Around the Horn: Middle infielders

Around the Horn: Middle infielders

Keep your eye on the keystone this season, because the middle infield figures to be front and center on a lot of teams.

A dozen clubs will have new players playing at least half of their double-play combos, with talents such as Julio Lugo, Mark DeRosa, Alex Gonzalez, Adam Kennedy and Marcus Giles changing teams.

In Atlanta, shortstop Edgar Renteria will have a new double-play partner. So will Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips, Chicago Cubs shortstop Cesar Izturis, Toronto second baseman Aaron Hill, St. Louis shortstop David Eckstein, Cleveland shortstop Jhonny Peralta and San Diego shortstop Khalil Greene.

Not all of the storylines concern new faces in new places. In Kansas City, Angel Berroa tries again to recapture the form that made him the American League Rookie of the Year in 2003. In Pittsburgh, Jack Wilson tries to bounce back after a disappointing 2006 season. Others looking for better years or a return to good health in 2007 include Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Jeff Kent, Houston shortstop Adam Everett, Milwaukee's J.J. Hardy and Rickie Weeks and Oakland shortstop Bobby Crosby.

Some middle-infield tandems will simply be looking to pick up where they left off in 2006, like Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano of the New York Yankees, Jose Reyes and Jose Valentin of the New York Mets, Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco of Detroit, Michael Young and Ian Kinsler of Texas and Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla of Florida.

There's even more in the middle to draw your attention this season: Houston second baseman Craig Biggio, who needs 70 hits to reach 3,000 for his career.

Beyond the moves and milestones, there's the best middle infield duo in either league -- Philadelphia shortstop Jimmy Rollins and second baseman Chase Utley.

Middle Infielders

Remaining Schedule
Catchers: Turnover at backstop
Corner IF: Infusion of youth at third
Middle IF: Lots of new combos
Outfielders: Revolving doors
Starters: Many seeking to rebound
Bullpen: Closers eye comebacks
DH/Bench: Depth can deliver success

What will they do for an encore?

In 2006, Utley and Rollins became the first double-play combination in franchise history to hit at least 25 homers each. That accomplishment also made the Phillies the first team in National League history to have their middle infielders hit that many. The 1948 and 1950 Red Sox had Bobby Doerr and Vern Stephens do that in the American League.

Rollins (25) and Utley (32) also set franchise records for homers at their respective positions and each authored long hitting streaks. Rollins finished off a 38-game hitting streak that actually began on Aug. 23, 2005, and accounted for the final 36 games of that season. Utley's began with a homer on June 23 against Boston and lasted until Aug. 4, when the Mets ended it at 35 games.

A year ago the Blue Jays were heralding sophomores Aaron Hill and Russ Adams as their double-play duo for years to come. Hill then had a career year at second base, hitting .291 with 50 RBIs in 155 games, but Adams slumped his way to two demotions and left Toronto searching for a new shortstop altogether.

This winter, Toronto found a temporary solution in 37-year-old Royce Clayton, who signed a one-year deal worth $1.5 million with the Jays in November. With a potent lineup already in place, Toronto was content on adding Clayton -- a player known more for his defense than his offensive abilities.

"We think Hill is going to be a very good second baseman," Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi said. "Clayton and [John] McDonald at short give us enough that we're going to catch the ball. We're comfortable."

In Kansas City, Berroa, who will again team with second baseman Mark Grudzielanek, is the focal point of the Royals' middle infield. He has been since his award-winning campaign. After falling off for three straight years, he'll be looking to regain that form.

Berroa hit just .234 last year and had nine homers and 54 RBIs. That, combined with a team-high 18 errors, made him the favorite target of boo-birds. Berroa is working to quicken his fielding movements and avoid errors on routine plays. He's been doing agility training, but the actual fielding work has been limited.

"It's been so cold that it's hard for me to do much," Berroa said. "I've been throwing, but we'll really get into defense in Spring Training."

Grudzielanek, who won his first Gold Glove in 2006, also led the Royals' regulars with a .297 average and 85 runs scored.

