deal and is likely to be traded midseason. Polanco has a .295 career average and has never struck out more than 43 times in a season. And his versatility in the infield is an asset to any team.

5. Chicago Cubs (1B Derrek Lee, 2B Todd Walker, 3B Aramis Ramirez, SS Nomar Garciaparra)
Aramis Ramirez could be one of the most underrated players in baseball. He batted .318 with 36 homers last season. Derrek Lee also chipped in 32 HR and over 90 runs and RBI. Nomar could have a big season now that he's content again. He batted .297 in his 30 games with the Cubs last season, and over a full season I would be surprised if he didn't show his old productivity. The weak link here is Todd Walker, who is one of those guys who doesn't put up big numbers but won't hurt you either. Walker struck out only 52 times last season while walking 43 times, and he batted .274, so he's certainly serviceable. However, if Walker were replaced with a better second baseman (even someone like the Reds' D'Angelo Jimenez), I would bump the Cubs up to second or third on this list.

Honorable Mention: Baltimore Orioles (1B Jay Gibbons/Rafael Palmeiro, 2B Brian Roberts, 3B Melvin Mora, SS Miguel Tejada)
Although Palmeiro is a 500-HR guy, Tejada and Mora are the stars of this show. Did you know Tejada had 150 RBI last season? 150! Nobody else in the majors even had 140. 150 is also the most RBI any Oriole has posted in a single season since the team moved to Baltimore. Meanwhile, Mora batted .340, scored and drove in over 100 runs, and led the AL with a .419 on-base percentage. The left side of the O's' infield is second only to the left side of the Yankees' infield; it's a shame they're overshadowed because they're in the same division. Brian Roberts isn't spectacular at second base, but he did lead the AL in doubles last season with 50, while stealing 29 bases. Palmeiro, at age 40, is seeing his output diminish rapidly, and although he's still decent, it'll be interesting to see how he holds up now that he'll be scrutinized as a possible former steroid user. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jay Gibbons get some PT at first.

What About…: St. Louis Cardinals (1B Albert Pujols, 2B Mark Grudzielanek, 3B Scott Rolen, SS David Eckstein)
I know, you thought I forgot about Pujols, Rolen, & Co. When I started looking at infields, I figured these guys would be second on my list. But when I started looking deeper, the drop-off is so significant after Pujols and Rolen that as a whole, the infield isn't great. Pujols and Rolen are the best pair of infield teammates in the game, that I won’t dispute. Yet Eckstein and Grudzielanek drag down the overall production below the levels of the above teams. Check out the combined 2004 stats of the Cards' 2005 infield against the stats of the other infields mentioned.
TEX 399 120 412 36 .288
NYM 186 43 152 39 .271
NYY 377 87 298 80 .288
PHI 301 86 290 41 .284
CHI 301 92 292 16 .294
STL 366 88 305 26 .307

At first glance, only the Rangers and Yankees really stand above the Cardinals. However, the Mets have diminished stats because Piazza was hurt for a lot of last season and Reyes and Wright weren't regulars. The Phillies' stats are also slightly diminished because Utley wasn't a regular. Ditto for the Cubs, because Nomar was hurt for a lot of the year. I didn't project the stats to a full season, but I have a feeling if I did, the Cardinals would be around the middle or bottom of the pack in every stat except for batting average. Since they, more than any other team, are carried by two players, I didn't think they belonged in the top five infields, especially since I was considering the infields as a whole.

Disappearing Act: Los Angeles Dodgers (1B Hee Seop Choi, 2B Jeff Kent, 3B _____________, SS Cesar Izturis)
The Dodgers didn’t exactly do a good job replacing Adrian Beltre. When I was looking at infields, it occurred to me that the Dodgers, as far as I can tell, don't have anyone who's a real third baseman. Of the hitters on their active roster, only five have ever spent any time at the hot corner, and none of them have done it exclusively for a full season. Jeff Kent has 157 career games there, but none since 1996. Jose Valentin has 151 career games there, most recently in 2002 when he split time between third and short for the White Sox. Olmedo Saenz has 110 career games at third, but never more than 18 in a season. Antonio Perez played six games at third in 2003. Outfielder Jason Grabowski played a game at third that year, too. The Dodgers will be going with Valentin. It'll be interesting to see how the Dodgers' infield, which for a while was very error-prone before last season when they markedly improved their fielding, deals with the lack of a true third baseman.

The Worst Infield In Baseball: Kansas City Royals (1B Mike Sweeney, 2B Tony Graffanino, 3B Chris Truby, SS Angel Berroa)
Even Mike Sweeney can't save this sorry group. He might be beginning the downswing of his career; last season was the first in the last five years that he wasn't an all-star. Angel Berroa, 2003’s AL Rookie of the Year, suffered the infamous Sophomore Slump last season, as his production decreased in nearly every offensive category. Graffanino is a career .259 hitter who has 35 HR and 41 SB in nine seasons and hasn’t played 100 games in a season since 1998. And Chris Truby is a 31-year-old unknown with a .231 career average who is on his fifth team in five major league seasons.


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