Meet Me in the Middle, Pt. 1

When writing on the importance of having a strong middle, it’s standard procedure to begin with the baseball cliche: championship teams are strong up the middle. Bill James explains that this was the “first lick” of old baseball wisdom he ever encountered. By looking at each major league baseball season from 1900 through 2003, he proceeded to show that championship teams were indeed 98 percent better than bad teams up the middle, compared to only 73 percent better at the remaining positions. Although the statistics James used to conclude this may be inexact, the results seemed to be intuitively indisputable. Further, James came up with a defensive spectrum, which runs 1B-LF-RF-3B-CF-2B-SS-C, with positions on the right being the premium defensive ones, held to a lower offensive bar than those positions on the left. Unsurprisingly, the four most premium defensive positions are those in the middle.

It’s not my intent to debate the importance of up-the-middle combos (catcher, second baseman, shortstop, center fielder), but rather accept the cliche and evaluate how teams are currently shaping up at this moment in time; that is, the earliest stages of Spring Training. By using the updated roster depth chart on MLB.com, the newest Baseball Prospectus guide to the 2017 season, and good ‘ole fanatic instincts and bias, I’ve gone ahead and ranked the middles of baseball by league. In this first part, I’ve simply laid out an overall Top 10, with the second part breaking down each league and its respective teams separately.

In taking on this exercise, I would like to point out that these rankings are merely based on the defensive prowess of the personnel currently at the top of the depth chart. Much too often, offense is taken into account in judging many of the position players who occupy the middle as it’s not a stretch to argue that a player’s brand viability is very much wrapped up in how well they hit. This is reinforced by the fact that most statistics in fantasy-land revolve around all-too-easy-to-understand offensive stats. It is much harder to rely on defensive metrics as they vary from source to source, and it goes without saying that quantifying them in competitive fantasy leagues is an equally difficult task. Therefore, limited defensive data, scouting reports and simple eye tests are heavily relied upon. That being said, by overlooking any offensive shortcomings, I run into the problem that today’s starter may be tomorrow’s bench warmer, as the defensive abilities of a player are relative to the needs of their team in any given point in time.

For example, a team struggling offensively throughout the lineup may prioritize more hitting in any one of the middle positions, therefore displacing and disrupting the defensive upside of a player or players who can’t hit a lick. This possibility exposes the integrity of a team’s overall depth at these important positions. Who exactly are the replacement personnel substituting for these offensively-inadequate players, not to mention starters who need necessary rest throughout a 162 game regular season or those likely to land on short or long term DL stints? I accept that the roster is an organic beast that is rarely consistent throughout the season, let alone game to game. And as this is the beginning of Spring Training, I suspect there will be quite a few changes once the season starts. I also accept that many of the players reviewed, especially the veterans, have well-established brands that may rise above or fall below their established expectations, whether it due to aging (going into or out of their prime years) or injury.

But as this is a fun exercise, I have set aside these intricacies for the time being and have come up with the following Top 10:

1. Los Angeles Angels

C: Martin Maldonado, 2B: Danny Espinosa, SS: Andrelton Simmons, CF: Mike Trout

The addition of Espinosa to the infield should make for one of the best double play combinations in baseball. With Trout, the world’s best player, manning center, the clear weak point is Maldonado. Yet Maldonado’s good reputation as a solid defensive backstop behind Jonathan Lucroy in Milwaukee kept the Angels out of the offseason catching market after their mid-December trade for him.

2. Kansas City Royals

C: Salvador Perez, 2B: Whit Merrifield, SS: Alcides Escobar, CF Lorenzo Cain

Merrifield gets the early nod at second, however his offense will likely be his undoing. Cain moves back to center after playing right field for most of his injury-plagued 2016 season. With both Cain and Escobar in their contract years, this could be the last season of the special core that won the whole thing just two years ago. Perez remains one of the elite catchers in the game, regardless of poor framing statistics.

3. Seattle Mariners

C: Mike Zunino, 2B: Robinson Cano, SS: Jean Segura, CF: Leonys Martin

The trade for Segura fills the team’s glaring roster hole, however Cano’s decline in the field has begun. Despite this decline, the duo should be fun to watch. Zunino, the once highly touted prospect who came close to completely flopping, seems to have finally turned the corner, although his defense has never been questioned. Martin was a great pickup in a trade with Texas last year, however recent hamstring injuries could slow him down a bit.