A middle-infield makeover is on tap for Wrigley Field. Though Izturis was acquired in July, he played in only 22 games for the Cubs because of a hamstring injury. He joins DeRosa in what is essentially a new middle infield for the Cubs.

"I definitely wanted to play second," DeRosa said when he signed in November. "Chicago gave me a call and a chance to play second. This is it. I told my agent this is where I wanted to go."

The Cubs have had their share of second basemen. Last spring, Todd Walker, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Neifi Perez were battling for playing time. Since-departed manager Dusty Baker rotated seven different infielders in the spot, and none of the original three were with the Cubs at season's end.

"We got one of the best shortstops in all of baseball."
-- Reds manager Jerry Narron, on new Reds shortstop, Alex Gonzalez.

A year ago, Pittsburgh's Wilson and Jose Castillo entered the 2006 campaign widely heralded as one of the best double-play combinations in all of baseball. This year the two will be trying to re-establish themselves among the game's defensive elite.

Not only did Wilson commit a career-high 18 errors, but he also appeared to be a step slower after bulking up the previous offseason in an effort to improve his strength and stamina. Wilson's 642 total chances and his .972 fielding percentage were his lowest since his rookie season. As a result of his sub par performance of a year ago, Wilson has adjusted his conditioning program this winter so that he will be lighter and more agile in 2007. He expects to report to Spring Training at around 193 pounds, down from 207 pounds a year ago.

"I'm here mainly for defense," Wilson said. "I didn't have a very good year last year and I want to get back to where I can help the team most. I thought I let the team down. I felt like I didn't have the quick step I used to have. I wanted to work hard to be slimmer. Getting back to where I was in 2004 or 2005 is very important for me."

Ramirez and Uggla were two big reasons the Marlins exceeded expectations in 2006. Ramirez batted .292 while collecting 46 doubles, 11 triples, 17 home runs and 59 RBIs. A leadoff hitter with power, the Dominican native also swiped 51 bases. Uggla, meanwhile, emerged in the second spot, hitting .282 with a club-high 27 home runs and 90 RBIs.

Both were highly honored for their spectacular first years. Ramirez was named National League Rookie of the Year by the Baseball Writers Association of America. Uggla was recognized as the top NL Rookie by The Sporting News. Uggla also became the first Rule-5 Draft pick in big-league history to be selected to the All-Star Game in the season in which he was drafted.

While both have tremendous upside, Marlins infield and first base coach Perry Hill cautioned one season doesn't make a career.

"On the other hand, I'm very cautious," Hill said. "There still is a lot of work to be done. But I look for both of them to have better years than they had last year."

The Reds are expecting better things from their middle-infield tandem of Gonzalez and Phillips.

"Our fans are in for a nice treat with these two guys," Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky said. "I'm looking forward to watching them play together when we get to Spring Training. They have a chance to be an exciting combination for what we hope is many years."

In 2006, the Reds' team defense was tied for second worst in the Majors. It also committed the second-most errors (128), trailing only the Nationals. Krivsky, a pitching- and defense-minded executive, has made shoring up Cincinnati's defense a priority since taking over last year.

In a career-high 149 games played, Phillips batted .276 with 17 homers, 75 RBIs and 25 steals. He led the team with 148 hits and solidified second base defensively.

Gonzalez, who batted .255 with nine home runs and 50 RBIs in 111 games with the Red Sox in 2006, was considered one of the top defensive shortstops available on the market. The 29-year-old committed only seven errors and owned a .985 fielding percentage for Boston. Before that, Gonzalez played for the Marlins from 1998-2005 and won a World Series with Florida in 2003.

"We got one of the best shortstops in all of baseball," Reds manager Jerry Narron said after the signing.

The Yankees' middle-infield combination teamed to put a 1-2 punch on the American League batting race in 2006, as Jeter and Cano finished second and third, respectively, behind Minnesota's Joe Mauer.

Jeter, 32, added the AL Hank Aaron Award and his third consecutive Rawlings Gold Glove Award to the mix. He almost picked up his first Most Valuable Player Award in 2006, falling 14 points shy of the 320 garnered by the Twins' Justin Morneau.

