Up-the-middle defense still the preferred choice

Up-the-middle defense still the preferred choice

Up-the-middle defense still the preferred choice
The days of weak-hitting shortstops and wiry infielders likely aren't returning to Major League Baseball any time soon, but the importance of up-the-middle defense remains constant.

Good defense at those positions -- catcher, second base, shortstop and center field -- is vital to a team's success, so much so that it's at those positions where most teams most often face the choice of superior offense to superior defense, and almost always opt for the player with the better glove.

Consider this year's playoff field. While the Rangers, Yankees and Phillies were stacked with powerful bats at nearly every position, the rest of the playoff teams had to concede a bit of offense up the middle.

The World Series-champion Cardinals were no doubt led by Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday. And because of their power, the Cardinals were able to alternate between sure-handed Ryan Theriot and Nick Punto -- two players who hit only one home run apiece in the regular season -- at second base.

The D-backs opted not to upgrade at shortstop after Stephen Drew was lost to injury. Still, the D-backs managed to run away in the National League West, with Willie Bloomquist filling in admirably and committing only five errors as Drew's replacement.

In Milwaukee, the Brewers fielded -- or put up with -- Yuniesky Betancourt at shortstop, while the Rays had Reid Brignac (.193 batting average) and Sean Rodriguez (.223) in the middle of their infield. Detroit's Austin Jackson was a highlight reel waiting to happen in center field, but while he possesses some power and can catch fire, he struck out a whopping 181 times during the regular season.

As teams continue to look ahead to 2012, they'll once again have to make choices about how to fill key defensive positions. And more and more, defense is winning out.

In San Francisco, it appears as though the Giants are fine with the notion of starting 24-year-old Brandon Crawford at shortstop. Crawford has been heralded for his glove throughout his Minor League career. His bat, on the other hand, is what has held him back, as he hit only .204 in 66 games with the Giants last season.

Without much room on the payroll -- and there's talk about the Giants trying to lock up star right-handers Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum to long-term deals -- Crawford might be the club's best choice. And as long as the Giants have Pablo Sandoval, a healthy Buster Posey, recently acquired Melky Cabrera and a potential rebound year from Aubrey Huff, there should be few issues making up for Crawford's lack of production, should he win the job.

Kansas City also has a trio of exciting youngsters. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain, second baseman Johnny Giavotella and shortstop Alcides Escobar have the potential to make the nightly highlights.

Giavotella struggled in his first taste of the Majors last season, hitting only .247, while Escobar raised his batting average almost 20 points, to .254, in his second full Major League season. Cain also should be ready to take over in center field, and while his .295 career Minor League average certainly isn't anything to overlook, his defense has always drawn rave reviews.

Even if these players' batting averages only hover around .250, their defense should be valuable assets to their teams, especially for Crawford's pitching staff in San Francisco. Additionally, Seattle's Brendan Ryan, a .254 career hitter, and San Diego's Jason Bartlett, who has hit around .250 the past two seasons, are two veterans who have proven their worth on contending teams with their steady defensive play at shortstop.

Ernie Banks and Cal Ripken Jr. might have revolutionized the shortstop position during their careers and others, such as Alex Rodriguez, followed suit, but those were once-in-a-generation talents.

When it when it comes to filling out the lineup card, up-the-middle defense almost always comes first.

Cash Kruth is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @cashkruth. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.