Central Processing: Would a 2B Please Stand Up?


In the process of picking my nominees for the AL Central’s All-Division Team, I came to an surprising conclusion. There is no real established or long-term talent at second base. In fact, the cast of characters is lacking. You would think that among  the five teams in the division, one of them would have a viable everyday player at the position that didn’t have one or more significant question marks.

Enter the first ever edition of Central Processing to appear on Puckett’s Pond. What follows is a run down of all the likely 2B options for the White Sox, Indians, Tigers, Royals and our Minnesota Twins.

I will also provide my justification for listing Tsuyoshi Nishioka as the 2B on my AL Central All-Division roster. Of course by the time you get to that point in this article, the justification will be relatively self-evident.

Chicago White Sox:

Heading into the 2010 season Gordon Beckham figured to be the class of the division at second base. He was coming off a rookie season at age-22 that made everyone take notice. In 103 games he hit 0.270/.347/.460 with 28 2B, 14 HR and an OPS+ of 106. He also drew 41 walks while striking out just 65 times in 430 plate appearances.

Selected by the White Sox 8th overall in the 2008 draft after playing for the University of Georgia, Beckham needed only 59 games in the minors before getting called up to the majors. Maybe that lack of minor league seasoning caught up with him during 2010, or maybe it was the position switch to second after spending the entire 2009 season at third base. Whatever the reason he hit just 0.252/.317/.378 with 25 2B, 9 HR and an OPS+ of 86. Despite 498 PA, 68 more than in 2009, his numbers were down across the board. His impressive BB to SO mark also deteriorated from 41 and 65 in 2009 to 37 and 92 in 2010. With the glove he was below average sporting a -1.2 UZR/150 and -1.0 dWAR (Defensive Wins Above Replacement).

Was Beckham’s 2010 a simple sophomore slump or a sign of things to come? Did he play over his head in his rookie season and give fans a false impression? Was 2009 the aberration or a glimpse of the type of player he could wind up being?

These are all valid questions and they all give me pause when it comes to listing him as the division’s best. There is no question however that the fate of 2B rides on the shoulders of Beckham. He is backed up by 43-year old Omar Vizquel and 27-year old Brent Lillibridge. The latter of those two owns a whopping 45 OPS+ in parts of three major league seasons.

Cleveland Indians:

The Indians have two prospects on the way that could change this discussion significantly in 2012 and beyond. Unfortunately for the All-Division team and Cleveland fans, neither Jason Kipnis nor Cord Phelps figures to make the opening day roster. You can, however, head over to Call to the Pen to read a recently published article on both young prospects.

While we wait for those two prospects to sink or swim, we’re stuck with Jason Donald and Luis Valbuena as Cleveland’s candidates.

Donald, the Phillies 3rd round pick in the 2006 draft, made his major league debut last season at age 25 and played just over half his games in the bigs at SS thanks to the broken arm of Asdrubal Cabrera. In 325 PA, Donald hit 0.253/0.312/.378 with an OPS+ of 94. His uninspired slash stats are representative of his equally uninspired counting stats and his 22-70 BB to SO numbers. With the glove he was worse than uninspired finishing with a UZR/150 of -10.0 and -0.4 dWAR.

So what about Valbuena?

2010 was the 25-year old’s third season in the majors but was his worst at the plate by far. After turning in a 78 OPS+ in 18 games in 2008, he improved to a 90 OPS+ in 2009 while playing in 103 games. In 2010 however the wheels came off and he slipped to a woeful OPS+ of 51. He “earned” that mark by hitting 0.193/.273/.258 in 91 games. His dWAR was positive at 0.5 but that includes his work at 3B, SS and LF in addition to 2B. His UZR/150 specific to 2B was -4.8 and that was actually an improvement on his career mark of -8.7.

Actually, based on the competition he’s facing, maybe Phelps will win the job in spring training and get the Opening Day nod …

Detroit Tigers:

At last we come to a viable, established major league player as Carlos Guillen tops the Tigers depth chart at second base. The only problem here is health. In the last 3 seasons his high water mark in games played is 113 and that came back in 2008. In 2009 that number fell to 81 and it tumbled further to just 68 games played last season.

When Guillen was healthy last season he was slightly above league average at the plate with a 102 OPS+ and 0.273/.327/.419 slash line. In his career he’s played 59 games at 2B and 47 of those came in 2010 so he’s hardly a proven commodity with the leather, but his -4.3 UZR/150 last year suggests that he should be adequate on the defensive side of things when he’s actually on the field.

No stranger to knee problems and injury in general, Guillen’s latest required micro fracture knee surgery which may or may not prevent him from starting the season on time. This of course puts his eligibility for the All-Division team in doubt, but he’s not exactly a lead pipe lock for the team anyway since he’s now 35-years old and has a lot of DL time in his past.

Guillen’s backup is Will Rhymes who, in addition to having a sweet name, hit 0.304/.350/.414 in 213 PA during his rookie season. His OPS+ for 2010 was 107 and his -2.0 UZR/150 was decent as well. The numbers look good, but everything is about context. The problem for Rhymes is that he will turn 28-years old on April 1st and his 2010 performance was far more mirage than an indicator of future production. After all it’s not often that a guy can hit better in the majors than he did in the minors (0.289/.354/.374) for any length of time.

Rhymes was a good story in 2010, but we must keep in perspective that Baseball America had him ranked 4th in the Tigers organizational prospect depth chart at 2B.

Kansas City Royals:

The Royals are going to give 27-year old Chris Getz another chance to seize the job, but he has the look of a decent utility player and not the look of an everyday second basemen. He has decent speed and no power. He has a decent concept of the strike zone and makes reasonable contact but doesn’t hit the ball with much authority. His 0.252/.315/.320 career line in 189 major league games is indicative of the player he is and indicative of who he will be going forward.

Interestingly enough, the Royals probably have the class of the division when it comes to options at second with Mike Aviles who is now fully recovered from the Tommy John surgery that cost him the bulk of his 2009 season and limited him to some degree in 2010. Still he hit 0.304/.335/.413 in 448 PA with 8 HR and 14 SB last year while playing 2B, 3B and SS. Aviles has also proven he can hit at every level of professional baseball.

The problem for Aviles, as it relates to this column, is that he is slated to be the Royals starter at third base with Wilson Betemit serving in a utility role. In all likelihood Aviles will settle in as the starter at 2B when Mike Moustakas is called up during the season, and Getz inevitably fails, but I have no earthly idea when the Royals will bring Moose up.

Minnesota Twins:

Recent import Tsuyoski Nishioka is obviously a great unknown in the division. In fact, the Twins themselves are not completely set on whether or not he will play SS or 2B. If he winds up at 2B the comparisons to Kazuo Matsui will become even more prevalent than they already are.

When it comes to being the elite 2B in the AL Central, however, winding up with a career similar to Matsui’s will get the job done. Sad but true I know. The thing is, I think the comps to Kaz are unfair to Nishi and represent the “floor” as opposed to the ceiling of what will hopefully be a very long and prestigious major league and Twins career.

Nishi was my vote for 2B on our AL Central All-Division team and I didn’t vote that way because he plays for the Twins. I voted for Tsuyoshi two reasons. One, because he hasn’t struggled, disappointed or failed at the major league level like all of the other options covered above. Two, because unlike all of the others mentioned – and any prospects I failed to mention that may make an appearance during the year – Nishi is the only one that figures to start and end the season in his team’s lineup at 2B.

Then again he could wind up as the team’s SS and Alexi Casilla will wind up at 2B which throws this all up in the air and makes my vote moot.