Cano, 24, helped create a dangerous offensive tandem with Jeter during his second full Major League season. The All-Star hit 15 home runs and collected 78 RBIs for the Yankees, finishing just one point behind Jeter, with a .342 batting average -- good for third in the American League.

In Milwaukee, Weeks and Hardy needed season-ending surgery to repair problems related to tendons that were painfully "snapping" out of place -- Hardy's in his right ankle and Weeks' in his right wrist. Weeks was cleared to resume batting drills this week, and Hardy has been taking ground balls for nearly a month. Both are eager to get back on the field.

"Yeah, we're both coming back from surgeries, and I can see why people have questions," Hardy said this week. "But we're still going to be the same baseball players. Speaking for myself, I definitely have something to prove. I'm itching to get back right now."

Weeks struck out 92 times in 95 games and he committed 22 errors in 2006, though he showed marked improvement as the season progressed. Weeks committed 20 errors in his first 52 games and just two errors in his final 43 games.

Though Detroit's pitching attracted much of the national attention for the club's sudden rise to contention last year, Guillen was the closest to a dominant hitter on a club that preached offensive balance. While Jeter heard chants of "M-V-P" at home in September and October, Guillen quietly finished the year with the higher OPS -- best among Major League shortstops and 12th-highest among AL hitters.

"I don't know that he gets overlooked," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "I think he's appreciated. When you say overlooked, if you're talking about newspaper articles or different parts around the country, maybe. But I think among his peers, I think everybody has as much respect for him as they should have."

Polanco is coming off a more recent injury than Guillen, but his return from a separated shoulder with a week left in the regular season helped set up the Tigers for their postseason run. Not only did his 9-for-17 performance in the ALCS earn him series MVP honors, but since he did most of it batting third in place of the injured Sean Casey, it showed how versatile a hitter he can be.

In Oakland, Crosby hopes to put his injury problems behind him. He was on the disabled list twice in 2005 (fractured ribs, fractured ankle), and twice again in 2006 with what was originally misdiagnosed as a back strain but was later revealed to be a fractured vertebrae. He's also endured an assortment of minor injuries -- lacerated finger, bruised hand, strained triceps -- that contributed to him missing 132 games over the past two years.

"He's a strong young guy who's had some bad luck," Oakland manager Bob Geren said. "He's a solid Major League player with a really high ceiling. He's already a tremendous defensive shortstop, and if he can be consistently healthy, I think he'll only spiral upward offensively. He has a ton of potential."

Geren also is anticipating a bounce-back year at the plate from starting second baseman Mark Ellis, who had an historic defensive season in 2006 but struggled offensively. After earning a multiyear contract by batting .316 with a .384 on-base percentage in 2005, Ellis slumped to .249/.319 in the first year of his new deal.

Orlando Cabrera returns as the Angels' shortstop and team defensive captain, while Howie Kendrick gets the opportunity to shed his identity as prospect and become a full-time Major Leaguer as the team's second baseman. The one question that remains is whether Kendrick will settle into the job and provide enough defense to compensate for the loss of Adam Kennedy. The Angels believe that he will.

"He's earned it," general manager Bill Stoneman said.

In St. Louis, the Cardinals are hoping that reuniting Kennedy with Eckstein -- the two held down the middle infield on the Angels' 2002 World Series championship team -- propels both to better campaigns than their 2006 regular seasons. Kennedy posted his lowest on-base percentage since 2001, while Eckstein's numbers declined across the board from his eye-opening 2005 Cardinals debut.

Eckstein was bothered by a number of physical problems in '06, including a concussion, a strained oblique and a hamstring strain during the regular season -- though the injuries didn't prevent him from hitting .364 against Detroit to pick up the World Series MVP.

"Whenever you win a championship, everything just flies by," Eckstein said. "That was one of the things I wanted to make sure, having won it before, to make sure that I had the opportunity to get my rest, the opportunity to get my full workouts in and all that stuff. I've been able to do that. I've been able to slow things down."

Jim Molony is a writer for reporters contributed to this report, which was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.