4. Texas Rangers

C: Jonathan Lucroy, 2B: Rougned Odor, SS: Elvis Andrus, CF: Carlos Gomez

Lucroy is not the player he was in Milwaukee, but he’s still a solid receiver whose bat will keep him in the lineup. Odor is prone to mistakes and Andrus is getting older, but they form a good double play combo backed up by re-signed Gomez. Although Gomez continues his sharp decline from when he exploded on the scene with Milwaukee, he’s still pretty young at 31 and will play, at the very least, an average outfield.

5. Houston Astros

C: Brian McCann, 2B: Jose Altuve, SS: Carlos Correa, CF: George Springer

Altuve and Correa form an excellent one-two punch, both in the field and at the plate, with Altuve being a finalist for last year’s MVP award. Springer moves from right field, so his transition could be a bit shaky. The addition of McCann is good, as his leadership qualities remain high, especially behind the plate. Yet his wear and age will keep him in a DH rotation, pulling him away from game calling duties.

6. Toronto Blue Jays

C: Russell Martin, 2B: Devon Travis, SS: Troy Tulowitzki, CF: Kevin Pillar

Pillar and Travis both are question marks, with the former having too many swings and misses at the plate that could keep him off the field, and the latter having too many injuries to make much of an impact. Tulowitzki is not what he was in Colorado and Martin continues to age. However, not all is doom and gloom as this remains, regardless of inconsistencies, a talented bunch defensively.

7. Cincinnati Reds

C: Tucker Barnhart, 2B: Jose Peraza, SS: Zack Cozart, CF: Billy Hamilton

It might be surprising that the Reds are ranked this high, but that happens when every middle position on the team is filled with defensively above-average young players who just can’t hit. Barnhart has an awesome arm, with average framing and pitch calling abilities who has filled in nicely as a starter the last two seasons. Peraza was the athletic headline pick up from the Los Angeles Dodgers last year in their three-team trade that sent Todd Frazier to the Chicago White Sox. Like the homegrown Cozart, it’s Peraza’s ability at the plate, not his defense, that is troubling and inconsistent. And the same could be said for speedster Hamilton, who Baseball Prospectus calls “the most exciting average regular in baseball.”

8. San Francisco Giants

C: Buster Posey, 2B: Joe Panik, SS: Brandon Crawford, CF: Denard Span

Posey continues to be one of the premier catchers of the game, however we can expect more playing time at first base as he ages. Panik and Crawford are solid up the middle, with Crawford picking up two Gold Gloves the last two seasons. The addition of Span seemed precarious before last season, especially coming off an injury. However the center fielder held up. Going forward, his age is affecting his range, so he remains the biggest question mark up the middle.

9. Chicago Cubs

C: Wilson Contreras, 2B: Javier Baez, SS: Addison Russell, CF: Albert Almora, Jr.

Contreras proved to be a capable receiver down the stretch last season, eventually taking over for oft-injured Miguel Montero. Baez continues to flash brilliance at the keystone and Russell is proving to be one of the best defensive shortstops in the game. Almora will have to fill the shoes of departed Dexter Fowler, yet this is actually quite a low bar, as Fowler was only adequate in center. Regardless, forcing a young player into an on-field leadership position could prove rather daunting, although it’s not as if manager Joe Maddon hasn’t done it before.

10. Colorado Rockies

C: Tony Wolters, 2B: DJ LeMahieu, SS: Trevor Story, CF: Charlie Blackmon

Claimed off of waivers last season, Wolters turned out to be a special prize that kept the Rockies out of any potential deal with Matt Wieters this offseason. His game calling ability and plus defense will anchor a middle that includes LeMahieu and Story, both average-ish in the field whose bats will keep them manning their respective positions for the next couple of years. Blackmon is also an average defender in center, but with no obvious iron gloves to speak of, the Rockies have put together a capable middle that will hit the heck out of the ball.

Featured Image: Via www.thestar.com

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